Twenty years ago today a group of campy armour clad soldiers emerged from an upright puddle and kicked off a franchise that now continues to this day.
354 broadcast episodes, 34 webisodes, and 2 TV movies later Stargate is a worldwide phenomenon that after a 6 year absence is now coming back in a new format that will hopefully kickstart the franchise back into gear.
Not So Humble Beginnings
We all know how the show got its origins in a 1995 summer blockbuster by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin but it’s hard to remember just how little of the show’s eventually galactic mythology was born there. Even the Goa’uld Ra wasn’t even originally a Goa’uld at all but just some alien. Right from the two hour premiere the TV show turned a story of a small Air Force unit fighting a lone alien force on a desert planet into a galaxy spanning threat with endless storytelling possibilities. In the first season alone we saw there were far more than just one Goa’uld, met around a dozen alien races of all kinds, and had realised that the real enemy might be homegrown politicians rather than an alien armada.
The real change however that set up the success of the show and removing it from the rather serious nature of the film was the change in tone from action spectacle to sci-fi comedy. It’s no overstatement to say that Richard Dean Anderson made the show as without him this would’ve been just another cookie-cutter sci-fi show of a team fighting the “good fight” and bringing peace to the galaxy, all led by a shiny All-American hero. Rather Anderson’s sardonic and wry sense of humour gave it a knowing sense of awareness that it was a high-budget but still tacky-looking “monster of the week” adventure show. He also played the character as a leader comfortable with leaving things to others and letting them figure out things for themselves, a stark contrast from other show’s like Star Trek who normally followed strict star hierarchies with a clear “leader” the others aspired to be, and gave the other leads room to grow with many early episodes featuring O’Neill on the backfoot or out of the running entirely. Daniel’s desire to negotiate repeatedly paid off despite O’Neill’s cynicism, Teal’c proved his worth time and time again, and Carter used her mind to solve issues the others barely even comprehended.
Even the villains became part of the show’s unique mix of comedy and sci-fi that made the fourth wall rather permeable. While we now look back at TOS’s, let’s be honest, bad costumes and fight sequences we do so with a knowing smile given the time period it was filmed in and the relatively small budget but if SG-1 had been played straight it would’ve bombed as many villains were campy at best. Instead however the ridiculous levels of camp became part of that knowing charm and seemed to become deliberately more camp as the show went along, with villainous lairs done in a horribly gaudy fashion of gold and braziers with their dress sense to match with eye-liner mad rulers overacting every line of dialogue.
For three years this was how the show would go along, with the fans enjoying the growing comradery between the team, the comedic elements threaded into every part of the show, the blockbuster action given out in doses without sacrificing the family friendly adventure of it all, and the slow growth of the show’s world.
Then it happened.
The Golden Age
For the first three seasons the show had grown around the central conflict of the SGC versus Apophis, with the introduction of new allies and enemies all connected to this plot. The introduction of the Replicators marked the start of the show’s Golden Age where the writers began to dramatically widen the horizons of the show’s mythos and felt comfortable enough to try out a variety of new stories and styles of episodes. The previously low key operations began to drastically increase in scope as the team tried to acquire spaceships of their own, went on to discover the true origins of the Goa’uld, fought of killer robots, and ended up almost helping space Nazis win a genocidal war. The episode that best summed up this new spirit and is widely regarded as the best of the show’s entire run was Window of Opportunity.
It’s almost tradition now for shows to do some kind of Groundhog Day episode and this is one of the greats, a 45 minute package that encapsulated everything the show wanted to be. In it we saw Teal’c and O’Neill struggle to do the jobs of their counterparts and thereby gaining a new appreciation for their roles on the team while also just having fun with this once in a lifetime opportunity that slowly amps up the ridiculous nature of them, at one point using an ancient and powerful technology as a driving range, before wrapping the whole thing up with a story about loss and the pain of moving past it. The grace in which it moves from serious to comical and then heart-breaking was so well done that it’s still fondly remembered to this day.
This era of the show at its pinnacle would last for four seasons, surviving a key cast change in the process, as the show kept finding new ways to express itself and never slowing down in its quest to create a deeply rich world that by the end of the period included aliens who existed on a whole new plane of existence, an arch-enemy with true powers not of this world, great and dormant revelations about Humanity itself and its true origins, and the SGC becoming a galactic power in its own right leading up an Alliance of peoples from all over the galaxy and even beyond. It even included a whole episode, the 100th, that was little more than a thinly-veiled parody of itself.
By the latter half of season 7 however it was clear things were reaching a head and that the writers were preparing to wrap things up.
