Welcome to Fan Service, a guide to engaging with gargantuan, lore-heavy franchises. In each volume, we’ll recommend a watch/read order to approach the given series with and dissect our argument for it. Today: we’re taking “Stargate” from its origins to “Origins.”
The “Stargate” franchise hit its stride at a time when TV sci-fi was going through the last gasps of a 90’s boom. “Doctor Who” had yet to make its triumphant return to British television. Fans of “The X-Files” suffered through the show’s final seasons. The first “Star Trek” prequel series put the franchise in a death spiral, forcing a retreat from the small screen for over a decade. All the while “Stargate” had a solid cast and a decent sense of humor about the whole nature of pulpy TV sci-fi.
That said, “Stargate” never reached the heights of the greats that came before it. Looking back now, the shortcomings of the “Stargate” franchise as a whole are hard to forgive — there’s no science fiction show I can more confidently call “B-grade.” Sure, “B” is a fair sight better than most of its contemporaries could ever muster, but “Stargate” never really broke out. It had a long life through spin-offs and syndication, but there’s a reason why the abruptly canceled “Firefly” got a theatrical follow-up and why “Stargate” has yet to return to cinemas. In spite of its potential, “Stargate” was happy to be derivative-but-enjoyable romp.
“Stargate,” like so many ’90s series, is back now… sort of. It remains to be seen if the franchise will have a true comeback or if the latest development in its history — the release of the new “Stargate Origins” web series — is an aftershock. If the folks behind “Stargate” now want to make it relevant in the age of streaming TV, they’ll have to decide whether they should embrace the series’ tackiest tendencies or abandon them in favor of something a little more grown-up. If they choose the latter, they’ll need to dismantle the defining traits that bog the franchise down — its exotification of foreign cultures and its courting of military respect chief amongst them.
In this installment of Fan Service we’ll look at the history of “Stargate” from its beginnings as an upstart blockbuster, through its golden era as a popular staple of sci-fi TV and ending with its latest incarnation as a humble web series. That’s twenty four years and nearly twenty seasons of thoroughly enjoyable entertainment to cover, so buckle up.
Dialing In The Right Order
For a time, “Stargate” was popular enough to support two concurrent television shows with shared continuity. That makes suggesting a watch order a little tricky. From now on I’ll forever think of this as the “Star Trek” problem; after trying to come up with an intelligible-yet-simplified order for that franchise, the “Stargate” flip-flopping between “SG-1” and its sister show “Atlantis” isn’t so bad.
Any reasonable order will have you start with the 1994 film followed by the first seven seasons of “SG-1.” If you want to replicate the experience fans had as the shows aired, you could switch between episodes of “SG-1” and “Atlantis” starting with the show’s eighth and first seasons, respectively. A fan who goes by “u/bill” on Reddit (congrats on nabbing that name early, dude) made an order that tries to preserve the strict in-fiction chronology of events — I always opt for ease of binge-watching over canon orderings in cases like these, so the most effort I suggest putting in is switching between seasons of “SG-1” and “Atlantis” as the two shows overlap:
- Stargate (Film)
- Stargate SG-1 Seasons 1-8
- Stargate Atlantis Season 1
- Stargate SG-1 Season 9
- Stargate Atlantis Season 2
- Stargate SG-1 Season 10
- Stargate Atlantis Season 3
- Stargate: The Ark of Truth (First SG-1 Film)
- Stargate Atlantis Season 4
- Stargate: Continuum (Second SG-1 Film)
- Stargate Atlantis Season 5
- Stargate Universe Seasons 1-2
- Stargate Origins
There was a short-lived animated kids series called “Stargate: Infinity” in the ’00s that doesn’t make this list because (1) it’s not considered canon and (2) your only legal option for watching it is via old DVDs. Same goes for the discontinued “SG-1” and “Atlantis” audio dramas produced by Big Finish, a company best known for producing new “Doctor Who” stories throughout that show’s TV dark age.
Ancient Aliens And B-Movie Blockbusters
While Roland Emmerich is best known for his disaster-porn epics like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” before he had the budgets to obliterate things on a massive scale he had to settle for mayhem that was a little more constrained. Even his best-loved apocalypse flick “Independence Day” was subdued compared to what came later. If “Independence Day” was Emmerich’s breakout, blank check-securing success, then 1994’s “Stargate” was the dress rehearsal.
