Why Stargate SG-1 Deserves to Be Remembered as a Landmark Sci-Fi Show

Why Stargate SG-1 Deserves to Be Remembered as a Landmark Sci-Fi Show
Image: IMDb

When we think about sci-fi, about marching out into the stars and encountering aliens, we think of the future, of a time decades or centuries from now when humanity has technologically evolved to the point of interstellar travel. Stargate, however, took a shortcut. This was a franchise which asked, “what if we could just go out there right now?”

What resulted was a story so compelling that it stretched beyond its original movie to over 15 seasons of television across three shows. And although it might not often be counted alongside the other Star greats of Wars and Trek, Stargate deserves to be remembered as nothing less than a landmark sci-fi show, because it showed us that humanity’s interstellar evolution wasn’t a fantasy of the future: it was something we could build today.

Now that Amazon has purchased MGM, and is perhaps primed to revive this oft-overlooked franchise, the 25th anniversary of Stargate SG-1 is as good an opportunity as any to look back on what made the show great, and explore why the world needs Stargate now, more than ever.

Spinning off into new worlds

“It was rooting it in the here and now that made us unique.” So says Brad Wright, co-creator of Stargate SG-1. Running for 10 seasons and spawning two spinoff shows, SG-1 was the progeny of the original Stargate movie, produced by MGM. Seeing the cult sci-fi flick’s potential for a television adaptation, the studio recruited two writers from the anthology show The Outer Limits to come up with a pilot for a Stargate series. These were Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, writing partners who each came up with the same concept for the show: that the Gate could travel to more than one planet, and there might be more false gods out there, too.

Inspired by the exhilaration of the Space Race, Wright — who took the reins once Glassner left in season three — saw the opportunity to fulfil a niche, juxtaposing human technical ingenuity with far more advanced alien villains. “We are people from the here and now, warts and all,” says Wright, when asked the secret of SG-1’s appeal. “Way over our heads, not ready for this, and succeeding anyway.” At the heart of this concept was, of course, the team who were stand-ins for the early NASA astronauts: SG-1 itself. “At the concept stage we wanted them to be a team we rooted for,” Wright explains, pinpointing the “leave no man behind” mission statement as what bound them together.

The original film revolved around two characters, however, not a team: Daniel Jackson (James Spader) who translated the mysterious ancient Stargate’s symbols, and Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) — spelled with one “l” — who led the charge through the Gate to another world. Without Spader and Russell, a new Daniel and Jack had to be found. Wanting someone who would bring in audiences, the studio tapped Richard Dean Anderson — MacGyver himself — to star and act as an executive producer on Stargate SG-1. But after eight years on a show that focused heavily on his character, Anderson was eager to share the spotlight (or perhaps just share the load) with SG-1’s ensemble cast. Sitting in on the auditions, Anderson helped pick his new team: Michael Shanks as Daniel, whose Spader impression and heartfelt line-delivery won him the role, along with Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge as new characters Samantha Carter and Teal’c.

Over the next few years, the easy chemistry between the four leads sparkled through the screen, and this chemistry began in the audition room, where Tapping, Shanks, and Judge quickly bonded and helped each other with their lines. Once the show got its season order — of 44 episodes, almost unheard of at the time and inconceivable now — they continued to be close, staying at each other’s houses in Vancouver while they each found a place to live. “The cohesiveness of that team was super important to us,” Amanda Tapping (Carter) tells me. “We genuinely adored each other and looked out for each other. And I think that connection translated to the screen.”

Humour, character-driven storytelling, and collaboration

Even years after the show aired, that’s still what makes it stand out: watching Stargate feels like you’re hanging out with a group of friends. A far cry from Star Trek’s utopian formality, or the gritty antagonism of Battlestar Galactica, SG-1’s brand of easygoing sci-fi is still somewhat unique. No matter what the team faced — and they were frequently captured and tortured, grieving for lost spouses and children, all while dealing with the threat of annihilation from far more powerful foes — they still found a way to laugh at the situation. This tongue-in-cheek humour never undermined the gravity of the situation: if anything, it ensured that the emotional beats hit harder. There’s a radical optimism to Stargate: no matter how dark things might seem, there is always joy to be found.

