By Tom Anderson.
The eponymous Stargate, from the 1994 film.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Stargate franchise debuted in 1994 with the titular Roland Emmerich sci-fi action film, which was a box office success. Three years later, the film’s setting was reimagined on the small screen with the TV series Stargate SG-1, which spawned other spinoffs on the way. The franchise has sadly been rather dormant since about 2010, but in its heyday, it could be one of the most fun, exciting, and sometimes surprisingly intelligent works of science fiction on TV. It is also one which used the concept of Alternate History (AH) and different timelines sparingly, but to great effect.
In this article series, I’ll be looking at examples of how the Stargate franchise used AH and time-travel ideas. This first article will be mostly a brief introduction to how the setting was established in the original film and the first season of Stargate SG-1, ending with how AH was first explicitly used in a story at the end of that season.
The framing concept behind Stargate is that an archaeologist discovered a mysterious giant metal ring behind a hieroglyph-inscribed capstone in Egypt in 1928. Sixty-six years later, his daughter Catherine Langford recruits controversial archaeologist and historian Dr Daniel Jackson to try to decipher the inscription.
Dr Daniel Jackson. All archaeologists look like that.
Picture courtesy Wikipedia Stargate fandom.
The Stargate has been in the possession of the US Air Force since the war, and their researchers have been trying fruitlessly to unlock its secrets ever since. Daniel (of course) finally manages it, by figuring out that the ‘hieroglyphs’ on the capstone are actually constellations. Six constellations define six points in three-dimensional space, with lines drawn between them and crossing at a destination. A seventh symbol defines the origin point. (Even as a kid watching the film, I thought this didn’t make sense, because wouldn’t it be either six or one for both, but you can fudge the logic of it). It’s only at this point that Colonel Jack O’Neil, a stony US Air Force officer, reveals the existence of the Stargate itself to Daniel, who had previously only seen the capstone.
As an aside, the reason why Daniel is controversial is that he’s literally the ‘Aliens’ meme guy. Well, Daniel’s theory is actually that Egyptian chronology is wrong and the more sophisticated pyramids came first, then the cruder ones represent the skills being lost. In the film, this translates to the pyramids being built by aliens, or rather under alien rule. Nowadays, of course, this idea is seen as less wacko random and more tainted by racism (implying ancient Egyptians couldn’t build them themselves) although at least Stargate portrays the Egyptians as successfully rising up and locking their alien overlords behind the Stargate. The other slightly politically charged bit I didn’t get as a kid was the fact that the reason why O’Neil is so emotionally shut down is that his young son got hold of his gun and accidentally shot and killed himself. Now, they do explain this in dialogue, but I think 10-year-old me can be forgiven for not understanding it, given the idea of kids being able to get hold of guns is such an alien idea when you’re not from the US.
The pyramids at Giza. Not built by aliens nor built under alien guidance.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Stargate the film sometimes gets a bad rap for various reasons, but I maintain that the sequence where Daniel figures out the symbols and then they power up the Gate successfully for the first time is one of the most impressive in any film from my formative period – the only thing that comes close is the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The inner ring of the Stargate rotates and the seven ‘chevrons’ select each symbol in turn as it rotates past, encoding it. Finally, the seventh symbol, the point of origin that designates Earth, is locked in and the Gate activates, its wormhole resembling a fountain of water bursting outward before stabilising like a vertical pool. It’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring sequence even to this day. It occurred to me recently that the entire concept of Stargate could only have been made in 1994 or a few years either side. It needed to have the special effects capabilities of the 1990s to work, but a few later the concept of ‘dialling the gate’ – like a rotary phone dial – would no longer have been something writers would immediately be familiar with. It’s a very clever idea but also an incredibly time-specific one.
I also like how we have a dramatic sequence of Daniel expressing wonder over the rippling water-like event horizon and gradually putting his face through, after O’Neill and his USAF team have already gone through in a stolid, just-following orders way – feels nicely realistic. The SFX sequence from Daniel’s perspective going through the wormhole is also incredible and lives up well to this day in my opinion.
Now one reason why some people don’t like Stargate the film is that nothing that we find on the other side of the Gate can possibly live up to all that buildup, which is fair. Basically, they emerge from another Stargate to find themselves under an Egyptian-style pyramid in a desert (complete with sandstorms) and find humans living like ancient Egyptians but with alien Star Wars-type cattle. They still worship Ra, but the twist is that Ra is very much real – he’s an alien who took over a human millennia ago, and he shows up in his giant spaceship that lands atop the pyramid, revealing that their real function was as ship docking sites.
