By Morjana Coffman
"Proving Ground" opens with half of SG-1 -- Jack and Teal'c -- and four unknown S.G.C. personnel in hot pursuit of an escaped Goa'uld, and a missing Daniel and Sam. Wait a second -- one of those four unknown S.G.C. personnel looks familiar. No -- yes -- oh, no -- it is Jennifer Hailey, last seen in Season Four's "Prodigy."
In Russia, the Matryoshka Dolls -- the nestling dolls -- are a highly valued collectible. They are intriguing folk art -- inside one doll is another doll, inside that doll is another doll, and so on. "Proving Ground" reminded me of the Matryoshka Dolls -- an episode that started with one plot (the pursuit of the escaped Goa'uld and missing Sam and Daniel), which lead to another plot (the training of the cadets), which lead to another plot (the foothold situation back at the S.G.C.), which lead to another plot (the radiation coming through the open wormhole, a trapped Hailey in the Gate Room) ... and so on.
"Proving Ground" was a very entertaining episode -- but some aspects of it I found implausible. It was like eating cotton candy: very satisfying while eating, but not very filling.
Along with Elizabeth Rosen returning to reprise her role of Jennifer Hailey, we also get to see Michael Kopsa reprise his role as General Kerrigan ("Prodigy"). Fortunately, Hailey's character has been allowed to mature and become less ... annoying. We're introduced to three new characters -- Air Force Academy graduates -- Lieutenant Elliot, Satterfield and Grogan. They are being trained by SG-1 for possible inclusion with the S.G.C.
Lt. Elliot is at the top of his Air Force Academy class, but unfortunately, he has managed to not endear himself with O'Neill. In the first training exercise, he loses control of the situation by arguing with Grogan over who is the Tok'ra and who is Goa'uld, and Daniel (the fake Goa'uld) shoots all four trainees with an intar weapon (introduced in Season Three's "Rules of Engagement").
In the second training exercise, he compounds his errors by leaving an injured Grogan alone, making a decision not to try to disarm a booby-trapped Goa'uld device. When ordering the remainder of his team to evacuate, he doesn't check to make sure Grogan is capable of leaving on his own. He has made the cardinal sin of leaving a teammate behind, the one thing O'Neill will not tolerate.
Following that fiasco, the first note of implausibility rings out. That's right -- O'Neill's cell phone rings. I am not a Luddite, but I don't have any affinity for cell phones. I found it hard to believe that O'Neill would carry a cell phone while out on a training exercise, and even if he would carry one -- and least he would turn the darn thing off during the actual running of the exercise.
However, by answering the cell phone, the new plot element is introduced. A foothold situation -- an alien incursion -- is in progress at the S.G.C. O'Neill tells the trainees to go home; they will be contacted by the Air Force. At this point, two Humvees drive up, with General Kerrigan and four S.F.'s. O'Neill walks over to meet them, and from a distance we can see Kerrigan ordering O'Neill to surrender his weapon. Gunfire breaks out, and O'Neill is wounded, but manages to dispatch the other five Air Force personnel.
Returning to the trainees, O'Neill again tells them to go home. Elliot however argues that O'Neill will need assistance, and the wounded O'Neill reluctantly agrees. The trainees are the only help he has. O'Neill and the four trainees access the S.G.C. through those ever popular ventilation/access shafts that are the boon of television sci-fi writers.
Once inside, they head for Carter's lab. They determine that indeed the S.G.C. personnel have been conformed by an unknown enemy, that there is an open incoming wormhole that needs to be shut down (the iris is open), and that an unusual device in the S.G.C. briefing room is apparently controlling the conformed S.G.C. personnel.
The wounded O'Neill remains behind in Carter's lab, Grogan and Satterfield go to Daniel's lab to find a translation for the inscription on the alien device, and Elliot and Hailey go to the Gate Room to try and close down the wormhole. At this point, O'Neill goes over to a telephone and advises "they're on their way" -- and we know that this is another training exercise.
However, at this point, SG-3 needs to return home due to a real Goa'uld threat (or is this another one of the false plots?), so O'Neill orders Elliot and Hailey to abandon their mission and return to Carter's lab.
There in the lab, with the information that Grogan and Satterfield find, Hailey discovers that the S.G.C. personnel are apparently infected by nanobots, which are being controlled by a device from Argos (see Season One's "Brief Candle") in the briefing room. It is now evident that the trainees not only know O'Neill's and Teal'c's personal histories (Elliot knows that O'Neill is Special Forces trained and that Teal'c was once Apophis' First Prime), but also have had access to prior mission reports.
Now the plan is two-fold: turn off the alien device in the briefing room and disengage the Stargate. The trainees leave for their mission -- and run into Carter in a hallway (she's escaped from her captors). They bring Carter back to her lab in time to see O'Neill removing the restraints from an SF. Elliot has learned his lesson from the first mission, and dispatches both the SF and O'Neill with his intar.
Carter is deemed safe because Hailey has determined that the nanobots won't work with the Goa'uld markers in her blood. Carter is left behind to work on a cure and the trainees head back to complete their mission.
Elliot, Grogan and Satterfield head for the briefing room, Hailey for the gate room. Daniel, Teal'c and several S.F.'s are in the briefing room, but the trainees are able to take control, however, Grogan is incapacitated again, this time by a zat blast. Again, Elliot has learned his lesson, and makes sure to get Grogan out of the briefing room before their explosive charge on the alien device goes off.
However -- the explosive charge doesn't go off. They return to the briefing room, to find General Hammond, O'Neill and the SG-1 team waiting for them. It is explained that the foothold was indeed another training situation. But wait -- where is Hailey? She's in the Gate Room, attempting to close the iris, when the wormhole activates again with an off world activation, and the panel shorts out, electrocuting Hailey. SG-1 goes to the control room, and Sam discovers that she can't close the iris, and that gamma radiation is coming through the Stargate. Level 28 is ordered evacuated, and Hailey is deemed K.I.A.
SG-1 and the trainees head up to the level 16 security office. However, Elliot has appropriated Carter's access card, and heads back to the Gate Room to rescue Hailey. Upon entering the Gate Room, Elliot manages to close the iris, and determines that Hailey is still alive. He lifts Hailey from the floor, turns around, and discovers the control room is filled with S.G.C. personnel. They applaud Elliot's actions. Yes, this was another part of the training process, and Hailey was a mole, assisting the S.G.C. in setting up the trainees.
Hammond and O'Neill enter the Gate Room and advise Elliot he will be assigned to SG-17 under Major Mansfield. The other trainees will be assigned to S.G.C. teams as positions become available.
As O'Neill and Elliot leave the Gate Room, O'Neill asks if Elliot wasn't aware that everything was a test. Elliot replies that he suspected, and O'Neill asks how he knows the testing is over as the gate activation alarms go off.
I find the training of Air Force Academy graduates for inclusion as S.G.C. personnel implausible -- what are they doing to do with the trainees who don't pass the training? The S.G.C. is a top-secret project -- supposedly only the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and (unfortunately) Senator Kinsey -- are supposed to be aware of the S.G.C.'s existence.
Wouldn't the S.G.C. teams want new team members who were seasoned military veterans? And in the case of scientists, scientists who have had years of practice in their field, and had established some merit? Granted the trainees would have signed a confidentiality agreement -- but having the knowledge of the S.G.C., the Stargate, aliens and alien worlds is a pretty tough secret to sit on.
One of the more pleasant elements of this episode was the return of the comfortable relationship between O'Neill and Carter. Their Jell-O scene in the commissary was a welcome return to a relaxed camaraderie between them -- it's been sorely missed this season.
Rating: * * 1/2