It’s 1997, and the Stargate SG-1 writers are in a bind. They have this main character, Jack O’Neill. In theory, his backstory has been told in the feature film from which the series spun off. But does anyone actually remember that? Also, they have this Sam Carter character now. She’s pretty awesome, plus her ex-fiance just died from never-reversed molecular decomposition. Maybe there’s some room for nudging and winking here? Just what is O’Neill’s deal, anyway?
And what’s the deal with these human-clone Gate civilizations? Yeah, yeah, we know all about the Goa’uld terraforming planets and transporting humans there as slave labor. But isn’t the whole point of science fiction to fire the imagination? How have they gotten six hours into their show about exploring the galaxy without introducing any new alien species?
“Cold Lazarus” is an attempt to mash together the answers to all of the above. While it technically succeeds, in that the viewer can now ship Sam and Jack without guilt, it fails at being an interesting episode of television. It breaks no new ground in SG-1‘s emotional or galactic landscape.
This is all the more surprising because, on paper, the episode brings us a lifeform that’s as non-humanoid as you can get: sentient energy beings housed in blue quartz crystals. I believe this is the only time non-engineered inorganic life appears in Stargate. It’s even more significant as the first time that any energy being is introduced. No spoilers, but let’s just say that SG-1 gets a lot of mileage out of this concept in later seasons.
This episode is also successful at flipping the script of the episodes preceding it. Up till now, all the Gate civilizations have been derived from human populations with easy-to-place cultural antecedents, with SG-1 providing them a refresher course on humanity. Now it’s the Earthlings facing something they don’t understand and, through the mechanism of the Unity assuming Jack’s identity, being taught something about themselves.
“Cold Lazarus” begins on a desert planet, in which the only objects in sight are sand dunes and the broken remains of several large crystals. As the team collects them to bring back through the Stargate, O’Neill finds an intact crystal, touches it, and is promptly knocked out. His team doesn’t notice, as the energy in the crystal forms itself into a duplicate of him, which heads back to Earth. There it fixates on his long-dead son Charlie and helps Jack’s ex Sara get some closure on their relationship.
Meanwhile, Carter realizes that the crystals may have been blown apart by staff weapons, leading to a Bones-like unauthorized experiment. Soon she, Teal’c, Daniel, and the real O’Neill make contact with an energy being whose crystal has been damaged but not destroyed. From it they learn that the crystals call themselves the Unity and that they were indeed destroyed by the Goa’uld, who didn’t take kindly to being knocked out every time they bumped into a crystal. The Unity can’t survive for long on Earth, though, as their home planet has a weaker electromagnetic field, and their death throes involve more radiation than the team is comfortable with.
By now, “Jack” has already begun succumbing to its “illness,” and SG-1 tracks it down to a hospital, where it finally explains itself to O’Neill. It remembered what happened with the Goa’uld, and knowing nothing about humans, was terrified of history repeating itself. So it read Jack’s mind, saw that his most fervent wish was for Charlie, and thought that if it helped him out, it could head off a potential massacre. It gives Jack and Sara the illusion of a few minutes with their son, before returning to its home planet through the Stargate.
So where does “Cold Lazarus” go wrong? Well, for starters, it lacks any kind of emotional stakes. The loss of his son may well be O’Neill’s deepest pain, but besides getting him assigned to the original Stargate team, that pain is mostly incidental to the series. (The exception is, of course, the fantastic season 4 episode “Window of Opportunity.”) Nor does his relationship with Sara seem particularly interesting, as their breakup stemmed from the most generic relationship failure mode since male fear of commitment. Harley Jane Kozak is nice enough as Sara, bringing an intelligence and weariness to the role that contrast pleasantly with “Jack”‘s flat demeanor. But the episode makes it clear that they’re not getting back together anytime soon. So, why go through all this?
Partially it’s to give Jack a chance to see his son again, as the Unity who assumed his identity later forms itself into Charlie. This is supposed to be moving, but mostly feels maudlin. After all, we haven’t spent the episode learning O’Neill’s true feelings on the subject, only Sara’s feelings and “Jack”‘s interpretation of O’Neill’s state of mind. By the time the hospital scenes come around, it’s been established what we should feel when Sara sees “Charlie.” But O’Neill’s interactions with him feel forced and undeserved.
This underscores the episode’s more direct problem, which is its pervasive lack of discovery. The point of exploration is to, at some point, learn something you didn’t already know. That’s what Carter, Daniel, and Teal’c are all busy doing in their plots. But O’Neill doesn’t get to make any emotional discoveries to parallel them. Sure, an alien hologram that lives in a crystal gives him a dramatic pep talk, but he doesn’t go on the same journey that everyone else does.
Even Carter and Daniel don’t get to discover as much as the viewer might like. After all, in the world of SG-1, the Unity should be such a new and outrageous phenomenon that you’d expect people to talk about them as the discovery of a lifetime. How do crystalline lifeforms even evolve? What are the optimal conditions for their survival? If they can successfully mimic an adult human for hours, what else are they capable of? Should we start surveying large quartz crystals on Earth to see if the same capabilities could evolve here? “Cold Lazarus” feels frustratingly bound, as it ignores all these questions in favor of rehashing O’Neill’s relationship status. It’s cool that the writers are trying to ground these plots in the limited character histories they’re working with, but successfully juxtaposing fantastical aliens with average humans takes more than this.
Today in Teal’c: Poor Teal’c. Since his best friend on Earth got replaced by a mutating electrical doppelganger, the only way he can learn about the world is by watching TV. Unfortunately, the news in 1997 was, somehow, just as intense as news is today, at least to the inexperienced viewer. Good thing it didn’t scare him off Earth completely. Plus, now he knows what a Stanford is!
- “No offense, Colonel, but this becomes the women’s locker room…now. You know how I hate those sandy planets!”
- “I’ve noticed the crystal has a low-level EM field you should check out. Either that or my fridge magnets fell off the wall all by themselves.”
- “Son, if upsetting her is your way of trying to win a woman’s heart, it’s a stupid one. Anyone ever tell you that?” “I think you just did.”
- Judging by the sounds of Carter typing, the SGC has some nice mechanical keyboards.
- “Get me out of here! Tell you what, I’ll put it nicely. Get me the hell out of here!”