Sunday, October 10, 2010

SG-1's early days: the critics travel through the Stargate

by Mark Phillips

The Stargate franchise has remains one of the most durable science fiction properties in television history, and you can't argue with its sustained success. Part of that is due to on-target casting and imaginative, intelligent and progressive stories. But the early years of the series were a little rocky, at least from critics' perspectives. Here's a look back to the first few years of Stargate SG-1 and how the media reacted to this new TV show...

The Associated Press' Bob Thomas said in 1997 that Stargate SG-1 looked to be "in for the long haul" because it had been granted a 44-episode commitment. He couldn't have possibly predicted that the series would be around for 10 more years as a full-blown franchise. The property would spawn two series spin-offs (Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe), a cartoon series, and a pair of Direct-DVD movies with potentially more yet to come. But two years was considered a good run back then, since many other science fiction shows at the time - Space Above and Beyond, Mann and Machine, Earth 2 and VR5 - had been felled by poor ratings in their first year, failing to carve out a lucrative amount of episodes.

The original Stargate film was an unexpected hit, making over $200 million in theaters in 1994. The $55-million epic starred Kurt Russell as Col. Jack O'Neil and James Spader was Dr. Daniel Jackson. Their discovery of an ancient teleportation device in Egypt proved to be their ticket to traveling "to the stars." Will Joyner of the New York Times felt the movie's impact came from "it's combination of space travel and military engagements, along with the mystery of intellectual detection."

Filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin created the motion picture but television producer/writers Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, creative veterans of the new Outer Limits series, pitched Stargate into television, selling it to Showtime for a 1997 debut.

Actor Richard Dean Anderson, who was cast as O'Neill in the series, admitted he knew nothing of the original film. "I've never been a science fiction fan," he told The Associated Press in 1999, revealing that he was never into Star Trek and never connected with Star Wars. "But I'll always try anything once," he said, "so I gave this a shot. Now I'm having a lot of fun...we're telling stories and as long as we do that, the genre doesn't matter." When Anderson watched the Stargate film, he realized how good the premise was for a weekly television series. But as he told Kate O'Mare of Tribune Media Services, "If you want a Kurt Russell character-like portrayal, you're not going to get him from me. He did a good job in the movie but it's not something I could maintain over a 44-episode commitment." Anderson wanted to put more fun into the role or as he said, "O'Neill doesn't want to be a hero but for crying out loud, somebody's got to do it!"

When the first two-hour episode premiered in 1997, it became the highest-rated series premiere on Showtime. Some critics wondered if fans, who knew Anderson as MacGyver, the super smart agent on the 1980s TV series, could accept him as a space-age "brooding" hero. "Anderson can't escape his star-making alter-ego MacGyver," The Chicago Tribune's Allan Johnson noted sympathetically. He pointed to MacGyver's spectre showing up when co-star Amanda Tapping (Captain Samantha Carter) said, "It took us 15 years and three super computers to 'MacGyver' a system for the gate on Earth." Producer Glassner proudly claimed that was an ad-lib by Tapping, something that fit into the show's quirky fabric of humor.

Anderson told Susan King of the Los Angeles Times that he liked such quips because they lightened the mood on an action series. "An adventure show shouldn't have a lead character who is a perpetual downer" he opined. He actually thrived on the grueling production schedule. Critical reaction to the initial episode was mixed. "It's more than a Stargate fan might expect but it certainly less than one would hope for," said Will Joyner of the New York Times, who praised Anderson's "gruff amiability" and liked Amanda Tapping. He thought the show's basic premise was, "a challenging but derivative mix." He also felt its television budget forced it to forgo huge spectacle in favor of "shock tactics" - including sexual implications, nudity and "some grotesque physical attributes for the villains." He cautioned this made the opener unsuitable for kids.

The Boston Herald couldn't wait for the series premiere, saying, "Stargate SG-1 is perhaps the biggest debut of the summer!"

Tom Shales of The Washington Post remained skeptical. "It's about a troop of adventurers who penetrated a globby, pulsating membrane and find themselves stranded on an otherworldly planet with an ancient Egyptian device." Shales felt the TV series was simply cashing in on the film. "Anyone with fond memories of the film should avoid Stargate SG-1, Showtime's oddly enervated series version. It hardly seems worth the time or money."

Rob Hedelt of the Free Lance Star said, "Although many of the special effects are pretty good, it can't match the grandeur or scale of the big buck Stargate movie. But it will ultimately rise or fall on its script quality." He wondered if the series would "reach stardom or turn into stardust" and predicted the series would either turn into a refreshing weekly look at the possibilities of the galactic exploration or become "a high tech version of The Love Boat." His main criticism resided with Anderson's performance, "who acts with all of the intensity of Wonder Bread." But he conceded the premise was a grabber and full of potential. The Toronto Star said, "TV shows based on movies don't usually fare well on TV but Stargate is a high-spirited blends humor, suspense and believable special effects." The Deseret News in Utah claimed Stargate, "is a pleasant surprise to fans," but called the two-hour premiere "more of a remake of the theatrical movie than a sequel. But it provides good special effects." The Boston Herald called it, "an interesting adventure," while The Kansas City Star said the best special effect remained, "the Stargate itself," calling it "out of this world!"

