I think everyone probably has an “Always Back Up Your Data” story. That time you lost a paper the night before it was due, or misplaced some family photos taken with a digital camera. For me it was part of an interview with Stargate writer and producer Robert C. Cooper. We called it The Great Coke Spill of ’08, and it taught me never to leave a full glass of soda on the table between my laptop and my 2-year-old.
Earlier in 2008 GateWorld had published most of my conversation with Cooper, shortly after he released Stargate: The Ark of Truth. It was SG-1’s first bigger-budget movie, and Cooper — who created the Ori storyline — had both written and directed it. In a lengthy phone conversation we talked about the film and his creative choices, the Ori and the Ancients, Adria, Vala … and how Stargate as a whole portrayed religion and faith.
I was a seminary student at the time, and Stargate‘s depiction of religious belief always intrigued me — so we ended up chatting about it for quite a while. In the end I chose to trim this out of the published interview, mostly to save it for a stand-alone piece I wanted to write later. Over the years I had witnessed a number of viewers complain that Stargate SG-1 is anti-religion, as if the message of the show is that belief in God or the supernatural is just backward superstition, a form of intellectual bondage from which people need to be freed by our “enlightened” heroes. I find that read on the show short-sighted, and hoped to explore this in dialogue with Cooper’s comments.
Then, The Great Spill …
My laptop was fried and all its data lost, and search as I might I could not find any backup of the original telephone recording. Evidently this was a conversation that would never see the light of day.
That’s what I thought for more than 12 years, until in 2021 I discovered a copy of the recording on another drive.
And so, for all those interested in Stargate‘s take on religion and faith, I’m very pleased to offer this lost interview in full. It is presented here as a companion to my essay, “Faith and False Gods: Religion in Stargate SG-1,” which appears in the book Unauthorized Offworld Activation: Exploring the Stargate Franchise (edited by Rich Handley and Joseph Dilworth, Jr.).
The original interview with Robert C. Cooper was conducted in March of 2008, upon the release of the film Stargate: The Ark of Truth. The rest this conversation was published that spring (Part 1 — Part 2). Let’s start with a little bit of the published interview, to put our conversation in context:
[From earlier in the published interview, on the Ori as a new and evolved threat …]
Robert C. Cooper: To me, the Ori was a natural extension of where the Ancient mythology had gone. And in trying to create a new bad guy — because I felt we needed to reinvigorate the show in Season Nine — we talked about what hadn’t we done. Where hadn’t we gone? Wouldn’t it be pretty scary if there was a group of “Ancients” out there, essentially, who didn’t follow the non-interference code that the Ancients we know follow? And what if they were bad guys? What if they used that knowledge and power to their own advantage?
It took the stakes of impersonating a god that the Goa’uld sort of began … but they were essentially just a physiological parasite inside a human being, and they used technology to create the illusion of their godlike status and power. But what if the person or being taking on that position actually had very much more godlike powers? Wouldn’t it be much harder to convince people not to follow them?
… I think to a certain extent people had certain expectations about dealing with the Ori. But the gods themselves were never the aspect of the mythology that was as interesting to me, because they are so powerful. How do the humans who are dealing with that interact? And how are they affected by that? I find that more interesting and identifiable, and more of an analogy to our own existence, because we can’t seem to prove one way or the other who’s right! And that leads to a lot of conflict. And I think that’s interesting, and I think that’s an interesting thing to explore in the milieu of science fiction.
GateWorld: Right. You know, from a fan’s perspective looking back at the Ori story arc, it feels kind of strange that the Ori themselves have been so elusive — that we haven’t actually seen them a whole lot, other than at Celestis in early Season Nine, and briefly when Vala is impregnated.
RCC: Yes. And that’s because to me if you look at any religion that mankind has ever been exposed to, there’s very little direct interaction with the actual deity of the religion. There’s a whole lot of interaction with the subsequent writings and the human beings who follow those religions. But there’s a mysterious aspect and quality to religious belief and the passion that it invokes. And that was the interesting aspect of the story to me.
That’s not to say we didn’t meet the Ori or didn’t come to know who they were. But the Stargate mythology has always kept the Ancients at a bit of an arm’s length distance. And that’s because I think that the show is ultimately still about us. It’s not about them. It’s about human beings going out into this unexplored, fantastical world.
And the more you answer, the less interesting I think it becomes. And that doesn’t mean you don’t want to progress and you don’t want to discover new things, but if you got every answer you will never want to watch more!
