In the early 2000s, Stargate was the sci-fi franchise to beat. Star Trek was running both Voyager—generally held to be the weakest series in the franchise—and Deep Space Nine, now a critical hit but representing a vast divergence from The Original Series and The Next Generation. Enter Stargate SG-1, a live-action series based on Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s 1994 film Stargate, a tale about an ancient portal allowing for interstellar adventures. SG-1 would go on to run for ten years, accompanied by a line of toys, books, and even Stargate-shaped coasters.
But by 2004, SG-1’s success was tempered by high production costs that led to the show’s move from Showtime to the Sci Fi Channel. At the same time, showrunners Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner—both veterans of the 90s reboot of The Outer Limits—tried to double down on SG-1’s success with Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009). Departing from its parent series in setting, cast, and main villains, the show was a refreshing alternative to the repetitive story arcs SG-1 was sliding into.
The story, borrowing from the then-recently ended Voyager’s premise, has a group of scientists, civilians, and military stranded on the long lost city of the Ancients, Atlantis. Marooned in a new galaxy and with few allies, the protagonists soon face the show’s iconic villains: the Wraith.
Our Vampires Are Different
Unlike the garish and bombastic Goa’uld of SG-1, the Wraith were genuinely creepy and horrific in a way that parallels classic depictions of vampires. The Wraith reside in dark places, feed on “life force”, and can read people’s minds and plant hypnotic suggestions. But to call the Wraith simple vampires doesn’t do them justice, and leaves out the myriad cultural influences that are central to their frightening nature.
First and foremost, Bram Stoker’s literary creation Dracula—a Rudolph Valentino-esque embodiment of the charming but mysterious swarthy foreigner—is nowhere present in the visual presentation of the Wraith. In the show’s mythology the Wraith are the genetic product of a cockroach-like bug and human blood, and as such, Wraith are the furthest things from what we would consider “beautiful”. Their appearance is much more reminiscent of Max Schreck in F.W, Murnau’s German Expressionist film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), which itself was an illegal adaptation of Stoker’s famous book. The pale, moist, translucent skin, the long white hair, and yellow predatory eyes all signal to viewers that they are dealing with a truly alien Other.
Yet in addition to the vampire, the show’s writers borrow from a wide swath of mythologies and lore. The Wraith themselves resemble demons from Arabian mythology, more specifically the jinn and—due to their visual appearance and nature—the ghoul of pre-Islamic Arabian religion, a being that roams graveyards and consumes human flesh.
You Ain’t Never Had a Frenemy Like Me
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) perpetuated the idea that jinn—known typically in the west as “genies”—are friendly beings just trying to help you get the girl. But the jinn of Arabic folklore are demonic spirits connected to nature and dark, foreboding settings—equivalent to tricksters or malevolent spirits, and just as likely to hurt as to help you.
Inhabiting neither a wholly good or evil identity, jinn were a species created by God during his famed seven day creative bender out of smokeless fire, and, like man, were gifted with free will—but also a plethora of superpowers. Ironically, the majority of jinn were no better than man at balancing moral obligation and the powers they were blessed with, and began to terrorize and subjugate the mortal inhabitants of the earth. The result? A war led by God himself against his wayward flock.
In Atlantis, the Wraith’s origin mirrors this biblical legend. They originated on a Edenic world as crustacean-like creatures known as the iratus bugs, which llived in harmony with their environment. That changed when the Ancients—a race of early humans with technology and abilities rendering them as gods—began colonizing various worlds in the Pegasus galaxy.
The iratus’ interactions with these humans were adversarial to say the least, as the two species found themselves locked in a struggle for the right to exist. In an attempt to combat the iratus bugs—and possibly discover a fountain of youth—the Ancients tampered with the iratus genome and blended it with human DNA to create the Wraith. Like the jinn in Islamic mythology, the Wraith, blessed with super strength, healing, and an insatiable hunger, turned their backs on their creators and quickly reduced the world they had built to ashes.
Cosmic Horror, But Literally
This lore illustrates the key difference between SG-1 and Atlantis. While SG-1 trafficked in sci-fi tropes and employed a Flash Gordon-esque visual aesthetic, Atlantis took those essential ingredients and added an element of cosmic horror by way of H.P. Lovecraft and the gothic sensibilities of Mary Shelley.
