As a member of The Companion, you’re supporting original writing and podcasting, for sci-fi fans, by sci-fi fans, and totally free of advertising and clickbait.
The cost of your membership has allowed us to mentor new writers and allowed us to reflect the diversity of voices within fandom. None of this is possible without you. Thank you. 🙂
Just as every horror fan worth their salt knows there are certain rules one must abide by in order to survive a scary movie (thanks, Scream!), so, too, every sci-fi fanatic knows there’s a strict formula to creating a successfully “out of this world” TV series. It’s a little like remembering the lyrics to a jingle you heard once on an advert a million years ago: just as you know that the Milky-Bar kid is strong and tough, or that washing machines live longer with Calgon, you know what notes a good sci-fi series has to hit.
You know the rhythm, the beat, the tempo. You know it deep in your bones, even if you don’t know you know it. And you undoubtedly learned this utterly unforgettable ditty from watching the greatest sci-fi series of them all: Stargate SG-1.
That’s right, folks; Stargate may not be the first sci-fi series to sweep us off our feet and into the depths of space, but it’s easily one of the best and most memorable. Indeed, the show’s “song” is still sung by many a science fiction show even now, because the rules it has set in place for the genre boast all the gravitas of Moses’ Ten Commandments. Oh sure, they may not be etched into any stone tablets (not that we’re aware of, anyway), but they are very much etched into our minds.
[See also: My Rules For Stargates, Star Wars, and Superheroes by Brad Wright]
Rule 1: Bros Before Foes
For instance, there’s the fact that no self-respecting sci-fi series would ever dare air on our TVs without an unexpected bromance in tow.
“There is little to say, O’Neill. We have fought and won many battles together. It has been an honor to serve the Tau’ri by your side. We are brothers.”Teal’c, ‘Tangent’ – S4, Ep12.
Oh yes; Teal’c (Chris Judge) and Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson)’s friendship set the gold standard for sci-fi bromances, beginning with little more than just a look. And what a look it was! As Daniel (Michael Shanks) begged for proof that something of a Goa’uld host must survive, Teal’c – still officially an enemy at that point – silently shook his head in response to Jack’s quizzical expression.
From that point onwards, our boys forged a connection that would transcend the “unlikely allies” trope; they became colleagues, friends, even brothers. Their mutual respect for one another developed and deepened into the sort of love that undomesticated equines – or wild horses if you prefer – couldn’t tear asunder. The trust they placed in one another was implicit and unshakeable; indeed, unlike the Han Solo and Luke Skywalker / James Kirk and Spock combos before them, Teal’c and Jack’s friendship proved to be rock solid from the very beginning – even in spite of the fact they began their journey on two different sides of the same intergalactic war.
And their bromance is, undeniably, one of the key elements that make Stargate SG-1 so very watchable: we, the audience, are constantly rooting for these guys. We want to be in on their in-jokes, we want to be part of their gang, and we want to emulate this oh-so pure buddydom in the real world with someone, anyone, please and thank you. It is little wonder, then, that so many great sci-fi series since echo that Jack and Teal’c magic with their core character groups (here’s looking at you, Agents Of SHIELD, Stranger Things, and The Mandalorian).
Rule 2: Hurry Up and Kiss Already
Of course, there’s more to the sci-fi rules than just this. How’s about the fact that Stargate SG-1 also served up the ultimate “more than colleagues but they’ll never say so” romance in Jack and Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping)?
Jack: “I didn’t leave. Because I’d have rather died myself than lose Carter.”‘Divide and Conquer’ – S4, Ep5.
Jack: “Because I care about her. A lot more than I’m supposed to.”
Whether we care to admit it or not, shipping is a major part of the sci-fi genre – but it’s absolutely no fun pairing up characters unless some very clever groundwork has been done by the writers first. Sam and Jack’s ‘will they, won’t they?’ relationship is a brilliant example of such groundwork, largely because the professional military setting of the show demanded subtlety, nuance, and ambiguity at all times. This, after all, was a forbidden love – and one which had blossomed incredibly slowly over a series of dangerous off-world missions.
