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Poor Man's "Star Trek"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | September 23, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | September 23, 2009 |

“Stargate” is a strange little show, with as many historical idiosyncrasies as about six normal shows. Following the Stargate feature film, both Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner independently proposed a spin off television series to MGM. Killing two birds with one stone, MGM lumped them together and told them to Voltron together a show. During the proposal stage, an MGM exec asked if the team on the show could be called “SG-1” and Wright agreed more or less with a shrug. A week later MGM sent out the first promotional materials using the “SG-1” title without Wright or Glassner knowing that the title had been changed, and the name was irrevocably stuck for the next decade. Wright reportedly also once told Gozer the Gozerian that he was not in fact a god.

Auditions produced a decent set of actors for the core roles, relative unknowns Christopher Judge, Michael Shanks, and Amanda Tapping, all of whom stayed with the show through the end. Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver himself, agreed to the starring role, provided that it could be played with significantly more humor than the Kurt Russell’s take on Jack O’Neill in the film version of Stargate.

The show started out on Showtime (the first episode has nudity!) and then after five seasons moved over to the SciFi channel. Michael Shanks, a bit cranky about his character and the lack of martinis at the craft services table left the show at this point. That departure led to an epic melt down by fans of the show, who blamed the SciFi channel for firing Shanks and bringing on Corin Nemec as the Mary Sue to end all Mary Sues. Nemec got bounced for Shanks’ return (thus proving forever that Parker Lewis could indeed lose) the following season and the show settled in for another five years on the SciFi channel.

All told, the show ran for 10 seasons (214 episodes) plus 3 straight-to-DVD movies, beating out “X-Files” by a season for the longest American science fiction show of all time. It would have needed to run until Richard Dean Anderson was in diapers though in order to challenge the pretty-much-unbeatable world record of “Doctor Who“‘s original 26 year run. Damnable Brits.

It seemed like as good a time as any to revisit “Stargate SG-1,” take stock of where it stands among science fiction shows and ponder whether it is worth any significant rewatching in light of the upcoming “Stargate Universe.”

As a show, it’s just sort of fun. That’s not to say it’s stupid, as in “stupid fun,” the two are conflated too often in conversations about television and films, it’s just that the episodes are shot through and through with that joyous fun of a kid playing with his toys. Richard Dean Anderson in particular brings a levity to his role, a raised eyebrow “lemme see if I can sum this up,” regular guy snarkiness that simultaneously is entertaining and asks forgiveness for the show’s shortcomings. There’s the usual “why does everybody in the universe speak English” dumbness of low budget sci-fi, but it’s somehow more tolerable when O’Neill makes a snide comment about it.

Another aspect of the show that always resonated was its scientific underpinnings. I don’t mean that its science was particularly plausible or droned out in boring detail, but that the approach to problems was fundamentally scientific. Too much sci-fi focuses on the plot to the point of neglecting the way people actually think through problems, on the emotional progression rather than the mental progression. The worst offenders break that rule of story telling “show don’t tell,” they tell us that Doctor Smart Guy is working really hard, make him drink coffee, have a light bulb go off, and then staple a technobabble solution to the wall at the end without ever showing how he figures this out. The answer can still be fictional technobabble, but there is something more honest and scientific about a progression of incrementally figuring something out. “Stargate SG-1” excelled at that sort of storytelling, in which they “showed their work” so to speak.

In an odd dichotomy though, the characters were always the best part of the show, even as they failed to evolve substantially over the course of the series. The interactions between the characters always rang genuinely and was entertaining even as they trudged through their hundredth random primitive world that looked strangely like the woods outside of Vancouver. In later seasons this weakened quite a bit when Richard Dean Anderson left the show. Ben Browder played the role fine, but at the end of the day SciFi had just penciled in the character as being identical to John Crichton (his role on the viciously canceled “Farscape”).

If anything, the stories were both the weakest and strongest part of the show. Basically, it took the sitcom approach of nothing ever really changing. Oh the bad guys would swap out over the seasons (Goa’uld, Replicators, Anubis, Ori), but nothing critical ever changed … there were still bad guys, SG-1 still went through the gate looking for new life and new civilization, the rest of Earth never found out about the project … it was ten years of almost static plot development. But that also meant that you could drop right in and watch the show at any point. I originally watched the show by season passing it on my TiVo in 2003. Over a week of catastrophic flu, I simultaneously watched about fifty episodes from five different seasons airing on five different channels and didn’t really have any trouble following what was happening at any point.

So is it worth going back and watching? Well, it was a fun show for its time, a good reliable hour every week. I know several people who are sci-fi junkies who missed the show originally and have gone back and gradually watched the show on DVD. So that’s the tipping point. If you like good sci-fi because you’ll watch anything that’s good, i.e. you watch “Doctor Who” and “Battlestar Galactica” but would never admit to being an actual sci-fi fan, per se, then “Stargate SG-1” probably isn’t worth the time investment. If on the other hand, given the choice of second tier sci-fi or the second tier of any other genre, you’ll always take the sci-fi option, you can do a lot worse than “Stargate SG-1” in your NetFlix queue or having your TiVo pick up some of the endless syndication of the show.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.