I won’t go into all the details, but we are introduced to a number of things that will be important later on. Ra has a sarcophagus that uses alien technology to heal wounds and restore youth, and it is used to save the lives of both Daniel and Sha’uri, a woman he meets there and falls in love with. There is also a teleporter-type device that works by sending a series of rings from one place to another and then beaming someone in (O’Neil is able to use it to decapitate one of the baddies). Ra has access to a couple of fighter-type craft (later called Death Gilders). Both the fighters and his soldiers, who use transforming metal helmets to look like Horus and other animal-headed Egyptian gods, use energy weapons (later called just ‘staff weapons’). The reason why Ra is still coming here is that the locals, transplanted Egyptians, mine a special mineral for him (later named Naquadah after Naqada, an ancient archaeological site/period) which is the same stuff from which the Stargate is made. Ra discovers that O’Neil has brought a nuclear bomb with him “just in case” (because this is the 90s and all fiction is set in US government conspiracy land). Ra plans to send it back to Earth with a charge of Naquadah which will boost its power enough to destroy all human civilisation. Needless to say, Daniel, O’Neil, his sidekick Kawalsky and others foil the plot, and Ra ends up accidentally blowing up his own ship in orbit himself. O’Neil and the others also inspired the locals to rise up, in particular a boy named Skaara who idolises O’Neil and whom O’Neil clearly sees as a kind of stand-in for the son he lost.
The Egyptian Sun god Ra. Not appearing in Stargate in this form.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
There’s also an overarching plot, which they don’t explain very well, that our guys can’t get back to Earth without the list of symbols they need to go the other way. Daniel finds them, but the last one has been dramatically worn away, but then he just figures it out anyway – not very dramatic. They also never really show or explain how they dial the Gate going the other way, without the big room of supercomputers and power and so on. This was something that the spinoffs had to deal with. Anyway, O’Neil, Kawalsky and the other survivors go home, but Daniel stays with Sha’uri, and the film ends with another glimpse of the impressive wormhole sequence, so we never see O’Neil get back to Earth.
That’s Stargate the film. A great concept and fantastic SFX, but the characters and story didn’t always live up to it. There were plans for film sequels which were never made. It did, however, spawn the spinoff TV series Stargate SG-1. Now this had to make a number of creative decisions to work with the film, which are worth briefly discussing because I find them to be quite a masterclass of pragmatic adaptation. There are a couple of outright retcons, which is usually an unsatisfying decision, but they were well chosen. In the film, the Stargate wormhole is described as going to a distant galaxy (which I already felt was a bit of an unnecessary stretch when watching the film for the first time), whereas the series changes the planet from the film, Abydos, to be orbiting a fairly nearby star well within our own galaxy. Ra is also described as the last of his kind (another of those ‘completely unnecessary plot-limiting declarations’ like ‘we’ve not heard from them for 100 years’, grumble mumble) and is briefly seen to resemble a Roswell Grey alien who is implied to take over an Egyptian by becoming an energy being, or something. In the series, there are many such aliens and they are now parasitic serpent beings that burrow into your neck and take you over. They also receive a name, the Goa’uld. (The series did eventually use the Roswell Grey idea in a different context, naturally leading to endless fan speculation about Ra).
There are also a few minor changes to names. Sha’uri becomes Sha’re (but still pronounced similarly), O’Neill now has 2 Ls, and his deceased son was Charlie, not Tyler. The setting of the Stargate programme is also, interestingly, changed from a fictional facility to the real-life Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. Otherwise, however, the series deals with necessary changes by very clever means in-universe, far more satisfying to the viewer who remembers the film. I’ll mention these as I go.
The feature-length pilot Children of the Gods opens with some USAF grunts playing cards in a giant room which we will recognise as the Gate Room that houses the Stargate – now forgotten and left under a dustcloth. However, a mysterious wind blows through the room and then the Gate activates. Several figures in armour and serpent-like helmets, wielding staff weapons, come through. They are led by one in gold, with one of the hand devices seen in the film, and his lieutenant (whom we later learn is named Teal’C). The unknown visitors kidnap a female sergeant and slay several of the USAF personnel, losing one of theirs in turn. General Hammond, the base commander, turns up just in time to find they have activated the Gate going outward (which, come to think of it, I’m not sure how they could do, but just roll with it) and the golden-clad leader’s eyes glow for a moment before he travels through. Just as Ra’s did.
