Sunday, June 17, 2012

Classics: SG1 7:17/18 - Heroes

Overall Rating: 10.0

No objective fan of science fiction with a soul and a desire to confront real ethical questions that go to the very core of the American experience could possibly find one single flaw with this utterly breathtaking, emotionally jarring and artistically gripping work of brilliance.  This single achievement, standing on its own merits, justifies every dollar ever spent producing Stargate SG-1 and it is frankly CRIMINAL that this piece did NOT win a whole flotilla of Emmies, let alone even a Hugo.  Someone's head should roll for that oversight.  This will be a special blog posting, with extensive highlights,and commentary because it deserves nothing less than my best effort to pay it the tribute it deserves.  We love our science fiction here at RightFans, and we have heaped scads of praise on the best the genre has to offer, from Deep Space Nine's "The Siege of AR-558" to Babylon 5's "The Coming of Shadows"; from House's "Broken" to "Bat Masterson" of Early Edition; but none of it, in my humble opinion, can be placed side by side with Heroes and compare.  This is, as far as I'm aware, the single greatest achievement in the history of modern American science fiction.

The format will be a little different for this one, folks.  There will be no linking a third party source for the plot synopsis...the plot synopsis will be spelled out here in my own words and interspersed with highlights.  There will not be a "Skinny" as that format doesn't seem appropriate.  We're not summing up our reaction down to nuts and bolts.  Our reaction will be laid out in the text of the plot synopsis.  Each of the ratings sections in this review will be much more detailed, as in older reviews before we switched to a simpler review style (see some of our early DS9 reviews), and we will add a fourth ratings category to this for production values since they deserve to be highlighted as well and a number of different and spectacularly effective directorial and cinematic decisions were made that I would like to point out for praise.

The Plot:

Here it is, in a nutshell - the thing that will make this episode a unique experience - an outside media crew (with Air Force escorts, of course) is ordered by the outgoing President of the United States to document the work being down at the SGC in the hopes that, when future generations inevitably learn about the existence of the Stargate, history will be kind to the man who launched the program and understand why it had to be a secret for so long.  The crew is headed by a starry-eyed idealistic journalist - a rare breed in today's cynical world of elite journalism run by ideologues and sensationalists in a quest to push agendas and sell the media as entertainment rather than serve the people with the truth.  It sounds like such a simple premise...the one-paragraph summary of a pitch was first given, according to writer Robert Cooper, some five years earlier.  All agreed that it was a good idea for a unique episode, but the concept was multiple times put on the back burner because if they were going to do it, they wanted to do it right and none of their early rough drafts seemed sufficient.  When the idea resurfaced in the pitch-session prior to the seventh season, they decided that would make it the capstone of the season and devote fully 10% of the budget to a two-hour episode.  Robert Cooper has an author credit on only one other episode the entire season (and one other "Story Concept" credit) because he wanted to focus on what would become his magnum opus.  The extra attention this episode got would prove to be one of the best decisions the production company ever made.  The story unfolds, essentially, in five major acts (rather like a Shakespearean play)...we'll lay each one out for you and highlight the distinctive elements of each.

Act One: Bregman vs. SG-1

This act is defined by a series of interviews showing how each member of the flagship team chooses to respond to the unwanted presence of Bregman and his documentary film crew.  Cooper makes heavy use of comedy here, making this feel like it's going to be a fun-loving and comfortable romp ending in big smiles.  A few examples of the typical reaction of each member of SG-1:

