Friday, October 2, 2009

Classics: SG1 1:9 – The Torment of Tantalus

Overall Rating: 9.3

A combination of flawless and riveting acting by both guest stars and mainstays alike, an emotionally fascinating and enjoyable story, and a general sense of respect for the human thirst for discovery and progress makes this episode the standard bearer for the early years of Stargate – the ultimate symbol of the basic theme of the show in the first few seasons – plucky humans who are in way over their heads strive endlessly to better themselves and succeed through luck, fortitude and the better parts of their nature.

A side note – I use as a reference when I am reviewing these episodes (mostly for guest actor names, bits of dialogue from their archived transcripts etc), and was absolutely HEARTBROKEN to discover that Gate fans gave this episode a 6.6. You people have NO TASTE!! Truly disgusting.

Plot Synopsis:

While watching old footage of heretofore unknown experiments on the Stargate conducted during the climax of WWII, Daniel Jackson stumbles on evidence that the first experiments did indeed succeed in activating the gate and that one man had gone through, never to return. Daniel, acting against orders to keep the Stargate mission a secret, makes contact with Catherine Langford – one of the first people to study the gate in the late 80s, culminating in the mission to Abydos featured in the original movie. There, he finds out that the man who’d gone through the gate was her fiancé. He returns to the SGC and begs an annoyed General Hammond to return through the gate to the planet where Ernest Littlefield ventured in search of clues to his fate (and a possible rescue).

Once there, they find Littlefield a broken shell of a man – left alone on this planet with a malfunctioning DHD, Littlefield spent 50 years studying a repository of knowledge left by four ancient races including the Asgard (and as we’ll find out later, the Nox, the Furlings, and the Ancients) but had no one with which to share what he learned. As the rest of SG1 struggles to get the gate powered up and escape through it back to Earth before an oncoming storm destroys the outpost, Daniel becomes transfixed with the potential “meaning of life” significance of this repository. After the broken DHD falls through the floor to the sea below, the team manages to fire up the gate using lightning discharges and a massive struggle ensues between Earnest, Jack and Daniel as they plead with him to return through the Stargate before it’s too late. Meanwhile, an obviously guilt-ridden Ernest reconnects with his long lost love.

SABR Matt’s ratings:

Writing: 8.5

While this episode is not quite as perfectly crisp and the dialogue not quite as engaging as some of the best works we’ve critiqued from the DS9 universe, it makes up for a lot of this (in the writing department) with a general sense of likability amongst the characters, a very real grasp of characterization and a basic story idea that is compelling from the start. It is worth pointing out that some of the nicer production elements in this episode were grafted into the script…the writer obviously had a clear concept in his mind about what the flashback scenes in the 1940s should look like, for example, and it gives this episode a sort of uniquely artistic feel.

Acting: 10

As you know…I don’t give out 10s freely, but I can find absolutely positively ZERO things to dislike about the acting here. There are so many great moments that it’s hard to put them into words. When Ernest Littlefield (Keene Curtis) emerges for the first time – buck naked - and, upon being convinced that SG1 is really there and not some figment of his imagination, starts hugging everyone in sight, not only are his reaction takes well delivered…everyone on the team reacts in such perfectly in-character ways that you cannot help but smile like an idiot. Sam dodges him like a matador dodging a bull (uttering only “oh boy.” LOL), Jack holds his hands out away from Ernest with this priceless look of terror on his face, Teal’c stoically stands there looking confused (hee), and Daniel actually hugs him, albeit reluctantly and with a bemused look on his face. When the team tries to take the power source from the alien repository, Daniel’s reaction is perfect…like a kid in a candy store who’s just been told he can’t have any! “Uhh…NO?!” When Ernest is forced to confront the reality that the Catherine with whom he’s been interacting all of these years was not real…and that the real Catherine never forgave him for leaving her all those years ago, it brings a tear to the eye of the faint hearted watching his face contort as the gut-wrenching facts fall on him. It’s all very well done.

Message: 9

As a firm believer in the Platonic notion of balance between eros (the drive toward perfection and truth) and compassion, this episode speaks to me on a very human level. Daniel has always been a man in danger of becoming lost in his search for truth. In fact he destroyed his own career because he expressed too much certainty in a theory that would have been hard to sell even with iron-clad proof. Anthropologists and historians ridiculed his notion that the great pyramids were landing pads for alien spacecraft or that human civilization far predated anything in the literature. He might have been right, but his quest for the truth all but guaranteed that no one would ever realize it. Reach for the sun and get too close and you can never reach back to your fellow men. Here again, Daniel was willing to sacrifice his life on Earth when confronted with “meaning of life stuff” for the first time in his off-world travels. It’s both his greatest virtue and his biggest weakness.

