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Around 2002 or '03, I found my brother watching Stargate SG1 on tv one morning. I’d never watched the show, but a huge fan of the film, I sat down for an episode. I left immediately afterwards. He asked if I hadn’t liked it. I said: “Yeah a show about three blondes fighting all the black people of the universe under the influence of evil gods … War on terror much?”

SG1 debuted in 1997, 9/11 wasn’t even on the radar, but I did not know that at the time.

It also struck me that, besides a treacherous Go’Auld, the non-Go’auld black cast were all supporting cast. Whatever. I didn’t feel like watching a show I was gonna tear apart the whole time, so I left and left it that.

For some reason, possibly the revolutionary mystique of decolonisation, I thought that perhaps I should actually watch the thing, instead of peddling a hasty impression, made on the fly twenty years ago, and see how the show handles sensitive subject matter throughout.

Before I begin: This is not a comment on the show’s value as entertainment. Plenty of people liked it. Stargate is a massively successful franchise. Three feature films, three television series, a webseries and an animated series. And games, videogames, novelisations, action figures. You get the point. Stargate worked. If anybody cares to know, I did not like SG1. At all. This is why this exercise is limited to Season 1. Realising there were two hundred and twenty, forty-five minute long, episodes, I had serious doubts about doing this at all.

Sorry, this is not a fully comprehensive exercise. The show may very well have shifted course at some point, I cannot speak to that, but if someone has further insight, I would love reading a rebuke to this piece.

I’m also aware that the 90s were a different time. We all loved Friends. Still love Friends. We all loved Stargate the movie. It had the exact same problems. The show as a larger endeavor invites larger scrutiny, is all. Whether a show was “problematic” or “unsensitive” didn’t weigh as heavily as it does now. Mainstream viewers weren’t as concerned with matters of representation.

Neither am I suggesting that the writers, directors and producers, should’ve done the show any other way. If that was their vision so be it, and if anybody doesn’t want to watch it, there’s plenty of other shows.

The object of the article is not to discourage you from watching Stargate SG1, but many similar shows shaped our child and teenagehoods, and forged our worldview. Now that we have some perspective, dare I say, a veneer of wisdom, it’s worth revisiting our classics and weighing them against the people we are and society we have today, as they have contributed, wittingly or not, towards shaping them.

Decolonisation 

According to Eric Ritskes, editor of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, “Decolonisation refers to ‘writing back’ against the ongoing colonialism and colonial mentalities that permeate all institutions and systems of government.”

As Frantz Fanon explains: “(Re)building culture must interrogate colonialism’s turmoil on the inner world and psyche to create new narratives to counter mainstream framings in history books, public monuments, and pop culture, that have seeped into public consciousness.”

Before we can look at Stargate SG1, we must first understand how the concept driving Stargate, namely the alien origin of ancient Egyptians, fits within a colonial framework, and works as its translation and diffusion through pop culture.

In her recent presentation "Ancient Egypt and Colonial Science Fiction – The Myth of Origins", Dr. Thais Rocha da Silva (University of Oxford/Sao Paulo) postulates that late 19th century science fiction helped boost a very specific narrative about ancient Egypt. Focusing her research on the cult classic Battlestar Galactica, Rocha da Silva argues that the idea of a superior race bringing civilisation to our planet became popular in the 19th century, and further into the 20th century along with colonialism and racial discourses of white supremacist ideology.

This narrative promotes the idea that Egyptians, among others, could not have produced their own heritage. This allowed Europeans to incorporate or remove other civilisations from its history and detach them from their own, while creating a parallel, as colonisation became the justified pathway to bring light to civilisations that were only ever capable of mimicry but not creation.

As Rocha da Silva puts it: “Gods, aliens and giants became a metaphor for an imperialistic type of history.” The Gods and aliens are benevolent colonisers, not imposers of and the regulators of violence.

Civilisation was brought to these peoples once and can be brought again, through colonisation.

On Stargate

In this light, the Stargate franchise places itself in direct continuity of colonial propaganda. The movie presumes an Egyptian starting point that the show elaborates upon by bringing in more cultures, that all contribute to strengthen a reductive, colonial and white supremacist worldview.

In the movie we learn that Ra is one of a dying alien race who found refuge among “primitive” humans, through which he could gain eternal life. Stargate SG1 makes good on that premise, namely that Ra was only one among many Go’Auld and that where we only knew of two connected stargates, there are in fact many more. As such SG1 does not focus narrowly on Egypt, but on an array of human cultures and civilisations with alien contact.

