Guest Post: Bruce Boville
The Stargate franchise is the most underrated science fiction show, and in the canon of the genre deserves to be included with Star Trek and Star Wars. Specifically Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and probably even Stargate Universe, though I wouldn’t fight anyone over that last one because I don’t love it. With that said, this discussion won’t really include Universe because it is such a different kind of show that it would need its own discussion. It also won’t include the original 1994 film Stargate which was also great, but is different from the shows that we’re talking about.
So, before we get into this, let me lay some ground rules. First, when I say that it is underrated, that does not mean it is the best. While I think it is, that’s not my claim here. What I mean to say is that it is fantastically good, but its goodness is not given the recognition it deserves. Second, I also acknowledge that the original, SG-1, had 10 seasons totaling well over 200 episodes. Clearly someone rated it pretty well. When I say it’s the most underrated, what I mean is that the gap between its quality and its reception by sci-fi fans is the most egregious.
Stargate is a character-driven military sci-fi franchise that tackles questions of what it means to be human and what it means to be a god. The core plot revolves around an ensemble cast of primarily Americans in the late ‘90s and early 2000s as they explore a galaxy that has been laid wide open due to the discovery of technology they don’t understand. In doing so they confront the alleged gods who have ruled the galaxy for millennia and attempt to free their worshippers from tyranny and slavery to their “divine” masters.
A word of warning to any aspiring Stargate fan: it is supremely unconcerned with continuity in its technobabble. The actual way that the fictional technology works is unimportant because the show is about people rather than the world. In this way it is much like Star Wars–the original movies don’t care how a lightsaber works because it affects the story not at all. But for some reason, when we’re discussing science fiction television and movies, we only seem to talk about Star Trek vs Star Wars. To me, this specific debate is about whether science fiction should be morally optimistic or if it should be a different kind of morally optimistic. What do I mean by saying that these three radically different shows are optimists?
Stark Trek is about a Utopian society and its extraordinary ability to maintain its Utopia and infinite morality in the face of any opposition. It believes that humans are good, that morality is both possible and knowable, and that the future is bright. Star Wars is a dystopia – if you really think about it – but it doesn’t seem to care. I am hardly the first person to note that the Star Wars films, with the exception of Rogue One, are not particularly interested in the war. Instead, it is interested in the inherent, inextinguishable spark of good in every human. It also fuels the all-American desire for a world where a single person can bootstrap themselves to greatness.
And while the Stargate franchise is certainly optimistic, it is, first and foremost, a moral realist. Stargate is optimistic in that that humans can be good, but it is a realist because it also acknowledges that many are not. In the series, humans have the ability to ascend to a higher plane of existence, which is a wondrous possibility. But all of the ascended beings we meet (except maybe one) are kind of shitty. Humans from Earth and other planets do great things for the galaxy, but others do everything they can to sabotage that. Shitty people can be redeemed, but they are still kind of shitty.
Any given group who is terrible has some members who have chosen to be good, and that is the key: good is a choice. Even the one character who has all of the evil experiences of an entire evil species chooses to be good, with the help of his goddess/ascended step-mom. The fact that goodness is a choice is a moral distinction from many other franchises. Star Trek has bad people, but generally asserts that human nature is inherently good. The same is true in many fictional universes, such as Harry Potter, where evil acts literally mutilate a person’s soul and neither Harry nor Voldemort really had a choice to be good or evil. Star Wars seems to assume that a human who gains power will be corrupted without extensive training from their earliest years, thus Yoda’s initial refusal to have Anakin trained.
But in Stargate we have Teal’c, a character who was born and raised in evil and rose to be the leader of all of the forces of the most power tyrant-god in the galaxy, but he chooses to defect to the side of good as soon as he is presented with the opportunity. Goodness as a choice means that as long as there is some hope for success, people should choose to fight for good. Stargate is a show about doing the good that is in front of you, with a pragmatic attitude towards evil: fight when you can, subvert when you can, bend its will when you can. Live to fight another day, do not martyr yourself.
By allowing humans to be morally neutral by nature, by allowing them to choose good or evil, the show can explore the forces that can act a person to push them towards good or evil. It is a choice, but that choice is not made in a vacuum. Would Teal’c have betrayed his god if his master, Bra’tac had not encouraged his suspicion that that they were less than gods? Would Bra’tac have made the same decision as Teal’c or had he pushed his rebellion as far as he could? Without General Hammond’s leadership, would the cast be able to accomplish the good in the galaxy that they do? Would General Hammond be able to lead a different team to such good?
These questions are not asked directly in the show, but the choice between good and evil allows us to wonder these things and allows the show to explore them in ways that the assumption of good or evil does not allow.
Stargate is optimistic that humans can work together, and save the world by doing so, but it knows that if we do it alone we will fail. In Stargate: SG-1, SG-1 is a team by necessity. Jack leads the team, but he can’t deal with the technology or people that they find littered throughout the galaxy. Sam can deal with the technology, but she isn’t the moral center of the team. Daniel’s wheelhouse is morality and, to an extent, diplomacy. And Teal’c helps in every area, but he’s also an octogenarian alien general/martial arts master. No individual member of the team can function alone as well as they can together, and all reinforce the goodness in each other when they stumble.
