Where Stargate went wrong

I’ve recently had time to catch-up on the staple of afternoon television when I was a lad, Stargate SG-1. First launched in 1997 it’s aged surprisingly well, in no small part due to it being heavily character driven and quite horror focussed for its first two seasons. This is most likely due to its first five seasons being on the more sex and guts focussed Showtime and its later seasons on the more clean-cut SyFy channel in the U.S. All in all, it’s rip-roaring sci-fi; the kind of explore and fight with interesting plots and great character arcs storytelling that filled the void left by successive Star Trek series which never quite captured the wonder of the unknown like the Original Series or The Next Generation did.

That said, for all the enjoyment of the memories of watching it at 5pm (or thereabouts) every night after school (I’m still doing that, although I’m now on the other side of the desk) there is one huge issue that becomes quite glaring as the seasons roll by. As the premise becomes established in its own universe, the risk factor diminishes because the good guys keep winning and keep getting further and further away from the original idea of a clandestine military group, way over its head, operating to protect Earth. The plots get complacent, as do the characters, and it loses the risk factor which made the show great to begin with.

The point of the show was that it was a contemporary military setting thrown in with Star Trek-esque aliens and adventures. The show perfectly developed the promise of the 1994 movie and ran with it. The plots were solid, the aliens were curious, frightening and terrifying (the opening ‘Children of the Gods’ Goa’uld snake scene gave me nightmares) and it was confident and established with its own plot context with just enough curveballs to keep you interested and blow your mind.

Latterly, the sci-fi takes over the solid, real-Earth challenges and limitations of a modern military up against aliens and bad guys. They start blowing up stars, building spaceships and having space battles all over Earth. The scale of the cover-up of the Stargate from the populace moves away from being a necessary and contained evil (there were a good few viruses in the complex, blow up the command mountain to save Earth plots) to becoming increasingly ridiculous when you stop to think about what it is that is being covered up. Alien battles, towns being taken over, aliens in broad daylight. Supposedly journalism doesn’t work in this universe and the smartphone is considerably less smart.

The idea early on is to stop human beings blowing themselves to shreds in panic and fear by finding out about the Stargate. It’s a key feature of the show because you can believe it and understand it. There are interesting developments about other countries and successive administrations finding out about the Stargate Programme, but for all that the ethical sincerity of the US Air Force characters that was justified early on (they even won the Air Force Association’s 57th Annual Air Force Anniversary Dinner because the show portrayed the Air Force in a positive light) there is a burgeoning moral complacency that wrecks the enjoyment of later series.

It becomes unrealistic because of the medical, defence discoveries that they’re keeping secret and that the personnel involved in space operations increases by the thousands and no one notices. Where the general public think the money is going is questionable and it’s just silly that no characters objects to these life-changing discoveries from other worlds not being dispersed post-haste to save and improve lives. This is to say nothing of how selfish it is having all the information about ‘true’ history and letting historians and academics and everyone in-between tinker along in ignorance. It’s a muddled confusion, and a disappointment, which defeats the original idea of why the fictitious Stargate programme was set-up in the first place. As the series rolls on it increasingly betrays its brilliant modern day, real Earth premise. You just can’t suspend your disbelief watching it now in the same way that you could when you’re young.

The authenticity that famed it as a military-action meets science-fiction meets action-adventure series was traded for a complete embrace of the latter past season five, and that made Enterprise look reasonable (the infamously weak Trek began around the same time as season five in 2001). Colonel O’Neill’s droll humour was always a welcome element, his blasé nature held the show together in later seasons, but even the host of self-deprecating and self-referencing humour woven latterly was a poor disguise for the fatigue of the good guys always winning and just how far removed the series was from its more serious beginnings. A persistent argument even endures among fans that the whole show had been a comedy all along, and there is a certain truth to this which neatly accounts, later on anyway, for it drifting more into convenient solutions and jocularity.

