Background philosophy of the Stargate Franchise
Let's start with a word about worldview.
In SG1, Colonel O'Neill and Dr. Jackson go from despising each other to being willing to die for each other, saving the world innumerable times by their ability to trust each other to each do the things that they have been trained to be good at. Samantha Carter is a literal embodiment of the awesome that is the combination of military training and scientific training in one person. Nobody suggests that her being a soldier somehow diminishes her. In SGA part of Sheppard's awesomeness as a soldier is the ease with which he handles his science staff, and the way in which his relationship with science genius McKay becomes a close knit bromance in which each of them utterly trusts and relies on the other.
It's my belief that the Stargate ideal is a state in which the military characters and the scientific characters are working together to enable the team to react appropriately to physical, mental and technological threats. This makes a great deal of sense, since both force and intelligence are ways in which human beings exercise power and control over their environments. In fact one can't clearly separate them, since you can't win a war by being stupid no matter how strong you are, and you can't do science when armed men are trying to kill you, no matter how clever you are.
Given that I believe that Stargate is based on the view that both military and scientific virtues are necessary for a team that wishes to survive in a hostile universe, I am going into SGU with the belief that the writers regard the split between military and civilian factions in the early days of the show as a tragic flaw. I am not going into the series with the mindset that I have to choose between team science and team military. I'm going into it with the mindset that both are necessary, both have something valuable and essential to contribute, and nothing will go right until both are working together in harmony.
Background philosophy of SGU
Given that it's repeated over every episode of the first series, my belief is that SGU's premise is that this is a Stargate series in which “These are the wrong people, in the wrong place. And as a group, they're just not qualified.”
SG1 and SGA have explored the whole issue of military and scientific teamwork with people who are the best representatives of each – people who have worked together before, and have volunteered for whatever is ahead of them. People who are the pinnacle of what each discipline has to offer.
By contrast, SGU explores that same theme with people who are bad examples of their type. People who were never meant to be there, who don't want to be there, and who are for various reasons entirely unsuited to be catapulted into a life or death situation uncounted lightyears away from home. The main interest of the show, imo, is watching these wrong people have to grapple with this situation anyway, even while they make all the mistakes appropriate for the fuck-ups and rejects of the Stargate programme.
We know that Telford, the mission commander, wanted to prevent Rush from going on the mission on the grounds that he was untrustworthy and impossible to work with. Camile's only focus for a long time is what's going on on Earth, in her relationship and the politicking of the IOA. Eli is an MIT drop out who hasn't even signed on with the SGC yet and who is therefore under no direct chain of command to anyone. Chloe is basically a tourist with no training or relevant skills at all.
The science team seem to be demoralized and apathetic when they arrive – probably not surprising if they've been working on the 9th Chevron problem with no success for half a year. Scott is a raw recruit with no experience and no confidence. James is utterly distracted by jealousy due to fraternisation. TJ had resigned weeks ago and is also struggling with fraternisation issues that are only going to get more disastrous as time goes on. Greer has a serious anger management problem. Franklin's the world's biggest cynic, Caine's a budding messiah, Sergeant Spencer's a time-bomb of mental health problems waiting to go off…
You get the idea.
What's wrong with Young?
So, in what way is Colonel Young, who Jack O'Neill himself chose to head the Icarus mission, the wrong person to actually do so?
I think we can all agree that Jack O'Neill is pretty good at reading people. If he chose Young to head this mission, there must have been at one point something pretty good about Young.
But Young turned the mission down, saying that he 'didn't have it in him any more.'
There are indications throughout the series that Young is currently in the grip of a personal crisis and breakdown of some sort. Before the series begins, he has told his commanding officer that he doesn't believe he's up to heading the mission, and has been put in a less high pressure job as a result.
This is a refrain he's pretty consistent with: In 'Air' when Scott says 'we need you,' Young replies that he's not sure about that, and tries to persuade Scott and TJ to let him go and die in the shuttle. In 'Darkness,' when he hears that Telford was trying to get Scott to tell HQ that Young wasn't fit for command, Young says “He might be right about that.” And then of course there's the incident in Trial and Error where he literally dumps command in Scott's lap and refuses to come out of his room.
It's fairly clear that Young himself doesn't think he's up to heading this mission, doesn't want to head the mission and has done what he can do to make sure he isn't put in charge. It's a cruel irony that he ends up in command of the damn thing anyway. And though he clearly has continuing doubts about his capability, he tries to do it to the best of his ability because he's the highest ranking officer on the spot and he doesn't have a lot of choice.
