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Stargate | SG-1 ‘There but for the Grace of God’ and the Choices You Make

In the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’, we join our heroes on the other side of the quantum mirror for life’s what-ifs.

Ever wondered what would happen if you made a different choice in life? Perhaps, if you’d taken the road less traveled, it would have made “all the difference” and you would be living a completely different life right now. 

In the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’ (S1, Ep20), Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) gets to see just what a difference it would have made if he’d made a different choice and hadn’t joined the first mission through the Stargate.  

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‘There but for the Grace of God’ Episode Summary

On their mission to P3R-233, the SG-1 team is confronted by the symbol for Korosh-ni. This symbol serves as a warning for anyone coming through the Stargate to turn back as the planet and all its people had been destroyed and the planet left radioactive. 

In the meantime, Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) find a type of lab where artifacts from different cultures. One of the artifacts – we later learn – is a “quantum mirror” that can transport someone from one reality to an alternate reality and back. While the rest of the team starts to leave, heeding the warning left by the Goa’uld, Jackson stays behind to gather up some of the items. 

Jackson unwittingly turns the mirror on and, when he touches the surface, is transported to another reality where Earth is being attacked by Apophis’ legions, led by his First Prime, Teal’c (Chris Judge), who never joined the Stargate program on Earth. We also find out that Daniel decided not to join, shunning Dr. Catherine Langford (Elizabeth Hoffman)’s invitation. 

Samantha Carter, played by Amanda Tapping, and Daniel Jackson, played by Michael Shanks, in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’. In contrast to her usual appearance, Samantha wears civilian clothes and has long hair.
The civilian Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) and Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’ (S1, Ep20). Stargate SG-1 co-creator Brad Wright had previously used a “quantum mirror” in The Outer Limits episode ‘In Another Life’ (S4, Ep4). | MGM, 1998.

Sam had never joined the military, as is an expert in DHD Astrophysics and not part of an SG team. Jack (Richard Dean Anderson) is a general, in charge of the SGC, and engaged to Sam. Catherine is still in charge of the Stargate program and was never reunited with Ernest. 

With major cities across the world already wiped out, O’Neill orders a nuclear bomb to be sent to Chulak once he learns of its existence. Because of this, Teal’c doesn’t stop the attacks and kills O’Neill. Teal’c knows that his son, Rya’c, and his wife are dead and now has no reason to turn against Apophis. 

Teal’c (Chris Judge) as First Prime of Apophis in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’ (S1, Ep20). This is the only episode of Stargate SG-1 written by David Kemper, who went onto Farscape as executive producer. On Farscape, he wrote a number of episodes which deal with similar themes, such as Unrealized Reality (S4, Ep1). | MGM, 1998.

However, Catherine manages to dial P3R-233 and establish a wormhole long enough to give Daniel a chance to escape with the address of the planet that the Goa’uld are attacking from. Seconds later the whole compound is destroyed using the SGC’s self-destruct sequence. Daniel returns to his reality by touching the mirror again and is able to warn of an impending attack by Apophis. 

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‘There but for the Grace of God’s Alternate Reality and the Many Worlds Interpretation 

Although the idea of other worlds besides our own has been around for millennia, these worlds – for instance, Faerie – are usually inhabited by completely different creatures. More often than not some type of transformation or journey (or quantum mirror…) is needed to reach another world or reality. Another transformation or journey is then required to return to one’s own world. 

The hypothesis of different realities or worlds splitting off from one another was first published by Hugh Everett III in 1957 but didn’t gain much traction until 1970 and the publication of the paper ‘Quantum Mechanics and Reality’ by Bryce S. DeWitt in Physics Today. This “many-worlds interpretation” (MWI) is a lot more elaborate, of course, than can be portrayed in a single piece of fiction, as the smallest measurement – even the movements of electrons, for example – causes different realities or worlds to split off from one another. 

Philip Ball, in Quanta Magazine (18 October 2018), notes that “the many-worlds interpretation … suggests that we live in a near-infinity of universes… In many of these universes there exist replicas of you and me, all but indistinguishable yet leading other lives.” This “web of time” that “embraces every possibility”, that’s described in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) by Jorge Luis Borges, has become quite ubiquitous in genre fiction, but it still remains an interesting – not to mention entertaining – plot device to discover different outcomes, much like reveries about one’s own life and choices.  

The personnel file of Daniel Jackson, played by Michael Shanks, in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’. It reads that his last known placed of residence was Egypt and that his current whereabouts are unknown.
Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) discovers that he’s missing, presumed dead in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’ (S1, Ep20). They seem to have misspelled personnel unless Catherine Langford has a number of personal files on Daniel for some reason – a bit creepy but I’ll allow it. | MGM, 1998.

The alternate reality that Daniel steps into in this Stargate SG-1 episode, isn’t that far removed from the one we know, and the core characters’ lives still surround the stargate and the fate of the planet. In fact, it shows us what could have been if the characters had made other choices earlier in their lives. For example, what if Daniel hadn’t become a part of the Stargate programme and hadn’t gone to Abydos on the first mission that takes place in the initial 1994 Stargate film. 

This is the main choice that Daniel made in the other reality that has led the “other” Daniel Jackson to travel to Egypt where he dies in the slaughter that the Goa’uld brings to Earth. However, Daniel’s choice to become part of the Stargate programme, not only leads him to Abydos, but also to this alternate reality which gives him the chance to save the Earth of his reality. 

Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and General Hammond (Don S. Davis) in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’ (S1, Ep20). In the reality on the other side of the quantum mirror, they wear tigerstripe camouflage to differentiate them from the SGC we’re used to. The US Air Force would go on to adopt tigerstripe from 2003 onwards. | MGM, 1998.

Of course, one could argue that a myriad of worlds has been created during this episode – one in which Daniel didn’t touch the mirror (and Earth would be wiped out), one in which he doesn’t make it back to Earth (and this Earth’s people would be wiped out as well). It’s not only his choices, however, that lead to Earth being saved or not, but rather the culmination of all choices made by each character. One can easily see how this “web of time” and web or tapestry of fate, and weaving fate (like in the gory poem in the 10th-century Icelandic text The Saga of Burnt Njáll, for example) has been applied to real life and not only stories. 

The question is not so much what would change by your actions alone, but what everyone’s actions would ultimately culminate in and the knock-on effects that each of our choices could have on those around us. This brings me to the butterfly effect.  

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The Butterfly Effect and the Choices You Make 

The “butterfly effect” – also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – suggests that forecasting the future can be nearly impossible. Called the butterfly effect after Professor Edward Lorenz of MIT, who first came across this effect while running experiments on weather forecasting, suggested that something as simple as the flap of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world might, in time, cause a tornado in another part of the world.  

Lorenz’s findings were published in a groundbreaking paper in 1963 titled ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow’, in which he used a simplified model of three variables to represent the movement of heated gas in a container. Peter Dizikez, in his article ‘When the Butterfly Effect Took Flight’ (2011, MIT Technology Review), notes that Lorenz’s work did not just form the founding principle of chaos theory, but also “challenged the classical understanding of nature” as a type of predictable mechanical system – the so-called “clockwork universe.”  

This idea of a deterministic sequence in which “only one thing can happen next” has been replaced by Lorenz’s “own deterministic equations” that demonstrate “the tiny change in his simulation mattered so much [and] showed, by extension, that the imprecision inherent in any human measurement would become magnified into wildly incorrect forecasts”. However, it should be kept in mind that “chaos isn’t randomness” and that “almost all chaotic phenomena can vary only in limits.” 

Catherine Langford, played by Elizabeth Hoffman, wearing a black military-style jacket in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’.
Catherine Langford (Elizabeth Hoffman) as the head of Stargate Command in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘There but for the Grace of God’ (S1, Ep20). The role has to date been played by six different people, with the other five being Viveca Lindors and Kelly Viny as adult and infant Catherine in the Stargate (1994) movie, Nancy McClure in the flashback scenes in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘The Torment of Tantalus (S1, Ep10), Glynis Davies in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘1969’ (S2, Ep21), and Ellie Gall in Stargate: Origins. | MGM, 1998.

It’s then no wonder that the butterfly effect has made its way into pop culture, sometimes teaming up with the many-worlds interpretation of the universe. Not only can we discover what happens when characters make different choices, but we can also learn what outcomes these different choices have. The limits placed on characters in fiction are usually quite apparent when you start to think about it. For example, we see the same Stargate SG-1 characters are still a part of the Stargate program, even though they have different roles. 

This is the way, I think, that people also think of their own lives when they daydream about what could have been (or what their other selves are doing right now in the myriad universes in which they exist). We picture ourselves as basically the same person, only happier or more content with life. We would take our place as the main character of our life, so to speak. 

However, it’s quite impossible to think of all possible outcomes that can take place because of one choice – those “forking paths” are just too many and too unpredictable. Rather, we dream of one or two outcomes that all stem from one decision. Turning right instead of left at an intersection and never meeting the Doctor, for example (just to drag another fandom into this article). 

We rarely ponder, it seems, just what could have gone wrong if we didn’t make the choices that we did or had the experiences that we did. It may not be as hectic as having the Goa’uld destroy all life on the planet because you didn’t join the Stargate program, but it may have led you down a destructive path nonetheless.  

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How Did You Get to This Place in Time?

To turn contemplative for a moment – because what’s the use of good fiction if it doesn’t make you think – I thought about some choices that could have led to very different outcomes. For example, had I decided on following botany and not language practitioning as my field of study. Look, botany is fascinating and all, but I would most probably not have had half as much fun studying it. Plus, I would not have had any Medieval conferences to attend as I do now. 

On the other hand, the seemingly insignificant choice of choosing a photo for a random blog header, led me to meet the photographer who would become my best friend – a relationship of more than a decade that has carried me through thick and thin. This just goes to show that not all choices we think of as insignificant only have insignificant outcomes (a butterfly effect indeed). Also, no pressure or anything.

Perhaps that’s why we can get out of a pit of despair if we happen to fall in – the fact that our choices all culminate into a future that is yet to be written. You have an even bigger influence on your life than you may think, and you owe it to yourself to make small changes now that will most likely have a positive influence on you at a later stage. Doing nothing, of course, will also have an outcome, but probably it won’t be the outcome that you’d hoped for. (Alas, if only watching Stargate and Doctor Who was good exercise!)

Start today if you didn’t start yesterday, and use yesterday’s wisdom to change the future. Perhaps the only movement that’s needed today to make a 180-degree turn in an aspect of your life is akin to the flap of a butterfly’s wings. 

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Carin Marais is a freelance writer by day and a genre fiction writer by night. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching her favourite shows – like Stargate – or reading the next book on her giant TBR pile. She only makes the odd trip back to reality for tea, biscuits, and more yarn for her various crochet and knitting projects.  

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