Back in 1994, I was going to the cinema a lot more often than I do nowadays. I was pretty much up to date with every new release – pretty much went through the scorecard every weekend. One idle Friday night, I went to see a new film, “Stargate”. The plot seemed promising. An ancient teleportation device had been discovered in Egypt, which led to Colonel Jack O’Neill doing battle against a race of parasitic snake-aliens who took humans as their hosts. It featured Kurt Russell as O’Neill, with support from James Spader as his slightly unwilling sidekick Doctor Daniel Jackson. I fell asleep twenty minutes in, and missed the next hour or so. My viewing experience was of necessity somewhat disjointed as a result, and I didn’t think much of it as I left. If only I’d known then what I know now.
Stargate as a television franchise finally left the air this month, and I find myself feeling quietly sad. It pretty much dominated my television habits for nearly fifteen years. Never missed an episode of any series, and now it’s gone. It needs marking in some way, and this is my attempt at a eulogy. Or an elegy. Stargate, you were something special.
It all started promisingly. Stargate SG-1 roared straight out of the gates in 1997, picking up a year after the movie left off. Humanity was still under threat from the unpronounceable Gou’ald. In what was merely the first of innumerable touches that set SG-1 ahead of the rest, the Gou’ald were accompanied by endless arrays of weapon-toting foot soldiers. Because this was a race who had become accustomed to supremacy and never expected resistance, said foot-soldiers were played by numerous middle-aged, overweight men in in ill-fitting battle armour. I always loved the intelligence that we as an audience were credited with there. Nobody ever passed comment on it, but you could work it out. Lovely.
Jack O’Neill had been recast and was now played by McGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson.Initially very much the star of the whole show, Anderson – whether out of generosity or increasing disinterest – would move out of the spotlight and SG-1 would become much more of an ensemble piece. Lightning was comprehensively caught in a bottle here, as the main cast were all – every last one of them – superb. If you love the characters, you’re off to a flying start.
James Spader had regenerated too, winningly played by Michael G. Shanks. Daniel Jackson was – at least initially – used as a sort of multi-purpose problem solver. He was the tortured genius with a conscience, the representative of humanity who would balance the millitaristic tendencies of Jack O’Neill. Early episodes tended to have Daniel wander into a scene and solve whatever dilemma faced our heroes and then wander back out again. Initially he was driven by a desperate urge to be reunited with the love of his life, kidnapped by the Gou’ald very early on. It soon became clear that Shanks had more – much more than that to offer, and the battle for supremacy began. SG-1 had a main team that was perfectly balanced, complementing each others strengths beautifully. It’s to Shanks’s credit – and the production team’s as well – that Daniel became stronger and stronger with each episode, but eventually it led to a kind of jockeying for position as the Alpha-Male of the team which came close to overbalancing the whole thing on several occasions.
“Children of the Gods” took a leisurely approach to setting up the series – a luxurious double-length running time gave us the chance to watch the team we’d come to love slowly coalesce. Amanda Tapping’s Samantha Carter was first on board. In her first scene she was forced to deliver what may well be the single worst line in all television Science Fiction, and it’s worth repeating here, just to emphasise how much the character would improve, and how quickly –
just because my reproductive organs are on the inside instead of the outside, doesn’t mean I can’t handle whatever you can handle.
Shortly after that, poor Amanda was handed this beauty –
I logged over 100 hours in the Gulf War. Is that tough enough for you or are we going to have to arm-wrestle?
Shudder. Things would improve. Thank god.
Soon after that, Christopher Judge’s T’ealc arrived. Initially working as a sort of Klytus to Aphophis’s Ming The Merciless, T’ealc would rapidly switch sides and become yet another one of SG-1’s main strengths. Christopher Judge – a garrulous, witty and verbose man – was given a part which required him to play the strong, silent type who spoke in monosyllables. Somehow, he became one of the most beloved characters in the entire franchise. It speaks volumes for the dignity and grace he managed to invest in the character that he became the pivot around which everyone else turned. If T’ealc was around, you knew you were going to be alright.
