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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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4.9 Women and Men as Leaders: 'Battlestar Galactica' Juxtaposed with 'Moby Dick'

Scar, an episode of the science fiction television series, Battlestar Galactica, offers another way we might address the absence of women in Moby-Dick: in this case, telling another story about heroic women (Kira Starbuck; Louanne "Kat" Katraine; Sharon "Boomer" Valerii) that explores similar themes and issues as Melville's novel. Rather than a world where men go off to sea and leave women behind, Battlestar depicts a world where men and women are equal warriors. Kat and Starbuck are the "heavy hitters" whose leadership and rivalry have a dramatic affect on their crews.

Parallels can be drawn between Scar, the Cylon Raider Ship, and Moby-Dick. The Galactica crew has become obsessed with Scar as a malignant and destructive force that has taken the lives of many friends. For example, in this scene, Starbuck explains who Scar is to a new trainee and why they are hunting him. Scar's hull is ripped and dented; Moby-Dick's hull is punctured with harpoons and tangled with ropes. Boomer compares Scar to "a trained animal with basic consciousness and a survival instinct." Starbuck and the crew personify the ship, ascribing to it human motives. Both Starbuck and Kat, the two women at the center of this drama, announce they will kill Scar at any cost, and the episode centers on the emotional consequences of their struggle against the "monster".

Throughout the episode, Scar sets the contrast between the ways Starbuck and Kat deal with fear and loss, much as Melville describes Starbuck and Flask as men with radically different tempers and styles of leadership. Kat obsesses over the personal history of those who have died in battle with Scar, while Starbuck wants to forget them as quickly as possible.

Let's contrast these two descriptions from "Knights and Squires":
Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted.

Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew….

The third mate was Flask, a native of Tisbury, in Martha's Vineyard. A short,stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered…This ignorant, unconscious fearlessness of his made him a little waggish in the matter of whales; he followed these fish for the fun of it; and a three years' voyage round Cape Horn was only a jolly joke that lasted that length of time.
Melville never suggests rivalry or tension between the mates; however, given their fundamentally different temperments, these characters disagree about the best response to a particular situation. This scene from Scar shows what happens when Kat and Starbuck's disagreement festers. As you watch this segment, identify the differences in temperament that distinguish the two warriors. How is your experience of the drama affected by the fight between Starbuck and Kat, two professional women, and between Starbuck and Flash, two seamen?

Melville dramatizes the human costs of whaling through the depiction of physical scars and abrasions, and through the need to remember those who have been lost at sea. In Moby-Dick, in a final speech, Starbuck, who claimed he was not to be able to remember the men's names, can recite all of them. The dramatization in Battleship Galactica is presented through continuous references to the men and women who died battling Scar. The crew constructs a memorial and pin photographs and memorabilia of their deceased mates to the wall. They constantly focus on their duty to remember those who gave their lives.

Can you think of other contemporary television shows that have adapted themes, stories, characters, or situations from classical literary sources? Perhaps you can share scenes and talk about the ways these stories revised or rethought the original.
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