Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Classics: SG1 4:16 - 2010

Overall Rating: 9.5

Not only is this a legitimately creepy alternate universe to inspire loads of interesting fanfiction, but the show also takes a stand against the modern conceit that scientific knowledge equals leadership credentials and acknowledges the very real threat of scientific elitism through attempts to control our population.

Plot Synopsis:

We open ten years into the future - the year is 2010 and the Stargate is, evidently, very public knowledge. Sam and her husband Joe have been trying to conceive a child for three years now with no success, but our new allies, the Ashen, have very advanced technology and scientific knowledge and have assured her that she's reproductively healthy and should simply keep trying. They both are disappointed at the news, but seem confident that, soon enough, they will be starting a family.

Late, every member of SG-1, other than Jack, who is conspicuously absent in protest of an alliance he doesn't trust, attends a reception honoring the ten-year anniversary of the day the team encountered the Ashen Confederacy. President Kinsey (yes, that Kinsey) bloviates and takes credit for Earth's newfound good fortune. In the after-party conversation, Janet Fraiser (who is Sam's guest) bemoans that the Ashen have made her obsolete and Sam agrees that it's often frustrating that the science the Ashen use is frequently over her head, but insists that there will still be uses for Janet's talents. Janet then offers to look Sam over for old time's sake. And it's a darned good thing she does. She discovers that Sam's ovaries have been seriously damaged by some unknown agent and she is in fact quite sterile.

The Ashen have been lying to Sam for years! Now determined to get to the bottom of the reason behind the lies, Sam convinces her Ashen lab boss to give her access to the classified Ashen supercomputer core (interesting that they horde knowledge on Earth's population like that) and once into the medical database, she realizes that the birth rate (globally!) is down by 90%. The Ashen are behind some massive conspiracy to sterilize the population!

Over dinner, Janet, Sam and Daniel discuss what they might be able to do with this horrifying knowledge. Janet confesses that shortly before his death, General Hammond had called her and insisted that they needed to discuss something of crucial importance to humanity. The Ashen had claimed he died of a heart attack, but Janet now suspects he was murdered to keep the truth about the Ashen plot under wraps. Knowing what they do now, they all wish they could take back their mistakes...and Sam proposes that they do just that. They'll send a message to the past warning the SGC not to gate to P3C-940 under any circumstances. But they need help to do it.

Sam tries to recruit a very bitter Jack to join them in a raid of the gate terminal and, still furious that he warned of the dangers posed by the Ashen and no one listened, he angrily refuses to cooperate. He's happy with his simple life the way it is. Or so he claims. When the rest of SG-1 goes to the SGC museum to acquire their GDO and some working Zats (the tour guide is hilariously goofy), the find him waiting for them. He discovers, to the chagrin of all involved that the GDO is a fake and Walter Harriman tells the group that the real one is on Kinsey's desk at the oval office.

Now Sam must tell Joe the bad news and get him to steal the remote. During this conversation, Joe reveals that during the negotiations, he'd been told that the Ashen intended to do something to curb human reproductive rates, feeling that our population was unsustainable without allowing this (and we wouldn't be worth the investment). Naturally, Sam is pissed! "You sold us out!" she insists. Suitably stunned at the overkill in their population control, Joe agrees to get the GDO and, after a furious firefight at the gate terminal, Sam barely manages to throw the message through the wormhole as she is gunned down along with the rest of SG-1 by automated defenses. Back in the present, we get the note, and Hammond, not wanting to take any chances, orders the address locked out for good. PHEW!

The Skinny:

SABR Matt - You sly bastards! You just cannot hide your center-right beliefs even by protestations of the opposite. :) This episode focuses (perhaps unwittingly) on a very real problem we now face in today's society. The more we learn about our natural world scientifically, the more inaccessible that science becomes to the average person. This would not be such a problem, except for two things which, when combined, terrify me to my very soul.

1) Scientists think you're stupid. I recently had to take a class in scientific ethics and responsible conduct (and a lot of what was discussed in this course actually was quite informative and helpful). During the course of this seminar, however, the topic of communicating our research findings and the societal implications of those findings to the public was broached. The basic conclusion of everyone in the room who was NOT me was..."the vast majority of Americans, if given the time to read and study the scientific literature on any given topic, were still too stupid to ever understand it as well as the scientists who did the work or their peers in academia." I didn't put up with this. I didn't want to carry the argument too far off topic, but I did insist that I believed the only difference bvetween scientists and the public (on average) is that the scientists dedicate huge chunks of time to studying very specific problems and that the public doesn't have the time to keep up with all of it. The response I got varied between incredulity and pity. Yes, really.

