Stargate: Universe and the Myth of the Lone Genius

As you may or may not have heard, there's a new Stargate franchise on the SyFy channel with John Scalzi as a creative consultant. It may have slipped by without you noticing, because John is too modest to hype it much...

Anyway, given the Scalzi connection, I checked out the pilot on Friday, and it was fine. I'm not a huge fan of the other series in the Stargate family, but they're reliably entertaining when nothing else is on, and this will probably fall into that category. I doubt I'll be re-arranging my social calendar for this, but it was pretty good.

The show did do one thing that really annoys me, though: they fell into the standard Hollywood sci-fi trap, using the myth of the lone scientific genius who can do everything.

This is, I suppose a spoiler, but it's a spoiler for the first twenty minutes of the two-hour pilot. Robert Carlyle plays a deeply creepy genius, who is basically the Shamwow of scientists. He solves thousand-year-old math problems! He translates ancient languages! He knows how to fix aeons-old carbon scrubbers! He soaks up six times his weight in liquid!

Yeah, fine, he's saddled himself with a schlubby gamer nerd who found a Golden Ticket solved a problem embedded in a videogame, but nerd-boy is mostly an excuse for semi-slapstick. When the chips are down, Dr. Begbie Rush goes it alone.

This is standard Hollywood fare, but it grates on me. Especially when it's taken to absurd extremes-- a test run of their multi-billion-dollar project to access a mysterious ancient address fails due to some miscalculation, and Carlyle retreats to his lab area to re-calculate things all by himself, on a whiteboard. The rest of the cast goes to dinner. There aren't even extras around to suggest that anyone else is working on it.

If you're spending billions of dollars trying to make some alien gadget work, you can afford more than one intriguingly-accented Science Guy and a tubby World of Warcraft player. Yes, transcendant geniuses are hard to come by, but you can buy the efforts of a lot of very smart people for a billion dollars, and a lot of computer hardware. And I'd take them over one guy with a whiteboard.

I shouldn't complain too much, since the other characters are all Types as well-- Noble Military Guy, Pompous Politician Dude, Pretty Senator's Daughter-- but this is an annoyingly unrealistic view of how science works. It's just cheap and lazy storytelling-- they get to do the show with only one Science Guy who does all the Science Stuff, whether it's theoretical physics, applied biology, or linguistic archaeology.

There are a bunch of extras milling around in the wide shots, some of whom may turn out to be scientists, but I'd be surprised if any of them do more than don a metaphorical red shirt and die. Which is a shame for a sciencefiction show.

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"a test run of their multi-billion-dollar project to access a mysterious ancient address fails due to some miscalculation, and Carlyle retreats to his lab area to re-calculate things all by himself, on a whiteboard. The rest of the cast goes to dinner. There aren't even extras around to suggest that anyone else is working on it." -- You know, when you put it that way, it sounds absurd. Too bad that was the plot of that scene, without exaggeration.

By Kenneth G. Cavness (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

And in the show'"defense?" -- Stargate has never particularly saddled itself as hard SyFy (pronounced "sifee") in the past. Before it was Daniel and perhaps Carter; now it's Rush and Whooz-it.

By Kenneth G. Cavness (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

the myth of the lone scientific genius who can do everything

Here in the so-called real world, we have a name for >99% of the people who aspire to this description: cranks. These are the types who are promoting their theories that Einstein was wrong, or seeking investors in their perpetual motion machines, or other such psychoceramic endeavors. They like to point out that people laughed at Galileo and Einstein, but they forget that people also laughed at Bozo the clown.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

The irony of "Myth of the Lone Genius" is the hope that one very good Science Fiction author can make TV sci-fi into Science Fiction. All together now: "It's a collaborative process."

It is very hard to give characters depth and interior lives of interest, more easily in a novel than on the small screen. Though, to be sure, good acting and good directing can make superficial dialogue seem weighted with meaning.

Strangely to me, "Fringe" and the "CSI" franchise give more of a atmosphere of Scientists at Work than does most Sci-Fi. "Fringe" comes to us from the 50-year-old classic Twilight Zone (which varied between Science Fiction. Fantasy, Horror, and Political Satire) via "The X-Files" (rarely Science Fiction), and in "CSI" the scientific methodology is used only for forensics.

