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Alternate History and Stargate. Part 5

By Tom Anderson

Asgard Transporter, Second Life.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When we last left this series , I had approached the end of season 3 of Stargate SG-1 and wanted to cover the finale seriously. As a reminder, the purpose of these articles is principally to discuss and analyse the use of Alternate History and time travel concepts in the Stargate franchise, and secondarily to note any substantial changes to the status quo or broader plot arc.

I neglected to mention it at the time, but part of the plot of the early season 3 episode “Fair Game” – in which Thor of the Asgard manages to negotiate a limited treaty between Earth (or, technically, the USA) and the Goa’uld System Lords – reveals that Thor is actually bluffing. While the Asgard are far more technologically advanced than the Goa’uld and can easily defeat them one-on-one or even three-on-one (as seen in “Thor’s Chariot”), the Asgard lack the capacity to prosecute a war and back up their claim to protect Earth, or other protected planets, from invasion. Thor notes that this is because in their home galaxy, the Asgard are already in conflict with another threat power (unspecified). This is well-written foreshadowing. No prizes for guessing that in the finale of season 3, “Nemesis”, we finally meet that threat.

I should mention that, at the time this episode came out (2000) everyone loved the Borg as a villain in Star Trek (to the point of Voyager rather overusing them) and other science fiction TV shows and films frequently took inspiration from them – Andromeda is another case. The showrunners of Stargate, to their credit, managed to create a villain where everyone’s first reaction was “Oh, this is their version of the Borg,” and then their second reaction was “wait, but this is nothing like the Borg”. The Asgard’s enemy carries the same feel of threatening intimidation and unstoppable, unknowable force as the Borg, but otherwise are very different and do not feel unoriginal. I find it quite possibly a deliberate, clever psychological trick that the writers named them ‘the Replicators’, because to Trek fans a replicator is an innocuous piece of equipment that synthesises food and drink, so feels a very un-Trek-like word to apply to a menacing threat. At the same time, the name makes sense for the very clinical way the Asgard speak and name things.

The Replicators are actually comprised of many small metallic jigsaw-piece-like units, which form into shapes such as insect-like robotic creatures the size of a small dog. Later, we see they can also form into walls and other objects. Replicator bugs can chew apart metallic bulkheads (or almost anything) to create more jigsaw pieces, which are then assembled into more bugs. Their driving purpose is simply to increase their number, and they will destroy everything in their path to do it. The faint resemblance to the Borg, beyond the ‘unknowable, unstoppable robotic horde’ concept, is that they effectively ‘assimilate’ or take on the characteristics of the technology that they eat up. The Asgard, as we learn, therefore run into problems because their approach to solving problems is to develop more and more advanced technology – but then the Replicators just take over the new advanced ships and they are back to square one. Though humans are not so technologically advanced, Thor desperately hopes that our ways of thinking will be a better counter.


Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Nemesis” opens with Jack O’Neill being abducted by Thor’s teleporter and brought to his ship Beliskner, once again in Earth orbit. This time, however, the Beliskner is being eaten by Replicators. The term ‘worldbuilding’ is often a contentious one, but I will always praise Stargate for being (almost) always very strict at keeping to its own rules in a way that makes the setting more believable. In this case, Jack shoots a single Replicator bug with a bullet, shattering it into fragments, but then the fragments reassemble. Later, bullets will be shown to be more effective at permanently destroying Replicators. Is this an inconsistency (like how in Deep Space Nine the Jem’Hadar have all these scary abilities and technologies in their first appearance that barely appear again)? Actually not, because we learn that a Replicator’s capabilities are related to whatever technology their ‘parent’ chewed apart to make the new jigsaw-pieces for this bug. The one Jack shot was made of advanced Asgard technology, but the ones destroyed later aren’t. I just like that level of detail.

Jack (aided by the others who join him) is able to crash the Beliskner in a way so that it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. With another bit of clever rules-keeping, while Thor disabled the outward teleporters so the Replicators couldn’t escape, he never disabled the inward-bound ones – so Jack and company are able to escape by beaming up the Stargate and using nearby Earth as a point of origin to escape elsewhere. General Hammond, unruffled, simply orders the second Gate from Antarctica to be brought out of storage and installed so that SG-1 can return. But just enough of the Beliskner was left intact to impact the oceans so that one bug (of course) survived, as we see crawling over the wreckage in a cliffhanger.

