Through the Wormhole

Through the Wormhole

I’ve written a lot about my favourite sci-fi shows and the lessons they’ve taught me. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Stargate SG1. I loved all ten seasons of the show, and I’m still a bit sour over the way the Sci-fi channel dropped it just before they decided it was a good idea to become “Syfy.” Considering the central theme of the show was a small group of weak humans travelling the galaxy in search of some way to defeat advanced aliens posing as gods, there were a lot of lessons to be learned. I think these are the most poignant.

There is no turning back.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice I read is that it’s okay to make mistakes. Failure is one of the best ways to learn. But it isn’t just fear of failure that inhibits forward motion; no one wants to eliminate opportunities. Sometimes making a choice means closing other paths, and what do you do if you choose the wrong path?

Keep moving forward. Sometimes progress requires us to make mistakes. Any motion is better than stagnation.

Nothing illustrates this point better than the opening episodes of SG1. Shortly after their first trip through the gate, the team angers a group of highly advanced aliens posing as gods. Aliens with enough firepower to wipe out the entire population of Earth without breaking a sweat. Oops?

Because the show is good at presenting all sides of every argument, there are those who protest the gate should be shut down and never touched again because look what you did you idiots! But the prevailing argument is that the mistake can’t be erased. The question isn’t how do we keep anyone from ever making the same mistake? It’s how do we save the planet from certain doom?

The answer, of course, is to continue using the Stargate. And as the show progresses, there are often pitfalls. But there are also successes, sometimes snatched from the jaws of imminent defeat. Because the people running the Stargate program almost always learn from their mistakes sooner or later. And while missteps can lead to great misfortune, other encounters lead to alliances, knowledge and hope, one of the universe’s most powerful weapons. Sure, the first step is terrifying if you can’t turn back, but the ultimate benefits often outshine the pitfalls.

Question everything.
One of my favourite aspects of SG1 is the variation of characters. It’s amazing how many view points they managed to represent on a four person team. While the leader is your typical veteran soldier; cool, calculating and logical, the rest of the team tends to see things from other perspectives. You also have a scientist as well as an archaeologist (we’ll ignore the fact that Daniel Jackson was a linguist in the movie) who tends to have a more humanitarian perspective. While Colonel O’Neill often wants an easy military answer to every situation, he very rarely gets one, and that’s what keeps the show interesting.

Colonel O’Neill often has only his primary objective in mind; how do I find technology or information that will help us against the Goa’uld? While the scientist, Major Carter, often wonders how can I adapt this technology to suit our needs? Then there’s Daniel Jackson, who wonders, what can I learn? What can these people teach me? Even within the structure of the team, decisions are often questioned. (I haven’t forgotten Teal’c, but he rarely objects to the Colonel’s decisions.)

Every time the team wanders through the gate, they enter an unknown situation. Who lives on this planet? How will they react to us? Will they be able to help us? Or are we in way over our heads?

One of my favourite episodes involved a assisting an advanced civilization asking for help. They had been at war for generations with an opposing faction and their technology was beginning to fail. They were the first people with advanced technology willing to help Earth with almost no stipulations. Right from the start Daniel Jackson questioned their motives; why were they so willing when no one else was? And was it right for them to get involved in a war they knew nothing about? Angry, Colonel O’Niell told him to shut his mouth and do as he was told (not that it made any difference). Until their host made a comment that set off alarms for even the Colonel, asking them to leave Teal’c behind when they returned because he was ‘different.’ Re-evaluating his opinion, the Colonel turned to Daniel and said ‘keep asking questions.’

Knowledge is power. The more we question, the more we understand.

There is no right way.
One of the strongest take-aways from the show is a deep respect for all cultures. In fact, the early episodes depicted different cultures from our history and illustrated what made them rich and unique. The team realizes early on that if they go tromping through every civilization trying to change their way of life, they won’t be very popular (not that it stops them from stepping on plenty of toes). In many ways, Daniel Jackson serves as the conscience of the group, constantly advocating for the varied cultures they meet, fostering understanding before passing judgment. (In case you can’t tell, he’s my favourite character.)

