THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER STARGATE SG-1 200th EPISODE SALUTE
On the occasion of Stargate SG-1's 200th episode, The Hollywood Reporter included a special 11-page salute to the series in its regular issue.
For years, the starry-eyed believers behind 'Stargate SG-1' have anticipated its demise - so, how did the 10-year-old show transcend the space-time continuum?
Its premise is based on an only moderately successful sci-fi feature. It has endured the loss of its lead actor and changes in time slots and channels, yet it still draws 2.2 million viewers each week. Perhaps it was simply in the stars for "Stargate SG-1" to become the longest-running sci-fi show on U.S. television to date, with its 200th episode airing tonight on the Sci Fi Channel.
The show has defied multiple attempts to kill it off and spawned an even higher-rated spinoff in "Stargate Atlantis" in 2004. Yet, the question of whether it's time to end the show's run pops up each season.
"I've been here for five years, and almost every year we've had the debate, 'Is this the last year?'" Sci Fi Channel executive vp and general manager David Howe says. "And every year, we say 'No, one more season, but next year is definitely the last.' We thought we'd pass the baton to 'Atlantis,' but all we've done is double money and our audience.'"
Sometimes, there's no explaining the rules of attraction. When "Stargate," the feature film starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, opened in theaters in October 1994, at least one audience member saw the possibility of mining the intergalactic battle between mortals and Ra-worshipping aliens for TV thrills.
"I recognized immediately that there was a terrific series there, simply because there's a gate that can get you to other planets," remembers "Atlantis" co-creator and "SG-1" executive producer and writer Brad Wright, then a co-executive producer and writer on the syndicated "The Outer Limits." One other person agreed: Wright's fellow "Limits" executive producer Jonathan Glassner. That summer, Wright and Glassner pitched the idea separately to MGM Worldwide Television Group president John Symes (who has since left MGM), who made them a team. ("Stargate" filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had chosen to focus on developing 1996's "Independence Day.")
"Our feeling was that if you had the capability of stepping through to another planet, the first thing you'd do is create an early NASA-like organization of small teams who go off and explore," Wright says. "And Jonathan had a notion that Ra was not the last of its kind, so you could have any number of ancient gods."
Showtime gave Wright and Glassner a two-season commitment, and in February 1996, they were on a soundstage in Vancouver filming the two-hour, $6 million pilot of "SG-1." Richard Dean Anderson ("MacGyver") agreed to play then-Col. Jack O'Neill, the part originated by Russell, with Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge joining on as his alien-battling colleagues. "Rick was the only person we went to for the lead," Wright says. "In the series, O'Neill has hope and is funny. Rick can't not be funny."
Anderson's humor served him well during the show's first season, which even Wright and executive producer Robert Cooper, who came onboard as a writer, admit got off to a shaky start. There were rocky story lines, and there was cringe-worthy dialogue. And there was a creative argument with Showtime.
Wright still bristles at remembering how the channel wanted full-frontal nudity. "People said, 'It's Showtime sci-fi - that's what fans want,'" he says. "We got lambasted by the critics for it. Here was this fun 'Star Wars'-like show with flashes of naked women."
Showtime's two-year commitment and a solid business plan that spun the show into syndication after a year (thus creating two revenue streams) meant the cast and crew had a chance to develop space legs. And MGM realized the genre's potential for the company, according to MGM Inc. executive vp Charlie Cohen: "Early on, 'Stargate' helped to cement MGM as a leading supplier of science-fiction content."
With the show thriving by Season 3, Glassner made his exit. "Jonathan had been clear he was going back to L.A., so I'd sneak into his office at night and decide how I was going to rearrange his furniture," jokes Cooper, who was made executive producer by Season 5.
But the following year, Showtime decided not to renew the series. Explains Cohen: "Showtime decided they wanted fresh programming despite the fact that 'Stargate' was popular and performing well. We were determined to find it a new home."
Nevertheless, Wright and Cooper prepared for the show's demise. "I said to MGM, 'Let's have a spinoff show ready to launch, which would fall on the heels of a feature film,'" Wright says.
