My previous post on the Stargate TV franchise I wrote after finishing season one of Stargate SG-1. It was already evident to me then that the mood of Stargate is anti-religion in general, portraying gods of the past as either malevolent Goa’uld or benevolent Asgardian aliens, demonstrating in essence that past beliefs in deities and the supernatural were very much mistaken, because the “gods” were actually aliens. Plus, the first season featured a character searching for God who lost his mind (“The First Commandment”) and a penny-pinching Senator who wanted to cut the stargate budget, who said God would defend Earth from any alien invaders (whom I referenced in my previous post; the episode was “Chain Reaction”). Now, I’ve finally run into an episode that addresses Christianity directly: Season 3, Episode 8, “Demons”–and this post will show the general anti-religion trend in Stargate SG-1 unfortunately continues in “Demons.”
Before I get into my main topic, let me mention the idea Stargate expresses that the gods of Asgard treated humans as equals as opposed to the Goa’uld of Egypt, who were aliens who used religion as tool to deceive and enslave the masses, is rather ridiculous to me. Sure, Norse society was more egalitarian than Egyptian as general rule, but there are archaeological digs that show top Vikings buried with slaves who were, all evidence indicates, killed so they could serve their Norse master in the afterlife. Which is a practice much more similar to Egyptian burials than it is dissimilar. That is, if we see Norse society, including slavery and human sacrifice, as a reflection of the “Asgardians,” then there is no reason to see the residents of Asgard as any better than the Goa’uld. But anyway.
A Mixed Portrayal of Christianity
What distinguishes the episode “Demons” is a number of other episodes show ancient people who were deposited on various planets by the Goa’uld thousands of years ago, but all of them pre-Christian prior to the episode “Demons.” In this episode, this time medieval Catholic Christians have been moved to an alien world and are met by the SG-1 team. By the way, some spoilers of the episode are in this post, even though I don’t go over the plot in detail.
Early in the episode the main characters notice a Christian church and the display of crosses, even before they meet anyone from the world. Before the discussion can kick off as to whether Christianity itself can be considered a Goa’uld imposition like Egyptian religion, Teal’c says the following: “I know of no Goa’uld capable of showing the necessary compassion or benevolence that I have read of in your Bible.” Which inspires the “You read the Bible, Teal’c?” question, to which he answers that understanding the Bible is important to understanding Western culture.
So Teal’c’s interest in the Bible is mainly academic, though he is portrayed as having respect for the Bible and the benevolence of the Christian God. Which is obviously a positive portrayal, though it’s noteworthy that no member of the SG-1 team is stated to be a Christian, though Col. O’Neill seems to reference God as if he might possibly believe in God. He also says he’s listening to the Bible “on tape” in reply to Tealc’s question if he has read the Bible, though the answer seems aimed at humor.
Other than Teal’c’s quote about the Bible, another positive portrayal comes in the character Simon, who lives in the medieval village the SG-1 team discovers. He helps release the team after they are captured and shows courage in the face of danger and is portrayed as a man of Christian faith. Which is also a positive portrayal.
But most of the rest of the episode can fairly be seen as taking a negative view of Christianity, though that portrayal isn’t as negative as the view of Egyptian religion to be sure.
The Demon in “Demons”
The basic idea of the story in “Demons” is the Goa’uld don’t appear as God in the world of medieval Catholic villagers–instead, a member of an alien race subservient to the Goa’uld openly states he is a demon and demands the villagers provide five human beings for his master Satan. This is something the “demon” routinely does, and the villagers as a result are inclined to see anyone who comes through the stargate as being in league with the Devil.
Which wouldn’t be such a bad portrayal, except most of the villagers on a regular basis, out of a sense of terror and self-preservation, support offering up their fellow humans to the Goa’uld who they think is Satan. The leader of the villagers, who carries the interesting title “the Canon” (as in Church law or the books of the Bible accepted as authentic), the latest in a long series of such rulers, has a ring given to him by the “demon” and uses the power it provides him to enforce the power of “Satan.” Yes, in the name of God, the Canon rules the village for the benefit of “Satan.”
The reason the Goa’uld would do this makes sense in the story world. The Goa’uld implant alien symbiotes in their human hosts which forces the human host to do the will of the alien inside them–a physical process remarkably similar to how many Christians think of demonic possession. The Goa’uld are always looking for new hosts–and the medieval-Catholic-world supplies these hosts out of a sense of fear.
No Fear Like Medieval Fear
Of course the medieval folk immediately see Teal’c as a minion of Satan, based on the seal in his forehead he has as a former servant of the Goa’uld (a Jaffa). Which could be interpreted as racism, since the actor portraying Teal’c is black and the villagers are white, though that may not be an intentional story element.
