Contains spoilers for the TV show Stargate SG-1 and its DVD movie spin-off The Ark of Truth.
In 1992, the German director Roland Emmerich made the rounds of the major Hollywood studios trying to get a new project off the ground. Emmerich was to go on to direct some of the most successful ‘Big Budget B-movies’, including Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, but his attempts to sell his idea for a “Chariots of the Gods”-style science fiction romp, in which an Egyptologist helps the US military activate a dimensional gate that takes them to a far-away world, were largely unsuccessful. Hollywood was sceptical of science fiction in the 1990s, as with very few exceptions (such as Terminator 2 and Robocop) the genre had bombed since 1982's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Emmerich's secret weapon was the new special effects technology of computer generated imagery, which the following year was to drive Spielberg's Jurassic Park to box office success.
MGM eventually bankrolled Emmerich's movie for $55 million, which was a relatively high budget at the time, and Stargate hit the box office in 1994, going on to make $196 million worldwide. (By comparison, Kevin Costner's Waterworld, which was also released in 1994, cost $175 million to make, and grossed $264 million).To offset the cost of the movie, MGM licensed the rights for the movie to US cable channel Showtime, which was looking for something that could help bring up its subscriber numbers, and felt that a science fiction movie spin-off might do the job. MGM brought in Outer Limits writers Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner to work up the show, which was tinkered with significantly from the original movie in order to work in the new format.
One of the biggest changes between the movie and the show was the casting of the male lead. Kurt Russell's melancholy military colonel Jack O'Neil was morphed into Richard Dean Anderson's wise-cracking Jack O'Neill (with two l's) – mostly because the MacGuyver star requested more comic leeway than Russell's version of the character. Anderson also insisted the show work as an ensemble cast, so that he wouldn't be required to carry the story single handedly, as had been the case with MacGuyver. Thus both Amanda Tapping's Sam Carter and Michael Shanks' Dr. Daniel Jackson become the main providers of plot devices (using techno-babble and quasi-historical puzzle solving respectively), while Christopher Judge's alien Teal'c seems to be afforded the dubious honour of being tortured every other week for no other reason than to prove just how damn tough he is.
The show was a ratings success for Showtime, with the pilot receiving the channel's highest ever rating for a series premiere, reaching 1.5 million households. Wright and Glassner noted that had the show aired on a broadcast network it would have been canned after just a few episodes, but Showtime put no pressure on them to deliver “meteoric ratings”. Showtime didn't need a massive hit, they needed subscribers, and a well-received science fiction show was perfect for pulling in a particular crowd. Despite existing in a critical vacuum, the show was the most watched program on Showtime (movies included!) during the late 1990s.
Stargate SG-1 was a relatively expensive TV show to make, costing $1.3 million per episode, and to spread the costs it was syndicated on Fox, and later acquired by the Sci Fi channel, who continued to bankroll the show after Showtime decided to end their association with show after Season 5. Showtime's withdrawal from the project wasn't because the show wasn't pulling in adequate ratings, but rather that it could no longer pull in new subscribers to Showtime since at this point the show was available on other non-subscription channels. Although the production values increased as the show went on, the budget did not greatly change throughout its run, and in fact fell after the transfer to the Sci Fi channel, eventually ending up at around $2 million per episode largely as a result of fluctuations in exchange rates between the US and Canada (where it was principally shot).
The show flirted with cancellation year after year once the Sci Fi channel took over. Season six was intended to be the last, but at the last minute it was renewed – having become the channel's highest rated show, pulling in 2 million viewers and elevating the Sci Fi channel into the list of the US top 10 cable channels for the first time. Richard Dean Anderson took a reduced role in the later seasons as he spent more time at home with his daughter, and for the ninth and tenth season Farscape stars Ben Browder and Claudia Black were added to the cast to help boost interest in the show, which had a long tradition of recycling any actor with even faint links to other science fiction media.
Stargate SG-1 went on to become the second longest running science fiction TV show of all time (beaten only by Doctor Who), running for ten years and enjoying greater success than anyone expected, as well as spawning two spin-off shows. In the last two years, the ratings slipped from 2.4 million views to 2.1 million viewers. A spokesman for the Sci Fi channel attributed this to the audience using digital video recorders, which thus excluded them from the ratings calculations, and some fans may also have fallen away from the show after Anderson's role became reduced to recurrent guest star. But perhaps there were other factors in the decline of the show that have not been considered: did the later seasons alienate Christian fans?
From the very onset, Stargate had been tied up in an unsophisticated pulp-novel critique of religion. The villain Ra from the movie, and the Goa'uld System Lords in the show, position themselves as ‘Gods’ to their Jaffa slaves, demanding obedience. However, this portrays no aspect of real life religion, being rather a political situation – apart from being named after ancient Egyptian gods such as Apophis, Ra and Anubis, and the backstory that the Goa'uld pose as false gods to enslave technologically inferior races, there really is no distinction between the Goa'uld as “false gods” and the Goa'uld as megalomaniacal tyrants. Even with comparison to the role of the historical Pharaohs as gods (or rather, incarnations of the god Horus) this falls flat – up until the rise of modern democracy in the 18th century, all rulers were positioned in ‘the great chain of being’ which culminated in God (in Abrahamic societies) or the gods, but this was merely a traditional notion of hierarchy extended to its logical metaphysical conclusion.