From Colonel O'Neill:
BREGMAN: Colonel!  We're set up for you if you have a few minutes to talk.
JACK: Don't really have time right now...on my way to a briefing, so...
BREGMAN: (disbelieving) Yes, of course you are.  You see, this won't take much time.
JACK: I like vanilla over chocolate, my favorite color is peridot, I think Tibet should be free, and if I had to pick one person to have dinner with, it would be Mary Steenburgen.  Now if you'll excuse me...
BREGMAN: (holding open the elevator on which he's trying to escape) Mary Steenburgen...
JACK: She's just so hot!
BREGMAN: Uh...huh.
From Teal'c:
BREGMAN: Well, I'm very excited to be meeting you, Teal'c.  I guess I should start off - you're an alien!
TEAL'C: *crickets*
BREGMAN:'re not an alien to YOU...but from our perspective you would be...anyway, you were the most powerful warrior in the service of one of our enemies and then you turned against him.  Why did you turn against Apophis when you did?
TEAL'C: *crickets*
BREGMAN: Let me understand this.  Why are you here if you don't intend to answer any of our questions.
TEAL'C: Because I was requested to be here by Colonel O'Neill.
BREGMAN: And did he explain to you that an important part of the interview process was you actually...saying something?
BREGMAN: I see...well let's start over here.  Colonel O'Neill is your commanding officer here.
TEAL'C: (after a long pause) Indeed.
BREGMAN: Good!  We're getting somewhere!  What can you tell me about Colonel O'Neill as the leader of SG-1?
TEAL'C: If you wish to learn about Colonel O'Neill, perhaps you should ask Colonel O'Neill.
BREGMAN: That's a good idea (sarcastically), thanks, I'll...hey where are you going! (Teal'c leaves - LOL!)
From Daniel:
DANIEL: (interrupting a question from Bregman when his pager goes off) Would you excuse me for a minute? (runs off down the hall and Bregman's crew breathlessly follows)
BREGMAN: What is it...what have you got there, Dr. Jackson?
DANIEL: The results are back from the mask fragment I had analyzed...
BREGMAN: What?  What is that?
DANIEL: I sent a sample of a mask fragment...
BREGMAN: Hold that up for us...what does that say?
DANIEL: Well it says that the mask dates to the pre-dynastic period of Ancient Egypt.
BREGMAN: And what's the significance of this finding?
DANIEL: Well, it's fascinating.
BREGMAN: Fascinating...yes...why were we running just now?
DANIEL: I just...wanted to see if you'd chase me. (ROTFL!!)
Also from Jack:
BREGMAN: Colonel, sooner or later I'm going to get you on camera, even if all I get is a series of shots of you avoiding being got!
JACK: Fire away, Bregman!  I hope shots of my ass serve you well.
JACK: Did he tell you about the time he tried to have the Stargate buried?  Or the time he had General Hammond by the short hairs...
KINSEY: I'd watch what you say, Colonel.  Slander is a serious offense.
JACK: Yes. So I hear.
KINSEY: I have always been a strong supporter of the Stargate Program. I admit I was critical in the past, but that was only because of the unrealized potential I view this program as having. (Jack shakes his head and continues looking at his mission report) How did your interview go, Colonel?
JACK: It was short...but oh so sweet.
KINSEY: The President wants you to play ball on this, Jack. I hope you aren't going to disappoint the Commander-in-Chief. I would think you'd want to show your support after all of the backing he's given you and this program in the last seven years.
JACK: Why are you here, Kinsey? The last time anyone checked, you were trying to discredit the guy!
KINSEY: His term is up. My running mate and I are merely pointing out areas where we think we can do a better job. I know we can count on your vote, Colonel.
JACK: Yeah.  That'll happen (heads for the exit).
KINSEY (to Bregman): And I assure you...that if elected, this program can count on my full support.
JACK: (turning to face the two) You wanna get this?  (Bregman waves at his camera man to zoom in on Jack)  You smarmy, opportunistic, self-righteous son of a...
INTERCOM: Unscheduled Off-world Activation! (LOL!!)
There's also this from Sgt. Harriman:
HARRIMAN: Basically, as each chevron is entered, I say 'chevron one encoded, chevron two encoded...' and so forth.  Until the seventh chevron, which is different because that's when the wormhole forms.  There, I like to change things up and say 'chevron seven locked.'
BREGMAN: Locked...that's great.  Is that all...
HARRIMAN: Oh, no...I'm also responsible for this. (places his hand on the iris control pad) Open the iris.  Close the iris.
BREGMAN: That's wonderful.  And that's your job in a nutshell?
HARRIMAN: Yep...that's pretty much what I do.  Oh don't misunderstand, I'm not saying I'm not proud of the work I do here.  The things I've seen coming and going through the gate - I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.  And we tried various automated scenarios, but the SG teams all agreed that they would rather have a human at the other end when they come home - someone they can count on to get it right.
The humor is very effective - and frankly, I'm glad they waited til the seventh season to do something like this because the humor works only because we know the characters so well and can basically predict how they're going to respond to something like this documentary project.

