If you’re a sci fi geek or even any sort of regular fellow who watched blockbusters in the 90s, you know the premise of the movie “Stargate”. A network of ancient portal devices has been left on various planets by an ancient race, and can be used to travel from one planet to another with ease.
It’s a high concept setting, but not quite as original as one may think. Tunnel in the Sky comes to mind as an obvious source of inspiration, but that doesn’t matter so terribly. There are no new ideas, as they say, anyway.
Like most people, I did watch the movie and then watched some of the TV show (Stargate: SG-1). Didn’t follow it for too long and never really watched any of the spin-offs until a year or so ago. Stargate: Atlantis seemed very silly, and I never even heard of Stargate: Universe until long after it got cancelled. After watching it, I felt quite mixed about the show but eventually decided that it was overall a fairly decent effort. Much like my post about Star Trek: Enterprise, I thought I’d offer some notes from a world builder’s perspective.
SPOILER WARNING – Some plot details will be mentioned in this post.
The Premise In Short: Earth discovers a special stargate – one that leads not to another planet, but to a star ship that has been traveling for aeons. Due to an unfortunate incident, a group of unprepared soldiers and civilians is stranded on this ship, with no way of getting home.
The Setup: The series seems to have been Star Gate’s take on the Star Trek “planet of the week” premise. On a fundamental level, it’s about humans and their relationships and conflicts in an extreme situation (cut off from Earth) and exploration (of strange new worlds).
The Worldbuilding: I have an okayish understanding of Star Gate lore, and SG:U doesn’t really expand it all that much. The idea of an ancient starship travelling towards an unknown destination is a pretty cool one – and one I must steal at some point – as long as you are willing to accept that your audience’s suspension of disbelief will be a bit strained when your ship inevitably arrives at its destination during the show’s run on TV. Talk about cosmic coincidences, right?
I’m definitely amazed that anybody in their right minds thinks that something like the Stargate project could be kept secret for decades, to the point where Earth has hyperspace capable spaceships of their own. I guess the show creators simply didn’t want to tackle the implications for Earth’s society – nor spend the money on the sets and cgi necessary for anything that does not look like “present day earth” – but it’s still bad worldbuilding.
This becomes a real immersion breaker when the Lucian Alliance bombs Stargate HQ/Pentagon/whatever in one episode. If you want to damage Earth’s government and you have access to spaceships – just land one in a public place and hold a press conference. You’re safely off based elsewhere in the galaxy; the governments on Earth suddenly have a big problem on their hands.
Lessons learned: Don’t do it if you can’t explain it. In the case of SG:U’s unchanged earth, even a short piece of dialogue could have helped. “How did you manage to keep all this secret,” Eli asked. Lt. Gen O’Neill shrugged. “Really tight security. Luck. Most people who get involved realize that there’s a lot of dangerous stuff out there and we can’t simply open the floodgates. We’ll go public when we have a handle on things.”
It’s not perfect but better than the NDA in the pilot. Of course an even better way to do it would have been to just not show Earth much at all.
Consider the implications of changes you introduce. They never stay confined to your group of protagonists – earth-shattering revelations have a tendency to shatter earth. Don’t use them unless you can deal with the consequences.
The Plot: The writers of the show had clearly no plan of where they were going, and were incredibly bad at handling the situations they wrote themselves into. Without checking for script credits, I have to assume that writers changed constantly and were each responsible for a handful of episodes at most. There was also quite obviously no-one on the show’s staff who cared for consistency or the show’s plot arc.
There is an arc, but it’s so jumbled together that it would have been better to just throw it out the window completely and go with the “Captain’s Log – today we find ourselves in orbit around a hitherto unknown class M planet” of Star Trek tradition.
This is most apparent in season two where, when faced by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the form of berserker drones, the only solution the authors could come up with was “Well, let’s just leave the galaxy”. Cancellation, it seems, is a logical consequence of such a weak showing.
But this is not the only example. Another problematic one: The castaways don’t know how to control Destiny at first, which, combined with their need for information and supplies, is great if you want to run a “planet of the week” show. The crew found Destiny’s control center when the writers wanted a more “star ship combat” show, which ruined the planet of the week setup – the crew could always just jump away – and indeed required artifice when they did want to create conflict. Why not just go FTL? Because technobabble reasons. It’s the science fiction equivalent of modern day haunted house horror movies: Why wouldn’t the characters just call for the cops on their mobile phones once bad things happen?
Other examples include the Rush-Young drama, the Lucian attacks, the mystery aliens, the silly time travel stuff, and the Novus colony.
Lessons learned: If you create a series, it’s not only important to have a cool setup – you also need to know what your destination is. This applies to the overall arc as well as minor arcs. “Cool, let’s throw berserkers at them” should have immediately been followed by “…and their weakness is xyz and that’s how they are eventually defeated”. This goes for all your major conflicts, really. Even if it’s not in the scope of what you are doing now, know where it’s going. Say your show or series is set to the background of a civil war. Who is fighting, and why? Who will win, and why? If you know this, you’ll know what events will happen in between. You’ll need to show the world’s background sooner or later, and it simply helps you to stay on track and consistent. It’s fine to have one-off’s, but you should stick to your show’s general theme.