David Bianculli of the New York Daily News noted, "This TV pilot, like the theatrical film, is long on hardware and gunplay and short on logic. The cliffhanger ending suggests a continuing narrative that is mixed from equal ports of The Fugitive, The Time Tunnel and Sliders." As Stargate went into its second and third seasons, more seasoned appraisals could be drawn about a show that had proved to be a dazzling success. Word of the show was also getting out around the world. In 1998, an American family vacationing in Holland, who had never heard of the show before, accidentally caught part of an episode on their hotel TV set and they remained riveted to the set. Upon returning to their native Florida, they immediate called a local newspaper and asked for the name of this "futuristic show" and if it would ever air in Florida.

The Fresno Bee felt Stargate was now "shining" as a beacon of good science fiction and David Bianculli, who had been dubious over the pilot episode, said in 2001 that it was "one of the best weekly shows on television" and that it "deserves its loyal following of fans." The Chicago Tribune echoed this sentiment. "This series is a great example of cable loyalty," and cited Showtime's belief in the series by giving it a 44-episode commitment. The Tribune noted that Stargate had gained fans through its "fast paced, action packed episodes." Jerry Offsay, the president for programming of Showtime, told The New York Times in 1998, "The most widely watched show on our network is Stargate SG-1. It outperforms every theatrical movie on our air." But The Times noted that the series "receives almost no media attention outside of the hard-core science fiction circles."

Cast-wise, Christopher Judge, the enigmatic Teal'c admitted that he was not a science fiction fan when he was cast, but when he saw the original film in the theater, he told journalist Ian Spelling, "The premise was fantastic and the first half of the film was stunning...then it kind of fell apart." Judge soon became a science fiction fan because of the series. Richard Dean Anderson continued to received acclaim for his portrayal of O'Neill. Kate O'Hare of Tribune Media Services affectionately called O'Neill, "a grumpy old man" who leads the SG-1 team through the Stargate portals. Co-star Michael Shanks (Dr. Jackson) told O' Hare that he was initially doubtful over Anderson's cranky style of playing O'Neill and felt it may not work with viewers. Then he realized, "Richard is playing a character who has some flaws and he is not afraid to be unlikable to a certain degree with that characterization," he said. He praised Anderson for taking that risk.

O'Hare noted something that many critics often overlooked, a production aspect that SG-1 simply could not overcome. Nearly every planet they visited looked the same, primarily rich with forests and pine trees. Canadian vegetation could not be disguised. Even Shanks had to admit that this was unfortunately true. "It goes with the territory of filming in Canada," he winced. "We obviously can't do our exteriors in downtown Vancouver." He admitted it was a bit silly for the team to keep re-appearing on worlds where there were abundant northern forests. Another disadvantage was that these same locations had previously been used extensively for The X-Files, making them familiar to SF buffs.

But it didn't really matter. The ratings and generally positive reviews continued. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette liked how Stargate "finds humor in every situation." The South Florida Sun was disturbed by how the series wasn't getting enough attention, calling it "a much under-appreciated series." The Chicago Tribune blamed this lack of attention on the show's cable home, where it remained hidden from the mainstream audience, and therefore, "it is not attracting the same attention that Star Trek has received." Conversely, The New York Times said in 2000, "It is time for the Star Trek franchise to begin checking its rear view mirror because Stargate is catching up."

Indeed, by the end of its second year, SG-1 was the top-rated syndicated action hour on TV, with good demographics, comprised of both male and female viewers. The Los Angeles Daily News said the series was continuing to improve and that, "Richard Dean Anderson has made the role of Col. Jack O'Neill his own with his droll, winning fashion. The rest of the cast, particularly Canadian comic Amanda Tapping, follows suit, resulting in a breezy science fiction show that rarely takes itself to seriously." Marion Garmel of The Indianapolis Star was captivated by the show's unique time machine. "When the Stargate flexes all its swish and swoosh and its instant 21st century transportation, we have a science fiction epic that is as haunting as anything from the [new] Outer Limits."

And so the early newspaper reviews went, in those early days of the Stargate SG-1 franchise.

Read the full Stargate SG-1 chapter in our book, Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004, by Frank Garcia and Mark Phillips

1 comment:

ashley said...

Hi Frank i completely agree you stargate the most durable science fiction properties in television history and the show is really amazing i also love to watch ESPNU TV