So last week, we witnessed the passing of yet another science-fiction franchise from television. Syfy broadcast the series finale of Stargate Universe on Monday, and I call it the demise of the franchise because the show’s cancellation has been a death blow to the promised SG-1 and Atlantis movies as well. Though it’s possible that MGM will bring the franchise back through comics, novels—or yes, even another movie or spin-off—for now there will be no more Stargate on television. That, to me, is far more tragic than the cancellation of a single series. Still, I‘m going to take a look now at Stargate Universe and its impact on my opinion of the franchise as a whole.
In the beginning, I remember a strong backlash to the show’s “darker tones” and charges that it Syfy wanted a “darker sci-fi” show to replace Battlestar Galactica. Apparently “light sci-fi” just doesn’t pay the bills, although the continual renewal of Eureka seems like it would belie this idea. Anyway, there was the usual clamour from the die-hard reactionaries that Stargate Universe wasn’t “the same” as the good-old days, and for that reason they were going to boycott the show.
Well that turned out well for the franchise, didn’t it, reactionary fans?
To be fair, the style of SGU did depart rather drastically from the previous two Stargate series. For me, these stylistic differences were far more troublesome than changes to the tone of the stories. I watched “Gauntlet,” the series finale, on Wednesday, and I discovered I am still not used to the tight-angle shaky-cam-style cinematography that, yes, makes the series seem more like BSG. I miss the more wide-angle filming from SG-1 and Atlantis. I could also have done without the montages, set to mopey music, at the end of every few episodes. I realize that this is common in television shows these days, probably because it is an inexpensive way to telegraph how various members of the ensemble cast feel. But that has never been Stargate’s style, and it just felt out of place. I want space opera, not soap opera.
The worst stylistic change, however, was the colour palette and the lighting. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I despise dark, low-contrast sets; if I have too much trouble seeing what’s happening on the screen, why would I even bother watching the show? (Because it’s Stargate, that’s why!) I understand that the set designers want to distinguish between Destiny, a very old and antiquated ship, and the more advanced Ancient designs in Atlantis. Nevertheless, you’ve got people wearing black uniforms wandering around on a mostly-dark ship with black and brown walls.
So before the story even becomes a factor, Stargate Universe did feel different than the previous series, and not always in a good way. This was a significant stumbling block existing fans. I won’t pretend to guess what people new to the franchise thought when they first saw SGU. If they did become fans, it’s probably because of the plot and characters and not the lighting, but I could be wrong.
My reaction to the first season of SGU was probably along the lines of an optimistic “meh.” To be honest, I had a similar reaction to the last season or two of Atlantis, where I kept hoping for a good new antagonist to emerge (Todd doesn’t count). But no, the writers kept dragging back the Replicators like they were going out of style (which they weren’t; they were already out of style). Season 1 did a great job exploring the human element of being stranded aboard a somewhat-run-down spaceship with no way of getting back home. Yet the episodes were sometimes frustrating, and there was no reasoning with them once they dropped into “montage mode.” My frustration with season 1, however, stems more from a frustration with season 9 and 10 of SG-1 which then got carried over to SGU: where art the episodic television?
Stargate SG-1 had its beginnings in great, episodic storytelling. The Stargate itself, which is second only to the TARDIS as a storytelling device, is made for that format: each episode, SG-1 stepped through the gate, not knowing what they would find. Sure, there was a larger mythology, but it mostly stayed in the background while each episode’s story took centre stage.
Gradually, the series metamorphosed into a more serial format, culminating with the final two seasons, which were one large story that finishes in Stargate: The Ark of Truth. There is nothing wrong with serial television per se, and I love that format as much as I like episodic television, if not more. Yet once in a while I yearn for the halcyon, episodic days of this franchise, when one steps through the gate and confronts the unknown.
SGU should have been a renewal in that regard. New series, new galaxy, new rules. It made the first few tentative steps toward that goal, but then it faltered. For me, the single most disappointing thing about the series is the way it marginalized the Stargate, turning it into little more than a supply chain for Destiny. I feel like the show did not use the Stargate enough, despite the fact that, especially in season 1, it was used in almost every episode. When it was used, most of the time it led to worlds devoid of humanoid life, suitable only for a monster-of-the-week or some new supplies to keep Destiny stocked. That, for me, wasn’t enough. And I miss the humanoid life forms! I realize that the Ancients hadn’t visited the galaxies through which Destiny was travelling, so they couldn’t have seeded them with life like they did Pegasus and the Milky Way. But weird CGI blue fish aliens and soulless technology-destroying drones do not make awesome storytelling, especially when the former storyline got brushed aside like so much dust from season 1 and the latter just did not seem to die.