Co-written with his creative partner Dean Devlin, the guy behind 2017’s “Geostorm,” the original “Stargate” film was a mid-budget blockbuster by today’s standards — the kind of movie that either doesn’t get made these days or goes straight to Netflix. Devlin appeared in Emmerich’s tiny 1990 sci-fi thriller “Moon 44” before becoming screenwriter on “Universal Soldier,” a Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren vehicle. The former looks like a spin-off of the “Alien” franchise without the Xenomorphs and the latter basically amounts to a retread of “Robocop.” “Stargate” was the duo’s first film with a feel it could call its own.
The basis for the film’s mythology wasn’t entirely original, mind you. “Stargate” was the first big cinema treatment of ancient alien hypotheses concerning Egyptians — yes, the same kind of stuff popularized by the History Channel and that guy from the memes, Giorgio Tsoukalos. Devlin and Emmerich drew inspiration from the works of Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin, plundering their “scholarly” ancient alien theories for the notions that early man was pressed into slave labor by extraterrestrials and that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built for an alien purpose. As for the means of interstellar travel, Devlin and Emmerich looked to more in-vogue explanations than painfully slow rocket ships. The idea of Stargates, devices capable of creating traversable wormholes between planets in different galaxies, fit the bill nicely.
As for who would traverse the wormhole and face down the Egyptian-ish alien menace waiting on the other side? Why, the Air Force, of course. Kurt Russell was cast as the expedition’s leader Colonel Jack O’Neil, a gruff soldier haunted by the death of his son. Pressed into service and given a flattop to rival Guile’s, O’Neil is accompanied by a team of largely forgettable goofball soldiers and one civilian: Daniel Jackson (James Spader), the linguist and Egyptologist responsible for deciphering the Stargate’s location dialing function.
To the movie’s credit, Jackson isn’t an Indiana Jones adventurer type. He doesn’t pick up a gun until the film’s final act and spends most of his time looking like a total fool in front of soldiers, respected scientists and aliens alike (except for when he schools Richard Kind on translating hieroglyphics). Together, Spader and Russell strike a fairly good “Odd Couple” rhythm, and though neither role plays to all the actors’ strengths — “Secretary” or “Big Trouble In Little China” these roles aren’t — they keep the film afloat.
The boldest casting choice in “Stargate” was for Ra, the Egyptian sun god revealed to be of evil alien origins. Jaye Davidson, whose only prior movie appearance as Dil in 1992’s “The Crying Game” earned him a Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, chews up the scenery like a true villain under a layer of ridiculous costuming and makeup.
While it’d be unfair to accuse “Stargate” of taking itself too seriously (though the bombastic score can be a little much at times), it barely shows any sense of self-awareness about just how tropey it is. On the alien planet O’Neil and Jackson encounter a tribe of humans descended from Egyptians who still rely on ancient tech. They mistake the Earth men for gods: O’Neil befriends a plucky, awestruck kid who reminds him of his son while Jackson courts Sha’re (Mili Avital), a woman sent to him as an offering. When Ra arrives — halfway through the movie — the mission to find a way home turns into a quest to free the tribe from slavery (white saviorism, check). The final moments of the film include a bomb with a silly looking timer. Roger Ebert, who could definitely appreciate a cheesy sci-fi here and there, flat-out hated “Stargate.”
No matter: the film, financed through Studiocanal and acquired by MGM, performed well enough in theaters to spark discussion of a follow-up. MGM, which held the rights to the property, had two options: they could move ahead with a sequel, which Emmerich and Devlin were eager to do, or “Stargate” could be used as a jumping-off point for a television property. Given that the design of the Stargate prop itself implied it could be used to visit thousands of different planets, the choice can’t have been too hard to make.
Show Time On Showtime
MGM forged ahead with development of a “Stargate” TV series, without input from Emmerich and Devlin. The new showrunners for the series were found internally: Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner were both at work on MGM’s reboot of “The Outer Limits” prior to spearheading the “Stargate” series. Showtime wanted two seasons of the show from MGM, but there was no way they’d get Kurt Russell and James Spader to sign on.
