I’ve always been a Star Trek fan, and as such I’ve always hung around websites and people that adore Star Trek. And for years every time someone would bring up Stargate, the Trekkies would unleash a torrent of fury that would have made Ares himself look like a model of restraint. Honestly I decided years ago that Stargate was inferior to Star Trek and I never bothered watching it because clearly if it wasn’t Star Trek, it wasn’t worth watching.
So you can imagine what I felt like going into Stargate SG-1; I went in fully prepared to hate the series. I was only going to watch five episodes and then quit. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time on a show I clearly wasn’t going to like.
Six weeks later I found that I’d watched every episode of SG-1 and Atlantis.
Normally when your going into something expecting to hate it, you usually end doing so because it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Yet SG-1 was so charming, so inventive and so downright hilarious that I took an immediate liking to the series, all the preconceptions I had about the show we’re wiped out after a couple of hours watching O’Neill, Carter, Teal’c and Jackson fighting evil aliens. The characters were unique, varied and quite complex, which I wasn’t expecting from a show about ancient Egyptian aliens.
Whereas Star Trek plays it straight the entire time, SG-1 takes a more lighthearted approach, openly mocking the ridiculousness of its own premise on several occasions. What’s more, half the fun of the series is that SG-1 usually ends up causing more trouble than they solve. Humanity goes rushing from location to location, usually not knowing what the hell is going on, often times stumbling into obvious traps and mainly causing havoc on a galactic scale. I thoroughly enjoyed watching O’Neill resolve tense situations with weapon’s fire instead of diplomacy, or Daniel Jackson trying to piece together ancient mythology to understand the ways of Goa’uld, or Carter solve some scientific conundrum with technobabble and good looks.
As a small aside, I have to say I was impressed at how much effort went into the many battle scenes in this show. I was expecting some cheesy 80’s style special effects, and while there is some of that, mostly they use actual pyrotechnics for their explosions and the CGI is incredibly well done (considering the era it was made in). I also thoroughly enjoyed their use of actual outdoor shots, rather than the Styrofoam rock sets that plagued Star Trek.
But I’m here to talk about the writing, so let’s get down to it.
Stargate: A Storytelling Review
Stargate is an excellent example of a well done, plot driven series: even though the plot is driving the story most of the time, the character still play a central role. Most plot driven stories fail because the characters never get a chance to interact with the plot, they’re simply along for the ride. For the members of SG-1 however, the events of the plot have direct and indirect effects on the characters, allowing them to change and grow despite not being the driving force of the story.
So a brief breakdown of the plot: in the ancient past mankind was enslaved by a race of highly advanced aliens, who then assumed the identity of common mythological figures. Ra, Osiris, Anubis, etc. This race of aliens traveled using a highly sophisticated network of “Stargates”, which use artificial wormholes to travel instantly from one place to another. The aliens left, the ancient egyptians buried the stargate, and Dr. Daniel Jackson uncovered them two millennium later and learned how to use them. Humanity, eager to explore the galaxy, immediately beings sending teams through the stargate to explore what lays beyond, and it takes all of about five minutes to attract the attention of the Goa’uld who enslaved them in the past.
Most of the story revolves around humanity’s continuing efforts to defend themselves from the Goa’uld, and eventually finding a way to defeat them. That’s just the plot though, the real enjoyment you’ll get from this show is from watching the characters. The writing is tight and hilarious, but honestly I think a lot of the credit goes to the actors, they really seemed to be having a good time making this show and they worked well together. Jack O’Neill, the wisecracking leader of the group is constantly making sarcastic quips, especially at the brainy scientists Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter. Meanwhile Teal’c, a warrior who defects from the Goa’uld, is solemn and ill-humored. Daniel Jackson is a pure geek who is happiest when uncovering ancient history and translating languages. Samantha Carter is a highly intelligent physicist and airforce pilot, capable of thinking and fighting with equal skill.
Throughout the plot of the show, these characters change. Even though the plot is working independent of the characters, with new enemies and new allies appearing as the plot demands, the characters are being constantly affected by the plot. He initially joins SG-1 out of a desire to avenge the horrors that the Goa’uld force on his people, and while he believes humanity has the best chance of defeating the Goa’uld, he still holds himself apart from them. Yet when Teal’c sends his family into exile to keep them safe from assassins, he becomes closer with SG-1 as they become his surrogate family. Later, when his wife dies of an illness on the harsh planet where they hid, it’s SG-1 that helps him through it. His initial goal of vengeance is also replaced with a need to help his people become a free and independent society rather than a race of slave warriors.
Daniel Jackson is driven by the hunt for his wife, who was abducted by the Goa’uld and now used as a host. It becomes almost an obsession with him, driving his every action, even when the mission itself has nothing to do with his wife. Finally however, he finds her and has to come face to face with the fact that he couldn’t save her, no matter what he did. In that he finds some measure of peace and moves on with his life. Daniel is also the consummate scientist, skeptical of everything, looking for the logical explanation in even the strangest of situations.During the course of the show, however, he meets a race of aliens who have ascended beyond the material realm we exist in and now exist as pure energy and thought. He tries to explain this within the realm of scientific fact, but eventually he embraces the spirituality and unknowable quality of their transformation. Then, in the one of the best episodes of the series, he even dies and ascends to join the others.
I think Daniel Jackson had the most impressive character arc in this series: he goes from an aloof, skeptical and driven character to a highly spiritual, compassionate and deeply emotional character. All done with some great acting and great writing.
Unfortunately Stargate shared the same fate as many other TV shows: it just went on for too long. By Season 8, Richard Dean Anderson (Major O’Neill) takes on a supporting role, due to a real life knee injury and just being damn tired of doing the same role for 8 years. Another guy takes over for O’Neill, a blockheaded grunt of a man devoid of any personality or any redeeming qualities.