Perfectly articulating her character’s feelings for her commanding officer, Amanda Tapping told Stargate: The Official Magazine:
“My character’s relationship with O’Neill was probably the most influential. There was a flirtatious side of Sam that she was always afraid to show, and an awkward sexuality to her… [but] with O’Neill, I think Sam saw the possibility of everything. There was a sexuality to it [their relationship] and a maturity.“It was also quite intimate and, perhaps, because it was so forbidden, it was almost safe for Sam to think about because she knew she couldn’t act on it. So it could be the ultimate fantasy.”Amanda Tapping to Stargate: The Official Magazine (Jan 2010)
It’s the simmering tension that can be seen in many of the greatest sci-fi romances since (although the ur-romance of this type is undoubtedly Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, which predates Stargate): from Mal Reynolds and Inara’s lingering stares in Firefly, to Rose Tyler and the Ninth Doctor’s “definitely more than friends” vibes in Doctor Who. We have been served up plenty of characters to ‘ship in the years since Jack and Sam first glanced at each other with something deeper than comradely affection. And long may this trend continue (although this writer would still love confirmation that Jack and Sam ended up together in a world beyond the military base at Cheyenne Mountain.)
See also: Stargate | Jack O’Neill Shows Us How to be Better, Not Perfect by Kayleigh Dray
Rule 3: Recognizable Characters
While the friendships and relationships of Stargate SG-1 are undoubtedly integral to its success, so too are the show’s core character tropes.
Daniel Jackson, for example, has gifted us the ultimate “brains with brawn” template – in that, yes, he wears glasses and natty accessories (that floppy waterproof hat, for example), reads a LOT onscreen, and is constantly solving massive world-ending problems at the very last possible moment, but he’s also… well, those bulging biceps suggest that he’s been hitting the gym with Teal’c a LOT in his spare time, too. And all one has to do is look to Agents of SHIELD’s Leo Fitz to see the trope in action. We love a nerd with muscles.
Samantha, too, is a prime example of what we expect from our onscreen scientists. She frequently dons a lab coat, speaks in formulas and equations (prompting Jack to urge her to “speak English” for the benefit of everyone else around her), and widens her eyes in disbelief whenever she stumbles across the big “I can’t believe we missed this” moment that has been supposedly staring her in the face “all this time” – although we, the uneducated civilians watching at home, can 100 percent believe that we missed it.
And let’s not forget General Hammond, the gruff and lovable leader who often serves as something like a fatherly figure in his subordinates’ lives. The straight man to their jokes, the moral compass they all need, the one who gives them a hard time if they step out of line, and the one they’re always impossibly glad to see after a particularly fraught mission. It’s not hard to see how Agents of SHIELD’s Agent Coulson draws upon the Hammond template if you stop and think about it.
Rule 4: Make Us Believe It
Like I say, character and relationship tropes are a very big deal when it comes to setting up the rules of good sci-fi. But wait, there’s more. Of course, there’s more. Think, for example, about the seemingly inexhaustible supply of humanoid aliens waiting to be discovered in the big wide ‘verse, not to mention the dazzling array of helpfully oxygen-rich planets – although both of these tropes are, arguably, a hangover from early runs of Star Trek.
Unlike Star Trek, though, Stargate writers have gone to great lengths to make their familiar-looking extraterrestrials believable: the human populations of the Pegasus Galaxy are, after all, the product of Ancient seeding. Within the internal logic of the show, it makes total sense.
And this attention to detail is something that has dominated many truly great science fiction shows since: Firefly is set in the 26th Century when humanity has colonized a new solar system, the Battlestar Galactica reboot shows mankind battling its mechanical offspring in a mythic past, and The Expanse, likewise, has offered up a Galaxy shaped by human settlers in a not-so-distant future. It is pleasingly logical, to quote an ironically illogical (in the “what do you mean, a green-blooded humanoid?” sense) pointy-eared alien.
