Since the 1970’s, the argument that has predominated nerd culture has revolved around which science fiction series is the best. Star Trek, or Star Wars?
Granted, it’s a pretty amiable argument, and most folks are fans of both. There’s those few, though, that take it all a little too seriously. You know who you are. Now stop it. Chewbacca can do the Vulcan salute all he wants.
For me, however, the real undisputed king of science fiction franchises is, as the title would suggest, Stargate. Not so much the film, as the series that came out of it. Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe created a fictional universe with immense depth, history, and complexity, that easily rivals anything else that has ever been done before, or since.
For those of you who inexplicably don’t know what Stargate is all about, allow me to explain, while I question your poor life choices. Not so much judging, as silently being disappointed in you.
Stargate began with a 1994 film from world blower uppers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, and revolves around a mysterious artifact uncovered during an archeological dig in Egypt in the early 20th century. The artifact bounced around a bit before ending up in the hands of the United States Air Force, who couldn’t figure out just what the hell it was until they enlisted an Egyptologist known for his wackadoodle theories about ancient aliens.
Daniel Jackson, played by the great James Spader, sorted out that it was an Einstien-Rosen Bridge, capable of creating a stable wormhole, allowing near instant transport to distant planets. Joining an Air Force Special Ops team lead by Jack O’Neal, who was portrayed by Snake Plisk… uh… Kurt Russell, he found himself taken to a distant world where the Egyptian God Ra was still worshiped.
Because Ra was an alien. And a dick. So they nuked him. O’Neal headed home, while Jackson stayed behind to make sweet nookie with the local girl he had been given as a gift.
What happened next depends entirely on who you believe.
According to MGM, the production company that held the rights to the film, they were interested in making a sequel, even though the film failed to break the $200 million mark at the box office. Claims go that they felt there was real potential for a franchise with Stargate that could possibly match Star Trek and Star Wars, both owned by rival companies. Emmerich and Devlin, already at work on Independence Day at that point, declined to make another, and sold all rights to MGM.
MGM, convinced they had something awesome, ended up hiring Brad Wright and Johnathan Glassner to develop the idea for television, resulting in a 17 year run across the three series that sprang up from the concept, ending only when MGM went into bankruptcy, and had to suspend all productions while they got things sorted out.
According to Emmerich and Devlin, they had always planned Stargate as a trilogy, but MGM didn’t think the concept was worth investing more money into, and were considering doing the rest of the trilogy as tv movies. Disgusted by having their vision maligned, they walked away, selling the rights to help finance Independence Day. However, they always wanted to tell their own story, and frequently stated they felt Wright and Glassner had made a mockery of their concept, and would have preferred their original concept be explored fully in film.
Now, I’m gonna be honest here, but I think Emmerich and Devlin are full of crap. The ideas they expressed for the future of the film trilogy sound an awful lot like what had already been done on SG-1, so I figure MGM’s version of events hews closer to the truth here. Not saying it’s totally true, as I think Emmerich and Devlin probably did hope to get funding for a sequel. I mean, they happily made Independence Day 2, so I buy they wanted to make more Stargate. I just don’t buy they had some great and epic story already plotted out.
Regardless of which version of events is closer to the truth, MGM became the rights holder to the concept, and went ahead with a television version. Stargate SG-1 premiered on the Showtime network in 1997, as part of Showtime’s push to create original content. It remained there until 2002, when it moved to the Sci Fi Channel, and aired until 2007, making it the longest running science fiction series in American history, and spawning two spin offs. Atlantis, which ran for five years, and Universe, which ran for two. Both would likely have lasted longer had MGM not been so financially mismanaged it lead to bankruptcy.
SG-1 replaced Snake Pliskin with MacGyver… uh… I mean… Kurt Russell with Richard Dean Anderson, as Jack O’Niell. Two L’s. There’s one with one L, but he has no sense of humor.
Michael Shanks took over playing Daniel Jackson from James Spader, who was beginning to go bald at that point, and wasn’t interested in the role in the first place, calling the original film “awful”, and claiming he only did it for the money. Not that I can argue. For all that the original film was an incredibly interesting concept, the execution left a hell of a lot to be desired.
We all know Kurt Russell will do anything, so he was just being Kurt Russell. Nothing wrong with that.
SG-1 added Amanda Tapping as Air Force Captain Samantha Carter, a brilliant astrophysicist who got to be smarter than everyone around her all the time, and blow up suns now and then. It also added Christopher Judge as Teal’c, a warrior for the evil fake God Apophis, who changed sides because he knew Apophis was a false God and wanted he and all the rest of his kind overthrown so his people could be free. It also featured the late Don S. Davis as General Hammond, in what would be one of his most defining roles, and his greatest legacy as an actor.
