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Excavating the FutureArchaeology and Geopolitics in Contemporary North American Science Fiction Film and Television$

Shawn Malley

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941190

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941190.001.0001

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Stargate SG-1

Stargate SG-1

(p.44) Chapter 2 Stargate SG-1
Excavating the Future

Shawn Malley

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter develops the central thesis of Chapter 1, namely that paramilitary archaeology is a means of invoking then containing dangerous pasts as an imaginative extension of U.S. foreign policy. Aired in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, Stargate (1994) translates the colonial milieu of 1930s Egyptology to the science fictional terrain of Abydos and the battle against Ra. But the shift to the small screen's televisual identity is symptomatic of the deepening complexities of representing geopolitical activity in the region. Just as archaeology passes from a source of wonder into a vehicle for military adventure, the show's ideological commitments to global (read intra-galactic) security become increasingly destabilized, particularly in the Mesopotamian-themed episodes aired after 9/11. The mercurial figure of Babylon offers a counterpoint to the film's overlay of archaeology and militarism, and indeed to the rhetoric of military stewardship at the heart of the "military-archaeology complex." The shifting representation of Mesopotamian antiquity in SG-1's ten-year run (1997-2007) offers powerful cultural criticism of the show's own premise.

Keywords:   science fiction film and television, archaeology, geopolitics, Stargate, Stargate SG-1, archaeology-military complex, Second Gulf War, First Gulf War, colonialism

History, I’ve since come to believe, is the ultimate in speculative narrative, subject to ongoing and inevitable revision. Science fiction tends to behave like a species of history pointing in the opposite direction, up the timeline rather than back. But you can’t draw imaginary future histories without a map of the past that your readers will accept as their own.

William Gibson1

At a question-and-answer session at the 2004 Creation Grand Slam Convention, Michael Shanks, who plays Stargate SG-1’s intrepid archaeologist Daniel Jackson, was asked if he is related to Michael Shanks, the professor of archaeology at Stanford University. Shanks quipped, ‘What you didn’t know is, we’re the same person!’2 While (arguably) funny, the idea of Michael Shanks as Michael Shanks does raise interesting questions about the shared investments an actor and an archaeologist have in representing the material past to their respective audiences. Having devoted much of his career to destabilizing entrenched divisions between academia and the public, the Stanford professor would be in all likelihood flattered by the comparison to his namesake in Stargate SG-1. For both Shankses, SF is a valid site for performing relationships with the artefactual past. That SG-1 thrived for ten seasons (1997–2007) attests to the power of archaeology to create credible and diverse worlds (p.45)

Stargate SG-1

Figure 6. Stargate (Canal+, 1994).

for its characters to explore. Its longevity can also be attributed in part to the ways it adapts the premise of Roland Emmerich’s feature film Stargate (1994)—the alliance of archaeological exploration with secret paramilitary operations by the U.S. government—to major geopolitical events in the Middle East.

A survey of Stargate’s themes is necessary to contextualize the archaeopolitical thrust of its television offshoot. The stargate is the film’s central novum, an artefact excavated near Giza in 1928 that present day scientists ascertain is a device of extra-terrestrial origin that allows inter-planetary travel through artificial worm holes.3 The army sends an expedition commanded by Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) and accompanied by Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) through the stargate to the distant planet Abydos. They encounter a race of primitive humans called Nagadians, who are forced to mine an energy-rich mineral for an alien overlord appearing to them as the god Ra. Jackson learns from hieroglyphs that the Nagadians are actually the descendants of ancient Egyptians, whom Ra had spirited away to Abydos to work his mine. Sympathetic to the plight of their ‘living ancestors,’ Jackson and O’Neil lead a successful revolt against Ra. Jackson marries the chief’s daughter and teaches the people literacy and democracy. Awash with romantic images of big-scale (p.46) excavations, gangs of native diggers, desert landscapes and an underlying faith in Western technological and cultural superiority, Stargate offers the pleasures of archaeological adventure, military spectacle and the morally satisfying conclusion that the forces of reason and justice have brought liberty to the benighted peoples of Middle Eastern ancestry.