Enter Sci Fi Channel, a natural fit for the series (no full-frontal nudity required). "The show hits squarely with our fan base," executive vp original programming Mark Stern says.
MGM and Sci Fi loved the spinoff idea but weren't willing to end "SG-1," which was garnering more than 2 million viewers during its Friday-night time slot. Instead, the movie idea was rewritten as the finale of Season 6, and "Stargate Atlantis" launched in 2004 as its own show. In order to keep costs down - two-thirds of "SG-1's" $2.2 million-per-episode budget is covered by MGM, with the remainder picked up by Sci Fi - "Atlantis" and "SG-1" share soundstages and production crew.
"Atlantis" was a hit out of the gate with 2.9 million viewers, and for the next few seasons, Wright and Cooper prepared for the end of the mothership. But the series has been renewed and has even survived the departure of Anderson, who left in Season 9 (he returned for several episodes this year).
"I was concerned when Anderson left," Cohen says. While Cooper and Wright had retooled the show to introduce new characters, "I just wasn't sure how it would come together. The fans would tune in, but would they stay?"
So far, they have, which Cooper finds bemusing. "It's been an odd kind of situation because in some ways, our own attempts to end the show have been defeated by our own success," he says.
For Tapping, the show's longevity is a double-edged sword. "How can you look a gift horse in the mouth?" she asks, adding, "Someday, I'd love to play a character who wore Manolo Blahniks instead of army boots."
Sci Fi has committed to air "SG-1" though March 2007, and MGM has no plans to put it out to pasture. "We're not going to allow the show to end if we can help it," Cohen says. "When a show gets to Season 5, that means you're making money, so you can only imagine what it means by Season 10."
The show has also given its production company unexpected cachet. "It also helps us get in the doors to sell other products," Cohen says. "It's such a big franchise - when people know you've got 'SG-1,' they say, 'Let's talk.'"
To that end, a live-player online game is in the works (see related story), and Cohen is counting on Wright and Cooper to create another spinoff to air alongside "SG-1" and "Atlantis." "Brad and Robert are young - they don't need a break," Cohen laughs. "They can go another 10 years, at least."
Wright, for one, is happy to give it a shot. Only half-kidding, he says, "I'm still hoping that one day, we really break out of the box."
COMMANDERS IN CHIEF
After 200 episodes, 'Stargate SG-1's' showrunners still adore their space opera but keep their tongues firmly in cheek
It would be understandable if, on the eve of the 200th episode of Sci Fi Channel's "Stargate SG-1," Brad Wright and Robert Cooper were content to rest on their executive-producer laurels. Instead, the pair is busy sculpting scripts, directing episodes and brainstorming as to how to keep the series fresh. Wright, the series' creator, and Cooper, who began as a writer on the show, remain so enthusiastic about "SG-1" that even nine years in, they gleefully recite dialogue bits from the first season - especially the really, really bad ones. Wright and Cooper spoke recently with Rebecca Ascher-Walsh for The Hollywood Reporter about their favorite "SG-1" moments, weakest episodes and the worst line uttered by a character on the show.
The Hollywood Reporter: Where should new fans begin with "Stargate SG-1"?
Robert Cooper: Season 1, with the DVDs - though I'd be happy to publish a list of episodes not to watch along the way.
Brad Wright: I'd be surprised if someone had never seen the show. If you have cable and you're watching TV on a Saturday, you're going to see the word "Stargate" appear quite often - it's everywhere. But sometimes people will come up and say, "I finally watched your show, and it's good," as if they're surprised.
Cooper: It's weird that people might be TV snobs, as if TV was a higher art.
THR: What's your favorite episode?
Wright: When you make 200 shows, you shouldn't have one favorite, and it shouldn't be five years old - but mine is. It's called "2010" (which originally aired in 2001).
Cooper: For me, it's "Heroes," in Season 7, which I like as much for the process that went on behind the scenes as for the product itself. It was shot by the second unit because we were in a budget pickle, but they did such a great job that instead of showing it as an hour, I filled it out to two.
THR: What has been the worst episode, in your opinion?
