As a teenage boy growing up in North Carolina — fascinated by the military, ancient mythology, and all things science fiction — I thought Stargate SG-1 seemed like a television show created by the gods themselves. It was as if somebody looked inside my soul and hand-tailored an intelligent, compelling, and enriching tale of galactic exploration that was relevant to my own life as well as the world around me.
I naively assumed that SG-1 resonated with everyone because of that exact medley of cinematic elements (because when we’re young, everything is about us). But as I came of age and spent more time interacting with other Stargate fans, I discovered that others appreciate SG-1 through a variety of lenses.
For some, the militarism of the show (my favorite element) was tangential and unnecessary: SG-1 was strongest in its scientific pursuits, not in a gridlock war with Goa’uld System Lords. For others, the deeper archaeological and philosophical inquiries held the secret to Stargate’s greatness — while for me, such threads functioned as a speed trap for the intergalactic action that I so desperately craved.
It turned out that men, women, and children from around the globe loved SG-1 (and later Atlantis) for many reasons I did not. And that dichotomy was further made known by the premiere of the highly-divisive Stargate Universe.
Within a few episodes of its pilot, SGU had become my favorite Stargate show. The producers introduced a bold new visual style, and effectively balanced out intimate character moments with frontier space adventure — all while telling truly fresh and compelling stories in a franchise that faced the risk of becoming redundant.
Universe also proved that my infatuation with SG-1 and Atlantis was no accident. I was on the same wavelength as these writers, and their fictional works would be seminal in crafting my own creative voice.
But not everyone saw that potential in SGU. In fact, many blamed the controversial spin off for the collapse of Atlantis and the cancellation of the SG-1 and Atlantis movies. Some even rallied to sabotage the new show out of pure spite.
It shocked and frustrated me at the time, but later helped reinforce the truth that Stargate connects with different people for vastly different reasons.
Which got me asking: What does it mean for a show to be Stargate? What are the unifying factors of Stargate? And why does fandom — despite being so highly dysfunctional — feel a kindred connection to this franchise?
Having taken many years to reflect on these questions, I want to present my thoughts on what makes Stargate … well, “Stargate.” Now as we have entered 2019 — the year that will likely bring the franchise back in full force — this is the perfect time to reaffirm why these stories have such profound and personal meaning to us, no matter where we come from.
While many a franchise focuses on the generational struggles of family (Star Wars, Game of Thrones, etc.), Stargate chooses to highlight non-familial bonds that — through powerful shared experiences — become just as strong and unbreakable as blood ties themselves.
Think of Teal’c: an “enemy” solider who listens to his conscience and betrays his god just to save a group of strangers. And how through that brave and selfless action, he ends up finding his true family.
Think of Ronon Dex: a lonesome runner. A man whose rough outer shell and defense mechanisms are disarmed by the explorers he meets from Atlantis — individuals who risk their lives to free him, and welcome him into their city.
Think of Eli Wallace: an M.I.T. dropout on the road to nowhere — befriended by Lt. Scott, mentored by Colonel Young, and pushed to his limits by Dr. Rush. A boy who becomes a man, and a brilliant mind who becomes unafraid to step up and recognize his own potential.
And the list goes on: Teyla Emmagan, Daniel Jackson, Vala Mal Doran, John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Chloe Armstrong — all characters who find renewed purpose and life-changing friendships through their involvement in the greater Stargate story.
Writer-producer Joseph Mallozzi recently echoed this sentiment in an interview with Stargate Command. “Viewers tune in for the hook,” he said, “but they come back for the characters. Whether it was the SG-1 team, the Atlantis expedition, or the crew of the Destiny, they were like a second family that viewers checked in with time and again.”
The dinner scene from the SGU series finale “Gauntlet” also comes to mind. Written by Mr. Mallozzi himself, the bittersweet scene beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the franchise and its emphasis on found family. And, in retrospect, this same scene marks the closing chapter and the end of an era.
“I guess it’d be easy to dwell on everything that we have lost, but I think today I would rather think about what we still have, and maybe what we’ve gained” says Everett Young, addressing the remaining Destiny crew as they prepare to go into stasis.
“We’re a family now, whether we like it or not. Sons, daughters, sisters, even the slightly crazy uncle who, despite everything, still manages to come through for you in the end.
