Wednesday, December 21, 2011

SGA Rewatch: The Real World

Well, it's Wednesday, and that means another entry in the Stargate Atlantis Rewatch. Glad to have you with us! Today we'll be talking about season three's "The Real World." There will, of course, be spoilers for the episode and any that came before.

Shall we?

What Happened

Elizabeth wakes up, surprised to find that she is not in Atlantis. She appears to be a patient in some sort of hospital. She goes to open the door to her room and finds it locked. A man shows up and introduces himself as Doctor Fletcher. He explains that she is in a psychiatric hospital outside of Washington, D.C. Elizabeth is troubled by this because she doesn't remember arriving there or leaving Atlantis. She asks Fletcher when she got back to Earth and he gives her a pitying look, answering that she never left.

Not buying this, Elizabeth asks what she is doing in a mental hospital. Fletcher explains that she collapsed and apparently suffered a mental breakdown in the middle of treaty negotiations in North Africa. She frowns, remembering those negotiations and tells him she completed them successfully over two years ago. He shakes his head and answers that her collapse (and the negotiations) happened only three days ago. Elizabeth refuses to believe that any of this is real. She says that the last thing she remembers is sitting in her office in Atlantis going over a mission report. Fletcher asks her questions that reveal he doesn't know about Atlantis and she belatedly asks his security clearance. He asks if she wants to speak with anyone about the treaty and she responds yes, there is someone she needs to speak to right away.

She waits in an open room and looks up eagerly at the arrival of her requested party, General O'Neill. He is pleasant enough, but clearly confused when she starts going off about Atlantis and stargates and such. She had been hoping that he could help straighten the whole mess out and tell her how she ended up back on Earth, as well as get her back to Atlantis. She quickly realizes that he has no idea what she is talking about. She continues trying to convince him for a few minutes, but then his head does a weird glitchy thing, seeming to blur very quickly into another face. Taken aback, she sends O'Neill away. She gazes around the room, a recreation area of some sort, and makes an attempt to escape. Her attempt fails, however, and the orderlies sedate her and toss her back in her room.

In a session with Fletcher she continues to try to figure out what is going on. She knows two years have passed since those negotiations, but Fletcher insists that her mind just made it all up to cope with the stress and depression she had been dealing with. She retorts that she has negotiated many treaties and stressful as they might have been, none of them was ever bad enough to cause her emotional distress on that level. Fletcher then explains that the treaty negotiations were only the final straw, the trigger of her breakdown. The actual cause happened three weeks earlier. She and Simon had been in a car accident. She suffered only minor injuries but he was killed. Her colleagues had noticed she had been acting odd and depressed ever since (um, understandably). She doesn't remember anything about an accident, or Simon dying. Fletcher tries to convince her, explaining that the mind can repress such trauma. As he is doing so, she notices a blurry figure in the window behind him, but it is only there for a second before disappearing. 

Her mother comes to see her in the hospital. While Elizabeth is glad to see her mother, it is still not enough to convince her of the reality of the situation. Her mother urges her to accept it as truth. She suggests that Elizabeth just needs to give it some time for things to begin to feel normal again, considering how much she has been through. Elizabeth still has a very hard time believing she could have just imagined two entire years of her life like that, especially in only the course of a few days. That night when she has trouble sleeping, she looks up and sees the blurry figure again. This time, it is inside her room, standing behind a thick plastic curtain of some sort. She freaks out and when she tells Fletcher about it he increases her medication.

Trying to make sense of her current situation, Elizabeth looks up the reports on Simon's accident. A nurse brings by her medication and she pretends to take them, but ends up spitting the pills back out into the toilet. She goes to a group therapy session where a little old lady talks about the aliens that are waiting in the garden to suck out her blood. For a few moments into the story Elizabeth has hope that maybe this woman is privy to the stargates and such but she quickly realizes that is not the case. Fletcher tries to get her to share about Atlantis but she declines. When she goes to bed next, she sees weird movement underneath her blanket, but when she pulls it back, there is nothing there. She then turns and sees the shadowy figure at the door again, this time banging on it and rattling the handle, trying to get in.

This most recent hallucination scared her enough that she decides to start taking her medication. After a while, Doctor Fletcher decides that she has progressed quite a bit and she is ready to be released from the hospital. She returns to her old apartment and dog and resumes her life. She decides to go back to teaching in the fall. O'Neill stops by to visit her and asks her to consider coming back to the U.N. to serve as a negotiator once more. After some thought she agrees.

