There are several things I find compelling about the Battlestar Galactica episode “Scar” (S2E15), and these things combined place it on the top of my “Best Of” list of BSG episodes. First, it’s a Starbuck-centric episode, and any episode where Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) takes center stage will hook me immediately. She is hands down my favorite character, and this episode allows her (and Sackhoff) to shine. Second, “Scar” (written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, and directed by Michael Nankin) uses an interesting narrative structure: it focuses almost solely on the experience of the Viper pilots on Galactica, with everyone else existing only on the periphery and included only for exposition purposes. It features a single battle with the titular Raider named Scar, but switches between the present (the fight in progress) and flashbacks of scenes that took place in the days leading up to this fight.
Third—and, to me, this is the most interesting of all—it provides us with insight into the minds of the Cylon Raiders and shows the Viper pilots (especially Starbuck) coming to terms with the fact that not only are the human-model Cylons capable of complex thought and emotion, but so are the Raiders. While the Raiders are far less human (more like intelligent trained animals), they are not machines. The Raiders are capable of tactical strategy. They feel rage, and they feel pain. They, too, resurrect when they die, and—after the trauma of death and rebirth—they come back stronger, smarter, and angrier.
Starbuck is no stranger to losing fellow Viper pilots— both longtime friends and “nuggets” (newbie pilots)—in battle against the Cylons since the war began. She was never particularly good at processing and expressing her emotions to begin with, but the continuous losses have taken a psychological toll on her, and she has almost completely shut down. This coping mechanism makes her act cold to and distant from the nuggets who come in to replace her dead pilots, and it has affected her ability to lead. This does not sit well with Louanne “Kat” Katraine (Luciana Carro), with whom Starbuck has had an adversarial relationship since Kat first came aboard Galactica as a nugget in “Act of Contrition” (S1E4).
“Scar” shows us Starbuck and Kat at each other’s throats almost constantly. Their history together has been fraught with hostility, especially after Kat became addicted to stims and almost killed herself doing a basic landing maneuver she had done a hundred times before (“Final Cut,” S2E8). The fascinating thing about Starbuck and Kat’s relationship is that Kat is actually a lot like Starbuck. She’s cocky and insubordinate, but (after some hiccups early on) she’s actually become one of the best Viper pilots in the fleet. Starbuck has always been Top Gun on the ship, and the fact that Kat is ready to take that title from her—and is vocal about it in front of the other pilots—doesn’t help their already strained relationship.
They have no choice but to work together, though, because Galactica is currently on a protection mission, patrolling the debris-strewn atmosphere surrounding a planet where mining operations are underway. The mining project is essential to the survival of the fleet because they have discovered a rich vein of ore that will allow them to build two new squadrons of Vipers to replace their many losses. Because there is so much debris in the atmosphere, Galactica’s DRADIS cannot distinguish between it and any enemy Raiders. So they are stuck there, sitting ducks, while the mining operation drags on longer than it should.
They have been there for almost a month, and the only reason the mining mission is even remotely possible is because they have recently destroyed the Cylons’ Resurrection ship (“Resurrection Ship, Part 2,” S2E12), and the Cylons have not sent more than a few Raiders to the site of the mining operation. Given what the Viper pilots have been able to do in the past, a couple of lone Raiders with no base ship should be easy pickings—except one of those Raiders is Scar. Up until this point, the Raiders have all been identical, nameless enemies, and the pilots have fought and killed legions of them. They have always considered them to be a different kind of Cylon than the human models they have discovered. What we learn in “Scar” is that this is not the case.
Starbuck has more experience than anyone (at least, any human) with the inner workings of the Cylon Raiders. After crash-landing on a poisonous planet with no hope of rescue, Starbuck was able to cut open and figure out the flight mechanics of the Raider she took down before she crashed (“You Can’t Go Home Again,” S1E5). She flew the Raider back to Galactica where Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) began trying to figure out its mechanics in more detail. Tyrol had no luck with it, but we did get a little hint to the nature of the Raiders when Cylon sleeper agent Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (Grace Park) told him her “theory” on the Raiders. Of course, this is information that she knew deep in her subconscious as a Cylon, but she had not yet been revealed to be model Number Eight. In “Six Degrees of Separation” (S1E7), Sharon tells the Chief:
It’s not really a thing, you know. It’s probably a Cylon itself. More of an animal maybe than the human models. Maybe they genetically design it to perform a task. To be a fighter. Can’t treat it like a thing and expect it to respond. You have to treat it like a pet.
