Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stargate: The War Between Nostalgia and Science Fiction

The Sci-Fi Channel has confirmed that it will not renew Stargate: SG-1 for an eleventh season, though it has renewed Stargate: Atlantis for a fourth. After ten seasons, Stargate: SG-1 is certainly one of the longest-running SF shows in television history, and we can state with certainty what the show represents today: Stargate stands for the old, not the new. Stargate stands for the old-fashioned. Stargate stands for repetition. Stargate stands for the comfortable. Is this what science fiction has become?

Let’s take a step back and look at what we know about science fiction. Science fiction is all about risk and danger. Science fiction is about the unknown. It is about something new.

It is not only about risk and danger in its content, but it also provides real risk and danger to the audience watching. When a good SF episode/story/movie has new technology in it, the story is rarely about the technology itself, but more about where the technology leads the characters. Good SF explores strange, new worlds to explore strange, new places in ourselves and our lives.

Almost by definition, all the best science fiction books, movies, and TV shows are something that has never been seen before. Think back to the best SF movies which most of us had probably seen: Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Abyss, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, or Terminator. For better or worse, these movies don’t look like anything that had come before them.

New science fiction, good science fiction, is something completely new.

When we come to the theater to watch a new SF flick that’s rumored to be good, we probably know that we don’t know what kind of a movie we’re in for. The experience itself – the anticipation – is slightly scary. It is scary because it is risky. And it is risky, not because it will harm us physically, but because it may bring certain emotions out of us that we are not prepared to face.

Think back to old episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which you’d probably watched as a kid. Personally, it scared the hell out of me, and sometimes, seconds before it came on, I would change the channel, because I didn’t know what I would see.

Science fiction is just not safe. Well, at least it wasn’t until the Eighties. The change came in the form of Star Trek: the Next Generation. That’s the Star Trek with the bald, English captain, called Picard, for those of you who get the Star Treks confused. The first few episodes were actually rehashed plots from the original series. And then, slowly, it began to take its own direction.

Let us compare the old Star Trek to the Next Generation. The original Star Trek, if you look at it today, is very hammy, with overly-dramatic shots and red lighting and people sweating in extreme close-up – all to indicate the drama of the scene. Even Shatner’s famous pregnant pauses – as ridiculous as they seem – succeeded in holding the audience’s attention. It was hammy, and it worked. Most of the episodes, in fact, still work today. It was dramatic, it was funny, it was risky, it had good acting, it was well-written (in fact, some of it was written by some of the top SF writers at the time), and every episode was a new risk for the viewers.

The Next Generation was the opposite. It had soft colors. Its plots were slow. The sets themselves were round. The camera movements were round. The overall visual effect of a Next Generation episode was in making the audience calmer. Like some sort of visual drug, the show lowered your heart-rate and blood-pressure as you watched it. Everything transpired on placid waters. The plots were obvious, rehashed. In fact, if you were a fan, you began to tune in to see the same characters going through the same things. The show had become... nostalgic.

Nostalgia is the opposite of science fiction. It’s safety. It’s calmness. It’s inaction. It is lack of initiative.

Stargate quickly fell into that category. With repetitive plots, slow stories, obvious plot points, and no real surprises, this show had also become nostalgic. In fact, most of the places the Stargate team goes to are barbaric, of old times, perhaps better and more innocent times (both writers and fans forgetting that old times were actually more dangerous and barbaric time). People there speak stupidly and simply, like an idealized and somewhat simple six-year-old.

Stargate has taken over The Next Generation’s nostalgic and safety-seeking audience (as well as the audience of the other three Star Trek shows that followed). If you’re a fan of Stargate, rather than getting angry at what you’re reading, ask yourself: Why am I watching it?

You’re watching because you know what it is that you’re going to see. You tune in for a repeat of the same experience. You tune in for another variation of what was.

Not everything about Stargate is bad science fiction. In the ten years it’s been here, Stargate: SG-1, has hit two main veins that are practically gold. Here they are:

1) There’s a concept that exists mostly in science fiction, called ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ The point of it is simple: You create a premise, then you take it to a whole new level. You explore it, then you take what you have now to a whole new level. And then you take that... you get the point. It’s a basic writing tool, and the reason it exists mostly in science fiction is because plots can go farther there.

This is how the Stargate people did it.

The basic premise: there is such a thing as a star gate. If you have two of them, on different planets, you can dial one with the other, a wormhole opens up, and if you step through one gate, you go out the other. The trip is instantaneous. Physics tells you that if you took the fastest spaceship (assuming you had one) it would usually take you decades; instantaneous is better. So far, so good.

In the movie Strargate, upon which the TV series is based, there were two gates: One buried in Egypt in ancient times, and another one on a faraway planet.

First step in the series: There is a whole series of gates throughout the galaxy, you just have to know which gate address to dial.

Next step: Once, when two of our heroes dialed back to Earth and went through the gate, they ended up somewhere else. Apparently, there’s been another gate on Earth, buried somewhere in Antarctica. When something happened to the gate we knew, they ‘bounced’ to the other gate.

Next step: Gates can be used as weapons. An open gate can only be shut from the dialing side. If you open a gate to Earth near a black hole, and then refuse to shut it off, then the black hole’s pull influences Earth.

Next step: Under a particular set of circumstances, when a very specific error occurs, the gate will send you back to the same gate, but also back in time.

Next step: Apparently, there are gates in other galaxies. If you dial more digits (an ‘area code’) and you know the number, you can get to new places with new secrets.

And so on.

Each new step offers new possibilities, and each step is logical, in that it takes what we know and makes a logical leap forward. It is important to point out that everything in SF has to be logical, or the story itself collapses. Contrary to popular opinion, ‘anything is possible’ leads to bad science fiction. What good SF does is take a premise that isn’t true today as far as we know, assumes it’s true, and then proceeds from that point, ceding to logic every time.

The other thing that Stargate has going for it is the soap-opera factor. If a series lasts long enough and if it has a chance to develop slowly – excruciatingly slowly in our case – build a mythology, then after you hit a few years, every episode that actually has a bunch of these elements together, is actually a soap-opera episode that mesmerizes you. The trick in good writing, of course, would not be to fall into this accidentally after a few years, but to start with it. When you watch episodes during this season or the last one, every person, every character, nearly everyone our heroes interact with, has at least one back-story if not more. That is the way stories should always be in the first place.

Science fiction, historically, was there to rock the world and change it. It was there to make us think about new things, new directions. It was there to warn us of the future and to help us build a better one. It was there to make us realize truths about ourselves, to make us feel emotions we could feel only if we played a bit with reality. Science fiction doesn’t take one step, it jumps ahead of the pack (taking the risk that it will miss it entirely). Today, Stargate doesn’t take even one step. It’s afraid to step out of its parents’ garage.