Starbuck shaped who I’ve become more than any other single fictional character, present or past. Watching her stalk the halls of Galactica in the sci-fi television show Battlestar Galactica altered my life forever, and I’m not even sure I can explain why. There have been other badass feminist super-heroines before. There will hopefully be many more in the future.
I began watching the show itself because I stumbled upon a Youtube video set to Ani Difranco’s Falling is Like This, a longtime favorite of mine. Watching the video gave me a taste of the electric thrill that the television series was comprised of, a series of small jolting shocks that once set me stalking the streets of Reno alone at night, my pulse pounding, my head full of a power so full and so clear.
Let me introduce you to Starbuck. Our girl is a muscular, short, taut creature built of sinew and stony gaze. She is a patented Angry Girl, the kind of woman who taunts and then punches a superior officer in the very first episode of the series, a two-parter that is riveting and fresh in spite of its seemingly familiar end-of-the-world atmosphere. When the battle to save the world begins, Starbuck, code name for Kara Thrace, is cooling her heels in the brig.
She is the fastest and widely acknowledged best pilot of the Vipers, the space-going fighter jets that are the only real weapon the humans have against the cylon race of robots. Starbuck is also a girl with a backstory: Kara’s fiancée, Zak, was also her flight student. She passed him on a flight test, though he didn’t deserve it, and he died on his first mission. Her on-again off-again soul-mate Lee is also Zak’s brother, problematically, not to mention the alienated son of Kara’s boss and surrogate father figure Adama.
Kara is an easy character to love, but she is not an easy character to like. At her worst moment, she confesses her love to Lee, drunk one night on a new-old Planet Earth, then wakes up and marries another man. Why? Perhaps because she is the daughter of a female soldier who beat her and broke her limbs, and a father who abandoned her to such abuse; or because her religious impulses blind her to her all-too-human failings; or because the entire human race currently comprises 40,000 individuals who are barely surviving a war that they do not understand. The writers hedge their bets, and get away with it, make this moment even more resonant for its ambiguity.
Starbuck is not a pretty girl. She is an athlete, more likely to be clothed in engine grease and requisite mechanical grease than feminine accoutrements. When she puts on a dress in the penultimate episode of the first season, the audience recognizes her vulnerability simply because the sight of Starbuck in a dress might well be a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Even in that scene, she has chosen a dress specifically to seduce Lee, taking the unfeminine tack of the sexual aggressor. The scene ends with Lee escorting his alcoholic father, their mutual boss and captain of Galactica, back to his quarters. Kara, firmly Kara and human and trapped in her feminine role for the night, searches the crowd for an absent Lee, humiliated and abandoned. Horrified at her own vulnerability, she makes the first of a series of terrible decisions, and sleeps with the villainous Gaius Baltar. When we find her again during the next episode, she is speaking Lee’s name in the throes of passion with a less-than-elated Gaius.
Arguably, this scene marks the first step in a long path the series takes towards a braver, more complex view of humanity, villainy, and even happiness than any other sci-fi series I’ve ever seen has dared to tackle. While I consider myself a sci-fi connoisseur and have absorbed shows like Westworld and The Man in the High Castle, and even lesser-known efforts like Terra Nova and Revolution, nothing I’ve seen has yet touched BSG’s determination to highlight how even the best people so often get it wrong.
Kara Thrace is the first character to disastrously succumb to her most self-destructive impulses, but certainly not the last. Kara’s personal decision to sleep with Gaius Baltar is one of several morally compromising decisions that leaders on this show make—out of insecurity, and shame, and selfish fear. Gaius taunts Lee with the news of Kara’s choice of one-night stand. Lee seeks out Kara and calls her a slut, starting a fight that ends with the two punching each other in the face—on the job, in front of colleagues. Kara accepts a hopeless mission to find a mythological artifact, the claiming of which sends every remaining human survivor on an ultimately dissatisfying quest to pursue their religious destiny. This quest shapes the action for the rest of the series. It transforms Kara/Starbuck into something like an angel after she kills herself from some unexplained religious compulsion and steals the rest of her individual human life away.
The series skates between religion and humanity, revealing more of either than is ultimately particularly comfortable. Its unimpeachably noble and otherwise moral president of the remaining humans cheats in a runoff election and is removed from office for her crime. The soldiers seek out traitors and murder them without a trial. The proposed truce between human and robot-enemies collapses because one individual robot killed one individual human to keep herself safe.
In the end, Kara stands between the two species who are at war all around her. She is as faithfully religious and destructively petulant as the robots; she is as weak and self-sabotaging and pitiful as the humans. Starbuck is as brave, as noble, as any other character on this show ever manages to be.
Kara is not redeemable. Her story is neither a redemptive arc nor a tragic one. Kara explodes such easy categorizations. She is something larger than a hero. She is a human being.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ariadne Wolf’s current project, a speculative memoir, is a staunchly environmentalist and powerfully feminist battle cry for the ones this society tends to throw away. This book integrates mermaid mythology, dis/ability, and the impact and usefulness of popular culture and story in disintegrating and reconstructing the self. Her academic work lives at the intersections of Trauma Studies, Whiteness, Disability Studies, Monster Theory, Gender and Performance.