It was never in the cards that the rebooted/reinvigorated Stargate movies would keep all of the continuity from the TV shows. And that’s a shame, since the TV franchise did a lot more with the premise than anyone could have expected.
While a new version of the continuity doesn’t mean that the old shows disappear, it does feel like the creators of the movie are invalidating more than a decade’s worth of work. There are many reasons to venerate these shows and be sad that they’re losing their canon status.
Note: Most of this article will be about the first two shows, SG-1 and Atlantis, since they ran much longer than Universe.
As much fun as the original Stargate movie is, the main characters are two dudes — Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) and Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) — who don’t get along too great at the beginning of their trip through an ancient circle to another world. Every Stargate show had a much larger cast of characters than the movie did, taking advantage of TV’s longer format.
From the start, Stargate SG-1 had Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson), Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and Teal’c (Christopher Judge) as the main team — a team that the show didn’t waste time cementing into a very close-knit unit. By the end of the first season, the whole team was willing to follow Daniel on a mission to save Earth based on information he tells them he got from accidentally ending up in an alternate reality. That’s some trust.
The showrunners also managed to thread the needle by making the team very close but not making any single character irreplaceable. Both Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson — the two characters from the original movie — left the show at different points. That brought Jonas Quinn (Corin Nemec), Vala Mal Doran (Claudia Black), and Cameron Mitchell (Ben Browder) onto the team.
This was something that carried over to Stargate Atlantis, which also had an exploration-based team that needed a retooling during the course of the show.
All of these characters had unique histories, families, and relationships that the show was more than willing to build up and develop over the many seasons. Sam Carter’s father was an important recurring character, for example. Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett) had a sister that popped up for both plot and comic relief reasons. We ended up knowing a lot about the characters on this show, which gave them each intense depth.
Whatever question you had after seeing the original movie? The shows answered them. Who built the Stargates? Why are there so many symbols on them? The evil alien pretending to be Ra, where did he come from? Are there other planets out there?
Stargate was concerned with one tyrannical alien terrorizing a planet of human slaves, pretending to be the god Ra. Stargate SG-1 expanded that to say that pretty much all of the gods of ancient Earth were some form of technologically advanced alien exerting power over the sad humans. There were snake-like aliens who burrowed into human brains as parasites and (mostly) impersonated Egyptian gods. There were benevolent Roswell-style grey aliens who used holograms to impersonate Norse gods. And there were aliens who were just aliens — allies and obstacles and aliens who were mentioned but never meant. Stargate populated the whole galaxy very thoroughly.
Stargate Atlantis did a similar trick in a different galaxy. The threat was different. Instead of aliens using humans as hosts and slaves, the Wraith of the Pegasus Galaxy used humans as food, waking from a sleep in cycles to “cull” their human herd. Atlantis filled its universe with all the possible ways cultures could react to this kind of life: a paranoid society that pretends to be simple farmers, only to be researching nuclear weapons underground; a society protected by a shield with a limited range that practices ritual suicide to stay safe.
Stargate hit the sweet spot of alien races. They developed the right number of them — Goa’uld, Asgard, Wraith, Tok’ra, Nox, Unas — while making sure that the universe didn’t feel like it was only populated by beings related to the plot.
Thanks to the TV shows, Stargate is probably the franchise with the best grasp of its own continuity. That may have been because Atlantis premiered during SG-1’s run and Universe only shortly after, but there were a lot of references to other episodes, sometimes just as throwaway lines:
Hammond: Are you saying Colonel O’Neill has, somehow, regressed more than 30 years overnight?
Daniel: Stranger things have happened.
Teal’c: Name but one.
Daniel: Well, there was the time he got really old, the time he turned into a caveman, the time we all swapped bodies...
And sometimes in larger ways, such as with the Replicators, who appeared first in SG-1, only to get much of their backstory revealed in Atlantis.
It isn’t just that these shows had a strong continuity; they also revisited that continuity constantly. Everything in the show was either explained or was explicitly stated as something the characters didn’t know.
Making Science Fiction Tropes Their Own
Stargate never made any attempts to hide its genre roots. The shows tackled every possible science fiction trope they could. There were parallel universes, time travel, body-swapping, courtroom dramas, memory wiping, resurrection from death, and Groundhog Day-based plotlines. Whatever stereotypical science fiction plot device you can think of, they did it. And most of the time, they were really fun. Granted, though, they occasionally flopped. (I’m looking right at you, “Space Race.”)
A consistent authorial tone, depth of world-building, and strong characters meant that some of the tropiest episodes are also the best. “Window of Opportunity” was SG-1’s Groundhog Day and it’s still one of my favorites. Jack gives a speech about how crazy repeating the same day is making him, and it is both perfectly in character and screamingly funny. Doesn’t matter that the time loop convention has been used a billion times.
There are dark themes in Stargate, no doubt. But the joy people clearly took in making the show translated. Every time Jack asks someone to go fishing or McKay complains about being allergic to citrus, you smile.
Everyone’s pretty good at mouthing off to authority, too. When John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan) is captured by the Wraith, he asks if one of them is called “Steve.” A captured O’Neill says to his torturer, “‘Ba’al?’ As in ‘bocce?’”
The friendships in Stargate are the best kind: snarky. The banter in these shows is exquisite, and works well because we know so much about these characters’ relationships.
Sheppard: Wait a second. Are these things even close to a transporter?
McKay: Elizabeth’s is.
Sheppard: And mine?
McKay: It’s a...brisk walk away.
Sheppard: And by “brisk” you mean “far”?
McKay: And by “walk” I mean “run.”
Plus, this happened:
The show was never above poking fun at itself. The 100th episode of SG-1 was about a TV show within a TV show that hung lampshades on the show’s most absurd aspects — including having a director of the fake show say, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard” about a thing the show actually did.
Stargate was one of longest running franchises on television. And in a burst of Hollywood reboot-itis, the whole thing is suddenly no longer canon. That’s a shame, because we don’t need another O’Neill or Jackson or Ra to fight. We had them already, and the shows moved on with aplomb.
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