On Stargate

Posted by Jack on 2022-08-16 at 17:00
Tagged: scifi , television

Over the past few months I've watched the entire franchise of Stargate TV shows.

To be honest... it's pretty bad, but I enjoyed a lot of it.


First off let me say that the whole premise of the franchise is beautiful and evergreen. Mixing mythology with sci-fi tech, linking Earth to an ancient alien transport system means every episode you're just a stroll away from literally any situation the writers come up with. I'm glad the TV shows were developed because the initial Stargate movie barely had time to look at how cool this premise is.

It took me a while to get acclimated to the formula of the show. I tried watching SG-1 a few years ago and was thrown by the whole militaristic propaganda feeling. Airforce soldiers rolling around with P90s fighting aliens and protecting the human race was just too far from the enlightened Star Trek world I consider my primary TV fandom. Too much shooting and action, not enough clever, diplomatic or ethical sci-fi.

After watching MacGyver and getting addicted to Richard Dean Anderson (since he was literally the only reason to ever watch that show), revisiting SG-1 was only natural and for some combination of reasons the militaristic aspect didn't bother me as much.

The real trouble with the Stargate TV shows is that, especially early on, I think they're just way too cheaply done. Some of this cheapness is built into the premise so it's not "unreal" per se, but virtually all of the costumes and props are the sort of off-the-shelf items you'd expect to find on a studio lot. Soldier gear, Egyptian pyramids, tattered peasantry, medieval castles, frontier homes, 1940s warehouses. Most planets are Planet Canada, or endless dune seas.

There is some charm in the proximity to our world though. In the world of Stargate we haven't progressed into that post-scarcity Trek utopia. We are still flawed, we still have fractured politics and national interests. There are some good plot lines that revolve around keeping our place in the universe a secret from the public of Earth, of dealing with corporate interference, espionage and just plain political meddling in the project. There's also some fun seeing our heroes still being integrated into their lives on Earth even while adventuring during their day jobs.

Creating Tension

A major problem SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis (SGA) have is that the formula ends up having real trouble creating meaningful tension.

In part this is because the scale of conflict has the doors blown off from the start. In SG-1 the Goa'uld, and eventually the Ori are galaxy spanning baddies. It takes extraordinary circumstances for an even bigger threat to arrive, but over the course of its 10 seasons, humanity rises to every occasion and eventually prevails (spoiler alert =P) against what should be literally impossible odds.

Along the way you begin to recognize that O'Neill, Carter, Jackson, and Teal'c are in a very real way invincible. They never fail. Jackson is even killed once and comes back thanks to the Ancients and literal deus ex machina. The show has real trouble with consequences.

SGA is largely the same. Dealing with the Wraith and the Genii you begin to feel like there is literally no way Sheppard, Teyla, McKay or Ronon can fail. Down to the finale where they literally fly Atlantis back to Earth.

In each show, there is a genius character that will always figure out a solution. It gets to the point where any clock on the episode feels utterly toothless. Carter, Jackson, and McKay are the primary examples of total wunderkind multi-disciplinarians that cannot fail. The medical staff occasionally get a bone too, but even the militaristic characters will inevitably escape.

Stargate Command never really brings home the L. The stakes are sky high, but because they never fail it's never brought home. Earth is under threat many times, but never faces real consequences. Stargate Command or Atlantis are under attack many times, but we never really feel consequences. In a show that is trying desperately to be serial with long story arcs, all the ratcheting of stakes takes place off screen and on screen we get nothing but reset time and time again - with one notable exception of the death of Dr. Fraiser in SG-1 and the defection of Lt. Ford in SGA.

This is where Stargate's over reliance on military action really ruins it. Action is only exciting when there are real stakes and when the audience feels like the main characters are using cheat codes, it just becomes a yawnfest. The writers feel bound to make everything an existential threat to be defeated by force of arms or guile and it's, frankly, boring.

It made me appreciate Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) a lot more. Not only did TNG kill off Tasha Yar early in its run (establishing that, yes, main cast are mortal even if the others made it through the show) but the average episode had much lower stakes. There are some character episodes that have basically no stakes. But typically the danger is to the ship, or some members of the crew, not the entire Federation, or the balance of power in the whole galaxy. The big existential threat, the big bads, are usually your season finale type fare. None of them (the Borg, the Dominion etc.) are even close to galaxy spanning either, the galaxy is populated by thousands of minor species as well as hundreds of factions with their own culture and goals (even if they're portrayed as monoliths for the purposes of TV).

