The ’darker timeline’ of the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘The Road Not Taken’ offers a glimpse about how our world might respond to extraterrestrial life.
On October 30, 1938, CBS Radio broadcasted an audio performance of the 1898 H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds, which chronicles the Martian invasion of Earth. Reports claim that many people mistook the fictional broadcast for a legitimate news report, leading to nationwide panic.
While the veracity of those specific claims is debatable, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture such an event happening. The question of how humanity would respond to the revelation of alien life—hostile or friendly—is one we should take seriously. While recent UFO reports have stirred up speculation about life on other planets, which one-third of Americans believe actually exists. In fact, the question is important enough that in 2017, the Galileo Project was formed to seek out extraterrestrial visitors to our solar system.
While science helps us to address the external question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, science fiction offers us a helpful device for imagining what the human response to such a discovery may be.* We can then use these stories to gather insight that could be helpful to us in our present time.
(*Note: I’m aware that the distinction I made above is not a neat one. There are branches of science, particularly in the psychological fields, that seek to use the scientific method to analyze the potential human response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and there’s a substantial body of literature on that topic.)
This question provides the basis for the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘The Road Not Taken’ (S10 E13). In the episode, Samantha Carter is inadvertently pulled into a parallel universe due to an experiment gone wrong on the other side. Once she arrives in the alternate SGC, she learns that things are not exactly as they seem.
For clarity, I’ll refer to the original Carter’s universe as the “prime universe” or “prime Earth,” and the universe in which the majority of the events of the episode take place as the “alternate universe” or “alternate Earth.”
At first, the differences between the two universes seem relatively minor. Hammond is still in active service, Lorne is leader of SG-1, and Carter seems to be the only member of her SG-1 still involved in the program. But the more she learns about this alternate Earth, the more she realizes that the differences are much starker and more harrowing.
In this alternate universe, the attack of Anubis on Earth three years prior (parallel to the events of the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Lost City’ (S07 E21) in the prime universe) was such that the U.S. was forced to reveal the existence of the Stargate program to the people of the world. As a result, chaos ensued, forcing the President of the United States (who, in this timeline, is Hank Landry) to enact martial law.
Not only that, but the world has turned into some kind of ultra-nationalistic dystopia, with no international cooperation and what appears to be the makings of a multi-lateral cold war. In fact, it seems like, in this universe, the only thing that’s stopping World War III from breaking out is the external threat of the Ori, which rubber-bands the world together in common cause.
It’s easy to look at this episode as mere fiction. Yet given humanity’s predilection for mistrust, isolation, and corruption, the scenario it depicts doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The question is: if a similar situation was to happen on our Earth, would we fall into the same trap? That’s the question I’ll examine in this article.
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The Road towards ‘The Road Not Taken’
President Landry: “See, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Damn politicians!’ I still can’t stand them, and I’m one of them. The main one.”Stargate SG-1, ‘The Road Not Taken’ – S10 E13.
General Hammond: “You were the right man for the job. You still are. I know it wasn’t easy for you taking us down this road. What’s going to be even harder is getting us back.”
To understand whether the events of this alternate Earth are likely to occur in our own, we need to carefully examine the events that led up to them. If we can identify the points of divergence from the prime universe, then we have two options to compare and we can decide which of the two our Earth is most likely to emulate. Of course, many of these events aren’t explicitly stated in the episode, so we have to do our best to reconstruct the recent past of the alternate universe based on similar events in the prime.
For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume that prior to the events of ‘Lost City’ (S07 E21), the alternate universe followed a similar course to the prime. Sure, there are some noticeable divergences, like Carter (Amanda Tapping) marrying then divorcing McKay (David Hewlett), Landry (Beau Bridges) resigning his commission, and running for president, but the major events seem to align. At least, until Anubis’ attack on Earth—then the seemingly minor differences began to have major consequences.
Let’s take the presidency of Hank Landry vs. Henry Hayes as an example. It is very possible that specific events in ‘Lost City’ would have played out very differently under a Landry administration, and perhaps would have even been responsible for the revelation of the Stargate program.
Here’s what I mean. There’s a moment in ‘Lost City’ where prime President Hayes remarks that their cover story of a meteor shower can only work so long as the Goa’uld ships stay out of visual range of the public. It is highly likely that the reason those ships remained out of range is that Hayes exercised caution and decided against launching Prometheus at the onset, thereby avoiding a direct challenge. It is entirely consistent with what we know about Landry’s character (both prime and alternate) that had he been behind that Resolute Desk, he would have made a different choice—one that would have resulted in chaos when the people of the U.S. learned that their government had been lying to them for seven years.
That seemingly innocuous change—Landry serving as president—would be enough to cause a ripple effect that created a major divergence between the prime and alternate universes. Such small changes culminated in the events of ‘The Road Not Taken’, where a desperate Earth engaged in reckless experiments to find a solution to an insurmountable problem, and that’s what drew prime Carter there in the first place.
Looking specifically at the areas where small changes led to major differences, let’s examine three: international isolationism, suspension of civil liberties, and death of the explorer spirit. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
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“I don’t know about your world, but there’s not much in the way of international cooperation around here.”General Hammond, Stargate SG-1, ‘The Road Not Taken’ – S10 E13.