It is hard not to take SG1 at, quite literally, face value. The ethnic composition of the team speaks for itself. Of the four main characters: Daniel Jackson, Samantha Carter, Jack O’Neil, and Teal’C, the first three are all white North Americans. Teal’C, being of Go’Auld extraction, is the only nonwhite (black) lead, and non-earth born human.

This is not an issue in and of itself, but it becomes one when we look at how other non-white characters are presented throughout the season. Outside of the Go’Auld there are only three instances (I may have missed a couple but none that would negate this point) of black/brown characters with a speaking role throughout the entire season.

Episode 5 “The Broca Divide” delivers the show’s first minor black character, Lieutenant Johnson. On a mission to planet P3X-797, the SG1 team, supported by Lieutenant Jackson and other marines, encounter a race of humans infected with a strange disease that animalises them. Lieutenant Johnson is infected and upon their return to earth, he goes rabid, attacking but failing to harm Teal’C before being restrained.

Episode 6 “The First Commandment” introduces Laurence Connor. Connor is part of Stargate Command and has been on missions before the SG1 team was created. Connor is a strong character, but while integral to the team’s efforts on the planet, his real purpose is getting the SG1 team to the episode’s villain, Captain Jonas Hanson, who ruled over the native population of the planet Avnil as a would-be God.

Finally, Episode 13 “Hathor” includes a black soldier who gets knocked out after asking a number of female officers to put down their weapons, and a young black female soldier, who isn’t given a speaking role.

None of these characters are recurrent in Season 1, and none of these characters exist on their own, serving only the purpose of furthering the plot, and are disposable at will. In contrast and unsurprisingly, the major non-white roles are Go’Auld characters with Teal’C, the renegade Go’Auld, occupying the center stage.

The reasons and consequences for Teal’C defecting to the Tau’Ri (Humans) are initially murky, but become clearer as the character grows and his identity as a Go’Auld slowly erodes. However, throughout most of the season, Teal’C serves as an on and off Go’Auld info dump, conveniently plugging our gaps in Go’Auld knowledge with the occasional cryptic and ominous warning against trifling with the Go’Auld.

That said, Teal’C has higher aspirations. As we discover in Bloodlines (Episode 12), Teal’C is not alone in opposing the Go’Auld and part of a larger conspiracy to bring them down. This motivated him to abandon his wife and son. As could be expected, this was not without repercussions for his family who were shunned by the larger society on Chulak, Teal’C’s home world. In the end he has to leave his family again, choosing to follow his path and foment the rebellion.

While this seems to be a genuine attempt to give Teal’C a real backstory, it is also not coincidental. The team needs to find larval Go’auld. They are most readily available on Chulak where Teal’C and his family are from. Teal’C and his family’s personal drama colors the narrative but it doesn’t drive it. It could have been any other planet. And while Teal’C’s character has noble aspirations, we will also discuss how those ideals serve to comfort the colonialist narrative.

From Teal’C, it is only natural to look at the Go’Auld dominated societies of Abybos and Chulak. Abydos was introduced in the movie as Ra’s home world, and Chulak as the planet most Go’Auld originate from.

While black and brown people are prominent in relation to the Go’Auld, all residents of Chulak are not black nor brown. In the pilot episode, we see greeco-roman cultural markers in the architecture presented on Chulak, and many of the residents are white. However, they are also othered and orientalised, as the language spoken on Chulak is introduced as a derivation of Arabic. The choice of Arabic as a language for a people subservient to the Go’Auld, whether black or not, is of course, hugely problematic.

First, Arabic is a language that emerged in the 1st to 4th century of the Gregorian calendar. By contrast the Great Pyramid of Giza was built 2600 years earlier. There was simply no Arabic spoken at the time the Stargate was established on Earth.Given the heavily biased optics, the choice of Arabic here further entrenches the Arab language, people and culture as an enemy and the ultimate existential threat to white America, and white humanity. With US involvement in multiple theaters of war in the Muslim world, the demonisation of Muslims in pop culture, and the stereotypes vehiculated relentlessly about black peoples, Stargate SG1 normalises all of the above.

