Stargate SG-1: S01E01 “Children of the Gods”

Hey everyone, welcome to my classic coverage of Stargate SG-1! In the interest of improving my writing and also filling up some free time, I’ve decided to post classic SG-1 reviews on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.

Why Stargate SG-1? Mostly because I’m a huge fan of the show from watching it in high school, and I think it’s gotten the short end of the stick from cultural commentators. Although it ended up being a huge hit and spawned several spinoffs, critics were never able to look past the hokey visual effects and lack of serialization (although, in hindsight, this became one of SG-1‘s biggest strengths). I think this is probably similar to how critics overlooked the original Star Trek. In my own small way, I’d like to try to give the show the recognition it deserves.

So, what makes SG-1 so great? First of all, it’s excellent science fiction: it understands the joy of discovery and the fun of working through the implications of those discoveries. But even more importantly, SG-1 believed wholeheartedly that any threat could be defeated with competence, reason, and compassion. Every victory on the show derives from facing the unknown with courage and optimism rather than with fear. Even better, it doesn’t lock its protagonists in endless debate about this; the writers just show how much better the world is when people act on these principles. I don’t know how much of a statement that was in 1997, but it’s a hell of a statement now.

I wasn’t sure how much to expect from the first episodes of the series, as I didn’t recall the first season being particularly great. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that SG-1 adopted this tone right out of the gate (PUN INTENDED). Of course, it had to go through some clunky exposition first, to establish how the TV show related to its source material. Specifically:

  • Jack O’Neill is now played by Richard Dean Anderson, better known as MacGyver. He has turned his depression into quips and disheveled hair. On him this looks good.
  • The Stargate facility is now under the command of straitlaced Southerner General Hammond, a man so responsible that he has erased the concept of humor from his brain. Luckily, his sense of duty extends to not nuking people just because they might be snake-headed glowy-eyed aliens.
  • There is now an astrophysicist on the team, Samantha Carter. In the future she will be one of the best scientists ever on TV, but right now she’s still stuck in justifying-her-gender character purgatory.
  • Daniel Jackson still has floppy hair and glasses, but has otherwise grown less soulfully remote and more disdainful. This could be because he’s now played by Michael Shanks instead of James Spader, or it could be due to the influence of his wife, Sha’re, a woman so sexually potent that she can transfix an entire room with a kiss.
  • Sha’re’s brother Skaara and apparently half of Abydos can speak English now, thanks to the powers of plot convenience.
  • Finally, Daniel has discovered that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Stargates throughout the galaxy. This may well account for why some new aliens have shown up on Earth, shooting staff weapons and kidnapping a soldier. Isn’t it great when puzzles get solved?

There is one thing Children of the Gods Pt. 1 does manage to establish without too much friction: no one carries the idiot ball. When O’Neill wants to take a team through the Stargate to see if the hostile aliens came from Abydos, he doesn’t have to engage in any death-defying heroics to do it. He just points out that it’s the best way to gain intel on what happened, and Hammond is sensible enough to listen. Similarly, when he needs to take Daniel back to Earth, he doesn’t waste time trying to prove his dominance as a military man. He cuts right to the essential point, which is that this is Daniel’s best shot at recovering his wife. These small interactions, and the very large but forced drama that they avoid, go a long way towards keeping the plot grounded and organic.

This brings us into Children of the Gods Pt. 2, which introduces another of Stargate‘s greatest gifts to science fiction: Teal’c. Who doesn’t love Teal’c? He’s moral enough to rebel against those he believes are gods when they do evil things, and intelligent and observant enough to figure out the right people to do it with. His stoicism makes him the perfect straight man for many, many jokes, but it’s well balanced by his thoughtfulness, caring, and general awareness. Teal’c is just the best. Heck, when I watched this show as a teenager, I learned to raise one eyebrow by itself just so I could say “Indeed” like him. Now that I’m an adult, I’m actually blown away by the sheer technical proficiency behind his character. There are very few writers who can balance a character like this, and very few actors who could emote so well while always keeping a straight, serious face and deadpan voice.

