Here are two facts you should know about me: I love a good time travel story, and I’m a sucker for a well-written alternate future.
So it should come as no surprise that the Stargate SG-1 episode ‘2010’ (S4, Ep16) ranks as one of my top ten favorite episodes of the entire series.
I was a kid when I watched that episode for the first time. And I remember thinking just how cool it was to get a glimpse into the team’s future, to see a world where the Stargate program was public knowledge. Plus, there were all these cool advanced technologies (although, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have expected that we would have transporter pads in 2010).
Not only does ‘2010’ break the mold in terms of SG-1’s typical story, plot, and structure, but it also introduces us in media res to a new villain: the Aschen.
But what makes them such cool villains is that we don’t know they’re villains until halfway through the episode.
Given that we only see the Aschen twice over the course of the series – ‘2010’ and its prequel/sequel ‘2001’ (S5, Ep10) – we don’t learn all that much about them. What we do know is that they’re the epitome of the sci-fi Trojan horse: they ally themselves with other worlds, offering them advanced technologies and medicines, and then subtly wipe out the populations and convert their worlds into farmland.
Although they aren’t one of the main villains of the Stargate franchise, there’s always been something about the Aschen that has captured my imagination. Here are a few reasons why I think that’s the case, and why the Aschen should be a top contender for “best Stargate villain of all time.”
What Makes a Great Stargate Villain
One of the great things about the Stargate canon is that the various alien villains we encounter are all very different from each other: different characteristics, aesthetics, cultures, and motivations.
The Goa’uld, at first glance, is basically the embodiment of pure evil: parasites who get off on mass murder, torture, enslavement, and totalitarian control over human lives. You know, the black-and-white villains that make it really easy to root for the good guys.
Yet even in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, we learned that the Goa’uld may not be pure evil by nature. In the Season 2 episode ‘Need’ (S2, Ep5), we find out that the sarcophagus, which the Goa’uld use on an almost daily basis, has incredibly damaging effects on the user’s brain chemistry. If it can turn Daniel into a deranged, power-hungry lunatic within a single episode, imagine what it does to the Goa’uld over thousands of years. (There’s a damn good reason the Tok’ra don’t use the thing).
In fact, this revelation actually makes the Goa’uld slightly (but only slightly) more sympathetic, as you realize that maybe their maniacal behavior is actually a very advanced and complex mental illness. So while they’re absolutely terrible, it’s hard to describe them as wholly evil.
On the other hand, the main villains of Stargate Atlantis were the Wraith, whose core motivation was hunger: they need the life force of humans to survive. It made them a much different kind of creature to fight because it was hard to argue that they were evil as such. Their biological needs simply made them incompatible with humanity.
And then there’s the villain that spans galaxies and TV series: the Replicators. Much like the Wraith, it’s hard to paint them as evil. After all, they’re programmed to make more of themselves. Teal’c even says as much in the episode ‘Unnatural Selection’ (S6, Ep12) when he says that they are “no more evil than a virus.”
Later, in Stargate Universe, we encounter several other antagonistic aliens. The Nakai is obsessed with Destiny, which, honestly, makes them about as evil as Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle). And the Berserker drones are, like the Replicators, programmed to fulfill a certain function and are themselves neither good nor evil.
That leaves the Aschen. Why were the Aschen the way they were? Why did they seek to expand their Confederation by destroying their host worlds? Why would they spend hundreds of years trying to conquer a single planet?
These are questions to which we have no solid answers. But there’s something very clear about them: they’re not deranged or trapped by a basic biological instinct. They conquer worlds intentionally and systematically, planning their conquests out hundreds of years at a time.
This means that unlike any of the alien antagonists we encounter throughout the Stargate franchise, the Aschen are truly nefarious in their actions. And this makes them quite a formidable opponent for our heroes.
The Aschen Introduced Epic Scale
I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov; in particular, his Foundation series. One of the things I love about it is that the plot is so vast and spans so much time that truly grasping it stretches the mind.
In contrast, most mainstream films and TV shows follow a cookie-cutter plot structure, where the good guys, typically action heroes, face off against the darkness that threatens to take over the galaxy, and in an epic battle sequence stave it off and save the day. (Although, in today’s era of streaming, that’s slowly changing.)
But in Foundation (1951), the protagonists aren’t action heroes; they’re scientists and researchers. On top of that, the Foundation doesn’t actually stave off the darkness but mitigates its effects. In fact, the man responsible for setting the events of the book in motion, Hari Seldon, dies in the first book (I’d say spoiler alert, but that book’s been out for decades). It’s not a clear good vs. evil story where the good guys win in the end but is a much more nuanced and, thus, realistic portrayal of how the universe works.
These sorts of esoteric, slow-burn stories have always had an important place in the canon of sci-fi literature. Yet while film and television are making great strides toward accepting this model (even attempting a Foundation adaptation), they’re still unkind to this particular kind of storytelling. Even films like The Matrix, which dove deep into philosophy, still broke up these moments with exciting action and fight sequences.
And, not to open up another wound, Stargate Universe attempted to do a similar thing and tell an esoteric, slow-burn sci-fi story. Had Syfy not canceled the series so unceremoniously, I have no doubt that it would have done so excellently.
Why am I saying all of this? It’s because the Aschen as villains is more suited to the kind of storytelling I just described, not to your standard 45-minute television episode.
For starters, their invasion is a long play. In fact, it takes SG-1 ten years before they really start to understand what’s really happening here, and then even only because Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) suffers a personal tragedy and starts investigating it.