We can superficially appreciate Stargate as an innocent tale of good triumphing over evil—or even as a playful extrapolation of Erich von Däniken’s notion in Chariots of the Gods that the pyramids were built by aliens4—but such allegories of liberation are deeply rooted in the long history of Western political and cultural intervention in the Middle East.5 Displacing the colonial milieu of post-WWI Egypt to the SF terrain of Abydos and the battle against Ra, Stargate is the kind of cultural artefact that Edward Said asks us in Culture and Imperialism to interrogate. The mine at Abydos echoes the busy archaeological site where the stargate was found at Giza. Natural and cultural resources—artefacts and minerals—are valuable and virtually interchangeable commodities. In his essay ‘Science Fiction and Empire’ (2003) Istvan Csicsery-Ronay argues that political regimes and their literatures depend on technological difference as a quantifiable measure of progress that separates imperialists and subalterns. Imperialist archaeology bears this out as well, for artefacts are or once were technology, material points of difference that need to be acquired and relegated to narratives of change and progress that in turn fuel desires to explore and dislocate cultural and natural resources for the advantage of technologically advanced nations.6

Books such as Timothy Mitchell’s now classic study of the cultural forms of appropriation of Egypt by European artists, archaeologists, collectors and diplomats, Colonising Egypt (1988), have challenged us to consider how popular and scholarly engagements with ancient Egypt contribute to Orientalist paradigms of cultural differentiation of local peoples from their history and the rewriting of Europeans as inheritors and benevolent purveyors of liberal institutions.7 Floyd Cheung blends (p.47) these issues into a more contemporary critique of the film’s politics. He argues that Stargate typifies the kinds of cultural reconfigurations of the Middle East circulating in SF in the years following Operation Desert Storm. Reading ancient Egypt as a sign for contemporary Iraq, he contends that the movie’s portrayal of liberating the Nagadians from Ra

alludes to a justification of the USA’s action in the Persian Gulf War and toward a defense of US diplomatic and military intervention in general. To the skeptical eye, it might seem as if both Saddam Hussein and the USA merely coveted Kuwait’s oil, but projects like Stargate help support the idea that the USA disseminates freedom [and] self-determination […] while men like Hussein merely wish to exploit others for personal gain. (9)

The film is endemic of what Cheung considers Hollywood’s tireless summoning of America’s ‘glorified, anticolonial history of independence from England in order to push forward its contemporary protectionist and neocolonial desires’ (9). Stargate displaces these agendas into battles against forces hostile to the freedoms we believe we enjoy at home and feel obliged to defend abroad.8

Stargate SG-1 folds the rhetoric of archaeological stewardship into military contestation over foreign territory. In her analysis of the adaptation to television, ‘Stargate SG-1 and the Visualization of the Imagination,’ Sherryl Vint observes that while the series’ budget could not accommodate the special effects of Emmerich’s film, its ‘real strength’ is nevertheless ‘its own ability to provide visual spectacle that rivals the big screen’s.’ With its insistent fetishization or ‘visualization’ of military technology, SG-1 is ‘most emphatically not Star Trek. It is interested in military adventure, not diplomacy.’ Like Manticore, SG-1 serves its audiences an ‘allegory lite’ diet of scientific exploration, spectacles of combat and a stock repertoire of military values like sacrifice, heroism and responsibility. In this regard, Vint makes a very important distinction: the ‘series can tell us stories about the stories we tell ourselves [about warfare], but it falters when it tries to tell us stories about our material world’ (75, 72, 78) framed by these stories. Such faltering exposes the military-archaeology complex to the ideological connection between narratives of warfare and the material world. By encoding artefacts as weapons, Daniel Jackson’s disciplinary impulse to preserve and study the remains of ancient Earth cultures (p.48) spread throughout the galaxy is concomitant with geopolitical projects like keeping antiquity out of the wrong hands.