From her many run-ins with Scar, Starbuck already knows something of his tactics and how he differs from the other Raiders. In “Scar,” we see a scene in the mess where all the Viper pilots are drinking heavily after the loss of yet another pilot to Scar. Starbuck explains to one of the nuggets that Scar is so effective because he likes to hide in the debris field, laying in wait until the time is right. “Scar doesn’t like to fight until the odds are on his side,” she tells him. When he responds that Scar sounds like a coward, Starbuck explains, “This is war. You never wanna fight fair. You wanna sneak up behind your enemy and club him over the head. You see, Scar understands that. And so do I.”
What the naïve new pilots do not understand and a veteran pilot like Starbuck does is that Scar is an entirely different type of enemy than any they have faced before. Scar is smart and thinks strategically, which is what makes him so much deadlier than any other Raider they have encountered. But to learn exactly why this is the case, she has to turn to Sharon, who has been revealed as a Cylon and is imprisoned in the Brig.
Sharon (now the “Athena” version instead of the “Boomer” version) gives Starbuck even more insight into the Raiders’ psychology. She tells Starbuck that the Raiders reincarnate just like the human models do and that Scar has died many times (with Starbuck likely responsible for several of those deaths). She reiterates what Boomer told the Chief: that they are trained animals “with basic consciousness and survival instinct.” However, things are different now after the destruction of the Resurrection ship because now when the Raiders die, they are dead for good. It follows that the Cylons will not mount a full-scale attack on the mining operation because the risk is far greater than the reward.
In order to help Starbuck understand the Cylons’ reasoning, Sharon compares the mass casualties of Raiders to Viper pilot casualties:
Makes sense, doesn’t it? It takes months for you to train a nugget into an effective Viper pilot. And then they get killed, and then you lose their experience, their knowledge, their skill sets. It’s gone forever. So, if you could bring them back and put them in a brand new body, wouldn’t you do it? Death then becomes a learning experience.
Like many of the other humans, Starbuck is still struggling with the whole concept of human-model Cylons. This is especially true of Sharon, who she has known a long time and had considered a friend. In fact, during this scene, she tells Sharon, “Sometimes when I look at you, I forget what you are.” Starbuck has so many memories of Sharon, and the “Athena” Sharon also has those memories even though they occurred when she was in the “Boomer” body. This is hard for Starbuck to come to terms with, and combined with the knowledge that the Raiders also reincarnate—especially her nemesis Scar—she is overwhelmed. She goes to leave but Sharon issues her one final warning: “Be careful of Scar, okay? He’s filled with rage…Dying’s a painful and traumatic experience. Every time he’s reborn, he’s filled with more bitter memories. Scar hates you every bit as much as you hate him.”
In addition to the many Viper pilot losses she has suffered, Starbuck is struggling with both a Cylon nemesis in Scar and a human nemesis in Kat. As a result, she engages in a lot of self-destructive behavior in order to mask her fear and grief. She has always used alcohol and sex as a crutch, but in “Scar” we see her in one of the darkest places she has ever been. She is still mourning the loss of Samuel T. Anders (Michael Trucco), a Resistance fighter who she met and fell in love with while she was on a mission to retrieve the Arrow of Apollo on Cylon-occupied Caprica. In “The Farm” (S2E5), Starbuck made a promise to Anders that she would return with a rescue party—a promise she always intended to keep. However, when she went to Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) asking to lead the mission back to Caprica, they would not allow her to go (“Pegasus: Extended Version,” S2E10).
