The Seven Biggest Themes of Stargate SG-1 (The Eighth Theme is How Much I Love to Feel Irritated)

WTF is Stargate SG-1?

Stargate SG-1 is an episodic sci-fi show that follows loosely from the movie, Stargate, about how a hardened military man and an open-mined social scientist travel through a big metal ring to an alien world and learn to work together despite their different views. In working together, they save the alien civilisation they encounter there from… other aliens, who impersonate the ancient Egyptian gods. The TV series picks up after the events of the movie, and features the two main characters – Col. Jack O’Neill and Dr. Daniel Jackson – as they join a special military unit called SG-1 (accompanied by new characters, Maj. Samantha Carter, and the alien, Teal’c) and continue their quest to kill or befriend all the aliens.

Most episodes involve either SG-1 going through the metal ring and getting attacked by something, or something coming through the metal ring to attack SG-1. Then, it’s an action/adventure race against time to get the McGuffin in the McGuffin Box before everything explodes (or what have you). The earlier seasons are straight-up sci-fi exploration, where SG-1 is constantly meeting new aliens and encountering far-out situations like nanobots that make you age faster, or technology that makes you relive your worst memories over and over again. The later seasons still include a little bit of that, but shift the focus more toward SG-1 interacting with a select roster of familiar friends and enemies, while spending more time on the Earth-bound content of the show – Earth politics, rival military organizations, trying to build a big spaceship, etc.

The show lasted for ten seasons and two really lame direct-to-DVD movies, and there were some cast changes along the way – Jackson was temporarily swapped out with a new character that nobody liked in season six; O’Neill left the show in season nine; two actors from Farscape snuck in at the end – but the core of SG-1 is the four characters above, and the dominant themes in the show mostly concern them.

Themes:

1. O’Neill is the Worst, Saddest, Most Interesting Person on the Show

At least, while he’s still on the show.

Richard Dean MacGyver Anderson, was not only the most well-known of the actors on Stargate SG-1, he was one of the executive producers. You can argue that Stargate SG-1 wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t involved and, in that sense, it sort of seems appropriate that the show assumed he would be a big draw. Still, when Stargate was on TV, I remember being kind of annoyed and perplexed by how the commercials for it would frame each episode as if it was all about O’Neill’s adventures in space with a bunch of other randoms, and yell “RICHARD DEAN ANDERSON STARS IN STARGATE SG-1!!” all the time. His name was even before the word “Stargate” in the opening credits.

At the same time, it wasn’t really false advertising, because the vast majority of episodes in the first two seasons were structured in such a way that O’Neill was the most important person who ever lived. The whole team would get infected with an alien virus, but it would affect him the most. They’d make friends with an alien, but the alien would like him most and would see the great potential of humanity in his squinty, judgemental eyes.

Whenever anything happened to anyone else, it always turned into an opportunity for O’Neill to show you how awesome he was. He was kind of like that asshole acquaintance who always has to one-up you. You’re addicted to a strange alien device that acts like a drug? Well, good thing O’Neill is an expert at talking people down from their drug addictions. You have a special bond with an alien child because of the time you hugged her when you thought she was gonna explode? Well, she trusts O’Neill most because he bought her a puppy one time. You’re stuck in an alien prison? Well, O’Neill was in Iraqi prison once, and the guy who left him there is about to get sucked into a black hole, so he has bigger problems than you do.

The show eases up a little after Jackson and Carter get some character development (Teal’c’s only real story line is about slavery and the actor had to write some of the episodes himself, and see below), but there are still a bunch of storylines where O’Neill is the only one the aliens will trust with a secret mission, or O’Neill has a special gene that lets him control ancient technology, and other stuff like that. One of my favourite episodes, “Abyss,” is spoiled by having the characters explain, apropos of nothing, how O’Neill is the most honourable person who ever lived and his rock-solid principles must be the cause of his present misfortune (being tortured to death by an awesome South-African guest star).