After discovering that the Stargate went to other worlds than the one they visited in the film, the Air Force, with approval from the President, forms the SGC, or Stargate Command, in order to explore alien worlds and locate alien technology that will allow Earth to fight back should the Go’uld, the eel like parasitic aliens that make up the System Lords, such as Ra and Apophis, ever attack Earth.
This kicked off a ten year long adventure across the galaxy and beyond, as O’Niell and SG-1 brought down System Lord after System Lord, freed Teal’c’s people from abusive apostrophes, went through numerous cast changes, and did some pretty amazing stuff, all while obeying the actual laws of science much more frequently than any other sci-fi series has ever managed.
The final two seasons saw Ben Browder and Claudia Black, late of Farscape, joining the cast after Richard Dean Anderson all but retired from acting, as he was in his early 60’s and didn’t really want to throw himself around the floor anymore. The guy broke both his legs while pursuing a hockey career, so I figure it’s pretty fair of him to say when he’s done being a rag doll for our amusement.
Some say the cast change lead to the end of the show, which is absurd. Any military based organization is going to see pretty regular rotation of members, so the promotion of O’Neill to SGC command, and eventually Homeworld Command, following Hammond’s career path until he passed away, was natural and believable. What really lead to the end of SG-1 was that it had been on for ten years, and there wasn’t a whole lot left for them to do, as they had already introduced an invasion from outside the galaxy with the Ori. Where do you really go after fighting false gods, followed by fighting real Gods?
Atlantis took an entirely different approach. After Jackson solved the mystery of the eighth chevron on the Stargate, an international team headed to the Pegasus Galaxy, and reactivated the ancient starship city Atlantis, left behind by the race that built the Stargate, known only as the Ancients. There, they encountered the Wraith, a vampiric race that feed on humans. This let them have a much longer running and open ended scenario, as the Wraith were a fractious force, and not easily defeated. When the series ended, the Wraith still remained a threat in the Pegasus Galaxy.
Universe took a different approach, as well, following a team of soldiers and scientists who found themselves trapped on an Ancient starship know as Destiny, several billion light years from Earth. Unable to connect the Stargate to a place that far away, every day was a struggle for survival, with food, water, and even air, in limited supply. Encounters with alien races and technology frequently proved disastrous, and temporal anomalies caused Lou Diamond Phillips to die, even though a second version of him was safely alive back on Earth, because time travel is fun.
I still regret that we didn’t get to see Loud Diamond Phillips having a conversation with himself, though. That’s magic to pure for this world, though.
In all, the Stargate franchise lasted 17 years, making it one of the longest running continuous science fiction series to ever air, outside Doctor Who. Even star Trek can’t claim such a feat.
No, Supernatural did not beat it. Supernatural is not science fiction. It’s right there in the title. Supernatural. That’s not science fiction. Shut up, or I’m taking your Jensen Ackles plushie away.
More importantly, Stargate offered something we rarely get to see in the realm of science fiction. Nobody did what they did because they had evolved to be better, or were chosen by destiny. They did it because it was the right thing to do. It would have been easy for the Air Force to lock down the Stargate, bury their heads in the sand, and pretend like the threat of alien invasion wasn’t out there. Odds are, it would have worked, too, as only Apophis was really aware Earth was out there, and he wasn’t exactly the smartest alien overlord around.
Instead, they chose to step out there, not having a clue what they were up again, much less how to fight it, and try anyway, because when Ra left Earth, he took thousands of human slaves with him. That made everyone out there, still being crushed by the bootheel of oppression, no different than us. They went because they had the means to do something about it, and because it was the right thing to do.
That’s a pretty special thing, when you think about it.
Stargate remains the only show not only full endorsed by the U.S. Air Force, but allowed to have constant advice from actual Air Force officers, as well as featuring several Air Force Generals as guest stars, playing themselves. More than just a good bit of promotion for the Air Force, it served as an example of what the best and brightest in the Air Force were really like, what they do, and how they do it, as well as what kind of future roles the Air Force may yet play in the defense of not just a country, but the world. The Air Force remains on the forefront of not just cutting edge technology and astrophysics, but space travel, with NASA recruiting from among their best offerings.
Should such a device as the Stargate ever really exist, I can think of no better hands to put it in than the men and women of the United States Air Force.
Except maybe MacGyver.
The role Stargate plays in the vast tapestry of science fiction is not the hope of a better tomorrow, but a better today. The idea that right now, as we are, we can be better, stronger, and kinder. That we can stand up to tyrants and dictators. That we are already evolved enough to reach out to someone, no matter how different they are, in friendship and trust. That we can form a unified front against any evil, and overcome it with the intelligence, cunning, willpower, and resolve we possess right now.
We don’t need to wait. We have everything we need. We always have. We just lack the resolve to do it, and even in that, Stargate believed we were capable of finding it.
No matter how you look at it, that’s a pretty special and important thing to be told.
Unless your Rodney McKay, then you just need to shut the hell up and blow up the star system already.