How the Battlestar Galactica plot to kill Starbuck 'spiraled completely out of control'
Midway through the third season of Battlestar Galactica, actress Katee Sackhoff posed a question to writer-producer David Weddle: “What’s the deal with the mandala?” Little did she know at the time that this would galvanize one of the series’ most memorable story lines, in which her character, Starbuck, was killed off — only to be resurrected in stunning fashion at the season’s end. But conceiving the idea wasn’t without drama. In an exclusive excerpt from the tell-all book So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Battlestar Galactica, Sackhoff, Weddle, creator Ronald D. Moore, and more revisit how the story idea was born, how it created mass drama on set, and why Edward James Olmos in particular thought the show would “never be the same.” Read on for more, and purchase your copy of the book here.
BRADLEY THOMPSON [writer and producer]: Katee was absolutely fearless about going to all these horrible, emotional places. The attitude was, “Can we make this character the most infuriating person ever?” Because she’s totally self-sabotaging and tremendously talented. But a really, really big heart. All of these things that are fighting within her. Then we tried to come up with why would that be. What was her freight damage, so to speak, that brought her to this spot? It was a pretty incredible journey, especially if you’re going to turn her into Christ or something that comes back from the dead and leads you to the promised land and then vanishes . . . I thought that was pretty cool.
DAVID WEDDLE [writer and producer]: We didn’t really know how we were going to pay things off yet, because it was such an organic process on Battlestar, and I was up for the preproduction in the first couple days of shooting on “Rapture” and “The Eye of Jupiter.” Katee Sackhoff came up to me and said, “So what’s the deal with the mandala? What does that mean?” Of course I didn’t know yet, and I said, “Well, we’re still developing that. It’s kind of premature to talk about it.” I was tap-dancing, and Katee said, “You know, I think that in light of seeing this mandala, and in light of knowing I have some other destiny”—because Ron had talked to her about that—she said, “Maybe there’s something in my past. Maybe there’s an event in my past that seems innocuous, never seemed important, but now in light of my mandala on the temple, I interpret it in a whole different way.” So I said, “That’s a really interesting idea, Katee.”
I came back to the writers’ room in L.A., and the story up on the board for the episode that they were going to have Brad and I write. In it, Lee and Kara are orbiting this planet with a lot of cloud cover, and while they’re doing their missions, they talk about their fraught relationship. I said, “Well, we kind of have done that over and over. Can’t we try to advance it in some way? And here’s what Katee Sackhoff has to say.” And I told them, and Ron just grabbed that and ran with it and said, “Yes. Let’s do that.” Then we got the idea of the cloud around the planet starting to look to her like the mandala, and then this whole theme of her always tiptoeing up to the edge of death. You know this might be a vehicle for exploring that.
RONALD D. MOORE [creator]: They were struggling with it and I wasn’t in on the break. Then they pitched it, “You know, it just feels unsatisfying that in the end, she’s just going to figure out a way to beat this thing. She’s just going to come out smelling like a rose like she always does; it just feels like it’s about nothing, and we had an idea. What if we killed her?” I was like, “What?” They’re like, “We kill her. She dies. But we bring her back a few episodes later and she’s been resurrected and she’s some kind of guardian angel or prophet. We feed her into the larger mythology in some way; we shock the audience and really take her out of the show for a while. We let Lee and Adama and everyone deal with the ramifications of her death.” I was really surprised and even said, “That’s really unexpected.”
WEDDLE: So we got the idea as it is in the show “Maelstrom,” of her being drawn down into the mandala, and having a 2001 sort of vision and then pulling out again. So as we developed that, Ron said, “Why does she have to pull out? Maybe she goes all the way in and she dies.” Which was an incredible, radical idea none of us would have ever dared to think of, and of course it plays into all the mythologies that’s great about where Battlestar evolved to, and myths throughout every culture. Of course, most prominently Christianity, there is in every civilization with this death and rebirth, and a rebirth that offers a vision forward for the human race. So Kara was starting to jell as a character like that.
KATEE SACKHOFF [actor]: They didn’t send the script out first and I got this cryptic phone call from Ron and David in my trailer. They were like, “So we want to talk to you about something. You’ve done nothing wrong.” In my mind I’m thinking, “I totally did something wrong.” “We’re going to kill you, but we’re going to bring you back, so don’t worry. You’re not going to be you. Don’t worry about it. Everyone’s going to think you’re dead. We’re going to take your name out of the credits. You’re going to go home. We’re not telling anyone anything.” I’m like, “Okay. . . .” So I went to Mexico for a couple of episodes, but the problem was that I was lying to everyone.
MOORE: This was one of the stupidest things that David and I did in the entire run of the show. You’re right at the cusp of social media and the internet starting to ferret out spoilers from shows. Various plotlines are getting blown online for the first time. This is becoming a thing that none of us had ever had to deal with before. Our feeling was this was only going to work if the audience thinks we mean it, and the characters mean it. We’ll take her name out of the main credits, we want this to be a shock. Katee knows she’s coming back and we swear her to secrecy, so then, of course, it just becomes a fiasco and Katee is telling everyone she’s leaving the show. The script comes out and she’s dead.
SACKHOFF: I’m like this child; I tell my mom, because I had to tell someone. My mom’s on set. The crew were like, “So sorry about Katee.” My mom’s like, “I know. She’ll be okay. She’ll land on her feet.”
MICHAEL ANGELI [writer and co-executive-producer]: We knew we were going to bring her back, so we wrote two endings for that script. One is that she doesn’t die. That’s the one that we circulated, because, first of all, we wanted it to be a surprise. Second of all, we didn’t want to raise concern with the cast thinking, “Oh my God, they’re killing her off. What are they doing?” Well, somehow the real draft got leaked, and there was just chaos. Everybody thought, “You’re killing off Katee?” Leading the charge was Eddie Olmos. He was like, “This is preposterous. This is wrong. She’s one of the signature characters in the show. What the hell are you guys doing?” Her mother even called, saying, “Why are you killing her? How could you possibly . . . ?” Of course we had to explain what was going on, and come clean about everything. But it was astonishing how militant Eddie got about keeping her on the show.
MOORE: Eddie puts the script down after he reads it, and says, “The show will never be the same.”
SACKHOFF: Finally I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m telling Eddie.” So I called him and then he told everyone. We were doing the Maxim photo shoot and he stood up on something and he told the entire cast that I wasn’t really dead, and I felt like such an asshole.
MOORE: While this is happening in Vancouver, David and I are getting calls in Los Angeles from the set saying, “They’re really upset. You don’t understand, people are freaking out that you’re killing Starbuck.” We’re like, “Hey, it’s working. Nobody’s going to know. This is going to be the greatest prank of all time.” A little time goes by and I get a phone call. Eddie’s pissed, walking around saying, “This is the death of the show.” It just spiraled completely out of control and we’re like, “We’re just trying to keep a secret on a TV show. We didn’t want to upset anybody.”
SACKHOFF: I don’t even think we made it a week.
MOORE: It was just a matter of days and we were like, “Okay, call it off. Tell everybody. We’re sorry.”