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Stargate | 'Poisoning the Well': Is Victory Worth Any Price?

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“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, May 13th, 1940

What is our likelihood of truly understanding the plight of the people of the Pegasus Galaxy? If you spend fifteen minutes imagining it, it’s hard to come away with anything but abject horror.

Imagine that reality for the entire history of your family.

Your existence is simply as a food supply, and little more. Your population is allowed to grow to a certain size, and once a certain minimum limit is met, they come. They take. They eat. 

“They” are the Wraith, and instead of consuming your flesh, they take the essence of who you are – the handful of years life grants a human being are absorbed into them so they may continue to exist eternally. This thirst is nearly unquenchable. They must keep consuming.

It is a wonder how Pegasus cultures would willingly reproduce, given these awful circumstances. Ending one’s own existence through attrition as an alternative to perpetual, never-ending livestock would be a real option for some. But the persistence of the human spirit, even in the face of implacable odds, is not to be underestimated. 

Wraith drones begin the harvest in Stargate Atlantis S1, Ep4 – ‘Thirty-Eight Minutes’. | MGM, 2004.

Stargate Philosophy is a regular feature from Dial the Gate‘s David Read that deals with some of the complex ethical dilemmas raised in the show. 💭

New articles are published every month so check back soon.

Blending in With the Herd

You hide your light under a bushel in Pegasus. You don’t dare let it shine.

Various cultures in the galaxy have approached preserving their race (and advancing) in different ways. The Genii live almost entirely underground, maintaining a façade of agrarian splendor above. The Travelers have managed to cobble together makeshift starships and attempt to evade the Wraith by living in interstellar space. 

In the case of the Hoffans in ‘Poisoning the Well’ – Stargate Atlantis, S1, Ep7 – their approach is very much the former. Their medical knowledge, indeed their entire history, is concealed from the Wraith in the form of vast storehouses of books, locked away in numerous vaults throughout the Hoffan world. The idea is that if one or two are discovered or destroyed in a bombardment, odds are at least one will survive to educate the survivors of the next culling and carry on.

📺 Watch the Stargate A.I. Cast Readthrough Here

Ace in the Hole

The way in which Atlantis is made known of Hoff is never made clear. Perhaps they are discovered with the help of Teyla and her diplomatic connections. Maybe they have heard of Atlantis’s reawakening and have sought its people out. Regardless, the encounter which unfolds permanently alters the course of both the Ancient city and the Pegasus Galaxy. 

Like all human peoples in Pegasus, the Hoffans have been decimated by Wraith cullings every few generations. This has gone on for ten thousand years. But this planet has chosen to try to do something about it.

Approximately 150 years ago their scientist, Farrol Mylan, managed to identify a protein in the human body which is impervious to the Wraith feeding process. Through experimentation at a secret laboratory, he and his fellows managed to transform this protein into a weapon which prevents humans from being fed upon altogether. 

Hoffan Chancellor Druhin (Alan Scarfe) in discussion with Major John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan) and Teyla Emmagan (Rachel Luttrell) in Stargate Atlantis S1, Ep7 – ‘Poisoning the Well’. | MGM, 2004.

Naturally, this is the Hoffans’ most closely guarded secret. Major John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan) and his team are only made aware of its existence after several days of talks. Hoffan Chancellor Druhin (Alan Scarfe) and the council he represents aren’t taking any chances, and rightfully so. Loose lips sink ships.

At Hoff’s current level of technological development, they are still a far from a deliverable drug, but they believe they have 50 more years before their next culling. They have no way of knowing that a recent Atlantis mission has prematurely awakened the entire Wraith collective across the galaxy. Not only does Atlantis need to tell Hoff, but arguably they now have a moral obligation to accelerate the advancement of the drug.

A Helping Hand

To that end, and with Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson)’s blessing, Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion) takes his medical supplies and equipment to Hoff. Perna, their leading scientist, marvels at the advancements that have walked through her door.