Wright: "Emancipation," which is one of the first we did. We faded in, then it wasn't good, then credits rolled.
Cooper: Then there's "Hathor" (from late in Season 1), which is so bad that it actually hits bottom and bounces back up. There's a character who delivers the line, "No can do, ma'am; I only take orders from Hathor."
Wright: That one's so bad, it's good. And, of course, there's (Amanda) Tapping's line from the pilot, "Just because my sex organs are on the outside doesn't mean I can't handle what you can."
Cooper: We keep mocking it. Fans know how much that line has been vilified.
THR: After nine seasons, how do you stay interested?
Wright: The fact that we've been there from the beginning is a blessing and a curse. The blessing is, we don't let each other repeat ourselves. Recently, I suggested an idea I thought was so great - as Robert pointed out, it was so great, we did it five years ago. But that happens rarely. The fun is finding untrod ground.
Cooper: You do get bored as a creative person. Circumstances like actors wanting to leave and then wanting to come back has helped keep the show fresh.
THR: When did you feel that the series had "made it"?
Cooper: One of the goals was to distinguish it from the (1994) feature. Kurt Russell (that movie's star) was filming on the lot, and he came by and said, "You guys took a fairly average movie and turned it into a great series." Brad wanted him to do a scene.
Wright: I wrote it. (Richard Dean) Anderson says, "There's another (Jack) O'Neill (Russell's character in the film, played by Anderson in the series) on the base who doesn't have a sense of humor."
Cooper: Kurt declined.
THR: How do you avoid crossing the line between humor and camp?
Cooper: We obviously don't regard the line very highly because we do cross it. Every now and then, we jump over the line. I think camp is when a joke is played for a joke's sake, while humor is what comes out of the characters' reactions naturally. Mocking something in the show is normal, but you don't want to break the fourth wall and have horses run down Hollywood Boulevard like they did in (Mel Brooks' 1974 movie) "Blazing Saddles."
Wright: Although that's a good idea.
Cooper: We talked about it for the 200th episode, but we couldn't afford the horses.
The planets fell into alignment when 'Stargate' got into the merchandising game
They're not "Star Wars"; they're not even "Star Trek." But in the realm of ancillary merchandising, "Stargate SG-1" and spinoff series "Stargate Atlantis" are supernovas.
As many as nine official "Stargate" conventions take place worldwide each year. MGM Television works with license partner Creation Entertainment to produce the events, for which combined attendance has grown by about 35% annually since their 2003 launch, according to Creation co-founder and co-CEO Gary Berman. As many as 3,500 fans attend each convention, and the flagship Vancouver event grants 400 premium ticket-holders access to the show's set, executives and talent.
For those with smaller budgets, access is best granted on DVD. More than 2 million season sets of "Stargate" have been sold in the U.S., and more than 30 million single discs have moved worldwide, including many in specialty packs such as a spaceship-shaped box in France and a sterling-silver box in Germany. Perhaps surprisingly, "Stargate SG-1" had no U.S. DVD presence until its fourth season. German fans initially lobbied for the series' home-video release, according to Blake Thomas, executive vp and general manager of MGM Home Entertainment. "We really catered to the avidness of this fan base after seeing the success with that first-season set (in Germany)," Thomas says.
Soon, the show will migrate to another small screen - the PC - where it will be the subject of the massively multi player online game "Stargate Worlds." The title is expected to be in beta-test shape during the first half of 2007, with a fourth-quarter 2007 release planned. According to Travis Rutherford, executive vp consumer products and location-based entertainment at MGM, the game will offer a "squad-based experience," with players exploring new worlds in the roles of key characters.
As an MMO game, "Worlds" will have a subscription base as well as regular downloadable content upgrades, providing for an open-ended revenue stream. According to Rutherford, the game - being developed by Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, a startup founded last year by former Electronic Arts guru Joe Ybarra - has taken more than two years to create.
Says Rutherford, "We're hoping this will be another touchpoint for 'Stargate's' audiences and be played on a level of the most popular game of this type to date, 'World of Warcraft'."