One thing I’ve never quite been able to square for myself is my feelings for the Stargate TV franchise. The first entry, Stargate: SG-1, is something that I grew up watching, and it’s one of those cases where as my critical faculties developed, the show seemed more and more trite and unchallenging. It doesn’t have anything interesting to say and it doesn’t want to; it gets its characters into jams and then gets them out with technobabble in a hoary and predictable fashion. And yet, I can’t seem to put the shows out of my mind. One could think of it as protesting too much – that I secretly dearly love the whole thing, feel that I shouldn’t, and try to bury it under rationalised criticisms – but that honestly doesn’t feel right. God knows I have a bad habit of backtracking on emotional reactions as soon as I express them as if to cover all the bases, but I genuinely feel a compulsion to keep coming back to it (whether literally rewatching it or just thinking about it) and just as strong a revulsion that pushes me away, which ends up averaging out into confused irritation. Oddly enough, I find myself thinking of my reaction to The Sopranos, not just because the phrase “hit the marks, say the words, and walk offstage with the minimum of effort” describes the franchise’s ethos, but because that’s another TV show that compelled and repulsed me, but one in which I was at peace with the contradiction and could see where both feelings were coming from. I am not at peace with the Stargate TV franchise, and I would like to be.
I suppose the best place to start would be with the things I genuinely love. The most widely recognised positive quality of Stargate is its casting; skeptics tend to observe that the writers often used the charm of their cast as a crutch, which is mostly fair but misses how the best qualities of the writing tend to mesh very well with the chemistry in the acting. Mainly it’s that this franchise tends to be at its best when it’s being funny; the most beloved episode across all three series is “Window Of Opportunity”, an already comedic episode that contains a sequence in which the characters are explicitly goofing off for a while, and most of my genuine favourite episodes and moments are comic ones. The franchise’s sense of humour is fairly consistent, develops deeply over the course of the franchise, and even has an element in the show’s morality – it’s the kind of humour that comes from people who’ve worked long enough together to not only come to understand each other’s foibles but to love them. It’s humour in which a gentle roast is a basic way of telling someone you love them. The most extreme example in the franchise is Rodney McKay, widely known for being an arrogant asshole who will condescend to and insult anyone he perceives as less intelligent than him, which is anyone he perceives; he’s allowed to be like this because he’s also hypercompetent as a scientist/engineer and can be trusted to save the day no matter what he says or does. The other characters aren’t quite so absurd – although arguably Teal’c is as elaborately designed – but they tend to have foibles and traits the other characters can comment upon, ranging from a taciturn bluntness to cowardliness to geekiness.
Right behind this in terms of importance is the franchise’s creative worldbuilding. The eponymous Stargate is the thing that benefits most from this; after a combined seventeen seasons, a viewer knows it as intimately as one knows, say, Tony Soprano, and any sufficiently geeky viewer can at least feel like they’d know how to operate it in the way even an obsessive will not know how to cook meth after watching Breaking Bad. Just as McKay is an extreme example of a character, the Stargate is an extreme example of a plot device – every piece of technology has its rules worked out in eye-bleeding detail. Perhaps the most emotionally resonant example of this is the culture of the Jaffa; in a broad sense, the Jaffa are a basic ripoff of the Klingons of Star Trek in their sense of honour and their violent culture with a lot of cliches of warrior cultures thrown in, but so many specific details emerge that they take on their own life. Much of it, like all the best things in storytelling, comes from plot necessity; the Jaffa were designed, in-universe and out-, as a slave race for the Goa’uld to use as foot soldiers, something almost literally baked into their biology, and there is a genuine messy-but-logical forward-moving arc of the Jaffa breaking off from the Goa-uld and creating a functional society that includes things ranging from breaking their physical dependence on Goa-uld to building a functional government.
The Goa’uld themselves are also just as interesting, if much less sympathetic by design. The basic points of inspiration are that they know they aren’t gods but it feeds their ego to pretend so, and that they draw on real cultures and religions to use against their victims. In practice, this ends up creating a feudal sensibility, with individual Goa’uld jockeying for power against each other and creating both rivalries and legacies (one major plot point is that Apophis takes a boy O’Neill befriended to be a host for his son). From a plot perspective, this is entertaining because it means there’s a functional world beyond what our characters can ostensibly control; at one point, they accidentally create a power vacuum that causes another Goa’uld to come in and combine previously disparate armies and create a bigger enemy. On the other hand, it also creates plot opportunities in favour of our heroes; one of my favourite episodes has about a half-dozen Goa’uld create a peace summit that SG-1 sneak into and sabotage. There’s also the Tok’ra, who I’ve always had a lot of affection for – they’re a genuine scifi character in how they have specific, alien sensibility, valorising the act of symbiosis in a very literal manner, and in a way that takes the basic logic of the Goa’uld in a different direction.