A Swansong and A Beginning
The original plan for the show had been simple, the wrapping up of SG-1 in a spectacular final fight for Earth against the big bad while setting up the follow up Stargate Atlantis. Instead SG-1 was unexpectedly given further life in an eight season that could only be described as a season long goodbye while Atlantis went from simply a successor to full-fledged and simultaneous spin-off from the mother show, now taking place in another galaxy all of its own.
For SG-1 the latter half of this farewell tour probably represents the strongest single run of episodes of the franchise’s entire history, featuring episodes to send off beloved side characters like Maybourne and ending with the show revisiting that very first two-parter. It even found the time to have a clipshow episode that was told entirely from the perspective of some random barber. While it may not have been as extravagant when it came to “off-world” locations due to RDA’s new restrictions it still managed to find interesting ways to use the SGC set that had become increasingly forgotten in recent seasons and felt far more intimate as a result without the need to create whole new baddies to stand up several seasons worth of plot. This long goodbye also probably ended up keeping the fledgling sister show on the air which at this point was not doing so good in its first season.
Oh Atlantis, how to talk about the middle child of the franchise. Despite the fantastic opening and closing for the first season of the show it has to be said it really didn’t know what to do with itself during the year, with Ford fairly or not coming to symbolise all that was wrong with it. Instead it largely stumbled around putting out average at best episodes that seemed to be desperate to push this image of being hip and trendy with the new lead shagging his way across Pegasus which was far more sexy than the Milky Way by the way. It wouldn’t be until season two and the addition of Ronon to the cast that it seemed to find its feet and identity. Come the end of the season RDA would decide to leave the job for good, wanting to spend more time with his family after years of the show, and it was here that the mother show began to stumble and be pulled along by the child who didn’t want to leave the nest just yet.
The Son Rises
After eight years on the air and a couple of unexpected continuations along the way SG-1 finally stumbled in the ninth season. While it had always been an ensemble show RDA was very much the core of the show in many ways and his leaving tore a large hole in the heart of the show which also didn’t have any plotlines that were already available for the new season. The show’s casting of Ben Browder to replace RDA didn’t go down well with many fans largely in part because it seemed to be an unfair trumping of Tapping’s place to take over as lead on the show, though how that would’ve worked given her pregnancy is unlikely to have gone well. It then faced serious issues with attempting to transition from the Egyptian enemy to a new Arthurian Legend style that varied wildly in execution and disappeared for large parts of the season.
Its one saving grace however was the reintroduction of Claudia Black’s Vala Mal Doran in a recurring role. Her chemistry with the existing cast was clear in her guest appearance in season 8 and during her appearances in 9 she quickly ended up in a leading role on the team, especially with Shanks as Daniel Jackson as the pair quickly developed a rapport as an old married couple on the show.
Over on the otherside it was clear that Atlantis really upped its game in season 2, likely now getting the lion’s share of funding given RDAs leaving. A key casting change with the introduction of then relatively unknown Jason Momoa in a leading role as Ronon Dex along with the changing of focus from a search for Duracell shop to dealing with the Wraith threat helped the show gel and give the seasons a stronger purpose. It began creating notable recurring characters and added more humorous elements that had been missing from season one which made it a better show altogether and one that carried its own weight.
The mother show would have one last season, a season that saw Vala added to the main cast and the new dynamic finally fall into place in the enlarged SG-1. Unfortunately however the show never truly shone anywhere near as bright as it did before, with plotlines that didn’t go anywhere and the Ori never really able to replace the Goa’uld, but the team themselves were still great to watch and the ride remained enjoyable but it’d clearly reached the terminus and ended with the bittersweet feeling that all good finales leave you with as we watched the team temporarily grow old together. A couple of TV movies, Ark of Truth and Continuum, would soon follow to tie off the last remaining plot threads before the show finally ended after appearing on our screen for 11 years.
Meanwhile Atlantis began to pickup speed with season 3, which added elements such as Pegaus Replicators and a Wraith ally in the form of Todd, before reaching its peak in seasons 4 and 5. While its peak was never as strong or as long-lasting as SG-1’s, suffering from issues regarding the quality of the enemies and that many stories relied on bad decisions by the team, it was still a time of imagination on the show with interesting episodes like Tabula Rasa and The Shrine dealing with the topic of memory loss in different and unique ways. Season 5 in particular saw the arrival of an unlikely lead character in the form of Woolsey. Until then the man had largely been a recurring guest from the IOA but soon found himself at the heart of the show, his relationship with Ronon being a fun one to watch.