The two bright spots on scientists as people (on US TV) are "Numb3rs" -- given that "Cal Sci" is really Caltech, and Math professor Gary Lorden (retiring this year simultaneously with Kip Thorne) is Math Advisor. And "The Big Bang Theory" -- where the Austistic Spectrum Disorder weirdness of Physicists is both painful and hilarious to watch.

I am still waiting to see if "FlashForward" will resolve more as Science Fiction than as Sci-Fi, but the characters in the first 2 episodes pleased me with attempting to solve the Big Puzzle by actually thinking and collaboratively exploring vast amounts of data.

I'd say that we are in the Golden Age of Science Fiction television!

Fringe has to be the most cringe-worthy example of the "lone genius" on TV right now. Not only does the brilliant and insane chemistry genius solve every problem despite having spent over a decade completely cut off from every advance in technology, he actually pioneered most of the insidious technologies being used back in the day. (What, don't most chemists work on both breeding government super-soldiers and discovering new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum?)

That's why I like Eureka. While their go-to genius is still involved in most scientific problems, they at least have a whole town full of one-off geniuses to provide specialization.

"Fringe has to be the most cringe-worthy example of the 'lone genius' on TV right now" -- then how did the mysterious lone genius' mogul/scientist William Bell, played by Leonard Nimoy, who ousted/ripped-off the aforementioned [former lab partner Walter Bishop, penetrate the borders of the Multiverse and found the $50,000,000,000 firm Massive Dynamic which is, in many ways, more powerful than the Government?

I take this as an insightful critique of how the enterprise of Science mutated from the 19th century "lone genius" gentleman of leisure, to the anomalous 20th century triumverate of Government/Corporation/University, and the nascent new paradigm of 21st Century Wikiscience.

It's BattleStar Galactica meets Voyager meets Stargate Atlantis. Remember in SGA's first episodes they couldn't get home either. I think this show will be the weakest of the series, so J.Scalzi (what a great writer!) may be keeping his head down for a reason....

J.Scalzi (what a great writer!) may be keeping his head down for a reason

I was being ironic when I said that...

If you look at his blog, John hasn't shied away from promoting the show and his role in it.

I watched it, and I'll watch another episode, but unfortunately they didn't give me a single character I liked and plenty I didn't... I can forgive bad science if the people are engaging, and cardboard characters if the science is cool, but one or the other has to be there.

I'm trying to decide how bad Gaius Baltar is in this respect. Initially he's known for his work in computer science, but most of what we see him doing is more along the lines of biochemistry. On the other hand, he is also a total crank, and other characters are at least as competent as he is in other fields.

By Treppenwitz (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

SGU (from now on to be known as SGUgh) lost about as many points with me as it's possible for a show to lose and still not have a shoe thrown at it before. Unlikeable characters? Check (including Ming-na, which just drives me crazy because I'm as much a fan of her as I'm a fan of anything.) Re-used plot points from...well, just about all the lost in space themed sci-fi In Space? Check. Wooden dialogue because the cast can't figure out how the hell they're supposed to relate to each other? Check. Incredibly overdone and time wasting "tragic" scene? Check, including "heroic" death of an unlikeable (see check 1) character you know nothing about and "anguish" from the character you WISH had died insteas? Check. Insurmountable problem solved by the lead-in to the next episode? Check

It did get about 1/4 of a watch-point back by casting Louis Ferreira, though. I might watch the show just to see if his performance as Col.Whatever can successfully erase the creepy serial-killer he plays in Durham County.

By Kate from Iowa (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Never been a fan of the series. But, I give you...Dr. Noonien Soong. The only man who can create a positronic brain along with that other bad TV staple, the evil twin. We've got the clean, sparkly, emotionally repressed, but mature, sciencie, Data and his evil brother, the primitive, angry, resentful, Lore out to kill everything and everyone. The whole family played with panache by one actor...

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

But, I give you...Dr. Noonien Soong.

On one hand, he is literally a lone genius. On the other hand, he's not a ridiculous polymath like the Stargate guy.

By Treppenwitz (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

#10 and #13 have beat me to the things I wanted to say about SGU. So I'll just say that, in contrast, I thought Star Gate Atlantis had characters who were among the best I've seen in a sci-fi series. "Dr. MacKay" was my favorite, in that his flaws contrasted well with the other characters, similar to the "Hudson" character in "Aliens".