If that last paragraph seemed too vitriolic, it’s only because I want to voice my disappointment in SGU compared to what it could have been. Unlike some fans, I am not going to give the writers a blank cheque and blame Syfy solely for its cancellation. SGU was not great, and while it improved in leaps and bounds during season 2, it still had problems. Were these problems enough to merit cancellation? I don’t think so, and as much as anyone can be blamed when it comes to these events, the proper target is probably Syfy. But let’s qualify that.
Not living in the States, I don’t accurately know the extent to which Syfy promoted SGU. I am lucky enough to live in Canada. This is a nice place to live—government notwithstanding—but it also happens to have a specialty science-fiction and fantasy channel, SPACE, that actually, you know, cares about science-fiction programming. And so far it has not announced any wrestling in its line-up! I am so, so sorry, my American friends, that you have had to endure the bait-and-switch Syfy has achieved in the past two years. Now that it has changed its name and become the channel that will “imagine greater,” it seems ready to replace intriguing science fiction with wrestling and cooking shows. This is a betrayal of the first order, and I feel your pain. While I do not think that Syfy cancelled Stargate Universe only because it wants to make room for more “mainstream” entertainment, I think the cancellation, coupled with the shift in the network’s programming policies, demonstrates a lack of engagement with or interest in science fiction in general. That is a shame, because the Sci-Fi Channel has brought us great programming in the past. And the worst thing is that boycotting the channel entirely is a terrible idea, because there are still shows on there worth watching—and not watching them would just encourage Syfy to cancel them altogether!
Still, if there is anything this Syfy scandal has demonstrated, it is the need to support independent productions. Buy DVDs of your favourite show, introduce them to friends, and watch or buy web extras. Support the shows like Sanctuary that try to roll it alone. It’s clear that if science fiction is going to have a place on television, mainstream or sidestream or slipstream, it will get there because we put it there, not because there happens to be a network around that cares about science fiction.
And as for Stargate Universe: I am sad to see you go. We had our rough moments, but you were full of potential, and your writers had established enough credit to continue, at least in my opinion. The dynamics between the military and the civilian characters were excellent. Though still nominally under a military command, personified by Colonel Young, civilians like Nicolas Rush and Camille Wray had considerable input—not to mention the contributions of Chloe, Eli, Brody, Volker, Park, etc. And Stargate Universe carried its ensemble cast very well. It was a clean break from the four-person team format of the previous two series, and by season two the writers were well into pairing off characters. Finally, Stargate Universe embodied the themes so prominent in its predecessors: the precarious balance between exploration and protection, as seen in the interaction between the scientists and the military personnel. Colonel Young wanted to get his people home; Rush wanted to complete Destiny’s “mission.” Neither really knew if their goals were compatible. And now we’ll never know.
You were cut down before you could reach your prime, Stargate Universe, and I mourn your loss, both as a show and as the present flagship of one of the best science-fiction franchises in television history. I will miss you.
I‘m sitting here, still full of endorphins after SNL’s Presidential Bash, watching a rerun of Stargate SG-1—“Line in the Sand,” one of the final nine episodes of the series. And watching it, I’m coming to this realization that I may have given the final two seasons of Stargate SG-1 shorter shrift than they deserve.
I mean, yes, the storyline sucked and the themes were flimsy and transparent. The injection of two actors from Farscape as series regulars was suspicious and also somewhat funny. But let’s back up for a moment. This is Stargate SG-1. It’s always vacillated between the absurd realm of Farscape and the lecturing tones of Star Trek, erring to the side of humour wherever possible. That’s what made it a great show. So to criticize the last two seasons on those grounds is rather hypocritical.
So rather than criticizing the last two seasons and harping on how much they jumped the shark, here’s a couple of things about seasons 9 and 10 (especially 10) that I love:
- Daniel and Vala.
- Need I say more? These two have great chemistry. Both Claudia Black and Ben Browder (more so Black than Browder, however) demonstrate that they are versatile enough to transcend their former Farscape characters and inhabit new ones.