Teal’c gets subjected to both a trial by fire and a trial by water to determine if he really is on Satan’s side. Both these procedures were used in medieval and Renaissance Europe during witch trials–though the concept of “trial by ordeal,” along with “trial by combat,” came from pre-Christian Northern European culture and not the Bible or Roman culture (thanks, Norse barbarians and related Germanic peoples!). However, the episode simply looks at what medieval Christians did and doesn’t explain these nutty ideas came from Pagan culture. So yeah, the medieval village looks like a pretty horrible place.
If the giving-people-over-to-Satan bit were not enough, the village engages in other barbaric practices. The villagers see a woman with chicken pox as possibly demon-possessed, so they were preparing to put a hole in her head–trepanning. Which is something ancient and medieval people really performed to treat a variety of ailments. But I think a medieval person would shrug off chicken pox without even hardly noticing something was wrong–the average person then was more used to disease and physical hardship than people today.
Note the trial by water seems to drown Teal’c, but he recovers, allowing Col. O’Neill to joke that obviously nobody around there has ever seen a resurrection. The line is played as for laughs, but may contain the opinion of the writer of the episode about whether any Christian ever saw any resurrection…
Overall the people are portrayed as terrified to the point they are easily manipulated into doing evil by a self-serving alien. It’s hard not to feel in the context of other anti-religion expressions in Stargate SG-1 that the writer of this episode believes Christianity can be at least as bad at its worst, if not worse, as any religion of a highly structured and partially-unfree society like ancient Egypt. Out of fear of demons and the Devil, Christianity, like other religions Stargate criticizes, can be a means to manipulate people into doing evil, a form of mind control. Or so this episode seems to say.
Softening the Blow
Several elements in the episode soften the drumbeat of anti-Christian criticism. One is the quote from Teal’c about the Bible, which I already mentioned. Also there’s the already-mentioned character of Simon, the one villager willing to believe the Stargate team are not demons, and who risks his life helping them and shows courage portrayed as inspired by faith–though he also, early on, is frightened that the team seems demonic.
A third element that softens the blow of criticism is the fact the “Canon” is not a priest or bishop or pastor or any title we would easily recognize as directly relating to Christian leadership (though I’ve found out that it’s an uncommon alternate to “priest”). So any counter-criticism of what the episode seems to say about Christianity could be met with, “Well, this is just what Christianity is here, on this one world, not everywhere.”
Though in fact it seems likely to me that maintaining a bit of plausible deniability is the very reason “the Canon” carries that title and not another. It seems to me that the producers of Stargate SG-1 had to know a segment of their audience included Christians and they didn’t want to rock the boat with their audience too much. It seems they wanted to criticize and also avoid any potential negative backlash for their criticism.
Having said that, while Star Trek has a few positive allusions to the Bible, most notably in the original series episode “Bread and Circuses,” never does Star Trek make a statement as positive about the Bible as the one Teal’c made–even though the statement came in the context of an episode generally negative about Christianity.
So overall, in spite of an overall negative view of Christianity in the episode “Demons,” there are also positive elements. I think I know what the producers meant to say, but there is room to see the episode in other ways.
So Other Than That, How’s Stargate SG-1 Beyond Season One?
Now that I’m mid-way through season 3, yes, I’d say the show improved from season one. The characters were well-written, the settings became less redundant, and the series continued to carry forward consequences of previous episodes in a way that Star Trek often fails to do.
I still think the series is playing from a weak basic idea, but the Goa’uld became less cheesy over time and the elements emphasizing that the Earth is at risk from even having a Stargate at all are well-played. So in spite of redundancy and special effects weaknesses, seasons two through where I am in three are clearly better than one. (And I thought season one itself improved throughout its episodes.)
After watching “Demons” I did a Google search to see if Stargate ever directly addressed Christianity again. It doesn’t seem that it does, not from what I was able to find. I mean, there isn’t another planet of Christians, anyway. Which is in itself a kind of statement–“We already said all we have to say on this topic.”
Though people who have seen more episodes of Stargate than I have will be able to better comment than I can. Does the Stargate franchise take an approach to Christianity other than what I observed in the episode “Demons?” If so, is it more positive or more negative? Or the same?
Also, do you think I’ve seen “Demons” fairly? Do you agree or disagree that the episode seems to show Christianity in an overall negative light, even though it allows for a few positive elements? Does that concern you–or do you find this aspect of this story universe insignificant overall?
If you had a chance to do a similar story differently, what would you do different?