O’Neill is recruited back onto the programme against his will. Now played by Richard Dean ‘MacGyver’ Anderson, he’s a much more fun character, professionally unimpressed by almost anything he encounters. Hammond establishes his character (a good, but ruthless, man) by threatening to send another nuke to Abydos and thus successfully blackmailing O’Neill into admitting he falsified his report. Daniel and the others didn’t die, and the bomb went off in orbit. But Ra should still be dead, right?
We also get some call-backs where O’Neill is the only one who can operate a captured staff weapon, and an explicit change where the body of the trooper who wielded it is not entirely human – he has some kind of kangaroo-like pouch. O’Neill notes that he didn’t see anyone like that on Abydos, Ra’s people were human. Again, way better than just retconning it.
Amusingly, after the base crew plan to send their robotic MALP through to scout Abydos (another idea brought over from the film) to see if the aliens came from there, Jack has a cheaper way. He just flings a box of Kleenex through the Gate (in reference to Daniel’s allergies) and it’s soon sent back empty with “Thanks, Send more” scrawled on the side. Jack leads a team, including Kawalsky again and physics expert Captain Samantha Carter, through to Abydos, and we get the fun wormhole sequence again.
On the other side, all is well. The young men of the village are keeping a guard on the Gate and Daniel is nearby. The aliens did not come from there. So where did they come from? After all, the USAF had tried dialling the Gate many times and had never found another planet. Daniel shows off a cartouche he found of many different Gate addresses. Sam Carter figures out that the reason why they only found Abydos was that the stars have been drifting over thousands of years. The rest of the Stargate network still works because the other Gates are connected to ‘Dial Home Devices’ (DHDs), essentially alien push-button phone keypads which power and control the Gates. By contrast, the one on Earth is missing (we learn what happened to it later) and so the USAF had to develop huge reactors and three supercomputers to emulate it. This is a really cool concept and one which is used cleverly in the series. For example, sometimes the Earth Gate can do things others can’t because the Americans hacked the code rather than just using the built-in interface. We also get to see the technically-minded Carter gushing over how miniaturised the DHD is.
However, all of this is interrupted by the alien intruders from before showing up, and they kidnap Sha’re and Skaara. Daniel promises to the remaining villagers he will return in a year’s time after trying to save them, but until then they should bury the Gate with a capstone to prevent any more intruders.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Stargate Command (SGC) has been established, and a metallic ‘iris’ has been installed on the Gate to seal it at a moment’s notice. The US Government has authorised 9 ‘SG’ teams, with O’Neill heading up SG-1 and Kawalsky promoted to command SG-2. One of O’Neill’s wounded men witnessed the alien soldiers dialling the Gate out, and from his bedside he is eventually able to sketch the symbols. After adjusting the Earth Stargate computers to cope with stellar drift, there are now thousands of planets the Gate can connect with and explore, and the one the aliens brought their captives to – Chulak – is one of them.
We are then introduced to how 95% of planets in Stargate SG-1 strongly resemble the forests of British Columbia, a sort of transatlantic equivalent of the famous Doctor Who quarry. Chulak has vaguely Greek and Celtic-looking ruins, in contrast to the Egyptian we’ve seen so far. The mysterious glowing-eyed guy is, however (as Daniel identifies him) connected with an Egyptian god – Apophis, rather than Ra. Apophis has been kidnapping women from random planets to find a host for his mate Ammonet, and after unceremoniously killing the sergeant from the beginning (a brutally realistic fate – I don’t think our guys even find out what happened to her) he inevitably picks Sha’re. Skaara also ends up as a host to another Goa’uld symbiote. Meanwhile, Apophis’ head soldier (‘First Prime’), Teal’C, asks O’Neill about his watch, which he sees represents an advanced technology base not under the control of the feuding Goa’uld ‘System Lords’, of which Apophis is only one. When Teal’C is ordered to slay the remaining captives, O’Neill appeals to him - and Teal’C unexpectedly switches sides, having planned to do so for years but awaiting someone strong enough to help him.
