This may sound odd, but I’ve been watching Alias on DVD, and I think I know now why the character of Sam Carter got decimated on Stargate. Maybe it’s not misogyny: maybe it’s just an extreme failure to understand character, and why you can’t simply transpose a character dynamic from one show to another.
Before you accuse me of accusing the Stargate writers of being hacks, let me spell out what I’m really saying: some writers are better with plot, some are better with characters, etc. We all have our strengths. Mine is character – plot for me is excruciating, and better left to a writing partner, if possible. Having admitted my own flaw, I am now going to go right ahead and state that yes, I think there’s a serious deficit of character comprehension on the staff at Stargate, and it wasn’t always like that.
As it forms part of the basis of my theory, I should mention that the Stargate writers happily admit that they like to rip off – I’m sorry, “homage” – other people’s projects. Robert C. Cooper in particular cannot seem to restrain himself from writing shot-for-shot remakes of Star Wars battles (Help us, Lucasfilm lawyers – you’re our only hope!), but they liberally borrow from pretty much anything, and sometimes even reference their rip-offees on the episode that rips them off.
It’s okay to borrow from other writers, as long as you make the end product original. In fact, it’s unavoidable – several times, I’ve learned after the fact that my own works bear a startling resemblance to something that came before, which I’d never heard of. You can take a starting point like, “What if Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights were astronauts in the 1980’s?” and go from there. But then you start researching and realize they’re probably Air Force, which means they’re supposedly screened for sanity. If you’ve read WH I’m going to assume you see the problem. Now you either have to convince your audience that the Air Force and NASA both missed how unstable these two are, or you’re going to have to make them more stable while still achieving that dynamic.
And this is where the Stargate boys just don’t seem to get it.
Watching Alias, I was struck with how similar Sydney Bristow’s love life and career issues are, in some ways, to Sam Carter’s. Suddenly I realized the problem: it’s not that the Stargate team is sitting around thinking, “What can we do to show that Sam is a neurotic, needy flake with the maturity of a college kid?” It’s that they’re patterning Sam after other successful female characters – strong, well-written ones, even – with no regard for the differences between the shows and the character dynamics. At least, that’s my new theory. Here’s my reasoning.
Sydney has a crush on her CIA handler (Vaughn), who’s in a position of power over her, and therefore not allowed to date her. She’s in her late 20’s, and he clearly reciprocates, so it plays like two youngish people with a genuine connection trying to do the mature thing and put aside their feelings to get the job done.
Conversely, Sam has a crush on her commanding officer (Jack), with whom she’s not allowed to fraternize for the same reasons. She’s around 40, and he does not clearly reciprocate, so it plays like a neurotic woman fixating on a delusion. In fact – hey! There’s an episode in which she tells herself just that, but does she learn and move on? Oh, hell, no. (More on this later.)
Sydney is advised by her mother to put her personal happiness (dating Vaughn) ahead of her work with the CIA. Context: Sydney never planned to spend her whole life working with the CIA. She wants out, but there is literally no one else who can do what she’s doing, and Vaughn is the only handler she really trusts. So again – youngish people trying to do the right thing.
Sam is advised by her father to put her personal happiness (stalking Jack, apparently, as he’s given no sign he’s interested in actually dating her) ahead of her duty to the Air Force. Context: Sam is career military, and doesn’t want out of the Air Force. But she could easily transfer to another Air Force post and be free to date Jack. So again – woman old enough to know better making a conscious to stick to the letter but not the spirit of the obligation she freely made to the Air Force.
It’s even worse. The Stargate writers must have also been watching some other show to get their Sam fodder, because somewhere in the middle of all that, they had her get engaged to a guy (this is the “more on this later” bit). But in the end, she realizes she’d rather pine after Jack than marry someone else, so she breaks off the engagement. Note: if you’re going to use something to get your mind off a love you can’t have, try a hobby, not a live human being. Now we’re forced to conclude that Sam is either more immature than a much younger character like Sydney, or she’s a two-timing hussy.
Perhaps the most subtle yet essential problem is this: Sydney is the lead character on her show, and Sam is a secondary character in an ensemble cast. We know so much about Sydney – her work, her friendships, her former love interests – that her relationship with Vaughn is far from our sole criteria for judging her. But Sam is never developed – all we know of her is that she likes to play with scary stuff in the lab, she’s smart, she’s pretty, and she would rather moon after her commanding officer than get a real relationship. In fact, she’s so neurotic, she throws away a real relationship to continue the mooning.
I mean, c’mon! That’s all you give us to judge this woman, and you expect us to consider her a sterling example of a competent and professional woman?
There is one more thing: the issue of emotions clouding judgment. That’s not a problem that either of these women can afford to have in the work they do. And there’s another arc that shows us just how differently these two shows handle that issue.
**SPOILER ALERT** (This is the last of the article, so just stop reading if you’re concerned about spoilers. You won’t miss much.)
In Alias, Sydney’s mother (a known enemy of the United States) turns herself in to the CIA and claims to want to cooperate. Sydney decides to play along to get information, but eventually her mother gains her trust by proving herself with valuable intel over and over, then betrays her and the CIA. When Sydney catches up to her on a mission, and her mother refuses to submit to custody, Sydney shoots her in the arm – allowing her to get away. Bit of a screw-up, but it’s still her mother after all, and the woman did help them out so much that the betrayal’s been a bit of a shock to more people than just Sydney.
In Stargate, a Replicator – one of the most dangerous enemies the Stargate team has encountered – turns itself in to the SGC, asking them to kill her. Sam decides to get information from it instead of just killing it. The Replicator doesn’t try to gain Sam’s sympathy – Sam just volunteers it. Even though the Replicator doesn’t give them any significant intel, Sam cooperates in an effort to build a weapon with the Replicator, and this gives the Replicator all the intel needs to make itself – and its army – immune to their weapons. It’s a disaster of galactic proportions – literally – and it eventually leads to the death (impermanent, thankfully) of one of Sam’s team members. Yeah… that’s professional.
Did the writers sit around thinking, “How stupid can we make Sam look?” Probably not. They probably started out with a good premise – “What if they try to get info from this thing and it backfires?” – but failed to deliver a clever plot in which the attempt to get info felt like a worthwhile risk, and the Replicator gets the info despite Sam’s best efforts to contain it. What I do have to admit to wondering, however, is: why don’t they ever write anything this retarded for the guys? Could it be that, when it’s one of the guys, they actually bother to reflect at the end of a draft on whether the changes they’ve made invalidate the initial premise? Whether they’ve pushed a character so far around the bend that no one can recognize him anymore? Over and over, Sam has been made to do absolutely whatever serves the plot or what the ratings suggest the show needs, no matter how inconsistent it makes her. The same is not true of the guys, though it has gotten worse in the past few seasons.
It gets worse. Guess who gets to have the big face-off with the Repicator when all is said and done? Sam, so she can fix her mistake? Nah. That honor goes to the civilian member of the team, Daniel, who nobly sacrifices his life to stall the Replicator long enough for everyone else to stop its army once and for all. There are episodes in which Daniel and the other guys make mistakes – though never as big as this one – and they generally face the music on their own and fix what they’ve messed up. But not Sam. With Sam, we can’t even get an acknowledgement from the writers that she did anything wrong, as Jack hastens to pat her on the back and reassure her that even if it killed Daniel, that’s okay.
I think the writers need to stop watching everyone else’s show, and start watching their own. I mean really watch it, not through the lens of what they meant to convey, or what they thought they were “homage”-ing, but what it actually conveys. Then they might understand why people are complaining.