Stargate: In Search of False Gods

by Andrew Smee

More often than not, your typical Stargate SG-1 episode would begin with the plucky team of scientist soldiers visiting a planet whose culture's faith would be based on some ancient, classical or traditional myth, religion or legend, would continue with conversations about exactly why they are wrong, follow through with some gunfights, and would end with the complete deconstruction of said faith, the team waving goodbye to the newfound happy secularists. It became as predictable as Star Trek's 'holodeck gone wrong' episodes or the next stargate address exiting in the Vancouver forests in which they filmed the show.

 

Come to think of it, predictable probably isn't the right word, as these recurring storylines are all in support of the show's main theme. Which is, clearly and explicitly so, a rejection of any and all religious principles and a general criticism of faith as a whole.

 

It's not the kind of story focus one would expect to find in a largely cheerful SF adventure serial on late 90s syndicated television, but there it is. Apart from paranoid defense-focused government officials and a bunch of creepy robot spiders, pretty much every single villain the Stargate programme went up against was some alien in fancy clothes claiming they're either God, the Devil or speakers for both.

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Andrew discusses the SG-1's prime directive of spreading atheism throughout the universe.

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Starting from the '94 Emmerich blockbuster whose entire plot was based around helping the downtrodden throw off the shackles of belief laid upon them by aliens masquerading as gods, episode after episode of the television adaptation had a structure befitting of a drinking game. Take a sip every time Teal'c says "false gods." Drink a shot every time some gibbering local thinks the team's weapons are magic. Finish your drink whenever Daniel says "You don't understand."

 

A trope of heroic fiction is that the characters have to be established as heroes and then keep on being heroes. Often this results in the big bads being bigger and badder as time, books and seasons go on. Ever more insurmountable problems, surmounted. Around the time they blow up a sun at the end of Season 4, we're left wondering what could realistically pose an actual challenge to SG-1. The answer, 'not a whole lot, actually', is honestly one of the pleasures of watching Stargate, but the trope of increasing heroism really comes into its own towards the end of the run.

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Ori priest

Ending with aplomb after its eighth season, the surprise renewal for two more seasons had writers scrambling. With pretty much every single plotline and enemy threat having been resolved and dealt with, the extra 9th and 10th seasons offer a different kind of Stargate from what came before. The team were no strangers to offworld religions and alien impersonators by this point, so when faced with the straightforward evil faith of Origin, it initially didn't seem like much out of the ordinary. But it's with this final storyline Stargate finally gets to do what it always seemed to be struggling to pull off: take down religion itself.

 

There had been precedent. As noted, many Stargate episodes involved proving again and again to devout believers that their faith was misplaced, that the divine miracles and punishments their gods and folklore demonstrated were nothing more than advanced technology sufficiently indistinguishable from magic. Time and time again the team is put into peril not through force, but by backwardly portrayed beliefs in outdated systems, the audience continually placed in pleased relief that the villagers just needed a sound talking to for their society to be set on the correct path - the Stargate path.

Indeed, when some established allies previously freed from the bondage of faith in false gods attempt to cast around for a new, worthy cause to follow and finds that Origin looks pretty peachy, SG-1 promptly turns up and explains again, more carefully this time, that the so-called prophets are yet again nothing more than purveyors of lies, looking for power.

 

So, Origin. For those who didn't feel the need to stick around for ten full seasons of gate-hopping (not to mention another seven of spin-offs), Origin is essentially a religion invented by a bunch of aliens called the Ori in order to harvest power from their followers. Alright, so not so different from every other Stargate storyline, then? But the Ori have one small difference in their plans. Whereby previous bad guys like the Goa'uld used religion to harvest power in terms of limitless slave labour, the Ori's whole deal is harvesting faith itself.

ori supergate

Ori supergate

Which is why they initially seem so baffling to SG-1. The Ori priests aren't carting away truckloads of firstborns or snatching all the crops and gold like most of their previous enemies. All they seem to be doing (at first) is turning up in villages and setting up churches. Sure they look a little creepy, but what's a little pale skin and scarification in a galaxy with little grey men and godlike super beings?

 

Oh. Godlike super beings. Oh dear.

 

Yes, that's what the Ori are revealed to be: gods, or as close as you can get. Stargate had played around with godlike characters before with the Ancients, a race of benevolent aliens who originally built the Stargates before 'ascending' into bad CGI effects. The Ori, then, are a natural extension of the fiction: Ancients gone bad who quite literally live in Hell (or a dimension thereof).

 

Naturally, all of that is cheerful Stargate fluff up until Ori priests start burning people alive in the name of their fiery god's faith. And it is faith: the priests in monkly white robes definitely believe wholeheartedly in their religion and their gods, magically duped one and all. Things get a little more messy for our plucky heroes here, especially when they start being brainwashed and turned into priests themselves. Events wouldn't be wrapped up neatly until some straight-to-DVD movies resolved the storyline after the show was cancelled - properly, this time - after Season 10.

 

It turns out the way you kill a god is to kill their followers. Or, well, kill their faith. There are some of the requisite space battles and gunfights, but in the end all that's needed to wipe out Origin once and for all is what we the audience knew all along: just have the SG-1 sit down and explain just why their religion is wrong. You people-burning silly billies. Sure, it's done through a MacGuffiny box full of white light and Morgan le Flay out of Arthurian Legend fighting Inara off Firefly, but the intent and result is the same.

 

As one of the Origin followers leaves, dutifully promising to remove all the people-burning stuff from the books, it's to the tune of Stargate Command settling back, relaxed and satisfied that all is well once again. It's perhaps an overly easy ending to two seasons of rather genuine threat. The last two seasons weren't that well received by longtime fans, partly due to such easy deus ex machina plotting, and while it's true that the abrupt invention of a supposedly eons-old galactic enemy was a little eyebrow raising, the truth is there was nowhere left for SG-1 to go other than taking on the bedrock of religion itself.

 

Here, Stargate's explicit interpretation is of a construct based entirely on deception, lies and false hope in a paradise that will never come, serving only those high up in control of the system. The Ori themselves were in all honesty lackluster antagonists, suffering from the common problem of writing godlike beings as relatable characters, while the endlessly bickering Goa-uld factions of previous series provided this with bountiful charismatic humour. In the end though, they're just different flavours of the same age-old fraud.

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