I’ll stop harping on this in a minute, but I also have to point out that, even though O’Neill is the designated military character, he’s a special snowflake who doesn’t have to follow any of the actual rules of the military and just does whatever he wants without facing any real consequences. This is kind of hand-waved away because either a) everyone realises he was right, or b) he’s the greatest special forces soldier who ever lived and therefore they can’t afford to lose him. I mean, there’s this creepy episode called “Learning Curve” where he kidnaps an alien child because he doesn’t agree with her culture and he takes her to a human school where all of the kids for some reason recognise him, because I guess he just randomly hangs out at the playground (why?), and, when he goes back, he tells the General in this really self-righteous way that he taught the frigid alien girl to have fun and if the General wants to punish him for that, then fine. And then the General just huffs at him because it’s not like the General’s in charge.

All of that said, Richard Dean Anderson is a pretty decent actor, and – intentionally or not – he plays O’Neill as someone insecure and full of self-loathing who becomes embarrassed whenever people try to talk about their feelings. It’s actually a pretty layered and realistic portrayal of the type of American masculinity practiced by straight guys who were born in the 1950s (more on that in a sec), and one of the strongest, most interesting aspects of the show is that O’Neill is placed in a situation that’s so contrary to his worldview, working with people he would never choose to surround himself with under normal circumstances. He’s like a man with a very neat house who decided, late in life, to open a window and risk that something weird would fly in and mess everything up.

Like on that other show, but not so literal.

The silent, background drama of Stargate SG-1 is that something weird does fly in and mess everything up, repeatedly. And we watch as O’Neill’s attitude toward the window silently drifts from a mixture of fear and excitement to anger, depression, and resignation. I won’t speculate about reasons why the actor might have been less jazzed to be on the show leading up to the moment he quit – what we end up with on screen is this really subtle emotional performance where the text of the show is still saying, “O’Neill, badass military hero who totally saves the world!” but the tone is more like, “I guess this is what I’m going to do until I die; I should have expected that life would just suck.”

O’Neill is the most important character and he is the most interesting – just not for the reasons the guy in the commercial thinks.

2. NO HOMO: The Great Romance of Stargate SG-1

Okay, yeah. A sizeable portion of the fanbase for this show wanted to watch Jackson and O’Neill get it on, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

The show – like the movie, to a certain extent – is premised around the idea that O’Neill and Jackson are unlikely friends who make each other better people and that, through overcoming their differences, etc, etc, they grow as individuals and solve complex problems they couldn’t have handled alone. They represent more than themselves – two opposing mindsets and worldviews that need to compromise. They’re Mulder and Scully, Kirk and Spock, Bones and that vampire Bones hangs out with. Whether or not you read something gay into their relationship, it’s that relationship that fuels the show – not just the conflict, but the question of how the conflict can be overcome; how the characters will grow and change as individuals through their interaction. This is the Great Romance on which the rest of the story is based.

Stargate SG-1 completely fucking haaaates that.

See, this weird thing happens in the middle where everyone suddenly realises how gay it looks for two guys to have an active interest in talking to each other (or something) and suddenly they both get girlfriends and they go from being two people who sometimes experience conflict but can basically work it out, to being two people who passionately hate each other and fight all the time because one of them is a big macho meathead and one of them is a passive-aggressive geek. The meathead tells the geek one to shut up, and the geek tells the meathead he’s stupid. It removes about 80% of the complexity from a show that was already not that complex to begin with.

Interestingly, though, it also acts as a comitragedy of homosocial relations in the United States – that two guys can’t be friends without part of their friendship being defined by homophobia and the policing of gender boundaries.

Stargate always had an uneasy relationship with gay people – most of the time, the show just doesn’t go there, even when there’s an obvious opportunity, and other times, it makes quietly homophobic jokes, like one guy not wanting to give another guy mouth to mouth, because it might be gay to save his life. That said, there was a period of time at the start and the end of the show where you could, for example, hold hands with someone in the hospital, or gently joke about people thinking you were going to marry another guy without needing to immediately make out with a hot female alien to regain your masculinity. It’s just the middle years where things are weird.

It’s fascinating to watch, just like the stuff about Relics of 1950s Masculinity where Boys Don’t Cry is fascinating to watch, and, like Relics, it’s likely entirely unintentional. As well as sad. But not as sad as number three, because…

3. The Romance Between O’Neill and Carter is Accidentally The Most Painful Thing That Ever Existed in History

Carter is the designated woman on the team, and she’s actually a pretty awesome character. She’s smart and capable, but also a caring, emotionally healthy person who doesn’t call anyone stupid or tell them to shut up. She and O’Neill are in the military together, and he’s her commanding officer.