Much of this humour was driven by the wry, witty Jack O’Neill — now with two “l”s — a far cry from the dour film version of the character. This shift was a stipulation from Anderson: he would only come aboard if his character was given a sense of humour. This blended perfectly with the writers’ own sensibilities. “The humour is ours,” says Wright, “and Rick demands it! He doesn’t feel genuine unless he’s funny at the same time.” As an exec, Richard Dean Anderson consulted on scripts before shooting, but would also change dialogue on set — especially in the early days of the show. Chuckling at the memory, Christopher Judge (Teal’c) reminisces: “In a script, Rick’s dialogue was like the expiration date on a milk carton. It was a suggestion!” That made for a dynamic, sometimes challenging shooting environment, as the writers adjusted to Anderson’s voice. “It took a while for him to trust me, but once he did it worked,” Wright says.

This collaborative approach was not just unique to Anderson’s character, however, as Judge notes. “After the pilot, I went through the scripts and said to Jonathan and Brad: ‘I think Teal’c should talk less.’” As the turncoat alien soldier — known as a Jaffa — Teal’c offered the team vital strategic information. His stoicism, Judge thought, would add an air of mystery. “I wanted his silence to be intelligent,” explains Judge, “because Hollywood is very fast to give characters of colour super strength, but they’re reluctant to give them super intelligence. So that’s what I wanted Teal’c to have.” Judge also fought for his iconic eyeshadow, even when some said it was effeminate. “I said: ‘Perfect! Success!’ It was really important for the audience not to be able to peg who he was right away.” Judge thought Teal’c’s androgyny would imply that the Jaffa did not obey the same gender hierarchies as humans. “Whether you were male or female, it just mattered how good of a warrior you were.”

The writers were dedicated to grounded, character-driven storytelling, as Stargate SG-1 relies upon the team to save the day, whether through Teal’c’s strategy, O’Neill’s leadership, Jackson’s diplomacy, or Carter’s science. So the writers paid close attention to how the actors crafted their roles. “As the seasons progressed,” says Tapping, “they were so good at calling us in and saying ‘how are you feeling, is there anything you think we’re missing with the character?’” Brought in to play Samantha Carter, Tapping was vocal about her role from the beginning. “They tried really hard to write a woman in a male-dominated field,” she laughs, “so I think they wrote her as trying too hard to prove herself.” She references the pilot episode, in which Carter faces reluctance from O’Neill to add her to the team, and retorts: “Just because my reproductive organs are on the inside instead of the outside, doesn’t mean I can’t handle whatever you can handle.”

Tapping found this approach to be not just off-putting, but also disingenuous to how a woman would handle herself in that situation. After the pilot, she asked the writers to write Sam as they would any male character. “The guys had this easy way of speaking with each other, and I felt Sam should be a part of that.” The change in Carter’s writing was almost immediate, and she quickly became one of the strongest parts of the show. As the scientific expert, Carter was the lynch pin that held many of the plots together. No matter what the situation, Carter could always come up with a wild solution to save the day, whether that meant blowing up a sun or strapping an active Stargate to a fighter jet. “Sam’s practically a superhero,” says Wright, “but it works because Amanda pulled it off. She did it with enough authority and intelligence that you believed… you can’t write that shit and have it come out as believable as it did coming out of her mouth.”

This collaborative spirit was really what made Stargate what it was, onscreen and behind the scenes. Despite the fact that the show was, ultimately, about the U.S. military, SG-1 was always about making connections, bringing people to the diplomacy table and building a network — even if that meant resisting external forces in order to do that. And the writers and cast faced their own share of resistance, as they fought to make the show they wanted to make.

Fighting for representation

Stargate SG-1 may have been produced by an American studio, but it was a solidly Canadian production — and that was thanks to Brad Wright. Born in Toronto, Wright insisted on hiring as many Canadian writers as he could, pushing back against some studio execs who pressured him to hire from the U.S. “My back would go up! Sometimes an American executive would just presume that an American would be better.” Wright, however, argued that he would get the best writers Canada had to offer, “because they’re working on a shinier show with a bigger budget than any of us were used to playing with.”

