Episode Review of Stargate SG-1 Season 8: "Avatar"

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Episode Information

Title: "Avatar"
Written by: Damian Kindler
Director: Martin Wood
Rating (out of 4 stars): *1/2
Reviewed on: July 30, 2007

Synopsis from GateWorld


This is an interesting episode, with a look at Teal'c's character, but it suffers from a fatal flaw.

Dr. Lee and the other researchers have been developing a virtual reality (VR) simulator using the technology from season 2's "The Gamekeeper". The goal is to make a realistic simulator to train SGC personnel. This is a laudable and very logical idea. Even with today's "primitive" technology, simulators are used in military, driving, and piloting training, just to name a few situations.

Dr. Lee convinces Teal'c to test out the reality of the simulator, since Teal'c is the SGC's best warrior. After the first scenario, with a Kull soldier gating into the SGC and massacring everyone except Teal'c, who dispatches the soldier quickly, Teal'c proclaims that the simulator is not realistic. However, Dr. Lee says that the simulator's program will learn from Teal'c's memories and actions and continually create more realistic (that is, difficult) scenarios, and so he convinces Teal'c to try it out for awhile longer.

Since SG-1's experience with the VR simulator in the season 2 episode, the technology has been altered so that the subject can end the simulation from within. In Teal'c's case, the simulation will end when he wins, or when he executes the fail-safe, which is to take the SGC elevator (in the simulation) to the surface. However, it is revealed that the simulation cannot be stopped by "real" people, nor can the electronics connecting the computer and Teal'c's brain be removed during a simulation without causing him serious damage. It's completely, totally unbelievable that the SGC would employ this technology, even in a testing stage, with this being the case.

An outside person must have some way of ending the simulation or disconnecting the subject. What if the subject becomes unconscious? What if the SGC is attacked during a simulation, and the subject is needed? What if the power goes out at the SGC and the simulation must be ended before the backup power runs out? There are any number of reasons why an outside person should be able to exert this control. I believe setting up this situation without this kind of control is frankly sloppy writing - it's just purposely writing the SGC characters as being stupid so that the desired situation can occur. I can't think of another episode where one flaw has so completely ruined my suspension of disbelief in it and enjoyment of it like this one did.

In addition to an outside person being able to end a simulation, I think it would also make sense for the outside person to be able to jump in and control the computer's programming of the scenario, if desired. This type of control could allow a person to program in a "safe" ending to the simulation, if that was needed for some reason. While I don't think a person could keep up with the computer and program an alternate scenario on the fly, the person could direct the computer to one of a number of pre-programmed endings.

However, the writers would have us believe that the SGC scientists are not smart enough to implement these kinds of safeguards. Teal'c apparently thinks the safeguards available on his end are sufficient; indeed, they should be, but I give numerous reasons above why an outside person should also be able to take control.

Teal'c replays the scenario. This time, the Kull soldier changes tactics and kills Teal'c. In real life, the simulator chair activates Teal'c's pain receptors, apparently simulating the pain of death. This is another irresponsible action the scientists have taken: allowing pain activation. Sure, Carter and others say that it provides realism. However, no matter how realistic the simulation looks and feels, the subject will know that it's not real. Unless the subject's memories of reality are removed, no simulation will ever be able to perfect reflect reality. That doesn't mean that the simulations are useless! It just means that they cannot wholly substitute for real-life training and experience.

In the simulator, Teal'c improves his tactics with each run through the scenario. Likewise, the Kull warriors also improve. A second Kull warrior is brought into the scenario. Then a third one, with an invisibility device. Then finally, a Goa'uld apparently accompanies the Kull soldiers, takes over random SGC members, and creates chaos by setting off the base self-destruct or a naquaadah generator. Despite the episodes flaws, I will admit that it is fascinating to see how the computer "learns" from each run through the scenario and manages to find new ways to kill Teal'c. It's also a bit of guilty pleasure to watch the SGC get shot up repeatedly and our heroes of SG-1 get mowed down.

In real life, the repeated "death pains" Teal'c is receiving is damaging his body with their cumulative effect. However, Teal'c hasn't given up and used his fail-safe, and he hasn't defeated the simulation, so it keeps resetting and playing over.

Finally, after a particularly brutal end game of the scenario, Teal'c employs the fail-safe. The simulation does not stop, but merely resets again. Carter surmises that the computer has "learned" that Teal'c would never give up and has therefore neutralized the fail-safe. That means that Teal'c's only way out is to win the scenario. His body is nearly exhausted, and in the simulation, Teal'c has reached a breaking point. When it starts over, Teal'c just sits down as the SGC is destroyed. He does this through multiple resets. While I do believe that in real life Teal'c would never give up, he obviously realizes that this fight against a computer program is futile.

Carter has been studying an imprint of Teal'c's mind from the season 2 encounter with the VR simulator and has been using it to try out tactics Teal'c might be able to use to win. She can't find any way he can win, because the computer keeps getting better. She believes Teal'c's mind has turned this fight into an allegory for their fight against the Goa'uld, and apparently he doesn't believe they can be defeated. This may mean Teal'c is doomed.

In desperation, and inspired by an O'Neill comment, Carter and Lee come up with a plan: another person will be put into the simulation with Teal'c, but they will be "ahead" of the programming loop and therefore be able to know what's going to happen two seconds ahead of time. This may give Teal'c and his ally enough information to allow them to win the simulation, or the second person could also be stuck like Teal'c. In a heart-warming moment, O'Neill, Carter, and Daniel all volunteer simultaneously.

Daniel is finally chosen to go, with the reasoning that he has the least tactical knowledge for the computer to learn from. However, in the simulation, Daniel has a hard time convincing Teal'c that he's trying to help. After they work together through a few runs of the scenario, they are clearly making progress. They arrive at an end-game where Carter is apparently trying to shut down a naquaadah generator set on overload by Sgt. Siler, whom she zatted. O'Neill also shows up. Teal'c knows one of them must be the Goa'uld, but he doesn't know which. Daniel's two-second-ahead knowledge also is not helpful. They must decide which person is the Goa'uld and kill it before the naquaadah generator explodes, or the simulation will reset again. Suddenly, Siler wakes up and attacks - he is the Goa'uld. Teal'c kills him and the simulation ends. Teal'c and Daniel are both released and wake up with no apparent damage.

This episode is interesting for how it grinds Teal'c down. He is "killed" over a dozen times and must watch his friends be killed repeatedly before him. Even though it is only a simulation, it is exhausting to him. Unfortunately though, the repeating scenarios do become, well, repetitive, and less and less interesting to watch.

So does Teal'c's eventual victory over the simulation indicate that he now believes the Goa'uld can be defeated? Well, I'm not sure - after all, he won by cheating (with Daniel's future knowledge). I guess I could interpret this as Teal'c feeling the ends justify the means. Frankly, I think that's reading too much into this episode.

It was nice to see Siler being the bad guy in the end, since it keeps up the running gag of Siler always getting beat up, or injured, or otherwise on the raw end of the deal.

Otherwise, there is not much to comment on. The doctor tending Teal'c in this episode, Dr. Carmichael, actually seems to have a personality and is an improvement over Dr. Brightman in "Lockdown", but I don't necessarily expect to see him again.

Some of the visual effects in the simulation are very nice, giving a bit of a video-game feel to the camera work. What we see of how the computer simulation looks on a computer screen is already getting pretty dated, though.

Overall, this episode takes a potential training tool and employs shoddy writing to create a dangerous scenario. These events never should have occurred.

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