“Stargate SG-1,” as it came to be titled, probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Richard Dean Anderson. Best known as the mulleted star of “MacGyver,” Anderson agreed to take the role of Jack O’Neill (now with two “L”s) on the condition that he could put his own stamp on it. Anderson chose to take the character in a more lighthearted and humorous direction, and the rest of the show followed suit. From its early days, Wright and Glassner wanted “SG-1” to be family friendly and fun — when MGM’s president pushed for premium cable nudity in the show’s pilot the duo relented, but a 2009 recut by Wright removed the scene to bring things in line with the tone the show established over its decade-long run.
Joining Anderson on the cast for “SG-1’s” 1997 debut and the majority of the show’s seasons were Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge. Shanks took over the role of Daniel Jackson, at first serving up a spot-on impression of Spader before gradually turning the character into more of an action hero, per the demands of the show. Tapping played Captain Samantha Carter, the font of scientific wisdom for the titular SG-1 expedition team. Judge’s character Teal’c (pronounced like it’s spelled) is an alien defector who joins Earth’s side.
The first season of “SG-1” picks up a year after the “Stargate” movie, but there are a bunch of inconsistencies between the two that resulted from redevelopment for TV. On top of the recasting and double-L O’Neill, a few other names were changed, the Air Force base housing the Stargate changed from Creek Mountain, Colorado to Cheyenne Mountain, the planet from the film became Earth’s closest Milky Way neighbor with a Stargate and Ra’s malevolent alien race from the first film was retconned entirely. Depicted in “Stargate” as looking something like a typical “Grey” alien living under a human’s skin, “SG-1” reestablishes the race as “the Goa’uld” or more generally “symbiotes” — snake-like creatures that inhabit humanoid hosts.
At the beginning of “SG-1’s” storyline most of the Milky Way Galaxy is controlled by competing Goa’uld “System Lords.” In early human history, various System Lords posed as gods and emperors in order to pacify and enslave populations of humans. Goa’uld frequently transported humans off-world via Stargates or hyperspace-capable ships (most resembling pyramids) to establish strongholds with human laborers and symbiote-incubating soldiers on other planets. Ra was the most powerful System Lord at the time of his death, and in his wake an opportunity opened for his brother Apophis to seize power.
The galactic struggle in “SG-1” plays on some pretty unsubtle parallels to real-life politics. Modeled after a handful of Eastern cultures, the war between System Lords stands in for Middle Eastern strife. Just as in real life, America (and later on, as the Stargate mission expands, a coalition of nations) intervenes with force. “SG-1” rarely frames its events to make you think about the plot in this way, but the writers certainly had some idea what they were doing — you can’t make a more obvious nod than the “Office of Homeworld Security” introduced to the show’s canon in 2004.
Really, the most pronounced political stance of “SG-1” is its reverence for the Air Force. The show’s creative team worked closely with Air Force representatives to ensure a high degree of visual accuracy and the Air Force, pleased by the positive representation on TV, praised the show and gave permission to get footage at Cheyenne Mountain. It’s not a full-on authority lovefest, but even though shadowy intelligence agencies and meddling international oversight committees do make trouble for the protagonists, the show never tips over into outright distrust of power the way “The X-Files” does.
Above all else, “Stargate SG-1” wants to be fun and easy to watch. The show hardly goes a scene without cracking a joke, and that light hearted attitude goes a long way to make the comradery between the cast members enjoyable. Over time even the supporting cast the chance to shine. Don S. Davis is a particular joy as General Hammond, even if he never gets a scene as touching as his best work in “Twin Peaks.” “SG-1” is perfectly pitched re-run TV: it’s loosely serialized and most of its episodes are fairly satisfying and self-contained. Two-parters and season finales are reserved for big story beats — conflicts with resolutions that impact the state of the galaxy in ways big and small — but your average episode hits the “reset button” by the end with a smile.
The ‘Battlestar’ Problem
After “SG-1’s” fifth season, the show moved to the Syfy channel (then “Sci Fi”) in 2002. The wider basic cable audience embraced the show, and that’s when the franchise truly flourished. “SG-1” kept getting picked up for additional seasons and plans for a spin-off got underway. “Atlantis,” which is pretty similar in tone to “SG-1,” was originally intended to replace its predecessor in the channel’s line-up; instead, they aired alongside one another. By the time “SG-1” reached its ninth season, it even absorbed two of the lead actors of “Farscape,” one of the channel’s shorter-lived shows. Still, while “Stargate” was Syfy’s established hit in the mid ’00s, another show quickly came to eclipse it in appeal.
