Spoiler alert: if you’re a Stargate SG-1 newbie reading these reviews for episode recommendations, go watch “The Nox” and then read this afterwards. You may well regret your choices in life should you do the opposite.
Yay! Finally, the Nox!
“The Nox” is perhaps the first must-watch episode of Stargate. While episodes like “The Broca Divide” and “Cold Lazarus” aren’t exactly bad, they don’t really click as scifi. Yes, they have alien planets, wormholes, sentient crystals, and so forth, but they’re so narrowly scoped that at times they come across more as magical realism than science fiction. Not because of innate plausibility — Stargate certainly obeys the Arthur C. Clarke maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — but because of tone. Magical realism is about the fantastic in the ordinary, while science fiction is about the ordinary in the fantastic. Previous SG-1 episodes concerned themselves with the fantastic only insofar as it illuminated the team’s ordinary lives or preexisting philosophies. The internal focus felt almost suffocating, given the potential embodied by the Stargate. So “The Nox” reaps huge benefits from throwing our stubbornly ordinary heroes into a fantastical situation.
One of those benefits is that the series finally tastes the joy of discovery. I’ve talked about this a lot in previous reviews, but frankly it can’t be emphasized enough. From Star Trek to Stargate to comic books, a loosely-serialized speculative fiction franchise lives or dies by how well it conveys the sense of a universe full of new possibilities. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some underlying style to those possibilities, nor does it mean that the heroes themselves must be completely ordinary. But it does mean preserving the fundamental relationship of a work of science fiction to its audience, namely, that the audience can be wowed right along with the heroes as they navigate unfamiliar and thought-provoking challenges.
“The Nox” accomplishes this not just in this episode, but in the general series arc. SG-1 doesn’t know it yet, but their encounter with the Nox is actually an introduction to a wider galactic culture. While the conflict with the Goa’uld will continue to define Stargate for some time, this is the first sign that that conflict does not define the galaxy. The awe of that realization is precisely the feeling of Stargate at its best.
The writers lampshade that awe with what is practically the episode’s tagline: “The very young do not always do as they are told.” Indeed, this is the animating sentiment of the first few seasons of SG-1. The team persists against unimaginably powerful enemies, bureaucratic intransigence, and often their better judgment, all because of their awareness that they are, as Anteaus put it, “very young.” Lampshading is often intended to defuse tropes, but this usage ends up infusing the members of SG-1 with the wonder of childhood. It’s a welcome relief after the many savior moments they’ve had with less technologically advanced cultures.
“The Nox” also wins points for its organic, thoughtful plot. SG-1 doesn’t run into Apophis at random, but because his quest has, through Teal’c, become theirs. Their decision not to seek reinforcements, which felt contrived in “The First Commandment,” is much more understandable here. So is their insistence on defending the Nox, even against their will. The Nox actors are so superb in their rendition of helpless hippiedom that it’s almost impossible not to discount the hints they drop about their technological status, even when that includes resurrecting the dead.
The episode ends with the reveal that the Nox’s preternatural calm comes not from ignorance but from hidden strength. These seemingly naive foresters are actually a super-advanced race, complete with a cloaked floating fortress. The reveal is stunning not just because SG-1 is immediately forced to rethink their entire adventure, but because it exposes a depth of alienness that’s unusual for science fiction.
Aliens are usually characterized by taking one human trait to extremes, often by writers interested in interrogating that trait; accordingly, scifi aliens often find themselves drawn more to humans than humans are to them. The Nox are characterized differently, not as one attribute writ large, but as fully complex and individual people who simply lack the urge to dominate. The idea that these curious, intelligent beings with such power prefer to hide from aggressors instantly makes them feel more alien than any face paint could. Yet their inhumanity isn’t off-putting, it’s compelling. This is the rare alien species that serves up a vision that large parts of humanity would not mind achieving, and Stargate‘s ability to conceptualize that dream while simultaneously measuring our distance from it is what makes it such excellent science fiction.
Today in Teal’c: Good Lord, Teal’c was badass this episode. Between declaring to Apophis his intention to die free and overcoming a stab wound to sound the alarm about Lya, he made it very clear who the toughest and most selfless member of SG-1 is.
One thing that jumped out at me is how often he’s believed. When the Secretary of Defense demands that the Stargate program start producing tangible technological results and Teal’c steps in with a solution, the Secretary doesn’t even look at him funny. He just orders his plan implemented. Similarly, when O’Neill is trying to decide whether SG-1 should go after Apophis, it’s Teal’c’s knowledge that sways the debate in favor of the fight. No one questions his competence or wonders if he’s trustworthy. They don’t even blame him for not knowing about the shield device Apophis uses. This is the kind of equality I’d like to see in workplaces all across America.
- “Do you have any idea what’s out there?” “No, sir. That would be why we’re going.”
- “You will find them most vulnerable when they hover.” “Hover? Like a hummingbird?” “With teeth.”
- “I think they’re a family.” “Of what?” “I have no idea.”
- I could not for the life of me tell the two Nox men apart. This is a situation in which racial diversity in casting would have really come in handy.
- I have to wonder: are Anteaus and Lya representative of their species, or do the other Nox consider them weirdo hippies? Is there a split between the Nox who live in the city and those who live in the fortress? Do the ones who live in the fortress dye their skin and force the others to fight to the death for entertainment? BRB, writing some crossover fanfic.