Stargate SG-1 – A Retrospective

When I was in college the most discussed scifi series was Stargate SG-1. Based on a film that spun into a franchise, Stargate was a great intersection of conspiracy theory and old school science fiction. It was also on cable. My family never subscribed to cable, so while I heard a lot about Stargate back in the day I never watched it. Then there was Netflix. 

Stargate SG-1 ran for ten season. Ten seasons. That is a lot of TV. Catching up on it all was a bit of an endeavor and I’ll confess I wasn’t always paying the strictest attention to it, playing it on my tablet while I was cooking dinner or sketching. As such I can’t really say I know it as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, where I’ve watched most of the episodes more than once and discussed with my family on a semi regular basis. That said, I have watched it all over the course of the last year or so and I have thoughts. Many thoughts. 

Let’s start with a quick overview of what the premise of the Stargate franchise is. 

Archaeologists discover a giant ring with odd symbols on it near the pyramids at Giza in the 1920s. In the 1990s archaeologist Daniel Jackson decodes the symbols and concludes the ring is a Stargate, a piece of alien technology that creates stable wormholes between one another. By “dialing” a set of seven symbols on the gate and pumping electricity (lots and lots of electricity) into it humanity can travel to other worlds and explore space. 

Great stuff. It unites longstanding conspiracy theories about ancient aliens and pyramids with a solid scifi premise into an engine for perpetual scifi adventure. SG-1 featured a quartet of very solid central characters, a stellar recurring cast and some very memorable villains. On top of that, while I’m not sure how solid any of the science on the show was, the mechanics of the universe are clear, easy to understand and incredibly consistent. 

One of the central elements of SG-1 is how far behind Earth is, technologically speaking, compared to the people who build wormhole gates and starships. The Stargate allows them to poke around the galaxy, find friendlies and slowly collect technology to even the score. While it takes a while for them to acquire significant tech, SG-1 does slowly build up an arsenal of fancy alien gadgets, eventually giving way to starships and hyperdrives of their own. 

Watching the slowly expanding capacities of the Stargate team is one of the great pleasures of the show, and the writers clearly enjoyed it too. While they never allow technology to become a magic “out” from bad situations; there’s very few to no cases where they “forget” about a piece of technology that could have solved a problem for them. There is one case where every chance they have to acquire a useful device fails for one reason or another, but that’s because the tech in question made people incredibly difficult to kill, which would remove a lot of the narrative stakes. Eventually healing sarcophagi were revealed to drive humans insane, effectively ending their utility to the cast and allowing the focus to fall elsewhere. 

Of course, while the consistency of the mechanics is great that’s only part of the equation, the people who inhabit stories need to be entertaining as well. Here, too, SG-1 delivers. While the most entertaining character in the cast is doubtless the team lead, Col. Jack O’Neil, and the character I most resemble was probably Dr. Daniel Jackson, my personal favorite was Teal’c. The stoic warrior alien is a trope that is well mined, but Christopher Judge brings a charisma to him that lends a tired trope a depth and nuance found in few others of his stripe. We see Teal’c as a father and a son, a leader and a follower, a dependable hero and a wounded warrior. Part of this is facilitated by the length of time spent developing him, part of it is Judge’s excellent instincts as a performer, relying on physical acting as much as voice and expression to convey his character’s thoughts. 

Major, later Lt. Col, Samantha Carter rounds out the team, and is the show’s science guru. Like Teal’c, Sam, Jack and Daniel are all stock tropes given life and considerable depth by the skill and talent of their actors and the considerable time spent developing them. While Richard Dean Anderson left the show in the eighth season, and Jack wound up replaced with Cameron Mitchell for the last two seasons, O’Neil would serve as the heart of the show for as long as he remained with it and was probably the best developed character in the cast, with Dr. Jackson coming second and Sam and Teal’c tied for third. All are well rendered and their characters remain consistent as established over the course of the show, with any major shifts in personality well choreographed and expounded on over the show’s run. 

In addition to a well handled central cast, a number of fantastic supporting characters give flavor to much of the show’s run, with Doctor Janet Frasier and General George Hammond as standouts, along with the villains Apophis and Anubis. But before we get to the latter two, let’s talk about the structure of a Stargate season. 

One of the great challenges of long form storytelling in a medium such as television is that episodes are released over time and need to be self-contained to some degree. On the other hand, you need some unifying threads to keep people coming back over time. Some shows function on a Netflix model, where every episode pours over into the next, which is fine but doesn’t work well on a weekly broadcasting schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Deep Space Nine model, where almost every episode is a self-contained story with ties to a greater whole. Stargate SG-1 is very much in the DS9 model, although it executes on it with more skill than any other take on that model I’ve seen, including DS9 itself. 

Every season of SG-1 follows a basic formula. The first episode pulls together the loose threads from the proceeding season or, in the case of the first season, the movie. Near the end of that episode or the beginning of the second episode at the latest the season’s primary antagonist is introduced. Over the course of the next ten episodes Stargate Command collects intel on the antagonist and the technological, biological and philosophical threads of the conflict are established. Secondary conflicts on Earth are also established, usually from other elements of the government trying to move in on the Stargate program. After these threads are set up serious skirmishes build over a series of four to six episodes until matters come to a head and the season ends with two to four episodes revolving around a significant confrontation that sets up the first episode of the next season. 

While the formula is clear it works for a number of reasons. First and foremost, SG-1 doesn’t always win at the end of a season, something that makes these climactic confrontations surprisingly nail biting. Beyond that, they seriously consider the outcomes of more than just technology (which, as I said before, they think about more thoroughly than many other scifi properties). They also consider the societal implications of the alien cultures and technology they encounter. Many episodes I watched felt eerily similar to actual problems we struggle with today, problems that SG-1 handles with far more grace than we have I’m sad to say. 

But another thing that makes this formula work is the villains. For the most part. Apophis is a classic pulp villain, chewing scenery and never quite staying as dead as you’d like. Anubis is far more subtle, manipulating the many egos around him into a dance that always manages to favor him in ways that are impressive to watch. The Y’shen are the mundane face of evil, quietly destroying everything they touch all while wrapped in a seemingly benign and charitable shroud. The Replicators are a slightly on the nose take on gluttony and overindulgence. 

These were all strong villains, give or take the Replicators, but towards the end of the series it felt like the writers were running out of steam. The Ori felt like a bad attempt to clone the conflict created by Guaold like Apophis. The Ori have many of the same dynamics with their followers as the Guaold had with the Jaffa and I would’ve liked to see a new take on this dynamic as late in the series as they were introduced. 

It would’ve been nice to have a degree of uncertainty added to the mix. The Guaold were pulpy, scenery chewing villains. The Ori were immaterial beings, much like their opposites, the Ancients, and there was little to no objective way to measure their claims about each other and it would have been nice if the conflict between them was less straight forward, to reflect the less tangible nature of the evils at work. It was a disappointing finish to a show that handled most of its villains, big and small, with deftness and skill. 

All in all, Stargate SG-1 was a great show that pushed episodic, weekly storytelling about as far as it could go before binge watching became a phenomenon. It owes a lot to a dedicated writer’s room, who really put in the work to keep things consistent, good casting and actors who believed in the project enough to stay with it for years at a time. I now understand why so many people were so heavily invested in it when it was airing. If you’re looking for a scifi show to watch that takes its characters and cultures as seriously as Star Trek but plays with its toys like Star Wars, Stargate SG-1 might be the thing for you.