Stargate contains many debates about morality, but they are debates between people who disagree on the best choice in an impossible situation. There is almost never a definitively right answer. Moreover, it almost never engages in drawn out philosophical discussion. It shows you the morality, rather than telling you and it is not a clear distinction between Good and Evil, Light and Dark. Many things are shades of gray, though some things are closer to a dichotomy than others.
Perhaps no arc conveys this better than when the U.S. President orders a documentarian into the top-secret Stargate Command to produce a record of their efforts and heroism for posterity. The documentarian sees himself as performing a moral duty to further government transparency, even knowing that his story will not be revealed for years or decades. The subjects of his documentary, however, are reluctant to take part.
This is partially because they want to protect themselves from what could well end up being skewed coverage of the difficult decisions they make every day. There is a second reason for their reluctance, though. They view the documentarian as hindering the essential work they do for planetary defense. Neither group is obviously right or wrong–there are strong arguments that the documentarian was incredibly intrusive and annoying, but it is nonetheless arguable that government transparency is essential to a democracy.
The Stargate universe’s US military has a constant moral imperative to “leave no one behind.” While on paper this may seem like an obviously good rule, the question is repeatedly raised: how much are we willing to sacrifice to bring one person home? There is no obviously right answer to this question.
The cast of Stargate consistently risk their lives to indicate that as long as there is some home of doing good, one should fight to do that good, but one must also acknowledge when there is no hope. If there is a catastrophic probability of dying because you have to dig yourself out of a tiny hole under an unknown amount of rock thrown up by a meteor strike, you do it because there is still the chance you could survive. However, if the people you are leaving behind are falling into a black hole from which there is no escape, you mourn them and move on. If your friend has a brain parasite, you try to cut it out, but if it has become clear that there is no way to help him, you kill him to spare him millenia of torment.
Stargate also tackles major social issues with grace, including having not one but two strong, smart, and capable important female cast members in Stargate: SG-1 and several more in Stargate: Atlantis. Sam Carter is a scientist, badass military officer, and member of SG-1, while her friend Janet Fraiser is a doctor and scientist. Both can hold their own when confronted with domineering males and do so on multiple occasions.
The original premise of the show (and one that survives in some form until the end) is about making peaceful contact with other cultures via mutual respect and exchange. The show follows through on this promise repeatedly. SG-1 meets a wide variety of peoples, both technologically superior and inferior, and peaceful relations and exchange of culture and technology are always the top priority. The show has romantic entanglements side by side with purely platonic relationship across genders. It explores love, heartbreak, and the way our relationships interact with our choices for good and evil.
Despite its strong messages, the Stargate franchise is almost never preachy about it. It explores human relationships in a deep and meaningful way, which is what I think captures people at first. It develops characters in healthy and realistic ways, which will carry you to the end of the show. Jack learns to respect Daniel’s diplomacy as Daniel learns to accept that violence can serve a purpose. Sam goes from an excitable-yet-brilliant young scientist to a leader, friend, and role model in her own right.
But perhaps no character changes more or becomes as fun as Rodney McKay, who starts as a cowardly, comically abrasive, sexist scientist and evolves over the course of two shows into a loveable-yet-annoying essential member of his team. All these changes are accomplished through the patience of work of the people around the characters. They are all helped to improve by those around them, when they were stagnating in neutrality on their own. The franchise explores with you what it means to be a good person, without settling on a definitive right answer beyond the implication that what defines a good person is the attempt to be a good person.
The Stargate franchise is a military science fiction show, in which people kill and die for what they believe in. They let you know early on that killing is not a good thing, but the show is about practicality.* Killing has to happen, on occasion, especially when dealing with enemies who want to kill you first. No one is perfect. Hard decisions need to be made, but our heroes make those decisions with an eye toward morality, while acknowledging that there is not always a right answer.
What is more, our heroes regularly disagree on what the right choice is, just as real people do. It is a rare day when Daniel and Jack see eye to eye about how to handle a sticky moral situation or a recalcitrant village. There is not always a clearly right choice, but the decision needs to be made, nonetheless, and people with competing views on what is right can continue to have deep and meaningful relationships. There is no one person who can save the world.
What I’m getting at here is that the show has something for everyone. Instead, you get a team of flawed characters working together to save the world. There is no Utopian paradise. Instead, we see a recognition that violence is sometimes necessary, but never desirable. Our heroes, the dispensers of that violence, lament its necessity constantly.
As an added bonus, if you want to know where Jason Momoa got his foot in the door, or whatever happened to MacGyver, look no further. Plus, Stargate isn’t even set in the future. It is set in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was filmed. It uses our own society interacting with fictional dramatizations of historical and futuristic ones to talk about our society. And it does so masterfully. While our heroes are generally close to morally right, there is no guarantee that Earth will be as a whole. There are villains and there are heroes, but every human chooses which they would like to be.
My point is this: go watch every episode of Stargate. It’ll take a while, but it won’t feel like it. Then, the next time you discuss Sci-Fi franchises, just toss Stargate into the mix and see how much broader and more interesting the conversation becomes. I won’t tell you to assert that it’s the best franchise because that’s not the point at all. Also, I don’t need to. You’ll come to that on your own.
*I originally wrote “realism”, but it’s Sci-Fi. It’s not supposed to be realistic. It would’ve made a nice parallel with optimism, but I’m pedantic enough that I couldn’t do it.