Stargate (2008)


From the “Time Trap” regular feature of Death Ray 12, this piece allowed me to voice why I think Stargate is not very good. Finally. I tried to be reasonable in this piece, as lots of people love SG, but frankly I thought it was dreadful. I liked the film though, that counts for something, eh?

1997 saw the beginning of what was to become the longest running SF show besides our own Doctor Who. But it was hardly groundbreaking stuff. Just why was Stargate so popular?

1994, and an SF movie called Stargate hit the screens. Meeting with middling reviews, it made a good return, but sank out of the popular consciousness with rapidity.

Stargate was yet another SF concept that drew inspiration from Von Danniken’s Chariots of the Gods, which suggests aliens were behind many of the ancient world’s technologies. A disgraced archaeologist named Daniel Jackson (James Spader), who regards the pyramids as landing platforms for alien spaceships, is recruited by the US government to help in deciphering the writing on a mysterious artefact found in 1928 in Egypt. He succeeds, and activates a wormhole to the alien world of Abydos. Jackson is sent along on a military expedition led by Colonel O’Neil (Kurt Russell) to Abydos, where an offshoot of the ancient Egyptian civilisation lives, and once there they must do battle with a parasitic alien who is worshipped as the sun god Ra.

The film, produced at a time when SF was going through a lull in popularity, was an entertaining yet fairly pedestrian affair. Despite its big themes and healthy budget, the movie feels small. It won six awards, among them the Saturn Award for best SF film, but was derided by critics for its over-reliance on effects. Though the film earned nearly four times its budget of $55million worldwide, plans for a trilogy of films were scrapped, and producers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich continued their patchy career as movie moguls elsewhere. It produced a couple of firsts – first dedicated film website, one of the first uses of realistic water CG effects (ironically, not for water, but for the Stargate wormhole). Entertaining yet entirely average, that should have been that.

Except it wasn’t.

Three years later, Stargate SG-1 hit the Showtime network in the US. The creative minds of Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright replaced Emmerich and Devlin, and the two leads were taken up by McGyver’s Richard Dean Anderson (O’Neill – note the show’s version has two ‘L’s) and Michael Shanks as Daniel Jackson. More regulars joined the show: Amanda Tapping as scientist Samantha Carter, Christopher Judge as rebel alien slave Teal’c, and Don S Davis as Major-General Hammond, the man in charge of the operation. “SG-1” was the name of the team, just one of several which explored the ancient wormhole network. Ra’s race were the show’s first villains, and given a bigger backstory. It was revealed that Ra was not, as the film had stated, the last of his kind. Albeit a high ranking “Sector Lord”, he was but one among thousands of other Goa’uld. More alien races followed, each having had a part to play in the history of mankind. Humanity in the SG universe is a re-evolved form of a bunch of extra-galactic aliens named the Ancients. The Ancients built the stargates and are the ultimate source of most of the other races the SG teams encounter, of which more and more were revealed as the years went by as the mythology becoming increasingly complex. In an extension of the film’s central conceit, many of these alien races had been meddling in the affairs of Earth over the millennia, each one giving rise to a new set of legends. Thus we got Thor, who is essentially an alien grey; and Merlin, a spiritually ascended pre-Earth human. The team also encountered a number of planets across the galaxy that bore remarkable similarities with various historical and legendary periods on Earth, their inhabitants having been transplanted at different times in the past.

This familiarity was the show’s greatest asset. The audience’s fuzzy knowledge of the legends presented made it more accessible, and the production team could legitimately plunder stock costumes and riff on well-known cultures without qualms. Unlike other series, SG-1 had a solid, science-fictional reason as to why there was a planet of the Romans, or a planet of the Britons, and why everyone everywhere was human.

Unfortunately, this is inexcusably naff no matter how you dress it up. Episode after episode had the team landing somewhere in a Canadian pine forest, encountering a bunch of folks in unconvincing period garb and solving their problems. It had all the usual character stereotypes common to this kind of SF TV – passionate scientist, intuitive woman, honourable alien warrior and military-minded leader. Richard Dean Anderson’s determination to play his O’Neill as part comic relief, quirking his eyebrows at every opportunity (eyebrow acting, in fact, was a particular bane of this show – Teal’c was another character whose brow seemed to be operated off stage by effects technicians) did not help. But the show was a hit, and proved resilient to cancellation.

The show was canned by Showtime after five years, only to be picked up by Sci-Fi, who would produce for another five years. Eventually, it would beat The X-Files to become the second-longest running SF series in the world, after Doctor Who. The show’s budget slowly increased, to around $1,400,000 an episode, more effects were introduced. Spin-offs followed. 2002 gave us the moralising cartoon Stargate Infinity. Set 30 years into the timeline’s future, this non-canon effort tried to put an educational spin on things, yet failed to find a young audience. Stargate: Atlantis fared better. Begun in 2004, this show featured another SG team operating in the Pegasus galaxy, the location of the fabled city (here a giant, flying technological construct of great power built by the Ancients). Now in its fourth season, the show has picked up a healthy following of its own, perhaps helped by multiple crossovers with its parent. Another spin-off, Stargate Universe is under development, while two TV movie, follow-ups to SG-1, will be released this year. There have, of course, been a number of spin-off products. A roleplaying game, novels and a collectible card game are to be expected, but there’s a World of Warcraft-style MMO on the way. These are a serious financial gamble, requiring a great deal of money to create and run. To even think about something like this is economically uncountenanceable without the certainty of a guaranteed audience. It is a badge of the show’s success, and will be released later this year.

