Monday, May 1, 2017

Stargate SG-1 S1 E9: The Torment Of Tantalus

"...And we can go there."
-Dr. Daniel Jackson-

"I don't think the heart ever grows old."
-Samantha Carter-

"This is meaning of life stuff."
-Dr. Daniel Jackson-

It's easy to recognize the immediate physical similarities between the original film version of Dr. Daniel Jackson, played by actor James Spader, and the TV series version of the character, embodied by Michael Shanks. Once those physical reminders fade, it becomes clear that Shanks had other plans for portraying and fleshing out the character. Ten seasons later and he would have taken that character farther then he or anyone could have imagined. His character would become a smart, confident man of action and less the studied, brainy, seeming pacifist of these early episodes.

Stargate SG-1, Season One, Episode 9, The Torment Of Tantalus, truly captures the spirit of the character that Michael Shanks would proudly infuse with his own "thoughtful, romantic" approach as he noted in Starlog #245 [1997]. "He tries to understand people. Instead of just hitting them over the head with a hammer, he tries to figure out what makes them tick. He doesn't take the confrontational approach right away." He looks for "mutual understanding" in a quartet comprised of two members that are clearly of the warrior mold and variety. Carter, while certainly able to hold her own, would be the group's other brain trust.

Amidst the action of SG-1, the Jackson character is the one "you would least expect to take action. He tries to find every possible way around a violent confrontation." So inevitably Shanks would reveal his character to be far more complex and multi-dimensional than acting as a mere stand-in and clone for Spader.

Had the series been cut short in less than a season, Shanks might not have had the time to prove that, but as it happened he created Dr. Daniel Jackson as a fully realized, warm, kind, innocent counterpoint to the rest of the SG-1 team.

While Shanks noted the O'Neil and Jackson characters had a strong hawk versus dove relationship in the original Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin film, it's easy to see within the TV series there is a far richer dynamic and deeper relationship that develops between the two men, one of mutual respect, admiration and one that would see them fighting side by side with guns.

That complicated dynamic can be seen here in the opening minutes of The Torment Of Tantalus.

The Torment Of Tantalus is a real highlight for the character along with the rest of the cast, a highlight for the season and a strong time travel adventure story to boot.

In many respects, The Torment Of Tantalus feels like the first episode it seems you the viewer don't notice a cast trying too hard or working so hard to find that chemistry. It just is. It feels that way and it works. There is indeed a maturing to the dynamic of the show and all involved.

The Torment Of Tantalus remains something of a Season One favorite for many, and in this case The Sci-Fi Fanatic included. It is a highlight and a gem.

The story begins with historic footage archived from 1945. Jackson and O'Neil witness personnel within the SGC literally moving the stargate manually. Documented footage reveals a man walking through the stargate in a vintage deep sea dive suit and the connection to somewhere on the other side breaking that line. Could they have anticipated water on the other side? Was it the event horizon of the stargate that had them considering it a possibility or did they know more? After all it is indeed wet on the other side. Yet at the time it appeared we had our technological limitations.

The man in the suit was Ernest. As a bonus, for Stargate fans, young Ernest Littlefield is played by a then younger Paul McGillion. McGillion would become the popular Dr. Carson Beckett on Stargate Atlantis, SGA's resident version of Scotsman Montgomery Scott, though a doctor rather than engineer.

Ernest disappeared in 1945 through the gate. His then fiancĂ©, Catherine Langford (played expertly by Elizabeth Hoffman in one of her final TV appearances), was told he was killed in an accident. She discovers through Daniel Jackson that Ernest actually went through the stargate. Today, Catherine is an old woman and she is given the chance to potentially find her lost love with the SG-1 team by accompanying them back through the gate.

Jackson shares the de-classified, but still classified information with Catherine. General Hammond is less than enthusiastic about Jackson's move as he doesn't endear himself with him here.

Catherine was not fully aware of Ernest's departure through the gate, but she was involved in running the stargate program a half century earlier.

Jack O'Neil believes finding him is worth the risk as Ernest is something of an American hero.

SG-1 assesses the planet they might find Ernest upon has a gate and has not been visited by the Goa'uld. The deduction here is that the Goa'uld did not build the gate system, which was indeed a potential theory. The Torment Of Tantalus changes that trajectory and the trajectory of the mythology that much more.

Hammond declares, capturing the overarching emotional resonance of the installment, "Ernest Littlefield could still be alive and we should try to find him."

On the other side is old man Ernest Littlefield, played beautifully by the late Keene Curtis (1923-2002), who breaks down tearfully to find SG-1's arrival after all these years of waiting alone with only his thoughts. The Ernest character, of course, intended to channel the spirit of the Greek mythological figure Tantalus and his eternal punishment or torment.

Upon the sight of Catherine, Ernest is nonplussed, a perfectly normal reaction toward a loved one he believed never tried to find him.

Naked Ernest has only the tattered remains of his deep dive suit to wear home made nearly threadbare as the result of years.

Most intriguing is the reconnection between Ernest and Catherine. He discovers she was lied to by her father.

Sadly, he still dreamed of Catherine and lived a fantasy with her while in his loneliness out of survival. Catherine did not. Both have grown old. Can you imagine growing old and never having the means to see yourself? No mirror to gracefully live the process of aging before your very eyes. Can you imagine that?

An impending storm is coming but the dial home device is damaged. It's also the reason Ernest never returned himself. All are inside a castle that sits on an eroding cliff. The storm is indeed a danger to taking all of their lives (coincidentally on the very eve of their arrival).

Carter attempts to make repairs while Ernest shows the others what lies within the castle walls. Ernest has discovered a "light show," as Jack calls it, of alien information concerning the building blocks of life, the key to the very existence of all living things.

As luck fails, the dial home device falls into the ocean. The group requires energy and the whole Ben Franklin idea comes into play.

Wouldn't the SGC automatically reach out at some point to find them? Maybe, but maybe not in time.

In The Torment Of Tantalus there is a lesson to be learned through the suffering of Ernest Littlefield. So many of us are chasing that elusive dream and some of us suffer when we don't attain it. That pursuit is important, but not at the expense of happiness or of life itself. The question before SG-1 is whether or not Daniel Jackson, a young version of Ernest, has the foresight to recognize these truths before it's too late for him. Ernest is living proof and yet Daniel is as blind as many of us to truths that hold themselves to be self-evident. Nevertheless the hunger for knowledge can be a blinding force.

And of course it wouldn't be Stargate SG-1 without a few thrilling, nail-biting action adventure elements to round out the mission. Those final minutes are all of that. All of that built upon a love story to boot.

One of the beautiful things about The Torment Of Tantalus, as noted in the words of Daniel Jackson at the opening of this entry, is that the episode brings out the wonder and beauty of the possibilities of the universe. Stargate SG-1 often gets that aspect of the series right, and the use of the stargate as that delivery system is essential, but it's moments like The Torment Of Tantalus that bring out the great joys associated with exploration of the unknown, the uncharted and the mysteries of space around us.

The episode is also emotionally interesting and character-centric thanks to a wonderfully penned story, the second of four for Season One, by Robert C. Cooper, future genius of this long-running franchise. It resonates with subtext without being obvious about it all.

It's also one of the most visually interesting of the season and you can thank show creator Jonathan Glassner who steps behind the camera for his first time with a real gem. It's beautiful to look at. The lighting and cinematography is near perfect.

The Torment Of Tantalus gets all of the elements and pacing right for a first in class entry of the first season with a touch of magic to it all.

Writer: Robert C. Cooper. Director: Jonathan Glassner.

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