Last week saw a bit of controversy in the Stargate world, surrounding a character description for the upcoming Stargate Universe episode “Sabotage.” (Read all about it here, including the producers’ response issued right here on GateWorld.)
We’ve seen outcries all over the Web, ranging from “That’s an insensitive way of talking about disabled persons,” to “They’re indulging the cliched male fantasy of lesbians having sex with men,” to “It’s a violation of Camille’s body to have Dr. Perry use it that way,” to “That’s rape, so the story is abhorrent and the episode shouldn’t be made.”
Setting aside the many misreadings and misrepresentations of what the casting call actually said, I’d like to offer my own response to these criticisms. But first, a word must be said about what character breakdowns and casting sides are, what they’re for, and why it’s not fair for viewers to draw conclusions or pass judgment based on them.
At the end of the day, I want to suggest to you, these criticisms entirely miss the point of why science fiction depicts controversial, often disturbing things.
Breakdowns Are Not ‘Real’
By that I mean that they are not a part of the story being told. Unlike a production photo or a clip from a trailer, a character’s description in casting documents may finally bear little similarity to the character as she is depicted on screen. Script pages are also usually from early drafts, and can be rewritten. Or tweaked on set by the actors and director. Or filmed, then cut. (Television is a long, creative process involving contributions from hundreds of people.) It’s an early look at what might be, followed by months of refining by everyone involved. Only the dialogue that is written, interpreted, acted, edited, and aired is worth judging.
To the degree that a character breakdown does correspond to the final product, it is only a snapshot — a single brush stroke in a large fresco.
There is only one way to judge any episode of television: Watch it. The Internet age has brought us a world of pre-production criticism, which is just ridiculous considering the sort of medium that television is. It presumes that one can accurately see an artist’s finished product before it has begun, that one can peer at Michelangelo’s marble slab and comment on the anatomy of David.
Casting Documents Aren’t Meant for You
They are behind-the-scenes production documents, often not even written or vetted by the script’s author, often exaggerated to serve their one, single purpose in life: to give casting agents who look at a zillion of these things a sense of the sort of actors that the show’s producers would like to see audition.
Reading casting documents — and in many cases, even the “sides” that consist of pages from a working draft of the script — is a poor substitute for seeing the final product. Passing judgment on the writer’s decisions at this stage is a little like debating a movie you’ve never seen. You’ve read a bad review, you’ve heard people talk about the trailer, you’ve seen a late-night interview with one of the actors. All these things might help you learn a little more about the movie, but it doesn’t mean you’ve seen it.
Till then, you just aren’t qualified to criticize.
Depiction Does Not Mean Endorsement
Have we forgotten the value of the science fiction genre and dramatic story-telling as a whole? Good television asks hard questions, and sci-fi in particular is good about studying the human condition and engaging tough issues. That means showing characters doing some damned distasteful things. Stargate is no exception. The shows have explored important issues such as torture (“Abyss,” “The Serpent’s Venom”), slavery and coercion (much of the Jaffa storyline throughout SG-1, though episodes like “Cor-Ai” and “Threshold” spring to mind), degenerative disease (“The Shrine”), and religion (all of SG-1 Seasons Nine and Ten), to name just a few.
As a series that is more intentionally dramatic than action/adventure, Stargate Universe will be doing this sort of human exploration even more. Among the many sci-fi plot devices that enable this is the long-range communications device, which allows someone from Earth to occupy the body of a Destiny crew member while that person in turn occupies the body of the person back on Earth. What sort of moral dilemmas might that bring up?
In “Sabotage,” the Destiny crew will grapple with a twisted mess of issues about identity and sexuality. What do you do when you are stranded galaxies away from your loved ones, against your will, with the very real prospect that you will never see them again — only to wake up in someone else’s body back on Earth, able to see them and talk to them and touch them again? Or, what if you’ve been without the use of your limbs all your life, and now inhabit a body that is strong and agile?
Is it ethically permissible to pose as that person? (You might watch “Avalon, Part 2” before you answer.) To kiss someone you love? To kiss someone that person loves? To have sex? Or, from the other side of the equation, if you fall in love with someone who is occupying the body of someone else, can you act on that? What if two lovers both find themselves in other people’s bodies? What if you don’t know that it is temporary? If your lover is transplanted to a robotic body? Is cloned?
These are interesting science fiction questions, which force us to re-examine where we think the boundaries of identity and love are drawn. Yet they are exactly what those who object to this body-swapping episode are taking issue with. It’s not right for Eleanor Perry to do what she does with Camille’s body — even moreso because the two women have different sexual orientations. It’s not right for Nicholas Rush to sleep with her while she is in someone else’s body (gay or straight).
All very right. That’s exactly the point! The episode presents dilemmas, shows characters making choices, and then — we can hope — facing the consequences of those choices. If every character on television acted wise and upright all the time, those stories would have no conflict … and no reason to watch.
The mere depiction of these things doesn’t make the episode bad, or offensive, or poorly written. The writers are attempting to pose difficult moral situations and ask hard questions, and show us more about these characters by how they respond — then, by how others respond to their choices. Perhaps Dr. Perry is selfish and ultimately abusive of the gift she has been given; perhaps Rush is one step removed from a rapist, and an incident like this could permanently color his already tense relationship with Camille. Don’t assume that these things are going to be glorified simply because they are depicted.
Don’t Pretend All Questions Have Easy Answers
Science fiction is at its best not when it is merely depicting distasteful things, but when it is asking hard questions. Questions that don’t have an obvious “right” answer on moral grounds. If your long-lost love knocked on your door wearing someone else’s face, how would you respond to them? If you have been immobile all your life and had the chance to take over someone’s body, would you do it? If it was temporary, what would you do with that body?
What if it was the mind of your spouse, and the person whose body she occupies has given consent? What would you do?
If you fell in love with someone but had no way of interacting with them except through another person’s body, how much is permissible? (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “The Host,” in which Riker played host to a Trill symbiant in love with Beverly Crusher)
If you had to choose between the survival of two different species, what would you do? (SG-1‘s “Scorched Earth”)
If you had the power to protect your world at the cost of a few civil liberties, or at the expense of an uncooperative enemy, would you force your will on them? (“Absolute Power”)
If you transform your enemy into a human like yourself and change his life forever, what are your responsibilities toward him? (Atlantis‘s “Michael”)
If the only way to correct your mistakes and save an innocent life is to let yourself be eaten by an alien monster? (“Miller’s Crossing”)
What would you do if you learned after the fact that a co-worker had raped you — but you have no memory or personal experience of it because your consciousness was in another galaxy at the time? … And it was entirely consensual with the person occupying your body, so from his point of view it wasn’t a rape at all? … And you’re a trillion miles from Earth with no ship-bound legal system to resort to?
Would you hate him?
Would you refuse to work with him?
Would you kill him?
My point is simple: Good science fiction puts its characters in frightful situations, with ethical dilemmas that make us think, “What would I do in that situation?” They make us talk with one another, learn something about one another, and learn something about ourselves. It’s why I love sci-fi.
Stargate Universe and shows like it put characters in difficult and at times ethically ambiguous circumstances. This shows us what those men and women are made of — and, in how we judge their actions, what we are made of, as well.
Editorials represent only the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of GateWorld and its owner. In this case, however, the author happens to be the owner. Go figure.