Welcome to the start of another week and yet another installment in the Stargate Atlantis Rewatch! Today's episode is season three's "The Game." Spoilers for the episode and any and all that came before.
The team is eating lunch together and Rodney poses a hypothetical moral dilemma to them (mentioning that Katie Brown had brought it up over dinner the other night). If the only way to save ten people from an oncoming train is to divert the train but kill a baby, do you do it? Ronon and Teyla resolutely refuse to play ball with the scenario, asking all sorts of questions about why the people can't save themselves, hear/see the train, the baby can't be moved, etc. Rodney starts to get really frustrated and John jumps in, asking questions of his own. They are interrupted when Rodney is called to the control room. Major Lorne has reported in and has found something he thinks Rodney needs to see.
The team reports to the control room and Major Lorne is on the view screen. He tells them they exited a space gate over the planet and found a network of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, indicating a possibly advanced civilization. They went down to check it out and discovered something akin to a medieval level of advancement. Elizabeth thinks it is worth sending a science team to check out, to see if there are any remnants of the society that built the satellites. Lorne suggests Rodney should be the one to come and pans his camera to a nearby flag, which resembles the Canadian flag, only with a picture of Rodney's face instead of a maple leaf.
Elizabeth calls Rodney into her office, along with John, for an explanation. He and John say the flag is just like the one from their game. Elizabeth demands to know what game they are talking about. They explain that not too long after arriving on Atlantis, they discovered what they thought was an agricultural lab of some sort. They soon realized, however, that it was actually a game room. The console housed information on several simulated countries. The object of the game was to take over a country and monitor and influence its development without allowing it to grow too quickly and under a specific set of guidelines. John and Rodney each assumed control of countries on opposite sides of a river. While John stuck with mostly organizational changes (like building roads, stepping up production of raw materials, strengthening the army), Rodney gave his country a whole new overhaul. He changed its name to Geldar (after a girl he dated in college), decreed that all women should have short (preferably blonde) hair (much like Sam Carter), and then began focusing on intellectual and scientific advancement. John accuses him of cheating at this point, stating that Rodney bent the rules as far as possible to get his people to advance very rapidly on the technological front (in a matter of a few years they developed electricity, steam power, etc.). Elizabeth tells them to get a jumper and check out the planet that Lorne found.
When they arrive through the gate, they first go to examine the satellites. They are clearly Ancient in origin and Rodney is surprised to learn that they are, in fact, still quite active. The satellites are relaying an enormous amount of data somewhere. John and Rodney quabble about their two contries' trade relations (which aren't good) as they fly down to the planet. It seems Rodney has been very demanding in negotiations and not offering anything of value to John's country. John meanwhile, has been increasing the size of his country's army in response, he says, to the rapid advancement of Rodney's country. They enter the village and while still largely medieval, it does seem to display a remarkable level of advancement technologically. As they stroll through, people notice Rodney and begin to stare. They come to a portrait on the wall of a building that is clearly of Rodney in his Atlantis uniform. A woman steps forward and greets them, introducing herself as Nola and welcoming them to Geldar. She scrutinizes Rodney for a moment and declares that he is the oracle. Everyone around them bows.
She takes them into a building and explains that their society and people were created by the oracle thousands of years ago. The oracle would instruct them and command them on how to live and progress as a society. Some time ago the oracle grew silent (likely due to the war with the wraith). Teyla asks if Geldar has encountered the wraith and she responds in the affirmative. She says that whenever the wraith came, they rebuilt afterwards according to the oracle's guidelines, but remained at the level the oracle last brought them to. Their society had become to become stagnant, in Nola's opinion. Then the oracle once more made contact two years ago and began instructing them anew, bringing them forward at a rapid pace and showing them their full potential. She shows them a machine that is clearly Ancient and explains that it is what they use to communicate with the oracle. John and Rodney realize that they have not been playing a game at all, but actually have been sending commands to real societies for the last two years. The satellites in orbit track the information and allow for the communications. John asks about the country across the river, Hallona, and Nola responds that it is a constant thorn in Geldar's side. John's face falls.
In Atlantis, Radek has been sent to study the "game" room. He is briefing Elizabeth and Lorne on what he has discovered. Geldar and Hallona are not the only two countries in its database. It contains information on many, many countries on many planets all over the galaxy. The countries all appear to be at varying levels of development. Some have thrived without the Ancients' guidance, others have been wiped out by the wraith, stalled in their development, or gone to war with their neighbors.
John takes the jumper over to Hallona and meets with its leader, Baden, bringing him back to Geldar. Baden is a much simpler society, and very martial in nature, partly due to John's influence over the last two years, though Baden certainly seems suited to it. It is clear that Baden and Nola do not care for each other, nor for each other's countries. Teyla asks if things have always been this way between Hallona and Geldar. They tell her no, the two peoples were once at peace. It is only in the last few years that hostilities have sprung up, since the oracles resumed communication, in fact.