Technology: The technology used by the characters is all “present day”. They use notebooks, flashlights, guns, mobile phones appropriately – though they gloss over how they charge them and ignore the difficulties in hooking any of these things up with the Ancient technology of destiny. The actual “sci fi” technology is just “magical”. The communications stones are a particularly bad design: Not only do they work by magic, they also result in characters swapping bodies. Unfortunately, this allows the Destiny folks to just bring in the world’s greatest experts on any subject unless they add artificial barriers that prevent the stones from working.
Now, one could argue that not having them also limits the type of problem the castaways can encounter and thus lessen the diversity of plots. But if your protagonists can’t deal with a problem at hand, you’ve got a classic case of deus ex machina. And that’s been crappy design for thousands of years.
Lessons learned: Larry Niven famously pointed out that it got hard to write for the Known Space setting because of all the wonder technologies he had introduced: Indestructible hulls, super-intelligent Protectors, longevity drugs, super-fast hyperdrives and antimatter fuel. The communication stones, as presented, are such a technology. Always consider how anything you introduce could short-circuit your story down the line. Plan for it or don’t use the magic technology or whatever it is.
Characters: Oh, what a dysfunctional bunch. Character design in SGU is mostly good, with some exceptions. The good part is that they clearly designed the characters as a group – pretty much everybody has a foil, for example. Some characters are way over the top, which in itself isn’t necessarily bad. I felt that the Rush-Young conflict escalated too much, for reasons that were too flimsy, and wasn’t ever really resolved properly. It just seems that after some point everybody got tired of writing for it, and their near-civil war dropped to occasional insults.
There is an obvious problem with the cast in that – as mentioned above – they had to constantly bring minor character on board destiny to solve this crisis or that. In my opinion this severely detracted from the protagonists. They also thought it necessary to bring Lucian Alliance (“terrorist”) soldiers aboard. My initial thought was that they did this to add characters that might appeal more to their target audience, but that wasn’t the case; it was probably another subplot-gone-wrong.
A minor nitpick is that even after two seasons, there were still chubby characters on the ship. Everybody survives on tight rations that are almost entirely vegetarian – no candy, no surplus; everybody should have slimmed down considerably.
Lessons learned: Design your protagonists well. Don’t just design them as people, make sure they are capable of dealing with their environment and the conflicts you throw at them. That doesn’t mean they always succeed – and not all of them will survive; it’s quite acceptable to kill off characters. But don’t make it a habit to magically introduce someone who was never mentioned before and then goes on to solve the problem in a significant way.
If you do have a situation where contact with the outside world is limited, write up a complete roster of characters. And I do mean complete, if you are looking at, say, 100 or so characters at most. Not everybody needs a full bio, but at least note down name, age, profession, appearance if you are working in a graphical medium, and a reason for why he is where he is. A few words suffice. Some ties to other characters – colleagues, love interests, etc – are a nice bonus. You can flesh them out later or change details, but if you need, say, a cook, you know who in your roster fills that slot.
The same, by the way, goes for equipment in such a situation, though you can always have crates of unspecified items. Just, for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t have your characters unpack an item that could have been REALLY useful in last week’s episode. They would have taken a stock and known about it.
Aliens: There are few aliens in the show, which fits well with the human-centric setting. There are a few nonsentient species; a species of tiny swarm creatures that shows at least rudimentary intelligence; the berserker drones mentioned, the Novus colonists (a really dumb subplot), and two alien races that use spaceships.
One of them is a race that was in conflict with the berserker drones and lost. I liked the physical design; they were very humanoid and vaguely lemur and corpse like. I am not sure if they were cgi, puppets, or actors – maybe a mix. They didn’t play any sort of major role, interaction with them was minimal and they were killed off once they fulfilled their role as a plot piece. The show probably would have worked just as well without them.
The other race is more involved with Destiny; they wanted to get on board for a long time and failed. Which is odd, since they do manage to get aboard during the show’s first season and kidnap a crew member. Their physical design was less impressive, being clearly CGI in appearance. The conflict with them, too, is left unresolved; that is, it is simply “written out” when the writers got tired of it.
Lessons learned: Just because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to have aliens. If you do set one up as an antagonistic species, make sure they integrate into your overall story arc and you figure out how to deal with them properly.
In closing, I see why SG:U was cancelled. It was the right decision; too much was wrong with the show. It’s still a bit sad because the premise and basics were all there to make it a great show. I do recommend watching it – there are just barely enough good episodes to make it worth-while. And it is great as an instructional piece. Pay attention to the characters and their conflicts. Pay attention to the problems the antagonists face and how they solve them. Think of each episode’s story on its own, and how it relates to “mini arcs” and the “overall arc” of the show. It’ll be a really good lesson for your own storytelling.