Saturday, 29 March 2008

Stargate SG-1: The Ark of Truth

I love Stargate. It is not perfect, I will admit. It is prone to errors in judgement, and often suffers from bad episodes. Nonetheless, ever since the revamp, with the new Ori storyline, and the new characters, things have been very good.

For those who don’t know, Stargate SG-1 was good, not so great, great, crap, and then brilliant, more-or-less in that order, over 10 seasons and 214 episodes. It's time on TV over, even with a successful spin-off Atlantis, the makers of Stargate had still not finished their story, and they decided that their best plan was to create a dvd-movie to finish this off, and so this new incarnation revolves around that crusade in the name of evil gods that we were in the middle of when the TV show ended. This was shown, as a two-hour special on Sky One, this Easter just past. It is know as:

Stargate SG-1: The Ark of Truth.

Of course, in true SG-1 style, this is all about our heroes chasing a McGuffin with which to save the world, here by convincing all the followers of the false gods the Ori, that they are indeed false gods, and their crusade against all unbelievers is immoral. This is the titular “Ark” that will show them “Truth”. As it is, this is a great plotline, which does of course develop with many twists and turns. It is also problematic, because it alienates new viewers by being very much the conclusion to a story that some of us will be very familiar with, more so than others. If you have not watched SG-1 before, while this is a good showcase of what Stargate is, but I would recommend starting elsewhere, for much of it will not make sense. If you have been watching SG-1, this is the story that you have been waiting for.

This is because this is awesome, a true finale to the Ori plotline. It keeps a large amount of the humour that typifies the show, with self referential nods and jokes at science fiction staples, whilst keeping many of the things that have run throughout the show intact. The effects work is top notch, but not overused, and the tension builds in junction with the dual plots, which are well interwoven, timed and acted, especially because the relationships between the characters are brilliant. They fact that I have been waiting for this for so long does not hinder the end product, it fulfils everything that you could want the finale to do. It ties up the loose ends without closing the book entirely, or destroying many of the themes that are part of SG-1 lore, as many series finales tend to do, with Buffy and Serenity springing immediately to mind as key culprits.

The fact that there are bad points does not detract from the overall awesomeness of the entertainment, and they all draw from one point. Stargate is much better at creating plotlines, and setting up events than it is at finishing them off. The best episodes of Stargate always end as a set up something that will come later, or are entirely unrelated to the grander plot. Episodes that are finales, in every sense of the word, are always underplaying their potential; it is imposable for them not to. That is why the series did not tie up the loose ends, because that it not what Stargate is best at. The set up, the drama, is best before the end, and as such this is not a movie I would rewatch again and again. Once I have seen it once I am happy.

Importantly, the inclusion of the IOA and their plan is a masterstroke of a decision, which those who have seen this will understand, for it is amazing, even if it breaks SG-cannon slightly, it still works, and it really does make the film, even if it does slightly marginalise the huge crusade that is destroying our galaxy.

But there are some problems. Firstly, the extra money seems to have been given straight to the cameramen, who have spent all their time panning around characters, wobbly-cam at the ready, zooming in on every face in a very overdone style. Secondly, because this film cannot realise all of its enormous potential, some of the set-pieces are sacrificed.

An example, which is a spoiler, but one that does not matter in the slightest, a massive evil fleet approaches Earth. Instead of a huge-battle-where-Earth-fights-aggressors-and-is-saved-at-the-last-moment, the film leaves this alone, and focuses elsewhere. This set-piece is not realised, and this is repeated as the same for many other scenes. There is no time for the slower moments when everything conversation must either start “remember the time when…” and serve as exposition, or “our only hope is to…” and ramp up the tension. This cannot live up to expectations because it has to do so much. And yet, it still does. It matched my expectations, it is a magnificent finale, exactly what the series, and the fans, deserve.

The fact that this is a movie, that it comes over a year after the series ended and has to tie up all the loose ends, is problematic. It means that, not only do we need closure on a long-standing issue, but we need to be reminded of what that issue was. Who characters are, what they have done, why they need to be stopped or helped, an audience needs to be reminded of this, and only then can the answer be given. This is a very time consuming process, which does at some points drag away the tension.

Most of all, there is one problem with Stargate which always comes to mind, and may be more of a criticism in general than a particular fault of this film. It is especially apparent after watching Battlestar Galactica. SG-1 always approach a big issue, a controversial one, that has no “correct” moral answer, but instead of challenging our perceptions, as in BSG, they back away hurriedly and avoid the issue like the bubonic plague. For example, here it is the nature of religion, which they avoid, and the nature of fanatical interpretation of sacred texts, which they also avoid. I also find it morally questionable that they have, in the previous season, wiped out an entire race of beings, in if they are evil false gods, with another McGuffin, in an act of genocide, and seem quite proud of their actions. Fine, they saved humanity by doing so, but I would like it if a few of the characters approached the issue head on, and tackled it as it should be. Naturally, if you didn’t spot any of this, it if because it is only alluded to. I understand the reasons the writers avoid these debates, of how they could corrupt the tone of the piece, but it annoying the way in which they always pull away from, what I feel, could be the most interesting of punches, and the hollow feeling it leaves some aspects of the show.

To conclude, this is a brilliant movie of Stargate. The tension is high, without compromising the characters and their interactions with each other. This is exactly what I had hoped for, even if it does suffer from the long-standing problems that Stargate has always suffered from, and that concluding a long story is always hard. This cannot be as fulfilling as when the writers are developing a story to be finished later, but this is still a brilliant finish to the Ori plot, it does everything you could want of it, and does it well. However, I do not know how much enjoyment anyone who is not a full Stargate fan will be able to gain from this. I love Stargate, and was paying attention to all that happened in the last two years. If you didn’t watch those, chances are you will be left feeling unconnected to the plotline here, as more time is spent of reminding the audience of what is past than of developing the characters, something unnecessary for a full television series, but that may have been appreciated by new-comers to the move.

Bring on Continuum, the second film due in early summer, a more self-contained movie, a time-travelling adventure featuring Jack O’Neil!

If Ark of Truth is just the first example, it bodes very well for things to come.

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