It is not long before the work is quickly accelerated by decades.

In the meantime, on Atlantis, the Wraith “Steve” (James Lafazanos) paces in his prison cell, slowly starving to death. It has been untold days since he was captured on a previous mission, and despite his growing hunger, he is confident his species will prevail against Atlantis as they once did ten millennia ago.

Sheppard and Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion) in the Hoffan lab. | MGM, 2004.

Soon, the next level of experimentation is completed. One hundred percent cellular penetration across five inoculations. The Hoffans are ready to take it to the next level. Dr. Beckett argues caution, that a more measured pace should be taken before proceeding full-bore into the next potential phase of the project. Hoff is resolute. Particularly now that they know a culling could potentially occur any day.

“The High Contracting Parties specifically agree that each of them is prohibited from taking any measure of such a character as to cause the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons in their hands. This prohibition applies not only to murder, torture, corporal punishment, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment of a protected person, but also to any other measures of brutality whether applied by civilian or military agents.”

Geneva Convention IV, Article 32, 1949

Major Sheppard informs Dr. Weir of the success of the tests, and Hoff’s eagerness to move forward with the next phase: A living Wraith will need to try to feed upon a human test subject who has taken the drug. Despite the nature of the species, and their need to wipe out humans to survive, Elizabeth is hung up on her convictions. As an expert on international politics, she cautions Sheppard that the Geneva Convention specifically forbids prisoners of war from being used in laboratory experiments. Atlantis’s multinational venture is an outgrowth of the same promises signed and agreed upon 60 years ago.

But Sheppard is firm in his convictions. Had the Wraith attended the convention they would have tried to eat everyone present. This, and the Wraith are arguably not “persons.” These rules of war cannot possibly apply to this situation.

📚 Stargate | SG-1’s ‘The Other Side’: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Baited Breath

Steve is transferred by Puddle Jumper from Atlantis to Hoff. He agrees to share a morsel of Wraith tactical information in exchange for being allowed to feed. Merell (Neil Maffin), a terminally ill Hoffan man (who has been given the most recent version of the drug) has offered his life as sustenance for the Wraith. 

Merell steps into the Wraith cell and allows himself to be fed upon. But the process cannot complete.

The drug works.

Celebrations. Champagne. No cake, but still. Everyone agrees this is a tremendous step forward. Chancellor Druhin of Hoff orders immediate mass production of the serum. The only way the Wraith may one day be stopped is for every Pegasus Galaxy human to be inoculated.

Dr. Beckett again raises a flag of caution. “Steve” attempted to feed on a man who was terminally ill. There may be mitigating factors. But Druhin cannot be deterred. He has ordered another round of test subjects. Perna (Allison Hossack), forever a patriot, has agreed to be among the next group. 

Sheppard and Beckett examine the Wraith (James Lafazanos) killed by the Hoffan drug. | MGM, 2004.

Unforseen Consequences

What happens next happens quickly. The captured Wraith soon dies, as does Merrell. The question is now what caused each of their deaths.

It is soon revealed that the Hoffan serum not only prevents a Wraith from feeding – it ultimately kills them. Now the Hoffan people will not be a mere nuisance culture with a potential way to block the feeding process. They will be an active threat, and Sheppard warns the Hoffan government they will be treated as such.

The news gets worse. Merell died not from his illness, but from the serum. In fact, he is the first of many to fall. Fifty percent of anyone who takes the anti-Wraith drug is dead within a matter of days. Even Perna falls ill, but she passes away at peace with herself and her work.

If half of the Hoffan people die because of the serum, the half who survive will never experience a traditional culling again. But Major Sheppard warns that the Hoffans have merely altered their form of death, from feedings to mass extermination, perhaps from bombardment from space. 

The Hoffan people speak in a near unanimous voice, however, with a 96% vote: Bring it on.

“Victory at all costs.” Carson admits he never thought he might disagree with Winston Churchill.