From there, we can get to the stuff I hate about the franchise, to wit: its tepid, stagnant sensibility. Stargate has thoroughly mediocre ambitions; when I try to articulate why these people seem to have made these shows, the only thing that really makes sense is ‘they wanted to make a living making TV shows’ – not ‘solving a philosophical conundrum with a TV show’ and not even ‘making a TV show to the best of their abilities’, but ‘making a TV show just well enough that we get paid for another day and see another season’. At no point do they want to make the slightest risk of making their audience uncomfortable – I’ve heard rumours of cast and writers being excited about introducing queer storylines and the producers putting the kibosh on that, and whilst I generally take these specific reports with a grain of salt, it makes sense given the franchise’s absolute dedication to the status quo. Daniel Jackson starts the first series with his wife kidnapped and essentially enslaved, and when she dies a few seasons later, it makes a depressing kind of sense – the introduction of Sha’re as a regular character would unbalance the dynamic and possibly change Daniel and his motivation radically enough to upset people who like him and want to see him continue on as before.
(When they do introduce a lesbian protagonist in Stargate: Universe, her relationship is written in the most aggressively tasteful manner possible, even down to her gender – female queerness generally being much more accepted in pop culture than male queerness, especially back then. Worse, when we discover a version of the characters went back in time two thousand years and started a whole civilisation, her alternate self never settled down with someone else, which wouldn’t be objectionable if a) she was the only queer character in seventeen seasons and b) they hadn’t gone out of their way to have the geeky heterosexual audience figure hook up with a random character we’ve never seen before just to give him a sexual partner.)
This goes down to the structure of individual episodes; the writers are genuinely good at coming up with cool, exciting problems for the characters to solve but more often than not, the climax is a limp dick of a solution that has either the antagonist acting like an idiot for the most useful length of time or the heroes pulling the right technobabble out of their ass. A savvy viewer, knowing the morality of the series and spotting the archetypes that it plays with, will be able to deduce how things will turn out pretty quickly too – who will suffer punishment, who will be rewarded, and who will skate away clean. The details will surprise but the outcome is inevitable, and we stand to lose nothing we valued. It also goes up to the airless, uninteresting morality. The most bizarre element of the franchise is that it commits 100% to the idea that almost all scientists are nerds and almost all military types are jocks, and almost all conflicts between the two come down to that kind of personality conflict; one could make a drinking game out of the number of times a scientist is enthusiastically riffing on something they found while a soldier says something like “yeah, whatever, let’s go”. It’s a surreal disconnect from all my actual experience with soldiers, scientists, jocks, nerds, and, you know, adults. Like most creative decisions on this show, I get the sense that it’s less that the writers genuinely believe people are like that and more about them making the easiest, most crowdpleasing decision based on stuff that’s worked in pop culture for decades.
Therein lies the true conflict for me. Part of the reason Stargate works at all is because it draws on tools of genre storytelling that had been working for decades before the show came around. The thing about SG-1 that’s not immediately obvious is that it is a genuine and genuinely successful blending of many different genre television traditions into a functional and unique whole – the episodic concept o’ the week stuff present in everything from the Star Trek programs to Doctor Who to cop shows, the long-form conspiracy-driven wheels-within-wheels plotting of The X-Files, and the extended mythology of Babylon 5. It didn’t just use all these tools, either – it used them with full knowledge of what it was doing and what it was trying to achieve, and if it only set out for half-measures, it at least hit them consistently. It’s worth considering Stargate: Universe, which so patently and obviously tried to imitate the latest fads without fully understanding them; everyone compared it unfavourably to Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, but there’s also a lot of LOST in the show and it’s just as badly digested. LOST may have had uneven output when it came to its flashbacks, but when they were on their A-game, they were using them to achieve clear goals, whether it was clarifying a character’s motivation moving forward, planting a piece of information that would come back to bite the characters in the ass later, or simply showing how great the character had it in one moment as compared to a shittier time in their life. By comparison, SG-1 has the sense not to do anything it doesn’t completely understand.
And that commitment – as contradictory as it feels to describe this franchise as ‘committed’ to anything – does lead to some interesting places. The overall affect of SG-1 is the feeling of seeing an empire spread – the SGC begins as an obscure backwater planet and becomes the major player in the galaxy in ten years through a path not too dissimilar to the spread of the Roman Republic. That is to say, they colonise the galaxy by being so useful that other civilisations beg them to take control. The story is just as aesthetically conservative as, say, NCIS, but the creative and constantly expanding worldbuilding creates a sense of change and growth that is really compelling. It’s really interesting applying that logic to Atlantis, too; I get the impression that that series was motivated by a desire to deliver the basic Stargate experience with new characters and a new setting that better suits the goals of the series. I’ve long had a theory that the Wraiths, the main villains of Atlantis, were conceived as a truly inherently evil villain as compared to the Goa’uld. Because the Wraith eat humans and only humans, every single one of them can be written off as dangerous no matter who they are or what their disposition is. Goa’uld need hosts but there’s no biological imperative to human suffering in their existence; Wraith are easier. On top of this, the characters are more vivid and have a more dynamic chemistry that comes from them having specific motivations that can clash in interesting ways.