It is in Episode 10, Thor’s Hammer, that SG1 creates the starkest contrast between the Go’Auld and other pre-Christian religions.mThe crew arrives on planet Cimmeria, which is inhabited by a population of old Norse stock, who worship, as they would, the Asgardian, Viking gods. It is explicitly stated that while the Go’Auld are clear enemies of mankind, the Asgardians are not. They are benevolent gods with humanity’s interest at heart. I think the implication is clear, but the episode grows into full blown orientalism as it goes by.

While the population appears exclusively white initially, I was surprised to find a mixed-race woman, Kendra, among them. I naively thought to myself, "ok, they’re finally trying to diffuse the obvious racial tension at play, they were just baiting us the whole time" ... but here’s the catch: Kendra is not Cimmerian. She is a former Go-Auld, specifically, from the planet Jebanna. She was captured by System Lord Marduk, another Go’Auld System Lord. Marduk is also the chief deity of the city of Babylon in ancient Sumeria, further extending the reach of the Go’Auld further eastward from Egypt into other pre-Islamic religions.

Kendra managed, through mind control, to influence her Go’Auld host, and was set free by Thor’s Hammer, subsequently fled, and now resides on Cimmeria, worshipping Thor. Interestingly enough, it is only after the encounter with Kendra, and her ability to free herself of the Go’Auld yoke, that Teal’C is finally trusted by his Earth companions and embraced as part of the crew.

These two characters’ liberation furthers the colonial narrative defined by Rocha da Silva in her thesis. They see the light in the white saviours, turning their back on family and culture, for a better, western, and ethnically white, world. They are the masters of their destinies, but slaves to their own fate. They are strong so we must respect their choices, and they are the right choices: the Go’Auld are awful, but by doing so they slowly erase their own identity from relevance.

Back to the pilot episode Children of the Gods. Beyond the colonisation of spaces and cultures, it’s the colonisation of native bodies in the first episode, especially female native bodies, that shocked me the most.

You’ll remember Jackson’s wife, Sha’re, from the movie. Soft spoken yet instrumental to the story, as she pulls his coat to the semantic slippage between ancient Kemetic and what is spoken on Abydos, thus allowing the team to decipher the local Stargate. In the show she doesn’t seem to have made much progress since the movie. She speaks very little and is still second fiddle to the male action figures from the movie. You would expect that as Jackson’s wife, she would be fluent in English by then, but her speaking role is limited to when she is captured by the Go’Auld.

She is captured with the intent of serving as a Go’Auld host, and the episode shows two different ceremonies for the aforementioned. In the first, Apophis attempts to have a young blonde woman, Airman Carol Weterings, as a host. She is stripped naked, laid on a dais but the Go’Auld refuses the offering. When this happens, her back is shown bare as is her upper torso and head, close to the neck. By contrast, Sha’re, a young brown female, is stripped naked with full body nudity, front and back, carried naked on the dais, and laid there, with the eel-like Go’Auld sliding suggestively between her breasts towards her face.

The onscreen treatment and dignity of the white and brown female are radically opposed. I can’t understand how, no one raised the point, or perhaps someone belatedly did and that’s why two streaming website have two different versions[1], but the fact remains.

Never mind the fact that Go’Auld seem to really like dark-skinned bodies, a brown body can be sexualised and objectified while a white body is not. The psychological legacy of colonisation in its crudest form.

I will stop here for now.

Despite the above, I don’t want to presume the writers’ intentions in creating such a black and white universe. I would venture that since there are so many black and brown characters in the show, they somehow tried to overcompensate, but with such delicate subject matter, how could they miss the obvious? Well, back to my original point: it wasn’t delicate back then, and most of us were oblivious to it as well.

More on this in Part II, where we will look at the onscreen treatment of some of the other human cultures portrayed in Season 1, and attempt at shedding some light on the wealth and depth of their histories.


[1] This version appears on the site projectfreetv, other streaming sites show an edited version, where both female characters receive equal treatment.



Mame Bougouma Diene is a Franco-Senegalese American humanitarian based in Brooklyn and the US/Francophone spokesperson for the African Speculative Fiction Society. He can be read in Omenana, Brittle Paper, AfroSFv2 (Storytime), You left your Biscuit Behind (Fox Spirit), Myriad Lands (Guardbridge Books), A Wu-Tang Tribute Anthology (Clash Media Books), and in French in Galaxies Science Fiction #46 and Gaal Gui (Edilivres).
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