By the end of the pilot our four heroes were in place and ready to head out through the Stargate in search of adventure. Back home at their base under Cheyenne Mountain they had the perfect backup team. No matter what happened every week on the other side of the Stargate, Don S Davis as General Hammond, Gary Jones as Walter Harriman and Dan Shea as Sgt Siler would be there.
I think I wouldn’t be putting words into mouths if I were to say that Don S Davis was beloved by pretty much every Stargate fan. His General Hammond was rock solid, dependable, and the perfect boss. Always reliable, even when all he had to do was deliver the expository dialogue required to set up the week’s antics, we all loved Don. He became terribly ill as the series wore on which necessitated his appearances being rationed. He was eventually replaced by Beau Bridges as Major General Hank Landry. Bridges did his best with a thankless task, and we eventually came to accept him, but it was a blow from which the series never really fully recovered. It’s rather fitting that Don made his final appearance in the final Stargate SG-1 production – one of two TV Movies made after the series ended. Davis passed away shortly thereafter and we lost a wonderful talent. He was there at the beginning. I’m so glad he was there at the last.
Jones – initially cast as the underling who set the Stargate in motion each week, and Shea – originally the series Stunt co-ordinator who gathered a sizeable following of his own – completed the family, and we were off.
In its early years, SG-1 set out its stall as a sort of anti-Star Trek. Whatever Trek did, Stargate wouldn’t. In most episodes of Trek, there’s a sort of gung-ho “no man left behind” attitude where the Federation protects all who serve under them. Stargate didn’t necessarily follow that line. Early on, T’ealc is kidnapped and put on trial for his acts as a representative of the Gou’ald. Instead of blasting in with all guns blazing to rescue him, he’s left to account for his actions in court, and it’s delicious to see a series like this not taking the simple path.
The mythology developed, almost imperceptibly. “Thor’s Hammer” introduced the Asgard – the gray aliens of 20th Century myth, given a little twist. The Tokra, The Tollan and The Nox pencilled in bits more of this enormous and (largely) self-contained universe, and the supporting characters kept on coming. Colonel Maybourne, Senator Kinsey, Master Bra’tac, Richard Woolsey, Martin Lloyd – all of them much loved, and the likes of Ronnie Cox, Tony Amendola, Robert Picardo and Willie Garson joined in the fun with gusto.
For the first four years it all looked good. By the time of “The Fifth Race” the characters were so well established that Anderson could say “Danieeeeell…” in a warning tone and Shanks could respond brightly with an airy “Jack?”, and you knew exactly what both men were thinking and where the scene was going to go. It was wonderful, entertaining television, but then the cracks began to show.
First to go was Shanks. Bored rigid, unhappy and annoyed at not being given enough to do, the actor finally had one brush too many with the production team and tendered his resignation. He was written out towards the end of series 5 and the episode in which Daniel dies, “Meridian”, is a high-point, encompassing everything you could ever want from Stargate.
The production team weren’t prepared for what happened next, as fandom went ballistic. Daniel was loved to an extent that they hadn’t quite realised, and it wasn’t long before he was back. He made recurring appearances in season 6 and his luckless successor (Corin Nemec, playing “Jonas Quinn”, from scripts which quite obviously had the name “Daniel” crossed out and his put on instead) was rapidly brushed aside when Shanks and the production team buried their differences. Daniel reappeared at the start of series 7 and commenced his ascendancy to become the dominant character in the entire show. It’s a shame as Nemec was never given the chance to develop and is more or less forgotten. He deserved better.
The next blow fell when MGM / Showtime decided that they’d had enough and dropped the series. It looked like the end, but Stargate refused to die. The Sci-Fi Channel (later, Sci-Fi and now – repugnantly – SyFY) picked it up and there the franchise stayed until the end. Rumours abound that in so doing, it brought about the end of “Farscape” as Sci-Fi couldn’t afford to keep making them both. I’m not altogether sure that idea completely holds, but it certainly explains a couple of later casting decisions.
