I read once, years ago, that there was a standing rule among the writing staff in the Star Trek: TNG offices, which said that a story had to include elements that would only be possible in a sci-fi universe. A straight drama without some sort of sci-fi twist would be considered a violation of this rule, because a Star Trek episode was not supposed to be a show that could be easily ported into a 20th-century TV series.
Nothing wrong with that rule; after all, the writers were trying to generate a wide variety of science-fiction stories.
Now here comes Battlestar Galactica's "Act of Contrition," which is notable in that it could be ported almost directly into a contemporary military drama series without any significant changes. (Instead of Vipers and Raiders you'd have fighter jets, and instead of Cylons you'd have an enemy nation of your choice.) This episode is completely free of gimmicks, and not the least bit dependent on sci-fi for its effect. It is, in short, a story about its characters, through and through, in a military setting. It is also among the best episodes of Battlestar's first season. It is a wrenching, emotional, intimate character drama about people we come to genuine care about and empathize with.
Kara Thrace, a.k.a. Starbuck, has the role of the maverick pilot, with her rough edges and snappy dialog. But never has that general description prohibited her from being a full-fledged human being, and never has that been more apparent than it is in "Act of Contrition," where her vulnerabilities are exposed, and prove to be the catalyst for her errors and her recovery.
Aside from just Starbuck's character, the episode is really about the cold, hard truth about serving in the military — which is, people get killed. The episode begins in high spirits, with bonding on the flight deck as pilots engage in cheerful celebration. Adama, Kara, and Lee walk down the corridor together, and there's almost a sense of family: father, son ... and daughter. This is a long way from the desperation predominant in "33."
But disaster strikes when an accident on the flight deck kills 13 pilots and wounds seven others. The situation keenly demonstrates how life can change in an instant, without the slightest hint or warning. One minute you're celebrating with your shipmates, and the next minute you're preparing for a memorial service for those shipmates. The point is driven home by a scene in the pilots' ready room, as the camera tracks across a lot of suddenly empty chairs.
The story is brutal in the way it makes a mockery of its characters' hope. After the devastation of the Colonies and then going through the hell of the five-day Cylon pursuit, it seemed that camaraderie was the salvation that allowed a hopeful corner to be turned — and now this. When addressing the pilots in the immediate aftermath, Adama is sympathetic but pragmatic in his approach: "I know this has been a hard day. There's been plenty of them lately. I can guarantee there will be more to come. Remember your self-esteem, your self-respect, and your self-worth." His pragmatism is necessary under the circumstances, since the fleet will undoubtedly take its emotional cues from how the military reacts. "People are watching," Adama cautions.
For Kara, this brings back memories of a more personal nature. The storyline delves into her relationship with Adama's youngest son Zak — Kara's fiance — killed in an accident two years ago. This accident was alluded to during the events of the miniseries: Kara confessed to Lee how when she was Zak's flight instructor, she passed him when she should've flunked him, and he ultimately died because he wasn't up to the task. There's a sequence where a funeral in the present is crosscut with Zak's funeral in the past, and the episode brings an emotionally convincing reality to these scenes.
There are some who say this series is too dark and takes itself too seriously. I am not one of them. This series contains more humanity than most. When telling a story about pain, it should be told honestly, and "Act of Contrition" draws us in precisely because it's convincing in the way it explores the suffering of its characters. The funerals look like real military services, and the structure and atmosphere of the flashbacks show how pain is not simply lived, but re-lived.
There's a scene where Kara is playing cards, but her mind isn't on the game; she's thinking back to when she and Zak were lovers, and she misguidedly lied to him because she loved him. There's her simple memory of his finger touching her ear. It's the sort of detail that makes this episode vividly human and empathetic. I personally can only imagine that kind of loss, but the story suggests it through a visualization of memory.
I should hasten to point out that the episode conveys these emotions without resorting to melodrama or maudlin excess. It's simply true to the feelings and true to the characters.
Following the accident and funeral on Galactica, Adama puts Kara in charge of training new recruits to replace the pilots who died. Kara demurs for reasons she and Lee know of but Adama does not, so Adama insists on Kara's tutelage. Upon meeting her new trainees, Kara instantly goes into an overcompensating Acting Out mode, pushes her hard-ass routine, takes them on a training flight, declares it "worse than awful," and unjustifiably flushes them all from the program after a single day.
Lee instantly recognizes Kara's overreaction for what it is, and tells her to get her act together. When she refuses, Lee goes to Adama and asks that he force the issue. A misunderstanding leads Lee to let slip that Kara did something for Zak that she feels guilty about, and this in turn has Adama calling in Kara to get to the bottom of things.
This results in what I contend is the best scene of the season. Adama asks Kara point-blank what she did for Zak, and Kara, after some half-hearted evasions, is forced to come clean. The scene is acted with great emotional precision by Edward James Olmos and Katee Sackhoff, and proves to be tough, powerful, and heartbreaking. We come to learn here how Adama loves Kara "like a daughter," and it's through the nature of that relationship that this scene transcends the typical scenario where a commanding officer chews out a subordinate.
When Adama presses Kara for the truth, you can see the apprehension in his eyes; he's afraid of what she's going to tell him. And Kara — often the overconfident Starbuck — crumbles under her very human vulnerabilities: the guilt, the regret, the sadness — and, beyond that, the realization that she has personally failed Adama. Sackhoff plays Kara in this scene like a daughter who has deeply disappointed her father, and that's precisely the right note. We understand the feelings behind Kara's poor judgment in passing Zak; she "didn't want to be the one that crushed him." Adama's response is a powerful but dialed-down combination of professionalism, anger, sadness, and disappointment. ("Do your job," he says. "And walk out of this cabin while you still can.") Olmos conveys all these feelings simultaneously and superbly. This is just a wonderfully done, emotional scene.
And yet, Kara's confession is a catharsis of sorts, and allows everyone to get back to work. She reinstates the trainees and — well, she does her job. That's about when we are confronted with the cliffhanger. A wing of Cylon Raiders shows up, there's a dogfight, and Kara's Viper ends up going down over a nearby planet.
It almost feels unnecessary (but I'll do it anyway) to mention Helo and Boomer finding a fallout shelter on Caprica. Also, there's the crusty doc (Donnely Rhodes) who chastises Roslin while holding an X-ray film in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. He says to her, regarding her cancer: "I'd strongly recommend prayer."
The script for "Act of Contrition" is by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, latecomers to Deep Space Nine, and whose best scripts on that series were "Inquisition" and "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River." Here they have transcended those efforts with a no-frills drama about loss and real feelings, which sheds light onto who these characters are. This is a superb hour of television.