Now, TNG was not immune to the concept of plot armor, and the franchise reliance on "treknobabble" solutions literally coined the term, but the larger ensemble spread out the credit (avoiding the McKay style wunderkind tropes, even with Wesley Crusher on board) and, critically, the crew can take the L sometimes personally, or as a ship, as Starfleet or the Federation as a whole.

Reining It In

I know this sounds like I'm ripping Stargate a new one so let me soften the blow a little. The broad strokes of the show are mediocre at best, but there are some great episodes of SG-1 and SGA too. Generally these happen when the show is tackling some very fun sci-fi concepts.

For example, "Window of Opportunity" (SG-1 S04E06) is so much damn fun. It's Groundhog Day, but the execution is perfect. Unsurprisingly, the solution hinges on Jackson translating some Ancient text and messing with and getting an alien to break the time loop but on the journey there is plenty of time for comedy as well as character development.

Similarly, "The Other Guys" (SG-1 S06E08) is a great departure from the standard SG-1 fare that focuses outside of the main cast.

In SGA there were plenty of episodes I enjoyed, mostly separate from the main plot. Like "The Game" (S03E15) which was unbelievable but fun. Or Richard Kind's guest spots in "Irresistible" (S03E03) and "Irresponsible" (S03E13) because he made for such an atypical "villain."

And this obviously isn't a exhaustive list. There are plenty of episodes that are just great sci-fi fun, or have great individual moments. It's just how these episodes hang as a season - the frequency of combat, the frequency of a Carter/McKay miracle, the weakness of the overall plot that causes the shows to grind a bit.

As such I wonder how much both SG-1 and SGA suffer from forming in the cable TV pre-DVR and pre-streaming world. Both attempt to give their main stories a lot of time (compared to TNG which had hardly any continuity, or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which had plenty, but spread much thinner) but were still designed to watched week to week. A lot of the patterns and sameness I detect would probably be less apparent if I wasn't watching in three episode chunks multiple times a week.

... But the Characters

So what makes the franchise worth watching? The characters, no doubt.

O'Neill is great for his deadpan humor. Teal'c for his eyebrow lifting skepticism and outsider POV. Carter for her cheery brilliance. I found Daniel Jackson insufferable (especially any time ascension was mentioned) but he had some good moments too. General Hammond, Dr. Fraiser, even the oft-maligned Cam Mitchell and Vala were all great on screen (and tangentially I think the Ori were more fun as a big bad than the Goa'uld).

The SGA main cast is more of an acquired taste I think, but they all play their parts well. Sheppard and McKay sort of suck the air out of the room in their scenes, but Carson, Teyla and Ronon are fun sometimes too.

In fact, about half way through my watch, Stargate sort of broke my brain. I began to view the characters as player characters in a poorly run tabletop RPG. Sometimes the DM flails a bit, a plot point falls flat, or a setting seems too stock photo, but you watch to see the characters interact with each other on their way to inevitable victory.

It will be a while before I revisit these shows, but I'm curious how this perspective will reshape my enjoyment of the earlier seasons.

Stargate Universe

You may have noticed that I haven't made many references to Stargate Universe (SGU) even though that show capped my initial run through the franchise.

I actually think SGU is good and exempt from a lot of the criticism of the first two shows. I can see why contemporary Stargate fans might have hated it, but from a modern binger's point of view the show did a much better job of keeping my attention episode to episode.

Yeah, some of the early soap opera-y elements fell flat (Col. Young and Dr. Rush backstabbing each other in particular), and it does suffer a bit from the same "genius miracle worker" issue the previous shows did, but ultimately it fixed one of the main issues I had with SG-1 and SGA - it very successfully brought the stakes home. There's a lot of struggle, a lot of death, and I genuinely didn't feel like I could predict what would happen next. Their victory did not feel assured like it did in the previous shows and that was refreshing.

The main plot benefited from being much looser as well. The tension between the impulse to find a way home and the impulse to complete Destiny's mission was very effective as the main conflict, without having to paint entire galaxies with a single big bad, or to make every episode about kicking ass on some plot planet for some reason.

I also think SGU did a much better job fleshing out an ensemble that was larger than an SG team. With their body swapping visits to Earth (which is totally unbelievable but neat sci-fi tech) we learned a lot about many characters that make me feel as if I know them much better than O'Neill or McKay or any of the previous show's other main cast.

The show wasn't perfect, but it definitely deserved to have a better conclusion than it got.