On top of that, they invade passively rather than actively. I made the comparison to the Trojan horse earlier, but a more apt analogy would be a Trojan horse filled with perfectly innocent-looking people who would enter into the society as friends, only to poison the population slowly, to be doomed before they even know what’s happening.
And then, on top of that, there’s the off-screen war in which the Aschen topple the Goa’uld. There’s a throwaway line in ‘2010’ where Teal’c affirms that the reason few Jaffa are loyal to the Tau’ri is that few symbiotes remain alive after the war’s end. Daniel mentions something about the “survivors of the Tok’ra.” All of these clues seem to indicate that whatever weapons the Aschen used against the Goa’uld were biological in nature.
In fact, in ‘2001’, when the team encounters the Aschen for the first (or second?) time, the Aschen offer an example of their military firepower: a biological agent capable of targeting specific DNA. The implication is that this weapon would wipe out the Goa’uld, but also the Jaffa and Tok’ra.
All of that to say: the way the Aschen wage war doesn’t usually make for great television. There are no space battles or shootouts, all of which are staples of any sci-fi series. There’s a good reason why this war took place off-screen: partly because of the nature of the story, but also because it probably just wouldn’t be that interesting to watch.
(As a quick aside: the fact that the Aschen use biological weapons just adds to their sense of cold and calculating evil. Not only have we deemed biological weapons a moral and ethical wrong in the Geneva Protocol of 1925, but there’s something chilling about the fact that the Aschen deals with their enemies clinically, like homeowners spraying for pests.)
All of these factors taken together demonstrate this: there are few villains like the Aschen on television. And this was especially true back in 2000 when ‘2010’ aired when episodic shows and syndication reigned supreme.
But in penning the episode, Brad Wright came up with a creative way to work around this situation: instead of telling a ten-year story, let’s just jump ahead to the ten-year mark, and then use time travel to “reset” the episode and bring us back to status quo. In so doing, he was able to present us with a villain that is truly unique and original.
Although the Goa’uld and the Wraith are certainly the most iconic villains of the series, and for good reason, one of the reasons I love the Aschen is because they’re so different from what was on television then, or even what’s on television today.
The Aschen Way of Conquest
Given their limited screen time, we actually know very little about how the Aschen operates. We know they live in some kind of confederation of worlds, although it stands to reason that most of those worlds are little more than agricultural fiefdoms with a minimal native population remaining.
We only have two examples to go off of – alternate Earth in ‘2010’ and Volia in ‘2001’ – but based on those examples, it looks like the Aschen have a clear M.O. They seek out industrial, rapidly developing worlds and force them back into an agrarian state, decimating their population in the meantime by forced sterilization and other methods.
Now, as someone who lives in a rural community in the Southern U.S., I’m all for living a simple life. There’s plenty to be said about the benefits of agrarianism over urbanism. However, there’s a difference between someone choosing that lifestyle for themselves, and it being foisted upon them.
This Aschen practice raises an important question: why do they go after industrialized worlds and dial them backward, rather than simply find agrarian civilizations and stagnate their development?
Part of this could be that the Aschen are not great explorers with access to a Stargate network, so they probably can’t be too choosy about the worlds they end up coming across.
But another explanation is this. Consider what would happen if the Aschen descended upon an agrarian society, like, say, the Middle Ages here on our fair planet. If they came with all their advanced technology and tried to subjugate the people, the likely outcome is that these people would worship them as gods (much like with the Goa’uld).
Let’s face it: being a god comes with a lot of responsibility. And if there’s anything we know for certain about the Aschen, it is that they don’t seem to want to expend a lot of effort in their conquests.
With a post-industrial civilization, however, their perception of the Aschen isn’t of mysterious gods, but of another advanced civilization with technologies and, even more, a level of understanding of the natural world to aspire to. In that case, the allure of an alliance with the Aschen is even stronger, making these civilizations that much more gullible of a victim.
In the end, then, our post-Enlightenment thirst for knowledge is ultimately what the Aschen use against us. Which, in its own way, is kind of terrifying. Because when I think about the state of our world and species right now, it’s exactly the kind of thing that we could fall prey to.
Reflecting on the Aschen
At the end of the day, the best villains are the ones who exploit the heroes’ intentions and even weaknesses to their own ends. And here is the ultimate reason why, in my humble opinion, the Aschen are the best villains in the Stargate franchise.
From the first season of Stargate SG-1, our team has had clear standing orders: to seek out and acquire alien technology to defend Earth from the Goa’uld. However, the invisible hand of the writers keeps them from actually accomplishing this goal (after all, we can’t let our heroes become too powerful).
So when they meet the Aschen, Earth’s powers-that-be jump at a chance for an alliance. And the Aschen exploit that enthusiasm to begin their subtle invasion of Earth.
This whole idea is summed up in the emotional and brilliantly acted scene between Carter and her husband, Joe Faxon, in ‘2010’:
Joe Faxon: “Sooner or later, the Goa’uld would have wiped us out. Would you prefer that?”
Samantha Carter: “The Aschen way is slower.”
In exploiting our heroes’ standing orders, the Aschen offers a cautionary tale for us today. We may, like SG-1, be so quick to develop and acquire technologies to solve all of our most dire problems. But every new development and discovery comes with unintended consequences, and we should really think through whether we’re ready to face those consequences.
That doesn’t mean that our problems aren’t real, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be seeking aggressive ways to solve them. Climate change, nuclear weapons, systemic injustices: these things will kill us if we don’t try to fix them. But we also need to ensure that our “solutions” don’t simply transfer the problem — or even make it worse.
Another way to say it: we should be careful not to go with the Aschen just to spite the Goa’uld.
This article was first published on October 19th, 2021, on the original Companion website.
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