SG-1 also fosters archaeo-military adventure in dialogue with world mythology. A flexible and familiar storytelling medium, mythology allows the writers to expand Stargate’s ancient astronaut premise into ‘a coherent and internally consistent parallel universe’ (Beeler, 2008, 272). In SG-1, Ra is only one of a number of tyrants known as ‘Goa’uld.’ A parasitic race that inhabits and controls the bodies of human hosts, they subjugate humanity throughout the galaxy by masquerading as their gods. In SG-1 nomenclature, the pantheons of Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Chinese, Hindu, Celtic and Greco-Roman deities are actually ancient Goa’uld.9 They command armies of ‘Jaffah’ warriors, humans who carry within them the infant form of the Goa’uld parasite known as a symbiote, which imparts strength and longevity to the host in exchange for loyal service. A major story arc in the series is unmaking these false gods and, like the Nagadians of the feature film, freeing the Jaffah from their Babylonian captivity.

Douglas Cowan observes that SG-1 ‘reinforces the transcendent value of cosmographic myths. It highlights our collective need for myths of origin and questions the ability of technology, of science, and of modernity and postmodernity to corrode the power of those myths. Indeed, in science fiction, these myths are often reimagined, reinvigorated, and replayed’ (183). I have been arguing, however, that the transcendent value Cowan ascribes to myths of origin is itself a myth born out of the ‘corrosive power’ of technology, science and modernity that SF artefacts like SG-1 document. In the show’s own mythology, advanced technology was created by an extinct race known as the Ancients. Originating on Earth, they are the genesis of civilized humanity in the galaxy. Built into the series is the archaeo-imperial trope of searching through the remains of a lost civilization scripted as our progenitors, an echo of early Western travel and scientific accounts that insisted that local populations in places like Zimbabwe, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica have no historical or cultural connection to the wonders of the ancient world or the scientific or cultural wherewithal to appreciate them.10 Mythology is the narrative register through which ‘technology becomes the driving force in globalization and cultural imperialism’ (Simpson and Sheffield, 96). The racial and religious differences used to support these positions (p.49) are also embedded in SG-1’s image as liberators of enslaved peoples. As Simpson and Sheffield aver, ‘through the various crises and conflicts the characters face, the shows construct for viewers an Earth-centric universe, in which Earth is collapsed into dominant U.S. American values in which science is the dominant paradigm, technology is the resolution to human problems, and a white masculine individualism is valued above all else’ (97).

In this chapter I argue that Stargate SG-1’s engagement with contemporary geopolitical contestations is particularly germane in the Mesopotamian-themed episodes ‘The Tomb’ (17 August 2001) and ‘Babylon’ (9 September 2005). Aired three weeks before the 9/11 attacks, ‘The Tomb’ offers a fairly straightforward victory over a Goa’uld resurrected from the cradle of civilization. Like Emmerich’s feature film, the episode is a confident remediation of the First Gulf War. ‘Babylon,’ which aired two years after the invasion, is, however, deeply immured in the archaeological, historical and biblical troping of Babylon as a figure for the kind of despotic East whom the American-led coalition was trying to stabilize into a democratic trading partner. With troop casualties mounting, gas prices rising and the American public becoming increasingly suspicious that they were misled about weapons of mass destruction, the mercurial figure of Babylon in this episode resists the celebratory rhetoric of military stewardship characteristic of episodes like ‘The Tomb.’ While these two episodes certainly do not exhaust the Mesopotamian themes of the series, in concert they demonstrate that the Babylon mythos is not simply about a particular archaeological time or territory for SF military adventure: it is an ambivalent metaphor of the show’s own commitment to protect the world against alien forces hostile to ‘our’ archaeological past and the consequences of such programmes.

‘The Tomb’

A CGI panorama of a ziggurat situates the SG-1 team in the Mesopotamian milieu of the desert planet known in SGC nomenclature as P2X-338. Panning to the entrance we find O’Neill (now spelled with two l’s) looming over Jackson, who is examining inscriptions on the door. ‘It’s Babylonian,’ Jackson exclaims. ‘Cuneiform. It’s incredible.’ The short exchange that follows typifies the often comically antagonistic nature of their roles and realms of authority and expertise:


  • ‘Does it say how to open the pyramid?’
  • Jackson:

  • ‘Ziggurat.’
  • (p.50) O’Neill:

  • ‘Huh?’
  • Jackson:

  • ‘You said pyramid. It’s a ziggurat.’
  • O’Neill:

  • ‘Yeah, open the door’.
  • While Jackson is excited by the prospect of exploring this off-world version of Babylon, O’Neill just wants to break down the door. As in Emmerich’s Stargate, archaeological and military goals are ultimately one and the same: in this case, getting into the ziggurat.

