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FAN REVIEWS: The Road Not Taken

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    FAN REVIEWS: The Road Not Taken

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    An experiment gone wrong pulls Samantha Carter into a parallel reality, where she must save Earth from an Ori assault before she will be allowed to return home.



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    Last edited by GateWorld; February 6, 2021, 09:53 PM.

    The Road Not Taken is the latest offering in the Stargate sub-genre of alternate universe tales. It’s always fascinating to explore the possibilities and this window into another universe doesn’t disappoint. While the story doesn’t quite manage to last the distance, it is elevated by a tour de force performance by Amanda Tapping that showcases her character, some great guest appearances and a lovely team moment between SG1 back in our usual Stargate universe.

    An AU story is never without the issue of how the characters shift between universes safely and the first part focuses very much on answering the question ‘how did she get there?’ The mention of inter-universe bridges and Merlin’s device are all very nice nods to canon and the arc but there is a tremendous amount of exposition and explaining which is only offset by the differences between the universes; Hammond in charge of the SGC, Major Lorne as SG1 leader, Sam as a Major divorced from Rodney McKay, the other members of our SG1 team all scattered. All of this keeps the interest.

    Unfortunately, if a tremendous amount of time is spent dealing with how Sam got to the other universe, hardly any is spent on how she got back beyond vague suggestions of an inter-universe bridge. The notion that they could not only do this in two weeks but that they also worked out how to send her back to the right universe stretches the suspension of disbelief to a fine thread for anyone with even a faint knowledge of physics. It feels like the writer, Alan McCullough, fudges it, sweeps it under the carpet and hopes nobody notices.

    It is part of a wider problem that the ending is something of a damp squib. While it is admirable that the story attempts not to focus on the Ori attack but rather what happens after, it means there is no dramatic climax in the final act. The Ori attack itself is superbly done; there is tension as they wait for the power to increase to an acceptable level, the special effects are good as always and there is a sense of awe as Earth is phased into another dimension.

    The shift to examining the political landscape is interesting enough given the various character interactions. There is a powerful scene between Sam and a defeated AU Mitchell confined to a wheelchair; here is a Mitchell who gave up and Ben Browder does a fabulous job at playing this alternative Mitchell who is at once pitiable and unattractive but has a hint of the honourable soldier we know. It’s a fine line and Browder pulls it off.

    Sam’s interactions with Landry are also impressive. Its great to see the two verbally joust as Sam challenges Landry even if it is in a different universe. However, despite the opportunity to make Landry the bad guy – and Beau Bridges manages to convey some hints of a darker, power hungry character in his scenes especially when he talks of suspending elections and refusing to let Sam go home – the story fails to make that leap completely and is the poorer for it because it is the reason why there is no dramatic climax. Had Landry really been a bad guy, it might have made how Sam got back more difficult to construct but it would have added real drama to the close of the episode.

    Instead, the story peters out with Sam being told by McKay his first task in his new role is to send her home. Hewlett’s performance as McKay is as enjoyable as ever. He does a great job showing an AU McKay that is annoying enough to be recognisable but not so annoying as to make the idea of our Sam working with him unthinkable. However, McKay/Carter is getting a little boring while it was a joy to see Sam/Hammond. For me, both the character and the actor set a standard as the SGC leader that has been difficult for their successors to emulate and this wonderful revisit to the character and his leadership made me miss him all the more. Davis certainly seems to relish revisiting the role, and he and Tapping work together as though he was never gone.

    With Sam the primary character, Tapping does a great job of carrying the episode. She delivers an accomplished performance; Sam’s awkwardness at being recognised as a hero, her dismay on learning who her counterpart was married to, her increasing anger and her challenge to Landry, her joy at being home. Tapping makes it all look easy. Kudos has to go to the costume department for the civilian outfits; Sam looked sassy and sexy; a woman not to be messed with. The whole story delivered a Sam true to the established character, and while I have been known to complain about McCullough’s characterisation of her, here he has her spot on.

    With Sam on her own for the most part, the episode ends with a wonderful team scene and a great moment as Vala hugs Sam and tells her they missed her. It is nice that the absent member Daniel is mentioned as he was in the opening. However, if the mention of Daniel was great, the non-mention of Jack in the AU is bizarre. While it would not be appropriate to shoehorn a mention of Jack into every episode, the non-mention of him in an AU story, especially in the scene where Sam is asking to speak to someone, sticks out like a sore thumb particularly for the fans who have followed SG1 since it began.

    If the story had just gone that bit further with Landry, been that bit more imaginative in its finale, this could have been a second stand-out episode in a row for McCullough. However, here, Tapping’s excellent performance and the nuggets of character interaction don’t quite hide the plot issues but they do enough to make this an enjoyable hour of entertainment nevertheless.
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      Sam's first visit to an alternate universe, courtesy of an ancient device and a lab experiment, starts well enough. The locals are reasonably friendly, the SGC is intact, and the technology is comparable to her own. It looks like she has a good chance of getting home.

      Of course there'll be hoops to jump through and science to do. The effects department come up trumps with a beautiful scene of Carter and Lee standing unscathed in a rain of weaponfire. Oh, and they also make the whole world disappear. Very handy, that.

      Given the premise, some of the dreaded technobabble is inevitable. Writer Alan McCullough wisely dispenses early on with talk of particles and interdimensional bridges, and keeps Sam's obstacles and options firmly in the realm of human interactions and political decisions.