Radek and Lorne continue to go through the data in the satellite monitoring device. Radek tells Lorne about one that seems on the brink of famine and disaster. It is a shame, he says, because the satellites show a very fertile land just to their south. If they were to discover and plant it with a tuber that they grow, they would be saved from their impending doom. Lorne asks Radek if he is going to just let the people all die out when there is a clear solution. Radek looks at the screen, thoughtful.
John and Rodney are getting nowhere trying to explain the reality of the oracles to Baden and Nola. They want to try to bring the two countries back to peace, since it is their fault that conflict has arisen. John decides to bring them both back to Atlantis, to show them the satellite monitoring device and actually explain what has been going on.
Nola is very shaken by the revelation. Her people revealed the oracle as a god, now she must reconcile herself to the fact that he is only a man. Not only that, she was elected based on her passion for the advancement of Geldar and her belief in the oracle and his teachings. To find out it was all just a game to the being she worshiped is disturbing. Rodney tries to console her. He explains that despite what he and John thought about the reality of the situation, his only intent was to help Geldar better itself. All of his instructions and teachings were meant to improve their lives and advance their knowledge and development.
Baden, meanwhile, is more frustrated than anything. He sees the resources available to John and demands that he continues to help Hallona. From his end, the situation really hasn't changed all that much. Whatever the reason behind it, Geldar has been acting in a very arrogant, aggressive, and demeaning manor towards Hallona for the last two years. They have refused fair trade and disdained all attempts at negotiation or compromise. Now, they have begun digging a mine underneath the border into Hallona in order to exploit Hallona's coal resources. He asks John what he would do in that situation if he still thought it was a game, but he knows the answer. He says that John would order an attack on the mine.
John tells Elizabeth that he is afraid the two nations are very much headed for war with one another. She decides to try to use her negotiator skills with Nola and Baden to help them find some sort of truce. Unfortunately, both sides are set in their way. Neither of them want to back down. Geldar wants to continue their accelerated advancement, and expects Hallona to stay out of their way. Hallona, meanwhile, feels threatened by this and has been increasing military strength, which has caused Geldar to build up their own armies, and so on. Elizabeth doesn't get very far with the two of them, they refuse to compromise and don't want to make any further decisions without John and Rodney involved. Nola declares that Geldar is going to continue its quest for advancement and Hallona needs to either concede or get out of the way.
Baden is convince that the only way to protect his people and to stop Geldar is to attack the mine. While he and John are in the game room and John is distracted, Baden takes advantage to order the attack from John's console, making it seem to come from the oracle. When John finds out what Baden did, he and Rodney frantically check the information from the satellites. The Geldar at the mine surrendered without a fight and no one was hurt, but they all fear that further escalation is imminent. The war has officially begun. Elizabeth sends them back to the planet to put a stop to it. When they arrive, they learn that the Hallonans did not stop at the mine, but have continued to advance within Geldar's borders, marching for the city.
Nola reveals to Rodney that her people have been able to use his teachings to develop explosives technology. She means to send a bomb to drop on the Hallonans from one of their dirigibles. Rodney calls John to warn him of the attack, knowing if it were to succeed it would be devastating to Hallona and avoiding casualties would be impossible. John and Teyla rush to the jumper and use it to shoot down the dirigible. The pilot is not hurt and the bomb is stopped.
Elizabeth visits the game room to monitor the situation on the planet and finds Lorn and Zelenka arguing over a trade deal involving food and baskets. It appears Radek did help those people he had been watching, and he and Lorne each claimed their own countries. Finding them arguing, Elizabeth angrily orders them away and then demands that the machine be just shut down for good. It is too much temptation to resist, and clearly even trying to help leads to conflict.
Nola realizes that her dirigible must have been shot down by the puddle jumper and is very angry. She is not deterred, however, and orders her assistant to ready the other bombs. Baden, meanwhile, orders a full-scale attack on Geldar launched in response to the attempted bombing. He believes it is the only way to stop further attempts and to protect his people from a weapon far beyond their capabilities.
Rodney and Ronon are watching the chaos in the oracle room and Ronon is starting to believe that they have no chance of stopping the war. Clearly Geldar and Hallona are determined to escalate the conflict. Rodney is telling him that he isn't ready to give up and doesn't plan to leave until they find a solution when they are both beamed out of the room. They find themselves on the Daedalus with John and Teyla. John explains that Elizabeth (refusing to use the device in Atlantis anymore) diverted the ship to monitor the situation. Caldwell, seeing that things had escalated, feared for the safety of his people and beamed them out. This gave John an idea, however. After implementing it, everybody beams back down to their respective countries.