The five act structure is not, however, completely clean.  The acts bleed together a bit to enhance the dramatic tension.  So as this act plays out, act two begins.

Act Two: P3X-666

I don't think it was an accident that they chose the devil sign as a part of the gate address.  But this act isn't to establish that reasoning.  They give us an incredibly run-of-the-mill gate mission by a complete strange (to us) SG-13.  It's a standard recon mission - check out a new planet and see if there's anything worth studying.  During this act, we see the officers talking about their families, discussing the hardships of parenthood, placing bets on what they'll find on this planet, shooting barbs at each other - they are written as though they WERE SG-1.  They've clearly been working together for a long time and have a similar kind of camaraderie.  You can almost decide which one of them is meant to be a foil which member of SG-1.  An example:
BALINSKY: Take the usual bet on that, sir?
DIXON: Sure.  Wells?
WELLS: Abandoned Naquadah mine.
DIXON: Boring...but good odds.  Bosworth?
BOSWORTH: I'm gonna go with trees, sir.
DIXON: Bosworth's disqualified for being a smart-ass.  I'll go with two-headed alien.
WELLS: Hostile or friendly, sir?
DIXON: One head good, one head bad.  Balinsky?
BALINSKY: Me?  Oh, ruins of an ancient city.
DIXON: Yeah right.  That's gonna happen.
I mean c'mon...Dixon is clearly Jack, Balinsky is clearly Daniel, Wells is clearly Carter and Bosworth is clearly Teal'c.  At least, that's how I see it.  I think they were putting familiar traits on unfamiliar characters in an attempt to give us something with which we could emotionally connect.  Long conversations about Wells' soon-to-arrive baby boy (who turns out to be a girl), including mocking his sonogram picture, Dixon's snarky remarks about his own chaotic family, the banter about how long Balinsky could stay even after the Goa'uld probe attacked, it's all very familiar to the fans of Stargate.  They're laying the groundwork beautifully.  This routine recon mission goes funky when Anubis sends a probe to P3X-666 that, after contacting SG-13, sends a signal back to Anubis warning him about our presence.  While Daniel and Sam scramble to decode the information on the device, eventually realizing the threat it poses, their work is further delayed by increasingly desperate pleas for cooperation by Bregman.

Act Three: The Real Issues Emerge

Emotions rise when the mission to P3X-666 turns into an ambush.  Alkesh bombers besiege SG-3 (holding the gate after the probe incident as back-up) and hundreds of Jaffa descend on SG-13, requiring SG-1 and SG-5 to go in with a medical team in an attempted rescue.  They are forced into retreat after barely managing to stabilize Wells (who was shot in the initial attack), but multiple casualties are reported, including at least one fatality.  Brilliantly, they showed O'Neill taking one in the stomach before the extraction and we are left to wonder who has really died for the next half an hour.  At first this evident tragedy (seen from the perspective of Bregman and his team) increases the entire base's resistance to his documentary efforts.  After all, he continues to insist on capturing the events and this seems cruel to SGC personnel who are having to deal with their own injuries and the death of a colleague.  Hammond eventually snaps when Bregman tries to gain access to the infirmary and has him tossed off the base.  But not before Bregman learns that Daniel has a tape that may have captured something important from the battlefield.  He requests, first from Daniel, then from the President, to get that tape and Hammond reluctantly orders Daniel to turn it over.  Once he acquires the tape, he discovers that it was really Fraiser who had died - just moments after he'd been flirting with her in the mess hall.

When confronted with evident grief and emotion from Sam Carter, Bregman attempts to follow her into the infirmary  but is stopped by his own team, who then turn off the cameras to protect Carter's privacy.  Infuriated, he delivers this potent speech to his people reminding them why he was a journalist:
Why is that camera off? You don't know what you're doing here. Maybe I know what I'm doing here. These people are risking their lives for us! I want to see what they're going through, even if they don't want us to! And I want other people to see it! What do you think they're doing out there? Protecting and defending secrecy?!? That's the world of Mao, the world of Stalin, the world of-of secret police, secret trials, secret-secret deaths! You force the press into the cold, and all you will get is lies and innuendo! And nothing, nothing is worse for a free society than a press that is-that is in service to the-to the military and the politicians, nothing! You turn that camera off when I tell you to turn it off! You think I give a damn what you think about me? You serve the people? So do I!
As someone who has watched the press fall ever further into the service of our political class, this speech never fails to make me cheer.  Although, I do understand why his crew would be hesitant to get footage of an obviously distraught woman in the middle of a crisis, I must admit.  Nonetheless, an honest journalist giving a full-throated defense of a press that is always pressing for the truth is incredibly powerful to watch.