A brilliant sci-fi, too, would be nothing without its dazzling array of alien technology – particularly when it comes to weaponry. What kind of a battle would it be, after all, if there weren’t a number of handily non-lethal Zat’nik’tel-style guns in the mix? When set to stun, these blasters allow the stakes to be raised and a sense of jeopardy to be created – all while keeping our core main characters safe from… well, not from harm per se, but from being killed off unceremoniously. Plus, they’re pleasingly visual, too: you can always 100 percent see when someone has been hit with one of these bad boys – and there are that handy “three blasts to dispose of the body” setting, too (super handy for show’s that want to keep their PG rating and budgets intact).
Throw in some nanotechnology and mind-altering devices, and you have a perfect storm when it comes to laying the groundwork for endless standalone story-based hijinks!
[See also: Stargate | Furlings, Financial Crisis, and the Fall of Stargate Worlds by Graeme Mason]
Rule 5: MacGuffin for MacGyver
On that note, let’s talk alien artifacts and that whole “one alien’s junk is humankind’s treasure” vibe that Stargate SG-1 puts out into the world. Because, yeah, when they’re not attempting to destroy our planet or harvest our species for hosting purposes, the aliens of the Stargate universe are forever leaving their junk lying around. And, from sarcophaguses to DHDs to that blue wormhole-spinning device itself, a lot of this so-called junk has proven very interesting to our merry band of Tau’ri soldiers – so much so that they’ve got a whole military base dedicated to storing the stuff on earth.
And with every alien artifact comes a Very Bad Human – or several Very Bad Humans – who want to misuse it, of course; in Stargate, this looks a lot like Colonel Maybourne. In Firefly, it’s those shady, shady Alliance operatives. And in Agents of SHIELD, it’s literally every single person who works for Hydra (not to mention some of the more corrupt SHIELD operatives, too).
All of this tech means that, at some point, every single sci-fi series which wishes to stay true to the genre will follow in Stargate SG-1’s illustrious footsteps and gift its viewers a time travel episode. This is always a fun opportunity for the costume department to get creative with either retro fashion staples or futuristic androgynous gear – not to mention, if we’re lucky, an enviable selection of wigs, too. And the rules behind the timeline hopping will always be as spectacularly and joyfully complex as they are flimsy; if you dare ask too many questions, the whole storyline will come collapsing around your ears like a house of cards. And that’s what we love most about it, too.
Rule 6: There’s More Than Six Rules
The list goes on, forever and ever. We could talk about the inevitable – yet still surprising – appearance of the classic Grey Ones (hey there, Thor – this is a new look for you). The uneasy “enemy of my enemy is my friend” alliance that is forged one episode and broken the next. The ability to jump between planets and solar systems almost instantaneously. The cheerily homespun look of the alien backdrop (fairy lights feature highly in the first few seasons of Stargate SG-1; watch them back if you don’t believe me). The overwhelming power of the very human heart to solve a series of very alien problems. The utilitarian boilersuits donned by our heroes at almost all times: so practical, so easy, so excellently emulated for comic con and Halloween purposes.
Most important of all, though, is that killer SF theme tune. No sci-fi show would be complete without an iconic instrumental opening; the kind that fills you with hope and a sense of adventure from the moment the first note sounds. Who out there hasn’t blasted the Stargate SG-1 soundtrack out when they’ve needed a boost, really? And, if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing? It’s the easiest way to pump yourself up for almost any situation – particularly when you’re rushing to meet an important deadline. Especially when you’re rushing to meet an important deadline, actually; it tricks you into believing there’s a handily placed wormhole just waiting to whisk you off to the place you need to be.
Essentially, Stargate SG-1 is the one-stop-shop for grading greatness in almost every sci-fi series that came after it. Because, to quote another popular TV series from the decade, rules are good. Rules help control the fun!
Here’s hoping that, with so many new streaming services out there, we are treated to a bevy of new sci-fi series that honor the guidelines laid down by the greatest SF show of all time. Perhaps one of them will be a new Stargate series too…
Stargate | Meet Salim, a Franco-Algerian Stargate Fan in Marseille
Stargate | Why the Aschen are SG-1’s Most Insidious Enemies
Kayleigh Dray has somehow managed to balance her severe sci-fi addiction with a pretty full-on career as a working writer for going on 10 years now. During the week, you can find her hunched over her laptop and tapping away furiously. On a weekend, though, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, rewatching Stargate for the millionth time, and/or playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends.