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Stargate | Why ‘Fair Game’ Was Right to Break the SG-1 Format

The Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Fair Game’ thwarts a Goa’uld invasion by diplomacy, and like Jack, we have a lot to learn.

Close your eyes for a moment – please, indulge me – and conjure up an image that best represents an episode of Stargate SG-1. I’ll give you a moment if you need it.

Done? I imagine you opted for a shot of the eponymous Stargate sitting upon an alien world, our heroes – that’s Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson), Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), Teal’c (Christopher Judge), and Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), if we’re keeping things original flavored – bursting through its tranquil blue surface, dressed in khaki-green utility suits and weapons clutched in their hands. And why wouldn’t you opt for such an image, eh? After all, some variation of it occurs in some 90 percent of all Stargate SG-1 episodes.

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‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep2), however, is a very different beast. And it’s also one of the absolute best episodes in the show’s entire 10-season run as a result.

What Happens in ‘Fair Game’

It begins in the Gate Room, as usual – albeit this time with a great deal of added pomp and ceremony: Samantha Carter has been promoted from captain to major, and about time, too!

O’Neill – a man, he readily admits, of few words – steps up to make a speech about his right-hand woman, only to be beamed out mid-sentence, Star Trek-style. Chaos ensues (this is a Code 9 situation, people!), but O’Neill isn’t in any danger… yet. Rather, he’s been whizzed through space and onto a vast ship belonging to our old pal Thor of the Asgard (Michael Shanks, again. Surprise!).

Thor wastes no time in informing O’Neill that the SGC’s recent actions – aka deposing Apophis (Peter Williams) and dispatching Hathor (Suanne Braun) – have not gone unnoticed by the other Goa’uld System Lords. In fact, those miserable snake-heads have decided that Earth is now a nuisance to be dealt with, and they’re planning an intergalactic attack of epic proportions. O’Neill suggests the Asgard let him and his kind borrow a few of their spaceships, but Thor demurs; the Asgard have got bigger problems of their own on the other side of the galaxy, and they can’t spare a single ship. Not one – save for Thor’s, of course.

So, what’s the plan? Well, here’s where things get interesting. Because, while Earth and humankind once again face threat from the Goa’uld, Thor is insisting that O’Neill and his colleagues take a wildly different approach to their tried-and-tested “go in all guns blazing” method. This time, the softly-spoken grey alien informs us, they’re going to talk things out.

“Three representatives from the System Lords will arrive by Stargate,” he explains. “You must be prepared to speak on behalf of all the inhabitants of Earth.”

Thor looks up from his seat to greet Jack O'Neil
Thor (Michael Shanks) drops some heavy news on Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep2). This is the first episode where Shanks does double duty, voicing Thor. | MGM, 1999.

That’s right, everyone: O’Neill is going to host a negotiation between the Tau’ri and System Lords Cronus (Ron Halder), Nirrti (Jacqueline Samuda), and Yu (Vince Crestejo) – all of whom are “lying, scheming, no good, slimy, overdressed style mongers” – in order to secure Earth a membership in the Asgard’s Protected Planets Treaty as an alternative to destruction.

“These negotiations will not be easy,” Thor warns our beloved O’Neill.

“The Asgard will be required to make great sacrifices. As will you.”


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What Could Go Wrong?

As it happens, quite a few things, actually. Firstly, there’s the fact that O’Neill has been selected to handle proceedings rather than, say, Daniel (who is, let’s face it, the SGC’s resident Goa’uld expert and self-appointed diplomat).

“We have chosen you, O’Neill, to represent your planet at the proceedings,” insists Thor firmly.

O’Neill himself points out that this decision “could be a mistake”. A horrible one, truly. And, hell, he isn’t exactly wrong. In fact, he DOES manage to shut down negotiations after less than a minute by speaking out of turn, so maybe he’s right. Maybe he isn’t the best person for this particular job. Maybe.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, there’s the fact that the aforementioned Cronus has some serious beef with Teal’c. The kind of beef that results in all sorts of Jeremy Kyle-style drama. Basically, Teal’c’s dad was Cronus’s First Prime, until the Goa’uld sent him to fight against a System Lord much more powerful than himself. When his father came back defeated, Cronus had him killed, forcing Teal’c and his mother to flee to Chulak – and Teal’c to fiercely swear an oath of vengeance.

The System Lords Yu, in traditional Chinese dress, Nirrti, in Middle Eastern dress, and Cronus in Greco-Roman-inspired clothes, stand at the top of the ramp in the Gate Room.
The System Lords Yu-huang Shang Ti (Vince Crestejo), Nirrti (Jacqueline Samuda), and Cronus (Ron Halder) arrive at SGC in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep2). Halder is better known as a prolific voice actor, whose credits include Sir Ram in Spider-Man Unlimited (1999-2005), Sutherland in Mobile Suit Gundam Seed (2002-2003), Ralph Eifman in Mobile Suit Gundam OO (2007-2009), and Sabretooth in Wolverine vs Sabretooth (2014). | MGM, 1999.

Thirdly – and this one is most important of all – the System Lords have OBVIOUSLY come through the Stargate to Earth with an oh-so-devious plan in mind.

“The Goa’uld System Lords accept the Asgard proposal [that Earth becomes a protected planet],” says Yu, who is acting as the Goa’uld spokesperson at this summit. “But we demand one additional concession.

“We want immediate and unconditional forfeiture of the Tau’ri Stargate.”

It’s a big statement and one with even bigger repercussions. Because this forfeiture would mean… well, it would mean no more off-world missions. No more intergalactic adventures. No more Stargate!

A bloodied Teal'c lies unconscious next to Cronus.
Teal’c (Chris Judge) and Cronus (Ron Halder) are found wounded in the latter’s apartments, suggesting foul play, in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep2). | MGM, 1999.

Naturally, O’Neill and co balk at this suggestion – but they have their backs up against the wall, because… well, Earth’s entire population will be in grave danger if they don’t get this deal signed. And things get even trickier (if you can believe it) when an alarm starts blaring like mad and Cronus and Teal’c are found badly injured. Because with the former’s life left hanging in the balance, it seems the latter has become the number one suspect in a premeditated attack upon his late father’s murderer.

“I don’t think Teal’c would do this,” says Samantha.

“Well neither do I, but the case against him just got a little more interesting, don’t you think?” O’Neill quips back.

‘Fair Game’ as a Murder Mystery

In one swift move, then, ‘Fair Game’ offers us up a sort of… well, a sort of Agatha Christie-inspired episode to sink our teeth into. Sure, there are no battles and big CGI extravaganzas to gaze at, but there’s a very juicy mystery to be solved: who attacked Cronus, really? What was Teal’c doing in the System Lord’s room? And who would benefit the most from framing our favorite Jaffa for the dirty deed?

It’s worth noting here that the classic murder mystery has long been the world’s most popular literary genre – and psychologists have said that this is largely owing to the fact that stories of this nature tend to act as something not unlike fairytales for adults.

“We live in a world beset by wars, violence, and myriad disasters,” writes award-winning mediator David Evans for Psychology Today.

“Murder mysteries may give us hope by telling us stories that begin with evil events, but call forth the efforts of people who can rise to heroic heights and reassure us that, with great effort, evil can be overcome. We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.”

There’s no denying that ‘Fair Game’ delivers us all of this and more – as well as a delicious twist at the end of it all, too. But that’s not the only reason I rate this episode so highly; far from it, actually.

‘Fair Game’ Shows Us a More Nuanced Goa’uld

‘Fair Game’ comes at the start of Stargate SG-1’s brilliant third season, and it offers us a hard reset on the Goa’uld.

What do I mean by this? Well, for a long time, we’ve been taught that the Goa’uld are one and the same – basically melodramatic, murderous little vipers who wear a LOT of eye makeup and who take a great deal of pleasure in loudly sharing their plans for a) wiping out the human race, and b) intergalactic domination. That’s what we’ve learned from Apophis and Hathor, at least.

Yu is seated at a conference table.
The unreadable Yu (Vince Crestejo) in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep2). The System Lord Yu is associated with both the Chinese monarch Yu the Great in ‘Fair Game’ and in a later episode with the Jade Emperor in Chinese religious belief – a figure with a prominent role in Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion. | MGM, 1999.

The Goa’uld System Lords we meet in ‘Fair Game’, though, are very different. Yu, for example, remains quietly calm, contemplative, and calculating throughout the episode – and, as it so happens, he’s not that bothered about Earth. In fact, he is almost willing humanity’s advancement into being, as his territories are located on the far side of the Goa’uld Empire and Earth’s survival won’t hurt him; rather, it will benefit him, as it’ll help to destabilize his enemies.

I guess what I’m saying here is this: it’s all too easy to assume everyone who looks like your enemy is an enemy, too. ‘Fair Game’, though, reminds us that things aren’t so simple – and that it never does to assume the worst of someone based on their background.

Divided They Fall

The Asgard are among the universe’s mightiest and most advanced aliens – but they didn’t earn their status through violence. Instead, they played to their strengths AND their enemies’ weaknesses.

“Our greatest advantage has been the feudal nature of the Goa’uld,” Thor tells O’Neill at one point.

“Our greatest concern has been a single Goa’uld rising to dominant power. If Sokar were to overtake the System Lord collective, the Asgard may not have sufficient power to stop him.”

I guess what Thor’s saying here, basically, is this: teamwork makes the dream work. And until the Goa’uld realize this, they will always be the weaker party.

A Refreshing Approach to Conflict

There’s no denying that ‘Fair Game’ serves up a genuinely electrifying episode, and that’s largely because it all hinges on diplomacy and politics and the quieter side of warfare.

An impatient Jack O'Neill.
Jack O’Neill ( (Richard Dean Anderson) struggles under the burden of conversation in the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘Fair Game’ (S3, Ep2). Possibly the most O’Neill detail in this episode is that his tie is a clip-on. | MGM, 1999.

The result? One of the smartest Stargate SG-1 episodes to date, as it completely upends what we think we know about conflict resolution and urges us to remember that there’s more to it than charging into battle. Even O’Neill – a man far more comfortable with a gun in his hand than a notebook – learns that he can benefit from active listening and collaborative problem-solving. Engaging with others respectfully will lead to far more positive results than, say, shouting and snarking at them. That a physiological flight-or-fight reaction leads to a cortisol spike and a huge sap in energy levels. That assertiveness is, very often, far better a persuasive tactic than aggression. After all, as mentioned already, it’s the diplomatic Asgard who reigns supreme – and not the jingoistic Goa’uld.

“When two people’s needs are in conflict, no solution can be adequate unless both sets of needs are addressed, at least to some extent – and that’s what assertiveness is about,” explains Professor Jeremy Shapiro.

“It doesn’t mean both people get what they want, but it means there is an attempt to acknowledge, respect, and try to meet both people’s needs, while taking care not to make things worse.”

Assertiveness is then, basically, a way of remaining even-handed – or “fair”, to borrow from the title of this Stargate Sg-1 episode – whilst communicating one’s wishes and setting some firm boundaries. This means that they can make overtures to other people and stand up for themselves or others in a nonaggressive way.

Diplomacy Yields Positive Results

O’Neill’s decision to embrace an assertive, rather than an aggressive, approach to his discussions with the Goa’uld pays off… in a way.

“We will not attack your world,” states Cronos. “But if you continue to use your Stargate, be warned. Anyone who is caught by one of the System Lords will be shown no mercy. They will suffer greatly.”

Which, one supposes, is as good as it’s going to get with these guys. With that in mind, then, make like O’Neill the next time you find yourself caught up in an argument, and take a moment to stop. Breathe. Listen to the other person’s point of view. Verbalize your feelings, views, and needs. Set clear boundaries. Brainstorm possible solutions. Empathize, as much as you possibly can.

And, if all else fails, shut down the SGC and solve the unsolvable crime that will set everything right. Easy!

This article was first published on August 23rd, 2o22, on the original Companion website.

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