Indeed, we get to see Earth technology first-hand when a Death Glider gets shot down by a surface-to-air missile from SG-2. Apophis and the others, including the possessed Sha’re and Skaara, are able to escape through the Gate – and this time our heroes don’t see the symbols where they went.
It turns out that the reason why the soldiers have those kangaroo pouches is that they are ‘Jaffa’, genetically engineered semi-humans whose pouches incubate Goa’uld larvae. Those give them long life and strong immune systems and healing, but at the cost of killing off their own native immune systems, so a Jaffa cannot survive without his or her larva. When one Jaffa is slain on the battlefield, its symbiote jumps out and burrows into Kawalsky’s neck, leaving us on a cliffhanger.
Children of the Gods is one of the best opening pilots for any TV series I’ve ever seen, maybe the best. It deals with any needed inconsistencies with its original source material, sets up a plot of the series, introduces us to interesting characters and leaves sequel hooks open. The next episode, The Enemy Within, features Teal’C having to deal with suspicion over whether his defection is genuine. Slightly surprisingly, to my mind, they immediately act on the Kawalsky symbiote plot – the young larva tries inconsistently to take him over; the base crew try surgery to try to free him of it, but enough survives that Kawalsky can’t be saved. He dies at Teal’C’s hands, his head cut in half by the deactivating Stargate. It’s a grim and compelling plot, but I’m a bit surprised they didn’t keep him in the background as a spy or something for the intrigue.
I won’t cover the rest of the first season in detail, just mention a few relevant concepts that come up. We rapidly get an idea of just how much scope for storytelling this series provides – it can do anything from space battles to X-Files style thrillers on Earth to Indiana Jones stuff and anything in between. Doctor Who is about the only TV sci-fi conceit that has more breadth to its scope, in my view.
We get plots like an SG team’s leader going full Clarke’s Third Law and trying to set himself up a a ‘god’ like the Goa’uld (The First Commandment), O’Neill being affected by rapid ageing on a planet whose people only live for 100 days (Brief Candle), Teal’C having to save his son on Chulak from being implanted (Bloodlines) appearances of other aliens (Cold Lazarus, Fire and Water, etc), Teal’C having to stand charges for what he did as Apophis’ First Prime (Cor-Ali), android replicas of the team being built by an alien (Tin Man), and so on.
Not all the episodes are good, like the absolutely terrible Emancipation and the absurd Hathor, but there’s certainly a lot of imagination. We are also exposed to numerous other Goa’uld (or rumours of them), such as the aforementioned Hathor, Nirrti (who implanted a bomb into a young girl named Cassandra to try to destroy the SGC – Cassandra ends up adopted by Dr Janet Fraiser) and others. Bloodlines features the introduction of another recurring character, Teal’C’s mentor and Apopjis’ former First Prime, Bra’tac. Bra’tec is the one who first encouraged Teal’C to doubt Apophis; alleged divinity and plot to rebel, as we later see in flashbacks. He also consistently refers to O’Neill as “Human” due to a misunderstanding, which becomes a running gag.
Teal'C in Jaffa robes. Just throw a few apostrophes at a name if you want to make it sound alien.
Picture courtesy Wikipedia Stargate fandom.
There are several concepts and races introduced which will become more important later, so I’ll briefly mention them. In The Nox, the team encounter a seemingly backward and pacifist group of long-lived aliens who seem to be easy prey for Apophis, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – are secretly really powerful and advanced and have a hidden city. In Thor’s Hammer, we find that the Norse pantheon are actually based on a different group of aliens, the Asgard. Who are the enemies of the Goa’uld and who protect planets from them. Unfortunately, the team have to break the ‘Hammer’ (actually a barrier) as it has trapped Teal’C, potentially exposing the Viking descendants of the planet. This episode also introduces us to the reptilian Unas (named after an early pharaoh) who are said to be the first host of the Goa’uld before humans, which we’ll learn more about later.
The Torment of Tantalus is the episode that links the most with the original film. While going through old archive footage, the crew are astonished to find that the USAF did manage to get the Gate working in 1946 and a single explorer went on a one-way trip to another nearby planet, not Abydos. It turns out that the man, Ernest Littlefield, was Catherine Langford’s fiancé and she was never told what happened to him. SG-1 travels to the planet and finds him, now aged and suffering from hallucinations, having spent years trying to puzzle out the alien facility around the Gate.