You can bookend “Stargate’s” ascendant phase with two shows from Ronald D. Moore: “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot. Both of these shows had real sense of political and philosophical stakes that their contemporaries lacked. While “Stargate” was content to stay fun and aloof about its commentary on real events, “Battlestar” actively grappled with the war on terror. As “Deep Space Nine” had done with “Star Trek,” the new “Battlestar” embraced serialization and reset audience expectations for the rhythms of TV sci-fi — meanwhile both “Stargate” series carried on in the same conventions established by “SG-1’s” early seasons.
This isn’t to say “Battlestar” killed “Stargate.” After ten seasons and a number of casting shake-ups, “SG-1” had a good run. “Atlantis” went on to have over one hundred episodes before it came to a close. They made their mark, and the boom of prestige TV a few years later put that kind of basic cable storytelling to an end for shows in a much more disruptive manner than the fairly graceful ends “SG-1” and “Atlantis” played out.
“Stargate Universe,” Syfy and MGM’s last show in the franchise, did attempt to change up the franchise’s feel — and it got dinged for it. Set on an millennia-old spaceship created by the race that seeded space with Stargates, the show follows in the footsteps of the new “Battlestar” by throwing its cast of characters into inescapable peril (okay, there’s more than a touch of “Star Trek: Voyager” there too). The jokes are less frequent, the exploration’s a little more constrained and the interpersonal intrigue is much more pronounced. A lot of “SG-1” and “Atlantis” fans didn’t like “Universe’s” shift in tone. In a move that’s definitely unadvisable for anyone whose shows are supported by a devoted, plugged-in fanbase, Brad Wright accused those displeased fans of “deliberately hurting” the new program.
“Universe” lasted for only two seasons, bringing the “Stargate” franchise to seventeen seasons of television, the original film and two direct-to-DVD “SG-1” movies.
… but that’s not all! “Stargate Origins,” a ten-part prequel web series, just wrapped up on MGM’s new “Stargate”-dedicated streaming service Stargate Command. Nobody from the “SG-1” or “Atlantis” creative team, including Brad Wright, was asked to work on the project. The response to “Origins” has been, well, less than ecstatic. Whether it’s good or not, a one-off web series doesn’t generate a lot of hope that a series will get resurrected. Still, MGM’s decision to launch a streaming service at the very least implies that the studio hopes to continue the Stargate story. If there’s nothing to follow from “Origins,” hardcore fans who ponied up twenty bucks or strapped on VR headsets just for a middling ninety minutes of new content will be pretty justifiably steamed.
For years Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin spoke openly about working on a sequel to their “Stargate,” i.e. a new movie that would ignore the canon of the TV shows. Devlin was openly optimistic about their prospects until shortly after their 2016 sequel to “Independence Day” landed in theaters with a dull thud — after that, the prospect of a “Resurgence” for the lesser of their two ’90s alien movies must’ve looked a lot less attractive to studio heads.
Strangely, if “Stargate” doesn’t live on as a TV or movie series it’ll probably continue its long life as fuel for conspiracy theories. There are people who believe that the Iraq war was started because of a real-life Stargate. As Egyptologist Frederic Krueger notes in his paper “The Stargate Simulacrum: Ancient Egypt, Ancient Aliens, and Postmodern Dynamics of Occulture” (you can find it here), the fact that there were no significant precedents for the Stargate in history or fiction prior to the movie has simply been waved away by conspiracy theorists who believe in the existence of Stargates. The lack of any information about Stargates prior to 1994 is part of a cover-up, they reason, and the “Stargate” franchise is just a further extension of said cover-up to undermine any real information about long-hidden alien artifacts capable of flinging us across the galaxy with wormholes.
People will believe anything. Then again, the Air Force did work pretty closely with the creators of the television show… maybe it all really was a convenient distraction for some clandestine operations. After all, “SG-1” had no problem with entertaining the possibility.