Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Stargate (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1994)


I gave a short (very short - 5 minutes!) paper on Stargate a while back, as part of a panel on 'Archaeologists from real to reel', in which I basically discussed the representation of Daniel Jackson as an archaeologist. I'll copy the text of my paper into the bottom of this post - it's really very short (not all my papers are that short!) and it's sort of half formal, half informal (it was that sort of event) but hopefully it may be of interest!

I love Stargate, it's the kind of big, cheesy fun I tend to like a lot. Also, I saw Stargate SG-1 first, so I came to the film already feeling a lot of affection for these characters - otherwise I might have been a bit more dubious about Colonel O'Neil. And James Spader is very attractive in it.

I'm never quite sure how I feel about the use of religion and mythology in Stargate in general though. On the one hand, the idea that ancient gods are really aliens is always a fun one, since it means you get to play with their mythology and even see the gods in action, offering dozens of fun episodes over the course of SG-1 and plenty of oppotunities for me to blog about it! It also fulfils that constant desire for myths to be somehow true. We do not believe in the ancient gods, but if they were, in fact, aliens, suddenly we have a way of making all their myths real, just twisted - an obscure version of euhemerism (and I'm dealing with a particular kind of fictional 'true' here - I am by no means suggesting that the gods actually were aliens and the pyramids are spaceships, those are the crazy people we walk away from slowly!). The desire to find some kind of truth behind myths is an old one and a strong one and if I could fully explain it, I'd be a happy person, but it is undeniably there.

On the other hand, throughout the history of Stargate, the team never seem to come across a religion that isn't based on the crimes of a Goauld or an, um, thing from the later seasons which I haven't seen as much of. Obviously, this is more of an issue with the television show than the original film, but the groundwork is laid in the film. It's a bit akin to Arthur C Clarke's famous dictum that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' in that it assumes that people will attribute anything they can't explain to magic and/or religion - it's a very Frazerian world view. And I'm honestly not sure it's true. There's a difference between believing in some form of the supernatural and attributing everything you can't explain to it, even going so far as to worship it. And there's more to religion than just 'Dear Deity, please do this for me and don't smite me and I'll kill a cow for you, thanks a lot'. Still, I suppose ancient Egypt, where Pharoahs were considered to be deities, is an appropriate culture to hijack for this sort of story, and there are plenty of historical instances to support the idea of people worshipping strangers with new technologies (I was going to say that the Romans weren't worshipped for having central heating, but Emperor-worship did develop in some places, several cultures have worshipped human rulers, and I think there might be some central American examples as well though I don't know much about that). And in the film, there's no suggestion that this is a universe-wide problem, it's just one thing that happened on one planet, which is much more plausible (with a certain amount of willing suspension of disbelief of course!).

The film also maintains much higher plausibility as far as language and culture are concerned. The Abydosians behave like ancient Egyptians because they were transported to Abydos from ancient Egypt and they speak a form of ancient Egyptian (Demotic presumably!) for the same reason. As science fiction set-ups go, this is not that unreasonable, and it does my favourite thing - actually pays attention to the language issue. By the time of the series, everyone spoke English, despite the fact that their ancient monuments were often inscribed in Latin, Greek, Egyptian and other ancient languages, which just isn't plausible at all (though I understand why they did it - it wouldn't be very practical for a weekly series to have to mess around with ancient languages every week!).

The film also features an arranged marriage that the groom doesn't realise is a marriage, and just about pulls off the resulting romantic relationship. Daniel and Sha'uri have nice chemistry and you do sympathise with his predicament, though I always find that I can't help hearing Samantha Carter's reaction from her first meeting with Daniel in SG-1 whenever I see those scenes -

O'Neill: She [Sha'uri] was a gift.
Daniel: She was, actually, from the elders of Abydos the first time we
were there.
Carter: And you accepted?

In the end they're very sweet though.

I'm sure there's more I could say about Stargate especially as it relates to Egypt (I like the alien wildlife, but actual camels are much, much cuter). I suspect a lot of it will come up over the course of the the various episodes of SG-1, though, and there's probably a limit to how long this blog post should be! So here is my very, very short paper on Stargate. This paper was given at our departmental forum, at the first session of the year, so it was a little more informal than most of my papers, as we wanted to do something fun and welcoming for new postgrads.

Stargate is a 1994 film which has since spawned the 10-year long TV series Stargate SG-1, the 5-year long TV series Stargate Atlantis and now Stargate Universe. Since I only have 5 minutes, today I will be focussing on the 1994 movie.

The film opens with the discovery of the titular Stargate at Giza in the 1920s, by a German archaeologist. Then we skip ahead to the 1990s, and the German archaeologist’s daughter recruits Egyptologist Dr Daniel Jackson, who has become an outcast in the archaeological community, to help to translate a cartouche that was found near the Gate. Daniel claims that the Great Pyramid was not built by Cheops and is at least 10,000 years old; contrary to statements made later in the series, he does not at this point claim that the pyramids were built by aliens. The Gate itself is being kept in a secret mountain base by the US air force (how and why this has happened, or how they know what it is, is never explained). Daniel solves a problem other experts have been working on for 2 years in a few hours, they get the Stargate working and a military team, led by Colonel Jack O’Neil, with Daniel in tow, travel through the Gate to an alien planet, where hi-jinks ensue.

