Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stargate SG-1--"Abyss"

I was given a heads up that “Abyss” was a highly anticipated episode during the original run because of the return of Michael Shanks, but his reappearance as the ascended Daniel turned out to be secondary to the excellent character study of Jack. Indeed, this is true. The only weak sot of the episode--and weak is a mild term here--is Daniel’s involvement.

“Abyss” carries on an increasingly frequent theme in science fiction television in which a main character is tortured throughout the story. Whatever the torturer wants to know is irrelevant. The experience for the audience is how the raw nature of the torture victim is revealed. Think back to Jean-Luc Picard, John Sheridan, James ’Sawyer” Ford, Gaius Baltar, and Mal Reynolds with how their painful ordeals revealed much about their true natures, and you have the idea.

What is compelling is that jack is tortured by he is a good guy at his core. The vital information Kanan, the Tok’ra symbiote he blended with in order to cure the Ancient contagion, is the schematics of a secret base run by Ba’al. Kanan romanced one of Ba’al’s slaves, Shallan, in order to gather all the intelligence, then left her behind. When Karan blends with Jack, however, he learns jack’s sense of duty--never leave anyone behind. It is not entirely clear whether jack is a willing participant or being controlled by Karan--I think the latter, FWIW--but he goes off on a solo mission to rescue shallan and gets captured himself. Karan abandons Jack to face imprisonment alone.

Ba’al tortures Jack to death in the most gruesome ways imaginable Repeatedly, bringing him back to life again after wards with a sarcophagus. In between torture sessions, jack is held in a cell in which he periodically sees a young woman. Daniel also appears to him, first to offer comfort, then a chance to ascend. Much of their old banter makes a return. Jack wants daniel to give him a practical way to escape and responds with frustration when Daniel says he cannot. It is a battle of realist versus idealist on a higher plane of existence. The interesting point is Daniel’s progression towards action as Jsck weakens under the prospect of more torture and death. Daniel goes from moral support to offering to help Jack ascend to finally secretly nudging Teal’c at SGC to sic Yu on ba’al’s secret fortress to offer Jack a chance to escape amid the chaos. The plan works. Jack escapes, but insists on taking Shallan with him. He is a good guy until the end

But I did say Daniel is the weak point of the episode. He is. It is not clear until the very end that Daniel actually is there and not a creation of Jack’s mind to help him cope. Given the story elements, it makes more sense for Daniel to be an hallucination. He only appears to Jack in the cell, never during the torture sessions when jack is at his most desperate. Jack struggles to maintain his resistance while languishing in his cell in anticipation of more torture. It is like he is having an inner dialogue with himself. He wants to give up and die so as not to reveal anything to Ba’al. that is his practical side talking. But daniel assures him he is a good man who does not deserve to be destroyed. That is Jack’s idealism, which could be personified in Daniel. Alas, Daniel is literally there, and that fact robs the story of some existential insight into Jack’s soul. A soul which he denies possessing. an inner realization his soul exists would have been more poignant than daniel’s nudging him towards the epiphany.

I call that a minor gripe in comparison to how well the rest of the episode plays out. There is a surrealistic atmosphere that is mesmerizing. Jack is held in a gravity defying cell in which he appears to be lying on the ceiling. He can view other rooms, all of which are topsy turvy in their own way. He is tortured on an iron rack that resembles the rose gates popular in medieval Europe. Ba’al’s entire fortress, with its stained glass windows, has a medieval feel. Jack is tortured with knives and acid which are flung towards him back the magnetic properties of the rack. Watching them fly effortlessly out of Ba’al’s hand and embedding in jack’s bedding is more sadistic than if Ba’al was forcibly stabbing him.

“Abyss” certainly kicks the sixth season up about four notches. Like other stories involving the torture of the hero in other shows, the episode is difficult to watch. But it is definitely one you cannot skip. I am curious about the lasting implications. Will the refusal of the tok’ra to help save jack damage the alliance? Has Ba’al established himself as a far more intriguing villain with the SG-1 team holding a very personal grudge? Jack should be scarred for life over his experience. The answers will be compelling to discover.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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