And there's more.  When Bregman discovers that Daniel may have video footage of the tragedy, he delivers one of the most beautiful soliloquies I've ever heard:

You know I, uh…I once did a piece on this war photographer. His name was Martin Krystovski.  For about six months, he was with a unit in Vietnam, and…the day before he was scheduled to leave, the day before. He's out with a unit, and it was just a routine patrol. Or so they thought.  But suddenly, the lieutenant pulled him down…and Krystovski…he hadn't intended to take a picture at that moment, but his hands were on the camera, and he hit the ground so hard that it just went off. And the picture captured…the lieutenant getting shot in the head. And Krystovski said to me—he said: "That bullet would have hit me—should've hit me." And he never showed that picture to anyone. Not for twenty-five years. But twenty-five years later, he got up one morning, and he looked at that picture. And he saw something that wasn't horrific. And he decided to tell the story because he realized that he hadn't accidentally taken a picture of a man dying. It was of a man saving his life. The picture I'm making, that I'm trying to make, is about what you people do every single day. Under extreme circumstances that no one can even imagine. And I don't know what happened out there. I'm sorry about what happened, whatever it was. And if you did tape something of it, that's not gonna change what happened. What will change is how you feel about it.
I heard a similarly powerful anecdote at a conservative political action conference back in 2003.  Oliver North was making a speech on the conditions in Iraq and relayed a story from a unit he tailed near Baghdad.  Obviously, it's been years now so I don't remember every word of the speech, but these three lines will ring in my ears forever.
I watched as a marine medic pulled an Iraqi boy of no more than fifteen up into the helicopter and began working on him - he'd obviously been caught in the crossfire between us and the insurgents.  A fellow journalist grabbed this medic by the shoulder and asked him "What are you doing?  Can't you see this man's Iraqi?"  And the medic replied, "Can't you say this boy is dying?"
I admit that I may be a little biased, since my family includes a now-deceased veteran of World War II who took the beaches at Normandy in the second wave, a prematurely dead veteran of Vietnam, and a 20-year Naval submariner among others, but I believe what the media has done to cripple public trust in and respect for our armed forces is among the greatest crimes of the last fifty years.  Stories like the above from North and like this perfect replica expressed by Bregman are the ones that we should be passing from generation to generation.  They explain in plain language how ordinary men and women can achieve such seemingly impossible things in the defense of freedom.  Bottom line...these are (for the most part) good people empowered by a core philosophy that glorifies civic responsibility, service, and the preservation of life and freedom.  The rest of us pastel-shirted desk-jockies and average Joes may have lost our way, but there is still, even in this cynical era of supposed military demoralization and quagmires of unending combat, a surplus of volunteers for our armed forces and these are people who would, without reservation, take a bullet to save a friend or loved one.  Stargate depicts a ton of military actions and frequently makes light of the fact that SG-1 always seems to be in danger of death or worse, but this episode serves to remind us that real soldiers like Jack O'Neill who face life and death struggles on a daily basis are genuinely heroic for doing what they do out of nothing else but love.  Love for their country, love for their family, love for their fellow men.

Act Four: Civilian Oversight

In a stroke of genius, Cooper now chooses to allow the civilian authorities to add a third perspective to the whole question of oversight by the press and the necessity of state secrets.  Mr. Woolsey from the NID arrives to begin his own investigation into the command decisions that led to the death of Dr. Fraiser.  Now that we've seen how she died and the impact of that death on the rest of the main cast, the civilian government agency arrives and paints a chillingly accurate picture of what happens when an unelected third party government agency acts to oversee a secret military program and, paradoxically, has no one to oversee IT.  The lack of public accountability doesn't just empower the military to take actions that the public may not also gives NGOs like the NID carte blanche to make life or death decisions of their own, to legislate without popular consent, and even to operate in a world completely devoid of morality in the name of "pragmatism."