- As his performance in Stargate: Continuum demonstrates, Cliff Simon plays a great megalomaniacal villain who shows us why every evil overlord should follow the Evil Overlord list. Ba’al’s ability to adapt makes him the most enduring Goa’uld (and most enduring villain in the series), even more so than Anubis (who seemed to think everyone else should adapt to him, i.e., he was going to destroy all life in the universe and redesign it to his wants). More than anyone, Ba’al carries the show over from season 8 to season 9, and then continues to be an excellent guest character in season 10, serving as a link to Stargate past and a source of comic relief.
- This episode captures the spirit of Stargate SG-1. Throughout its entire run, the show was never afraid to make fun of itself or engage in meta-references.
- “Bad Guys”
- Similar to “200”, this show temporarily suspends the threat of the Ori to bring us some “SG-1 Classic”: SG-1 gates to a planet without a working DHD, where the Stargate is in a museum, and get mistaken for rebels who have taken everyone at a museum gala hostages.
- The Ori arc.
- No, seriously. The story itself may not have been Stargate SG-1’s best; however, the arc itself is enjoyable to watch now that I know how it turns out. Taking a second look at the development of some of the recurring characters (like Tomin and Adria) and anticipating that twists and turns is what made me re-evaluate my opinion of these two seasons.
So there you have it. Stargate SG-1’s television run is over, and maybe its last two seasons weren’t the best. But they had their good moments, so I think I’ll focus on those.
I woke up today and went to Future Shop to buy Stargate: Continuum, although I couldn’t actually watch it until after work tonight. It was worth the wait.
I admit that I feared Continuum would be a “Well, let’s turn ‘Moebius’ into a movie.” Yet another time travel episode. Yes, there were similarities—it’s time travel, after all, with alternate timelines and whatnot—but this movie really captures the Stargate genre and provides the essential link between the old Stargate SG-1 series and (hopefully) the future movies to come.
The story is largely self-contained, due to the nature of the time travel. By the end, nothing in the Stargate universe has really advanced, with the exception of the execution of Ba‘al. That doesn’t stop it from being an excellent story, and the characters make it that way. Richard Dean Anderson’s “special guest appearance” brought O’Neill back into the mix. I would have liked more of him, but what little screen time he had was well used. The other members of SG-1 were awesome. Teal’c managed to pull off yet another convincing Heel Face Turn. Michael Shanks has a fun scene where he talks to the alternate timeline version of himself on a phone—we only see our Daniel Jackson and the phone and hear one side of the conversation.
Ba‘al is such a fun, classic Stargate villain. He really embodies what makes Stargate venerable: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has fun. Ba’al is your classic evil overlord who tosses off his gloating “last lines” and claims he can never be defeated (those of you familiar with the series may recall that he came close to fulfilling that claim once and a while). Cliff Simon portrays him in exactly that way: moustache-twirling bad guy who’s trying to see his latest evil scheme to fruition.
The effects are cool. The best effects, however, come from the non-visual effects. Some of the cast and crew went up to the Arctic and shot there, which is cool enough by itself. But the navy actually let them use the USS Alexandria, a nuclear-powered submarine. So we’ve been watching Carter and Mitchell trek across the frozen Arctic ocean, they meet up with their rescuers, and suddenly we see this submarine—a real U.S. navy submarine—surface through the ice. It is amazing. We also get to see it submerge again, and then the real crew of the submarine appears as themselves. You can tell that they are a bit nervous about appearing on camera. If you watch some of the special features, particularly “Stargate Goes to the Arctic”, you’ll learn how difficult some of those shots were to obtain. We also get to see some nice close-ups of real F-15s. The Air Force and Navy have been very good to the show. :P
The special features are great. I haven’t watched the commentary yet, but “Stargate Goes to the Arctic” shows you how those who went to the arctic lived and filmed. “The Making of Stargate Continuum” is interesting. “The Layman’s Guide to Time Travel” will be interesting if you want to learn more about time travel.
Stargate Continuum remains true to what Stargate SG-1 has been for ten years; existing fans will be pleased. Unlike The Ark of Truth, which served to tie up an existing storyline, Continuum will be a pleasant introduction to the series for new fans, mostly because of its self-contained nature. Those familiar with the series are going to have a grand time watching the various references from the past ten years of the show. I snickered several times when I noticed something that I recognized from another story. New fans will get to see the cast of SG-1 at their best and some great action.