Starting around season four, around the time O’Neill tries to destroy his most meaningful friendship because of NO HOMO, O’Neill also starts flirting with Carter. And, watching this show as a grown-up, with a little more experience at flirting, you can see that he’s not really being that subtle about it – he even indirectly asks her out a couple of times while she indirectly turns him down. Carter is also attracted to O’Neill (probably because she had an emotionally unavailable father who is now a snake alien) but, as the situation develops, it becomes clear that they both have ambivalent feelings about acting on their attraction. It would nuke Carter’s career, it would (likely) mean that they couldn’t both be assigned to SG-1 anymore and, frankly, they don’t seem capable of communicating about their feelings in a way that’s conducive to dating.

What follows is a series of painful, painful, embarrassing, painful scenes where they stare at each other while Carter tries to have a conversation about feelings and O’Neill’s face freezes into a squinty, stony mask of rejection, followed by scenes where Carter withdraws and then O’Neill tries to flirt with her some more, because he likes attention.

It’s so realistic I could puke.

Like, there’s this one time where she goes to his house and she pretends that she was just in the neighbourhood and makes a joke about it, and he refuses to laugh at the joke and grudgingly lets her come inside. And then she looks at a photo of his ex-wife and asks if he still keeps in touch with her and he’s like “Please don’t touch my stuff” (with different words), and then she’s like, “I shouldn’t have come. This is uncomfortable” but you can tell she’s going to make herself have this conversation anyway, because that’s what women with emotionally unavailable fathers grow up to do. And the whole time she’s trying to talk, he just sits there and stares and her and telegraphs that even though he flirts with her at work, and he’s jealous, and he says cryptic things about how he likes her more than he should, it’s not okay to ask for things from him.

Or, there’s another time when she comes to his house to tell him she wants to break up with her boyfriend so they can be together, and he just stares at her and then his girlfriend (whom she didn’t know about) comes out with a salad bowl like “LOL I love being in love” or whatever and it’s so awkward I want to cry, and the girlfriend is the only one who makes any attempt at all to exercise social skills and make the situation less uncomfortable. And then she dumps him because she can’t deal with this shit.

It stays that way for the entire series. It never gets resolved either way. They even have an episode where Carter realises that it makes her miserable to be in love with O’Neill and to hang around waiting for him to be able to talk about it, and to feel insecure because it seems like he pulls away whenever she makes a move toward him – an episode where she actually, firmly decides that she can’t pin all of her hopes on this guy and she has to move on with her life – and then she doesn’t move on with her life and the pain and the awkwardness just continues and it’s so so real.

Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that they eventually get together once O’Neill is, like, eighty years old and he retires and Carter has a ponytail and looks really hot and was, I guess, celibate during all of her child-bearing years while she waited for him? You know, because she missed out on the chance to have a normal boyfriend and a family and move through all the usual life events that healthy, attractive women get to experience and instead she waited for this really old guy who gave up on being happy a long time ago, because he already had a family and his son died, and ALL IS LOST. That’s a really happy fucking ending, Stargate; I’m glad you tacked that on, there.

4. For A Show About Encountering New Worlds, Stargate is Really Fucking Xenophobic

Stargate suffers from that same thing as Star Trek, where humans from Earth are complex beings, and aliens from other worlds are a single, monolithic culture where everyone thinks the same way and wears scratchy clothes. I’m actually not going to criticize it for that, because that’s typical of the genre.

What’s less typical is that SG-1’s MO when visiting an alien world for the first time is to tell the aliens that everything they do is wrong. Their Gods are false, their ways are backward, their names are stupid, their clothes are weird. It doesn’t matter if the aliens are more or less technologically advanced than Earth – SG-1 finds fault with them for something. Like, they go to a world where the people are Buddhist and they just want to meditate, and they even find fault with that. It’s a pretty sharp contrast to the movie, in which Dr. Jackson actually assimilated into the alien culture and decided to live there for the rest of his life (though, spoilers: that didn’t work out).

