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Author's Note: Having grown tired of what's currently available on TV I've decided to rewatch some of my all time favorite shows. I'm limiting myself to one episode per week in order to experience the storytelling as it was originally intended, which hopefully will preserve the thrill of having to wait a week to see what happens next. This article covers the Battlestar Galactica episode "Act of Contrition", which originally aired on January 28th of 2005.
Previously on Battlestar Galactica: President Laura Roslin reveals that she’s battling cancer and fears that she won’t last long enough to see humanity find a new place to live. Starbuck tells Lee Adama that she passed his brother Zak when he took his flight exam, despite the fact that she didn’t think he had what it took to be a fighter pilot.
Battlestar Galactica is never afraid to deliver an emotional gut punch to its audience, and “Act of Contrition” starts off by reminding us just how precarious of a situation the colonial survivors find themselves in. The scene opens with a moment of much-needed celebration as pilot Flat Top completes his one thousandth landing, an important milestone for members of the Colonial Fleet. Given how much tragedy these characters have suffered in the short time we’ve known them it feels good to see them happy, even as the camera slowly paints the potential for a tragic event that we know will inevitably happen. As his fellow pilots carry Flat Top around the flight deck a strap holding a rocket on a rack is coming loose, and while we want to believe this wonderful moment will last we understand that happy endings just aren’t in the cards for the crew of the Galactica.
When the strap breaks the rocket hits the deck’s floor, where it ignites. It is, of course, pointed in the direction of Flat Top and his fellow pilots, and in the course of just seconds the Galactica has lost another thirteen souls. Not only is this a serious blow to the morale of the entire fleet, it further depletes one of the Galactica’s thinnest resources: capable fighter pilots. And since the fleet remains on the run from the Cylons they're forced to recruit from within the fleet's ranks: leaving them with a group of potential replacements that are made up of academy washouts and castoffs.
Commander Adama taps Kara “Starbuck” Thrace to train this ragtag group of “nuggets”, due to her experience as a combat flight instructor before the war. Adama is unaware that Starbuck had allowed his son Zac to pass his exam, even though he had failed several critical aspects of the test. Her misjudgment wasn’t malicious but an act of love, as she was engaged to Zac at the time and didn’t want to be the one to ruin his dream of following in his father’s footsteps. Unfortunately for everyone involved Starbuck’s misstep cost Zac his life, something she still carries guilt over.
This guilt manifests itself in Starbuck’s gross mistreatment of the new recruits, who she dismisses after just one day of training. Lee Adama meets with his father and accidentally reveals that Starbuck played a role in Zac’s death, prompting the Commander to confront her about what happened. She reveals what she did, and through tear-filled eyes Adama demands that she reinstate the rookies, and to exit his quarters while she still can. It’s a powerful scene driven by the strong performances of both Katie Sackhoff and Edward James Olmos, as they push their respective characters to their emotional limit. Olmos paints Adama’s face with heartbreak and betrayal, while also showing us his commitment to duty by demanding Starbuck do her job. Sackoff, arguably the brightest star on the show, is equally brilliant here as her Starbuck confesses to a act that she’s privately carried for far too long.
The training resumes, and while on a routine exercise the Cylons finally show up again. Once her recruits are safely returning to Galactica, Starbuck goes on the offensive. She’s horribly over matched as eight Cylon Raiders are staring her down, but it’s easy to see how she justifies such a stupid move. This is a suicide run for Starbuck, the act of contrition in the episode’s title. A sacrifice made not only to protect Adama’s fleet, but to atone for what she feels she stole from the man that has become a surrogate father to her. Despite receiving help from Hot Dog, one of her new recruits, Starbuck ends up making contact with one of the Raiders, the accident resulting in both ships spiraling towards a gassy planet. “Act of Contrition” ends on a cliffhanger, promising that a resolution to Starbuck’s peril will have to wait until the next episode.
The Starbuck plot dominates the episode, leaving just a handful of minutes to advance other story threads. A bit more time is spent on Caprica as Helo and Robo-Sharon trace a distress signal to a restaurant, where they discover a fallout shelter full of much-needed supplies. Even though we know one half of this duo is working for the enemy, it’s still nice to see the two of them get a win after all they’ve been through. One thing that Battlestar Galactica does well is how relatable its environments are, and the eatery the two find themselves in looks no different that one you’d find in our own reality.
President Roslin meets with Doctor Cottle, the fleet’s delightfully grumpy physician, to discuss her cancer. The disease has advanced past the point where surgery can save her, prompting Cottle to recommend an aggressive chemotherapy treatment. Roslin had watched her mother suffer through such a treatment that left her unable to function, and knowing that the fleet needs her leadership she refuses Cottle’s advice. She asks about chamalla, an alternative medicine in the Battlestar universe, and while Cottle mocks the suggestion he realizes she has made up her mind.