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Closing the Iris – A Retrospective look at the Stargate Franchise

19 April 2011 Mr ARC

On Sunday, April 17th 2011, Brad Wright took to the stage of Vancouver’s Creation Entertainment event and announced to fans that both Stargate Universe and the proposed movies have been cancelled and the franchise put on hold. The crowd looked onward in silence and tears could be seen as the news struck home. After all, Stargate has become a huge part of many people’s lives over the past almost two decades.

 

Brad Wright has had an extensive career ranging from writing work on The Outer Limits and Poltergeist: The Legacy, to the founding of the Stargate franchise via SG-1 with colleague Jonathan Glassner. Without a doubt however, Stargate has become the single piece of work to define his career, extending to over 350 episodes making it (according to the Guinness World Records, and not Doctor Who fans) the longest-running science fiction show. But Stargate has been much more than just a really old sci-fi show, it has a fanatical fan base extending all around the globe, personal ties to the military including the use of its assets and produced some genuine stand-out moments in television history.

   

The pilot for SG-1, the first series in the three Stargate franchises, was initially broadcasted in 1997 three years after Roland Emmerich’s film Stargate introduced us to intergalactic gate travel. Initially the show borrowed heavily from the ideas set-up in the original movie but eventually began to form its own unique identity as the show went on. In season 3 the focus on Egyptian gods was replaced by synthetic enemies called the Replicators, and then in season 9 pale-faced demigods the Ori became the show’s main enemies. The cast remained mostly the same throughout seasons 1-8 with Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson - TV’s MacGyver) leading military brainiac Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), history geek Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) and strong-but-silent alien Teal’c (Christopher Judge). In seasons 9-10 Cameron Mitchel (Ben Browder) stepped into the shoes of Jack along with mischievous alien Vala Mal Doran (Claudia Black), reuniting the two actors who both previously played lead rolls in the TV series Farscape. The show continued for an exceptional 10 series and 2 movies, proving testament that Stargate was a serious contender in the science fiction world.  

 

Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before MGM looked to broaden Stargate into its first spin-off, Atlantis. SGA took over the final events of season 8 of SG-1, and saw a band of humans venture into the distant Pegasus galaxy to find a massive Ancient city/ship to make home. In addition to this departure from Earth, the core cast also grew in size with John Sheppard (Joe Flannigan) taking the lead role. Despite the 7 or so cast members clambering for screen-time it was Rodney McKay (David Hewett) and his sarcastic, citrus-fearing personality that stole the show. Originally a guest character on SG-1, it is easily understandable how McKay became such a big part of SGA as he was genuinely funny and relatable despite his quirky persona. Atlantis lasted 5 seasons and held-up extremely well compared to SG-1.

 

sg command SGU Team

The final part of the Stargate story came in the form of Stargate Universe. Whereas SG-1 and SGA provided often similar, and at times, light entertainment for viewers; SGU proposed to turn the safe Stargate world upside-down with a darker, moodier show clearly borrowing from the ideology that made the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica so successful. Unlike SGA which ran for a time alongside SG-1, SGU became the sole series to hold the Stargate banner – a big risk for the show’s creators given the leap they were taking.

On paper SGU drew similarities with SGA: they both had a large cast ensemble and involved people stranded in another galaxy. SGU however took this idea one step further by placing the characters in an environment in which they had very little control over the day-to-day events, courtesy of an Ancient gate-seeding ship that was stuck on a very old autopilot programme – the Destiny. Perhaps in an attempt to both make a statement about the quality of the Stargate franchise and attract newcomers, an unusual and quite impressive lead role was given to play character Nicholas Rush in the form of actor Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, 28 Weeks Later, Trainspotting). Shock! An A-list actor doing small-screen science-fiction, surely it can’t fail? Well, SGU suffered a much bumpier ride than its predecessors and if you’ve read the start of this article you know how it ends. So what happened? How did the unstoppable MGM flag-ship series reach its apparent end? Well below I have a few theories…

 