Ernest refers to it as a ‘Space United Nations’, a nicely topical reference for a man of 1946. As he explains to Daniel, there is evidence that four advanced races came together here and tried to make a dialogue with one another using the most fundamental language of all – the periodic table of elements and its different atoms. There’s a nice moment where Carter notes that there are more elements than are known to Earth science, and Ernest comments from the number she cites how many more have been discovered since 1946. As a chemist, I obviously love this. The written records of the four races are referred to by O’Neill as “the meaning of life stuff”, but a distraught Daniel has to leave with the others before the facility falls into the sea. Pleasingly to my mind, Ernest doesn’t die but is brought back to Earth and he and Catherine rekindle their friendship – never too old.
In Enigma the crew faces a moral dilemma similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive in reverse. An advanced group of humans called the Tollan (or Tollans) is rescued from their dying planet by SG-1. It turns out that the reason why the planet is dying is a consequence of them sharing their technology with a less advanced group, and they now think others can’t be trusted with it. But, of course, the US Government and the shadowy NID agency have other ideas. SG-1 have to go against their loyalties and help the Tollans escape to find refuge with the Nox, which ultimately was the right decision for the future (Androcles’ Lion). It’s an interesting idea and the Tollan will go on to reappear. The only annoying thing is that the episode uses the completely nonsensical and made-up pseudohistory bollocks of “the Dark Ages interrupting technological progress” to explain how the Tollan can be more advanced than Earth.
A final important episode of the first season is Solitudes, whose concept is mind-blowingly clever but impossible to explain without spoiling it, so be warned as I need to do just that.
While escaping attackers, Carter and O’Neill go through a Stargate while it’s being hit by an energy weapon and find themselves in a mysterious icy wasteland rather than on Earth. Carter tries repeatedly to dial the Gate home, only for it to fail every time, while the wounded O’Neill is dying. The big reveal is that the Gate doesn’t work because if you dial your own number, you get an engaged tone. This isn’t an icy planet; this is Antarctica and it turns out that Earth has a second Stargate! The energy blast made the wormhole jump from the first to the second Gate. Why a second Gate exists, and why it’s here, will become very important for later in the series and to spinoffs. I love how it plays on the classic TV sci-fi trope that obviously all alien planets are just desert worlds or ice worlds or whatever, when in reality Earth has all those biomes. In the end, Carter and O’Neill are rescued by helicopter.
We now come to the first use of AH in Stargate, and it is very clever. The episode There But for the Grace of God features Daniel encountering a mysterious mirror. As he figures out after a while, the mirror transports him into an alternate timeline where things are just slightly different; Stargate Command is now the Stargate Authority (SGA), O’Neill is a general while Hammond is a colonel, Sam Carter is a civilian scientist rather than an Air Force officer, Kawalsky is still alive, and more. Catherine remembers Daniel as turning her down when she approached him in the original film. (It later turns out that the alternate Daniel is dead). He convinces her when he knows of Ernest and what happened to him. More importantly, they never went to Chulak and never met Teal’C, who is still loyal to Apophis – and Apophis has now shown up with a fleet and has started bombarding and invading Earth! O’Neill cites the death toll so far as 1.5 billion. Daniel had given him the coordinates for Chulak, but is horrified when the alternate O’Neill plans to send a nuke there to strike back at Apophis that way.
Before Daniel escapes to his own world, this alternate one in ruins, he learns two important pieces of information: the coordinates for the world from which Apophis launched his invasion fleet, and the coordinates for the ‘Beta Site’, a planet to which O’Neill is busy evacuating the best and the brightest of humanity to try to preserve then when Earth is destroyed. O’Neill tries to appeal to the alternate Teal’C on Daniel’s advice, but Teal’C is (understandably) unmoved because O’Neill’s nuke just killed his family, and shoots him. Daniel flees back to the original timeline just as the base is set to self-destruct, and alarms his team by declaring: “They’re coming.”
This is a great use of the concept of AH – not only as a quirky ‘what if’, but as a plot device that advances the plot in the prime timeline. Daniel got a glimpse of what the Goa’uld might be planning, but we can’t be sure if it’s the same in the prime timeline. The information he obtained there will be vital in changing the course of history for us. This won’t be the last time that the Stargate franchise uses AH in this way. For now, we’ll leave it there, because the way this AH invocation is used in the finale of Season 1 and the beginning of Season 2 deserves a longer discussion all of its own.
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
The Look To The West series