Man, if I didn't read all these people, I'd have no idea how much I was supposed to be hating Stargate:Universe.

By Kenneth G. Cavness (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

Damn, now I'm not sure I want to watch it any more. I suppose I will, because I am a scifi junkie (I managed to watch every episode of Andromeda), but I am considerably less excited than I was before.

I don't know JimV - it isn't that I didn't appreciate how the characters of Atlantis interacted - I did (and honestly, interpersonal relationship dynamics can compensate for a lot of general flaws which Atlantis had in spades). But they didn't come close to Torchwood, Doctor Who or Firefly - not by a longshot. Honestly, they were just on a par with Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (though admittedly, B5 was hit and miss).

That said, MacKay was my favorite too...

I saw some of it, and I thought it was okay. Also, I was glad when the senator died. I was hoping he would die all along because the character was so annoying. ^_^

It isn't enough to be the lone genius, you need also to be a combat soldier. SGU fell completely flat for me, giving me the distinct impression the plot was nothing more than a trial balloon run by the marketing dept rather than writers with a story to tell.

Let me toss "House" into the discussion as a TV show with a realistic depiction of science. Since it's modeled on Sherlock Holmes, the Scientific Method 101 stuff is pretty good ("Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.") As is the SM102 stuff ("We eliminated everything! We'll have to alter our assumptions!")

According to Wikipedia, at one point "House" was the most-watched TV show in the world (a position once held, of course, by "Baywatch").

By Bob Hawkins (not verified) on 06 Oct 2009 #permalink

You know, I hear what you're saying wrt the unrealistic depiction of the process of science in fiction, and yet I don't think I would have ever become a scientist in the first place if I hadn't been seduced by the "myth of the lone genius" which I encountered time and again in scifi entertainments.

Couldn't afford attractive actors; perhaps its budgetary. One would expect anyone working on it for any length of time to be literate in ancient, and since it is so advanced, it should be simple to understand, at least at the macro level. Noble military guy and junior officer will get them through.

Having just watched it: Lone Genius fails. At everything he tries on his own. Which is different, at least.

I did not watch the show, so am really just commenting on the lone genius idea that annoys you. I completely agree that we have unfortunately limited lifetimes to accumulate enough knowledge to be geniuses in everything we do. Even if we did, there is a great benefit in collaboration. Society though doesnât always seem to achieve more with more people. Small companies often innovate at a more impressive rate, even though they do not have large staffs of people. Even the Google idea of being able to spend part of your day on any project you want, has led to great products, by sole geniuses. Maybe we need to rely a bit on what genius we might have, and use our imaginations to do some amazing things on our own.

I don't know how much you follow the Stargate franchise. Had you seen the previous Stargate:Atlantis series, I think you would have seen they did about as much to break up the "standard SF lone genius character type" with the Dr. McKay character as can be done in one series.

The primary driving force behind seeing these characters get combined in most shows is money. Star Trek:The Next Generation had a fairly large budget for the genre, and the money to cast a genius engineer, a genius doctor, and the genius doctor's son, the kid mega-genius. Stargate is a cable series, and has a budget that's a fraction of what ST:TNG used to have. Lower budget mean smaller casts. The show that follows SG:Universe, Sanctuary only has 3 full time cast members.

Funny, we've been criticizing all the mistakes made from the military end of things in my discussion groups. Well, most pilots suck. Usually the first season of a show is uneven. I'll give it a few more episodes.

Star Trek:The Next Generation had a fairly large budget for the genre, and the money to cast a genius engineer, a genius doctor, and the genius doctor's son, the kid mega-genius.

Now you've got me imagining an entertainment industry where actors are paid on the basis of how smart their characters are ;-)
("OK, there's the crusty but loveable police sergeant, they like you for that role." "Hmm... what's the character's IQ?")
Which would of course rapidly lead to shows full of dumb characters.

ST:TNG or ST:DS9 -- big budget (roughly $1.6 million per episode), 8 or 9 regular cast members
Babylon 5 -- smaller budget (roughly $800,000), 10 or 11 regular cast members

Not sure how much I agree with the "smaller budget = smaller cast" argument.

My favorite lone scientific genius of all time was The Professor.

By Manny Sodbinow (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

Surely the lone genius non pareil must be Ramanujan, whose story is more dramatic than anything fiction can conjure up.