However Atlantis remained unstable in terms of its cast, with leads changing very often, and this was certainly responsible for the inability for character growth for some with Sheppard seeming to have had several romance plotlines started over the years ending prematurely. The show ended up coming to an early though satisfying conclusion at the end of season 5, that saw the team come home for good, due to financial constraints caused on MGM in the aftermath of the recession.
Eventually it was revealed that part of the cancellation was to allow for the franchise to take one more form.
Black Sheep of the Family
Stargate Universe is largely seen in the fandom as a wasted opportunity and a show that found itself too late to save itself.
It’s fair to say the fans were still grieving from the loss of a show at its prime only a few months prior when Universe debuted in late 2009 and what didn’t help was the drastic departure the series was from the franchise. Until now the franchise had been a relatively light affair interspersed with serious moments with a small cast of people who were all decent people who meant well. Suddenly however we were greeted with BSG-lite, a show where everyone was super serious and deeply flawed, love triangles run amok, people dying left right and centre, and a new handheld filming style. Even the long opening credits were gone.
For a season fans left despondent from a show that was to be frank just dull as no one was likable while the humour was non-existent and to make matters worse there was no longer another show to take up the slack of a show trying to sort itself out. By season 2 the audience figures were at rock bottom and the show was still struggling storywise. Then halfway through it finally changed, the characters became likable and human, the stories less “we’re all going to die” and more interesting ideas, and the show now vibrant with fun moments and humour back on the cards.
Those last 10-12 episodes were a far cry from that first season and were a fantastic sci-fi show people loved but it never truly felt like a Stargate series, its DNA was just too different from both SG-1 and Atlantis.
And for the last 6 years that’s how the franchise stood, in the same limbo as Eli Wallace found himself standing on the Observation Deck of the Destiny, with the occasional terrible idea about retconning the whole thing to before it even began but with the arrival of Stargate Origins maybe we might just get a continuation.
Why Stargate Mattered
For over a decade the Stargate franchise dominated the sci-fi world. When it first began Star Trek was starting its decline and Babylon 5 was ending, leaving the traditional space sci-fi scene empty, while the more thriller/mystery based X-Files was operating in a more adult-oriented scene. SG-1 quickly changed the way early evening sci-fi shows were done, dropping much of the moralising and seriousness in favour of a more classical and comedic romp through space and occasionally time. Its approach to story formatting would go on to clearly influence those that came after it, with the rebooted Doctor Who taking much the same light-hearted tone and changing from a series of serials format to one that consisted of “monsters of the week” with some occasional hints to the premiere and finale arcs.
Throughout that period the show managed to keep alive the “family-friendly” show that these days is increasingly rare and did so despite the increasing competition from the resurgent “adult” sci-fi shows such as Battlestar Galactica. No matter what time of day and whomever was watching the show was there, providing 45 minutes of escapism where you might watch some comedic high-jinks, an edge of your seat thriller, pulse-racing action, or even the occasional moral message all the while watching good people coming through without betraying each other or letting them down.
The stories it chose to tell were always resolved in a variety of ways, sometimes with the team coming out the lesser or openly questioning their methods, never relying too much on the bullet or diplomacy. Sometimes science had the answer but other times it could go too far. It also showed the international side of affairs in a more complex and realistic way than many contemporaries, with it very rarely being everyone just worked together but instead had to also haggle and deal just like in reality. While other shows step around these things by having humanity represented by some almighty organisation here we saw the fact that we really are just bickering nation states rarely brought together without something in return.
You’d find all these things in other shows but very rarely would you find them all in one place and done so routinely well.
Despite all these reasons for why the show was great the number one was the characters. Stargate rarely had the glittering hero character but instead had flawed though not too flawed people who were friends and colleagues who loved and cared for each other. Until Universe there were no love triangles, people suddenly turning traitor of their own choice, power grabs, or acts of evil. Instead you saw people at their very best. They went out of their way time and time again to help each other, grew as people even if they weren’t from Earth, and had to deal with their personality clashes in an honest way. Unlike other shows it didn’t feel forced but a natural set of friendships that grew amongst the cast just like the characters and was truly human as a result. This was even seen in Universe as it was clear the confrontations were forced and when they moved past that for season 2.5 you saw the relationships blossom as the true affection amongst the cast became clear on screen between the characters.
In the end that’s what Stargate was more than anything else. As Battlestar Galactica was less sci-fi and more a political drama in a sci-fi world Stargate, despite its grand budgets and otherworldly threats, became a sitcom drama set in a sci-fi adventure where people tuned in week after week for 14 years to watch a group of friends have a laugh while the fans laughed along with them.
Laughed along for 354 broadcast episodes, 34 webisodes, and 2 TV movies.