Saturday, February 4, 2012

Stargate SG-1--"Spirits"

After six months of Kenneth Biller’s pet project of presenting Star Trek: Voyager's Chakotay as the progressive ideal of a native American--a caricature, of course--I was not thrilled about bearing witness to Stargate SG-1‘s vision of Native Americans transplanted to an alien world. Such a plot was already explored badly in “Tattoo.” for Chakotay. After watching “Spirits,” I have mixed emotions. It is a silly episode with heavy-handed commentary that might otherwise ruin it, yet the episode is so bad, it is amusing.

The SG-11 team discovers a planet populated by Native Americans that is rich in a metal called trinium. Trinium is lightweight, yet stronger than steel, so the pentagon is keen on getting as much of it as possible for military use. The SG-11 team disappears, however, and the Native Americans send an arrow through the stargate that nails Jack through his right arm. Sam is placed in command of SG-1 for the first time while Jack is laid up. She is ordered to retrieve SG-11 and patch things up enough to negotiate mining rights.

The SG-1 team is captured by a Native American tribe and meet Trename who is…bumbling, I guess describes him. He is kind of a dumb guy who respects some traditions of his tribe and thinks others are silly and outdated. The character is played entirely for laughs right up until the climax. The running joke is he never acts as you would him to and what he does do makes him look stupid. For example, when Tomane says he will take SG-1 to the talk to the spirits about returning SG-11, daniel expects him to do some sort of elaborate ceremonial dance sort of thing. Tomane dismisses the idea and instead talks to a wolf. (Yes, I am reminded of Andy Sandberg’s Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals skit from Saturday Night Live) The SG-1 team is reduced to communicating with the animals as well.

Poor Sam. She gets the short end of the stick so many times on this show. Even her first command is embarrassingly bad through no fault of her own. On the plus side for the audience, it is painfully obvious Amanda tapping and Michael Shanks in particular know how ridiculous “Spirits” is. They two ham up the drama on the rare times they do not look bemused to be put through the scenes. I am curious whether Richard Dean Anderson’s diminished role was to give him a break or because he wanted as little to do with this bomb as possible.

The spirits return SG-11. The Native Americans agree to send an emissary back to SGC to negotiate mining rights. They send Tomane just to show how serious they are about rising above the plot of your average episode of F-Troop. Tomane rejects the plan to mine for triniyum because it would be too destructive to the land. When he leaves to tour SGC with Daniel, Hammond informs the rest of the team the Pentagon is going to mine the area anyway once the Native Americans have made a seasonal migration. In other words, they are just going to steal the trinium because of its high value.

This prompts arguments about repeating past mistakes with the Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny, the Indian Wars, and so on. I honestly would not mind that so much if it was done in allegory. If the Pentagon wanted to steal from ac completely alien people and left it to the audience to draw historical allusions, I could see that being clever. But “Spirits” beats the audience over the head with the connection. It gets even worse when it is revealed SG-11 is actually shape shifting aliens in disguise who plan to destroy SGC to prevent the mining operation from taking place. Our heroes have to ‘fess up to the secret plan to mine without the natives’ knowledge and sing the praises of the real Native Americans to assure the alien they can coexist peacefully because the white man has not, in fact, taught them to be deceitful and warlike. The aliens bury the stargate anyway just to be sure no one else shows up. Good riddance, I say.

“Spirits” reeks of the false idea of the noble savage. Tomane’s people eschewing technology in favor of worshipping aliens posing as gods is not seen as a bad thing until Jack points out in the climax the aliens are essentially doing the same as the Goa’uld they drove off the planet centuries ago. The arrangement is a velvet cage, but a cage nonetheless. Yet it is clear the episode’s philosophy is not judging that, though “gods’ controlling others is a central theme to the series, but the real problem is the corruption of the Native Americans by exposure modern man’s ways. What makes it worse as far as I am concerned is that Tomane is an idiot. In case you did not think corrupting naïve innocence was a terrible, terrible thing.

All right, "Spirits" is quite bad. So why do I think it is entertaining? Because it just is. An arrow flying through the stargate and embedding in Jack. Sam and Daniel carrying on a conversation with a wolf and raven. The goofy totem pole with a Jaffa caricature on it. The wolf wandering through SGC command with everyone hunting it. The aliens themselves, who have six gills on their faces and are wearing silver body suits you have seen a million times in science fiction before. Then there is SG-1 basically admitting white men are evil and the Native Americans wrre as pure as the first snow of winter before said snow got turned yellow. It is all so ridiculous that you have to watch “spirits” at least once to absorb it all.

Rating; ** (out of 5)

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