A military man, O’Neill, tragically loses his child in a gun accident. This horrible event destroys his life, ruins his marriage, threatens his sanity. He retires from his special operations unit and turns to stargazing.
By the time he’s called out of retirement to lead SG1 as they explore strange new worlds, he’s already immersed so deeply in a secondary fantasy life that the existence of aliens barely makes a splash. He wisecracks and sardonicises his way through half a season without breaking a sweat.
In this fantasy he is Angus MacGyver, not Jack O’Neill. MacGyver lost a childhood friend to a gun accident, not a son. As a result, MacGyver has sworn off guns and will not handle one – not only that, but he dissuades others from using them whenever he can. MacGyver helps the needy, cares for the environment, does far more than any civilian should for society in general. He’s a positive force.
The fantasy culminates, of course, in MacGyver finding out he has a son – the mother of whom, yes, was killed by a gun rather than simply separating from him due to the awful tragedy they shared. She’s out of the picture, and MacGyver finds his son is perfect. Old enough to be independent, young enough to still want a dad, all the hard work is done and MacGyver can reap the rewards. His son, Sam, even has a proclivity for using guns which MacGyver can then talk him out of, saving him from that fate and changing his life for the better. No horrible gun accidents here: in the MacGyverse, nobody dies by the sword as doesn’t live by the sword.
But all is not well in this fantasy.
There are numerous attempts, from the SG1 side (which we shall call “reality” although even that is, I think, open to question), to pull him out. Pete Thornton is a clear allegory of General Hammond; Dalton, with his crazy schemes that never fail to pull MacGyver in despite his misgivings, is clearly Daniel Jackson. Teal’c actually shows up in MacGyver’s world, posing as a smiling high school jock who MacGyver educates about the laws of physics. But most frightening of all, the intellectual and moral centre for O’Neill (even more so than Jackson because his is a higher morality to which O’Neill can’t really relate [indeed, Jackson later ascends … more about this later], so he casts Daniel as Dalton and dismisses him), is Samantha Carter. Samantha Carter (Sam, tellingly) is the one person who actually pierces the veil. In that moment when she says “MacGyver”, she is speaking directly to him. Not only that, but their relationship is heartbreakingly perfect, Oedipal and Electral in a beautiful tangled mess. They love each other, in every way, but never consummate this love (well, not really) because it would be so wrong. O’Neill is a father figure to her. Literally.
Another interesting character in the fantasy is Murdoc, the impossible-to-kill villain of complex plans, impossible motivations and unjustified obsessive dislike. A clear Apophis allegory. And then, after his meeting with Sam and his retirement into happily-ever-after that essentially ends his fantasy scenario, there’s inexplicably more – MacGyver and the treasures of lost Atlantis, no less.
But there’s more to it.
Occasionally, O’Neill’s mind tries something more drastic to pull him out. Several times over, MacGyver is hit on the head, falls deeply asleep or is otherwise subjected to injury, and enters a second layer of fantasy.
These fantasies are quite freeform. There are a couple where he lives out a simple and noble existence in the Wild West town of Serenity (Serenity, as in acceptance of the inevitable), and another where he escapes the ship of death, aptly named the Osiris. MacGyver also encounters Anubis on this jaunt, and loses his grandfather (who is an interesting character in and of himself, reconciling O’Neill’s love of fishing with MacGyver’s vegetarian animal protectiveness). There is also a long sequence where he goes to “Arthurian” times, and meets “Merlin”. Something, it is important to note, O’Neill eventually also does.
In all these fantasies, MacGyver’s essential character is preserved. He is honest and his violence is never intentionally lethal. The recurring characters in his life appear, Wizard of Oz-style, and in the Serenity-sequence for example there is another tragic and senseless gun-slaying, this time of a Colton-analogy, at the hands of Murdoc-analogy.
But most importantly, these fantasies aren’t fantasies. MacGyver wakes up, into ostensible reality, and finds relics in his pockets.
What this means, in-show, is either that MacGyver really did travel in time and space and live these scenes and pick up these trinkets … or he has merely awakened from one fantasy into another, and his mind is trying to tell him so by leaving these pieces in his pockets.
We’ve come this far, come a little further with me.
Once we accept the Serenity / Camelot layer is a fantasy, and the MacGyver layer is a fantasy, the SG1 layer doesn’t work as anything but a fantasy either, albeit one even closer to the surface than the others. There are interconnctions and references that don’t make any sense (like the existence of this Sam and her reference to MacGyver), plus of course the entire Goa’uld and interplanetary exploration side of it. Daniel Jackson becomes a God but remains unable to give O’Neill what he needs, just like the Gods of organised religion in general – he can offer empathy, closure, a way to talk through things, but he can’t bring back O’Neill’s son or turn back time.
O’Neill’s sojourns into the more fantastical and farfetched sequences about his lost son coming back to him just seem like more hopeless and ultimately doomed-to-failure attempts at finding a solution. In another odd sequence of episodes, O’Neill’s mind swaps places with another person, so an otherwise dull and uneventful man finds himself head of a top-secret unit exploring alien worlds, and nobody believes him. The weak point of this storyline is lampshaded by them saying that O’Neill must have been fantasising / existing as an ordinary guy with a dull job who went bowling. O’Neill shrugs this off as thinking it was a daydream, and when challenged about why he would daydream about something so boring, he says it was nice to get away and do ordinary stuff for a while. Of course it was. No dead son to deal with there. These are all cases of his mind taking try after try to bring an end to this desperate circling around the keystone event that is tearing his sanity apart.
They’re near-reality analogies, though. Maybe his name really is O’Neill. His wife has left him. His son is dead.
And Jack O’Neill sits on his roof, alone, with a telescope, and dreams of a fractal sequence of lives in which his unendurable pain has somehow come to an end.