Stargate: The Ark of Truth came out on DVD today, so I went right to Future Shop after class to buy it. Yes, MGM tells me to buy something, and I buy it. I am such a franchise junkie.
Obligatory spoiler warning here. Read more and feel the wrath of the Ori—oh wait….
I’m so satisfied. It took ten years to get here, but every step of the way was totally worth it. I was initially upset, but quickly resigned, to Stargate SG-1’s cancellation. They were kind of running out of apocalypses after all—and the recent terrible writing on Stargate Atlantis seems to reinforce that fact. That doesn’t mean I was going to ignore the direct-to-DVD sequels MGM wanted to produce, especially because the writers deliberately left the Ori saga half-concluded. More SG-1? Yes please.
Overall, I loved it. The dialogue among the SG-1 characters is just so satisfying; they are so comfortable with each other. Since the series has such a rich universe and backstory, it allows the writers to tie together elements that may once have been disparate, and even expands their creativity by giving them a better canvas. Yes, they brought back the replicators, but it was a temporary appearance—I would have been irked if the replicators became the villain once again—and I think that it served its purpose. The plot was intriguing, with just enough twists to keep me going and not too many to make me think, “This is utterly illogical.” There were a few parts I didn’t like, though.
What was up with the deus ex machinae? (Is that the plural form? I’ve never had to use it before.) Firstly, let me say that I realize the dilemma of the writers—of anyone who is writing a story involving interaction between humans and semi-omnipotent, nearly-cosmic beings like the Ancients/Ori. Morgan Le Fay healed Teal‘c after he was somewhat badly injured, then proceeded to toy with Daniel. Just make your mind already! It was Oma Desala versus Anubis all over again. When it comes to people like Teal’c miraculously surviving being shot, of course, it’s a good thing that the bad guys want to capture the good guys all the time. If the objective were to merely kill the good guys—well then, our series would be much shorter. When I am an evil overlord, I promise to summarily execute all good guys, starting with the ones who make the most defiant wisecracks.
Speaking of wisecracks, where’s O’Neill?! Richard Dean Anderson was—and is—the best part of Stargate SG-1; without him, it isn’t really “SG-1”, just “Stargate.” I understand his reasons for leaving the show, and seasons 9 and 10 were not terrible. But I miss him, and I hope he makes guest appearances in future SG-1 features.
But the best part of the show was just being immersed in that universe again. Stargate has a special place in my heart among various other science fiction series because of the way it successfully combines science fiction technology—wormholes, alien civilizations, starships, etc.—with present day humanity. Unlike Star Trek, it isn’t set far in the future when we’re used to having advanced technology at our disposal. Even now that Earth does have space travel technology in the form of the Prometheus-class cruisers, the characters bring that very contemporary element into the show with pop culture references and dialogue. Mitchell exemplifies this best at the beginning as he takes command of the Odyssey and says, “Weapons to maximum.” Major Marks plays the straight man: “Sir?” “Just make it go!” This isn’t Captain Kirk comfortably in command of the Enterprise—it’s an Air Force officer, who happens to be used to dealing with alien situations, nervously assuming command of a huge battlecruiser about to take a trip to another galaxy. Stepping into this universe that is so much like our own, yet slightly different, is very rewarding.
I just watched Stargate SG-1’s 200th episode, “200”, and it was simply incredible!
With ten years and (now) over 200 episodes under its belt, Stargate SG-1 has crossed the threshold from science fiction series to phenomenon. Part of the key to its success was that it has never taken itself too seriously; the show makes references to pop culture and even itself in semi-fourth-wall breaking moments. The 200th episode takes this and delivers it a hundredfold. It’s a gift to the fans, of course, those who have been with the show from its inception right to the present.
The show ended with a really poignant quote, however, of Isaac Asimov:
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today—but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.
And that’s basically why I love to read and write science fiction.
So Stargate SG-1 remains cancelled. Or sort of. The issue is more that Sci-Fi, the channel which airs Stargate SG-1, isn’t renewing it. There are rumours MGM, which produces the show, will take it elsewhere to continue it. I’m not sure if I’m so keen on that. Honestly, 10 years is enough for me. I would rather that Stargate SG-1 ends on such a high note than continue for another two or three years, slowly decaying until eventually it fades away.