By Tom Anderson
Interest in reviving the franchise? According to Digital Spy, maybe.
Picture courtesy Digital Spy.
In my previous article, I gave an introduction to the Stargate franchise, summarising the original film from 1994 and the following first season of the TV spinoff Stargate SG-1 which commenced in 1997. Alternate History (AH) did not strictly make an appearance – unless one considers the whole concept of the franchise to be a kind of hidden history – until the end of the first season, in the episode There But for the Grace of God.
As a reminder, that episode features Daniel Jackson being transported by a ‘quantum mirror’ to an alternate timeline in which everything is slightly different. The SGC is the SGA, people have slightly different ranks and backstories, and his counterpart turned down Catherine when she asked him to investigate the Stargate. As a result, this version of Earth is a bit behind; its people have never visited Chulak, and now they are being destroyed from space by Goa’uld ships and invaded by armies of Jaffa – including Teal’C, still loyal to Apophis. Jack O’Neill and the others are just trying to buy time so that a remnant of humanity can be evacuated to a safe haven planet, the ‘Beta site’, as Daniel witnesses. He is able to escape back to the prime timeline, rattled.
It is how the writers use AH as a writing tool, rather than making this a self-contained adventure, which is interesting and impressive. The timelines were similar enough that Daniel is convinced that Apophis is planning a similar invasion from space of his own Earth – as, indeed, Jack foreshadowed in the first episode when others suggested they bury the Gate to protect them from the Goa’uld: “These people have got ships! Ra had one the size of the Great Pyramid! They can come here the old-fashioned way!” Well, that question now comes back to bite them in the following episode: Politics.
The way US network TV works means that, traditionally, shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation have produced seasons of about 23-26 episodes, each episode theoretically an hour long, but in practice only about 42 minutes – because the rest is filled with incessant advert breaks. One consequence of having such long seasons is that the writers find ways to save money in ‘filler’ episodes so as to have a bigger budget for spectacle in the season finale and so on. One way to do this is the ‘bottle show’, in which an entire episode takes place all on one set. Some US sitcoms can do these very adeptly, with Frasier and Friends both having well-written and memorable episodes that are technically bottle shows, and we barely notice. Another, more contentious way is the ‘clip show’, in which the amount of new footage shot for an episode is reduced by filling up the rest with flashbacks to previous episodes. Usually this comes near the end of a season to save money for the finale. One of the most hated clip shows in US TV history was the last episode of season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Shades of Grey, which can be basically summarised as: “Riker gets infected with microbes that threaten to kill him; Dr Crusher finds it responds to positive and negative memories, so stimulates these and the viewer gets to watch a load of clips from the past two years of TNG.” Shades of Grey is particularly disliked because it isn’t even just saving money for a finale; it is the finale. It may be the most infamous US clip show internationally, but there are plenty of other examples as well.
Why am I getting into this? Because Politics is one of a few examples in the Stargate franchise of doing a clip show well. I have been known to get a bit over-excited about this, and my colleague and fellow article writer Ryan Fleming has pointed out that Politics isn’t strictly a good episode. Which is true, but I am just impressed by how they used it. Again, rather than simply being a self-contained money-saving exercise, Politics is used to drive the plot forward and set up the finale. Even as Daniel is warning of Apophis’ alleged invasion, Congress is considering shutting down the expensive Stargate programme. The love-to-hate-him Senator Kinsey, played by Ronny Cox (Captain Jellico from Star Trek) is the leader of the sceptic faction, a kind of William Proxmire figure. Our heroes try in vain to convince Kinsey of both the opportunities afforded by the Stargate and the continuing threat of the Goa’uld, using clips from previous episodes. Very unusually, a mention of Goa’uld ships even includes a clip from the Stargate film, which sticks out like a sore thumb.
Of course, Kinsey remains intransigent and there are plans to close down the SGC forever, with Teal’C not even being allowed to return to Chulak. The episode ends on a poignant note as the team gaze down at the Stargate.
