Monday, August 22, 2011

SGA Rewatch: Before I Sleep

Hello! Let's start this Monday off right with another entry in the Stargate Atlantis rewatch, shall we? I think we shall.

Today we'll look at the season one episode "Before I Sleep." Major spoilers for the episode, of course, and likely spoilers for anything before it. There will also be a few allusions to late-series SG-1, but I will try to keep from anything actually spoilery on that front.

Let's jump in.

What Happened

This episode starts off with Weir, I think we shall start calling her Elizabeth in light of this episode, standing at one of the city's balconies staring off into the ocean. Sheppard stops by and wishes her a happy birthday, giving her a bit of pottery he got from the Athosians. She thanks him for the gift, but gives him a wry look and asks how he found out. Elizabeth is obviously one of those insane people who doesn't actually like to celebrate her birthday. Crazy woman.

Anyhoo, Sheppard and team are off to do some exploration of the city, with Rodney monitoring from the control room. In addition to finding some new (larger) living quarters (Rodney is very interested in these), they also find a lab. Rodney is ready to shrug it off as the same old stuff, but Sheppard activates a panel in the lab and they discover a woman, a very, very, very old woman, asleep in a stasis pod.

Carson, Elizabeth, and Rodney join Sheppard and crew in the lab and Elizabeth makes the call to revive the woman, despite Carson's objections. Rodney tells them that according to the logs, she has been in stasis for ten thousand years. They all agree that the chance to talk to a living Ancient is worth the risks of reviving her. In the woman's hand they discover a scrap of paper with five gate addresses written upon it--one of them is the address for Kid Planet.

When the woman wakes up, she is very out of it, but she seems to know Carson, and everyone else. She tells them that she is Elizabeth, and explains that she got in the stasis pod because she had managed to travel back in time. Everyone is pretty surprised by this declaration--Elizabeth most of all--but a DNA test confirms that she is, indeed Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she is not in very good condition--well, okay, for a ten thousand year old woman, she's in great condition, actually, but she is dying. Her organs are all failing and she clearly doesn't have very long left to live. She wakes in fits and starts, and after a bit Elizabeth convinces Carson to give Alt-Elizabeth some mild stimulants to allow her to stay awake for a little bit longer at a time. Elizabeth senses that her counterpart wants to tell them as much of her story as possible before she goes.

Alt-Elizabeth does manage to tell them her story, in bits and pieces, played out for us in (slightly altered) flash back scenes of the first episode, as well as what happened beyond that. Alt-Elizabeth tells them that the first time the expedition came through to Atlantis from Earth, the shields started failing almost immediately, and there was no failsafe that caused the city to rise from the bottom of the ocean. Pretty much as soon as they got there, they had to find a way out. Time just wasn't on their side, however, and almost all of the expedition drowned as the city was flooded. Elizabeth, Sheppard, and Zelenka, who had been looking at a puddle jumper that was different from the others they found did manage to escape however, but their respite was brief.

They were somehow transported from the city to orbit and as soon as they appeared in orbit they found themselves under attack by ships that Alt-Elizabeth's audience recognized to be Wraith ships. They got in a few shots but their jumper was quickly shot down and Alt-Elizabeth knocked out. When she next awoke, she was in the city again, but it was alive and full of people. A Lantean named Janus, the ancient Roman god of doorways a bit of an Ancient inventor, explained to Elizabeth that she had traveled back in time ten thousand years in a timeship that he had designed. When the timeship jumped back, it appeared in orbit in the middle of the Wraith siege upon Atlantis. Their ship was shot down and the Lanteans retrieved it from the ocean floor. Sadly, Alt-Elizabeth was the only survivor.

Janus is delighted to learn that not only did his timeship work, but Atlantis itself, through his people's current actions, survived for ten thousand years on the ocean floor to be rediscovered by the second evolution of his kind (humans). The Lantean council, however, is not quite as delighted. The big cheese, Moros, is thoroughly pissed off, in fact. It seems the council had already forbid Janus' experiments in time-travel and had banned him from making such a ship as the one he had obviously gone ahead and built. Another council member points out that by using the timeship Alt-Elizabeth herself might have altered the course of time and prevented the future from playing out as she had experienced it. They tell Alt-Elizabeth she is welcome in the city but she has come at a really bad time, as they were all about to evacuate back to Earth. They invite her to come along with them, as she won't be going back to her own time. Moros flat out forbids that and orders the timeship destroyed, in fact.

Neither Alt-Elizabeth nor Janus are to be dissuaded, however. When the council refuses to hear any more on the matter, Janus devises a plan to save the city and the future expedition. He rigs the ZPMs to run consecutively, rather than simultaneously, after the city is abandoned. This will give the expedition a little bit of extra time upon arriving before the shields fail. Of course, someone will need to stay behind in stasis to switch out the ZPMs every couple of thousand years. Alt-Elizabeth is, of course, the obvious candidate for this. She does not balk at the chore, embracing the act that she believes will save her people and the city both from the destruction she witnessed. Janus hides her and tells the council she has already gone through to Earth, then he shows Alt-Elizabeth how to rotate the ZPMs and sets the stasis chamber to automatically wake her up at the required intervals, as well as when the expedition arrives. (We learn from Rodney in the present that the lab did, in fact, try to wake Alt-Elizabeth up upon their arrival into the city, but not knowing what that was and fearing power drainage, they had actually shut the process down, which is why Alt-Elizabeth didn't show up to tell them what was going on when they got there.) Janus' last acts before returning to Earth are to program in a failsafe to raise the city to the surface in the event that the power dropped to a critical point, and to make copies of his time-travel research, with the intention to try building another timeship behind the council's back.