Vancouver may be known as North Hollywood, but while production is based in Canada most writing happens in LA. For Stargate, however, the writers were housed in North Vancouver’s Bridge Studios, where the show was filmed, which meant that the writers and production crew could easily bounce ideas off each other. “Around season three, Rob wanted to do a water set, where we went through the Stargate into the water,” reminisces Wright. Robert C. Cooper, who started as a staff writer and ended up as SG-1’s showrunner by season seven, went to the VFX team but was told that it was impossible. “The summer went by, and the same visual effects guy says ‘hey Rob, you know that story I said you couldn’t do last year? You can do it now.’ It was because James Cameron had just created a piece of software to do a movie, and we rented it.”

Having a direct line from the set to the writers also meant that when the actors encountered something they were uncomfortable with, they could flag it right away. “There was one executive at MGM,” Amanda Tapping tells me, “who was like ‘give her the low cut tank top and the push up bra.’” Encountering this in her very first costume fitting was a shock to Tapping. “I’m very non-confrontational but I burst into tears in front of the wardrobe woman and I refused to wear it. It felt exploitative.” The costume designer rang Wright and Glassner, and they agreed that the costume didn’t work for the character. Instead, Carter wore the same uniform as the men. “I’m very glad I fought for that,” says Tapping, noting that even though there were frequently alien women who were scantily clad — “and that kinda burned me” — she felt an immense sense of responsibility with Carter, especially “once we started getting fan mail and I’d read about what the character meant to women and young girls.”

For the most part, when there was an issue with representation the producers listened to the cast’s misgivings. Judge remembers one episode in particular when he felt he had to say something about casting choices. “I would make jokes,” says Judge, “like ‘wow, I’m the only one here again today!’ But I remember then we had this prison scene full of people of colour.” Judge immediately called Wright. “We delayed shooting and they brought in new background. I was like ‘I will be goddamned if the only episodes where we see people of colour they’re Jaffa or prisoners.’ And he fixed it.” This wasn’t just a matter of personal offence, explains Judge, pointing out that this is how racialized bias “becomes part of the unconscious mind, part of the psyche, part of the status quo unless you push against it.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time Judge noticed a bias in the show. “I don’t talk about it much but I went to Brad and I said ‘um, does anyone notice that when we go to these planets the women are only attracted to O’Neill or Jackson?’ God bless Brad he said ‘yeah, the studio doesn’t want it.’” While Teal’c did have a wife (who died early on) and an old flame (who… also died in season three), the studio was opposed to Teal’c having episodic love interests. Wright, however, encouraged Judge to rectify this by writing his own episodes. “I was amazed. To have a boss who gives you the opportunity to write your own stories, to take money out of his own pocket was just… foreign.” Judge is enthusiastic about Stargate’s shooting environment, explaining that this supportive atmosphere was what kept him on the show. “Once I got to where I had any influence, I knew I wanted to be supportive and inclusive and to make sure everyone felt valued.”

Wright is the first person to admit that they could have done things differently: looking back, he pinpoints the show’s sparse LGBT representation as something he’d change. “I wish we’d done that sooner,” he says, explaining that his daughter raised the issue with him. “One of my daughters is gay. And she said ‘there aren’t enough gay characters in Stargate’ and I was like ‘…you’re right.’” True to his word, Wright added a lesbian character to the main cast of Universe, the franchise’s third show after SG-1 and Atlantis. “We did address it, finally, and we probably should have done it a lot earlier.”

A quietly progressive military show

The fact is, Stargate SG-1 would be a wildly different show if it were made today, not just because it was these particular writers and actors who made the show what it was — but because of its relationship with the U.S. Air Force. Like with many franchises which depict American soldiers, the U.S. military advised the Stargate writers, but as the relationship between the show and the military was strengthened, the Air Force and Navy also invited the show to, essentially, play with their toys. “They sent us F15 aircraft for Continuum,” says Wright, “they sent us T38s just for shots… These are multi-million dollar props.”