Though some Stargate stories focus on Earth-based mythology more than others, each Stargate iteration possesses a profound and unbreakable connection to the history of our home planet.
It was a truly novel idea on behalf of original Stargate creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to introduce Egyptian mythology as a conduit to the otherworldly. But SG-1 co-creators Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner saw something far greater in that seed of an idea.
Whether it was Norse mythology (the Asgard), Old English mythology (Camelot), or Greek mythology (“Brief Candle”), Stargate SG-1 thrived on its ability to weave a celestial tapestry that was both highly familiar yet distinctly alien.
This was so much so that SG-1’s first spin-off (Stargate Atlantis) was built entirely around the iconic Greek myth of Atlantis.
In a weird way, it felt like Stargate was teaching us about our own world — calling upon ancient lore to posit what “realistic” alien involvement in our civilization would look like. And as the characters of Stargate explore the universe — in our backyard (SG-1), in the Pegasus Galaxy (SGA), and in the farthest reaches of the known universe (SGU) — they’re making revelations about our own identity that further invests the audience in this fictional universe.
While a universal “present-day” storytelling restriction could stifle the franchise moving forward, I believe the precedent exists to say that Stargate, as a whole, has sewn its identity parallel to our own timeline.
Even Brad Wright (co-creator of all three television series) reaffirmed on Twitter that “the Stargate series worked because they were set in the here and now.” Under his leadership, Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe depicted “real life” scientist, civilians, and military personnel operating in secret to protect humanity and expand our galactic horizons. Ordinary people in extraordinary settings.
They could be your neighbor, a passerby on the street, or an old friend from college — but above all, they’re accessible and identifiable in a modern context.
Furthermore, Stargate’s attention to granular, real-world details — ranging from up-to-date military uniforms and technology, to cultural standards and character perspectives — gave Stargate a profound sense of realism and tangibility. The writers, military advisors, and scientific consultants put in the extra work to make Stargate’s canon feel grounded, and the effort truly showed.
It was a huge draw for me personally, and it is something I’ve heard many fans (throughout my decade-long experience with fandom) reference as a crucial identifying factor of Stargate.
Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if 26 levels below Cheyenne Mountain, our government is running an inter-planetary Stargate program. A television show would be the perfect cover, wouldn’t it? (See: “Wormhole X-Treme!”)
Ever since Apophis made a surprise incursion into Stargate Command (in the SG-1 pilot “Children of the Gods”), Earth wasted no time in developing a Stargate program that would utilize the extensive Milky Way gate network to surveil and eliminate threats to our homeworld.
But while Stargate Command was initially a hawkish military operation tasked with the preemptive defense of earth, the endeavor quickly took on a far more aspirational value. Exploration of new worlds became a crucial story engine for the Stargate franchise — and one that wasn’t just steeped in war and combat, but intrigue and discovery.
For all the space battles and visual extravaganzas we were treated to as the show evolved, Stargate was ultimately about the relationships that were formed as a result of our heroes stepping through the gate. And squad-based exploration remained a cornerstone of the franchise’s storytelling fingerprint, even with the advent of interplanetary warships like the Prometheus.
Stargate Atlantis also found a way to reinvigorate that frontier vibe, sending an expedition with an ostensibly one-way ticket to the Pegasus Galaxy. And despite unthinkable dangers, the Atlantis team never shied away from exploring new worlds or forging new alliances. There was perpetual feeling of excitement and possibility every time our heroes stepped through the gate.
Most importantly, however, Stargate’s focus on exploration invited the audience to live vicariously through the characters of Stargate Command. I think we all secretly hope to be visited by General O’Neill and beamed up to the U.S.S. Hammond for the adventure of a lifetime. We want to be able to look to the stars, and know that we’ve visited all those solar systems and made a difference for the better.
Which is the perfect time to raise the topic of —
Such a buzzword could take on a variety of connotations. But in this case, it boils down to a simple question: “who are we?”
Stargate’s television canon presented a fascinating revelation about humanity: we’re not the first of our kind. Earth is just one of a vast network of human settlements throughout the Milky Way and Pegasus Galaxies, and we’re all descended from the great and mighty Ancients.