Much of the tension in the movie comes from the conflict between Daniel, the archaeologist, and Col. O’Neil, the military man. On a broad level, Daniel, the archaeologist is made to represent science as a whole; he wants to explore the new planet and discover more about its inhabitants, and he displays a curiosity about everything. O’Neil, on the other hand, has been given orders to detonate a nuclear bomb, destroying the planet and its Stargate, in a pre-emptive strike to protect Earth (which he is willing to do because he is suicidally depressed following the accidental death of his son).

The presentation of Daniel the Egyptologist as a quintessential Hollywood scientist has two main aspects. Firstly, he is a fount of all knowledge. There is no area in which Daniel is not an expert, be it Egyptology, archaeology, anthropology, philology, cryptology, astronomy… Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Daniel embodies the American stereotype of the science geek.

The science geek is an easily recognisable character in American TV and film. He or she wears bad glasses, often has asthma or other respiratory problems, has bad hair, wears bad clothes, and speaks in a nervous and often comic voice, sometimes with a stutter. At this point I went through some pictures of typical science geeks - Leonard form The Big Bang Theory, Frink from The Simpsons and so on.

Dr Daniel Jackson wears big glasses, has long, floppy hair (in direct contrast to the military crew cuts sported by most of the rest of the cast), wears tweed with elbow patches, stutters a little and suffers from allergies, many involving sneezing a lot. He appears foolish to the air force men he works with, and has to lie about his ability to get them home to get on the team.

This view of the archaeologist as a geek is in direct contrast to the more usual view of the archaeologist as adventurer. Although Indiana Jones looks pretty geeky while teaching, he quickly becomes much cooler and magically regains the power of perfect vision before contact lenses came into common usage, as soon as he leaves the office. Other movie archaeologists are just cool from the beginning and are characterised as treasure hunters, rather than scientists or historians. I believe that the characterisation of Daniel Jackson in Stargate is entirely governed by the decision to portray him as an archetypal scientist, rather than a treasure hunter.

It should be noted that, at the end of the movie, Daniel does turn out to be the romantic hero and gets the girl, while in SG-1, although he starts out as the floppy-haired sneezing geek, by the end of ten years he has become a lot more cool, with shorter, more military hair, better glasses, tight black T-shirts, a lot more muscles and no allergies. Clearly, no Hollywood writer can resist the allure of the adventurer archaeologist, even if they start out with a very different character.

End of the paper. I didn't use this paper as an excuse to show off lots of pretty pictures of the Daniels Jackson at all, oh no, whatever can you mean...

9 comments:

  1. I love Daniel Jackson. What a great feature. Strong and brainy? YES please.

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  2. Me too - I definitely enjoyed putting together the powerpoint for that paper! :)

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  3. I actually saw Stargate in the cinema! Really enjoyed it (laughed to tears with the "chicken" scene) and then that was it.

    Being on the other side of the Atlantic and with infrequent connection to a television, I didn't really discover SG1 until it was a few years in and caught it all as it came out on dvd thanks to a wonderful media library in Liège... Now in hindsight I wish I'd bought each set as they came out (like I did later with Atlantis)... it's a big hunk of money to fork out at the moment for the full set! (and you've made me want to re-watch it!).

    Much as I enjoyed the movie... I just LOVED the series!!! At least the first 8 seasons. I prefer my O'Neil to be Macgyvery funny, and love this Daniel Jackson (and yeah, his makeover throughout the series is astonishing! and yum!)... and we get Sam!!! One of the rare intelligent/tough leading ladies out there.

    But yeah, one of the annoyances of the series was the fact that everyone spoke English... couldn't they at least have discovered some kind of Ancient device that served as a Universal Translator à la Star Trek?!

    does this mean you're about to go through a re-viewing of SG1 and blog about it?! Oh joy! :o)

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  4. Yes, I think so :) I won't blog every episode, because some are really just about the sci-fi, so I'll pick the ones with the most myth/Latin etc and blog them. And I'll be starting with Season 4, coz that's the one I have on DVD! It's my favourite, I think most of the best episodes are in season 4 (except 200, which is all kinds of awesome!). My brother has the whole series though, so I'll catch up to all of them eventually!

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  5. Isn't season 4 where Daniel... Yikes!
    And wouldn't you be missing out on Martouf?! (one of my favourite recurring -rarely- characters... and those eyes!!!)

    Nah!!! Get your brothers discs and do it properly!!! :p

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  6. No no no, that's season 5! We do not speak of the end of season 5....

    Can't remember about Martouf - did he disappear in season 3? I liked him too.

    I think brother is a bit attached to his DVDs... will just cover what I can as and when!

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  7. He's in season 2! You remember Sam getting her own "worm"? Jolinar? Well Martouf was Jolinar's mate...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tok%27ra#Martouf

    I smile whenever I see him popping up on random TV shows... :O)

    PS: and we do not speak of the end of season 5... but it's almost worth it for that final scene of season 6, or was it the 1st of season 7? :p

    found it! 1st episode of season 7...
    http://www.gateworld.net/gallery/displayimage.php?album=141&pos=13

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  8. Well now I'm just completely distracted... :))

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