2) The public trusts scientists almost unconditionally. At the very least, it is considered virtuous in political circles to trust in the credentials of the scientists advising the formation of public policy. There may be some traces of skepticism on the blogs, but most people, when told that the science is settled on a particular issue, are more than happy to say, "OK...I trust you" because the alternative is either to be willfully ignorant or to actually do the incredibly time consuming work of coming to understand the state of current scientific literature - an impossible task when they have to work their asses off at routine jobs just to keep food on the table.

It may well be that scientists are, on average, somewhat more intelligent (objectively), but that does not make them particularly more likely to be good stewards of public policy. Why? Scientists get tunnel vision. I've seen it happen to myself, to my colleagues, to my everyone required to dedicate years of their life to a particular perspective on an important problem. It's unavoidable that we, as scientists, will get settled into one way of looking at the world and find, twenty years later, that other points of view were better. An extreme example of this can be found in geological history. The new theory of plate tectonics now makes so much sense to us that we can't imagine a scientist who, when presented with the theory, wouldn't immediately go, "well duh!" But I actually know of at least two different serious (and very brilliant) geologists who TO THIS DAY! will not admit that plate tectonics has been fundamentally proven. In fact, as late as 1970, there were people who actually believed that the Earth was HOLLOW! With access points at both poles! Really! They weren't stupid people...they had tunnel vision so bad it made fools of them. Something like that is, IMHO, happening in climate science. I think GCM modelers have tunnel vision so bad they can't admit to the possibility that there are variables their models have not accounted for even as the results pour in proving that their models do not properly understand even short term climate variability. We therefore cannot trust scientists unconditionally...their recommendations MUST be treated very skeptically.

It gets worse in situations where the scientsts' agendas step far outside their actual areas of expertise. Scientists aren't fact most scientists I know can't even balance their own checkbooks. Scientists cannot tell you whether a solution to a problem they believe is crucial will actually be plausible. Nor are scientists philosphers...yet they are often seen publicly speculating on the religious, social, or economic significance of their findings. And people believe them. Because they're smarter and more qualified than most of us.

The combination of those two elements makes it very dangerous that most of us can't follow the science that's way over our heads. Scientists think they know better than you do...and that arrogance tends to extend way beyond the arena in which they've done their research. A bad combination of tunnel vision and righteous indignation in the face of opposition can lead to scientists not acting in your best interests. There many brilliant men and women out there, for example, who believe the only way we can survive on Earth is if they're given the authority through the public sector to enact means of curbing human population. And finally (pardon me for the rant, but this is very important to me)...we come back to the Stargate episode.

Here we have a race of humans from another world - the Ashen - who believe they know better than we do. I don't think the Ashen see their efforts as a hostile takeover. I believe, like today's scientists, they see their efforts as a heroic attempt to make Earth's biosphere sustainable. To get that result, they intend to sterilize most of humanity on Earth without our knowledge. Population control demands our attention (and our horror) in the real world, and the Gate writers alertly saw the threat for what it was and played it out for us in stark relief. They even told you that's what they were doing when Sam and Janet discussed how out of the loop they the Ashen science was over their head and it made them uneasy. And they they made it personal! They had Sam trusting her Ashen doctors and then realizing she was personally betrayed. That was genius.

So...we have a science fiction television show warning you about the dangers of scientific elitism AND population control advocacy at the same time without beating you over the head with it. That's my kind of show!

Stephanie S. - SABR Matt has left me with very little to add. I will say, though, that when I watched this episode earlier today, the first thing that popped into my head was the election of 2008. Then-candidate Obama promised many things - that, for example, the oceans will stop rising and the Earth will begin to heal if he should be elected president - and people believed him. Why? Many Americans - particularly those on the left - are so susceptible to the promises of false messiahs because they have consciously rejected the real deal.

Bottom line? For me, the beauty of this episode lies in its accurate portrayal of the human tendency to embrace idols -- especially if they promise miracles.

Writing: 8.5 / 8.5

The dialogue is this show's biggest weakness. We really never get the iconic scenes that will stick in our heads for years to come...the script is very utilitarian, though the plot is engaging and legitimately spooky.

Acting: 10.0 / 10.0

That said, Amanda Tapping puts in a performance that I dare say is borderline Emmy-worthy here. Her personal struggle is heart-wrending both in terms of her interactions with Joe and her personal loss at being unable to have children. When we discover that Joe knew all along that the Ashen intended to control our population, you could feel her sense of violation and despair. On top of that, the rest of the regulars were at the tops of their games as well. Particularly RDA.

Message: 10.0 / 10.0

This one hits home for field is responsible for one of the most dangerous movements toward totalitarianism ever seen. The "sustainable future" talk in climate science is, to me, a thinly veiled cover for a power grab as scientists with tunnel vision who firmly believe they have the authority to tell us how to live try to control our population. Yes...I find that threat frightening...this episode is therefore a personal victory for me.

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