There have been times when Stargate has delivered compelling messages, when episodes have involved deep emotions and compelling stories. People have sacrificed themselves to save a way of life, died in space battles by the hundred, and whole planets have been destroyed. But the view of death has been one usually distanced -- be it hidden by bandages, made impersonal by seeing only an exploding spaceship and not those inside, or merely implied because the camera moves away at the crucial moment to show reaction not reality. Not so with "Avalon, Part 2."
When I sat down with a friend to watch this episode, we were both keen to see the nascent team escape the jaws of death, as is expected from all good cliffhanger resolutions. Not only are our heroes not turned into pancakes but there is another challenge to face only a minute later. Mitchell's sword battle with the holographic knight is unashamed stage fighting with the odd bit of something different tossed in to make it interesting, yet it fits in fine as another stage in the team's quest to prove themselves "worthy."
Along with worthiness comes the treasure Vala has been seeking, as well as a machine of Ancient design that is immediately whisked back to the S.G.C. to be examined. Have we already veered from the Arthurian legend? Was that whole strand merely a plot device to obtain the "communication system" so that Daniel and Vala could meet the Ori?
Last week was all about getting the team together, and this week the team spends considerable time separated -- which doesn't impress me this early in the season. However, the writing is strong (again), the acting is strong (again), and the story flows without pause from humorous moments through intriguing situations ... and on into darker themes.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Daniel and Vala find a civilisation who worship other beings as gods, and who aren't allowed to learn about their own history. It all appears very familiar at first sight. Perhaps all of these powerful beings follow the evil overlord guidelines, checking off each item on the list as they get to it:
Don't let subjects get too smart -- check;
Don't let subjects learn that we didn't create them -- check;
Be sure that subjects have proper respect by worshipping us every day -- check;
Be sure that subjects are kept convinced of our goodness by creating a miracle every so often -- check.
This basic concept needs a new twist, a different perspective. I hope that's what is coming in part three.
To balance the previous episode, there is less of a focus on Mitchell and more of an even spread of story. While Ben Browder hasn't had to stretch those acting muscles too far as yet, he's already turned Mitchell into someone I like a great deal. I want to see how he will react in different situations, and how he will manage such different personalities as Daniel and Teal'c. (Wanting to know more is always a good sign.)
There is more significant story from Teal'c, and Chris Judge is having no trouble rising to the occasion. It's about time, and long may it continue. I am disappointed that so far that wonderful temple set has been so underused -- effectively the location for a combination of the "walking down corridors" scenes that we've had so many times at the S.G.C. and in Goa'uld spaceships, and the "telling not showing" habit that's been prevalent in recent years.
The town that Daniel and Vala were transported to is surely one of the most elaborate sets the designers have created. It is large, complex, contained detailed rooms with all the comforts of home, and walkways on more than one level. I couldn't tell where the outside set stopped and the effects began before someone in the know pointed it out. Not only that, but the set overflows with people all decked out in great costumes. If this is the kind of scale and attention to detail we'll be seeing all season then I'll be very happy.
Finally, a return to the subject of death and how it's portrayed on Stargate SG-1: For those who haven't yet seen this episode, look away now. Please. This section of "Avalon, Part 2" needs to be seen fresh to get the impact. And a shocking impact it is.
The lead-in to Vala's death is drama as it should be played. Both Michael Shanks and Claudia Black have incredibly expressive faces and they use those tools to their full advantage to show confusion, fear, and outright panic. Right up until the second where we see Vala burning to death, I was convinced the camera would look away, that we wouldn't be shown such a scene. We've seen a lot of death on the show over the years, but never anything so graphic. It is nasty, but that is the reason it packs the punch -- the producers aren't afraid to show the whole thing in gory detail.
There's barely anything to complain about here, and really only one thing bothers me. The comment from Vala about not hearing squishing sounds or screaming when Daniel thought Teal'c and Mitchell had been crushed is incredibly insensitive considering how Daniel's parents died. Of course she didn't know, but the writers did. Maybe they just forgot. Daniel looks horrified by the whole situation.
It has been a long time since I've yelled at the television when the "To be continued" came up. Watching "Avalon, Part 2" with a friend, we both laughed in the same places, called out in the same places, and went completely silent for the last 10 minutes. Powerful stuff.
Rating: * * * *