For the most part, the military’s script supervision concentrated on fact-checking to ensure that all regulations were being met. Sometimes, however, that affected the storytelling, but only in regards to the officers’ decorum. And that threw up the show’s biggest barrier: the fact that Carter and O’Neill couldn’t be together romantically. The romance had been brewing in season one, and when the writers wanted the two to be married in the alternate universe episode ‘There But For The Grace Of God,’ the military pushed back. Determined not to drop the story point, Cooper came up with a solution: “I was like, wait a minute. It’s another dimension, she doesn’t have to be in the military.” They rewrote the episode, with Carter now a doctor instead of an Air Force captain — and the military accepted it. So, when the writers wanted to develop O’Neill and Carter’s romance in the main universe, the writers just incorporated the reality of the situation: that as military officers they couldn’t be together. This made for seasons worth of chemistry and mutual pining — which was, of course, very compelling to watch.

That became the key for any of the military’s concerns: find a way around it, or find a way to use it. And as it turned out, the military advisors could be as tongue-in-cheek as the writers. “There was one episode,” remembers Wright, “where we said something was in Area 51, and the Air Force goes ‘there is no Area 51.’” Chuckling, Wright explained that they just added that line into the script. “We said ‘OK… can we have an officer say that there is no Area 51?’ And the Air Force said: ‘oh yeah that’s fine. That’ll be funny.’” The writers then renamed their in-universe secret base Area 52.

What’s really interesting about Stargate is that, despite the fact that each script was checked by the Air Force, there were many episodes of SG-1 that openly critiqued America’s military aims — and it was the character of Daniel Jackson that really allowed the show to do this. Not only was Jackson not military, he was also a vocal proponent of diplomacy and morality, often bashing heads with military higher-ups. And that helped the viewers trust the show: from the get-go, we knew that Jackson will always fight for the alternate perspective, and the anti-authoritarian, compassionate O’Neill will always do what’s right — even if they have to bash heads a bit to find a solution.

Meanwhile, episodes like “The Other Side,” “48 Hours,” and “Enemy Mine” cast a critical eye on the U.S. military’s acquisition of resources and weapons on alien soil — and this commentary surprised even the cast members. Christopher Judge says he often raised an eyebrow at what the writers got away with, referencing the season one episode “Cor Ai.” “O’Neill says to Hammond, ‘I’ve done some terrible things in my commission.’ I don’t think you could say that now, about what it is to be a soldier, and have the blessing of the military. To be supportive yet critical of what America as a military power has done and is doing… I’m not sure that flies these days.”

The most progressive perspective that Stargate offered, however, was one which flew under the radar for a lot of viewers. While the show was generally even-handed, the writers do admit to being somewhat left-leaning in their approach — especially when it came to religion. “Stargate never criticises one religion,” says Cooper, “but it does poke holes in the idea of using religion as a means of oppression. It’s kinda anti-religion in a way and pro-science.” The show’s primary antagonists were the Goa’uld (and later the Ori) — aliens who pose as gods in order to rule over, enslave, and oppress people. So naturally, SG-1’s missions revolve around getting those oppressed people to challenge both their beliefs and the authority who dictates how they live their lives.

While Wright and Cooper have had conversations with religious fans who never felt like Stargate was criticising their personal beliefs, for others SG-1 was a lifeline. “I was raised with Christianity being my whole world. Pastor godparents, worship-leader parents, homeschooled.” D, a Vancouver-based artist, told Gizmodo that Stargate helped them learn about other religions, and question what they had been told. Banned from viewing a lot of media, D somehow tuned in to watch Stargate SG-1. “It felt life-changing to me. It was my first real window into a conversation about religion that wasn’t focused on the one I knew. They talked about the vastness of Earth’s religions along with fighting false gods, and it was a catalyst that helped me break out of the bubble I was raised in. [Stargate] is more than a fandom to me, it was like freedom.”