This story continues in the start of season 4, “Small Victories”. The second Gate is installed and SG-1 are back, but the Replicators remain a threat in the Asgard’s home galaxy. Carter has to go there to help Thor again. Confused as to how she is meant to help defeat Replicator-controlled Asgard ships which run on a ‘keron’ technology (a particle not even discovered by humans yet), Thor points out “The Asgard would never invent a weapon that propels small weights of iron and carbon alloys by igniting a powder of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur…we cannot think like you.” It’s a clever invocation of different thinking, and is actually borne out in the plot (rather than being incidental); the Asgard have half-built a new, even more advanced ship (and named it after O’Neill!) but it’s outnumbered by three older Replicator-controlled ships. Rather than lose yet another ship, Carter hits on the idea of using the O’Neill to draw the three enemy ships into a trap and destroy them – the Asgard would never contemplate using their half-finished fancy new prototype, their last hope, as bait. The plan succeeds and the ship is lost, much to the original O’Neill’s dismay!

The O'Neill. How sad.

Picture courtesy Stargate Omnipedia.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team have enough problems on their hands. That last Replicator found its way into a Russian submarine via a torpedo tube (accompanied by hilariously meta Russian dialogue without subtitles that translates to “What’s that noise? Maybe it’s that bug from the last episode!”) Now, it’s killed the crew, controls the sub and is busy converting its bulkheads into more Replicators. The other members of SG-1 have to board the sub and destroy the last Replicator made of Asgard technology – the others, made of human tech, will just rust and degrade. I really like this concept, showing a commonality between familiar human and advanced alien technology, being treated the same way. It’s similar to the background about how the US developed supercomputers to control the Gate as they lacked the Dial Home Device. This is also the first formal appearance of the Russians in Stargate, a turning point as we are leaving the 90s attitude of ‘never acknowledge any country outside the US and implicitly Canada’ in genre shows of this type. Stargate will go on to use this idea in interesting ways.

This strong opener is followed by “The Other Side”, a nice double-meaning title. SG-1 travels to the other side of the Stargate to find a human civilisation, Euronda, fighting a last, desperate rearguard action against a rival faction that we never see or meet. The Eurondans have some advanced tech that the SGC could use to fight the Goa’uld, and Earth has heavy water they can trade them to keep their war effort going. However, then everything starts to go wrong. The Eurondans casually mention that they refer to their enemy faction as ‘Breeders’, as they ‘reproduce with no regard for genetic purity’. O’Neill finds bodies in stasis where every one is the same (implied to be clones, though the word is never used). And the Eurondans have, throughout, been acting uncomfortable around Teal’C. Well, he is a Jaffa and formerly killed people for Apophis, right? No, it turns out the reason they don’t like him is because he’s black. It’s a really well executed plot twist. Turns out the people we were planning to make an alliance with are basically Nazi Germany circa 1945. (And, unlike a lot of allegories, the Eurondans are different enough that it doesn’t feel forced or unrealistically convergent, but are still recognisably the same flavour of ideology, e.g. living underground and trying to exterminate the ‘breeder’ surface dwellers by poisoning the atmosphere). They are shocked when our team abruptly leaves through the Gate and abandons them there, O’Neill warning them not to follow as the ‘breeders’ are about to bomb them to destruction. The whole episode is an illustration of the sort of potential for high-concept science fiction stories that the Stargate setting can offer to good writing and execution.

This is followed by an informal trilogy of three episodes all starring Vanessa Angel (the original choice of casting for Xena: Warrior Princess, incidentally) as theTok’ra Anise. I mentioned before that everyone was copying the Borg, well, more specifically they were all copying Seven of Nine from Voyager, as played by Jeri Ryan. Anise was clearly stuck in as a stand-in, evoking Seven’s combination of attractiveness with a cold, unmoved attitude. It’s a bit of a shame as the character did have potential, but I think the critical reaction was that this was so obviously cynically a rip-off that she disappeared from the show soon afterwards. She did have a great entrance in the episode “Upgrades”, though; (while Jack is obviously taken aback by her beauty) “My name is Anise…it means strong courage.” Daniel: “Uh, my name’s Daniel, it means ‘God is my judge’.” Jack: “My name’s Jack, it means…what’s in the box?”

What’s in the box is some technology from an extinct race called the Atoneek, which enhances the wearer’s speed, strength, etc. at the cost of metabolism. They’re engraved with writing reading “With great power comes great responsibility” because apparently they were all Spider-Man fans. People bonded with Goa’uld (or Tok’ra) can’t use the devices, but humans can, so Carter, O’Neill and Daniel are guinea pigs. No prizes for guessing it doesn’t work out, though it did give us a memorable scene where they all escape the base to a nearby town and order three steaks each. Carter: “And a Diet Coke…what, I prefer the taste!”

