Stargate: Season 4 Review

I continue my review of Stargate episodes (I didn't forget!) with references to The Matrix, amnesia, the purpose of sci-fi villains, and Star Trek's strengths and weaknesses.

Episode #1: Small Victories--Part two of Season 3 season ender. It is somewhat more interesting than the first part. Still, bugs . . . yawn. I really do need a face to my villains, even if the villains are mechanical. Take The Matrix: so, the villains are the machines or whatever, but the villains' representative still wears a human face and has human emotions.

Episode #2: The Other Side--One of Stargate's best episodes, starring the excellent Rene Auberjonois. Imagine that aliens finally contact us; they turned out to be human and . . . a bunch of Nazis. "The Other Side" is a really interesting episode about intentions and perceptions and contains some good argument scenes between Daniel and Jack.

Episode #3: Upgrades--Okay episode that introduces Tok'ra chick Anise played by Vanessa Angel. Several years ago, I was told that Anise was supposed to be Stargate's 7-of-9 (this was after 7-of-9 became really big news). If so, it didn't really work; the women on Stargate dress way too comfortably for Anise's uniform to make much sense.

Episode #4: Crossroads--Pretty good episode with Sela Ward look-a-like Musetta Vander. Turns out, Vander was on Buffy! There must be a I-will-do-fantasy-and-sci-fi circuit amongst Hollywood actors. I've always been proud of Frasier actors Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth for willingly doing Star Trek: Next Generation episodes despite their slots in "real life" drama shows.

Episode #5: Divide and Conquer--Good episode which, unfortunately, disposes of Martouf (JR Bourne). I guess the writers decided they'd done as much with this character as they could (although I like Martouf, I think they were right). The episode also refers to the ongoing but in no way intrusive romantic attachment between Carter and Jack. This isn't Bones-Booth romantic stuff; it's pretty low key. (But it's there. One minor problem with early seasons of Stargate: Atlantis is that Sheppard doesn't have a honey; personally, I think his honey should be Teyla: together, they would make the most laid-back couple in television history.)

Episode #6: Window of Opportunity--Probably the first episode of Stargate I ever saw. I began rewatching the show several years ago to find this particular episode. I finally did in Season 4! It is a time-loop episode, a la Groundhog Day. Very well done.

Episode #7: Watergate--Interesting idea; I always like episodes with underwater civilizations. However, despite the presence of Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: Next Generation), it's kind of boring.

Episode #8: The First Ones--Nice anthropological episode which adds more information to the Goa'uld mythology.

Episode #9: Scorched Earth--Okay episode that sets the needs of an unknown and bizarre alien race against the needs of a known and relatable alien race. Stargate does these types of episodes very well by creating tension without messaging: both positions have merit.

Episode #10: Beneath the Surface--Possibly my favorite Stargate episode ever! Our intrepid heroes have been sent to work in an underground city. Their memories have been manipulated; they don't know who they are and don't realize they know each other. Over the course of the episode, they remember who they become friends and work together to escape/solve the problem.

If I ever suffered from amnesia in reality, I'm sure it would be horrible. But literarily-speaking, it fascinates me. I think my fascination has to do with the elements of personality: who are we? Are we an accumulation of our experiences? Probably. But what happens when the experiences are gone? What is left? Do we become new people? Do we revert to a basic blueprint? Do we perceive ourselves differently and, if so, how much does that affect how others perceive us?

Episode #11: Point of No Return--Cute episode that is actually funnier after a few viewings. Another of Teal'c's "likes" is presented in this episode. He likes vibrating, hotel beds. (We later learn that he also likes Star Wars and toy laser guns.)

Episode #12: Tangent--Pretty good Apollo 13-like episode. And it's always nice to see Carmen Argenziano (although I now thoroughly associate him with House; he is the older doctor in the fourth season of House, the one who never actually graduated from medical school and is too much like House to be chosen).

Episode #13: The Curse--Okay episode introducing another bad Goa'uld: Osiris. By the way, the chick playing Sarah, Anna-Louise Plowman, is married to Toby Stephens. (As I continue my hobby of identifying British and American actors in bit parts!)

Episode #14: The Serpent's Venom--One of Stargate's military strategy episodes. Teal'c gets tortured. There's a bomb. It's kind of boring.

Episode #15: Chain Reaction--This is one of those episodes where the problem has zero impact unless the viewer is already invested in the show/characters. This kind of thing is allowable once a show gathers a fan-base, but it always makes me wince. It is also, as Jack would say, a "a cloak and dagger-y" episode which, in general, isn't really my cup of tea. But Maybourne shows up!

Episode #16: 2010--Neat episode that I reviewed for the Mike-Kate Video Club.

Episode #17: Absolute Power--A Michael Shanks-focused episode where he gets to go bad (but it's only a dream). This episode makes clear why the Goa'uld aren't dealt with diplomatically:

One smart thing that Stargate does is to make their villains completely villainous. The Wraith in Stargate: Atlantis have an ambiguous side—leading to the creation of the marvelously conflicted Michael played by Connor Trinneer—but their needs make them "givens" as enemies.