[The previously unpublished material begins here …]
GW: So that’s actually a significant point of difference with the Goa’uld storyline, which is that now gods are never actually seen. And you’re saying that’s kind of the point to the whole thing?
RCC: In a way, yeah. You know, there were … a physical impersonation of a god, that it was a characteristic of ancient mythology – which is where Stargate started. And to I think in some ways modernize the concept in some ways, I thought that it would be interesting to deal with the religious aspect of belief with or without proof.
And the interesting thing about the Ori is initially, when we first met them and when we first see the people and the Priors, there is a pretty amazing amount of proof. They do speak to them through the Priors and through the Doci. They do appear in the form of ‘magic’ walls of fire, and voices. There is a physical presence. The Priors actually have powers – kind of like a Moses type of power, where they have the ability to part the Red Sea right before you.
So, of course – ‘My God! He parted the Red Sea! I’m going to believe in that.’ You know? And then what happens if you then remove the ability to demonstrate that? Will people still believe? And I think that’s interesting to me.
And it was sort of always the intention as we move forward to find a way to potentially eliminate that threat, because I’m not sure that the Ori themselves – without the interference of the Ancients – weren’t going to be too powerful for human beings to deal with. Now the real fight for us is in dealing with the other human beings (because they’re at our level), but also a little bit of Daniel trying to use his influence with the Ancients, and the fact that he was formerly ascended, to get the Ancients – represented by Morgan Le Fay, symbolically and physically – to step in and fight the battle that needs to be fought on their level.
It’s kind of like everybody needs to say on their own level, you know? And I’m a human being, you’re a human being; we identify with the people of our kind. And it’s a little harder to identify with all-powerful gods and how they fight and what their reasoning is. I don’t know that I understand it. So I’m a little more able to write about, or tell stories, about how human beings deal with that, and deal with what they have to deal with and feel what they have to feel. So I just find that more interesting.
GW: So the question of Stargate is not so much “Does God exist?” as, regardless of whether God exists, “What are his human followers doing, for good or for evil?”
RCC: Yeah! And also the idea that … I think that the moral or the lesson or the side that ultimately SG-1 has always fallen on is that it’s not wrong to believe. Everybody deserves to believe in whatever they want. And when people misuse power, and misuse their position in order to take advantage of other people – or in the worst cases kill them – that’s just wrong.
It’s pretty simple. We’re not talking about rocket science here. It’s a pretty simple human rights issue. And it’s unfortunate, but the world just doesn’t operate that way.
GW: Would it be fair to say, do you think, that the Ori were “false gods” in the same way that the Goa’uld were false gods? And, now that they’re gone, does Origin moving forward – we get a hint at the end of the movie that there is still some value to Origin moving forward.
RCC: Sure. I think that was always intended as a nod toward what I think is – we’re not saying religion itself is bad. There’s certainly a moral fabric to it. What we’re saying is there are people who misuse it. People. In some cases powerful people, who take advantage of other people because of it. And that’s just a basic human, good-or-evil story.
I think we’ve always tried very carefully not to judge religion itself, and not to identify anyone’s specific religion itself. It’s really more of a comment on how you go about practicing your beliefs, and whether you impose them on other people.
GW: I made a comment in GateWorld’s review for The Ark of Truth that has generated a bit of conversation, which is that after ten [or] eleven years now the Stargate franchise is lacking in a really deliberate, explicit, positive portrayal of religious belief. How would you respond to that?
RCC: You know, it’s a very touchy question. That’s the sort of thing that … people’s beliefs and their choices about religion are very personal. And I hope that our portrayal has always been, I think, fair and open-minded. I think there have been instances where we’ve acknowledged characters’ beliefs in religion, and that that aspect is not wrong or not … not the issue.
The issue has always been: What are you doing in the name of your beliefs? And is your behavior good? And that’s really just a … that’s the comment. And I think overall what Stargate has done is fought the misuse of people’s beliefs.
I mean, it’s a science fiction show. And I don’t think the discussion of the religious aspects of the show can happen outside the context of science. Because that’s really where the issue lies, is that (especially with the Goa’uld, and to the Ori to a certain extent) it’s an understanding of science that allows for the manipulation of people’s beliefs, creating god-like imagery.
We, I think, never have stated or even suggested that science itself or the universe itself in its existence is not being governed by, or was not created by, a higher power. We never go to that level. We’re always operating underneath that level. We’re dealing with beings that are – human beings, ascended beings – they’re all beneath that structure.
GW: It reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Who Watches the Watchers?” is somewhat notorious in this conversation – where the statement is made that belief in God is a superstition that the Federation dealt with and put away and moved past years ago. You don’t see Stargate as ever reaching that point of statement?
