Saturday, August 11, 2012

Stargate Atlantis--"Poisoning the Well"

“Poisoning the Well’ turns out to be both the introduction an effective delving into a moral quandary that I had hoped “Childhood’s End” could pull off. It is a powerful episode that manages to mix some incredibly horrific moments effectively with comic relief. Interestingly, the story centers around Beckett, a character who is not yet considered a regular cast member. But after this episode, I can see why his status changes.

Our heroes are visiting the Hoffan, a race once devastated by the Wraith, when they learn the existence of a possible immunity drug. Sheppard volunteers Beckett to help develop the serum ahead of the Hoffan’s schedule. Beckett works with a beautiful scientist named Perna, with whom he quickly falls in love.

This is the point at which the moral issues arise. The Hoffan want to use the captured Wraith, dubbed steve by Sheppard, in their experiments. They need cells from him. Weir initially objects because using a prisoner for medical experiments is forbidden by the Geneva Convention. While weir does not articulate her rationale, it is pretty clear the idea they will never make it back to earth again to face punishment for violating the Geneva Convention prompts her to say go for it. How much of her decision is spurred on by the fact she is starving Steve the Wraith to death anyway along with Sheppard’s assurance he has no pity for him is up to interpretation. There is a notion between weir and Sheppard that Steve the Wraith is dying any, so his death out to have meaning. Rationalizing wrongdoing or making the best of a bad situation? I am going to call it the latter.

When the drug is successfully created, it is going to be tested on a terminally ill volunteer. It is surprising how willingly everyone goes along with the idea. Even Beckett, who is torn over his “do no harm” dutye from the Hippocratic Oath, but goes along with the plan regardless. The immunity drug works, and the Hoffan waste no time inoculating people from Wraith attacks. But the drug has terrible side effects. It is poison to Wraith who attempt to eat anyone inoculated with it, but half of the people inoculated also die. Perna is one of the first to pass away. The Hoffan consider even the high casualty numbers acceptable in killing off their mortal enemy. Our heroes leave the planet immediately rather than assist in the genocide of half the Hoffan just to kill some Wraith.

There are some incredibly disturbing elements in “Poisoning the Wll.” the combination of Sheppard coldly taunting the starving Wraith by dubbing him Steve while claiming no pity for him sets the tone for some dark moral choices to comer later. Since when does Weir, an expert peace treaty negotiator, dismiss the Geneva convention at all, much less so easily? No one blinks when a terminally ill patient volunteers to perhaps die violently at the hands of steve the Wraith if the drug does not offer immunity as planned? It is not until everything goes south our heroes demonstrate any chane of heart. Sheppard is upset when Steve falls ill. Beckett regrets his part in the drugs development when Perna dies. They want to halt use of the drug when the Hoffan start dying, and leave the planet when the Chancellor and the rest of the government express not only a willingness to go forward in spite of the costs, but want our heroes to help diatribute the drug to all human planets. Not a happy ending, folks.

It does not have a happy endin, but “Poisoning the Well” is a compelling episode. The only weak point is the overlong montage sequence that switches between beckett and perna’s work developing the drug and Sheppard taunting Steve the Wraith. The latter appears to serve no purpose other than to offer splits in the former. Steve the Wraith has already proven he is not going to break. His tough refusal is the whole reason our heroes are going to go through with the dangerous drug test with the terminally ill man in the first place. We do not even get a sense of how much time passes, either, so what is the point of the montage?

The questionable montage is a very minor nitpick. The rest of the episode is great. Its greatest is due in no small part to Paul McGillon’s portrayal of Beckett. He is a brilliant scientist wrestling with his conscience while acting like a lovesick schoolboy around Perna. The atmosphere is equally good. The Hoffan home world has a certain world War II era feel in tone, style, and atmosphere. Picture a European people still reeling from World War I so terrified of the Nazi menace, they are willing to sacrifice half their people in order to wipe the Nazis out. I also liked how every discussion of moral implications took place in darkened hallways or rooms to give the conversations a shadowy, illicit feel. It all comes together splendidly.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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