    Jackson relates that the translation will take time. ‘It’s a dead language. I mean, I doubt if anyone’s even stood here for 3,000 years.’ At this point, Capt. Carter (Amanda Tapping) interjects, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that,’ and holds up an empty pack of cigarettes. ‘They’re Russian.’ The mystery of the alien Babylonians immediately dovetails with the discovery of an ‘artefact’ left by a rival superpower. This sets up a complex political dynamic. For the show references geopolitical tension in terms of both the Cold War and the ‘warm’ war in the Gulf. The episode plays out old atomic fear narratives via the Russian military presence on the mission, displaces them onto the galactic threat of the Goa’uld, and then transfers the fight for freedom and peace into a third space, the Arab milieu represented by the real world Goa’uld Saddam Hussein figured by the ziggurat. In SG-1, dramatic tension continually hinges on reanimating enemies from U.S. history for the military to defeat and, moreover, from a Western-centric archaeological record. Yet the SGC tries to transcend these antagonisms by operating as agents of global security, keeping the free world safe from Eastern despotism in its Russian and Babylonian incarnations.

    As the episode unfolds we learn that the Russians are working in secret, despite a treaty to share knowledge. The Russians also have a stargate, but we learn that ‘certain hard line elements in Russian Army Intelligence’ commandeered it in order to ‘steal alien technology at any cost.’ SG-1’s new mission is to return with a Russian team to P2X-338 and extract this rogue element. The SGC is, however, duped by their allies and drawn into helping the Russians secure an artefact the first team was searching for: the Eye of Tiamat, which was believed to endow the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk, with the power to defeat Tiamat, the god of chaos. The Russians wish to harness this mysterious power and keep it for themselves.

    A time-honoured referent of imperial corruption, Babylon towers over the geopolitical tensions elicited by these old enemies. But aired on the eve of the WTC attacks, the show uncannily prefigures the decidedly Arab face of international terrorism emerging from the vacuum of the Cold War. In ‘The Tomb,’ Babylon is a recognizable archaeological place, (p.51)

    Stargate SG-1

    Figure 7. Stargate SG-1, ‘The Tomb’ (Sony Pictures Television, 2001).

    a Scriptural and historical cautionary tale, and a metaphor for troubled international relations. Babylon is, in short, a potent (pre)figuration of 9/11 and the ensuing wars upon Ba’athist Mesopotamia.

    The plot is straightforward but evocative of these tensions. The joint expedition returns to the ziggurat and discovers the grisly excarnated skeletons of the first Russian team. The plot thickens when they find the corporeal remains of Marduk. His fate is the subject of a nearby inscription. He was such an evil tyrant, Jackson relates, that his priests entombed him with a parasitic creature, to be continuously consumed and revived. At this point someone trips a booby trap and the expedition becomes entombed with the escaped creature, which the team realizes now plays host to Marduk. The Marduk monster picks off a couple of ‘red shirts’ and then transfers into another body. The question arises, whose? The inevitable standoff between O’Neill and the Russian commander Zhukov ensues, each suspecting the other of hosting Marduk. The Goa’uld has, however, inhabited the body of another member of the Russian team, and the rest of the episode is devoted to Cold War enemies standing shoulder to shoulder to defeat a common enemy. Up to a point that is, for in the interim the Russian commander Zhukov locates and spirits away the Eye of Tiamat. ‘The Tomb’ offers a satisfactory conclusion to the monster hunt, but the threat the Babylonian Marduk represents simply reverts to the shifty Russian antagonists to American values. The cold and warm wars are interchangeable. Such substitutions provide the American military and entertainment industries with an endless supply of enemies to shoot.