After all of this Elizabeth has no problem falling asleep. The camera zooms in on her face and when it pulls back again, we see that she is in the infirmary in Atlantis, in some sort of biohazard containment unit, surrounded by thick plastic curtains. A concerned John stands on the other side watching over her. He asks Carson how Elizabeth is doing and the doctor laments that she is getting worse. He says that "they" have spread from her brain into the rest of her body. We learn in short order that when Niam attacked her in the puddle jumper at the end of the last episode, he managed to infect her with nanites. The nanites are taking over her body, replicating and spreading through it, trying to make her into an organism that they (or the replicators) can control. 

There is a suggestion to use an EMP to kill the nanites but Carson is afraid that might kill Elizabeth, as they have bonded to her cells and neurons. He is at a loss for what to do to save her. As they talk about the situation, John wonders if Elizabeth is aware of what is happening to her, or if she can hear them. Carson says it is likely. It is a known phenomenon with coma patients, and Elizabeth's brain readings actually show that she is conscious. Not just dreaming, but actually going through what appears to be normal waking cognitive functions. He recommends they talk to her, let her know that they are there for her. Carson is then struck by a sudden idea and runs off to to go look into it.

Back in her illusion, Elizabeth has been diving back into negotiations. She has felt very tired but otherwise fine. Getting ready for bed one night, she goes to take her medicine and when she looks in the mirror she has no face. It is just a blur. Outside the illusion we see John standing outside her quarantine area talking to her, promising that they are working on a solution and urging her to fight the nanites. Elizabeth doesn't hear these words but she does throw her medication down the toilet again, worried that it is causing the hallucinations again. She goes to see Fletcher and he thinks maybe he dialed her medication back too far the last time he decreased it. In bed again, she hears someone saying her name and looks up to see the shadowy figure (John) standing in the doorway of her bedroom. He turns and walks off and she follows him. She opens up a door in her apartment and behind it is the glowing event horizon of a stargate. She looks about to step through it when all of a sudden orderlies appear out of nowhere and pull her back. She is sedated again and when she wakes up she is once more in the hospital.

In Atlantis, Carson explains his idea to save Elizabeth. The nanites were originally designed to fight the wraith, and so he proposes injecting a small amount of wraith tissue into Elizabeth's body. The idea is that the nanites will follow their original programming and uncouple from Elizabeth's cells to attack the tissue. That should buy them enough time to hit her body with an EMP and kill all of the nanites without harming Elizabeth.

In the hospital Elizabeth is laying out a deck of cards for a game of Solitaire. As she turns over her cards, however, they are not the traditional suits but rather gate symbols. Eight of them, the dialing sequence to reach Atlantis from Earth. She tells Fletcher and O'Neill about this, saying she has started seeing those symbols everywhere. She believes that something or someone is trying to communicate with her that Atlantis is real and she needs to get back there. They are nonplussed about this revelation, asking if that means she believes that they are the fantasy. She says yes, she does. She wants to go to Cheyenne Mountain and see if the stargate is there. The men clearly think she has lost it and try to force more medicine on her. She is strapped down to a table and Fletcher starts doing electroshock therapy.

Carson enacts his idea and at first it seems to have worked. It becomes evident pretty quickly, unfortunately, that the EMP didn't kill all of the nanites. Several in her brain survived because they had already begun using organic matter to replicate, rendering them immune to the EMP. They start replicating again, super fast, and quickly spread through her body. Carson says it looks like they are trying to get in a position where they can execute a "kill" command and deny oxygen to Elizabeth's brain, rendering her brain dead. They realize the nanites want to replace her consciousness with one of their own. From what they can see, it seems like maybe they are trying to force her consciousness to give up. It has come down to a battle of wills between Elizabeth and the nanites.

John stands outside the curtain, urging her to fight. He seems to get through because in her illusion she finds the strength to break her restraints and get free. She runs through the hospital, trying to avoid the orderlies and doctors. She turns a corner and sees an open elevator, the inside of which matches the elevators in Cheyenne Mountain. She runs into the elevator and chooses the floor for the SGC. She looks around in wonder as she arrives back in the familiar setting. O'Neill is there suddenly and he is trying to convince her that everything will be alright now and she just needs to come with him. From the other end of the hallway, she hears John and sees his shadowy figure walking off in the other direction. She turns and follows John.

Things look grim in Atlantis and John decides to break through the quarantine. He grabs Elizabeth hand and continues to urge her to fight. In the illusion Elizabeth can suddenly see him clearly. She has been cut off by soldiers and O'Neill is trying to convince her to just give up. John tells her she knows what she needs to do, and which way to go and she needs to run and fight back. She runs again, making it to the control room, and dials the gate for Atlantis. As she heads up the ramp to go through, O'Neill appears once more. When he can't convince her, he turns into Fletcher, and then into Niam, telling her that she might as well give up, there's nothing she can do. She doesn't believe him, and walks right through him and the gate. When she wakes up once more, she is in the Atlantis infirmary and the team is as glad to see her returned to consciousness as she is to be back at home.

