At long last, I bring you a review of Stargate: SG-1. This review might be considered a bit premature, since I'm only now in the middle of Season 9 (of 10). However, I think eight and a half seasons of a tv show are a pretty good indicator of the direction of the final season and a half - and probably of the straight-to-dvd movies they made after the show was canceled as well.
Now, I like me a good good vs. evil story. It's fun to see the bad guys get their come-uppances, and it is all the better the badder they are. It's reassuring in a primal way to think that the difference between good and evil is clear cut, that I am clearly on the side of good, and that no matter how bad things seem today, the good guys will triumph in the end. This is the simplistic narrative logic of summer blockbusters, fairy tales, and Bush's War On Terror.
But I can only take the escapist logic of the good vs. evil story in small doses. A movie? Sure. I'm happy to suspend disbelief for two hours. A book? No problem. However, the logic gets boring when it is extended to a series of books or tv episodes. I could handle the A-Team when I was eight. But there's no way I could sit through a whole episode unironically today. (And, since I mentioned Bush's WoT, I think it is worth wondering how the pervasive and simplistic good vs. evil stories endlessly repeated by Hollywood help to sustain a politically naive American exceptionalism that justifies horrific violence because we are "the good guys" - but I am getting ahead of myself!)
My lack of patience with the good vs. evil story explains why I was so disappointed with the Harry Potter series. Book 5 was the pinnacle for me - it made a provocative link between adolescent angst and the struggle within us between good and evil. But Books 6 and 7, rather than further complicating this coming-of-age story, resolved it all-too-neatly by placing Harry firmly on the side of goodness, and Voldemort ever more on the side of outrageous badness. The message is that you can clearly choose to be good or bad, the choices are obvious, and fully developed adults are all on one side or the other. (There are some morally ambiguous characters, to be sure (Draco, anyone?), but JKR is uninterested in them. Snape, the most interesting of all, resolves neatly into a "good guy" - albeit in the form of a creepy, obsessed stalker.)
Stargate, as you may have guessed by now, revels in the good vs. evil logic. The good guys are the members of SG-1 - the team of intrepid explorers who travel through the Stargate and save the planet and the galaxy over and over again. Their world is one of moral certainty: they are always keen to do the right thing, and it is Washington, or the Russians, or the Tok'ra, or the Goa'uld, or the Ori who are clearly in the wrong.
In fact, if one of the members of SG-1 is behaving unethically - say, Jack starts randomly shooting up his own people - you can rest assured that by the end of the episode the character who has deviated from the path of the Good will turn out to be a clone, or to be hosting a symbiote who is really calling the shots, or to be from a parallel universe, or to be reliving an implanted memory, or to be anything and anyone but him- or herself. Evil is successfully projected onto everyone but SG-1.
When it comes to a serial story, I admit I enjoy a little moral ambiguity. The tired stories about time travel, the improbable science of wormholes, and the politics of intra- and intergalactic alliances are not enough, in my mind, to drive a 10-season show. Especially when the show's writers couldn't even take the time out to work out a consistent story about the alien species, technologies, and physics of the world in which they operate. (I'm sure there are die-hard Stargate fans who will find a way to reconcile the inconsistencies. But even Stargate itself makes fun of its improbabilities in its more lighthearted episodes. How convenient that people and aliens everywhere seem to speak English! And colloquial modern North American English at that! How extraordinary that technological development in countless worlds seems to follow a pretty straightforward path that resembles Earth's own development! Okay, I'll stop here, cause I could go on forever.)
Watching these episodes (which, I have to admit, I do enjoy from time to time - it's not painful, it's just not gripping), I have often felt nostalgic for The Sopranos. The Sopranos was a great series - even though not all episodes or seasons were created equal - precisely because it upset our expectation of a morally certain world. You find yourself feeling sympathy for a pathologically violent, philandering, misogynist and sometimes homophobic, mob boss. And you find yourself hoping that the Feds - who are supposed to be the good guys, right? - will get screwed.