Firstly I think part of SGU’s cancellation at the end of season 2 was down to the fans’ own stubbornness. The sheer resentment towards SGU replacing SGA meant that those hard-core Stargaters were looking for an excuse to stop watching. Whether it is the slow-paced story, lack of humour or apparent lack of direction some people simply were never going to give the show the time it deserves. Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion the writers did make a few fundamental mistakes, the most important being the lack of establishing an overall story arc within a show that was so character driven raised concerns that this was nothing more than another post-LOST show that would ultimately not deliver (Flash*ahem*Forward). If the large proportion of Stargate fans had given the show some more time, and had more faith that the writers would deliver, they may have found what they were looking for. Certainly during the last few episodes of season 1 and throughout season 2, the idea of finding the spark that created the universe and the idea that something could exist with intelligence beyond the background radiation of the big bang certainly (well at least to me) was intriguing.

It’s good to see that the writers of Stargate care so much about their fans and it does feel like you are part of a family watching the shows, but I believe that in some cases this can be detrimental to a franchise. Take SGA for example. The writers make a bold decision to kill-off Carson Beckett, possibly one of the most lovable and kind-hearted characters dreamt up in the Stargate universe. They devoted a whole episode to the poor guy’s demise along with a heart-wrenching ‘goodbye’ scene between him and Rodney – not a dry eye in the house! What followed next was an unprecedented amount of ‘bring back Carson’ campaigns from the fans, some even threatening to stop watching the show. This is fine, and I think that it is a wonderful testament to how much people care about SGA. What however, in my opinion, was a joke is how they later resurrected Carson from the dead in the form of a clone. This felt cheap and very convenient. The writers’ concern towards making everyone happy was clearly impacting the believability of the show, and certainly wasn’t the only example of this being done. In the final episode of SGA muscle-bound alien Ronan Dex was killed-off by the show’s main enemies the Wraith, only to be resurrected a few scenes later. If someone dies in the final episode of a series they should remain dead, but I feel that the writers were constantly concerned with extending the series in the form of movies that such bold decision making just wasn’t possible. In attempting to ensure longevity for the series they were, to a certain degree, hurting the show. This mentality was also carried over to SGU in the form of the reanimation of Ginn and Amanda Perry. It showed that being dead didn’t necessarily mean the end for a character, and when a show has survival as its core mission this directly impacts the amount you care for the characters. This isn’t new to Stargate though, so many different science-fiction series seemingly offer convenient ways to bring back fan-favourite characters, it was just disappointing that Stargate didn’t steer clear of this stereotype.

 

I think in the end the main problem with SGU was that it was trying to fill a new niche market that had been carved by Battlestar Galactica, without the ability to let go of a few practises that fitted within the world of SG-1 and SGA, but not in SGU. Don’t get me wrong I think SGU is a wonderful series - I am just trying to understand the main driving force behind the cancellation of SGU. One thing that the writers never failed was to create a quality cast ensemble, and SGU have some of the best characters on television. In an economy which is (at present) very unforgiving and under the umbrella of a channel such as SyFy which is notorious for dropping shows, there was no room for the small errors SGU made early on. I feel that if SGU had a few more seasons then it would have been around for the long-run and I wouldn’t be writing this article. Some of the best episodes of the whole Stargate franchise can be found in SGU, especially towards the end of season 2, and that is a sad reminder of what could have been. So what’s next for Stargate?  Buffy still had an extensive continuation beyond its final season in the form of graphic novels. Perhaps Stargate will utilise this ever-growing medium to tell the story of Destiny’s final missions? We can certainly expect to see more Stargate books, adding to the already ample back catalogue available to buy. Maybe we will see a reprisal in a few years much as with Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars mini-series? Brad Wright said that after 17 years he would be packing up his desk. My thoughts go out to him and hopefully one day he will get the opportunity to dust-off the various planned Stargate movie scripts and take a leap of faith with the franchise again.

Looking back over the many years I have watched Stargate, below are a few memorable and moving moments that stand-out to me.

Destiny Entering the Sun (Stargate Universe – Light)

 

Poignant, beautiful and fantastically shot – a great example of a simple story told in a compelling way.