Woolsey arrives with a predetermined verdict - that General Hammond has a pattern for making financially unwise decisions that routinely lead to unnecessary risks to lives and resources and that his SGC teams do not properly comprehend the cost of their program and of their decisions.  He believes, in his own words, that "Anyone should admit that there are situations whee committing valuable resources to recover one man is unwise."  Hindsight being 20/20, he questions every command decision that was made leading up to Fraiser's death and gets absolutely ZERO cooperation from SG-1.  This fascinating exchange between Woolsey and Hammond serves as a critical turning point between the SGC and Bregman.

HAMMOND: I've prepared a written testimony.
WOOLSEY: This is your mission report.
HAMMOND: I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone.
WOOLSEY: Well, then. I guess I'm done.
HAMMOND: Then you'll be leaving.
WOOLSEY: The President will have my preliminary report by the end of the week.
HAMMOND: I'm sure it will be every bit as interesting as your memo on the economics of the SGC.
WOOLSEY: I won't bother asking how you got that.
HAMMOND: What was the dollar value you attributed to an SG team member?
WOOLSEY: You know damn well I wasn't pegging the value of a person's life. It is a cold, hard fact that it costs millions of dollars to train these men and women, and that is a fraction of the funds being subverted by the Pentagon for this operation. I think it is reprehensible that the taxpayers of this country are paying enormous sums of money to wage a war they know nothing about, and are getting little, if anything, in return. If the Stargate's existence were public knowledge, and your actions were being judged in the court of public opinion—
HAMMOND: You're the one suggesting that sending a rescue team worth $27 million to save the life of one man is a bad business decision.
WOOLSEY: You're putting words in my mouth.
HAMMOND: You said it in black and white, and I don't think you would dare do such a thing if this wasn't a classified operation. The President has asked a documentary team to get to the truth of what's going on around here. Why don't we just go down and give them the whole truth as you see it? Right now.
WOOLSEY: That memo is classified. This investigation is classified. If you so much as utter even a hint of either, I'll see you are put away in a cold, dark place for the rest of time.
This winds up changing Hammond's mind about the potential benefits of public scrutiny on his operation and aids in his decision to order Daniel to turn over his tape to Bregman's team.  What I love about all of this is that the military isn't being maligned for resisting public scrutiny on matters of national security, though the risks of such arrangements are being fairly stated.  Instead, a reasonable case is made for why the Stargate Program is a secret and then a reasonable case is made for why it perhaps shouldn't be (or at least for what we need to watch out for when secrets are involved).

Act Five: Requiem for Janet Fraiser

Finally, after all of the big issues are debated and drawn to a stalemate, SG-1 is allowed to grieve, and the audience with them, for the loss of Dr. Fraiser.  Sam struggles to write a fitting eulogy for her friend and colleague and comes up empty until Teal'c arrives and presents her with a list of the names of SGC personnel whose lives she had saved over her seven years of service.  Daniel gives Bregman his blessing to use the tape of Fraiser's death, saying "I think this tape shows what her life was all about."  Bregman, on the brink of tears himself, nods and sheepishly agrees.  It is revealed that Jack was using the new ceramic anti-staff-weapon flak jacket and that is why he survived, and he offers his support to Carter (who expresses her profound relief that he is still alive).  Bregman shows his documentary to Hammond, who is deeply moved by what turns out to be a glowing retrospective on the heroism and courage of the SGC.  He says that he has had to write many letters to loved ones that sounded hollow because he couldn't tell them anything and that this documentary might help him in the future.  Daniel goes to Airman Wells' home (the one Fraiser had been trying to save) and meets his new baby daughter.  He has decided to name her Janet.  If you can watch the stretch from Bregman's speech about Vietnam to the end without crying, you have no soul.