Richard Dean Anderson became visibly and obviously bored. The actor was desperate to have his screen time reduced and it showed. Whole episodes drifted by with Anderson barely there, and the other three having to carry the whole thing. By the end of series 8, he was gone, although he would reappear for the occasional cameo episode. In his place, Ben Browder from Farscape was parachuted in as Lt Colonel Cameron Mitchell. He had a thankless task ahead of him and it’s to his credit that it didn’t faze him one bit. From his first appearance Browder was superb. Witty, smart and fully engaged with the series – everything that Anderson wasn’t, he became so much more than an O’Neill cypher. He brought Claudia Black along with him from Farscape and Vala Maldoran provided the first evidence of a disturbing tendency which would become more and more annoying as the franchise staggered on.
There’s nothing more toxic – at least to this viewer – than when a production team visibly falls in love with a single character in an ensemble show. The perspective begins to skew towards them. Subplots which would normally be shared out equally tend to fall entirely to them and everyone else has to stand back. If you like the character, this isn’t a problem. If you don’t, it rapidly becomes aggravating.
It’s no fault of Claudia Black – in fact, she’s superb – but it became obvious very early on that the production team *loved* Vala. In her initial appearances Vala was one of those “ooooh, look at me. I’m sooooo seeeexxy!” characters – the type where you’re supposed to take their obvious physical charms in lieu of anything resembling a personality. It’s to Black’s credit that she worked like hell to pull something more out of it than that and by the end of the series she’d sort of repositioned herself as the equivalent to Anya from “Buffy” – venal, self-obsessed but learning a little more about life with every episode. By the end I loved her, but that’s entirely down to Claudia Black. The production teams in charge would later fall in love with Rodney Mackay in “Stargate : Atlantis” and Chloe Armstrong in “Stargate : Universe”. David Hewlett would soften Rodney into something more likeable too, but Elyse Levesque would never really be given the time or the opportunity to do likewise for Chloe. A shame.
Slowly the Gou’ald plot began to be wrapped up and interest shifted to the seemingly unstoppable Replicators. Initially little meccano spiders which could build and assimilate anything they came across, they later became human and rather boring, but worse – much worse – was to come.
Real life became suddenly and horribly inescapable in September 2001, as events in New York unfolded. It seemed that we were suddenly a little less safe, a little less secure. Unfortunately, Stargate SG-1 suddenly started to reflect that reality, with the introduction of the Ori. A race of robed maniac religious fundamentalists who wanted nothing more than to bring the entire universe round to their way of thinking and destroy anyone who didn’t believe what they did, it was a clod-hopping, obvious and above all insulting allegory. It makes me angry even now to think about how a series so reknowned for a sensitive, intelligent, humanist approach to life could suddenly start painting in such broad brush-strokes. It pretty much destroyed my love for the series and my affection took a long time to come back. For nearly two full seasons, Stargate SG-1 was *horrible* to watch, notable only in its awfulness. It began to struggle back during its last season but by then it was too late. Far, far too late.
Thankfully, other developments were afoot. A sister series had been shot into production and the foundations were laid at the end of SG-1’s seventh series. Before too long, Stargate : Atlantis gave us a whole new set of characters to play with, and new situations to explore. Well, sort of.
Following the discovery of the fabled lost city of Atlantis – actually founded by The Ancients (another nice development of Stargate Mythology) and based on the planet Lantea on the other side of a Stargate in a far-far-off Galaxy, Stargate Command despatch a team to investigate. The prim, no-nonsense commander Elizabeth Weir (Tori Higginson) are joined by wisecracking Jack O’Neill clone John Shephard (Joe Flanagan), abrasive egotist Sam-Carter-In-Trousers Rodney Mackay (David Hewlett), Earth-Mother T’ealc in a loincloth Teyla (Rachel Luttrell), Lt Aiden Ford (Rainbow Sun Francks) and sensitive, caring Doctor Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion).
Unfortunately, once they arrive they awaken a slumbering evil-from-the-dawn-of-time. The Wraith are thin, grey, cadaverous and eat the life-forces of other beings. They’re almost unstoppable, and before too long they’re up and about and prowling for a snack. They’re also unbelievably, tediously boring and the struggle for supremacy between them and our human heroes eats terribly into the airtime of the series.
