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From Stargate to Stargate SG-1, by Arnaud Quertinmont

From Stargate to Stargate SG-1, by Arnaud Quertinmont

During his film studies in Munich in 1978, German director, producer, and screenwriter Roland Emmerich became fascinated by the mysteries of ancient Egypt. The pyramids of Giza particularly captivated him, and a quick bibliographic search showed him how colossal the literature concerning them was. Fifteen years later, in 1994, convinced of the potential he could extract from it, he directed for cinema Stargate a French-American production with a budget of fifty million dollars. In it, he combined the essential ingredients for his success. Not only did he set the plot in the contemporary real world, but also, by leaning on the theory of ancient astronaut gods, which he interpreted to its extreme, he resurrected ancient Egypt on another planet, without resorting to time travel.

The story begins in 1928 on the Giza Plateau, where archaeologist Paul Langford (Erik Holland) discovers a gigantic ring forged from an unknown metal and sealed with a stone covered in hieroglyphs. Years later, in 1994, his daughter Catherine (Viveca Lindfors) sees in the revolutionary theories of a young archaeologist, Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a way to unlock its secrets. Disavowed by his peers, Jackson claims that the pyramids were much older than they seemed. With his expertise, he deciphers the glyphs and realizes that the ring is actually a portal allowing almost instantaneous travel through interstellar space via a vortex. An expedition, led by Colonel Jack O’Neill (Kurt Russell), passes through the Stargate and finds themselves in the chamber of a temple topped by an impressive pyramid on the planet Abydos. They encounter the local population, whose customs and language resemble those of the Egyptians thousands of years earlier. The situation is explained by the theory of ancient astronaut gods. Ra (Jaye Davidson), at the head of the Egyptian pantheon, is an extraterrestrial who has taken over the body of a human on Earth to serve as its host, ensuring his survival. Driven out of the solar system following a revolt by the Egyptians, he tyrannically rules over the human colony of Abydos with the advanced technologies at his disposal and a powerful army of soldiers bearing the attributes of Horus and Anubis. Ra is killed by Colonel O’Neill’s team, and the people of Abydos taste freedom for the first time.

Fig. 1: Evil Ra in his form inspired by the mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (Screenshot by author)

The film was met with phenomenal success, and in its wake, Roland Emmerich mentioned the possibility of the film being the first instalment of a trilogy, but the project was ultimately abandoned.

Recognizing the extraordinary potential of the film’s premise, though, Metro Goldwyn Mayer and the American television channel Showtime took up the concept, and a series was launched for the small screen in 1997. Enthusiasm for the venture was immediate, and viewers numbered in the hundreds of millions worldwide. Stargate SG-1 which was originally intended to last only two years, became, over ten seasons and 214 episodes, the longest continuous American science fiction series in history. Two TV movies, The Ark of Truth and Continuum, two spin-offs, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe, and an animated series, Stargate Infinity, completed the saga, which finally ended in 2011.

Stargate SG-1, produced by Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright, is a direct continuation of the film. A secret branch of the US Air Force, the Stargate Command (SGC), is responsible for leading exploration expeditions to the different planets connected by a vast network of Stargates, as well as defending Earth from any extraterrestrial threats. The flagship team, SG-1, is commanded by Colonel Jack O’Neill, now played by the iconic actor of the 1980s who portrayed MacGyver: Richard Dean Anderson. It is complemented by Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), Captain Samantha Carter, a specialist in astrophysics (Amanda Tapping), and the former primarch of Apophis’s guard – the second Egyptian god to appear in the franchise after Ra – the Jaffa Teal’c (Christopher Judge). The ancient astronaut gods, sometimes benevolent but more often hostile, belong to different races, the most significant for our purposes being the Goa’ulds, whose medieval organization was destabilized following the death of the most powerful among them, Ra, leading to a merciless struggle for power. While Egyptian mythology is omnipresent (Apophis, Heru’ur, Hathor, Seth, Anubis, Sokar, Osiris, Thoth…), the script gradually introduces deities from other earthly civilizations such as the Chinese (Emperor Yu), Hindu (Nirrti), Phoenicians (Ba’al, Tanit), Greeks (Cronos, Athena), Japanese (Amaterasu), Celts (Camulus), Mesopotamian (Marduk), Maya (Zipacna), and so on.

Although the series is not presented in documentary format, it has allowed many households to welcome history and mythology into their homes through entertainment. While the premise of the film Stargate, supporting the interventionist theory of aliens in the construction of the pyramids and the socio-cultural organization of ancient Egypt, classifies it as science fiction, Roland Emmerich was keen to provide his work with historical foundations. The excavations on the Giza Plateau in 1928 that introduce the adventure, the reconstitution of an Egyptian village, and the language of the Abydosians were not born solely from his imagination, but rather are based on verified historical, archaeological, and linguistic facts.

To achieve this, he partnered with scientists, including Stuart Tyson Smith, a renowned Egyptologist attached to the University of California, Santa Barbara. One of his main tasks was to translate dialogue into the language of ancient Egyptians. He endeavored to recreate the phrasing and pronunciation used around 1400 BCE, judiciously adding a few words and expressions in Coptic, the last known evolution of the language. The goal was to propose a possible evolution in an Abydosian society that had lived in isolation for nearly ten thousand years. Professor Smith attended most of the filming to advise the actors but also to adapt or rewrite certain lines if necessary. His advice was also invaluable in recreating ancient Egypt convincingly through sets, costumes, and social behaviors.

The series Stargate SG-1 continued the same approach, although, due to the family nature of its target audience, dialogue in ancient languages were limited to a few phrases and ambient expressions. Civilizations inspired by Egypt are presented intelligently and mostly using elements drawn from mythology, archaeology, and real history.

Author: Arnaud Quertinmont, Musée Royal de Mariemont, Belgium

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