    (p.52) But we know from recent experience that enemies tend to shoot back. Imagining threats to global security in terms of Mesopotamia prefigures the escalation of the war against Western globalization. This is uncannily configured in the culminating scene, when SG-1 blows up the ziggurat. The military and archaeological establishments collaborate to destroy the alien menace to Western democracy in a spectacular show of force. In one fell swoop the team takes out Marduk and demolishes the antiquity Jackson defends as the guardian of global and galactic stewardship. The destruction of the temple is symbolic of the show’s implicit contradiction that scientists and soldiers can collaborate to safeguard global peace. At the dawn of 9/11, destroying Babylon was an entertaining and confident reminder of the success of Desert Storm. With Hussein still in power, the ziggurat was a convenient and pointed ideological marker for U.S. vigilance against tyranny, a site that could be blown up over and over again. But the demolition of the ancient seat of imperial power in ‘The Tomb’ also portends the ghastly imagery of the retribution Mesopotamia unleashed on the West.

    Destroying the ziggurat furnishes the episode with an aesthetic and even moral conclusion, but its very title is redolent with the history of violence to the archaeological past. SGC’s standing order to scour the galaxy for artefact/weapons continuously compromises Jackson’s professional ethics. The episode dramatizes both overtly in the explosion and more subtly in Jackson’s expectations for learning the deeply contradictory nature of stewardship in the Middle East and elsewhere. As Yannis Hamilakis relates, stewardship plays

    a dual political role: It counters the logic of private property which is at the basis of capitalist modernity, and it encourages archaeologists to oppose the destruction that results from the ceaseless race for profit. Nevertheless, the concept becomes hugely problematic when its effects ‘on the ground’ are taken into account. […] [For instance] the concept of the archaeological ‘record’ has been shown to be problematic for archaeology, in that it is an entity not given but constructed[.] […] For archaeologists, therefore, to declare that their primary responsibility is the care and preservation of and advocacy for the record sounds suspiciously self-serving[.] (2007, 26–27)

    The ‘effects on the ground’ in this particular episode typify these epistemological and ideological tensions. The SG-1 team constructs in Hamilakis’s sense the archaeological record by demolishing it. SGC is engaged in a deeply ambivalent programme of saving humanity from a dangerous past while maintaining the military-archaeological posture (p.53) of defending the world against threats they themselves have unleashed through humanizing activities like archaeological exploration. The episode offers an oblique challenge to archaeologists today: for whom is the past retrieved or, in this popular culture reference, destroyed? Hamilakis implies that both impulses serve the same function when archaeologists conduct research in the service of globalist paradigms of world heritage and the kinds of soft power initiatives outlined by Luke and Kersel.11

    The graphic demonstration of triumphalist politics in SG-1 was, however, downplayed dramatically after 9/11. Never again could the show so directly or neatly play out its own premise that antiquity is a free space to perform acts of heroism and individual sacrifice in the defence of freedom. The faith in a just cause or a happy ending—in this instance with an uncompromising attitude towards doing whatever needs to be done to archaeological sites to complete the mission—faded as the spectacle of bombings gave way to the dull, uncinematic reality of the occupation. Babylon would have to retrench for an audience struggling with the realities of pursuing an ethically suspect war. The penultimate season of SG-1 addresses these issues in an episode bearing the same name. In its post-invasion configuration, SG-1’s Babylon is a flexible signifier for ethical debates about the war and homeland security and the ability and desire for occupying archaeologists to contain and control the past within paradigms of shared heritage.12

    By the time ‘Babylon’ aired in 2005, SG-1 had introduced many serial plots to its mythological-episodic format. While still rooted in its ancient cultures premise, the show had become less interested in dramatizing triumphalist military adventure and more reflective about the complex public discourse attending issues of national security. The SGC itself comes under scrutiny from, and is increasingly accountable to, civilian oversight. Inter-agency conflicts for control of the stargate erupt as knowledge of the stargate programme is disclosed to the world’s governments. The SGC perforce operates in an increasingly paranoid political environment. For example, the National Intelligence Department (NID), a secret civilian branch of the government monitoring extraterrestrial activity out of Area 51, has, like the Russian military, produced (p.54) rogue elements dedicated to consolidating U.S. power by sponsoring illegal missions to retrieve alien technology. Having normalized its mythological premise, the writers open the series to other sorts of villains (both foreign and domestic), broader and more intricate story arcs, and a wider SF scope (like the addition of the nanotechnology-based Replicators). Conflating archaeological discovery with national defence has engendered within the series complex regimes of insecurity. It is to these geopolitical concerns circulating in the early years of the war on terror that SG-1’s 2005 version of Babylon responds.