In 'Earth' he tells his wife that he thinks he's losing his mind, and that the hope of fixing things with her is the only thing still holding him together. This would be easier to dismiss as the desperate lie of an adulterous man, if it wasn't that he actually does fall to pieces when that hope is withdrawn.
TJ and Scott's reactions to Young volunteering to be the one who closed the shuttle door and died in the process always struck me as somewhat odd, as does Rush's reaction in Water when he tries to persuade Scott to tell Young to leave him behind. They make much more sense (to me) as reactions by people who are aware that Young has a suicidal tendency to fling himself into situations where he's likely to die. They seem like the reactions of people who don't trust him to put a reasonable value on his own life, and who are therefore trying to protect him from himself. Scott certainly confirms that it's something he's noticed in Young, and taken responsibility for trying to correct.
“Not that I'm counting, but this is the third time in almost as many weeks that you've been willing to kill yourself and there's... there's a pretty good chance at this point I won't be around to talk you out of it again.”
What have we got so far? Something has happened to make Young lose confidence in himself and he has suicidal tendencies. He's clearly already making very bad decisions before the series has even started – he couldn't possibly have really thought the affair with TJ was a good idea – which he then has to scramble to try to correct. He has an increasing problem controlling his anger and increasing difficulty in making decisions. He is so miserable he takes to drinking, but that's not the actual problem, he says, 'that's just a symptom.'
Rush berates him for having lost his nerve – for not being able to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. I've seen it said that he refuses to contemplate sacrificing anyone 'because he wants to be liked,' but I feel that's a little unfair.
Young is brusque. He walks away from personal conversations. He shouts in people's faces. He keeps his own motives tight to the chest; he doesn't even tell anyone that he's trying to break Telford's brainwashing - he lets people believe he's just suffocating Rush on a whim. The writers say “he's like a 1950s Dad. You hate him, but you slowly come to understand that he had your best interests at heart all along.” So I don't see anything in the way Young behaves that suggests that he wants to be liked.
On the contrary, you could make a case that he tries to drive away the people who care about him most – he shuts down TJ's attempts to talk, and he tries to goad Scott into hitting him and walking away in disgust. If this is someone who wants to be liked, I'd hate to see someone who doesn't.
There are other reasons to be reluctant to send people out to die. I think it's far more likely that he's telling the truth in this conversation from Water:
SCOTT: Go. It's OK.
YOUNG: No it's not.
SCOTT: Come on, sir. (He smiles briefly.) We both know you've done this before, too.
YOUNG: I've done what?
SCOTT: Lost people.
YOUNG: Too many times. I'm not... I'm not doing it again.
That makes perfect sense. He's burned out. He's watched the deaths of too many friends, colleagues, people that he cared about and was responsible for, and he can't face it any more.
We know that prior to him turning the Icarus mission down, he was the commander of a base which was attacked by the Lucian Alliance, where he lost nearly 40 people.
I think the timing is suggestive, and that what we're looking at in Young's slow collapse over series 1 and half of series 2 is what you are likely to get if you take a man with undiagnosed mental problems (most probably depression) due to trauma and put him in an unrelenting life-or-death situation he doesn't feel capable of handling, while taking away his sources of emotional support and surrounding him with team-mates who for various reasons want to see him fail.
In fact Young's character echoes and comments on what was originally done with O'Neill in the film. In the original movie, O'Neill was retired due to depression caused by his son's death and his wife's subsequent leaving him. He was recruited precisely because he was suicidal, and they wanted someone for what they thought would be a non-return mission. This being a movie, he recovered from his depression in about half an hour, and it never did much more than make him surly anyway.
Young's trajectory seems much more believable to me, as a person who has experience of depression themself. Even his periods of self-doubt, indecision and dithering are symptomatic and recognizable. As are his outbursts of fury when the situation becomes so unendurable that numbness won't cut it any more.
So I see Young's whole arc as the story of a man who is falling apart under pressure until he reaches rock bottom. After which, with the intervention of Destiny, Scott's confidence and Rush giving him a purpose to his life, he gradually starts picking himself up again and proving that he can do the job after all.
Is that sympathetic? Well, I personally find it so. I feel very sorry for him - trapped as he is in precisely the position he didn't want to be in, while he progressively loses his lover and his wife and his child and the ship and his self-respect. He's told himself that he cannot bear to lose even one more person, but he can't stop people dying, and he's even forced to mercy-kill Riley with his own bare hands.