By the time Anderson had scaled his role back for season eight it all felt a bit held together by its action sequences and fill-the-void story-arcs. Dr Jackson, Major Carter, Colonel O’Neill, Teal’C and General Hammond had defeated the brilliantly mythological Goa’uld and saved Earth a thousand times over. Their characters had been fleshed out and developed and if the show had ended with season seven’s  ‘Lost City (Part 2)’ and not season eight’s brilliantly self-referencing and homage-based two-parter ‘Moebius’ it would have been no bad thing. The scene with O’Neill’s infamously fish-free pond being populated and the characters relaxing together provided more closure than most shows get.

Instead, the show returned with the Richard Dean Anderson-less season nine and ten and it was apparent that it was trying to reboot itself with its Ori story arc (it was even touted the show be renamed Stargate Command and be a spin-off of sorts). By this point, the menace of a vulnerable Earth was a closed option when the previous seasons had built up the track record of success and plots that removed any real feeling of risk when they now had the advanced weapons they had so desperately been searching for to fight the Goa’uld. It was all a bit repetitive, without the charm that RDA and his interaction with his teammates had generated so well (Anderson and Christopher Judge remain hilarious, think the golf scene).

SG-1 finished in 2007, ironically cancelled not long after wonderful 200th episode featuring the in-world equivalent of the show celebrating it’s tenth series and getting renewed. The show went to town with what they could do comically, and it’s to its testament that they filmed the anniversary in such a way as to embrace what it had to become without illusion. The skits, particularly the Farscape homage with former cast members Ben Browder and Claudia Black, were a masterstroke. For my money, the SG-1 puppet reenactment of the film is utterly priceless and the best bit (as Don S. Davis returns on splendid form: ‘I’m the General, make it spin!’).

Season ten was followed by two television films, ‘The Ark of Truth’ that tied up the Ori story and ‘Continuum which tied up the show as a whole (it was essentially ‘Moebius’ over again, this time, they knew when to leave the grave settled). Stargate: Atlantis was cancelled after five seasons (although it started during SG-1’s eighth series) had suffered from the onset the fatigue and hero cliché that had plagued the mother show. It never came close to the perils of the first series of SG-1 but should have, out of respect to the original, been allowed to finish on its seventh (given how weak nine and ten were Atlantis could have done no worse). No number of SG-1 cast appearances could save it however and no concluding television movie was released.

The less said about Stargate: Universe the better because, while its premise offered great promise to restore the show to its heady early days (even starting out with a romp in a cupboard between two young characters), it was too bogged down by a mythology that required you to have a working understanding of about 280 hours of television from the other series and their wildly different tones. Even Robert Carlyle offered little salvation and the show ended in 2011 in the ignominy of belonging to a franchise which had two of three of its official series cancelled.

Longevity can be a curse and in the case of Stargate SG-1 and the franchise it spawned this became evident. Every spin-off, including the non-canon series Infinity, has ended in cancellation and it seems that none of them ever caught the imagination of the original series. Even the beautifully mysterious music failed to ignite the sinews again. Or maybe it was MacGyver leaving. Maybe it was the wonders and mystery of Ancient Egypt being brought to life as an alien race that made it great and all other plots were a bit perfunctory in the end. Something was lost and as time went by they the show never got it back.

In any event, the great rumour of modern times is that Independence Day was meant to be the sequel to Stargate. Roland Emmerich apparently created the concept when working on Stargate and many of the original production team returned, including writers Dean Devlin and composer David Arnold. When you watch both together there are stark similarities which makes the promise that Emmerich and Devlin are involved in the Stargate sequel/reboot an exciting possibility. It doesn’t, however, answer the question about what to do with the TV franchise to which the new films will have no relation. Yet, if Star Trek is returning with a new series after ten years and can survive Enterprise then there must surely be hope that there can be a reinvention for Stargate, particularly where there still remains such a cult following.

Besides, even after all this time, you can’t fail to get excited when you hear the awe-inspiring and atmospheric score by Arnold and the theme song adapted by Joel Goldsmith. The show was brilliant, from the opening pan of Ra to the softer credits at the end. This was a time when P90s were the weapon of choice and ‘open the iris’, ‘chevron six encoded’, and ‘SG-1, you have a go’ were words to guarantee an adventure to come.

Stargate SG1-1 will always be a happy memory of what was on the box after school, back’n day.

This article was first published on Den of Geek