The episode also champions one of my greatest core beliefs…a view not shared by many liberals (or even some conservatives)…it’s a moment in the show’s history when we really begin to feel like the writers have faith in the virtue of human nature – the inherent strength and quality of our mind and soul that give us such great potential. For all of the negative things going on in our world, I believe humanity is destined to thrive, to expand, and to become a great civilization some day. Optimism – the world’s most powerful drug – try it some day and you won’t regret it. This show, despite the frustrating setback suffered by Daniel in the end, resonates with a sort of romantic vision of humanity taking its place among the heavens. That’s what Stargate SHOULD be about.

Stephanie S.’s Ratings:

Writing: 9

In addition to my co-author’s remarks, I’d like to add that I think this episode deserves high praise for its psychological realism. It is a given that no man forced to live in total isolation for several decades will emerge without strange notions and mannerisms. I like that Ernest’s method of coping was to conjure up the delusion of society – of exploring with his love. I also greatly appreciate the awkwardness of Ernest’s reunion with Catherine. That Catherine would resent Ernest’s apparent abandonment of their relationship in favor of his work is quite true to life.

This episode also gets a bit of a bump in the rating from me because it features Daniel being obsessive to a fault. Recall that in the pilot, we learn that the Abydonians buried their gate after the first Abydos mission – and that Daniel unburied it as soon as he found the Abydonian cartouche. Why? Because Daniel is a nerd, and sometimes, in his curiosity, he forgets plain old common sense. Here, we see that part of Daniel again – that totally unrestrained desire to know. And personally? I like this in Daniel – it is what makes him unique as a character. If you downplay that striving for truth – as the writers do in later seasons, alas – Daniel becomes another Hollywood face.

Acting: 10

I agree with my co-author here – the performances in this episode were just outstanding. Keene Curtis in particular deserves special plaudits – his awkwardness and fragility were a true joy to watch.

Message: 9

Floating around in the cultural ether are two competing notions of human greatness. One – the attitude of scientism and other modern and post-modern –isms – asserts that man is the sum of his accomplishments. According to this view, great men and women are those who create something beautiful and enduring, or who devise an elegant mathematical theory, or who make a ground-breaking scientific discovery. There is much truth to this, says the second, but such a notion of greatness by itself is tragically incomplete. According to this alternative view, a great man is one who loves his fellow men and shows that love in his words and in his actions. In The Torment of Tantalus, SG1 makes an argument for the second, richer notion – and as I peruse recent news feeds, I believe this is an argument we as a society need to hear more than ever.

Highlights (as compiled by SABR Matt):

O'NEILL: “You know you seem a tad obsessed with this stuff.”
DANIEL: “This was transferred from film of experiments done on the gate in 1945, you don't find that the least bit intriguing?”
O'NEILL: “Oh yeah, nothing piques my interest more then repeated failure.”
DANIEL: “Look at them, they're turning the gate manually, for gods sakes, it's incredible.”
O'NEILL: “How many hours of this stuff have you looked at?”
DANIEL: “There's no conclusion of the file, no summery, no notes, no reason to explain why they gave up.”
O'NEILL: “Well whole boxes of material could be missing.”
DANIEL: “No, the Pentagon said this was everything.”
O'NEILL: “Oh please. The Pentagon's lost entire countries. Come on! Doctors have two days of tests planned for us. Wonderful tests.” – how Jack-like. :) (On the viewer now, we see a man suiting up and walking toward an OPEN gate)
DANIEL: Oh, Jack! (Jack walks up behind Daniel starring at the screen. His looks shocked)
O'NEILL: That's impossible.
DANIEL: Obviously not. This doesn't make any since, why wouldn't someone have told us this. I mean, why would they stop their research if they actually managed to turn it on? (We see the man approach the gate, step through and disappear and the gate cuts out, suddenly ending the film.)
O'NEILL: Holy cow. – Best teaser of the season so far. :)

CATHERINE: “Maybe it's supposed to do that?”
ERNEST: “What?”
CATHERINE: “The ring. Maybe it's supposed to shake.”
ERNEST: “I don't think so.”
CATHERINE: “Are you using alternate or direct current to charge it?”
ERNEST: “Alternate, I thing, why?”
CATHERINE: “Try using direct. It might prevent the charge from bouncing back to the generator.” – She was a quick one even then!

O'NEILL: “Catherine!”
CATHERINE: “Hello Jack.”
O'NEILL: “It's good to see you again. I trust the General is making you feel right at home.” (General Hammond looks like he wants to shoot someone – or at least throw knuckles.)
CATHERINE: “So far he actually sounds worse than General West.”
O'NEILL: “Ah, he's a teddy bear.” – he so is…LOL

DANIEL: “If the Goa'uld haven't been to this planet – and there is obviously a gate there – then we would have unquestionable proof that they didn't build the Stargates.”
TEAL'C: “The Goa'uld are scavengers. Since they have not traveled to this planet, we could find technologies to use against them.”
CATHERINE: “You speak.” – LOL
TEAL'C: “When it is appropriate.”
HAMMOND: “Thank you. Thank all of you for this very thorough analysis of the situation. But I was already convinced by Dr. Jackson's initial argument. Ernest Littlefield could still be alive, and we should try to find him” – Hammond really does love to yell at people and then do what they want, doesn’t he?