Meeting Anders changed Starbuck in a very real way, and she carries intense guilt for breaking her promise to him. She believes that, at this point, he must be dead, and she grieves not only for him but for the love that she could have had. Starbuck feels very much alone even though she does have people in her life who care for her deeply. Both Commander Bill Adama and Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber) love Starbuck, albeit in different ways. Commander Adama loves her like a daughter, while Lee loves her in a romantic way.
Because Lee and Starbuck’s relationship is incredibly complicated, the only person she can really open up to is Karl C. “Helo” Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett). Helo was with Starbuck on Caprica when she met Anders and the other Resistance fighters. They have known each other a long time and she considers him a friend (with no romantic feelings involved to complicate things). Helo is the only person that can really understand what Starbuck is going through with regard to Anders because he was there with her. One scene in “Scar” shows Starbuck talking to Helo about Anders, but even here she is closed off and not fully honest with him. After a discussion about her issues with Kat, Helo points out that Starbuck was a lot like Kat before she met Anders. He asks her if she ever thinks about him, and she replies, “What’s the point? He’s dead.”
As viewers, we know that this is a lie; she thinks about him constantly. Earlier in the episode, in the scene in the mess with all the Viper pilots drinking, Starbuck and Kat get into one of their verbal sparring matches. Kat is boasting that she will be the one to take down Scar. She calls Starbuck a drunk and Starbuck calls her a stim junkie. As the night goes on, Starbuck proceeds to get extremely drunk while the other pilots cheer her on. Starbuck uses her ability to drink everyone under the table as a form of bravado, but inside she is hurting. When she jumps over a table and falls to the floor, the pilots (except for a very concerned Lee) laugh and cheer. Initially, she laughs with them, but as she lays there, we see her having flashbacks of her time with Anders on Caprica, and she starts to break down.
The only person who really sees what is happening with her is Lee. He sees that she is drinking too much and completely self-destructing. As a veteran pilot himself, he can empathize with what Starbuck is going through, but he doesn’t really understand or know the full extent of her feelings for Anders. The complicated nature of their relationship makes it nearly impossible for Lee to help her. She simply will not open up to him, and while he knows it is all a defense mechanism, that doesn’t change the fact that he is unable to penetrate the wall she’s built up to protect herself.
Starbuck’s drinking is beginning to seriously impair her ability to lead the Viper pilots. Earlier in the episode, we see Kat leading one of the briefings, showing the cockpit footage from the last pilot Scar killed. Starbuck is nowhere to be found in this scene, and since this occurs the morning after her drunken breakdown, it isn’t a stretch to assume that she was too hungover to lead the briefing herself. As a lieutenant and the second-best pilot in the fleet, Kat took over.
Later in the episode, Starbuck is asked for advice by one of the nuggets, BB (Christopher Jacot). She is pretty harsh with him, telling him to just follow his flight training and giving him a textbook answer as to how to deal with Scar. Kat is nearby, listening to this conversation, and when BB walks away from Starbuck, Kat pulls him aside and gives him the sort of encouragement that he needs as a newbie pilot about to go on a dangerous mission. The damage has already been done, though, and during the mission (which we only hear over Galactica’s comms), BB follows Starbuck’s instructions instead of listening to his experienced wingman, Duck (Christian Tessier). They are low on fuel, which is one situation in which Starbuck’s tactical advice does not apply. Instead of listening to Duck, BB insists on following Starbuck’s advice to the letter, and he dies as a result. Upon returning from the mission, Kat gives Starbuck an earful about how BB’s death is her fault (and she’s not entirely wrong).
After BB’s death, we see Starbuck and Lee in the mess alone, drowning their sorrows. They are drinking together here as friends and Viper pilots, not so much mourning the loss of BB in particular but the sad fact that they have lost so many that it is hard to even remember individuals at this point. Lee tells Starbuck that he knows that he won’t even remember their faces in two weeks, and Starbuck says that she doesn’t even remember their names. Of course, as we will later see, this is a lie. She is painfully aware of everyone that she has lost, but she feels as if she needs to pretend that none of them matter to her—that they are expendable. She has to pretend to forget names and faces in order to continue to do a job where she knows she will continue to lose people.