Because the nub of the criticism at work was positioned against tyranny, and not religion per se, and also in part because the TV show frequently dabbled in quasi-religious themes, it enjoyed support from Christian science fiction fans as much as any other worldview. A key recurring theme of the TV show is Ascension, where an individual who has attained a sufficient level of knowledge and wisdom transcends their physical body and becomes an immortal being of energy. This metaphysical macguffin works well with almost any belief system: a materialist sees this as technological immortality (indeed, the Ancients in the Stargate SG-1 mythos used devices to ascend), a liberal-minded Christian sees this as an analogue of heaven, while Buddhists are even better catered for, since one of the paths to ascension is meditation and the search for enlightenment. The Ancients, now as beings of energy, will not interfere in the affairs of humans, which works in Christian theology as an expression of the a now-common solution to the problem of evil – the ‘free will defence’ of Alvin Plantinga, which states that the existence of evil does not contradict the idea of a wholly good God, if evil is seen as a necessary consequence of allowing free will.
However, in season 9 and 10, and the first of the DVD movies, a new enemy takes centre stage, replacing the Goa'uld and recurrent techno-foe the Replicators: the Ori. This race of Ascended beings is positioned as a long-time foe of the Ancients who are perfectly willing to interfere in human affairs, and position themselves as gods to their followers, granting quasi-magical powers and enslaving humanity via super-powered clerics known as Priors, who preach from the Book of Origin. It is almost impossible not to interpret the Ori as a paper-thin parody of Christianity.
Initially, the show tries to offset the anti-Christian threads of the final two seasons by having Ben Browder's character, Cam Mitchell, make reference to his Bible-thumping grandmother in an attempt to append a positive spin on Christianity to balance the Ori's satirical portrayal of organised religion as blindly destructive. This weak attempt at even-handedness rapidly falls by the wayside, and the show descends into an ever-greater cynicism about both Christianity in the specific and organised religion in general. There is a vague sense that as the show's writers' despair at the Bush presidency grows (an issue directly parodied in the episode The Road Not Taken), they blame the situation on the religious right the administration had manipulated to gain power. Thus the war in Iraq is interpretted as a religious war – a perspective that misrepresents the relationship between the Bible Belt and the United States armed forces.
Much of the shallow critique of Christianity occurs between Claudia Black's ex-Goa'uld host Vala Mal Doran – who takes over Richard Dean Anderson's role as comic relief in the later seasons and fulfills this role magnificently – and her Ori-worshipping husband Tomin. Vala and Tomin square off in debate after Tomin reads incessantly to her from the Book of Origin, with Vala accusing him of taking a bunch of stories about how to live well and using it as a justification for war and murder. The scene serves a narrative purpose – Tomin later witnesses a Prior blatantly distorting the meaning of one of the verses in the Book of Origin, causing him to question his faith – but it also reads as a clumsy attack on contemporary Christianity.
All of this flagrant nonsense comes to a head in the first DVD movie, The Ark of Truth, the title referring to an artefact built by the Ancients which can brainwash people into believing anything, provided it is true. Since the SG-1 team have already destroyed the Ori using another hokey plot device, Merlin's Sangraal weapon that nullifies ascended beings (which leads to a faintly amusing sequence of lines from Vala concerning whether or not these gods are dead, parodying Nietzsche's ‘death of God’), all they have to do is convince their followers that the Ori are not gods, which the Ark of Truth delivers on a platter. It makes for a rather anti-climatic conclusion to the Ori story arc, in which Julian Sand's Doci (the Ori high priest) breaks down in tears as he is indoctrinated in the ‘truth’ about his gods. Those with anti-religious tendencies may enjoy such a heavy-handed finale, but it plays as philosophically naïve and risks being quite insulting to a person of faith. (It is of course beyond the scope of a space opera like Stargate SG-1 to tackle the issue of what truth actually means in the context of a device that can brainwash people into believing ‘the truth’, but at least the moral implications of such an object are half-heartedly mentioned, even if they are eventually ignored).
Ultimately, none of this really matters. The beauty of Stargate SG-1 lies in its capacity to collide universe-saving, just-in-time rescues, with wisecracking heroes and over-the-top silly nonsense, and despite the early episodes' rather po-faced attempt at ‘serious’ science fiction stories, the show hits its stride as soon as it finds how to be ridiculous and melodramatic in equal measure. It's possible that the puerile critique of Christianity in the final seasons did alienate some fans of the show, but it's equally possible that the change in cast, or the previously mentioned technological shifts (including the increase of file sharing piracy) were a greater factor. Whatever the reason, ratings fell from 2.6 million in late 2005 at the start of season nine, to 2.1 million in 2006 – a rather marginal loss, but sufficient for the Sci Fi channel to pull the plug, handing the reins of the franchise over to spin-off show, Stargate Atlantis, which was cancelled three years later after hitting 100 episodes. A new show, Stargate Universe, begins airing this autumn, taking up the torch of a franchise that has enjoyed success on a scale no-one ever expected.
Next week: Star Trek
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.