Weirdly – or, perhaps, predictably – Stargate is also xenophobic toward other cultures on Earth. I’m used to watching American TV shows, so I wouldn’t really have given it a second thought that the USA is controlling the Stargate and making life and death decisions on behalf of the rest of the planet – I would have just rolled with it, except that Stargate kept bringing it up. Instead of just letting it alone, the later seasons of the show introduce a recurrent plot line about how other nations on Earth aren’t completely cool with this arrangement, but the only purpose in bringing it up is to remind us that letting the USA control the Stargate is actually the best solution, because China and Russia are evil, and everyone else is stupid.

The most legitimately, straight-up offensive episode of the series is “Disclosure,” in which Stargate Command calls a meeting with single representatives from Russia, China, France, and England (the English guy is drinking tea, because that’s what English people do), and the whole entire purpose of the episode is to punish these new characters for saying, “Hey, I’m not sure it’s awesome that you have a Stargate” by making them seem evil or foolish.

This relates to another dominating theme on Stargate, which is:

5. A Shitload of Characters Only Exist to be Wrong

Starting almost right at the beginning, there are many, many instances in which people who aren’t SG-1 appear at Stargate Command for no other purpose but to have SG-1 tell them off. Most notably, there’s Emergency Medical Hologram, Woolsey, who wants there to be international oversight of the Stargate program – he comes back repeatedly just to be wrong – but there are tons of other people, too. There’s even a two-part episode in season seven all about how this photojournalist who wants to interview people is wrong – SG-1 decides to freeze him out and act like a total dicks to him the whole time he’s there even though the President requested that he come and do the interview. At the very last minute, they realise that the documentary he’s making is about how they’re awesome, and they’re like, “Oh, okay, then. You’re all right.” But, up until that point, they throw him in the pit where they throw everyone else who says anything less than 100% positive about the Stargate project.

I don’t understand this as a story-telling strategy. It’s healthy to have a show where there are lots of different, conflicting, viewpoints and opinions, but it only works when you try to respect those opinions. If you just introduce them so that all of the main characters can yell at the person who spoke and prove that that person is stupid, then there’s no real point in introducing the opinion at all. And it makes people like me sit there and say, “I hope the Russians take your Stargate and blow up the whole fucking planet. I don’t even care.”

6. The Many Failures of Dr. Daniel Jackson

Arguably, Jackson is supposed to be the moral centre of the show – he’s the one who always wants to understand people and find a peaceful solution and stuff, even if he also kills a bunch of baby snakes (which he does). While I confess that there were times he started to grate on me, I guess he’s sort of okay at being moral. He’s completely fucking horrible at everything else.

I’m not just talking about how he shoots with his eyes closed, either.

The first quest Daniel Jackson takes on is to rescue his wife from some evil snake aliens. What follows is two and half seasons in which he doesn’t even really look for her or formulate a concrete plan to save her. We see her one or two times, and she doesn’t actually die until the middle of season three, but she’s basically fridged in the first episode. There’s no tension about whether or not he’ll rescue her – she’s just his reason for fighting the snakes. So that goes really badly.

When she dies, she sends him a super secret telepathic message telling him to find her child (the child she had with the snake alien while he was not trying to save her), and protect him because he (the child) has all the knowledge of the snake aliens or something. So Jackson goes looking for the kid (sort of), but when he finds it, it turns out that the kid is better off with a big glowing Buddhist alien instead (I’m not surprised). So he doesn’t actually do anything. When the kid is older, he shows up and Jackson tries to convince him to give him (Jackson) the knowledge of the snake aliens, but it turns out that his subconscious is too megalomaniacal to handle it, and, if he had that knowledge, he would destroy the whole world. So the kid turns all glowy and leaves.

Then he ascends to a higher plane of existence where he frets about the fact that he’s not able to help any of the people he cares about (in various situations where they say, “Help me!” and he says, “Sorry, but I can’t. Do you want to talk about how you feel about that?” and he wears a white sweater because he’s an angel who never, ever helps anyone with anything). Then another ascended being tries to attack his dead wife’s home world, where his extended family lives, and he does step in to try to do something, but he double fails because the planet still blows up and he gets kicked off the higher plane of existence he’s on.

There’s also this really terrible episode in season two where Lieutenant Barclay makes Jackson and O’Neill relive some of their worst memories over and over again, and Jackson hilariously fails to stop his parents from getting squished by a big piece of Styrofoam about a million times.