We need Stargate now

In a pop culture landscape littered with space operas, it’s difficult to stand out. Stargate might be fondly remembered by its fans, but it’s a bit of an oddity — although SG-1 had 10 seasons and spawned two of its own spinoff shows, Stargate doesn’t have the pop culture power of Star Trek and Star Wars. This could have contributed to why the franchise fizzled out, with the cancellation of SG-1 in 2007, Atlantis in 2009, and finally Universe in 2011. Cooper attributes the franchise’s demise to internal politics at MGM (the studio declared bankruptcy in 2010, before bouncing back with new management), and the changing culture of television. Moved from MGM’s Showtime network to Syfy in 2002, Cooper explains that Stargate’s new network just didn’t have a stake in the shows, because they weren’t Syfy originals. “The ratings were declining,” Cooper says of Universe’s cancellation. “Syfy attributed that to the show but that was the beginning of the end for networks. We were actually getting a rating that is, by today’s standards, really great.”

And yet, even without a new show for 11 years, the fandom is still going strong, eager for a Stargate revival of the franchise that seems to be on the way. Back in 2018, fans were excited to hear that Brad Wright had been writing a new Stargate pilot, which was being shopped by MGM. Of his script, Wright says “it was a way, I hoped, of bringing back members of the team that fans knew, and introducing new characters. The same amount of time would pass as in real life. That’s important to me, that Stargate is in the here and now.” Wright hasn’t revealed much about his pilot… although he did say that his script “strongly infers” that Carter and O’Neill are finally together, even if Carter is busy “running the show.” Unfortunately, though, covid struck and the situation changed before Wright’s pilot could see the light of day — and MGM, seemingly on the rocks financially again, was purchased by Amazon.

The company certainly seems primed to make full use of MGM’s back catalogue, and a press release about the sale listed Stargate among the properties that Amazon was looking to create new content for. While there hasn’t been an update on what Amazon is planning to do with its new MGM toybox — and there likely won’t be for some time, as the acquisition was only finalised in March — a Stargate revival seems all but inevitable, especially while Paramount and Disney continue to grow their respective empires of Star Trek and Star Wars. The question, however, is what Amazon is planning to do with its own Star-franchise. There are, of course, two separate eras of Stargate to draw from: the cult film and the TV spinoffs. And there are very different creative teams behind each.

In the years since Stargate Universe went off the air, the creators of the original Stargate film — Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich — have gunned for a return to their version of the franchise. In 2014, Devlin and Emmerich began to develop a movie trilogy for MGM which would have returned to the plot of the first film, disregarding the worldbuilding added by the TV shows. However, this project was quietly shelved in 2016. It’s entirely possible that Amazon might look to Devlin and Emmerich for its Stargate revival, especially if it wants to create a new film franchise. However, if it wants to give Stargate a home on Prime, Amazon might tap Wright, Cooper, and their writing team — or they might want to go in an entirely new direction, starting fresh with new writers and a full reboot.

That may allow Amazon to wipe the slate clean, but this decision might alienate the fans who comprise the pre-existing audience. A balanced approach might be best: creating a story that provides new viewers with an entry point into the franchise, while building on what has come before. Ben Browder, who played Cameron Mitchell, suggests that any new Stargate show should be “evolutionary, not revolutionary.” His advice to Amazon is to follow the approach of other revivals, like Cobra Kai: “don’t break the truth of why people liked it to begin with, just turn the camera to a different angle.” Coming in as SG-1’s new leader to replace O’Neill in seasons nine and 10, Browder has some experience of reinventing Stargate, but at its core, he says, must be optimism. “The first time you step through the gate it’s an adventure, and it’s about naivete.”

There are many things that made Stargate so beloved, from its scientific problem-solving and exploration of mythology, to its fantastic character development and team dynamics, to the spirit of adventure which enthralled viewers so much they tuned in year after year after year. But perhaps its main appeal is the idea that this could all be happening right now, that deep below Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado is a gateway to other worlds. We got to see what humanity could become, if we stepped out into the stars today, with modern-day technology against aliens who were eons ahead — and Stargate said that we would not fail, but thrive. If Star Trek painted a utopian picture of what we could be in an interstellar future, Stargate showed us how to get there.

“Ultimately,” says Christopher Judge, “it’s about hope. And that message could be really useful right now.”

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