All this wasn’t enough for our “heroes” though, as they also managed to successfully piss off another entire race, bringing the wrath of the Genii (militaristic, fifties technology, aggressive) down upon their little, isolated outpost. Their track record by this time wasn’t terribly good and the first season flailed very badly. It seemed to take forever to get going. Tori Higginson scored one up on Richard Dean Anderson by appearing bored from the moment she first appeared and Joe Flanagan struggled like hell to stop Shephard being more than a Jack O’Neill clone. Flanagan succeeded, becoming a serious series strength (and incidentally, the only person who could control Rodney Mackay. Having spotted that Rodney has a serious citrus allergy, Shephard takes to carrying a lemon in his pocket and threatening to squirt the bugger when he gets out of line). Higginson didn’t, becoming more and more sidelined and eventually disappearing altogether.
She was replaced in short order by Amanda Tapping, dropped in from the parent series. When Tapping found employment elsewhere in “Sanctuary”, things had to shift again, bringing Robert Picardo over too as Richard Woolsey. Stargate:Atlantis was suddenly run by a bureaucrat but oddly, it seemed to work. Picardo was rock-solid and he carried things wonderfully in a way that the others didn’t seem to manage.
Before all that, Stargate:Atlantis attempted to retool itself and fix the all-too obvious problems afflicting the first series. Ford wasn’t really working and Rainbow Sun Francks was quietly written out, to be replaced by Jason Momoa’s gigantic beefcake of a T’ealc substitute, Ronon Dex. The Wraith were pushed to the side a bit and replaced with a few more explore-the-universe stories. The Genii knocked about, becoming the main series threat, which was a shame as they weren’t – to be brutally honest – really up to it. More than any other series I can think of, Atlantis stood entirely on the charm of the main characters.
Thank god then,that the actors were strong enough to carry it. Atlantis became perceptibly warmer from this point on and all of the main cast – even Rodney – were characters you wanted to spend time with. Well, perhaps not Weir, who reflected the discomforts of Higginson in an altogether too obvious manner. Somehow, the series stumbled on – never too striking, never too awful, but always watchable. Then…
Once again, disaster struck. Stargate’s production team – utterly refusing to learn from the events surrounding the loss of Michael Shanks a few years previously – decided to kill off Carson Beckett. Once again they were unprepared for the what happened, only this time the reaction was even worse, to the extent that members of the behind the scenes team actually had to give up going to conventions because of their fear of what they’d be faced with. That Beckett – easily one of the series’ strongest characters – was killed off in such a stupid way didn’t help. Characters can be killed making a heroic sacrifice. Sometimes they die in an accident. Occasionally, they’re allowed to die quietly, in their own beds. To the best of my knowledge no character has (before or since) been killed off by an explosive tumour. A colossal misstep, and one which once again left the poor sod drafted in to replace him with a huge job. As before, McGillion would be back, but in the meantime, someone new was needed.
Thankfully this time, they got it right. Before long, Firefly’s Jewel Staite arrived as the new medico and the show continued to buzz along. Although she never fully succeeded Beckett in fandom’s affections, Staite did a wonderful job and the series was enriched by her presence. Poor old Corin Nemec must have looked on with envy.
And then, suddenly – it was all over. Someone, somewhere decided that a new broom was needed and that the entire concept of Stargate needed an overhaul – the phrase bandied about was “bigger budget and more character development” and with very little warning, Atlantis was cancelled, to make way for the clumsily titled SGU : Stargate Universe. This made a lot of people very cross, me included. Everyone working on Atlantis did a sterling job. They deserved better and they didn’t get it.