Rodney tries one more time to talk Nola out of bombing Hallona. She says he told her she needed to start thinking for herself and not just relying on the oracle. This is her doing that. She is convinced that war with Hallona is the best thing for Geldar and its future development. Baden, likewise, is refusing to back down. His people might not have anything with the destructive power of the bombs, but they are not without their defenses. They are not as primitive as Nola believes. He orders his people to attack the airships (though it's not really clear with what--catapults, I think).
From the Geldar control room, Nola watches as her airships are shot down one by one by the Hallonans. The screen shows as Hallona's army destroys villages in its path and finally breaches the city. Explosions outside rock the building and Rodney is unable to make contact with John over the radio. Then all of the power in the room goes out, including the oracle device. Nola laments that it is over, and Geldar has lost.
In Hallona, meanwhile, things don't seem very victorious. Despite what Nola saw, the city is being rocked with bombs from the airships. Teyla claims that the jumper has been destroyed and they are trapped. John tries radioing Rodney with no success. The console shows Hallona being overrun just before its power cuts out. It appears that Hallona has lost the battle.
As things quiet down, John and Rodney quickly explain to Baden and Nola (and the audience) that there was no actual battle. While they were on the Daedalus, they hacked the oracle machines and uploaded a doomsday scenario for each country. They commanded the armies themselves to stand down and await further orders. The explosions that they felt throughout the city were just directed fire from the Daedalus, none of it hitting any people or buildings. It was all a big fake-out. They wanted to demonstrate to the pair the true stakes they were playing at, as well as to give them a taste of what war is really like.
Much chastened by their experience, Nola and Baden agree to return to Atlantis for peace negotiations with Elizabeth. Neither wants to risk the scenario they thought they experienced from actually occurring. John and Rodney, meanwhile, decide they'll just stick to playing chess with each other from now on.
Gee, the Ancients decided to set up civilization simulations and use real, actual, humans as their guinea pigs? Why am I not surprised? Grr. I am starting to wonder if the writers didn't have some sort of hidden agenda with the Ancients. Something along the lines of absolute power corrupts absolutely, perhaps? They do seem to be a valuable argument for the "just because you can do something, that doesn't mean you should do it" camp.
Sigh. I want to be mad at John and Rodney about this, but how could they actually realize that there were real people on the other end of their so-called game? I will concede with John that Rodney cheats though. As much as I love Rodney, one person with his particular brand of arrogance and intelligence is more than enough. A whole country? Yeesh. No. We see how well that worked out, eh? At least Rodney seemed to grasp right away what a bad idea it was to have real people actually running their country according to his whims. I will give him points for that. Now, Lorne and Radek, on the other hand, should have known better. At least they only got to the point where they were arguing about baskets before Elizabeth stepped in. I wholeheartedly agree with her call to shut down that machine. I would have gone a step farther and harvested the satellites on all of those planets for spare Ancient tech parts, but hey, that's just me.
I love the little moral dilemma that Rodney presented to the team at the start of the episode. I don't know if it was meant to have any sort of parallels in the episode, but I found it amusing. Of course Teyla and Ronon are not going to sit around thinking about what they would do in such a situation. For starters, they are both the kind of people who would do their best to find a way to save everyone in such a situation. Rodney should know this by know. For another, they are both often very reactionary--they see what's going on and they go from there. Planning ahead for what may or may not happen isn't really their thing, ya know?
Then we get to the hidden Easter egg in the episode--Katie Brown. Remember Katie Brown? Apparently Rodney is still dating her. Apparently, it's not even news, because he just randomly drops it into the conversation and no one even bats an eye. Hmm. Interesting. I know it's a matter of actor availability and contracts and such, but I hate how television shows, even those that are more or less set in a bottle, tend to just throw a character's relationships at us and pretend like they are full-blown and have always been running quietly in the background without ever bothering to show us. I mean, even if that character's significant other for whatever purpose can't appear on a semi-regular basis onscreen, the character could at least mention the other person from time to time. People do talk about the fact that they are in a relationship, and mention their partners, after all. Especially to the people they consider their family and closest friends. Probably I am reading too much into this though, but still. Okay, okay. Stopping now.
"So you're saying this is a game?" (Nola)
"Uh, no, no...I mean, we thought it was a game, but, uh..." (Rodney)
"We didn't know there were real people on the other end." (John)
"You are the oracle?" (Baden)
"I'm your oracle, yes. That doesn't sound right..." (John)
"You sent crates of citrus fruit! Citrus! Do you have any idea what an insult that is to my people?" (Nola)
"It didn't used to be." (Baden)
"Okay, see, I think I know where that comes from. Did M...the oracle tell you that citrus fruit was bad?" (Elizabeth)
"He made us aware of its toxic properties, yes." (Nola)
"We just saw that there were some people in trouble and we thought that maybe we could...um...help." (Lorne)
"No! No more 'help.' Clearly we are not qualified." (Elizabeth)
That's all, folks. See you back here on Wednesday for "The Ark."