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Friday, July 11, 2008

Is it really a good show?
Stargate SG-1 vs. Star Trek: Voyager

I've been watching the science-fiction TV show Stargate SG-1 for the past few months. Each week I watch and enjoy a few episodes, then on Shabbat I go over to Tamir's house to complain about them. I never saw a full episode of the show until after the entire ten-year run was wrapped up, so I didn't have any expectations to begin with. I watched the first episode and saw a lot of potential. The US Air Force in space. Ancient alien gods. Instantaneous transportation between worlds with a very clear rule system behind it. Possession of human hosts. Present-day people with futuristic technology in ancient cultures. It all seemed like interesting material for a long-term story.

There's no long-term story to Stargate SG-1. None of these elements ever go anywhere. None of it is really expanded upon. Simply put, that's not the sort of show this is. It's a show where generic sci-fi characters go through a generic sci-fi premise to get to generic sci-fi scenarios which are dealt with in generic sci-fi ways. That I have watched seven-and-a-half seasons of this so far should tell you that I do like generic science fiction.

But still I'm frustrated. For every episode, my enjoyment of what there is is mixed with frustration at what it's not. And that's why, each Shabbat, I go over to Tamir and talk about how it ought to be different. See, Tamir watched the show when he was little. They used to tape it every week. And he says his perceptions might be painted by nostalgia and are therefore unreliable.

That idea scares me a little bit.

I can find lots of problems with Stargate. The characters are uninteresting, but are given lots of focus (at the expense of plot). The show is much too slow, to the extent that it's generally more fun to watch in fast-forward. New ideas which could make the whole premise of the show more complex are routinely introduced, then immediately discarded. The characters always survive against ridiculous odds, though I want them to all be killed off and replaced. The morality of the show is frequently arrogant. And I go on and on. I complain about how "Any threat to the status quo must be eliminated!" even when it defies common sense. I complain about the actors, and the writing, and the repetition, and everything else I can think of to complain about.

And what scares me is, what if it is all about what we grew up with? If I had grown up with Stargate, and had looked to the screen rather than looking for potential, would I love it?

Because if so, that undermines my sense of control. Which isn't so great.

I was having an argument with someone who said Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a good show and Star Trek: Voyager isn't. Now, obviously he's objectively wrong. But how can I know that?

Do I love Voyager and dislike DS9 just because I saw more Voyager as a kid?

I could write a book about everything DS9 did wrong. (Incidentally, please provoke me; the comments section of this post seems as good a place for that book as any.) And I could go through each Voyager episode, one by one, and tell you how many things that episode did right.

Wait a minute.

Most of the criticisms I throw at Stargate have been used on Voyager by disgruntled Trekkies! They say it had potential -two crews with conflicting ideologies stranded together on a limited sort of ship in the middle of nowhere- which was thrown away instantly. They say it never went anywhere. They say every possible threat to the status quo was thrown out the window. The characters are simple archetypes, and yet they get a lot of focus. They beat enemies against overwhelming odds, defying all common sense.

But no. I'm right. Here's why.

Each Voyager character is a generic sci-fi archetype. The tough captain, the popular first-officer, the young and cocky outcast, the human-like computer program, the alien outsiders, etc. But there are two things which makes them fun to watch. First off, there were some wonderful actors portraying them, who kept looking for new facets of their characters' personalities. Stargate's only good actor was Richard Dean Anderson, and even he's just repeating the same performance over and over again.

Secondly, the characters of Voyager are not so much a draw as the relationships between those characters. Janeway's mother-daughter relationship with Seven. Tom's friendship with Harry. The history between Chakotay and B'Elanna. The friendly rivalry between Neelix and Tuvok. The Doctor's continual surprise in Kes's enthusiasm. Put almost any two members of the cast together in a scene, and you get an interesting chemistry that's fun to watch. These relationships, and the general family atmosphere, liven up everything. On Stargate, by contrast, there are almost no connections between the characters at all. They all respect each other, and there's a little bit of forced romance between the two leads which doesn't seem like it could ever go anywhere, and that's it. When you throw the four main characters in a room together, all you have is the four main characters in a room. You don't have any sort of meaningful group.

Voyager is not, excluding the first season, slow. Though there is always time given to reflect on emotions, the plots almost always feel like they're moving forward. There are twists and turns and resolutions. On Stargate you have a lot of standing in place. I often feel that nothing at all is happening, not just in the bigger picture but in the context of the individual episode.

It is true that Voyager always goes back to the status quo. The overall plot never gets past "a ship stranded far away". But that's the buy-in. You know they're not going to get home, no matter how likely it looks in the episode. And if they got home, what then? There's not much potential there beyond "become more like Star Trek: The Next Generation". It is worth considering that a fixed status quo can still lead to good stories. Anything can lead to good stories; it's all in the execution. Voyager's execution of the individual episodes is excellent: everything that happens affects the characters, and what affects the characters affects us. It's just good writing. Stargate's execution of individual episodes is substandard, because it's done by lesser writers. There is little emotion in most episodes, and what emotion is there doesn't feel authentic.

The beating enemies against all common sense I'll concede. That is annoying, in both shows. If you're not willing to follow through sensibly, don't make the stakes so high.

And what of Deep Space Nine? Well, come to think of it, I grew up with that too. My father recorded Voyager, and he also recorded Deep Space Nine. Sometimes they'd even be on the same tape. In those cases, I'd fast-forward through Deep Space Nine and watch just the Voyager episodes. I understood the characters and the plots and the settings of DS9, I just didn't care. A bad story is a bad story.



You are soooo wrong about SG-1.
Perhaps if you sat down and started watching the episodes from the pilot you would see that they do have a continuing plot that runs thru the course of the full 10 years. They are trying to defeat a parasitic race called the Go'auld. The leads characters are interesting and fully developed. And the romance between Jack and Sam is not forced but due to their circumstances, he is her commanding officer, they must put it on hold until the Go'auld are defeated.

I have been watching since the pilot, in order. There is no continuing plot. Over the course of the seven-and-a-half seasons which I have watched, almost nothing has changed from the very beginning. Goa'ulds are killed all the time on the show, but it has no meaning. As soon as one is killed, a new one is introduced who is exactly the same. There are tiny hints of rebellion, but they are stuck in a holding pattern throughout because the writers don't seem to know what to do with that idea.

The main characters are paper-thin. Jack is sarcastic, Sam is smart and compassionate, Teal'c is stoic and Daniel is an exposition deliveryman. That's all there is to them, and episodes which make them the focus rather than the sci-fi plots just highlight their simplicity.

The only problem I have with the tension between Jack and Sam is that it is the only hint of a relationship between characters. It makes perfect sense that it can't lead anywhere, but that's exactly why the writers have it there- they don't want a relationship between characters that could threaten the status quo. Look at Teal'c's wife and daughter, who don't live with Teal'c seemingly just because the writers don't want more characters. Or look at the cadets introduced with much fanfare, some of them interesting personalities, who then never appear again. The writers only write in new relationships and characters if they see a way out.

None of this prevents me from enjoying the show, which I do. But there's no long-term development here.

Sorry for making you doubt how good your childhood show is. Mostly, I see mine as a good thing - as a kid, I would have enjoyed (and did enjoy) many sub-par shows as well as good ones. So now I enjoy a few shows just out of nostalgia, and that means there are more shows out there I can enjoy!

(Not that there's a lack of good shows; just ones that make their way to my lazy brain.)


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