In the prime universe, the U.S. government had taken strides to begin sharing knowledge of the Stargate program with the rest of the world. The first such incident happened forcibly, with the discovery of a rogue Russian Stargate program in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Watergate’ (S4, Ep7) and the subsequent alliance between the two nations.
Several years later, in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Disclosure’ (S6, Ep17), the U.S. and Russia take the first steps to an international alliance over the Stargate program with the forming of the International Committee with representatives from the U.S., Russia, the UK, France, and China.
Based on the severity of the diplomatic fallout in this alternate Earth, it would appear that these small overtures had never occurred. There was never any sense of cooperation or common cause between the U.S. and Russia, because the Russians tried to forcibly remove the Ancient weapons platform from Antarctica before the U.S. beat them to it. That means there was no foundation upon which to form the ever-popular International Oversight Advisory (IOA), and, of course, launch the Atlantis expedition.
While ‘Watergate’ may not have seemed like a consequential episode, the fact is that those events sparked a chain reaction in the prime universe that could have prevented the diplomatic fallout we see in the alternate. But because the leaders in the prime universe had taken small steps—some forced, some deliberate—to foster international partnerships around the Stargate program, when the rubber met the road and the crisis came, they were prepared to face it together, instead of fighting over it.
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Suspension of Civil Liberties
“Believe me, Colonel, I have no intention of going down in history as the man who destroyed civil liberties in America. But I think you’ll agree that, compared to other presidents, I’ve faced some pretty unique challenges.”President Landry, Stargate SG-1, ‘The Road Not Taken’ – S10 E13.
It’s no secret that, at least in the Western world, trust in our institutions is at an all-time low. Now imagine if we learned that our government had been keeping one of the most important discoveries in the history of humankind—and, what’s more, putting the entire planet at risk in the process—behind our backs. Of course, I write this from my own American perspective. I can only imagine what someone outside the U.S. may think if they learned a government that did not even represent them was playing god with the fate of the planet. (There is a larger theme to be explored here, and I acknowledge that. But this article is long enough as it is, so we’ll just have to save that for later.)
The less people trust their foundational institutions, the more likely chaos is to erupt when those institutions make mistakes, whether the effects are real or merely perceived. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I recognize that good people in positions of leadership are often forced to make impossible decisions, and that those decisions can be immensely unpopular with some.
That said, there are certain lines one should never cross. Crises both big and small are an inevitable part of life. To upend the values we ostensibly hold dear to respond to those crises is tantamount to throwing in the towel on those values to begin with. This makes me wonder how much trust U.S. citizens had already lost in their government—and whether the revelation of the Stargate program was merely the final nail in the coffin.
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Death of the Exploratory Spirit
Samantha Carter: “You abandoned the Alpha Site. You cut ties with the Jaffa. You pulled back on almost everything.”Stargate SG-1, ‘The Road Not Taken’ – S10 E13.
General Hammond: “We didn’t have a lot of choice. We devoted our full resources to planetary defense.”
Samatha Carter: “Well that’s understandable, but now that the Ori attack has failed, does that mean you’ll be getting back out there?”
General Hammond: “That decision has yet to be made.”
When discussing the practicality of space travel, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson analogized our current situation to our cave-dwelling ancestors in an interview with The Mary Sue:
“Let’s imagine we’re all back in the cave, so go back into the cave. We’re sitting around the fire and somebody’s injured or has problems and someone says, ‘I want to go across the meadow to that mountain.’ Other people in the cave say, “No leaving the cave until we solve the cave problems first. We have to solve these first before anybody leaves the cave. That is clearly an embarrassingly short-sighted view for any community to have…
“I look out in space with its limitless energy. And everything that’s rare on Earth—common in space. You know rare earth elements, you might’ve heard of them? There are asteroids where they are not rare. They’re common.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
In the alternate universe, Stargate Command pulled back on nearly all exploration out of an ostensible desire to prioritize planetary defense. Of course, because martial law had been implemented within the U.S., there was already an enormous resource drain on the military, so much so that financing an active Stargate program was likely not feasible.
Yet when prime Carter arrives in this alternate universe, she’s able to provide an easy solution to the problem of the Ori invasion by utilizing technology that prime SG-1 had discovered. In fact, the alternate Earth had their own phase-shifting device, but they never discovered what it is.
In other words, the spirit of exploration, which the alternate universe had quashed, is precisely what saves them from annihilation.
So now the question remains: if aliens were revealed to be real, would our world become more like the prime universe, or the alternate one?
I say: it depends on the choices we make.
Fortunately, ‘The Road Not Taken’ gives us a sort of blueprint to ensure that it doesn’t happen: fostering connections, building trust, and never giving up on the spirit of exploration. In fact, this approach is one we should readily adopt no matter what crises come our way, whether beyond the stars or in our own backyard.
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Timothy Wier is a working writer who started out by writing Stargate spec scripts in high school. Luckily, his writing has dramatically improved since then. He lives in Tennessee with his partner, kids, and cats.