To make matters worse, he's locked in an adversarial relationship with the person who was meant to be the Daniel to his Jack. The person he was supposed to rely on the most is someone who won't tell him anything, or who tells him lies. Someone who is actively undermining him, who has an agenda he doesn't understand and has to guess at. Someone from whom he feels he has to protect himself and the rest of the crew.
Young has to be feeling that he's failing at every turn, but he can't stop. Those he could trust to take over from him won't, and those who will, he can't trust. He has to keep trying, keep failing, keep turning up and doing the best that he can even though he knows it's not good enough. And he does, poor bastard. His sheer resilience is staggering.
When I look at Young from the perspective of someone who has experienced the kind of depression that makes it a triumph against the odds to simply show up and try to carry on, I think that Young is a hero. But he's a hero in a similar vein to Frodo Baggins. His heroism is a heroism of endurance, of shouldering the burden for one more day, even though he'd rather be dead. He's doing the best he can with a job that is destroying him because everyone is relying on him to do it, and no one else is going to do it for him.
What's right with him?
So, having talked about how the Young we're seeing in the series is probably Young on a series of bad days, let's talk about the ways in which he is nevertheless 'a good commander'. Let's see if we can glimpse the reasons for which O'Neill might have chosen him in the first place.
The individual good:
While it's true that sometimes it's necessary to sacrifice one person to save many, I personally hold it as a moral absolute that it's not the kind of thing you should do easily, because the life of every individual is important. Individuals matter too. Young's determination to go that extra mile to try to save everyone individually is a vital balance to the ease with which Rush suggests getting rid of people when it might serve a larger purpose to do so.
Looking back on Water, for example – if Young had not been determined to stay with Scott to the very last moment, he would not have been on hand to save him, and Scott would have died unnecessarily.
If Young had been persuaded not to let Greer risk his life to donate a kidney, Volker would have died unnecessarily.
If Young had not relented and allowed the Novus settlers on board when they were under attack, they would all have died unnecessarily.
If Young had not refused to pick 8 people to die because there weren't enough stasis pods to go around, 8 people would have died unnecessarily.
I'm sure there are other examples, but these are enough to establish the point that Young's unwillingness to let people die does in fact result in fewer people dying. I continue to find it astonishing that I even need to argue that an unwillingness to sacrifice people when a little extra effort might save them is not a bad thing.
As a result of Young's protectiveness over his people, the people who serve with him know that they mean something to him. They know that he will move heaven and earth to try to save them if they need it, and if he can't save them, they know their deaths will matter to him deeply. They know that at the level of survival, he cares about each and every one of them individually. This is probably one of the things that inspires the extraordinary degree of loyalty the military seem to have for him. At a very basic human level, it's important to know that the people who are going to ask you to risk your life do actually value that life in the first place.
A spirit of co-operation
With the notable exception of Rush, who is a special case, Young handles being in power over people with great excellence. While he initially defaults to military assumptions and training in how he deals with everyone on board, when it's made clear to him that the civilians are not happy with this, he changes his approach until they are.
His respect for the civilians is a consistent refrain throughout the series. Even as early as Earth we see Young being suspended from command because he puts the rights of the civilians ahead of orders from his commanding officer when he refuses to go through with the risky 'powering the stargate in a star' plan without consulting with the civilians first.
In Justice, Young makes it absolutely explicit that he does not intend to rule the ship by force:
SCOTT: These people need a real leader.
YOUNG: Whether they like it or not?
(Young stands up and walks closer to Scott.)
YOUNG: Lieutenant, nobody signed up for this, and I can't just assume they're gonna follow my orders, and I can't rule this ship by force.
(Scott opens his mouth but Young talks over him.)
YOUNG: I mean, I won't.
After the mutiny, he gets a chance to prove whether he actually means this or not. Having established total power over the ship by force, he immediately releases the civilians, lets them go back to normal with no reprisals, and instead of putting more restrictions on them to prevent the same thing happening again, he takes it as an indication that he is not doing well enough. He tells his hurt, angry and reluctant military personnel that it is their responsibility to do better in future to establish a culture in which the civilians feel valued.
This is perhaps the least tyranty thing a military officer has ever done, but it's not a one-off. It's reinforced throughout the series by the way in which Young continually accepts and encourages other people's ideas and autonomy.