Writing: 10.0

The emotional, philosophical, and intellectual balance in this episode is second to nothing I've ever watched.  The story will make you fall in love with every one of the characters (except Woolsey and Kinsey) if you hadn't loved them before - we get to spend an hour with them cracking us up in their own unique ways before we see them go through hell.  Their principle "antagonist" is, himself, a hero.  Bregman comes to personify the kind of integrity and dedication to the truth that we can only wish our elite media still possessed.  The characterization is flawless in EVERY scene, including the scenes that introduced us to the team that would become stranded on P3X-666.  The pacing and flow was BEAUTIFUL - they gave us just enough information to be hooked but not to wreck the suspense and the crushing heartbreak of learning the full truth.  The big issues the show was meant to tackle came out only when the emotions of the viewers (and the characters) were high enough to make us pay closer attention.  The dialogue was at very times witty, cerebral, thought provoking and artistically synergistic.  So many of the big moments in this episode I'll be able to quote from memory when I'm 85 and my (theoretical) Alzheimer's disease has robbed me of the ability to remember where I put my glasses.  It's funny, because Stargate is not commonly known for heavy-hitting stories backed by scripts long on vocabulary and serious scholarship.  It just isn't their style apparently, because they are more than capable of writing that way when they choose.  They outdid the best DS9 or House had to offer here - the two "smartest" shows we've reviewed at this blog.

Acting: 10.0

I dare you to point out even one thing you didn't like in this piece from any of the actors.  Just one thing will do.  I want to give special praise to a few of the regulars and guest stars for specific things they did that really impressed me.  Airman Wells (Julius Chapple) was extremely likable from the start and watching him get shot and they play the wounded man so excruciatingly well was jarring to say the least.  Don S. Davis was AWESOME in this one.  Every scene in which he appeared could show up in a Davis top twenty list.  Seriously...he was firing on all cylinders, baby.  RDA's smart-ass self was, as you'd expect, the perfect man for the job of delivering the best one-liners to Bregman and Kinsey.  In the last three episodes, we've seen Amanda Tapping play a kind of magnetic, radiant joy in her courtship with Pete, a terrified, desperate struggle for survival, ending in a frighteningly realistic portrayal of resignation to death before Jack showed up at just the right moment to save her, and now both the awkward scientist not used to being in the public eye and the heart-broken face of the SGC's grief at the loss of Janet Fraiser.  She can do it all, folks.  All too often, Carter has tended to recede into the background, rather than being the focal point for a character-driven story.  But when she finally gets her chance, she proves she's a sensational actress.  There is a deep reservoir of talented extras this week and I can't name them all, but it suffices to say that I can't think of a single Stargate episode that was this well performed.

Message: 10.0 with a BULLET

I've made my opinions known on the message this episode was trying to send.  I won't rehash those opinions too much here.  I congratulate Robert Cooper and Andy Makita for putting together such a balanced, perceptive, and fair-minded portrayal of military heroism and the threat of government secrecy.

Production: 10.0

A key decision was obviously made early on after this episode was pitched.  If they were going to do this, they wanted it to be from the perspective of the journalist and his team, rather than, primarily from the perspective of SG-1.  They mixed just enough scenes from the perspective of SG-13 to get us to like them and care what happened to them, and they added just enough private moments with SG-1 so that we could see how they were truly responding to the pressure of being filmed and to the pain of losing Fraiser, but we otherwise had only the information that Bregman has, allowing us to feel his frustration at being blocked from knowing what was really going on.  All of the directorial choices made by Makita served to make this episode really pop - although Bregman decried "cinema veritas" as a strategy that would fail with people who keep secrets for a living, Makita made heavy use of that style himself.  There was very little in the way of background scoring, almost no special effects or complex lighting, and an unsteady feel to the camera work designed to give us the "you are there" feeling for most of the episode.  All of the special effects were limited to staff weapon blasts...that's pretty much it.  This one had a genuinely raw feeling that put you on the edge of your seat until it relaxed into a more traditional format when the viewer needed that (during act five).

This is a genuine artistic treasure - it's a shame that the serious art world thinks so little of science fiction as to never even give presentations like this a chance to earn wider recognition.  Robert Cooper and Stargate's production team should be endlessly proud of their work here.  Most artists have the personal goal of leaving behind a legacy that people will turn back on for years to come with admiration.  Cooper achieved that here, at least for me.  I'll be an old man and I'll still want to pull out my copy of this episode and watch's just that good.

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