How to make dilemma effective: Stargate SG-1, “Between Two Fires”

In real life, how often have you had to make an unpalatable decision because you felt it was the lesser of two evils?

Characters in fiction, though, get off easy (especially if they’re the heroes). Often, they’ll find some way to weasel out of the dilemma, a “third way” that allows them to have their cake and eat it. So this makes me admire the courage of the odd story that doesn’t present that as an option, that forces the characters to choose and then doesn’t shy away from the consequences.

My example here is Stargate: SG-1. (Warning: spoilers for “Between Two Fires”, an episode midway through season 5.)


***

In this episode, our heroes are called in to investigate skulduggery on the planet Tollana. By this stage, we’ve been familiar with the Tollans for several seasons, seen their lovely planet, learned that while they are technologically superior to Earth, their society is peaceful as a lamb. So imagine the shock when SG-1 learns that the Tollans are building weapons capable of devastating Earth – and that they’re doing so at the behest of the Goa’uld, the villains of the series so far.

Now, why would the Tollans do this? Why would they even go so far as to murder one of their leaders who was opposed to the idea? Was their benevolence a facade a whole time? No. They built the weapons because the Goa’uld arrived in overwhelming force and told them to do it, or be slaughtered (the Goa’uld themselves, for reasons previously established on the show,  can’t directly attack Earth, so they need a plausibly deniable proxy).

Of course, SG-1 thwarts the threat to Earth. They talk one of their Tollan friends, another recurring character, into helping them sabotage the new weapons for the greater good of the galaxy. He does so knowing he condemns his homeworld to annihilation. The weapons cache goes up in flames. The Goa’uld see the Tollans have not lived up to their bargain, and so they begin their assault. SG-1 manages to escape, but their Tollan friend stays behind to fight. Back on Earth, they hear a last transmission from him: “I just want you to know that—”

Static.

And that is the last we ever see, or hear, of the Tollans.

***

The moral of the story is, for a dilemma to be effective, a storyteller must make the sacrifice matter. A hard choice must truly be a hard choice. “Avoid cop-outs” sounds so simple – but it works. And it made “Between Two Fires” one of my favourite episodes of SG-1.

Stargate SG-1: The mysterious vanishing Jaffa helmets

In the Stargate movie, and in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, the bad guys are resplendent in animal-head helmets: Horus guards (from the movie) wore falcon-headed helmets, Apophis and his serpent guards from SG-1 make their first appearance in sinister snake helmets, and when SG-1 meets Heru-ur, their first new System Lord other than Apophis, his goons are wearing the falcon helmets again. However, after the first couple of seasons, the helmets disappear. Why?

Out of universe, I have a pretty simple explanation. As the later seasons introduce more and more Goa’uld System Lords, it would just not have been practical (or affordable?) to design and build unique helmets for each System Lord’s Jaffa. Thus, the vanishing helmets reflect real-world constraints.

However, I think I like my in-universe explanation better. Remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke rips off a stormtrooper helmet and exclaims, “I can’t see a thing in this helmet!”? Well, maybe the Goa’uld decided that SG-1 could regularly defeat whole armies of Jaffa because the Jaffa couldn’t see what they were aiming at. Of course, the Jaffa’s accuracy doesn’t seem to improve even after they start running around bare-headed, but perhaps the Goa’uld thought it was worth keeping up the experiment…

Stargate SG-1: Glad to be proven wrong

As I make my way through season 6 of Stargate: SG-1, I’m glad that the show has addressed my key gripe. Some spoilers in the paragraph below…

Continue reading “Stargate SG-1: Glad to be proven wrong”

Stargate SG-1 and the importance of creating a believable world

I’ve seen the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1, and so far, I quite like it. The pilot episode was as close as we’ll ever come to a TV adaptation of UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense, and although the following filler episodes were a big step down in quality, the series eventually regained its stride. It’s moved past Pre-Industrial Society / Monster / Mysterious Alien Plague Of The Week and now, it seems to be striving for epic space opera. That it does well, and intelligently.

The secret, I think, is how many things – some little, some large – make the world feel believable. The show avoids familiar howlers such as the “Always Chaotic Evil” alien species (admittedly, it is guilty of a few of its own). The characters are generally pretty intelligent when it comes to solving problems – and sometimes, this backfires, when they do something that makes in-character sense but turns out to be wrong, because they don’t know the full story.

And most importantly, the show has a sense of continuity, most obvious in its overarching story arc. But it operates in so many smaller, yet vital, ways as well. Real people remember what happened to them a week ago, or two, or three, or ten. They gripe if it was bad, crow if it was good. So do the characters of SG-1. Real people remember how they previously solved problems, and make preparations if they think they’ll encounter the same issue again later. So do the characters of SG-1. When the show needs minor characters – an ally has come with vital information; the heroes are saved because “the enemy of their enemy” has provided a distraction; a red-shirt to accompany the heroes – it draws on the world it’s already established instead of creating a wholly new disposable character.

And yet, it only takes this so far. Earth itself is locked in stasis; SG-1 never recovers any artifacts that would dramatically shake things up; alien technology never leaks out into the wider world; society remains unchanged. For all I know, this was intentional and the creators weren’t interested in telling a story about how contact with alien societies/advances/species, even in a gradual trickle, might change the modern world. But it disappoints me all the same.