And the show is very careful not to pass judgment on particular cultures, presenting them on their own terms. They weren’t shy about dealing with hard issues. There are numerous occasions where the team questions their mission, questions if they have a right to interfere with other cultures, even questions if they have a right to destroy a religion people have followed for thousands of years just because they know the gods to be false. And sometimes, it’s easy to agree that things the team encounter are wrong, even if it’s also hard to justify interference. One particular episode involved a quickly advancing race whose children served as experts. The chosen children were all enhanced with nanotechnology that allowed their brains to develop quickly. While they were young, they studied in their chosen fields. But before they came of age, the nanites were removed from their brains, effectively destroying their personalities. These children were then shuffled off to a grey, dreary hospital while their knowledge was distributed to the adults who received their nanites.

As you can imagine, Colonel O’Niell was having none of it. He practically abducted the young girl sent to study with Carter on Earth. He took her to a school playground where she learned how to play and paint. All the while, Stargate Command had to negotiate with her angry civilization who wanted her back so they could suck the knowledge out of her brain. But the show wasn’t without its silver lining; though the girl insisted on sharing her knowledge in the traditional fashion, all the extra things she learned from Colonel O’Niell came with it. As a result, her people ‘learned’ how to play and provide the children who had undergone nanite extraction with toys and other creative outlets.

Right and wrong are rarely easy to categorize.
It’s a common trope to present morality as black and white; someone is evil, someone is good, and there’s no halfway about it. But this is becoming an outdated method of storytelling (largely because it’s an outdated way of thinking). Morality exists in a thousand shades of grey. As we’ve already established, sometimes there aren’t any right answers. Just as SG1 was careful to depict different cultures and their way of life, they offered a myriad of ethics and morality to go with them. And rather than skewing them all so that the humans were always right, there were plenty of times when the humans were just plain wrong. There were also plenty of occasions where you had to decide who you thought was right based on your own moral values.

SG1 often encountered civilizations with advanced technology that refused to share their knowledge with Earth. Many had encountered less advanced races in the past and suffered for trying to help their civilizations advance too quickly. Rather than make the same mistake again, they created laws preventing the sharing of technology (a common sci-fi trope). They encountered a race called the Nox, who appeared to live primitive lives but were actually far more advanced than any other species they had met. During their first encounter, the Nox revived the entire team from death, but also spared their enemy. The team tried to convince them that Apophis, their enemy, was evil, but they didn’t care. They believed everyone had a right to live and wouldn’t tolerate killing on their home world, even after Apophis tried to slay one of their own.

The team had several other encounters with the Nox. They were called to serve as arbiters for a trial to determine who had the right to a Goa’uld’s host body (the symbiote, or the original owner). When Colonel O’Niell pointed out their relationship with the arbiter gave them an advantage, Daniel pointed out that Lya likes everyone. Later in the episode, the planet is attacked by the Goa’uld, but saved because Lya hid an advanced weapons from their notice. Colonel O’Niell confronts her about participating in violence by hiding the weapon, despite being a strict pacifist, but she points out that she did not fire the weapon, only hid it. It’s a fine moral line, one that suits her but clearly upsets Colonel O’Niell.

Enlightenment is an ongoing journey.
Although SG1 was an action show, it never skimped on the heavy philosophy. As part of the back story, it was well well known that the gate builders, known as the Ancients, escaped their mortal bodies and ascended to a higher plane of existence. Throughout the show, the team are exposed to the philosophy that led to that enlightenment. Daniel Jackson even ascends.

Daniel begins his journey while searching for his wife’s child, whom she hid from the Goa’uld to protect him from suffering her fate. Because the Goa’uld possess genetic memory, and because the child was conceived by possessed parents, he was known to hold all the knowledge of a the Goa’uld without being inhabited by a symbiote. It’s established in the show this makes him very dangerous. His mother entrusted him to an ancient who guided him on the path to enlightenment so that the evil locked in his psyche could never be released. Just before he ascends, he visits Daniel Jackson and traps him in a dream which teaches him the same lessons.

Daniel begins his path to enlightenment by learning that there are forces in the world larger than he can handle. But his journey doesn’t end when he ascends. After his ascension he helps the other members of SG1 discover the lost city of Atlantis, and battle a Goa’uld who is half-ascended himself. He even convinces his mentor that she has made a mistake in refusing to confront Anubis, the half-ascended Goa’uld who tricked her into helping him learn the secrets of the ancients.

Self-improvement is a never-ending cycle which requires constant self-reflection. And the best science-fiction is the kind that makes us think long after we walk away.

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