“The battle rages at the very threshold of our laboratory now. Those of us working to the last know that these few final hours have been dearly purchased, yet our concentration has not waned. We cannot hope to save ourselves but we can hope that one last insight, one last revelation before we take our dying breaths, may prevent this terrible day from happening again.”

Farrol Mylan’s final journal entry as read by Perna, ‘Poisoning the Well’ – S1, Ep7

Fast-forward three years. Hoff is decimated. The Wraith have wiped the entire population from the galaxy, just as Atlantis warned. The only survivors, if they be Hoffan at all, are roving bands of starving children.

Hoff’s actions saved their people from the terror of Wraith feedings for all time. But the alternative is arguably just as bitter.

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What Did We Learn From This?

The goal of the Hoffan people was an admirable one: stop the nightmare of a Wraith feeding once and for all. But they made several mistakes which could have been rectified had the government asked the right questions and been willing to slow down.

First, they could have transferred a team to Atlantis to continue to investigate the serum. A two-division team could have been formed, one operating on Hoff and the other in the city of the ancestors, to work on two separate fronts in the event the Wraith came to cull the planet. A 50 per cent loss of life very likely could be reduced by a considerable amount with a little extra time.

Second, instead of killing the Wraith, a team could have worked to alter the drug so that it simply prevented feeding. In this way, the vampiric species would have other options open to them besides a “scorched earth” policy, should an opportunity for negotiation present itself.

(This is essentially what happens regardless, as Carson Beckett took samples of the drug back to Atlantis for further study. The result evolves into a drug which transforms a Wraith entirely into a human. Suddenly the possibility of negotiation with them is on the table. Whether or not any individual hive would take the next step is another story.)

Third, use Atlantis’s resources to mass produce the serum on such a scale that more of Pegasus could be inoculated. Perhaps pursue an “airborne” alternative that both humans and Wraith could absorb, particularly in a way the Wraith might not immediately know. Develop a form of “timer” in the drug so that it would take years to propagate through their society. Then, at the right time, a trigger would transform their population into humans, or perhaps kill them. By the time the Wraith realized what was happening, it would be too late. There would be no opportunity to mount a defense.

This last approach would be gradual. It would mean the continued loss of life of Pegasus humans in the short term, but the solution would be permanent. 

The greatest mistake of the Hoffans? They were unwilling to wait. And they had their reasons, to be sure. The entire society, and their neighbors, had been ravaged by thousands of years of terror. They wanted it to end.

Well, they ended it, at least for themselves.

Over the next two years Doctor Beckett continues the work of the Hoffan people. He manages to make a version of the serum that transforms the Wraith into humans, and wipes their memories (at least in the short term) of their true nature. But this has its own consequences.

Atlantis fails to recognize the perniciousness of the Wraith species, and the vampires begin to research the drug for their own ends. The direct result of the Hoffan experiments translate to tens of thousands of additional Pegasus deaths at the hands of the Wraith, “Michael.”

Oh, yeah, and if this isn’t enough, it turns out the Ancients were responsible for allowing the Wraith to come to be in the first place. The ancestors, and their descendants, have much to answer for. But these are topics for another time.

The question is, how far should we be willing to go to save our people from perpetual war and death? What if the result means that a majority of our people will die? How many human deaths are acceptable?

Humans on Earth have had a fair bit of experience with viruses in recent years, and whether designed in a lab or accidentally birthed in a marketplace, one thing appears to be clear: things almost never turn out as we intend. And we must be prepared to suffer, and indeed live, with the consequences.

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David Read is the host and executive producer of Dial the Gate. He has been reporting on the Stargate franchise via since he was 18 years old. He has written for the Official Stargate Magazine, sold Stargate costumes and props through the Propworx auction house, and managed the online community of the ill-fated Stargate Worlds Massively Multiplayer video game. When not working on a Stargate-related project, you’ll likely find him watching Star Trek.

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