Friday, March 23, 2012

Stargate as Star Trek

It has become something of a tradition for new space operas to proudly label themselves an un-Star Trek or an anti-Star Trek. Yet, the only show that actually approached Star Trek-like success was the show that perhaps came closer than any of the others to Star Trek in concept and feel – the Stargate television franchise.1

Like that previous show, it had a team of humans from a military organization (one can think of as Star Fleet as at least quasi-military), with a usually stone-faced alien companion (Teal'C, to the original Star Trek's Mr. Spock) venturing out on journeys of exploration, in which they routinely encountered English-speaking humanoids on other planets.1 As the story was set in the present day Earth was not a utopia – but it certainly appeared more attractive than the rest of the galaxy, where most of the human species lived in theocratic slavery under the iron heel of the principal villains, the Goa'uld, or where these were absent, some other form of backwardness or repression. (More technologically advanced or socially progressive human societies were few in number, and generally lost their luster when closely examined.) One might add, too, that when the show explored Serious Themes, or offered social or political commentary, it was typically by way of the depiction of those other worlds – our current problems, on the screen at least, looking more like Other People's Problems. The result was that, for all its flaws, Earth seemed a beacon of freedom and enlightenment, its condition something to be aspired to rather than transcended. Stargate even used the tropes of some of the original Star Trek's most memorable episodes, like "Mirror Mirror" (paralleled in the SG-1 episode "The Road Not Taken").

To be sure, Stargate drew on other inspirations. The titular stargate itself can be regarded as a bit of steampunk – a big, solid, steam-snorting machine clearly modeled on that piece of Victorian high-tech, the rotary dial telephone (dialing seven numbers to get an interstellar connection), and evocative of the era of Howard Carter (and Indiana Jones) in its rediscovery in Egypt in the 1920s. The extravagant Goa'uld were Oriental despots right out of Flash Gordon. There was more than a bit of the Roswell mythology in the Stargate program's secrecy, the reverse-engineering of alien technology, and the appearance of "gray" aliens (the Asgard). There was even a bit of "media savvy" Galaxy Quest-like self-parody, with the milestone 100th and 200th episodes of the first Stargate series given over to humor of this kind (centering on the show-within-a-show Wormhole X-treme!), and fan service-y casting in the inclusion of Farscape's Ben Browder and Claudia Black as core members of the cast in the ninth season.

Yet, the Star Trek-like elements (admittedly, used in a rather conservative way) were what held the show together, and it seems notable that the Stargate series which met with the least success – Stargate: Universe – was the one that broke with that pattern, playing rather more like Battlestar Galactica lite in its head games and soap opera and overall tone. It ended after a mere two seasons, but in fairness, this had much to do with the show's second-season move to Monday nights, and the changing priorities of the channel's executives (wrestling, reality TV). For the time being it seems that the reimagined BSG seems likely to enjoy the status of fashionable template for anti-Treks for some time to come.1 Indeed, TV's next space opera will likely be a new entry in the Galactica saga: Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. (Alas, even with the dearth of such programming on television now, I can't say I'm really looking forward to it.)

1. Together the three series, Stargate: SG-1 (1997-2007), Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2009), and Stargate: Universe (2009-2011) ran for fourteen years, from 1997 to 2011, during which they produced 354 one-hour episodes – figures that are actually comparable only to Star Trek.

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