Stargate Atlantis again took that revelation a step further, as we discovered a more sinister evolution of humankind: the Wraith.
Half human, half iratus bug — a fusion that went horribly wrong — the Wraith are a carnivorous race that mirror our own form, yet threaten to wipe out humanity as we know it. Further complicating matters, our team develops the ability to “convert” the Wraith back to human beings — raising an urgent ethical dilemma.
Do these “people” deserve the same treatment as natural-born humans? Are they sentient, or are they an abomination? And now that we’ve harnessed the genetic power to remove the iratus bug components from their DNA, are we violating basic human rights?
In Stargate Universe viewers were privy to an equally intense existential debate — one that arose after Dr. Rush discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, a complex signal originating from the beginning of time.
Such an unprecedented discovery could signify conclusive proof of intelligent design. But with great understanding comes great risk.
“They’re gonna call it proof of the existence of God, and for every politician that tries to take that and bend it for his own ends, there’ll be just as many — maybe more — who try to bury it,” says Dr. Andrew Covel, in Season Two’s “Alliances.”
Sadly, we never saw that particular thread fully realized. But Stargate consistency brought a layered, existential dialect to its narrative endeavors. Toward the end of its television run, the show began to address some of humankind’s most stunning mysteries.
Real life can be a downer, but Stargate was never so serious about itself that it was afraid to inject some levity into its storytelling.
Amidst the chaos of running an interplanetary defense and exploration network, the characters of SG-1 were wry, self-effacing, and at times, straight-up hilarious. It’s a dynamic that could have easily become corny or insincere, yet somehow always managed to hit the tonal bullseye and compliment the greater story.
The same dynamic went for the crew of Stargate Atlantis: a largely civilian expedition with a one way ticket to the Pegasus Galaxy. Certainly a terrifying prospect, yet one that brought plenty of laughs in the form of the hilariously unequipped Dr. Rodney McKay, the sly and boyish Colonel John Sheppard, and the comically gruff, muscle-y sidekick Ronon Dex.
And while Stargate Universe chose a darker route, it still found its comedic balance in Eli Wallace — a self-professed geek who channels the voice of the audience as he reacts to the insane happenings on the Destiny.
Universe also pulled upon its background players (like Drs. Volker, Brody, and Park) to weave in some situational humor once they found their place on the ship. They weren’t usually the laugh-out-loud moments we got in SG-1 and Atlantis, but they provided a well-balanced reprieve from otherwise heavy storytelling.
“Futura. Isn’t that a font?”
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the recent Stargate Origins: Catherine for its palpable chemistry between a young Catherine Langford, Captain Beal, and Wasif. Not to mention how Wasif aptly describes his first trip through the Stargate: “Tingly!”
Stargate is many things to many people, but above all, I believe that Stargate embodies hope.
Moments like O’Neill reaching out to Malakai in “Window of Opportunity” — showing kindness and empathy to an enemy. Colonel Sheppard begging Keras to reconsider his ritual suicide in “Childhood’s End.” Senator Armstrong sacrificing himself to save Chloe and the Icarus base survivors in “Air, Part 2.”
From the concrete halls of Stargate Command to the spires of Atlantis, from the dunes of 1930s Abydos to the silver hallways of the Destiny … hope is found in every corner of the Stargate universe. While some shows are compelling because of their anti-heroes, Stargate thrives on its ability to highlight moments of virtue and hope — stories where our heroes embrace their best selves despite every excuse not to.
Stargate is a show (or film) that you can turn on when you want to be entertained and uplifted, but equally relevant for when you want to engage in self-discovery. It has something for everyone, and above all, it stimulates the imagination and intellect in a way that leaves a lasting impact.
While the Golden Age of television has presented audiences with an overwhelming amount of high-quality narrative entertainment, I have yet to find a single property that replicates the magical medley (and tonal balance) of Stargate’s sci-fi storytelling.
And for that very reason, I can’t wait for the next adventure.
Like I said at the outset: Stargate is much more than just one person’s view. And as such, I have almost certainly overlooked core Stargate tenants that others hold dear.
So let us know what defines Stargate for you. Leave a comment below, or send us your thoughts on Twitter. Or you can head over to GateWorld Forum, and be a part of the community discussion of “What Defines Stargate.”