Friday, October 16, 2009

Wherein I Admit to Being a Stargate Geek

In the fifth season of Stargate SG-1 there is an episode called "Ascension" in which Air Force Major Samantha Carter is told to take a little time off.  A workaholic, Carter protests that she wouldn't know what to do with herself at home.  But the General in charge of the Stargate facility doesn't relent.  

That evening, at home, Carter's doorbell rings and she answers it to find two of her team members on her doorstep.  One is her immediate superior, Air Force Colonel Jack O'Neill (played by "MacGyver" - Richard Dean Anderson).  The other is Teal'c.

Although Teal'c looks like a human male under the age of 40, he is really an alien who is over 100 years old.  Teal'c has defected from the enemy to help our planet of technologically inferior humans defend themselves without the aid of star cruisers and light speed and space age weaponry, all of which he is intimately familiar with.   Carter of course asks them, "What are you doing here?"

O'NEILL:   We brought pizza and a movie.

TEAL'C:    Star Wars!

O'NEILL (gesturing at Teal'c):  He's seen it, what, eight times?

TEAL'C:   Nine.

O'NEILL:  Nine times.  If Teal'c likes it, it's gotta be ok.

CARTER (incredulously to O'Neill): You've never seen Star Wars?

O'NEILL:  Well, you know me and sci fi.

I came across this episode a few weeks ago as I continued to work my way through episodes of SG-1 on hulu.  I had seen it before; I used to occasionally watch SG-1 in syndication.  Every once in a while I'd get home late on a Saturday night and be too keyed up to sleep so I'd flip on the TV and there it would be.  I never really completely knew what was going on because I saw it so rarely. 

But I remember that it was when I saw this episode (Ascension) that I realized why I liked this TV series. It was all of these cleverly written little side comic bits that appeared in every episode.  It wasn't the concept (which seemed similar to a lot of tv space travel shows) and certainly wasn't the special effects (which were next to minimal during the first few seasons) and it wasn't for the acting (which was fine but not award winning).  It was the writing.

The writers of SG-1, like other scriptwriters before them, wrote a straight science fiction/fantasy space travel show.  They took it seriously, created their mythology and stuck with their concept.  They created a mildly entertaining story of humans traveling through space (albeit without space ships), encountering alien races, some of which are friendly and some of which are not.  

But then the writers put another layer on top of this "straight" science fiction television show - a layer of inside jokes about science fiction television shows.  And movies.   They did it very well.  And I think it is a difficult feat and happens rarely.  Joss Whedon did it with Buffy the Vampire Slayer - he could write serious stories about small blond girls defeating big bad guys while at the same time being tongue in cheek about stories of superheroes saving silly blond girls from bad guys.  Whedon got a lot of credit for walking that line; the Stargate writers have gotten less credit.

When I was writing about the novel Falling, by Debbie Moon, I said that I don't often read science fiction.  I prefer to watch it on television and in the movies, probably because my own ability to visualize things that don't exist isn't very good.  I appreciate the help of TV creative design teams.  

I've seen a fair amount of science fiction over the years although I'm sure that the things I watch are probably more classifiable as fantasy than true science fiction.

When I was a child I remember watching Lost in Space and Star Trek with my dad.  I've always liked shows that involve space travel.  But I also liked Journey to the Center of the Earth.   And, of course, The Jetsons. 

As a teenager I loved Star Wars and its sequels.   Then I stopped going out of my way to watch science fiction and there are a few well known science fiction movies that I've never seen, like Blade Runner.  I also haven't seen many science fiction movies that are scary - I had my eyes closed through most of the Alien movies.  Yeah, I'm a wimp when it comes to scary movies. 

I was hooked on the Dr. Who episodes that were shown on PBS in the 1980's.  And through the 1980's and 1990's I watched all the various follow-up Star Trek series.  Deep Space Nine is my favorite because it was a little darker than the others and the characters were a little more complicated.

I don't have cable so I've missed some of the recent highly acclaimed series such as the new Dr. Who and the Battlestar Galactica series.   Someday I'm going to watch BSG because Jane Espenson was on the creative team and I respect her writing.  I watched the short-lived Firefly on television and just recently finally saw the movie sequel, Serenity.

But Stargate is a little bit different from these other shows.  Sure some of those other shows are funny NOW, but they weren't intended to be funny when written (except, possibly, Firefly).  And some things that were intended to be funny (like Galaxy Quest) were intended to be ONLY funny.  The writers never intended me to take any part of it seriously as the writers of Stargate do with their plots.

