Back in the 1990’s, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were a very successful writing/directing team. Though their output then, beginning in 1992 with Universal Soldier, has been criticized for being schlocky, heavily reliant on special effects, and ridden with clichés, one project they did still continues to inspire such fervent admiration, Stargate (1994). A box office success in spite of the lukewarm reception by critics, and responsible for spawning several TV shows and a couple of TV movies, the franchise is pure sci-fi pulp: a mix of Star Trek idealism, Flash Gordon-esque villains, and a healthy smattering of pseudoarcheaology. Reduced to its most basic premise the story is about a round metallic structure, the eponymously named Stargate, discovered in Egypt in the early 19thcentury and, when turned on by dialing in a set of coordinates, allows beings to travel to distant planets and galaxies.
What has made it a touchstone in the pop culture ether is the way in which it separated itself from the science fiction of the 1990’s, a decade bloated with countless shows about UFOs and paranoid protagonists running from an invisible but nefarious government institution. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) instead incorporated the episodic style of Star Trek as we followed a team of capable soldiers and scientists who would travel to a different world every episode and explore the cultures and conflicts of the civilizations on the planet. Unlike Trek, the “aliens” that SG-1 ran into were usually humans transplanted from earth to another world, usually during Earth’s primitive past, and there were always inevitable culture clashes between these groups.
Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner, and Robert C. Cooper were instrumental in taking Devlin and Emmerich’s original film and building an entire mythology from scratch. As a kid obsessed with aliens, it was readily obvious that a major influence on the franchise was the “ancient astronauts” theory of human civilization, which dates all the way back to the pulp magazine era with H.P. Lovecraft’s much-lauded novella At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and popularized by contemporary authors like Erich Von Däniken and Graham Hancock. For the uninitiated, the “ancient astronauts” theory of human civilization stipulates that extraterrestrials came to Earth millions of years ago and affected our progress and development. This truth was passed down from generation to generation as stories that after several millennia went on become the myths and legends of various religions and cultures.
The primary villains from the first film through the first 8 seasons of Stargate SG-1 were the Goa’uld, parasitic snakes that took mainly human hosts. Due to their ability to heal most wounds and their advanced technology, they were powerful enough to play gods throughout the galaxy. For mythology nerds like myself, I relished seeing or hearing mention of a new Goa’uld, since the writers would pluck different gods and characters from ancient mythology and weave their mythos into credible backstories. Of course a majority of the Goa’uld were Egyptian deities, but each season fans were introduced to more of the pantheon from Indian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, African, Celtic, Japanese, Mesoamerican, Canaanite, Slavic, and Mesopotamian mammets.
With the hammy bad guy acting and pulp tropes it may not be obvious to the casual viewer, but the Goa’uld are not just iconic due to their outlandish costumes and flanged voices — they embody a baroque sense of avarice and gluttony, like a decadent French monarch crossed with Pol Pot. And because they are a parasitic race that needs to take hosts, the majority of Goa’uld we encounter are humanoid. Unlike the Borg or vampires representing a literal other, the Goa’uld’s actions are not so different from Western Imperialists during the Age of Exploration. They land ashore on big ships, enslave the population, kill the rebels, and steal the gold.
Yet, their method of inculcating their conquered slaves to worship and believe that they are omnipotent deities has always been fascinating. They don’t just oppress by force, the Goa’uld want to be worshipped and have made sure that every action, prop, aesthetic choice, and manner leads toward this end. Of course, their best weapon to achieve dominance is their advanced technology. As Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” On Earth, this can be seen in the cargo cults that emerged on small Pacific islands right after the end of World War II. The isolated peoples of Melanesia first coming upon military detritus like clothing, canned goods, and equipment. Then, as the war wound down and servicemen abandoned the metal and concrete war structures. These odd-looking artifacts were repurposed as mystical objects that endowed worshippers with power, and several different cults formed.
After 9/11, as the War on Terror erupted, the conflict between humanity and the Goa’uld evolved into another kind of metaphor. Their adoption of a god persona and cult of personality (a somewhat transparent reaction to the charismatic leaders of terrorist regimes) made the conflict a bit rote as many episodes fell under a very precise structure. First, SG-1 visits a planet inhabited by kind but primitive people who are being forced to work as slave labor or worship a Goa’uld despot. Then, the requisite scenes of people being oppressed and being killed. Followed by SG-1 fighting Jaffa, and more often than not in later seasons killing the people’s oppressor. Finally, with the planet free from all bad guys the inhabitants unanimously thank Earth for upending everything they believed and killing something they once called a god.
Needless to say, as the years went on the Goa’uld threat became less menacing, and they just turned into hackneyed Bond villains trying to conquer the world with outlandish schemes. Yet even after the eighth season, when the producers decided to shelve the Goa’uld for good and introduce the Ori as the new big bad, we got more of the same, as they were merely another race playing “false gods” to ignorant followers. Despite this, the Goa’uld as villains are unique in design and encompass a hodge-podge of mythological elements that will guarantee them a place in the science fiction canon for years to come.