Pandemics are not that unusual in science fiction TV and movies. I can think of Andromeda Strain, The Last Man on Earth, 28 Days, 12 Monkeys, The Walking Dead, and many other popular movies that were based on the idea of a great viral plague threatening mankind. Whether it was a virus or a bacterial infection doesn’t seem to matter. Science fiction writers love to infect entire worlds with incurable plagues.
The problem with science fiction shows and pandemics is they either under-do them or over-do them. I couldn’t get into weekly zombie shows. They don’t appeal to me.
I liked Stargate SG-1‘s 2-part virus story, “The Fourth Horseman”, for many reasons. Of course, Louis Gossett, Jr. was one of them. He’s a great actor and he stepped into the role of Gerak like he had been playing the character for years.
One of the neat things about “The Fourth Horseman” is that it followed on an earlier story (“The Powers That Be”) where a Prior of the Ori infected a world of villagers (and Colonel Mitchell, played by Ben Browder) with a new virus. Stargate Command couldn’t find a cure for the virus in time to save anyone.
One of science fiction’s tropes is that, given a sample of blood, doctors and scientists can find a cure for almost any disease. It’s just a matter of pitting enough samples against known cures for disease, until someone accidentally spills an unrelated bottle of something and discovers the real cure.
That isn’t how the Prior Plague was cured. Even with the help of an Ancient who retook human form, the SGC’s medical and science teams couldn’t develop a cure for the plague. It required the intervention of another Prior, Gerak (played by Louis Gosett, Jr.), in part 2 of “The Fourth Horseman”. After he cured all the sick people in Cheyenne Mountain, the SGC was able to synthesize a cure.
In the movie Outbreak, Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding, Jr. face down the U.S. military while they search for the animal that spread the virus. Magically, after capturing the host (a small monkey), they produce tons of medicine from the monkey’s blood and previously existing treatment for a related strain of the virus.
Rapid production of viral cures is unrealistic. Only this year have we seen medical science develop vaccines (not a cure) for a newly contagious virus. It took months of intense research, and all the companies working on viruses used every short-cut they could think of. Although a number of existing medicines were used to develop treatments for SARS-CoV-19, none of them are cures.
I’ve watched “The Fourth Horseman” a few times this year because it presaged the spread of the SARS-CoV-19 virus in so many ways. We didn’t realize at first how contagious the real-life virus is. Now have we found a cure for Covid-19. The SGC had help from a renegade Prior.
Of course, every year we have to cope with a few strains of influenza. They spread quickly and millions of people become infected. It’s not hard to model a fictional plague on a real-life epidemic. But pandemics (world-wide epidemics) almost always wipe out most of humanity in science fiction stories.
The Covid-19 pandemic has killed way too many people, including more than 300,000 Americans. What Stargate SG-1 got right was that the virus will spread faster than contact tracing can slow it down. The scenes where people give updates on how fast and far the virus is spreading are obviously staged to advance the plot, but they are eerily similar to how things progressed in real life. It seemed like every day you’d hear about a new city discovering the virus had struck its population.
We still don’t know how bad things got in China, and we may never know.
I used to think the Stargate SG-1 episode rushed things too much. Of course, the story’s premise is that the plague was engineered to spread quickly. And this plague was fore-shadowed by an 6th season episode, “Frozen”, where an Ancient woman is resuscitated after spending millions of years frozen in ice. She is infected with a virus that she has the power to cure in others but not herself.
If anyone has ever asked the writers where and when they put all these pieces together, I’ve never come across the answer. Stargate SG-1 was really good about following up on ideas presented sometimes years before as obscure details. The long lifespan of the Jaffa was always mentioned throughout the show, but only when you see Teal’c age 50 years in “Unending” (the final episode of the series) and still retain his vitality does it really hit home that the Jaffa are not merely humans with symbiote pouches.
The viral plague trope always struck me as being too forced. Given a world-wide pandemic, why would people keep going around infecting each other, especially if they’re all becoming zombies or whatever?
And yet, real life shows us that (in the United States, at least) people are willing to do just that. Sadly, many of the 300,000+ Americans who have lost their lives to Covid-19 believed the virus was a hoax, or that it would be no worse than the flu. Although it’s shocking that a President of the United States would put his own ego above the lives of the citizens he has sworn to protect, what’s even more shocking is that millions of people chose to ignore the science and live according to his lies.
Even Stargate SG-1 didn’t get that part right. Although entire worlds gave up and accepted the Ori as gods on the show, it was usually only after reasoned debates occurred. There has been no reasoned debate in the United States.
There is no rogue Prior coming to hand us a cure for Covid-19. We may never develop one. Even after the vaccines are widely distributed, people will still contract this disease. Worse, we’re now watching at least 2 new mutant strains spread through human and animal populations in Europe and North America. We don’t know if the vaccines will protect people against the new strains – but one certainly hopes they do.
And yet, what about the sick animals? We can’t go around killing all the wildlife just because they can contract the virus. We really do need to find a cure, or at least a way to vaccine large animal populations.
Future science fiction shows and movies may follow the 2020 pandemic closely enough to avoid some of the glaring plot holes. But one that that Stargate SG-1 got right is that there is no fast track to a cure. I think that will be one of many reasons why people continue to watch this show decades into the future.
A lot of science fiction is really fantasy dressed up with technology. There’s a great deal of fantasy in the Stargate universe, too. But the Prior Plague storyline is a fantastic example of how a simple idea can be played out into a realistic chain of events.
It’s a shame MGM couldn’t keep the show running after the 10th year. I suspect that plague would have come back at least one more time to stir things up. In real life, I hope we put Covid-19 and its cousins behind us quickly – within the next 1-2 years. But it may be with us for much longer before we can finally say it’s eradicated or even under control.