John finds her later in the gate room, where she is avoiding going back to sleep. We learn that he was quarantined briefly after breaking through hers but the nanites were apparently so focused on converting Elizabeth that they didn't bother infecting him. They talk for a few moments and reflect that the Asurans are an even greater threat than they had thought. But for the moment they are just glad that the ordeal is over.


I remember when I saw the first preview for this episode I was really kind of annoyed. It sounded like a pretty blatant ripoff of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Normal Again." The annoyance faded pretty quickly as I watched the episode for the first time, however. While the basic concept is pretty much the same, Stargate Atlantis went its own route with the story and I think the writers did a pretty impressive job with this episode. It's one of those situations that remind you that even when there aren't new stories, it's the execution of those stories that really matters. Sometimes one premise can lead to oodles of amazing (and vastly different) ideas.

Upon this viewing I can say that it has held up quite well over time, too. I had initially also been kind of annoyed at the "reveal" that Elizabeth was infected with nanites coming so early in the episode, but after watching it this time, the annoyance is gone. The switching back and forth between Elizabeth's mind and reality is actually masterfully executed. It serves to emphasize how much what is going on in the "real world" is affecting Elizabeth's consciousnesses as she is trapped inside her own mind. This episode also serves to show, quite well, just how little regard the Asurans hold for human beings both as a race and as individuals. It manages to up their threat level without any mustache-twirling, and it makes "The Real World" tie into the rest of the season extremely smoothly.

This episode also benefited greatly by the appearance of Alan Ruck as Doctor Fletcher, in my opinion. I really wanted to like him, considering that Cameron was my favorite character in Ferris Beueller's Day Off, but damned if he didn't do an amazing job at affable insidiousness. He hit that perfect note of someone who isn't what he says he is--which could have applied whichever world was the "real" one--as a replicator pawn or as a shady doctor.

Also of note for me in this episode, Ponytail!Elizabeth is super cute. Seriously. I totally get why they don't let her wear her hair like that when she's in Atlantis--she looked so vulnerable. I just wanted to hug her. It worked really well for what her character was going through here. It's kind of amazing what such a simple change can do for how you perceive a character. It also serves to emphasize how rigid and set in her ways Elizabeth normally is, I think. Looking ahead to something that happens later in the season, and realizing that the nanites largely concocted this scenario from information they gleaned from Elizabeth's mind, I find her supposed depression after Simon's death and collapse during the negotiations pretty interesting. We will revisit this down the road.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the awesome crocheted blanket featured in this episode. It can be seen in the recreation room in the hospital. I have the tendency to get really excited when I notice an obviously handmade crocheted (and sometimes knit) item in shows or movies I am watching. I guess it reiterates to me that these crafts are just everywhere, and it usually serves to make a show more relevant to my interests, silly as that might seem. Often, I am so impressed by the item that my focus gets shifted from the action to trying to figure out how I would construct such an item of my own. (I know my mother does this too, she and my daughter both have hats that prove it.) I wish that things like that would have been the props that went up for auction when the show had closed down production. I totally would have tried to win the crocheted blanket from Stargate Atlantis. Of course, I suspect that particular item is probably one that ended up going home with someone involved in the show after the episode wrapped, if it wasn't already the personal blanket of someone on the crew to begin with. Still, yay, crochet and Stargate Atlantis! Two of my favorite things in one place. That's always a nice surprise.

Favorite Quotes

"So you're saying when Simon died, my mind shut down and went to another galaxy?" (Elizabeth)

"That non-proliferation kind of left us hanging mid-sentence there. Sure be nice to hear the punchline someday." (O'Neill)

"Well, maybe you've got to work yourself back into playing shape--spend a little time doing some short shifts before you jump up to the first line." (O'Neill)
"I'm sorry, I don't know a thing about football." (Elizabeth)
".... Nor hockey, apparently." (O'Neill)

"Now, just to be sure we're on the same page. We're against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, right?" (O'Neill)

"Well, it's that look. That's the same look I get when I have a brilliant idea." (Rodney)
"How would you know how you looked?" (John)
"Cause it's happened more than once in front of a mirror, okay?" (Rodney)

"You know, I don't mind being fantasized about occasionally, but c'mon. We're right here." (O'Neill)

"Uh, reality check. There are microscopic robots in her brain. How does she fight that?" (Rodney)


That about wraps it up for today. See you back here in the new year. We'll start up again Monday January 2 with "Common Ground." Be sure to stop by, that one's a doozy! 

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