With her story told, Alt-Elizabeth shares a few quiet moments with our Elizabeth. Elizabeth wonders that Alt-Elizabeth gave up her whole life just to try to change something that had, from her perspective, already happened. Alt-Elizabeth tells her that she still has her whole life ahead of her, because she and Elizabeth are the same person, so her adventures are really just beginning. She then imparts one last piece of information to Elizabeth. The note she had with the gate addresses is a list of five planets known to have ZPMs. She had managed to get the information from Janus before he left so that the expedition might be able to find them when they arrived in the galaxy. As Elizabeth is sharing this information with Sheppard and Rodney, Alt-Elizabeth passes on.

The episode closes with Elizabeth back on the balcony where we found her at the beginning. She is holding the pottery Sheppard had given her for her birthday and she opens it up and pours its contents--the ashes of her alternate self--out into the ocean. Sheppard comes out to tell her that they are ready to begin a mission briefing and she asks for a few moments, and there we leave her.


This is probably my second favorite episode of the season, and it is probably one of my top ten at least for the series as a whole. I love the purely science fiction concept of it. Alternate timelines are a fun way to shake things out without actually making any big changes. They also usually tend to go a long way towards character development, and this episode was no exception. I love that the whole Stargate franchise lends itself so readily to this kind of story. I think probably most of my favorite Stargate episodes involve either alternate universes or alternate timelines. I just love the whole "what if" of them.

The primary character development for this episode is, of course, Elizabeth. Here is where we really learn that she internalizes--she hates to show anything but strength on the outside, and it tends to make her a lonely person. But that does not mean that she doesn't care for her people. In fact, she cares very deeply for all of them, even though she tries to keep them at arm's length more often than not. I found the attitude of Alt-Elizabeth very interesting, and a rather refreshing change from the type of doppelganger tropes I have gotten used to in my scifi of late. Once that alternate timeline is created, she and Elizabeth are two very distinct people, separate and whole. She would be well within her rights to demand or fight for a continued existence. Yet she not only goes quietly and willingly away, she embraces that it doesn't matter what happens to her because Elizabeth will go on. From her point of view she lived her life up to the point of getting to Atlantis, had a brief detour, and then Elizabeth picked right back up in Atlantis and just kept going where she left off. She doesn't see them as two separate people. Even our Elizabeth seems to have a bit of a hard time with it, but I don't for a second believe she would react any differently had she been the one put in that situation. This episode sees an amazing performance by Torri Higginson as Elizabeth, and the actress who played Alt-Elizabeth was pretty spiffy as well.

We also get a bit of development for Rodney, witnessing how he fights to the last moment trying to buy time for as many members of the expedition to get out of Atlantis as possible. Even if he did fail in the end, he never stopped trying. That says so very much about Rodney McKay.

I loved the fact that Sheppard and Rodney were giving each other crap and competing over how their alternate selves went out. That takes a special kind of bond to be able to bicker about that kind of thing, and it was another lovely little sign of the progression of their friendship.

I think it bears noting that the Ancients had absolutely atrocious fashion sense. Seriously, what the heck is up with that? I just...yuck. It annoys me and I don't know why, but it really really does. I don't know if that is intentional or if someone in production gets a big fail for that whole concept (not the costumers, who I have no doubt did the best with that they were given).

One last thing worth noting is how much the events of this episode impact the mythology of SG-1. That bit about Janus continuing his research into time-travel? Yeah, that ends up being very important at the end of SG-1's eighth season. Moros, the council leader? He comes into play in a big way throughout seasons nine and ten. Sure, you could watch SG-1 without ever having seen Atlantis and the bits that tie back to this episode would still make perfect sense, but having watched both, and seeing the roots put down here, it really makes the mythology of the whole franchise that much deeper and more coherent, you know?

Favorite Quotes

"We're here to unlock the secrets to Atlantis." (Sheppard)

"Ten thousand years! You expect her to dance a bloody jig?" (Carson)

"Is time travel even possible?" (Ford)
"Well, according to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, there's nothing in the laws of physics to prevent it. Extremely difficult to achieve, mind you--you need the technology to manipulate black holes to create wormholes not only through points in space but time." (Rodney)
"Not to mention a really nice DeLorean." (Sheppard)
"Don't even get me started on that movie!" (Rodney)
"I liked that movie!" (Sheppard)

"I thought this place couldn't get any weirder." (Sheppard)

"Are you in any pain?" (Elizabeth)
"Would we admit it if we were?" (Alt-Elizabeth)

That's all we've got for today, folks. See you back here on Wednesday for another excellent episode, "The Brotherhood."

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