Monday, July 25, 2011

SGA Rewatch: Poisoning The Well

Hello and welcome back to my Stargate Atlantis rewatch! Today we'll be talking about the season one episode "Poisoning The Well."

As always, spoilers for the episode and any that came before, with mild references (but theoretically no spoilers) to Stargate SG-1 from time to time. Now, on to the episode!

What Happened

We join our heroes in the process of getting a guided tour of an off-world facility, on the planet of Hoff. The people of this world have managed to reach a level of advancement about on par with early twentieth century Earth. Teyla asks if they are worried about attracting the attention of the Wraith by allowing their society to advance so far, but the Chancellor replies that to refuse to advance would be the same as giving up and letting the Wraith win. 

The Hoffans are a pragmatic people, however, and acknowledge that Wraith attacks, and even great cullings, will occur. They have built several archival vaults, deep underground, where they preserve all of their knowledge and discoveries. This way, in the event of a culling, the surviving generation will not have to start from scratch. 

One of these discoveries that the Hoffans are so diligently preserving, and working to advance, is a rare protein that makes humans immune to being fed upon by Wraith. Over one hundred and fifty years ago one of their scientists heard of a person who had survived being fed upon and the resulting research led to the discovery. Ever since then the Hoffans have been working toward creating a serum that replicates that protein, with the end goal to make their entire planet immune to the feeding of the Wraith. 

It is their belief that if the Wraith are unable to feed upon the Hoffans, they will simply leave the planet alone. The Chancellor (and the whole planet) feels that the Wraith can't possibly perceive them as a threat. Teyla is impressed at the discovery and at their goals, but she still thinks they are kidding themselves. She suspects that the Wraith are far more likely to wipe the planet out of existence once they realize there is nothing of use to them on Hoff.

Based on previous culling cycles, the Chancellor tells them they should have another fifty years to create and perfect their serum before the Wraith turn up in full force. They are unaware that the Wraith have already woken and begun culling on a large scale. Feeling guilty that he was the one who woke up the Wraith, Sheppard volunteers Dr. Beckett to take a look at their research and see if it is anything worth pursuing. Beckett gripes about this quite loudly until he is introduced to the head of the Hoffan research, a lovely lass named Perna.

After looking at the research, Carson thinks that it does have some potential. Teyla is still cautious about helping Hoff develop the drug. She firmly believes that the Wraith will wipe out the planet once they realize they can no longer feed there and isn't sure that the lives lost in such a case wouldn't far outweigh the number the Wraith would normally cull. If the drug is to be worth it, it would only be so if made available to the entire galaxy. Sheppard agrees and thinks that is a plan worth pursing, and argues for helping the Hoffans as a result.  Carson needs some fresher Wraith DNA than what the Hoffans have on hand, or even than the hand he has from the attack on Athos, so they collect some tissue samples from Steve, their Wraith prisoner. Carson takes his more modern equipment to Perna's lab in order to speed things up and they begin their research together. Science montage!

Once Carson and Perna have a breakthrough with their testings simulations of the drug, the Chancellor and Perna are ready to move on to testing the drug out on a human. Carson  wants to back the train up, stating that there is still more research to be done before they move on to that point, but they talk him into it. A terminally ill Hoffan volunteers to be inoculated with the serum prototype. Of course, there's no way to know if the prototype works without having a Wraith actually try to feed on the volunteer....

So, throwing the Geneva Convention completely out of the window, Sheppard talks Weir into letting them take Steve to Hoff to test out the serum. Trying to get the most out of the situation, he offers Steve a chance to feed in exchange for information about the Wraith (Steve has, up to this point, refused to talk or give any information to the Lanteans). Steve doesn't give up much information, just that all of the Wraith hive ships have woken up, however many that might be. He does add that once they have gathered their strength by visiting all of their regular feeding grounds, they will gather in force and head to Atlantis (with the goal of finding the way to Earth and its rich potential feeding grounds). 

Initially the experiment appears to be a huge success. The Wraith is unable to feed on the volunteer. The Chancellor, bolstered by this, asks the Hoffan council to approve immediate mass production of the serum. Learning this, Carson objects vehemently, stating that they can't begin administering a drug to the general populace based on just one test. The Chancellor is hearing none of it, though, and neither is Perna. They want to just steam on ahead. Of course, right after we hear this, we learn that the test wasn't as successful as it appeared.

Steve gets very sick and dies shortly after his failed feeding. Carson's autopsy reveals that all of his internal organs shut down at once, and there was a large concentration of the serum in his bloodstream and organs. Turns out that feeding on an immunized human causes a toxic reaction in Wraith, one that is very much fatal. This means that the drug is not just a defense against the Wraith, it is a weapon. Learning this, Sheppard tries to convince the Chancellor to halt production of the drug and continue the research, trying to find a way to prevent the toxic reaction. To leave the drug as is would ensure that the Wraith will indeed wipe out Hoff the first time one of their own tries to feed and dies. The Chancellor thinks that the reaction is a welcome side effect rather than a danger to his people. He doesn't see the cause for fear. Besides, he tells them, it is too late. Inoculation of the Hoffan citizens has already begun.

The Lanteans realize there is no reasoning with the Hoffans any longer and decide to leave. Perna finds Carson packing up in the lab and informs him that the volunteer from the initial test has died. Carson begs her to stop the inoculations, but she argues that they don't know that his death had anything to do with the serum or the experiment. Even if the serum was the cause, she argues, it was worth it. He pleads with her to walk away from the project and have nothing more to do with it. She tells him that is not possible, she was among the first to be inoculated. Of course people who were inoculated then start falling ill and dying. The Lanteans stay to try and help them, to save any if they can, but there is nothing to be done. The serum proves to be fatal to fifty percent of everyone inoculated, including Perna. 