    ‘Babylon’ affords curious commentary on the politics of reconstruction in Iraq. Curious because of what is not there: material reference to the antiquity signalled in the title. For a show predicated on archaeology, the referent ‘Babylon’ is a haunting signifier without a material signified. The only archaeology in the episode is an off-camera mention of Jackson translating an inscription on an obelisk. In the context of the war to win hearts and minds through archaeological stewardship, this absence is even more disturbing when we consider that the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ was at that very moment occupying Babylon itself. Babylon is, in other words, not a place but an ambiguous signifier of globalization and its conflicts. The episode develops this theme in a quiet and intimate way through the experiences of four military men who, on two sides of a conflict, find common ground as soldiers fighting their separate yet complementary battles for freedom. Just as ‘The Tomb’ carries the history of the First Gulf War, ‘Babylon’ is born of the second. The episode invites us to reflect upon how our need to protect the world from terrorism implicates us in the West as citizens of Babylon.

    Some background information about the series evolution between 2001 and 2005 is necessary to contextualize the episode. By the ninth season the SGC had prevailed in the war against the Goa’uld. But a more powerful enemy has taken their place, a race known as the Ori. In SG-1 mythology the Ori are known as ‘ascended beings’ who, like the original stargate builders, the Ancients, have evolved into powerful immortal beings of pure energy. The Ori are the Ancients’ evil twin. Like the Goa’uld the Ori require human followers to do their bidding. Similar to the Western narrative of the ‘rise of the West’ from Mesopotamia, the Ori locate their ancestry and authority in ‘Origin.’ Their ‘priors’ travel through the galaxy spreading the Gospel of Origin and those who refuse the word are summarily put to death. As spiritual or energy beings they rule (p.55) through ideological domination over the material world. In the context of war on terror, the Ori can be interpreted as projections of the West’s fear of Islamic fanaticism, but they are also born out of similar antagonisms engendered by Western, Goa’uld-like materialism and imperialist politics.

    In the episode, the SG-1 team gates to P9G-844, which the Jaffah team member Teal’c (Christopher Judge) believes is home to the reclusive Sodan, a lost Jaffah tribe that legend records had successfully rebelled against their Goa’uld overlords. Having located the Sodan, their leader, Lord Haikon (Tony Todd), relates their history:

    Five thousand years ago my ancestors were one of the first of the Sodan. They were part of an elite command force under the Goa’uld Ishkur [the Assyrian-Babylonian storm god]. For years the Sodan pillaged and plundered under his name, driving fear into the hearts of all those that would oppose his rule. The further they ascended among the ranks, the more they were able to discern the truth. That he was not a god at all, but merely an imposter. Our true gods are those that came before us [i.e., the Ancients].


    Ishkur branded my ancestors as traitors and ordered their deaths. They tried to fight, to show their brothers the faith. But the odds were too great, and they were forced to flee. They set out to find Kheb, hoping that their souls would find peace. Instead, their search led them to this world.

    On the planet the Sodan ambush SG-1 and capture their new team leader, Col. Cameron Mitchell (Ben Browder). Believing that he killed the Sodan warrior Volnek (Jarvis W. George) in the ensuing firefight, the Sodan force Mitchell to train for a ritualistic battle to the death against Volnek’s next of kin, Jolan (Jason George). It turns out, however, that Volnek was taken back to SGC headquarters and revived. Having developed a rapport during their training, Mitchell eventually convinces Jolan that the Ori, who have presented themselves as the Ancients of their faith, are simply determined to take away their freedom: that as former servants of the Babylonian Goa’uld Ishkur, they are falling into the Babylon of Origin.

    Back at the SGC Teal’c (who led the Jaffah rebellion against the show’s first villain, Apophis) and the convalescing Volnek have a parallel debate about the battles for freedom they share. But unlike his kinsman, Volnek will not accept Teal’c’s claims that SGC is a galactic liberator. This discussion revolves around the nature of Volnek’s injuries themselves. When Mitchell shot Volnek, he irreparably damaged his symbiote. He would have died but for an SGC drug formulated to replace (p.56)

    Stargate SG-1

    Figure 8. Stargate SG-1, ‘Babylon’ (Sony Pictures Television, 2005).

    it called ‘tretonine.’ Teal’c, like all other free Jaffah, can thereby live without dependence on their former masters. Volnek however refuses to acknowledge its efficacy or Teal’c’s motives.

