Stargate will always be my favorite science-fiction show ever. If Jurassic Park is what got me into science, it was Stargate that continued to encourage me over the years. And though Stargate has had numerous problems starting out, it ended up being progressive in many other areas. All in all, Stargate: SG-1 was a fantastic show, and one that I was sad to see leave the air. And not only did the story delve into aliens, strong female characters, fantastical science, and various minority issues, such as racism and slavery, it also featured a lot of mythology. Unfortunately, the mythology, while being a central part of the story and adding depth to the narrative, is not the best from a more religious perspective.
Spoilers for the whole series below.
In the Stargate universe, thousands of years ago, aliens called the Goa’uld conquered the galaxy and established themselves as gods. The Goa’uld are parasitic creatures that bury their way into a person’s spinal cord and take over. The original host’s consciousness is pushed to the back, and the Goa’uld remains in control. Not only did the Goa’uld have the ability to inhabit and take over people’s bodies, they also discovered ancient technology from a more advanced, extinct race, and appropriated it as their own. This allowed them to quickly rise to power and continue proclaiming themselves gods. Eventually, the Goa’uld found the planet Earth, and discovered that they could use humans—who they call the Tau’ri—as hosts. After the Tau’ri were discovered, the Goa’uld almost exclusively use them as host bodies. They also took numerous Tau’ri from Earth and populated the galaxy with them and subjugated them as slaves. Eventually, the Tau’ri still on Earth managed somehow to overthrew the Goa’uld and drove them from the planet. As the Goa’uld still had other worshipers all over the galaxy by this point, they conveniently never returned to reconquer the Earth.
While watching the show, I was always a little unsure what exactly the Goa’uld’s rise to godhood meant. It’s a little unclear whether or not the Goa’uld founded our ancient pantheons—they call themselves things like Ra, Anubis, Ba’al, Amaterasu, etc.—or whether or not they based their personas on preexisting religions in order to make humans more likely to bow down and worship them. The first time I watched the show, I assumed it was the former, but going back again, I have some doubts. Regardless of the mechanics here, this is an interesting premise. Stargate has taken a widely unpopular and unrealistic theory—aliens built the pyramids, as Ancient Aliens would tell us—and created a unique universe. We get to see numerous deities from other cultures, many of which we don’t get to learn about growing up. The Egyptian gods feature prominently, but we also have some Japanese, Greek, and African deities in there.
In that regard, I always found Stargate to be a rather informative show. It was through Stargate that I learned about various pantheons growing up, as every time a new Goa’uld featured, I would either run to the internet or bookstore to read up on the impersonated deity in question. Furthermore, by using the Goa’uld and their enslavement of the universe, the show delved into questions about racism, slavery, and religious fanaticism. The Goa’uld were not the only aliens in this universe proclaiming godhood and conquering people, but for the first eight seasons, they are the main antagonistic force.
Sadly, this is also the show’s biggest problem when it comes to religion. There are rarely, if any, moments in the show that reflect religion positively for the first so many seasons. As the Goa’uld are the primary antagonists and have taken on the personas of gods, in many ways religion becomes an antagonistic force. The members of SG-1 also never question their own religious beliefs when confronted with the Goa’uld—are the characters even religious themselves?—and religion is continuously presented as something invented by technologically advanced beings for the sole purpose of manipulating people.
Making this even worse, the Goa’uld are unstable. In order to stay alive for thousands and thousands of years, they use a regenerative device called a Sarcophagus. While a Sarcophagus can keep them alive, it has an adverse effect on a user’s thoughts over such a long period of time. As such, many of the Goa’uld are presented as “insane with power”, and some of them even start to believe their own ruses. Pop culture has a longstanding habit of presenting mental illness as evil. Barring that, a wide number of people also believe that even being religious is sign of mental illness. Both these beliefs are insulting and ableist—so looking back, it’s more than a little upsetting that such a popular show almost exclusively featured mental illnesses in the Goa’uld. And even then, I wouldn’t say its representation of the illnesses were accurate. They were there mostly to drive the plot along.
Eventually, as the show goes on, we meet the Asgard, another alien race pretending to be deities. However, unlike the Goa’uld, the Asgard wish to guide people to a better future, watch over them, and keep them safe. But even though the Asgard are more benevolent, giving, and have no desire to be worshiped, we are still left with a religion invented by aliens. The Asgard do readily drop their ruse as soon as they think a people are advanced enough to understand who they are, but unfortunately those same people never stop to wonder about some things they should be wondering about, like: I’ve been praying to these jackasses! Or even, what’s going to happen when we die? Does this mean Valhalla isn’t real? Fuck!
On the whole, the first so many seasons of Stargate has a very negative view of religion—or at least, it does of non-Christian/non-Judaism religions. At almost every turn, the show takes multiple deities or historical figures, regardless of how popular that religion is, and turns them into villains. Hell, even Kali shows up as a Goa’uld for one episode in Season 5. And the show mentions that she used to work under Shiva. So even Hinduism, the fourth most popular and quite possibly the world’s oldest religion, is written off in a single episode, and then it’s never mentioned again.
I always wondered when watching this show why a Goa’uld never took on the persona of Jesus or Mohammad, but I imagine that since it was a Western show whose primary audience was more likely Christian than another religion, Jesus was probably off limits. Eventually, Stargate introduces characters from a more Westernized religion or legend, such as Merlin and King Arthur, but at no point does it introduce Goa’uld Jesus, or any other Christian figures. This struck me as both racist and culturally appropriative, since Stargate does whatever it wants with non-Western religions and has no problems presenting them as evil. Even someone like Yu, who isn’t actually a deity, just an historical figure, is an antagonist in the show. But people like Merlin are all more or less good guys.
In the later seasons and movies, Stargate does take a more positive stance on religion—well, Christianity, at least—while still managing to talk about religious fanaticism, subjugation, and persecution. But it’s not something that the show delves into all that much, and the narrative could have most certainly expanded on it. While Stargate was under no obligation to be a positive show religiously, I would have expected it to talk more about what it would actually mean for us to discover that just about every deity ever worshiped on Earth was actually an alien. That has huge ramifications that Stargate rarely addresses.