SG-1’s antagonists relied on huge armies, and were ultimately mortal. The Wraith, on the other hand, are cold and calculating—but the typical drivers of resources and territory mean nothing to them. They are driven by one desire—hunger. And they will endlessly pursue this need, even at the expense of self-preservation. Episode after episode, humans fight and kill Wraith—but by the time the credits roll, the world of Atlantis is still no safer.
This grim tone, drawing on Lovecraft’s influence, can be felt mainly in Season 2—especially in the episodes “Instinct” and “Michael”. Both storylines echo Lovecraft’s 1921 short story The Outsider. The tale revolves around a mysterious character who awakens alone with no memory in a decrepit castle surrounded by “endless forest”. The revelation that this abandoned soul seemingly has the gift of thought and literacy is juxtaposed by the reported facts that he has never seen another human being or felt the warmth of the sun.
Eventually, the poor soul ventures out into the real world, exposing himself to the cruelty of nature, until he finally reaches a castle warmed by the light from the burning embers of a hearth. Our protagonist spies a jovial family inside, but as he attempts egress into their sacred abode the family scream in fright. The poor lonely soul runs after them, but in the process catches sight of himself and comes to the realization that he is no man, but rather a ghoul doomed to shamble endlessly across the earth. There are clear parallels here to the fate of the monster in Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.
The plot of “Michael” follows Lovecraft’s short story almost beat for beat. The major difference is that instead of a gothic tower, the titular Michael (Connor Trinneer) awakes in an infirmary. And while the revelation of Michael’s true identity was a shock the first time I watched the episode, it doesn’t quite evoke the same level of pathos as Lovecraft’s original story, or Shelley’s before it. This, I believe, boils down to the fact that while the episode treats Michael as a sympathetic character, a victim of gross personal violations, his subsequent appearances relegated him to a “Villain of the Week” hellbent on turning the galaxy into one gigantic lab experiment.
In contrast, “Instinct” begins like a gothic narrative as the episode opens in a foggy wooded forest. A medieval town is terrorized by a monster, the Daimos—obviously a Wraith—who stalks and feeds at night. The team of protagonists, led by Sheppard (Joe Flanigan), offer to rid the town of their problem. Their initial search through the woods leads to the discovery of an old man and a young Wraith woman, Ellia (Jewel Staite), whose features have the team suspecting her of the killings. Ellia, like Frankenstein’s monster, is a villain only in the eyes of the fearful townsfolk—in reality she is a compassionate and flawed being. Her conflict with her very nature must obviously end in tragedy, and so our sympathies can’t help but rest with the struggle of the misunderstood monster.
The Sources of Fear
Film scholar Christopher Frayling offers up an interesting theory about the source of humanity’s fascination and fear of vampires in his book Vampyres. For Frayling, our fear of vampires and ghouls is a byproduct of power hierarchies—be they religious or secular— which benefit from creating an Other for the unwitting public to fear, a public who thus clings ever more tightly to its rulers who promise safety and security. In turn, this leads to the acceptance of wholesale inequality and even atrocity, if it means the survival of the group.
In Atlantis this can be seen in many early episodes. Each planet the Atlantis expedition visits is either ruled by a series of holy rituals and superstitions meticulously followed to ward off the Wraith, beholden to a tyrannical ruler who keeps the Wraith at bay at the price the people’s freedom, or—in rare cases—comprised of individuals who have wholly given themselves over to Wraith worship in a desperate attempt to survive. Like The Next Generation’s Borg, the Wraith are an implacable, terrifying foe. But the Wraith play a more nuanced narrative role, highlighting the often deleterious ways in which human societies respond to—and can be shaped by—fear.
Stargate: Atlantis had a short life span—five seasons and a total of one hundred episodes. But from the pilot episode on, it was a worthy spin-off of a beloved sci-fi series. It broadened the world of Stargate and told darker, more frightening, and thought-provoking stories. It’s fitting, then, that such a complex and multifaceted series should feature an equally-compelling cast of antagonists. With their narrative intrigue and a unique but recognizable look that draws on classic monster myths, the Wraiths remain some of the scariest and most iconic sci-fi villains of all time.