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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Stargate: Chemistry, or a sequel too far?

     In the surprisingly vast family of science fiction franchises with the word “Star” in the title, far and away my favorite has to be Stargate. Sure, Star Wars is the media darling, Star Trek has something that appeals to everyone (Deep Space 9 represent!), but if I had to pick one, it'd be Stargate. Maybe it's because I grew up around and on military bases. Army brat. Specifically, though, its the Showtime-birthed spin-off Stargate SG-1 that I love. The feature film was a grim-faced SFX reel mish-mash of macho guns and Egyptian symbolism inexplicably helmed by Roland Emmerich, far more likely to be blowing up the White House with a volcano made of lightning than explaining Ancient Aliens. Speaking of, I'm very fond of the way the Stargate franchise tackles one of the more absurd historical conspiracy theories out there in a way that would make the “ALIENS” meme guy teem with jealousy.

     For now, though, I want to look at why the initial series, Stargate SG-1, was so successful while the film and the other spin-off series, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe were not. I want to look at the show's chemistry.

     Stargate SG-1's star is, arguably, Richard Dean Anderson. Prior to this (and in some circles), RDA was known primarily for MacGyver. Richard Dean Anderson's Captain Jack O'Neill, a vast improvement on the dour-faced grim Jack O'Neil (with one l) of the Emmerich film, portrayed by dour-faced grim go-to-guy Kurt Russell, has solid chemistry with every other member of the cast. The show may not have been good, per se, but it would still have been watchable with a weaker cast backing him up. He's the very definition of a Deadpan Snarker, an intelligent and experienced soldier with good instincts that works extremely hard to maintain the illusion of a befuddled grunt. And he reminds me a ton of my own father. Just much taller.

The rest of the main cast are no slouches, either. Michael Shanks was given the un-enviable job of taking over a role from James Spader, almost as big a name (and a much better actor) as Kurt Russell, and between his performance and the growth that the series allowed him, you can't even picture Spader in the role anymore. Amanda Tapping, who has since become an icon both on- and off-screen in science fiction, has one of the best characters in SF in “Captain Doctor” (later full-bird Colonel and Earth's first female starship captain) Samantha Carter. Carter's got possibly the most cringe-worthy 90s girl-power introduction I can think of, but went on to become the SF Television's answer to Ripley or Lara Croft. Rounding out the main cast is Christopher Judge's Teal'c, who remains one of the biggest badasses to date, whether he's dual-wielding P90s or walking to heaven after being shot in the back. Teal'c's stoicism and reserved nature could easily have had him written off as a one-note character in the hands of a lesser actor, but Judge does so much with so little that he ends up being amazingly expressive. 

Yes, she actually said that.
     Even when SG-1 lost parts of this brilliant family, they still managed to hold it together, setting aside that season when Daniel Jackson was replaced by yawn-inducing optimist smart-guy Jonas Quinn, at least. 8 years in, at a point when most shows would have been off the air, they promoted O'Neill to General and brought in half the cast of Farscape to replace him. Ben Browder's Mitchell perfectly captured a younger version of O'Neill, and Claudia Black is a joy to watch in pretty much anything she's in. That's where the problem with the spinoff series lie. Stargate: Atlantis had no strong main team. Weir was an interesting character, but she spent most of her time in the city. Sheppard was another attempt at a younger O'Neill-like character, but where Mitchell succeeded, Sheppard fell flat. Jason Momoa's Ronon Dex was pushed like a mark 2 Teal'c, but Momoa's complete lack of acting ability just made him a grunting tough-guy thatnobody could take seriously, and meant a far more interesting character, Teyla, was wasted. Rodney McKay, an SG-1 recurring character, had some good moments, and Carson Beckett (dubbed Doctor Scotland) was a fantastic character, but they weren't enough to save the show. As for Stargate Universe, Robert Carlyle's Doctor Rush was pretty much the only memorable character. You could have jettisoned the rest of the cast and I wouldn't have noticed.

     Good chemistry in the cast can make or break a show. It can mean the difference between running for 10 years and nabbing a Guinness record or being cancelled halfway through your second and never resolving your cliff-hanger ending. Stargate SG-1 had that chemistry, and for that reason alone I could rank it in the top of my favorite stories. And for that reason alone, I met the news of a Stargate reboot with a resounding “Meh.” It won't have Jack O'Neill. It won't have Samantha Carter. It won't have Teal'c or Daniel Jackson, and for that reason I can't possibly imagine it being worth my time. Instead, I'll watch this: 


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