Despite its popularity, Stargate is not a franchise that has met with universal acclaim. It has won a number of plaudits, but it has never managed to transcend its genre like the best Trek series or The X-Files, and remains purely an SF show for SF fans. Not all SF fans love it, and was poorly received by a large chunk of the British genre press. In later years, when coverage in certain magazines became more frequent and more positive, this was down to the show’s popularity, not because of any change of heart on the part of the publications (we were there!)

But why this popularity? If we take a look at the most popular recent SF shows, they have two things in common: a deep, involving mythology, and  characters with which the audience can fall in love. The X-Files had it, so did Star Trek, and Doctor Who.

Note we use mythology here purposefully, not arc-plot. SG-1 was always more about world-building than the on-going storylines we see in more recent creations like Lost or the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. SG-1, in common with many series from this period, did have an arc built in to the first season, but it was very much in the background, and standalone episodes predominated. Other Canadian-produced SF shows with full arcs from this time, such as Earth Final Conflict, lacked the flexibility to present one-off tales convincingly, and thus fell victim to syndication demand that episodes be broadcastable in any order. SG-1‘s robust, planet-a-week format was friendly to this market. Its mythology and later arcs grew organically, and there’s a sort of charming honesty to that. It made the viewer feel they were on the same voyage of discovery as the writers, rather than trying to puzzle out their intentions as with 24 or Lost.

Stargate’s other grand advantage was its cast. The regular crew were stereotypes to be sure, but they were carefully picked ones. Daniel Jackson, in particular, became extremely popular, (the rumour is perhaps too popular for some, forcing Shanks to depart the show for a couple of seasons). Later, Richard Dean Anderson took on more and more duties as executive producer, eventually taking his character out of the team so he could spend more time with his family. He stayed as an actor in the show as the new head of the Stargate programme, though. Later additions to the cast included Beau Bridges, and Farscape alumni Ben Browder and Claudia Black. That Shanks was brought back and Black’s character was given a permanent slot because of her good reception by the audience highlights another of SG-1‘s strengths – the production team listened to its fans.

Our biggest criticism of the franchise is that, for all its charm and energy, Stargate was pretty lowbrow stuff. The hallmark of a great SF series is in its tackling of real SF ideas. The best shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, eventually generate its own questions, based on that universe. Stargate‘s SF was borrowed and blowsy. Though the central conceit of Stargate – a human panspermia instigated by a highly advanced ancestor civilisation – is an SF motif, in Stargate it served only as a basis for a fictional history. Likewise, each episode played with ideas that were rooted in SF – being projected into an alternate universe, being replaced by robots, going to the planet of the misogynists – but these were, like the show’s dabbling with ethics, simply to present the team with a weekly dilemma. Such things were a matter of convenience for producing a likeable action adventure series, not a real examination of anything. In this it owes as much to the cosy conventions of epic fantasy as it does to SF. Of course these fun trappings of world building and character are central to all good SF shows, and Stargate did both well. A universe is the body of TV SF, ensemble cast the heart. What Stargate SG-1 lacked was brains.

Good fantasy evokes deep emotional responses, good SF examines intriguing problems. Stargate, for all its charm and occasional spectacle, did neither of these things – you only have to watch the flat death of Daniel Jackson at the end of season five to see this, a death that is followed by a cheesy apotheosis. There was never any deep discussion of concept or of issues in the show. Everything in Stargate was knowable, safe, conquerable by Earthman ingenuity, friendship and quips. It’s low-fibre SF, a soap opera in space, well-designed, internally fascinating, but junk food TV, nevertheless.

But an awful lot of people love junk food, and no matter what we might say about its relative merits, we predict that Stargate will reign for some time as the absolute epitome of SF-lite.

Aliens galore

A brief guide to the ETs to be found beyond the Stargate.

The Alterans

The greatest of the Four Great Races, the Alterans were the first evolution of humanity, and populated both the Milky Way and Pegasus Galaxies with humans. They built the stargates, and much other advanced technology. They have ascended to a higher plane of existence, but are split into two factions, Ancients who are good, and Ori, who insist everyone should worship them.

Goa’uld

The original baddies of the film and show, the Goa’uld are worm-like parasites that trick other races into believing them to be gods. Humans make particularly good hosts for them. Though it is revealed that Ra is not the last Goa’uld as stated in the film, there are still only a few thousand of them. They have spread humans further round the Milky Way. Good Goa’uld are called the Tok’ra.

Jaffa

Humans taken from Earth and genetically modified to be servants of the Goa’uld. Part of their duty was to be hosts to juvenile parasites. Teal’c is a Jaffa.

Asgard

Aliens from another galaxy, the Asgard are ‘alien greys’ who were worshipped as the Norse Gods. They could not ascend due to genetic flaws caused by their cloning system. To spare themselves the pain of an associated disease, they committed mass suicide. One of the Four Great Races.

Replicators

Super-advanced, hive-minded, self-replicating machines. Each one is small, but they can join together to form specific tasks. The enemies of the Asgard. One of the best SF ideas in the show. The Asurans are a form of Replicator.

Wraiths

Originally beetles, the wraiths are parasites that feed on the lifeforce of others. Having glutted themselves on humans introduced to the Pegasus Galaxy by the Ancients, they have evolved into humanoid creatures. Due to a series of tactical blunders on the Ancients’ part, the Wraiths beat them in a war.

Nox

One of the Four Great Races. They are exceedingly powerful, yet appear to be primitive Ewok-like characters.

Furlings

Never seen in the series, possibly extinct. Fourth of the Four Great Races.

Tau’ri

You and me baby, and all the other humans, from the advanced Tollans to the most primitive tribesman. Now, thanks to SG-1, we’re the Fifth Great Race of the galaxy.

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