The first science fiction television show I ever saw and the series that got me interested in the entire genre was Stargate SG-1, the follow-up to Roland Emmerich’s forgettable 1994 film.
The film followed the US military discovering how to operate the Stargate, an ancient device which allows instantaneous transportation between planets, which was discovered several decades earlier, buried in Egypt. The TV series picks up this story, with the unearthing of the Gate allowing the Goa’uld, an evil alien race which ruled Earth thousands of years ago under the assumed identities of various civilizations’ deities, to rediscover the planet. The military therefore sets up a number of ‘SG teams’ to go on missions through the Stargate to find means of defending against the enemy. The show follows the exploits of SG-1, led by Colonel Jack O’Neil (Richard Dean Anderson) and consisting of polymath scientist Captain Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), archaeologist Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) and Teal’c (Christopher Judge), a defector from the Goa’uld armies.
At first glance there seems to be little to praise in this series. Most villains are entirely two dimensional, everyone on alien planets seems to speak English and the heroes defeat two evil alien races introduced later on in the series by genocide, the moral implications of which are not even touched upon. These problems, however, are nothing compared to the show’s strengths.
The main characters are some of the best I’ve ever seen on television. I can relate to all of them in one way or another and all are both likable and show some depth. My favourite must be Colonel O’Neill, a deeply professional yet light-hearted man who conceals the trauma of his past military experience and of his son dying after accidentally shooting himself with O’Neill’s gun. He is the show’s main source of humour, its unique selling point. It is always present, with O’Neill ready to point out how clichéd the villains’ actions are, no matter how desperate the situation, yet it is never overplayed. The show only devolves into outright comedy in its 200th special episode, with the show’s creators being careful not to allow it to overshadow the drama at other times.
The overall story is somewhat weaker and less detailed than that of shows like Babylon 5 or the new Battlestar Galactica. It is far ‘lighter’, and you can watch an episode just for the sense of adventure as the main characters explore a planet. This is not to say that Stargate’s plot is bad: the characters take a long time to defeat the technologically superior Goa’uld and their other enemies and do so in a logical way. There are also very few of the deus-ex-machina endings of the type seen so often on Star Trek.
Stargate SG-1 lasted ten seasons and, as most shows of that length, it did eventually begin to decline. For me this happened during seasons nine and ten. The show’s creators had thought that it was going to be cancelled and so had given season eight a very satisfying ending which tied up most of its loose threads, with one of the last episodes even being called “Threads”. Rather than promoting the few unresolved minor plot elements to main plot status in when they learned the show had been reprieved, they introduced a new, even more powerful, adversary and even tried to shoehorn it into the existing continuity. This felt completely contrived and, despite all that they had achieved, the characters were essentially left back where they had started: facing an immensely powerful enemy race with little chance of success.
Even worse, this was also the time when Richard Dean Anderson decided to leave the show. The remaining cast could probably have managed alone but it was decided instead to introduce Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell, played by Ben Browder. He was simply boring, which would have been tolerable if the writers had not been trying so hard to make him fill O’Neill’s shoes. The comparison just helped to emphasise what the series had lost. Even worse he took away attention, as well as the well deserved sole command of the team, from the far more interesting Carter, who had herself risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by this time.
On the other hand this was also the time when Claudia Black’s Vala Mal Doran, who had appeared in one episode earlier on, joined the team. She was the polar opposite of Mitchell: very funny and, as a compulsive liar and ex-thief, a type of person we had never before had on the team, with all the exciting possibilities that this entailed. Together with a few great episodes, such as “Bounty”, and the still very good remainder of the original SG-1, she helped save the last two seasons.
Stargate SG-1 is far from the best science fiction show out there, especially its later episodes. It is, however, one of the most fun shows, and a brilliant introduction to the genre.