RCC: No! I think there was a conversation that Mitchell and Landry had at one point where they acknowledged the fact that just because Ancients exist on this higher plane of existence doesn’t mean there isn’t a plane of existence even higher than that [“Origin”]. And I think that one of the reasons for keeping the Ori and the Ancients at, like I said, a little bit at arm’s reach is because it maintains that level of mystery, shall we say, that keeps us all kind of intrigued by what the answers to those questions are.
GW: And recognizes our limitations.
RCC: I would hate to ever answer that question. Because I don’t think it’s our place, in terms of just generally entertaining people. I think it’s OK to bring up those questions and let people answer them for themselves. But I certainly hope that we haven’t ever made that statement, one way or the other.
GW: Yeah, I certainly find the conversation fascinating.
RCC: Yeah, and I think everybody does. And it’s a delicate subject matter and a fine line to walk. But where I feel completely comfortable taking shots is when people start killing each other.
GW: Yeah, right! Exactly.
RCC: And I think that’s wrong. And I’m happy to say that in the course of the show.
… I mean, everything can be placed in historical context as well. But throughout man’s history, unfortunately, people have treated each other very, very badly because of their particular beliefs. And I think that’s unfortunate. And that’s really what – if we’re saying anything – at the most simplistic level it’s that.
And I think your comment is maybe not entirely fair, but it’s really not that we haven’t come out against religion. I don’t think we’ve come out for religion. I think we’ve basically tried to avoid that judgment.
GW: Yeah, right. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the show is anti-religion in any way, shape, or form. As a big fan of the show I think there are great themes about people who come along and impersonate gods, and casting down false gods, and truth – which is what this film is all about.
RCC: What I think the show is – the word I prefer to “religion” is “spiritual.” And I think that the essence of SG-1 is that the characters – our characters, our heroes – because of their spirit … that is something that I think we’ve always tried to embrace. That if you are a good person that you are going to ‘go to a better place.’ You are going to improve the human race and the human condition. Those are all, if you will, aspects of the fundamental, best aspects of religion.
And that’s where I think we’ve tried to be positive. We’ve tried to say, “Look, if you want to draw analogies between ascending and direct, religious equivalents like heaven, what we’re saying is ‘be a good person.'” At its core there’s more to it than just having the scientific knowledge to become something better. You need to be good at your core. That’s the message that Oma gives to Daniel back in Season Five [“Meridian”].
I think those are spiritual messages that I think we’ve tried to convey. And I think those are positive aspects.
GW: Yeah. Absolutely.
[The published interview resumes here, and is included for the sake of completing the conversation on religion.]
GW: I’ve felt since Daniel returned in Season Seven [“Fallen”] that the Ancients have been stepping into the fore. And there’s a scene in my head — a sort of “council of ascended beings” who finally explain themselves.
Other than the diner in “Threads,” we’ve never really seen the Ancients as themselves in their own environment. We see them through young Orlin [“The Fourth Horseman”]; we see them through Daniel’s discoveries about Merlin’s past. Talk about your decision to represent the Ancients through Morgan in The Ark of Truth, rather than actually getting to see the Ancients themselves.
RCC: You know, it’s kind of like if you ask someone, “What does the face of God look like?” [If] you ask a bunch of different people, they’re all going to give you different answers. If you draw a picture, it’s less interesting. I just find that if you try and tell people what they look like it’s not as interesting as allowing their imaginations to create it themselves.
And there are certain aspects to the show — you obviously want to tell a story, you want to create characters that you are following that are interesting. But with certain aspects of the show it’s almost like a monster movie, where it’s more interesting when you’re not seeing the monster.
… And I think that if you ever did, because the Ancients are so “out there” on a mystical, magical, powerful level, that there’s really almost no visual that could do it justice. And I feel like it would have been maybe deflating to the whole concept of who they are if you ever did see them. So the few times that we did portray them in certain ways, they were kind of very simple, human representations of them in the show — a slightly glowy person or the people who were in the diner.
I think that it was something where, if we did try and show it, it might have ruined it because everybody gets to imagine what it is really like. And I think that is part of the adventure of what it is to be human, is to not have all the answers and to go out into this mysterious universe and go exploring.
Some people want to know everything, and have it all given to them, and are disappointed when a story doesn’t have every answer in it. And I’m never going to write that story. I’m never going to write the story that has every answer. I think that’s uninteresting.
GateWorld receives a portion of what you spend when you use our Amazon affiliate links. Thank you for supporting independent fan journalism!