Let’s talk about one of the greatest movie/TV franchises of all time. It’s one that is comprised of several successful television series and multiple movies wherein intrepid explorers travel across the galaxy seeking out new life, forging alliances, fighting evil when necessary, and growing in their understanding of the universe.
We must be talking about Star Trek, right?
It’s a series that actually began on the silver screen before making the transition to the small screen in multiple iterations. It’s a franchise wherein the titular heroes must overcome their differences, discover the deepest truths about one another, and band together to save that which matters most.
We must be talking about Star Wars, right?
Today we’re talking about Stargate.
What?! That middle-of-the-road 90s action movie where ancient Egyptian pyramids are actually spaceships?
No, that middle-of-the-road 90s action movie where ancient Egyptian pyramids are actually landing pads for spaceships. And where parasitic aliens abduct humans periodically to serve as hosts, thus ensuring their immortality. And where those same aliens have created a galaxy-spanning network of gates to enable interstellar travel, and have seeded humanity throughout the galaxy. And where multiple alien races are in near constant conflict with one another. And where earth’s humans finds themselves taking their first furtive steps out onto the galactic stage, unaware of what the stakes really are, or how the game is really played.
Yes, Stargate is the underappreciated gem of the Star-something world. Let’s take a closer look.
The movie that started the whole franchise. Written by Roland Emmerich, who also directed the movie, Stargate is the story of Daniel Jackson, an outcast Egyptologist and linguist whose theories about the First Kingdom are fringe at best, and Jack O’Neil, a retired Air Force Colonel with enough tragedy in his past to leave him prepared to volunteer for a one-way mission.
Jackson is called in to help translate some mysterious symbols, which turn out to be constellations used as a sort of interstellar address by a massive device called the Stargate. Upon entering the symbols found on the ancient device’s cover stone, the team of explorers including Jackson and O’Neil are transported to Abydos, a far-flung planet of humans bound in slavery to Ra, whom they revere as a god.
Ra is actually one of a race of parasitic alien beings who inhabit humanoid hosts and imbue them with godlike powers. These aliens have enslaved humans for millennia, setting themselves up as gods.
Ra shows up and, predictably, the team of Air Force commandos doesn’t abide with the whole I’m-a-god-and-you-will-serve-me schtick. Conflict ensues, leading O’Neil to decide to arm the nuclear bomb they brought with them through the gate in order to destroy it and prevent Ra and his minions from threatening earth. At the last minute, Jackson convinces O’Neil not to destroy the gate (and the Abydosians along with it…), and they figure out a way to use the bomb to kill Ra.
It’s typically Roland Emmerich, typically 90s, and completely awesome. It has a 52% on the tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes, but the audience score is 73%, which tells me that I’m not the only one who feels like this is an underrated gem.
Stargate SG-1, 1997-2007
Stargate SG-1 picks up almost right where the movie leaves off. Daniel Jackson stays behind on Abydos to be with the woman he fell in love with. O’Neil returns to earth, and to active duty as the leader of SG-1, the flagship team of Air Force special forces tasked with using earth’s stargate to explore the galaxy, forge alliances with peaceful alien races, and secure weapons and materiel to defend earth from alien foes.
There’s so much about SG-1 that is amazing and worth talking about that it could easily be its own article. [Editor’s Note: Let’s make this happen!] For this entry, I’ll simply point out the fact that the first five seasons of the show ran on Showtime. That’s right, the network that brought you such prestige television as Dexter, Homeland, and The Tudors birthed SG-1.
I’m not going to try to convince you that Stargate SG-1 is on the level with any of those other shows in terms of production quality, but the show did reportedly have a budget of around $1.4 million per episode, which is bonkers for a new sci-fi show in 1997, especially one based on a less established property. To put that into some perspective for you, in 1997 the top rated television show in the United States was Seinfeld, with a core cast of four comedy juggernauts who each held out for more money to the point of almost tanking the show. In 1997, Seinfeld cost around $2 million per episode.