This makes it even funnier that the overall arc of the show is so-bad-it’s-good. The central premise of the show is that, when the Atlantis expedition first landed and were scrambling to save themselves from immediate disaster, they accidentally awakened the Wraith from hibernation about a century ahead of schedule. This is a perfectly legitimate jumping off point for a story, even a heroic one – hell, especially a heroic one, as the characters have to do the work to make up for a tragic mistake. The thing is… this general situation ends up happening over and over. The characters make first contact with a race called the Genii, spacefarers with technology almost on par to Earth, only to make enemies of them that force both sides to divide their attention between their enemy and the Wraith. Okay, fine, the Genii made mistakes on their end too that escalated things. Famously, McKay ends up destroying three-quarters of a solar system in an experiment (“Five-sixths, but it’s not an exact science.”). Terrible, but fine, if you want to really play with the consequences of playing with ancient technology the characters barely understand. It’s when the characters inadvertently create one of the most dangerous creatures in the galaxy that the patterns starts getting really silly. Late in season two, the Atlantis expedition captures some Wraith and subjects them to experiments that turns them into humans – experiments that only succeed at turning one of them into a half-human half-Wraith hybrid who escapes and becomes one of the expedition’s biggest and most destructive enemies, performing terrible experiments on humans and Wraith alike.
After that, it’s hard not to read the ostensible heroes of the show as deluded fools ploughing their way through the galaxy, burning everything in their path, patting themselves on the back for occasionally cleaning up their mess, and learning absolutely nothing. Having two large and specific incidents that drive much of the plot ends up creating an unintentional parallel to The Shield, and much like Vic Mackey, the expedition crew keep loudly describing themselves as the only solution to the galaxy’s problems despite the fact that they cause almost all of them. It crosses the line into comic transcendence in the fifth season when the characters are put on trial for their crimes and have the clear cause-and-effect laid out perfectly, and the only reason they get away with it is by bribing one of the judges*. Watching the series a second time only highlights how often they simply brush off moments of self-reflection; I’m particularly struck by how many episodes show Sheppard is ignoring more and more guilt for actions he’s undertaken throughout the series (including failing to save Lt Ford, another case of the characters only making things worse with their presence); none of these episodes have him either opening up to others or finding any closure. The thing is, like almost all so-bad-it’s-good stuff, there is a core of good storytelling that compels me to keep watching and take in the absurdity. The emotional arc might be deeply stupid, but at least there is one.
(*It’s made even funnier by the fact that it’s done through a clip show. A clip show! In 2009! It aired the same week as the second season finale of Mad Men, “Meditations In An Emergency”! If there’s any better sign of how Stargate was traditional to the point of being stuffy and hidebound, I can’t think of it.)
I think the thing that really weirds me out is that the overall arc of the Stargate franchise reminds me of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, of all things. Always Sunny also has mostly static characters who are deeply quirky and lovable and become weirder and weirder throughout the show; Always Sunny also has an oddly complicated and inventive world that rapidly changes around our protagonists; hell, Always Sunny and Stargate both share a core strength that plays a large part in their success: continuity. And not just serialised storytelling, but near-constant nods to the past that drive the story forward and are part of the show remixing itself. I think this is a large part of the core of the appeal at the centre of both Always Sunny and Stargate – that of being televisual comfort food. Both shows have predictability of outcome written into their episodic structure (in fact, Always Sunny goes further considering how limited the Gang’s possible actions are compared to the SG teams), and I think this combines with the continuity to create a constant sense of nostalgia being fulfilled – we’re reminded of the good times, and we’re experiencing them again. The difference, of course, is that Always Sunny more successfully makes the dual arguments that I shouldn’t take this that seriously whilst still watching; committing to being a comedy at all times means I ‘forgive’ it for ‘failing me’ in other ways.
So perhaps part of my complex feelings to Stargate come down to me being able to see how close it comes to being something I could love. What if it did commit to just being funny, and like Always Sunny chose to allow its protagonists to be creatures we study from a distance? Its most successful arc was that of Rodney McKay, who gradually and with great effort managed to come within spitting distance of being a bearable human being, and some of its better characterisation comes from a similar place, like the increasingly endearing Richard Woolsey shifting from bureaucrat in over his head to capable commander. There’s also the opposite direction, where it might have committed fully to being about hypercompetent people pulling off difficult tasks every episode. You know, I was starting to think halfway through this that maybe I do sincerely love Stargate – love that’s tinged by constant disappointment and frustration, but love nonetheless. But I’m starting to think what I really love is the idea of a show hiding in this franchise’s margins; like what we’ve got is the shadow of a great show and I’m chained up in a cave trying to figure out what it actually looks like.