The Goa'uld are just bad (the ambiguity is supplied by the Tok'ra). This does two things: (1) it prevents Stargate having to apologize for being a military/warrior show; (2) it keeps Stargate mythic. In myth, although Hercules does in fact apologize for a lot of things, he doesn't apologize for being a fighter. Similarly, Stargate heroes don't apologize for saving the universe ("Oh, wait, maybe we should have tried to understand the creatures who want to put snakes in our bodies!") Jean-Luc Picard can do this kind of over-the-top diplomacy because he is Patrick Stewart and everything Patrick Stewart does has a patina of gravitas. But nobody else should do it in sci-fi.

The Stargate writers demonstrate their wisdom and skill again in this episode. They resolve another of Daniel's story arcs. Instead of forcing us to watch all 10 seasons of Stargate to find the Harcesis, they bring him up, deal with him, and dispose of him in one episode. Kudos!

Episode #18: The Light--One of my favorites although I'm not sure why. I don't really like angst, but I guess I like mental anguish, such as Daniel's breakdown at his apartment. There is also a mystery that needs to be solved. (As mentioned in my review of Season 3, Michael Shanks tends to be the main character in episodes that are more archaeology/team-oriented as opposed to battle-oriented. I prefer the latter to the former, so I tend to refer to Daniel/Shanks a lot.)

Episode #19: Prodigy--Introduction of that fantastic "4'9" fighting machine" Hailey (Elizabeth Rosen) who shows up in the later episode "Proving Ground" with the excellent Courtenay Stevens as Lieutenant Elliott.

Episode #20: Entity--Supercomputer-as-antagonist is about as boring to me as mechanical bugs-as- antagonist. And I just can't buy the whole "consciousness can be transferred in and out of a computer" thing. Oh, well, I guess these episodes have to be done. The script does have some nice moments that highlight the differences between Daniel and Jack/Teal'c.

Episode #21: Double Jeopardy--This is quite a nice pay-off to the robot story ("Tin Man" in Season 1) and to the Cronus & Teal'c story. One downside: the writers really should have said what happened to the de-activated robots at the end, but I guess they were worried the information would create too many problems for future episodes. They didn't want the viewers expecting the robots to show up every other episode!

This is all to say, Stargate writers are even more fanatical than Star Trek writers about not leaving open-endings. On the one hand, as in Star Trek--especially Star Trek: Voyager--this sometimes strains one's credulity. On the other hand, I love single-story episodes and I really admire how completely cavalier Stargate is (even more than Star Trek) about avoiding soap-opera tangents. Their attitude is "this will cause us problems later; okay, let's just not deal with it!" There's something enormously refreshing about this type of approach.

Sidenote: The Battlestar Galactica folks were also heavily influenced by Star Trek; in fact, some of them worked for the Star Trek franchise. However, unlike the Stargate people, who never lost a healthy respect for Star Trek's fame, the Battlestar Galactica folks acted like whiny rebellious teenagers: Oh, we are so NOT going to do what Star Trek did! Nah nah nah.

This was a major throwing-out-babies-with-bathwater mistake. Changing the format is one thing. Going against it is just stupid.

Although . . .

Episode #22: Exodus--This episode reminds me of David Gerrold's analysis of Star Trek's weaknesses in his book The Making of Star Trek. David Gerrold points out that "Kirk in danger" episodes get tedious pretty fast (Kirk is in danger from the supercomputer! Kirk is in danger from the evil body-less psychopath! Kirk is in danger from the evil green monster-thing!).

Good drama (even action drama, I would argue) is better when it is about making decisions. Die Hard is a great action movie because Bruce Willis can't just blow things up; he has to make decisions about which course of action to take. Actually, he has to make the decision to get involved which influences how he gets involved.

Stargate military strategy episodes, unfortunately, have a tendency to focus on "the one thing that will save the earth!" We have to kill a bunch of mechanical bug! We have to blow up a sun! We have to . . .

And it gets old. It is much more interesting when someone has to make a decision. So, for example, in this season, my favorites almost all involve making a decision of some kind:
  • "Other Side"--Jack makes a decision about who to trust when he sees how Alar treats Teal'c. 
  • "Window of Opportunity"--the archaeologist makes a decision when Jack reveals to him how he feels about his own child's death. 
  • "Beneath the Surface"--the team make the decision to trust each other and care about something bigger than their current circumstances.
  • "2010"--okay, this is a "must do one thing to save the earth!" episode. Sci-fi action/drama shows are allowed a few plus the "one thing" is pretty interesting.
  • "Absolute Power"--Daniel makes a decision about what to do with the Harcesis (the potential for unlimited knowledge). 
  • "The Light"--the boy makes a decision to trust Jack and turn off the machine.
  • "Prodigy"--Jack makes a decision about how the team should escape/deal with the attacking aliens. (The action sequences are directly impacted by Jack's decision; the decision isn't simply one of a series of actions.)
On to Season 5!

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