I don’t know if this was on purpose or not, but it is the strongest, most predominant aspect of his character arc (besides being a dick who yells at the woman who loves him until he makes her cry). If Daniel Jackson’s on the case, you’d better kiss your ass goodbye.

7. Nobody Knows WTF to Do With Teal’c

Right in the middle of all this mess, Teal’c should be an interesting character. He’s a turncoat who used to serve the snake-God, Apophis, but turned against him in order to help random soldiers from Earth. (Can you guess why? Can you guess why? It’s partly because he liked O’Neill so much!)

Teal’c, coming from a space-faring alien race, knows a bunch of stuff that the other characters don’t know, and he’s placed in an interesting position, because Earth is completely foreign to him. He’s also fighting to free his people from snake-God oppression, even as they, the Jaffa, are the foot soldiers that SG-1 exchanges fire with on a regular basis. Rather than seeing them as a strange, alien enemy, he sees them as more familiar to him than the human characters are – people with depth, and emotions, whose beliefs basically make sense; people who’ve been taken advantage of by the snake Gods in the way that he was once taken advantage of.

It really comes out to nothing on screen.

Every now and then there’s an episode that’s About Teal’c (and, as I mentioned, many of them were written by the actor, Christopher Judge), but the rest of the time, there are tons of episodes where Teal’c just stands there while whatever’s happening happens and gives a reaction shot and a comic one-liner. Or he lifts something heavy and makes a face like his eyes will bug out. Or everyone else makes a plan and, as an afterthought, they’re like, “Okay, Teal’c, come and help with this half of the plan,” and he says, “Indeed.”

Despite the fact that he comes from a misogynist culture, he has absolutely no trouble working with Carter, so nothing happens there. Despite the fact that Earth is completely foreign to him, he is apparently happy (at least for the first five seasons) to live in a single room under a military base and doesn’t experience any real friction fitting in. Nobody really even hangs out with him until O’Neill starts fighting with Jackson and then, frankly, O’Neill seems like a pretty self-centered friend.

There’s this episode called “Cold Lazarus,” right at the start, that’s mostly about how O’Neill is replaced by an alien that can’t articulate its thoughts properly and his awesome ex-wife doesn’t notice the difference, but the unacknowledged sub-plot is about how Teal’c keeps trying to hang out with his teammates and they exclude him like a bunch of mean girls in high school.

Later in the series, there are some nice scenes that show how all of the characters, including Teal’c, have become close friends – some of my favourites are in “Chimera” where Teal’c, Carter, and Jackson try to interpret Jackson’s dreams about his ex-girlfriend. Teal’c’s character also settles into a place where he has a bunch of weird, quirky interests and traits that don’t have anything to do with lifting things or slavery. That’s nice, but there are also still a lot of scenes like the scenes where Teal’c just hangs out in the locker room to help the other characters with their personal problems (he’s really fucking gunning for this Carter/O’Neill romance to happen; probably because he hasn’t been there to see how awkward it is when it does) and you wonder – what does he do with the rest of his time?

The show’s treatment of Teal’c gets better as the seasons progress, and Teal’c is always set apart by the fact that he’s the only one with a sense of personal loyalty that overrides his sense of duty to the mission (probably his most interesting trait in the context of the show), but it feels a lot of the time like the writers added an alien guy to round out the characters and didn’t have much of a plan beyond that.

Conclusion:

I don’t know why I fucking like this show so much. There are the shows that you love because they’re perfect, or very, very close – the shows where you really admire what they did, and you couldn’t have done it better; would never have thought to do it the way they did it – the Buffys and the Farscapes, the Breaking Bads, the Games of Thrones. And then there are the shows you watch where you’re really frustrated the whole time, and you want to jump through the TV and say, “Why did you do it like that? What are you trying to do? Oh my god. You’re the most infuriating thing that ever… let’s just fall in love.”

That’s how I feel when I watch SG-1. Like I can’t stop thinking about it, and what I don’t like about it, and thinking makes me like it more. I like that it is this horrible story about these four assholes who get mad whenever someone tells them they’re not perfect, and that they are incapable of being either friends or lovers without imploding into a pit of uncomfortable sadness. Buffy would be too good for me – Stargate SG-1 is the show I would date. I have low television self-esteem. I don’t even know what to do.

This concludes my review.

Image: Stargate SG-1; MGM | October 25, 2013