      The first sign of something more sinister appears initially as a lighthearted joke. President Landry's instruction to his aide to compose a speech telling America that going without power indefinitely is a good thing is taken as a throwaway quip. It's a true shock when the pain stick is suddenly whisked out to use on a dissident, and though viewers who've seen more than a few SF shows will not be surprised that Landry thereafter is revealed as a despot, Sam's own dismay is enough.

      Amanda Tapping is suitably bewildered as Sam is whisked to press conferences and fêted at parties, and touchingly earnest when the time comes for her to speak her mind on political matters. As the sole member of SG-1 in most of the episode, a lot falls on her shoulders, but the allocation of most of the supporting roles is expertly done, and provides plenty of tension, twists and comedy.

      Frequently, in AUs, the use of the same set of regulars to play the major roles can feel contrived. Here, that was largely avoided by limiting the crossover SGC personnel to the very plausible Lorne and Hammond. Cam's presence did not seem forced, since he was not at the SGC and Sam had to seek him out. The only character who felt as if he was written in just because he was under contract was Landry. Although he played a pivotal role in the story it was hard to believe that the AU Landry had become president for any other reason than that Sam should have a familiar face, not too unsympathetic (Woolsey, Kinsey) and not so well-loved (Hammond) that the audience would have trouble seeing them as an oppressive dictator.

      David Hewlett impresses as the fourth, and perhaps most normal, version of McKay yet. Without taking away the character's essential annoyingness, he gives us a Rodney that we can just - just - imagine would win the heart of a Sam. Hewlett's scenes are full of humour and he is given virtually every funny line in the episode. But this McKay keeps our interest for another reason; he has a dignity that the others have all lacked.

      Cam, alone in his tenement, provides a punch for the episode. An unkempt ex-military cripple, drinking in the daytime, he initially seems to be a figure of pity. But he too appears to have more dignity than we'd expect. When we see that he's actually happier as a jobless invalid than as a working man implementing martial law, we, like Sam, feel the full horror of her situation.

      The Road Not Taken is strong enough in its design and execution that the denouement, where Landry simply Does The Right Thing because Carter and Hammond have told him to, can afford to be low key. Indeed, it is better that way since in underlining how Landry does want to be righteous, it gives strength to the dark, uncomfortable theme that whispers throughout all AU episodes and this one in particular: This could be our SGC if our luck were different. Stargate is not as gritty as some other SF shows, and Our Heroes will not have to take the roads that lead to moral decline, so it's good to have an acknowledgement, for Sam and for us, that they are extremely fortunate in this respect.

      A sweet closing scene, with cameos from the rest of the regular cast, was a fitting end to what was, despite its underlying darkness, a surprisingly feelgood episode. Stargate is picking up pace in these final weeks and, if The Road Not Taken is anything to go by, looks set to go out on a high.




        When it comes to the “Stargate” franchise (and much of televised science fiction, for that matter), stories involved alternate realities have become a massive cliché. Many times, they tend to be self-contained attempts to shake things up when the usual storytelling grind gets stale. Many fans still enjoy them for the chance to see old friends, but when overused, the plot device can be incredibly annoying. For seasoned veterans of the genre, it usually only works when the trip through the looking glass reveals something hidden in the “real world”, such as character motivation or impending threats. In other words, when the story manages to fit into an existing story arc.

        There’s a nice attempt to toss out some actual theoretical basis for the existence of alternate realities (those theories are actually real areas of research), and it makes sense that experimentation with Merlin’s device from the previous episode might have the effect seen in this installment. That connection between episodes is an important step towards making this episode contextually satisfying.

        There are some nice differences in this alternate reality, and it’s great to see Hammond back in the saddle. Landry as President is a bit harder to swallow, but when it comes to alternate realities, just about anything is considered possible. The response to the revelation of the Stargate program sounds a lot more realistic in this universe.

        Carter’s plan to hide Earth behind an Ori-proof forcefield is certainly impressive. Having the ability to tell the American public about the needs of the SGC for the defense of the planet is certainly better than playing political games. On the other hand, the public relations fallout from Carter’s success is completely new to her (and us, for that matter). Have we ever seen Carter in such a revealing dress?

        In an unexpected twist, the writers shift focus from the Ori threat to the world that Carter has managed to save. And that world has some interesting ideas about resolving the international issues that arose from the public unveiling of the Stargate program. It’s not a pretty sight. Dissention is put down brutally, and SGC resources are used against “terrorists” rather than the enemies off-world. Resources, like Carter herself, are forced into service.

        Considering that Carter is the character at the center of this particular storm, it’s a given that the writers would bring McKay into the picture. As one would expect, McKay is pretty much the same in every reality, and when a theoretical challenge (and a little ego-stroking) is dangled in his face, he can’t resist. That’s not nearly as distressing as Mitchell’s fate in this reality; Ben Browder sells the role incredibly well.

        Carter decides to speak out against the suppression of civil liberties, and in no time at all, she’s persona non grata. Considering what we’re told about the alternate reality, the decision to let Carter go is a bit convenient (and not at all surprising). However, the upshot is that Carter has something to think about when it comes to using Merlin’s device on a large scale. There’s no certainty that this “lesson” will stick, but in the end, this iteration of the time-worn plot device avoids the usual pitfalls and tells a solid story.