CARTER: “Oh my...” (Carter visibly blushes – LOL! – Everyone turns first to her then to where she is looking. A man – entirely naked – has appeared in the adjacent corridor.)
O'NEILL: “Aw, for crying' out loud.” (Littlefield approaches Daniel)
DANIEL: “Dr. Littlefield? Ernest?” (Ernest dons his glasses to see more clearly) “Hello, I'm Daniel Jackson, we just came through the Stargate.” (Ernest looks at the gate.) “Yes, that thing...Star-gate.” (Ernest pushed Daniel as if to see if he is real.) “We're real.” (Ernest starts crying, and gives Daniel a big hug.)
ERNEST: “It's...about...time.” (He then goes to Jack and gives him a hug, Jack doesn’t return the embrace, looking a little scared…LOL)
O'NEILL: “Whoa.” (Ernest turns and goes towards Carter, who deftly steps to her right to avoid his charge.)
CARTER: “Oh boy!” (Ernest instead hugs Teal'c, who looks as though nothing is out of the ordinary – remarkable how little his facial expressions change!)

ERNEST: “So…you’re real?” (to Catherine)

CATHERINE: “Yes Ernest, you’re going to have to believe. This isn’t easy for me either.”

ERNEST: “You…you look different…”

CATHERINE: “I’m old, Ernest…so are you!”

ERNEST: “We had a wonderful life together!” (the realization that his safe delusion was not true is dawning on him…his eyes well up with tears)

CATHERINE: “I couldn’t imagine you, Ernest. In my mind, we didn’t have any life together. I thought you were dead.”

ERNEST: (choked up) “Forgave…you forgave me long ago!” (now Catherine looks on the verge of tears)

CATHERINE: “No, Ernest…no I didn’t.”

ERNEST: “Oh…” (he loses it completely, his lone defense against his own guilt shattered)

CATHERINE: “This is incredible. I mean we have only been able to speculate on the actual appearance and structure of an atom. The fact that four completely alien races chose to represent it in an almost identical way…”

DANIEL: (thinking out loud) “The basic elements are what make up the universe, they are the basic building blocks…” (comes to a realization) “…of course! How do you ensure universal communication? You reduce the method of communication to the most basic elements; common to everyone and everything that exists in the universe! Jack, this is a trueuniversal language!”
ERNEST: “Turn the page.”
DANIEL: “What?”
ERNEST: “Turn the page!” (He demonstrates that many atomic images are available in the repository)
DANIEL: “Are you saying, that this, that this is like a book?” (Ernest nods.)
ERNEST: “I tried to read it. I tried to understand it.”
DANIEL: “A hundred and forty six elements, letters, or symbols, if they're letters, if they're pictographic, I mean this could take a life time.”
ERNEST: “More.”
DANIEL: “Oh, sorry.”
O'NEILL: “Daniel, before you head explodes, may I remind you that we have more important thing to deal with right now?” – LOL!
DANIEL: “How can you say that, don't you know what this could mean?”
O'NEILL: “Actually no.”
DANIEL: “This could be the key to understanding our existence. Everyone! Everything's existence!”
ERNEST: “The collaboration of these four alien spices.”
O'NEILL: “None of witch would mean squat, if we don't get out of here.” – this whole scene conveys the deep personal wonderment any good sci-fi fan feels when facing the innumerable unknown truths about the universe that are just beyond our grasp. The concept of an atomic universal language is a brilliant insight on the part of the writer, and one of the most creative bits of high-concept science fiction that I’ve ever seen.

O'NEILL: “All right, basic survival training. We know what we have. What do we need?”
TEAL'C: “We have the Stargate, we need the dial home device.”
O'NEILL: “Thank you Teal'c.” – hee!

O'NEILL: “Step away from the pedestal Daniel.”
DANIEL: “What? Why?”
CARTER: “The dial home device just fell through the floor into the ocean.”
DANIEL: “So what are we going to do?”
CARTER: “That thing may have a power source in it that we can use to get the gate working.
DANIEL: “Uh...No?! You don't understand, this book could contain knowledge of the universe. I mean this is meaning of life stuff...I have to get more of it down on paper before we leave, there must be something more you can use. What about using energy from Teal'c staff?”
CARTER: “It's not powerful enough.”
CATHERINE: “Please there's not much time, we have to get inside that thing.”
O'NEILL: “This whole place could join the DHD at the bottom of the ocean any minute, so please.”
DANIEL: “Great, shoot it!” (he walks away looking really pissed off…LOL He is the only one in the room who is glad when Teal’c staff blast has no affect on the pedestal.)

1 comment:

  1. Did you notice that young Ernest was played by Paul McGillion, SGA's Dr. Beckett?