We see this as early as Air, when Young lets Eli go on the lime-collecting expedition even though it seems likely that all Eli will do is slow them down. He wants to see what Eli is made of, and Eli repays his trust by heroically stepping up to the plate to delay Destiny's departure until Scott, Greer and the lime are on board.
It's not always a strategy with such happy results – Young lets Eli and Chloe go explore the ruins and they get left behind. Young lets Lisa go through with her plan to save seedlings in Blockade and it results in her being blinded. He lets the civilians stay on Eden, even though it seems likely to anyone who isn't misled by Caine's wishful thinking that they're all going to die. Nevertheless, he allows them to choose their own fates, because he has recently had it demonstrated to him that he has no right to tell them what to do.
Knowing that Young will take their suggestions seriously and will not needlessly bar them from doing what they think needs to be done means that the civilians feel free to advance their own ideas and theories to him. Take Lisa – she started off the series clearly nervous around him and reluctant to tell him repairs on the shuttle were not going well. She ends it by going to him to suggest a winning battle plan against the drones, which he immediately adopts.
Young's command style is recognizable as the command style of an introvert. According to Harvard Business School;
“A new study finds that extroverted leaders actually can be a liability for a company's performance, especially if the followers are extroverts, too. In short, new ideas can't blossom into profitable projects if everyone in the room is contributing ideas, and the leader is too busy being outgoing to listen to or act upon them.
An introverted leader, on the other hand, is more likely to listen to and process the ideas of an eager team. But if an introverted leader is managing a bunch of passive followers, then a staff meeting may start to resemble a Quaker meeting: lots of contemplation, but hardly any talk. To that end, a team of passive followers benefits from an extraverted leader.”
We see Young from day one trying to build up a team of people who are not passive followers – who are proactive and will take responsibility for coming up with new ideas. In Darkness, for example, he shames Brody and Volker for expecting Rush to do their thinking for them and giving up and waiting to die when Rush is not around. After which Brody and Volker step up and start pulling their weight in terms of grappling with the problem of the day.
Almost as soon as Young is upright again after head injury and nerve damage we find the atmosphere of the ship has entirely changed. People who were panicking like headless chickens are, under his direction, forming teams and exploring the ship, figuring out how things work, pooling information and laughing about it at the same time.
While the idea of morale building can seem like an unnecessary extra, in fact it's vital. Research shows that in survival situations, morale is often the key factor that makes the difference in whether a person lives or dies. Young takes a bunch of terrified people and by including them all and discussing things with them all, he turns them into a community who feel able to grapple with their environment and survive.
AU Young does the same thing on Novus, even if he has to bully people into it at the beginning. We see that while he's shouty and brutal when he needs to be to get people to focus on what needs to happen now, as soon as they are working the problems, he takes a quiet step back and lets them get on with it.
The shouty and brutal bit doesn't endear him to anyone, of course. I've certainly heard it said that he doesn't know how scientists really work. He doesn't know that you can't demand answers right now and expect them to be given. But this is, I think, to ignore the fact that Young only does this in a life or death situation. His scientists have a tendency to waffle, to go down sidetracks, to endlessly discuss things, to get distracted by personal chit chat, and to act as though they have all the time in the world to solve the problem. This is fine when they do. In those situations Young just reminds them of the time constraints and lets them get back to work.
But in combat situations there isn't all the time in the world. Sometimes you've got to make a decision right now, or die. And if Young has to sometimes shout at people to contribute an effective sense of urgency, then that can be an important contribution. His tendency to shout wears off over the series as his teams start to function well without the need to be goaded into it.
In fact I think it's unfair to say he can't work well with scientists. We see him work easily and effectively with Eli and with Rodney McKay and with the triumvirate of Park, Volker and Brody. He finds it extremely hard to work with Rush, but as I say, Rush is his own special case.
In Trial and Error Rush says that Young controls the crew while Rush controls the ship, and that seems a fairly decent summary of each character's main areas of strength.
Rush is very good at working out what Destiny needs, what she can do and how to get her to help them survive.
But Young, as it turns out, is surprisingly good at pulling together the crew. I say surprisingly, because he gets people to follow him even after at least half of them believe he's a murderer, and even after he's lost the ship once already and had a nervous breakdown. The fact that he's still in charge after all of that, and people seem increasingly fond of him, increasingly confident in his judgement as time goes on? Well. The guy must be doing something very right indeed.