And, in fact, the first season of Stargate isn't as funny as later seasons.  The writers were busy creating their universe.  But I read that Richard Dean Anderson only agreed to come on board and play O'Neill if the writers lightened the character up a bit and gave him some humor (Stargate was, like Buffy, originally a movie that was moved to television and O'Neill was played by Kurt Russell in the movie).  As the series went on, and its popularity grew, the writers began to write more comic moments into their scripts and, by the middle of the third season, references to other sci fi works were a regular feature. 

But the comedy isn't only contained in specific verbal sci fi references. It is also in how they write typical science fiction television scenes.  They created, in O'Neill, a character whose eyes glaze over when he hears "technobabble" and who prefers to cut to the chase, so to speak.   This helped solve the "conference room scene" problem that fans of Star Trek are intimately familiar with.   Some plot issue arises and it becomes necessary for the writers to insert a scene that is mostly exposition in which the actors sit around a conference table and one or more of them spout technobabble that explains the problem and the proposed solution.  The same writing problem arises in Stargate, but the writers can handle it differently because of the way they created O'Neill's character.

For instance, in "Ascension" the SG-1 team is sitting around the conference table explaining to General Hammond that they found a mysterious device on a planet where civilization was wiped out.  General Hammond wants to know what it is:

GENERAL HAMMOND:   I'm sorry but I haven't heard anyone say exactly what the device is. 

DANIEL JACKSON:  Well, we're speculating.  I mean it could be a deep space observatory for all I know.

O'NEILL (interrupting):   Or a big honkin' space gun sir.

Technobabble avoided.  And when it does turn out to be a weapon, O'Neill simply grins and says "It is  a big honkin' space gun!".   This is completely in character for O'Neill and it is really all the audience needs to know. 

But one of the funniest moments for the viewer of "Ascension" is a visual moment that was created by casting.  The serious science fiction story of the episode involves an alien being who comes invisibly through the Stargate and reveals himself to Major Carter by taking human form.  But, he explains to her, he is really part of a collective race of higher beings from which he has been banished for breaking rules.  The scene then shifts to a Pentagon representative (a character that we have never seen before) who wants to take control of the the alien for study purposes.  This is a typical "serious" sci fi story.  But it is also humorous for certain viewers - those who know the previous work of the actor playing the Pentagon official: John de Lancie.  

As any true fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation knows, John de Lancie played a recurring character called "Q" , an extremely humorous character who is the bane of Captain Picard's existence and who is also a member of the "Q Continuum", a race of higher beings who exist in a "collective" state and who (regularly) banish or threaten to banish Q from the "collective" because he breaks the rules.  Here DeLancie is playing a character who wants to capture an alien member of a collective who was banned for breaking the rules.  For viewers in the know, just the sight of him provokes a chuckle.

Ascension isn't even the funniest episode of Stargate SG-1.  Not by a long shot.  I think the episodes involving "Marty the Alien" are incredibly funny - especially the episode where Marty becomes a television consultant on a new televisions series that looks suspiciously like Stargate SG-1

And humor isn't the only reason that I like Stargate SG-1.  The character of Major Carter is a big draw for me.  Samantha Carter is an astrophysicist who is really smart.   I mean REALLY smart.  But still fairly normal.  And the team of men she works with recognize that she is the smartest one on the team and they don't know what she is talking about most of the time - but they are ok with that.  They think it's cool.  They are happy to have her on their team.  And in the six full seasons I've watched so far - the writers have never ONCE written her into an inappropriate (or any) sexual scene with anyone she works with, despite the fact that she is beautiful, straight and fairly normal.   That, I find refreshing.

Stargate SG-1 lasted for 10 seasons.  I'm currently watching Season 7 and am excited they just put up Season 8.  I will watch the rest once hulu puts them up.  SG-1 was followed by Stargate Atlantis which I've never seen.  There were, I believe, a couple of made-for-TV Stargate movies in there, none of which I've seen.  Not to mention the original film with Kurt Russell.  Once hulu puts them up I'll watch all of them. 

And now there is a new series:  Stargate Universe.   It's on cable so I don't know the details but I've watched the pilot and the first episode on hulu and it's quite well done.  It's darker than SG-1 and the characters are younger (and by this point in Earth's development they have spaceships and other alien technology they didn't have in the early years of SG-1).  But there is some humor and I predict there will be more humor once the story gets moving and all the characters aren't in constant fear for their lives.   Here's a review - and it actually does talk about how the writing and the series compares to to Joss Whedon's Firefly and Battlestar Galactica .

I've only ever met one other person in real life who has watched Stargate SG-1 - and that is my cousin who lives in Wisconsin who I only see a couple of times a year.   So I've never been able to share the humor of it with anyone.  But what the heck.  That's what having a personal blog is for.