Again, the Lanteans try to get the Chancellor to call off the inoculations. They don't believe he is willing to risk fifty percent of his population to prevent a culling. When he refuses, he tells them he has taken the information to the population and put it to the vote. The vote is overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the inoculations, with ninety-six percent of the population voting yea. 

The Lanteans leave in disgust. Carson is utterly crushed, knowing the part he played in bringing this situation about. As they are leaving, the Chancellor stops them to say that the next time they meet, he wants to discuss methods of distributing the drug to other planets. Everyone just kind of looks at him in disgust and Sheppard tells him they won't be coming back any time soon. When they do, he adds, he doubts that the Chancellor, or anyone else for that matter, will be around to talk to.


Watching this season again, I am amazed at how many of the episodes in the very beginning set up things that have repercussions throughout the entire series. This is definitely one of them. 

First, there is the illustration we are given of the consequences of meddling with less advanced societies, propelling them into further advancement before they are ready for it. The Lanteans' intentions may have been noble, but the outcome was quite dire. You would think this would serve as a lesson for them. You would be wrong. The Lanteans have quite a track record of thinking they know better than the Pegasus inhabitants, and it often gets them into trouble. Note that it was Teyla, the Pegasus native from the "primitive" nomadic society who pretty much called it on what a bad idea this whole thing was. Really, they all just need to listen to Teyla a lot more often than they do. I think the overarching theme of this series might be the appalling amount of arrogance our society possesses, and how it is that arrogance that causes and exacerbates so many of our problems today.

Hoff also brings up a startling contrast to most of the other societies in the Pegasus galaxy. As Teyla has noted before, the Athosians were once quite advanced, but after repeated cullings and destruction, they have made the choice to live in a nomadic society. It helps them to stay under the radar of the Wraith. Advanced societies draw attention to themselves. The Chancellor may have felt his people could not be perceived as a threat by the Wraith, but he was very, very wrong. They think any society that gets scientifically advanced enough poses a threat to them, whether that society intends to or not. Most planets in the Pegasus galaxy remain at about a medieval level of advancement at most. I suspect most of them do this willingly, whether that is a conscious decision (like in the case of the Athosians) or not. 

That isn't to say that there aren't some fairly advanced societies out there in the galaxy. They just go to great lengths to hide their level of advancement from the Wraith, or find other ways to avoid being culled. We'll meet several of them as the series progresses, one quite soon, actually. Like the Hoffans, most of those societies that tend to survive with an advanced level of technology all seem to have a specific purpose driving them. It is made quite clear throughout the episode that the entire society of Hoff now centers around developing this serum. Every generation is willing to sacrifice itself so that the next might survive and so on, so that eventually their people might see the end of the cycle of culling. On the surface this seems like a very noble and practical attitude to adopt. But the people of Hoff become so obsessed with that goal that they are willing to take risks, many that are often unnecessary and usually excessively costly, just to get there faster. The Lanteans may not have the right of it, but neither do the Hoffans. I don't really know what to do with that. Maybe we are meant to side with the Lanteans in this. I have seen the series in its entirety too many times to do so, I suppose. I can no longer remember my first impressions on that front. 

While the episode itself doesn't tell us the Hoffans' fate, I believe it is implied later on down the road that they were indeed wiped out by the Wraith. Those guys just don't mess around.

A few lighter notes on the episode: 

This is the start of Sheppard's habit of naming the various Wraith we encounter. Mostly it's just an amusing little character trait, but I also think it can be seen as his way of refusing to accept their terms in any encounter. To be sure, the Wraith never really seem to be quite sure what to make of John Sheppard.

The show's parent series, Stargate SG-1, had a habit of making references to The Wizard of Oz. I think in one of the DVD featurettes it is mentioned that it started out on accident but then they realized they were doing it and wanted to see how far they could take it (the answer to that is: very far). In Atlantis, however, we get a ton of references to Star Trek. Perhaps it is only natural, given that shows like Stargate could never have happened without the influence of Trek. I suspect that there are far more Trek references than even I ever caught, since my exposure to that franchise has been admittedly minimal. But I love that they are acknowledging their roots, and that as often as not it is Sheppard, the fly-boy pilot, as it is McKay, the quintessential geek, making the references.

Funny note for you. In this episode, Sheppard teases Beckett that he is like Dr. McCoy (Bones) from Star Trek. The actor that plays Beckett, Paul McGillion, was actually considered for the role of Scotty in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. He lost it to Simon Pegg, which is hard to be mad about, but did end up getting a brief cameo in the movie. Now you know.

Favorite Quotes

"He's worse than Dr. McCoy." (Sheppard, about Beckett)
"Who?" (Teyla)
"The TV character that Dr. Beckett plays in real life." (Sheppard)

"Converting a human body into energy and sending it millions of light years through a wormhole. Bloody insanity!" (Beckett)
"Come on! How often do you get to travel to an alien planet?" (Rodney)
"I was already on an alien planet!" (Beckett)

"You know, we've been having these conversations for a couple of weeks now and I don't even know your name. You guys do have names, right? Let me guess...Steve?" (Sheppard)
"I am your death. That is all you need to know." (Wraith)
"I prefer Steve." (Sheppard)

"No offense, Doc, but had the Wraith attended the Geneva Convention, they would have tried to feed on everyone there." (Sheppard to Weir)

That's all for today, folks. See you back here on Wednesday for "Underground." 

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