The rest of this episode is just plain fun. It’s pretty much all payoff for the exposition in part 1, and to my eyes, has a surprising amount of self-assurance and emotional resonance. This is largely due to the actors, who struggle with some of the quieter moments in the script, but manage to find real emotion in the shadow of the larger plot points. It helps that the SG-1 members start with excellent ensemble chemistry. Most of their bonding is in the background of the episode, but even the three seconds of eye contact between Teal’c and O’Neill during the climactic prison escape scene do a surprising amount to sell Teal’c’s change of heart and O’Neill’s acceptance of it.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well SG-1 uses its instrumental score. It has no qualms about using big, cheesy numbers for everything, whether that’s the heroism of the day, the ominous stomping of the Jaffa, or just underscoring any weird plot development. It really has no business working as well as it does, but the music ends up so perfectly timed and so tonally complementary to the action that it enhances the show instead of feeling incongruous. In some ways this is due to, not in spite of, the otherwise silly-looking costumes and effects — it gives the whole show a classic space opera vibe, almost Star Wars-like, which helps excuse the silliness and act as a foil to the more nuanced emotional moments.

By the end of it all, Sha’re and Skaara are gone, providing plenty of emotional motivation for O’Neill and Jackson; SG-1 is well on its way to its final configuration; and there’s not only a suitably creepy season-long antagonist, but also a whole bunch of new planets to explore for information about him. What a fortuitous coincidence! Oh, and of course there’s the requisite end-of-pilot cliffhanger. Indeed, though I covered this episode as a two-parter, it’s arguably a three-parter with the next episode. However, in the interest of my time and your eyeballs, I’m going to write up that one on Thursday. See you all then!

Stray observations:

  • I wasn’t quite prepared for how politically relevant this show would feel. I mean, the Goa’uld literally think they are the master race, and that that justifies enslaving people (especially, um, people of color). Abydos is a desert full of brown people where the US is actually greeted as liberators…because the first troops there disobeyed their orders and lied to US intelligence for years in order to prevent occupation and genocide. The politics get even more shockingly relevant next episode, so I’m saving the full discussion for that.
  • “Have you ever thought about writing a book about your exploits in the line of duty?” “I’ve thought about it, but then I’d have to shoot anyone who read it.”
  • “If Daniel’s still around, he’ll know what the message means.” “What if the aliens get it?” “Well, they could be blowing their noses right now.”
  • “Colonel, I logged over a hundred hours in enemy airspace during the Gulf War. Is that tough enough for you? Or are we going to have to arm wrestle?”
  • Re: stellar drift and unusable Stargate address permutations: the physics nerd in me feels compelled to note that gravity counteracts the expansive effects of dark energy (which is why we’re not about to expand off the surface of the Earth anytime soon). So it’s unlikely that that accounts for intra-galactic stellar drift. However, many stars do orbit the center of the Milky Way well outside the galactic plane, on a timescale that could make selective drift over tens of thousands of years reasonable. For example, all the stars around Abydos could be well within the plane, so their relationship to the Sun may not have changed much. But other key stars may well have been ones traveling fast enough or on a skewed enough orbit that fifty thousand years would actually nudge them out of alignment. So the idea of stellar drift over fifty thousand years does make sense, just not for the reasons specified in the show. *pushes glasses up nose*
  • “So tell me, Dr. Jackson, how did you and Sha’re meet?” “Well, she was a gift from the elders of Abydos.” “And you accepted?!” For the record, he didn’t, but Carter’s indignation is still a hilariously concise way to point out how weird that whole subplot was in the movie.
  • “Sir, when are you making the decision to head back to the Stargate?” “When hell freezes over.” “I think that pretty much describes our current situation.”
  • To answer the question no one is asking: no, we never do learn exactly what the “kree” in “Jaffa, kree!” means. It is forever a mystery.