by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu.com Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: EL0604
Date: April 1, 2006 / Show Official Info /
A popular exercise in SF fan circles is to debate who you'd like to follow into battle. I'd like to say a few things about how we make that choice and why we often make the wrong one, though it might have been right at the time.
We picked up a TiVo at Christmas, and though it took a bit of work to get it integrated into the home network I managed to get it to talk to my computer via WiFi and we've switched from taping to TiVo-ing programs. This is a handy thing for us since my gal has gone to sea for a the next few months, and though she doesn't watch a lot of shows, she's fiercely loyal to the ones she does.
The fallout for me is that I'm recording a few of my own, but only a few. Ironically, I'm a plot driven reader...but a character driven watcher. My top two TV picks are based on who I like, not so much what they're doing. What and who are they? Stargate SG1 and Good Eats, and the characters I'm a fan of are, naturally, the unMcGuyveresque Col. Jack O'Neill and Mr. Food Science himself, Alton Brown.
As I'm fond of pointing out, many of us follow Winnie the Pooh's rule about stories, preferring ones where we're the central character, and these choices bear personal witness to it. I could be those guys. Well, at least I wish I could be those guys, which is the whole point of having heroes. It's something to shoot for.
What I really wanted to get to though is what it is that I like about them. Specifically Jack O'Neill, not because it says something about me, but where we are culturally.
Recently someone in WSFA, our local SF group, sent around a link to a site that would do a personality profile and tell you what ship from SF you'd be best suited to be a crew on. It turned out that I'm an Andromeda Ascendant type, out to single-handedly save the universe for peace, order, and the family of sentients...and my crew are all from Serenity. Basically well meaning anarchists feeling threatened by a looming power structure. Sigh. I know they'd like to save the world, but it's so far away and there's nothing they can do about it. Or was that my uncle talking?
...OK? Anyway, I like the captain of Serenity, but like most leading figures in SF, starting with James T. Kirk and going down the list...he's on about himself. In his own ineloquent way, he'd wake up one morning and tell everyone he'd decided to take Serenity on a ramming mission because some Imperial type that annoyed him was passing by. But he's got potential, held back by the scriptwriter, to find where his heart really lies, and to put his ghosts to rest. Which is more than I can say for James T.
Jim is often touted as the very model of a charismatic leader. That's the good and bad news rolled up into one. Essentially, he's the guy you know the scriptwriter is on the side of, and since it's all about him, he'll come out on top. Like most classic heroes though, it's tough on his friends, who are regularly thrown to the dogs to give him motivation. Of course, when he acts, it's to effect his feelings, not to affect the greater good. The needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many, or even the few...but there can be only one...and that one is James T. Kirk, Winnie the Pooh writ large.
I could say bad things about other heroic folks, from Jean Luc Picard to Indiana Jones to Miles Vorkosigan, but let's get to what I like, always my preference to the other side. The good news is that at some point all these guys, except Kirk, forever bound to William Shatner's very large shadow, could move away from the dark side and grow up. They could, at some point, realize it's not all about them.
Col. Jack O'Neill knows that. Richard Dean Anderson's character has none of the bitterness and hard bitten cynicism that the original film's character played brilliantly by Kurt Russel, brought to the big screen. Instead, like MASH before it, the video version brought in a friendlier face to fill the part, but even so, they left some of that world weariness intact. This O'Neill understands that the scriptwriter isn't on anybody's side, or if he is, you can't ask for favors, that what you do in the here and now matters because it's what there is, Why save the world? Because you've chosen to be part of it.
Like any good hero, he'd lean towards saving his friends before a bunch of strangers, but he'd step up to the plate and make the hard choice before the comfortable one. And you know he's as good as his word. James T. Kirk, you'll recall, is an end justifies the means guy, and often quite proud of it. Jack O'Neill is a classic straight shooter. More Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper than John Wayne. Though with a better sense of humor than either.
The other thing I like about O'Neill is that he's not the sharpest tool in the shed, and he knows it. And his team knows it. If Kirk has luck going for him, O'Neill has common sense and a healthy respect for the consequences of actions going for him. His people are free to find their limits under his mentorship because he's good at risk assessment and cares about what happens to the team and the mission. Often, the brightest people are often unable to parse the real world risk accurately. I'm not convinced that this is a universal truth, as it might be a by product of our academic system, which drives people into specialized fields and isolates them from the outside world, but regardless, the bright often need the sensible to look out for them. Jack's got that covered.
He also manages to set personal limits and stick to them. I haven't watched every episode, nor do I expect to, but I don't expect a resolution to the ongoing romantic tension between him and the female lead, Scientist Samantha Carter. Nor is there a lot of whining about it. The unreality comes in when nobody ever leaves the command, which isn't the way the real military works at all, but that takes more risk tolerance than most studios have.
Back at the beginning of all this I said we often make the wrong choice about who to follow into battle. Though it might have been the right choice at the time. The time we formed that choice was probably during our adolescence, and testosterone pumping dare devils appropriately maximized what we longed for. What was it Dr. Jones promised his young companion at the beginning of Temple of Doom? Fortune and glory? Well, it was the 80s, and Short Round was young yet, though I'd say he knew what he really wanted was to be Indiana. That's a good thing, by the way, but not a thing that lasts forever. There comes a time when we need to leave the berserker bravo behind and take on a real challenge.
Kirk had a chance, when the first film made him an Admiral, but he couldn't face the the idea of a universe that didn't revolve around him, ultimately reducing his character to a cartoonish and dismissable buffoon. When O'Neill left the show, he did so because he recognized that he could do more by moving on than by standing still.
That's the kind of lesson worth learning.