Things have been quiet around here lately because frankly, I ran out of meaningful things to say. I think that really became clear to me when most of what I was posting during the last two weeks consisted of links to Comic Con material that I had nothing to do with. After cleaning up my DVR which was overflowing with stuff I didn't really know what to do with, in the midst of watching some of it to decide what to keep and what to throw away, I stumbled across a real gem of an episode of Stargate SG-1 that didn't find its full meaning until after the series had ended.
Not for me, anyway.
That episode was Avatar, something I was dreading before it had first aired but after found a measure of respect for the path that was chosen. Some years later with SG-1 in the books, it took on an entirely new meaning for me and the series and in my small corner of the world, it said what the series final couldn't and didn't say, but should have.
Judging by the synopsis on TV.com for Avatar, it's not hard to see how one could go in with a poor impression.
"The SGC experiment with a virtual reality chair from the Gamekeeper's world (season 2), but Teal'c becomes trapped in a virtual loop against an undefeatable batch of Anubis drones."
I don't remember why, but I immediately felt the kind of disappointment you get from any sci-fi show that retreads well explored genre stories. Although Stargate has never done the "evil doppelganger universe" story, they've come dangerously close several times and one could argue that any alternative universe story is tired and unoriginal. No sense in making that argument here though, because it turned out that my fears -- whatever their source -- were for naught. I should have given the show the benefit of the doubt after 5+ terrific seasons that should have earned them a little faith on my part.
And to be completely honest here, I wasn't enthralled with the episode on the first go around. It was better than I had hoped, but since my cinicism was running the show, it's not like it had to accomplish much to exceed my expectations.
That was four years ago, and although I'm sure I had probably seen the episode again in reruns afterwords, I hadn't seen it since the series wrapped up a couple of years ago. Watching it again a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't exactly looking forward to it like some of the other episodes currently airing. New Order 1&2 especially were very enjoyable episodes, ones that almost get a free pass from me regardless of execution simply because anything with the Asgard in it was like free candy.
I couldn't get enough of those guys.
Additionally, back in July I had the good fortune to be paying attention to where in the series sci-fi was in regards to reruns, and managed to save a copy of the excellent The Changeling, an episode co-written by series star Christopher Judge. Changeling was another one of those episodes that I wasn't looking forward to, didn't enjoy at all for the first half until Michael Shanks showed up, but by the time the credits rolled I was floored. I tend to be very defensive about writers and presume that when actors get some sort of writing credit, it's more a case of them flexing unearned power in the business than it is them genuinely contributing to the process outside their norms. Not only is that a retarded assumption to make on my part in general, it was particularly striking in the case of Changeling because it turned out to be perhaps one of the finest stories of the entire series.
I single that out while writing about Avatar because the two share something in common. It's easy to dismiss shows like SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis as sci-fi light, drama-light, comedy-light, or action-light as they tend to live somewhere in the middle. Most episodes feature a little bit of everything, hence the "-light" suffix where it's not meant as an insult, but a literal description of a light hearted show that generally doesn't take risks yet still manages to do a lot of good things.
But that's not always the case, thankfully, there are times when they go one way or another to explore the boundaries a little more fully. Changeling wasn't particularly funny or full of action though it did have its moments. It did wonderfully illustrate how certain people view the world both internally and on the outside under extreme pressure. Judge broke out of his box and really showed that he was capable of a range of emotions and for the lack of a better description, emoting physically, that his character doesn't normally allow us to see just by the very nature of who he is. But beyond that, and here's what really grabbed me, it shows you how another person can help their friend through an impossible situation without actually doing anything -- just being there for them.
Some may argue that was more about Daniel than it was Teal'c, but I think it's really semantics at that point.
It was really just a very nice moment that said a lot of things in a very short time, but it wasn't the last time that theme would be touched upon.
Avatar came together for me a lot sooner than Changeling did. It was clear for the audience once it was said that the game wouldn't let Teal'c out because it knew him too well, it knew that deep down inside, he didn't think they could ever beat the Goa'uld, so it kept adapting the game giving him unwinnable scenarios until it began threatening his physical health.
I suppose that's as good of a setup as any if you don't really think about that really says. Dig a little deeper, as was clearly done here, and what you've got is the kind of depth you don't normally see on Stargate -- and that may very well be a debatable statement if anyone wishes to point out something I've missed -- but since the producers went down this road, I feel I've got to point out a few things here.
First being that they really got it in this episode. It threw into question a basic premise of the series as we knew it, that the steadfast warrior who never gives up may have believed he was fighting a losing battle all along, but he fought on anyway. That alone says enough that Avatar deserved an award for a single instance of outstanding drama, the kind they typically reserve for "real drama" shows as opposed to sci-fi. Well, I've got news, you give credit to the material where it is, and that was as good of an example of exploring a complex idea, almost a contradiction if you will, without getting choking on your own brilliance.
To hell with that, you don't get much deeper than this. It's been done before on series like The West Wing, and you've got to hand it to Aaron Sorkin for doing it damn near every single week, but most shows never know what it is to speak at that level to our humanity. I'm not sure Stargate really went there again, but for this episode they knocked it out of the park. The ending could have featured some sort of self-analyzing solution, a kind of "I can't fight my way out of this game, I have to think and understand my way out." That's perfectly acceptable and passable, but they didn't take the easy out which is certainly to their credit, which brings me to my second point.
What better way to build on what was written in Changeling than to not just show us a person who has the courage to fight to the end whilst believing the end is inevitable no matter what they do, than to reinforce what Teal'c had already learned before: alone we can be great people, but only together can we accomplish great things. By the time last minute or so rolled, I think the lesson was well learned not just by the characters, but by the audience as well. It's practically a cliche to say "together we fall", but it's a whole other thing to actually show it; to show the characters learning it for themselves.
The third point is a brief one, which is a nod to whomever did the music for Avatar, particularly the last minute or so from the time Sgt. Siler is blown away -- and man you have to figure that was a real treat for Dan Shea to finally get to do the fun stuff -- until the exec-prod credits roll. It didn't merely enforce what we had just seen visually, it didn't mirror the emotion of the characters, it took it to an entirely new level. It would have been so easy to have very upbeat and cheap "victory" music from having won the game -- if you've ever seen U-571 you'll know what I'm talking about because that movie is a perfect example of how *not* to score a movie when bad things are constantly happening -- it literally took the place of words and visions that made us, the audience, feel the relief of it coming to an end.
It was the auditory equivalent of a physical state of shock.
Although Teal'c said at the end, "we won", the music said "I can't mentally or physically accept that it's really over." That's not to take away from what Teal'c said at the end either, because the way Chris Judge said it made me believe that he believed it. There are no more words to explain how powerful that ending was.
Finally, the fourth point like all the others is simply an expression of my opinion and is by no means an attack or meant as a negative criticism, more like the feeling of lost opportunity. Everything that Avatar made you feel at the end of the episode was what was missing from the series finale, Unending. While Unending had a charm all to its own and had some kick ass special effects and music to go along with it, it felt pretty darn empty in comparison. In retrospect, I actually would have preferred the series to end on an Avatar-like note than the way it actually did.
What happened at the end of Avatar could have easily been applied to the Ori arc, and really it represented what the series was all about.
It may very well have risen from the depths to take on the #2 spot on my all-time list, tied with Changeling, just behind Meridian. Every time I see that ending, it hits me even harder and means even more.