It’s not just other people, though. Starbuck is, at this point, resigned to her own death. She has experienced so much loss and she knows that, day after day, she puts her life at risk for the safety of the fleet. She tells Lee:
The President says that we’re saving humanity for a bright, shiny future on Earth that you and I are never gonna see. We’re not. Because we go out over and over again, until some day, some metal motherfrakker is gonna catch us on a bad day and just blow us away.
It’s a bleak and hopeless outlook, but it is a realistic one given their situation. Lee can see through her cavalier attitude, but he just goes along with it. At this point, Starbuck decides that she needs to live in the moment because they are all going to die anyway, and in that moment, she wants to get laid. To this point, Battlestar Galactica has always played with that will-they-or-won’t-they question regarding Lee and Starbuck, and it seems that this is the moment that they finally will. But with Lee and Starbuck, nothing is that simple.
While they do both want to have sex, they want entirely different things from it. Lee wants there to be emotion involved where Starbuck just wants the physical pleasure of it. She is trying to use sex to get out of her own head and distract herself from everything, especially the loss of Anders. Lee, on the other hand, is in love with Starbuck and wants this to be the beginning of something more—or, if not that, at least something with some feeling behind it. Starbuck is incredibly aggressive with him, and that is not at all what Lee wants. He puts a stop to it, which frustrates her, and then they have an argument in which Starbuck admits that she is still hung up on Anders. This seems to be the first time that Lee truly understands the depth of Starbuck’s feelings for Anders, and he can’t help but be hurt by it. When she says, “I’m hung up on a dead guy,” he snaps back, “You are fine with the dead guys. It’s the living ones you can’t deal with.” And that puts a quick end to that.
After her failed attempt at a quickie with Lee, Starbuck grabs a bottle of booze and heads to the briefing room to drown her sorrows while watching footage of Scar. This is her rock bottom. She sits alone, drinking down an entire bottle and crying. In this moment, you can see her totally and completely shattered and vulnerable, which she can only do alone and completely intoxicated. At this point, her sole focus is killing Scar. She feels like she has nothing else in the world except the fact that she is Galactica’s Top Gun, and that killing Scar is the only thing that might bring her any peace and happiness (however brief). Throughout “Scar,” Sackhoff does an incredible job of expressing Starbuck’s psychological turmoil without saying a word, and this scene is an exceptional example of that. Every single ounce of Starbuck’s anguish is written on Sackhoff’s face.
Given the sheer amount of alcohol she consumed the night before, it is no surprise that Starbuck cannot take the morning patrol that she’s assigned to. She has another pilot cover for her and takes his later patrol. Unfortunately, the early patrol resulted in the loss of another pilot, Jo-Jo, and she would have been his wingman had she not been too hungover to fly. In the briefing after, she is clearly hungover, and at this point, Kat has had enough. She calls Starbuck out in front of all the pilots in the briefing room, blaming her for being too much of a drunk to make her patrol and saying that Jo-Jo’s death is on her. While Kat is not entirely wrong, she has crossed the line, and Starbuck clears the room so the two of them can have it out one last time.
The faceoff between Kat and Starbuck is vicious, and each tells some hard truths about the other. Kat tells Starbuck that she is an embarrassment: “You used to be the hottest stick on the fleet,” she says. “Now, you’re just a reckless drunk who sends other people out to get killed.” Starbuck responds with an equally harsh truth about Kat: that she is afraid all the time, not only of Scar but of her own mortality. The thing she is most afraid of is being forgotten. At the beginning of “Scar,” when the group is packing up the possessions of the latest dead pilot, Reilly, Kat becomes obsessed with a picture of Reilly’s girlfriend and the fact that no one can remember her name. Starbuck latches on to this and tells her, “You’re afraid that you’re going to end up like that picture of Reilly’s girlfriend. Some little forgotten picture that nobody really remembers.” This is the last straw for Kat. It hits too close to home, and she punches Starbuck in the face.
