Saturday, November 11, 2017

And the winner is...

This will likely be the last in my series of posts on science fiction in film and television. As of now, my favorite science fiction tv series is, wait for it, Stargate SG-1! And believe me, I am as surprised as anyone to see myself writing that. I quite liked the film with James Spader and Kurt Russell on which the series (and its spinoffs) is based, but the first time I saw an episode of the tv show I was seriously under-impressed. It seemed to me to be a simplistic, stereotypical action series. However, it has slowly won me over.

Let's start with the lead character, Colonel (later General) Jack O'Neill ("two ls"). The actor, Richard Dean Anderson, was previously the star of another action series shot in Vancouver (for the later seasons), McGyver, O'Neill is an Everyman. He likes beer, fishing (preferably with no fish in the pond) and The Simpsons. He is a very savvy guy, but makes no pretense to being an intellectual. He leaves that up to his second-in-command Captain (later Major, later Colonel) Samantha Carter, the brilliant scientist who comes up with a lot of solutions (and has a very cute smile). Anything she can't figure out usually the civilian member of the team, Daniel Jackson, archaeologist and linguist, can. The final member is a humanoid alien, Teal'c, the muscle.

This show went for ten (10!) seasons with two spinoffs: Stargate Atlantis (which I haven't seen, but I have it on order, it went for five seasons) and SGU: Stargate Universe, which went for two seasons. So, as sf franchises go, second only to Star Trek.

Here is what I enjoy about Stargate: the original premise is good. The idea of a "stargate," a kind of portal that can connect far distant points in the universe, solving the problem of interstellar travel, has been used before. I recall it making an appearance in books by Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein and others in the 50s and the "wormhole" idea was also used in Farscape and other places. But in the movie and tv series, it was connected to the idea of alien influence on ancient Earth civilizations. The Egyptian pyramids are actually landing pads for giant alien spaceships and the stargate itself was discovered buried in Giza. What this does to the narrative is add a great deal of historical texture.

Frankly the weak point in a lot of science fiction is the thinness and shallowness of most created future worlds. If they are not an implausible dystopia they are an equally implausible utopia. In both cases the worlds simply lack depth. The premise of Stargate allows them to constantly reference and bring in elements from ancient Earth civilizations which adds a huge dimension to the created universe. Sure, sometimes it results in silliness, as when Daniel relates some alien language to medieval Latin (really, Daniel?), but for the most part it adds a great deal, especially visually, to the show.

Other things that are enjoyable in the show are the characters. The good guys are actually pretty good. There is a strong moral core to Colonel O'Neill and his team and their immediate superior, General Hammond for the early seasons, is also a strong moral figure. Bureaucrats are often evil bastards, which is always nice and the bad guys, such as the Goa'uld, are satisfyingly evil in an over-the-top way, as Col. O'Neill is often pointing out. They are also overdressed, like a bad music video.

The basic message of the show is that freedom is good and tyranny is bad and I find it hard to disagree. Tyranny can come from being controlled from within by a horrible parasite wrapped around your brain (and doesn't that remind you of post-modern ideology?) or it can come from the Ori, an intergalactic religious cult that will exterminate you if you don't bow down to their every command.

Over such a long span, characters, even lead ones, disappear and are replaced. In later seasons Anderson is replaced by Ben Browder from Farscape and a new character is introduced, Vala Mal Doran, played by Claudia Black, also from Farscape.

I haven't seen the Atlantis spinoff, but I have watched SGU: Stargate Universe. It starts well, but for some reason never quite settles down. It is characterized by extreme tensions between the characters, and is morally more ambiguous than the original. Perhaps the basic problem is that I find it hard to like either of the two main characters, Nicolas Rush, the brilliant, though Machiavellian Scottish scientist and Everett Young, described as a young Jack O'Neill, but in reality a very different kind of character. He is conflicted, compromised and constantly wrestling with internal politics. Jack would have just said "over my rotting corpse, sir!" The show tries for some profound truths and discoveries, but doesn't quite manage to bring it off.

The nice thing about the original Stargate SG-1 series is that it never tries to be more than an entertaining science fiction adventure. And hey, it does it pretty well. Also, the lead character, Jack O'Neill is a pretty good comic actor. One of the funniest episodes involves the Groundhog Day-like looping of the same events over and over, to comic effect:

I think the bottom line is that this is one of the very few sf series that is entirely unpretentious.

UPDATE: Ok, that was not the clip I wanted, so I put in a different one. There don't seem to be any very good collections of funny moments from Stargate, so you should probably just watch the whole series. Honestly, it is worth it just to see O'Neill eating Froot Loops at the beginning of each loop in the "Window of Opportunity" episode.


Christine Lacroix said...

This isn't from The Onion! Check it out!

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, that is going straight into next week's miscellanea!