    Volnek insists that the tretonine has weakened him. Teal’c responds: ‘On the contrary, brother. It has freed you.’ Volnek counters that he cares nothing for this kind of freedom: ‘Because of my failure as a warrior I languish here now. Prisoner to a former slave and his pitiful allies.’ Teal’c replies that ‘many Jaffah have fought and died for a cause that was started by the warriors of the Sodan.’ Essentially, the free Jaffah, liberated by the SGC from their dependence on symbiotes, have resumed the ancient Sodan battle against the Goa’uld but have corrected their error of serving another master. The episode ends ambiguously with a prisoner exchange and the implied hope that the Sodan will join the right side of the battle for freedom.

    On one level, the show reworks the biblical-historical story of the Babylonian captivity. Lord Haikon is the philosophical voice and guardian of the Sodan history of enslavement and deliverance. He speaks proudly of their struggles while in exile, wandering like the Israelites without a home, ‘praying for the day when we could seek the path without recrimination.’ Theirs is a longing for freedom from the sectarian violence that they have been forced to participate in, but which has become the very means of their survival and the defining feature of their culture. On another level, the episode is about delivering the Sodan warriors from the bondage of their own history. The SGC hijacks their belief systems by offering them liberty from both Goa’uld symbiotes and (p.57) the Gospel of Origin.13 But the episode can only imply this, retreating to a morally superior position aligned with our sympathies for the members of SG-1. Unlike ‘The Tomb,’ with its clear mission objectives and neat conclusion, ‘Babylon’ only provides a contingent victory located in Mitchell and Jolan finding common ground. But even this is compromised by Teal’c and Volnek’s mutual suspicion. The show takes us beyond the simple identification of the Ori with the Babylon of religious fanaticism or even its reverse, the Babylon of Western global capitalism. As a figure of power, Babylon is indeed an annoying complication that lies at the heart of the episode’s message that our battles for freedom have opened the doors to reprisals.

    Stargate SG-1 affords the kind of critical vantage point on the war in Iraq that Mirzoeff calls for in Watching Babylon. For ‘Babylon’ sounds out the problematic geopolitical climate of the post-9/11 world, in which globalism is itself under constant attack. The battles against intractable and eternal enemies like the Ori reflect our commitments to managing the global political theatre against forces that cannot be fought in the open. Enemies are disappearing into the need to produce antagonists against whom we can periodically mobilize. In his essay ‘The Spirit of Terrorism,’ Jean Baudrillard contends that the attacks on New York and the subsequent reprisals against Iraq and Afghanistan are emblematic of the crisis nature of globalism that Mirzoeff locates in the figure of Babylon. In Baudrillard’s view, terrorism is itself a commodity created by and circulating within global capitalism. He calls this ‘terroristic situational transfer,’ whereby it is ‘the system itself which created the objective conditions for this brutal retaliation [against the World Trade Center]. By seizing all the cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules.’ He warns that ‘all the singularities (species, individuals and cultures) that have paid with their deaths for the installation of a global circulation governed by a single power are taking their revenge today through this terroristic situational transfer’ (9). ‘Babylon’ is a sensitive commentary on the geopolitical climate characterized by Baudrillard. The episode does not bask in instances of global (read galactic) triumph, nor does it offer any alternative or end to symbolic and actual violence. It considers through the character of Haikon, rather, the loss of singularity in global politics. The SGC offers protection of the Sodan way of life, but this is also illusory, because it is unimaginable for any agency to exist outside what Baudrillard terms the ‘logic of relations of force’ (15). Indeed, by the end of the 2005 SG-1 season the Sodan do in fact join (p.58) the SGC in the fight against the Ori, an act that ensures their physical destruction, which began with the destruction of their ‘singular’ culture the moment they released Mitchell. In the end they are reduced to heroic casualties of the SGC narrative of freedom.

