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James Tarr

“Don’t remake great movies; remake movies that should have been great, but weren’t.”

The above quote, from a well-known director whose name I can’t recall, I saw in an issue of the now-defunct Premiere magazine twenty years ago.  It has stuck with me because of how true it is.  Hollywood has mostly ignored this advice, with generally bad results.

That same admirable philosophy is doubtless behind what happened with the Stargate franchise after the movie came out in 1994.  Starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, the Stargate movie had a huge amount of unrealized potential—in short, it should not have sucked, but it did.  This failure lies almost completely at the feet of director/writer Roland Emmerich, who gets studios to lay out big bucks for his effects-laden movies.  Unfortunately, with few exceptions, he makes movies to entertain stupid people.

The military finds a big fancy ring, and after quite a bit of research and testing figures out that when activated, it creates an Einstein-Rosen bridge (wormhole) and connects to another world.  If you were sending a team to explore another world, you’d pick the best of the best in their field, right?  World class scientists, combat-proven Special Forces soldiers, etc.  Well, apart from archeologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (Spader), for his team Director Emmerich wrote in a suicidal Colonel (Russell) and feckless soldiers who do things so stupid they would embarrass mall cop Paul Blart.

Luckily, the creators of the TV show Stargate SG-1 (1997) saw those mistakes and declined to repeat them.  This series started on Showtime, and when Showtime began bailing on all their sci-fi shows (including the excellent Odyssey 5) it went to the Syfy channel.  In producing this series the creators worked very closely with the Air Force.  As a result the Stargate Teams (SG-1, SG-2, etc.) occasionally display good small unit tactics, weapons handling, and a recognition of certain realities, military and otherwise, that Emmerich just doesn’t care about.  While not technically “hard” science fiction (like The Expanse) it’s a lot closer than a lot of sci-fi.

The writing is logical within the universe they created.  Characters die, and new characters are introduced.  Over the course of ten seasons Captain Samantha Carter gets promoted first to Major, then to Lt. Colonel (compare that to Bruce Willis in the otherwise well-done Tears of the Sun, who is playing a 48-year-old Lieutenant….)

Colonel (and later General) Jack O’Neill actually falls in love with Carter, but never says or does anything about it, as he is her commanding officer and she is a subordinate.  She has feelings for him too, but they barely acknowledge them.  The only time he acts on them is in season four’s “Groundhog Day”-esque episode Window of Opportunity, where O’Neill kisses her right before the day resets and all memories are wiped.

As a result of respect for their fans and the material, Stargate SG-1 ran for ten seasons, had several made-for-TV movies, and two spinoff series—Stargate Atlantis and Stargate UniverseStargate SG-1 had its ups and downs, throwaway episodes and homages to the standard tropes (time travel, Groundhog Day episode, etc.) but when it was great it was brilliant.  My favorite episode is Heroes, Part 2 (Season 7, Episode 18), the second half of an amazing story featuring appearances by veteran actors Adam Baldwin and Saul Rubinek.

With many TV shows that have spinoffs, you might see one crossover episode, or one character cross over, per season.  In the Stargate universe you got crossover characters and plot lines all the time, as would happen in the real world.  Robert Picardo, who has been in every TV show and movie ever made (I just rewatched Tom Hanks’ The ‘Burbs from 1989, and there was Picardo), first appeared in season seven of SG-1, and made a total of seven appearances in SG-1 over three years, and 26 appearances in Stargate Atlantis over the course of the series.  David Hewlett, playing brilliant, funny, but annoying Dr. Rodney McKay, originally was only written as a one-off appearance early on in SG-1.  He did such a good job he appeared on SG-1 six more times, then ended up headlining Stargate Atlantis.  Amanda Tapping (Samantha Carter), Michael Shanks (Dr. Daniel Jackson), Christopher Judge (Teal’c), and Richard Dean Anderson (Jack O’Neill) had a combined 45 appearances on spinoffs Atlantis and Universe, and that doesn’t include appearances by minor supporting characters.  The Stargate universe is truly a universe.

Stargate Atlantis was consistent, but rarely better than good, which means it was better than the last three episodes of Star Wars combined, half of all Star Trek series, and almost every season of Doctor Who.  Most of Atlantis’ best moments were due to the underappreciated David Hewlett, although the show is probably better known for a young Jason Momoa.

Personally I think Stargate Universe is the most consistently excellent series of the three, in every way—writing, acting, and plotting. But I understand why it was cancelled—it was unrelentingly dark.  In it you’ll find a literal who’s who of A-list character actors, including Lou Diamond Phillips, Ming-Na Wen, Louis Ferrera, and Robert Carlyle.

The three TV series produced a combined 17 seasons (352 episodes) stretching over 14 years, and when you add in the original movie and the subsequent TV ones that is one of the most successful sci-fi properties in history.  Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who are the big three in regards to longevity and success, but after that?  I think fourth place goes to the Stargate universe, but it doesn’t get nearly the love, respect, or attention that it deserves.