The second Anise episode, “Crossroads”, has a Jaffa priestess (and former lover of Teal’C’s), Shan’auc, visit – she has found a way to commune with the Goa’uld larva she carries, Tanith, and it wants to join the Tok’ra. We learn from Anise that the Tok’ra cannot increase in number, as they are all descended from a single queen, Egeria (a Roman goddess, as Daniel notes) and she went missing long ago. Thus, a single Goa’uld joining them would be a great coup. However, as we might expect, it turns out that Tanith’s a traitor and, after getting a host, kills Shan’auc and almost manages to betray the Tok’ra. Teal’C swears revenge. During this episode, we also see Teal’C (in meditation flashbacks as he tries to commune with his own larva) see Cronus kill Teal’C’s father (as we learned of in “Fair Game”) by crushing the symbiote in his pouch and mixing its toxic blood with his. (Bit odd for a Goa’uld to just kill off one of its offspring that way? Also, you’d think Cronus of all people would bite his head off instead…)

The third Anise episode, “Divide and Conquer”, involves the Goa’uld having the ability to brainwash people into being ‘Zatarc’ agents, also equipping them with a hidden weapon that can be concealed among the fingers of a hand. A Major Graham is converted to one such agent and attacks a Tok’ra representative at a joint summit; later, the team fears the act will be repeated. Trying to detect a Zatarc ahead of time is almost impossible, but Anise tries. Turns out that Carter and O’Neill are both registering false positives because they’re lying to themselves about their mutual attraction, dun dun dun. The actual Zatarc is the Tok’ra Martouf, who gets shot and killed at the end. I really didn’t like this episode at the time because it felt like they were killing off Martouf (who’d become a significant character in season 3 and then not reappeared much) purely for shock value and to replace him with Anise. In the end, Anise never appeared again, either, making it feel like such a waste.

I’ll leave this segment on “Window of Opportunity”, an AH-relevant (and hilarious) episode. When the script was first worked on, there were protests that “We don’t want to rip off [the Star Trek TNG episode] Cause and Effect”, to which the retort was “We’re not, we’re ripping off Groundhog Day.” (And yes, the TNG episode predates the film). As in those two examples, a day is endlessly repeated, this time with O’Neill and Teal’C being the only ones to remember each repetition. The cause is a strange machine on an alien planet which appears to have been built by The Ancients (as mentioned in “The Fifth Race”). The design team did a good job of making it look distinctive – paradoxically looking just like a series of rising and falling stone slabs, yet in a way that implies unknowable advanced technology – though it doesn’t really look like anything else we see attributed to the Ancients, before or since. O’Neill and Teal’C try several different things to stop the cycle, but none of them work – so eventually they work out that the only way to fix it is for Daniel to translate the writings on the machine. He can’t do it all in one cycle, so there are hilarious repetitions of O’Neill and Teal’C having to explain it to him over and over and have him do the next part each time (meanwhile in the background, the two of them learn juggling!)

Neither Bill Murray nor Punxataney Phil appeared in Stargate (which is surprising, when you think about it), but the plot was ripped off.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

O’Neill understandably gets stir-crazy after a while, and then it’s pointed out that no-one else will remember what he does, so he can do whatever he wants without consequence. This manifests with activities such as earning a golf world record by driving a ball through the Stargate (much to Hammond’s displeasure) and conscientiously resigning his commission before kissing Carter (just as the timeline resets again). Eventually, they are able to return to the planet and discover that all of this was caused by an alien archaeologist tampering with the machine and trying to use time travel to resurrect his dead wife. (I quite like how we just see a glimpse of what feels like a fully-developed story of its own rather than a plot device). In the end, SG-1 manage to persuade him to stop it – after which we learn that 18 planets were affected by the time loop, their Stargates tied into the time machine, and Earth’s allies have been trying to contact it for months. Of course there is the question of whether Earth’s time resetting would lead to calendars becoming out of whack with the rest of the universe etc., but it’s a fun episode, let’s not overthink it.

We’ll return to Stargate in the next article to look at the remainder of season 4, beginning with another episode that will change the status quo forever – “Watergate”.

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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series

The Surly Bonds of Earth

Not An English Word

among others.

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