Like any show that runs for 10 years, there were good seasons and less good seasons. Almost none of it is unwatchable, and despite the 4:3 aspect ratio, dating clothing and hair, etc., the show has aged really well. I ran across a marathon of SG-1 on TV a week or so ago and was several hours in before I looked up and saw the “do you want to keep watching that show and sleep in the guest bedroom, or do you want to come help me with the kids?” look on my wife’s face. The show has action, drama, occasionally some romance, and it manages to almost never take itself too seriously.
Stargate Atlantis, 2004-2009
Stargate Atlantis has one of the most seamless, perfectly executed jumping off points for any spinoff series, anywhere, ever. Most of SG-1’s seventh season revolved around finding a mysterious lost city of the Ancients, the long-lost race of powerful aliens who created the stargates. The city is finally discovered–in the Pegasus galaxy. That’s right, Stargate goes from interstellar to intergalactic, baby!
The Atlantis Expedition is a team of military and civilian scientists sent through to the Ancients’ city, only to discover that it is at the bottom of the ocean, protected by powerful force fields that are nevertheless on the verge of collapsing unless they can find a tremendous power source to keep them going. Rather than allow the city’s shields to collapse, bringing an entire ocean down on top of them, the team decides to use the remaining power to bring the city back to the surface.
Only after the city is no longer hidden at the bottom of the ocean does the team discover the reason for hiding it away in the first place–the Wraith. The Wraith are the big bads in Stargate Atlantis. They are a predatory race with incredibly advanced technology who periodically emerge from hibernation to cull human populations throughout the Pegasus galaxy. During these culls, they abduct and drain the life force from their victims, leaving survivors in abject terror of their coming.
Throughout the series the Atlantis Team deals with Wraith, Replicators (another big bad from SG-1 that gets an upgrade for Atlantis), and a small host of other races, in addition to the usual mishaps, tight spots, etc., that one finds in good sci-fi shows. Oh, and it has Jason Momoa…
Stargate Universe, 2009-2011
You may be tempted to look at the years alongside each of these series and think, “SG-1 must have been good, it ran for a decade. Atlantis must not have been as good as SG-1, because it only ran half as long. Universe must not have been as good as either one of the previous two.” It’s true that SG-1 is the best of the three series, in my opinion at least.
But it is not true at all to say that Atlantis only got 5 seasons because it wasn’t as good as SG-1. I firmly believe that this is a universal truth: If SyFy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel, for those of you of a certain age…) has a good thing going, they will cancel it in favor of something much worse.
Stargate Universe is that worse thing. The belief was, I assume, that Stargate’s core audience was growing up, so the show needed to grow up with it. Stargate Universe had a darker tone than either SG-1 or Atlantis, and both of those shows had their dark moments (Dr. Frasier, anyone?).
The problem was that creating a Stargate show that had the same tone as the Battlestar Galactica reboot (also on SyFy, also running at the same time Universe was pitched, piloted, and green-lit) meant that it had to simultaneously live up to the increased standard in sci-fi television that BSG represented, and also appeal to long-time fans who had seen their beloved SG-1 cancelled in favor of Eureka and Warehouse 13 (both of which I enjoyed a lot, so please don’t think I’m hating on them), then seen Atlantis cancelled almost as a sort of pallet-cleanse before Universe premiered.
Stargate Universe failed to live up to the BSG standard of gritty, realistic, intriguing human drama, and it also failed to feel like a Stargate show.
The Ark of Truth, Continuum, and other stuff
Since Stargate Universe’s cancellation, there have been two “tying up loose ends” movies, both set in the SG-1 frame of reference. The Ark of Truth nails down the end of SG-1’s story arc with the Ori. Continuum is a time travel adventure with SG-1, and essentially exists because they had already filmed a bunch of stuff when SG-1 was cancelled and SyFy didn’t want it to go to waste.
Since those two movies, there have been talks and rumors of further films in each of the Stargate franchise idioms, but everything is more or less permanently on the shelf as of right now. In 2018 a prequel web series premiered on Stargate Command online, following a young Catherine Langford as she becomes embroiled in an adventure fighting nazis to rescue her father using the stargate.
I could go on and on at length about SG-1 and Atlantis, specifically, and the Stargate franchise in general. But the truth is, if you’re a fan of Star Wars, or especially Star Trek, you owe it to yourself to check out Stargate, especially Stargate SG-1. The original Stargate movie is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, and all three TV series are available on Hulu.