Starbuck is no stranger to insubordination and assaulting a superior officer—she punched Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) in the face in the Battlestar Galactica miniseries that kicked off the BSG reboot. While I don’t think that Starbuck would have thrown Kat in the Brig for what she did, Lee interrupts before things can escalate any further. Starbuck has a bloodied lip and it is obvious to Lee exactly what has gone on. It was sort of inevitable, given the bad blood between the two of them and the increasing tensions as the crew suffers more and more losses to Scar. Lee decides that the two of them will be flying the next patrol together, which is the only way to force any unity between them since, even though they hate each other, they are the best Viper pilots in the fleet and would never allow their personal differences to affect the mission. Before she sets off on the final showdown with Scar, we see Kat take the picture of Reilly’s girlfriend and pin it to the wall of remembrance.
To this point, the narrative structure of “Scar” has shown us small pieces of Starbuck and Kat’s showdown with Scar intercut with the events of the days leading up to it. At the end, we see the full battle play out with no interruptions. As they first set out on their patrol, Kat is still asking after the name of Reilly’s girlfriend, but Starbuck doesn’t know or care and wants to focus on the mission. Kat spots a Raider she thinks is Scar and they go after it, but Starbuck can sense that something isn’t right; this Raider is not acting strategically, as Scar does. We see that the real Scar is hiding, watching Kat and Starbuck as they go after the decoy Raider, and then starts to follow behind them.
Starbuck trusts her gut and decides to turn her Viper around to check their tail, at which point, just a second too late, she discovers that Scar has been trailing them, obscuring himself in the glare of the Sun. Starbuck takes a hit from Scar, but not enough to put her out of commission. Kat has lost visual contact with Starbuck, who has decided to take Scar on alone. She ends up in a game of chicken with Scar and is determined not to break, even though Kat has located her and is on her way to back her up.
Knowing what she now knows about Scar, this time it is personal for Starbuck. As Sharon told her, Scar hates her as much as she hates him, and only one of them will make it out of this fight alive. Kat is screaming at her over comms that she’s on a suicide mission—that Scar is a machine and he won’t break—but Starbuck knows better than that. More importantly, though, at this point, Starbuck doesn’t care if she lives or dies, as long as she takes out Scar. She is willing to go out in a blaze of glory, as Top Gun, because she has nothing else.
Just as the two are near the collision point, time stops in the narrative and we see Starbuck thinking about Anders and the promise she made to him. The camera lingers on a close-up of Starbuck’s face, with a few flash-cuts to scenes from “The Farm,” as she comes to the realization that she does not need to die here. Kat is close enough that she can put Scar right in front of her. It means giving up the glory (and the title of Top Gun), but Starbuck realizes that she wants to live. Deep down, she is still holding on to the hope that Anders could be alive, and if she dies killing Scar, she will never be able to keep her promise to him.
And so she breaks off, and she lets Kat take out Scar and get all the glory that goes with that. Of course, Kat is arrogant and obnoxious about it later on in the mess when Starbuck has given her the Top Gun mug and has to pour her drinks, but Starbuck—although she hates to lose to Kat—knows that she made the right call in calling in her wingman. Starbuck does manage to steal Kat’s moment, though it’s not in a spiteful way. After pouring Kat’s drink, she raises a bottle and takes the opportunity to salute everyone they have lost. One by one, she says the names of the fallen pilots, and Lee realizes that she was lying when she callously stated she didn’t remember their names. In fact, she knows every single one of them, and it is deeply moving to everyone in the room to see her finally embodying the kind of leadership that Kat has so desperately wanted her to take.
In this moment, Starbuck has brought them all together as a team—a family even. Despite their many differences and interpersonal problems, they are all pilots of the fleet, and that experience is something that no one else in the universe can understand except the people in that room. Even Tigh, her longtime enemy, is visibly moved by her and truly respects her in that moment. Starbuck is determined to live now, but before she does, she must honor the dead. She starts to falter towards the end, though, and when she can no longer remember names, Lee steps up to save her: “To all of them,” he says.
So say we all.