The tragedy of Stargate is that it went on for 10 years, whereas it should really have ended after 7. Instead of having a last hurrah celebrating their long journey together, like the finales of The Next Generation and Deep Space 9, Stargate is death marched to extinction. Slowly all the characters we’ve grown to love start to fade away, replaced by others we couldn’t give a damn about. First Samantha Carter starts to appear less frequently, Teal’C steps aside, and finally even Daniel Jackson begins getting less and less screen time. By the end of the series, when it’s finally allowed to die, it barely even feels like Stargate.
The show tries to keep the show afloat by introducing a new powerful enemy, the Ori. But much like Mass Effect series, it wasn’t really the plot we cared about, it was the characters. Once they were gone, the show was dead.
Shame it took the TV executives three years to figure that out.
Still, with that in mind, the show’s first 7 seasons are an absolute joy to watch. It’s different than Star Trek to be sure, but that doesn’t make it worse or better, it’s simply how it is. As shocking as some of my Trekkie friends will find this, you’re allowed to like both of them. This isn’t a marriage, they’re TV shows. Liking Star Trek and Stargate doesn’t mean you love either of them less. You don’t have a finite limit to what you’re allowed to like. Enjoy Stargate for what it is, a fun ride with some cool characters and stop trying to compare it a completely different show like Star Trek.
I wanted to tackle this topic, but I couldn’t really fit into the main article without losing the thrust of the subject. What I want to talk about though is the one major gripe I had with the show, and that was it’s all-or-nothing approach to space battles. What do I mean by all-or-nothing? I mean all the space battles come down to a game of rock-paper-scissors rather than any kind of exciting play by play.
In every major battle, it always comes down to one ship having impenetrable shields or a super-powerful weapon at their disposal. For instance when the Asgard arrive on the scene, their ships’ shields technology is completely impervious to Goa’uld weaponry (at least until Anubis arrives). Later Anubis’s supership has impenetrable shields and a massive planet killing weapon at its disposal. The Replicators make the most use of this, with their being invulnerable to be pretty much everything except bullets. The Ori too have ships and weapons that far outmatch everything else in the galaxy.
The unfortunate consequence of this all-or-nothing approach is that the tension level in some episodes varies wildly. When the Asgard arrive to save SG-1 from annihilation at the hands of the Goa’uld, there is an immediate release of tension because we know the Goa’uld are helpless against them. Likewise when our characters encounter an invulnerable opponent there’s a momentary spike in tension, followed by a feeling I can only describe as “meh”, as you wait to find out what McGuffin will be pulled out to counteract the invincible warships.
While I think this is a pretty realistic look at how space battles would play out, with some races being so technologically inferior as to be helpless, it just doesn’t make for a good story. In a story where the stakes need to be high and apparent, having invulnerable ships undermines it because we know the characters can’t hurt the ship and that just reminds us that the characters also can’t die so they have to find some magical way of killing them. It’s much easier to forget that the heroes are essentially invincible when you have your enemies fighting tooth and claw against each other.
Take the end of the Dark Knight Rises. In the back of our minds we all know that Batman will defeat Bane, but watching Bane breaking apart cement pillars with his fist and watching the maelstrom of battle whirl around their brutal fist fight, the tension in the air is powerful. Batman and Bane are throwing everything they have at each other, and each of them is hurting, and the winner will be the one who can deal the most damage the fastest. Sure, the fight is rigged, but we as the audience don’t consciously acknowledge it because we’ve become swept away by the action.
Now replace that final fight with Bane having an invulnerable forcefield or something. Suddenly it’s a lot less tense because Batman can’t really do anything to him, and instead of rooting for Batman to keep punching Bane in the face, we have to watch passively on the sidelines waiting to see what miracle technology he’ll pull out of his utility belt. Instead of getting swept away in the action, we’re pulled away from the story and being reminded that we’re watching a grown man running around in a cape and mask.
Stargate’s space battles would have been much improved had they taken a page from Star Trek or Star Wars, show both ships getting damaged rather than one dominating the other. Fortunately Stargate Atlantis seemed to correct this mistake…it’s just unfortunate that it made so many others.
A Brief Note on Atlantis
I’m not going to go much into Atlantis because I honestly wasn’t very impressed with it, in fact it’s a good analogy to say that Stargate Atlantis is the Star Trek Voyager of the Stargate franchise. Both shows played it too safe, tried to keep too much the same, and in the end it was just too much retreading of old ground to be that interesting.
You have a wisecracking, doesn’t play by the rules leader trying to mimic O’Neill and failing horribly. You have the strange Alien on the team who doesn’t understand human behavior. You have the aloof and brilliant scientist. And you also have the evil alien menace, who’s only real difference is in how they kill the humans.
The only character I really liked was Dr. McKay, and that was only because I felt he was a pretty accurate depiction of how I would react to going on secret missions to alien worlds: utterly terrified. Scrambling from cover to cover, running and screaming at the first sign of trouble, desperately coming up with excuses not to go. Yeah, McKay was basically me, except he was good at math.
Still, in the end Stargate Atlantis just didn’t do enough to create its own identity, opting instead to play it safe and copy-pasting the formula from Stargate SG-1 in hopes that it would create the same magic. It failed, and honestly, it deserved to.
Note: Apologies about the huge wall of text this time around. After placing the first two pictures I began having errors when trying to place more. As soon as I figure out what’s gone wrong I’ll edit this piece to include all the lovely photos, complete with sarcastic comments, that you all know and love.
Note 2: Finally fixed!