So what of this exciting new, bigger-budget-and-more-character-development series? Well…
What that translated to, so far as I could see, was the almost wholesale kicking into touch of one of the Stargate franchise’s trump cards. Both series so far (we’ll draw a descrete veil over the animated Stargate : Infinity. It not only doesn’t exist, it never has existed, and it never will exist) skewed slightly older than you might expect. Most of the lead actors were in their thirties – or if not, at least heading towards them quite rapidly. It was nice to see an experienced ensemble cast of seasoned, great actors working together. Stargate’s greatest strength has always been the casts they managed to pull together. It stands or falls on whether you want to tune in every week to spend time with these people. If the chemistry is right, you’re laughing. With the exception of a few old pros (about whom, more in a minute) SGU was stacked predominantly with younger, prettier faces and the chemistry just wasn’t there. For me anyway, the first season of SGU got it horribly and fatally wrong.
This time out a team of civilians, scientists and millitary found themselves stranded on The Destiny – an Ancient-created spaceship, travelling to who-knows-where. Led by the hard-headed Colonel Young (the series ostensible star, Louis Ferreira) and with not one but two teenage prodigies on board (Eli Wallace, played by David Blue who spent two entire series being brilliant in a red t-shirt emblazoned with the words “You Are Here”, and Chloe Armstrong, already mentioned above), it soon became clear where the real focus of the series lay. Two words – Robert Carlyle.
This was the real coup for the show, and simultaneously its biggest problem. As the arrogant, mercurial, thoroughly unpleasant Dr Geoffrey Rush, Carlyle outshone everyone else in every scene. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him – it’s an electric performance, probably the best in the history of the franchise – but it leaves everyone else trailing behind. It’s a shame, because there’s good work being done here. As ever, the actors worked their damndest, but in the first year they were cursed with slim pickings.
It seemed that the much vaunted “character development” consisted of “we hate each other, we’re all self-obsessed, and we’re going to spend 45 minutes every week being as horrible to each other as we can mange”. Ferreira struggled to find warmth in Colonel Young, as incompetent and hard-assed a commanding officer as ever there was. Alaina Huffman’s TJ, ship’s medical officer, had no character at all apart from what Huffman herself put into it. Eli was that most hated of Science Fiction cliches – the teenage prodigy who’s a whizz with science. Jamil Walker-Smith’s Grier was a psycho nutcase with a rifle. The series looked at the remake of Battlestar Galactica, decided that grim and gritty was the way to go and gave us softcore scenes of twenty-something narcissists having sex with each other in cupboards. Multiple episodes ended with an eternity of mardy montages and music that screamed YOU SHOULD FEEL SAD!!! At one point in the series, everybody dies, and I cheered. Something wrong there, surely.
It wasn’t a total dead loss. Carlyle held it all together. Slowly but surely Ferreira began to mellow out his unlikeable sod of a character. Everyone else began to come to grips with what they were doing. A story arc – of sorts – began to emerge with the appearance of an old SG-1 subplot at the end of series 1 which brought Rhona Mitra onboard for a remarkable two episode guest shot. Lou Diamond Phillips turned up, proved to be the only person who could toe-to-toe with Carlyle and ended up staying (on and off) for the duration. Things began to shift in the right direction.
By the time we were halfway through the second series, things were looking up. The characters actually seemed to like each other, Rush had discovered The Destiny’s Destiny (sorry). People were even using the Stargate occasionally (a major problem with the concept was that it was so unlike the previous two series that it barely seemed part of the same universe at all). It was all working, all of a sudden, although the previous season had left me watching more as a duty than as a pleasure. But it was too late. The inevitable happened. The axe fell.
Stargate as a concept finally left the air a fortnight ago. It’s perhaps a mark of the confusion that the whole franchise had fallen into that the third-to-last episode (a rather heartwarming vision of what-might-have been) would have played out perfectly as a finale. Instead, the actual last episode featured about twenty minutes of CGI battle scenes and twenty minutes pissing about in some corridors, before a defiantly open-ended, “please bring us back” final scene.
I’d love to see it back. Stargate meant a lot to me. When it was good, it was the best American SF series of the lot. Warmer, more accessible and considerably less po-faced (at least until SGU) than most of their contemporaries, all three live-action Stargate series had much to recommend them. Despite the confusion, despite their inability to focus on a set direction for more than a season at a time, I loved the concept dearly. I still do, and I’ll miss them.