This leads straight into the season finale, Within the Serpent’s Grasp. A desperate Daniel convinces the other members of SG-1 to join him; they’ll put in the Stargate coordinates he learned in the other timeline, the planet from which Apophis’ invasion was launched. Dressed in black, unlike their usual uniforms, SG-1 defy Hammond and travel through the Gate. Their destination is a Stargate in an anonymous room with Goa’uld architecture and shipping containers – and, as they soon run into, Jaffa. At this point we are introduced to the zat’nikitel or ‘zat-gun’ energy weapon, which can stun, kill, or vaporise based on one, two, or three shots, though the writers soon decided that the last was silly and quietly forgot about it.
The big twist is that this is not a planet with a Stargate on it – they’re already on one of Apophis’ two invasion ships, and when they feel a sharp acceleration, Teal’C says they have undergone ‘hyperlaunch’. The Stargate no longer works when Daniel tries to dial out, and nor can Hammond dial the Gate from the other side when he tries to send another team after them. The Gate operated before because it takes the coordinates from the planet the ship was orbiting, but now those coordinates no longer apply and there is no valid point of origin to feed in. A nice, and typically solid, invocation of the theory behind how the Stargate network works.
You too can own your own Goa'uld mothership. Crew not included.
Picture courtesy Etsy UK.
Teal’C thinks the ship flies at ‘only’ ten times the speed of slight, so they do have time, as even at that speed it will take a long time to reach Earth. However, he’s wrong (we never actually learn why) and, by the end of the episode, the cliffhanger shows them passing Saturn on the way to Earth. The story then continues in the first episode of season 2, Serpent’s Lair. I won’t go too much into the other details of the story, but briefly summarise. O’Neill is shocked to learn that Skaara has been implanted by a symbiote that is Apophis’ son Klorel. (Weirdly, Thomasina Gibson, who wrote the Stargate companion books, never seemed to understand the distinction between a symbiote being the son of another symbiote, and two Goa’uld in their human bodies having a human son… I’ll get into this later). Skaara/Klorel is killed in the first half of the two-parter, but then brought back by sarcophagus. Interestingly, the writers assumed he gets killed again in part 2, but when test audiences objected, they rather crudely blue-screened him into Apophis escaping at the end of part 2.
The unscrupulous Colonel Samuels tries to destroy the two invasion ships with naqahdah-enhanced nuclear missiles (conveniently letting him avoid informing the world), which fails because they are stopped by the ship’s shields. General Hammond is evacuating the best and brightest of Earth through the Stargate to a new safe haven colony called the ‘Alpha site’ (sounds familiar?) and pointedly won’t let Samuels join them, telling him to stand to the end like himself. Our heroes are ultimately able to stop the invasion because they run into Teal’C’s mentor Bra’tac, who was planning to trigger a civil war between Apophis and Klorel (and is now angry they messed up his plan!) While showing off each other’s technology, they manage to destroy the ships from within using C4. Daniel is ‘killed’ and left behind (using the sarcophagus to heal himself) but is able to escape by clever means. Now that the ships are in Earth orbit, he can dial the onboard Gate using Earth as the point of origin – he can’t dial Earth itself of course, but he can dial the address of the ‘Beta site’ he remembered from the other timeline. As he guessed, the US Government of this timeline picked the same planet for the ‘Alpha site’, and so he ends up with the colonists there, being able to return at the end. There’s also a fun sequence where Bra’tac hopes that “the ships of your world” will be able to fight Apophis’ ships, Daniel and O’Neill have an ‘Oh, crap,’ look when they mention space shuttles, but then at the end of the episode, it’s the Space Shuttle Endeavour that actually rescues our remaining heroes from their disabled Goa’uld Death Gliders escaping the exploding ships.
It's an excellent two-parter and really got me back into watching the series at the time. Again, notice how the use of AH in There But for the Grace of God is not just a throwaway but continues to influence the story in this epic and rewards the viewer who had been paying attention.
We’ll continue this series next time with a look at the rest of season 2.
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
The Look to the West series