    Ultimately the Babylon of SG-1 dramatizes the reversibility of all myths that try to naturalize power. ‘Babylon’ presents an incomplete victory, a failure of diplomacy and an affirmation of the potential for terrorist cells to strike. Unlike the crushing defeat of Marduk in his own Babylonian ziggurat, the Sodan brotherhood remains committed, if not unreservedly, to the Babylon of Origin. The episode may offer justifications for the military to protect us from the eternal threat of terrorism but it simultaneously unlocks through the personal bonds formed between Mitchell and Jolan the sinking feeling that the world cannot be corrected by democratic capitalism or individual heroism. This is all very reminiscent of ancient Babylon today, a site of global conflict over control of its meanings and legacy for the conquered and the conquerors alike. In ‘The Tomb’ we may find pleasure in bombing the ziggurat, but by 2005 laying waste to Babylon could no longer reassure us of the moral certainty or social justice of such acts. Instead, the show offers a considered appreciation of globalism in crisis for its viewers. The Tower of Babel cannot be destroyed, only continuously occupied and rebuilt until the global order no longer requires myths of Babylon or World Trade. Like the kind of military archaeology it is predicated on, SG-1 reminds us that Babylon refuses to remain buried and that occupying the past does not ensure control of the future.

    What conclusions, then, can we draw from these performances of archaeology in Stargate SG-1? If we accept that archaeology and SF are both intensely political forms of representation, rather than strictly scientific and entertaining pursuits, then each field affords critique of the other. I have been arguing that the show is a symbolic medium for exploring contentious issues of stewardship that many archaeologists since the 2003 invasion have, at times begrudgingly, begun to recognize: that they are, and have always been, agents of the actual and symbolic destruction of the material past through excavation acts and the paradigms of ideological possession that make artefacts desirable commodities for governments, institutions and private collectors alike. These Mesopotamian episodes are hauntingly familiar in terms of the cultural and political determination that compels us to explore its ancient soil for traces of ourselves. In the wake of two Gulf Wars, archaeology is a powerful weapon in the battle against oppression, the Babylon of forces hostile to globalism and individual freedom as we conceive it. But SG-1 also shows that this weapon has the dangerous tendency to backfire.


    A version of this chapter was originally published as ‘Battling Babylon: The “Archaeology-Military Complex” in Stargate SG-1’ in Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 46.3 (2013), 393–418.

    (3) For analyses of the broad themes of the show see Beeler, 2008; Garcia and Phillips, 307–17; and Ndalianis, 2010. For studies of Stargate SG-1’s production, see Beeler and Dickson. Linder-Linsley furnishes an uncritical examination of archaeology in the show.

    (4) Cowan, 171–96, discusses this thesis.

    (5) Cf. Meskell, 2000, for an analysis of these lingering attitudes in postcolonial Egyptian archaeology and the Egyptian tourism industry.

    (6) For an application of Johannes Fabian’s notion of the ‘denial of coevalness’ to indigenous peoples in imperial archaeological contexts see Gosden.

    (7) Brian Fagan’s The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt is also noteworthy, but its narrative format does not offer much in the way of postcolonial critique of Western Egyptology nor the role of Egyptians in this process. Cf. Reid, 1987, 2002; Gershoni and Jankowski; Hassan; and Wood. Bauer et al. and Nicholas and Hollowell also offer concise studies of the issues facing postcolonial archaeology in the Middle East.

    (8) Studies of the political uses of the cradle of civilization argument include Hamilakis, 2005, and Meskell, 2005.

    (9) The Norse gods are, however, benevolent beings called the Asgard, recognizable as ‘grey aliens’ from ufology.

    (10) For a concise history of archaeology’s service to imperial and colonial paradigms in the nineteenth century, see Díaz-Andreu, 1–28.

    (11) The special issue of Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 4.3 (2008) explores these questions in detail. Among the critical studies of funding structures for archaeological and heritage reconstruction are Arrighi; Hamilakis, 2003; and Scham.

    (12) Takacs examines SF televisual reactions to 9/11. Cf. D. Davis and Matthews for critical surveys of 9/11-inspired SF films dealing with themes of insecurity and invasion.

    (13) This is indicative of what John Rieder identifies as the ‘ideological fantasy’ of correcting indigenous beliefs; 30–31.