The Sopranos worked because it did two very important things: 1) it presented characters as morally fraught, living in a world in which - while some decisions might be obviously right or wrong - many decisions involved competing options, none of which were wholly good or bad. Occasionally, there was a character on the show who was clearly evil (Tony's cousin, for example, took what I considered to be an inexplicable turn towards the sadistic, and had to be whacked). But mostly, everyone in the show was complicated: from the psychologist and the priest who stood to benefit personally and financially from their connections to the mob, to the wives and children whose dependence on their mob ties made them morally complicit in violence they could not imagine, to the mobsters themselves, whose personal connections with each other, their families, and their friends all demanded a kind of ethical judgment that they might seem to lack if we only saw them in the act of breaking kneecaps.
2) More importantly, the message of the show was that there isn't a sharp line to be drawn between us "good guys" and the "bad guy" mobsters. In fact, their moral complexity is not too far from our own. Even if we don't perpetuate violence ourselves, we certainly are complicit in it (think about the War in Iraq, for example) - and it is not always obvious when that violence is justified. The line between legitimate and illegitimate business is not as clear as we think: the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate parallels between upper middle class professionals and mobsters, between the Feds chasing mob bosses and the mob bosses themselves. Ultimately, not unlike Weeds - which isn't quite as successful, but which makes a similar point - The Sopranos asks us to take a critical look at what the American Dream of the big house in the suburbs relies upon: an appearance of normalcy that we all accept at a superficial level, but which rests upon exploitation, violence, greed, and selfishness.
Whatever you think about the message of The Sopranos, the point I am trying to make here is that Stargate has no message. There is nothing that we can really learn about ourselves, nothing that we are called on to think critically about when we watch this show. This might be a good thing in the history of Sci-Fi tv. After all, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek shows were extraordinarily preachy. They all contained some more or less explicit moral lesson (which also occurred in a world of moral certainty, but that's another post). Maybe we should be glad to have a science fiction show that gets away from trying to teach moral lessons.
But at the cost of having no real message? Or perhaps at the cost of reinforcing a complacency with how things are? Or how we wish them to be?
One of the most striking things about Stargate to me (and I do study politics, so maybe not everyone would pick up on this) is the extraordinary American exceptionalism of the show. The show is about a group of Americans (except for the aliens, who are all de facto Americans by virtue of sharing their moral orientation and enjoying Star Wars) who work for the U.S. Air Force who travel to other planets and claim to represent Earth. Early on in the show, they make this claim to being representatives of Earth without any real basis - no one else on Earth even knows that they are traveling the galaxy.
As the show progresses, more and more countries and businessmen (they're always men) are brought on board. At least as far as I've gotten, the program is still basically a secret, and not all nations have been let in on the secret. So, the claim to represent Earth is a deeply undemocratic one. SG-1 work for the military of one state. They have not been democratically selected in any way, and they cannot arguably be said to even represent the American people. The show sidesteps the question of the legitimacy of SG-1's claim to representation, and suggests that since they are Good People, we can trust them to do the right thing.
Occasionally, the show makes some vague attempt to face up to its democratic deficit. And as the seasons wear on, they add more and more Canadian references - which is more a concession to the fact that the show was shot in British Columbia than a full-fledged attempt to reflect on the equation of the U.S. military with a group that has in mind the interests of the entire planet - or even galaxy. At a time of war, I find this omission unpardonable and unconscionable. Isn't this precisely a time for us to be thinking critically about the tendency of the American state to present itself as the self-appointed arbiter of what is right for the rest of the planet?
Stargate, sadly, doesn't ask us to think critically - about ourselves, about politics, about the dangers of the good vs. evil narrative. I've still enjoyed knitting a lot while watching it, I've looked forward to seeing the next episode, and I've even laughed out loud a few times. If you do watch it, you have to start from the beginning to get the context, which means you will have to watch several bad seasons before the shows actually start getting to a consistent level of quality - but it is worth it to enjoy some rather good action episodes. But if you want more than action, you'll have to look elsewhere to find it.