StarGate SG-1 was based off of the hit blockbuster, StarGate, and the series stands in rare company. There have been plenty of movie-based tv series but only a few have had so much success as to outshine their predecessor. M*A*S*H, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and to a lesser extent, The Odd Couple, are the only others that reached a level of fame far greater than the movies they were based on.
The StarGate movie was the brain child of Dean Devlin (who never quite let it go that he had his story taken away from him). The film sets up the idea that aliens had been visiting Earth, using the pyramids as landing platforms, and stealing humans off to work as slaves. I can’t say for sure, but Devlin may have gotten the general concept from Erich Daniken’s ‘Chariot of the Gods’, the book which launched a thousand Ancient Aliens conspiracies. I’ll take Dr. Daniel Jackson over the guys from the History Channel series any day.
The StarGate television series, developed by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, was first aired by Showtime, a premium cable channel which started to create its own shows in order to draw in subscribers. While the initial ratings were low compared to the networks, it was a hit for Showtime and they kept it for five years, a decent run by even network standards. Showtime decided that they didn’t want to keep it anymore because they weren’t getting any more subscribers and they were paying leasing rights to MGM for it. So fledgling channel SciFi (now Syfy) picked it up for similar reasons, to get viewers to come to their basic cable channel. It worked, it was a hit for SciFi and lead to two spin-off series as well as StarGate SG-1 becoming the longest running science fiction show ever until beat out by one season by CW’s Smallville.
The pilot starts up where the film left off, O’Neil, sorry, O’Neill, is retired on Earth and Daniel is living on the alien planet from the first film. A new alien threat has appeared in the form of Apophis and they have to get the band back together to see what’s going on. They add in a female scientist/Air Force Captain character and a human-alien ex-patriot to round off the main cast. From there they explore the worlds of the StarGate, help people, cause problems they have to fix, stop threats, and keep the whole thing secret from the general populace despite building space ships in later seasons which have to be staffed by Air Force personnel. Well, this was in a time before Wiki Leaks so I guess it’s plausible.
Let’s look at the main cast first. I’m not going to go into huge details because over ten years, well, you can imagine just how long this article could get.
In the film, Jack O’Neil, one L, is played by Kurt Russell, a character on the verge of self-destruction due to the loss of his child. By the end he’s at least moved through that stage of grief thanks to being given new purpose by surrogate son Skaara. The television roll was given to MacGyver alum Richard Dean Anderson who decided to play Jack with a much more comedic element, throwing out witty dialogue, showing irreverence, and generally having moved past the stages of grief (though by no means is he completely over his son’s death). Due to the change, the character’s name was changed to Jack O’Neill, two L’s, and it becomes something of a small running gag. There is apparently a Jack O’Neil, one L, out there, and he has no sense of humor. It could simply be a way to separate the two character personalities as portrayed by Russell and Anderson, or it could be a gentle jab at Dean Devlin… who has one L in his name. Regardless, RDA as he’s known, took over the character of Jack and really made it his own. He traded his MacGyver stereotype for a Jack O’Neill one, but it worked out for him in the end.
Daniel Jackson is the other character that made it into the series as a lead role (a few others show up but were given very small recurring roles). He’s played by Michael Shanks who, in contrast to RDA, played Jackson as the film version’s James Spader did. But over the series he grew Jackson’s character, both physically and emotionally. Jackson gets much more development than Jack does which makes a stark contrast. Both characters are beloved by fans so the dichotomy works.
New addition Captain Samantha “Sam” Carter at first seems like the token female character/partial love interest that every tv show thinks they need. She’s even given one of the most horrendous lines ever to be spoken in television in order to express her as a strong independent woman. Thankfully, Amanda Tapping who plays Sam is able to also grow the character out of some of the clichés and create a genuinely strong female character that female audiences can relate to and appreciate. Although her boyfriend issues, i.e. they always seem to end up dead, does get annoying after awhile.
Then there is Teal’c played by Christopher Judge, a human-alien (a human not born on Earth) who is the resident Spock. He’s strong, tough, but a bit out of touch. While he has emotions he chooses not to express them and his biggest expression is raising his eyebrow and saying “Indeed”. As lame as that kind of sounds, Judge pulls it off so well and with such nuance that it became an instant fan favorite and meme. Possibly the best and most underappreciated actor of the whole series.
These are what you’d call the ‘Top Four’, because while you also gain two Farscape alums in the later seasons, one season of the underloved Corin Nemec, and both Don S. Davis and Beau Bridges playing SGC commanders, it’s these four that make the core of the show.
Unfortunately, while SG-1 was on Showtime and Syfy, it suffered from a woefully lack of a budget. I assume this because the production values are sometimes a bit sad, effects questionable, and clip-episodes abound. However, this lends a bit of a cult-series charm to the show. It also makes it more about the characters than the shiny toys.
The writing in the first season is also a bit questionable as there was a lot of what I like to call “seemingly required trope plotline episodes”. There has to be one about a former SGC trying to pass himself as a god. One where Carter runs into a planet where women are subjugated and she has to prove herself. There has to be one where Jack is forced, again, to face the fact his child is dead (Star Trek: TNG is just as guilty of these episodes and both shows fail just as equally). At least StarGate has some gems and its original concept ideas really make up for it, keeps the first season from being too off-putting.
From there on, the show is able to really explore their characters and the worlds around them, even throwing in some wonderful political intrigue sub plots. Ten seasons is a long time to let a series run but StarGate maintains a level of consistency sometimes not even seen in series who only run three or five.
Over the years StarGate makes the smart move not to try to keep the same villain through the whole thing and bring about new villains every couple of years, often overlapping story arcs. Also, they don’t try to completely one-up with the villains either. Sure, some are more powerful than others but it’s not like they stop one guy only to turn around and find someone who made the previous one look like a chump. They are all pretty tough in their own ways, either through smarts or their own power. The differences between them also helps as it allows an asymmetrical tint to the plotting which is always a plus when done right.
Overall, StarGate is far from perfect, but then what is? It’s fun, has something for everyone, and allows for the viewer to relate moreso to the characters than, say, Star Trek, because this literally could be going on under our noses and we wouldn’t know. In fact, there is a room at NORAD labeled with the words StarGate Command. It’s a broom closet… but still… maybe that’s what they want us to think?