The Stargate franchise is… intimidating. There are three movies, three TV series (two of them exceedingly long-running), an animated series, and tonight, a new web series begins, titled Stargate: Origins. There’s so much Stargate that even if you wanted to check out its epic saga of soldiers, interstellar travel, and aliens posing as gods, the amount you’d need to watch seems overwhelming. But we at io9 have your back.
Three movies and 17 seasons, and here’s why: It’s all about the characters. Listen, Stargate is not inward-facing, deep-thinking, high-concept scifi, and that’s okay. Where Stargate as a franchise finds its strength is in its ability to create an on-screen space that feels like home. As a universe, it’s filled with characters you desperately want to befriend, worlds you would kill to visit, and relationships you find yourself rooting for, even against all odds. It’s incapable of taking itself seriously, so if you liked Thor: Ragnarok—which also has a penchant for weird alien worlds and semi-gods—chances are you’ll also like Stargate.
Plus, as the show’s creators frequently said in interviews at the time of its production, the Stargate itself is the best storytelling device a writer could possibly ask for. It’s a doorway to a wormhole that can take you literally anywhere in space and time. Want to visit alternate universes? A Stargate can do that. Want to go to a planet stuck in the Bronze Age where half the inhabitants have regressed to become Neanderthals? A Stargate can do that. Want Bill Nye to show up as Bill Nye? A Stargate can do that, too.
And one more thing: The franchise is also filled with the mid-‘90s and ‘00s progenitors of great female characters like Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck, Star Trek Beyond’s Jaylah, and Supergirl’s Kara Danvers: Smart, badass women who know their damn business. As strange as it sounds, watching SG-1 regular Sam Carter was really the first time I felt like I was seeing a complex female character in scifi that I loved—she was a woman who was an astrophysicist and a military Captain and someone who wanted to fall in love, and etc., and etc. The women of Stargate have had a lasting impact, both on fans and on television as a whole.
Here’s the Stargate backstory in a nutshell: Thousands of years ago, evil aliens called the Goa’uld (that’s “go-ah-oould”) showed up in ancient Egypt and enslaved humanity, posing as their gods. Goa’uld are parasitic aliens, basically little snakes that crawl up into a human brain and then take over their body. The most venerated human slaves became the “Jaffa,” tattooed on the forehead with the symbol of their specific Goa’uld master, with the great honor of incubating baby snake aliens in their own stomachs.
The Goa’uld ruled the galaxy, traveling between planets through the Stargate network. Each planet has a gate, and each gate has its own address, kind of like a phone number—dial the right gate address, get to the planet you want instantly. The Goa’uld took their enslaved humans through the gate with them to serve them, no matter where they were in the galaxy, making for a very convenient explanation of why humans are basically on every planet they visit in the series.
Eventually, the humans on Earth revolted. They overthrew the Goa’uld and buried their Stargate, so no evil aliens would ever bother us again. But, being humans, we’re never content to let things lie; in 1928, an archaeological dig led by Dr. Paul Langford uncovered the Stargate in Giza. It was transported to Colorado, where it stayed, dormant, under the watchful eye of the US Air Force until 1994.
That’s where the first Stargate movie begins. Hired by a mysterious benefactor named Catherine Langford, Dr. Daniel Jackson (an “aliens totally built the pyramids!” crackpot archaeologist played by James Spader) figures out a way to use the gate. With grumpy Air Force Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) in tow, Daniel travels through the Stargate to an ancient Egypt-like planet called Abydos, where they discover and defeat a Goa’uld calling itself “Ra.”
Although it premiered in 1997, the TV series Stargate SG-1 picks up a year after the events of the film, as the Air Force is establishing a series of crack teams (SG-1 being the best and brightest, naturally) to dial random addresses into the gate and just like… see where they go. And battle any evil aliens they find. And try not to die. And also not put the Earth in peril, or bring anything insanely dangerous back in the process. (Spoiler alert: They absolutely do all of those things.)
The show used the same characters from the film, but recast the leads. Michael Shanks took the role of anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Jackson, while MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson, played Colonel O’Neill, who was both much more irreverent than in the film and also suddenly had an extra “L” in his last name for inexplicable reasons. They were joined by Teal’c (Christopher Judge), a defected Jaffa, formerly in the service of the very campily-evil Goa’uld and main show antagonist Apophis (Peter Williams). The great Amanda Tapping also came aboard as Captain Samantha Carter, an Air Force astrophysicist without whom the SG-1 team would have died one thousand times over by the end of, like, the third episode.
Together, they battled various Goa’uld, a shadowy government agency trying to get control of the Stargate for its own nefarious purposes, an army of sentient machines called Replicators, the Russians, and more. Though the show ran for an impressive 10 seasons and 214 episodes, it also received two direct-to-DVD movies in 2008, The Ark of Truth and Stargate: Continuum, to wrap up its storylines.
In 2004, Stargate Atlantis premiered alongside SG-1’s eighth season. The spinoff show shared the same creative team, the same tone, and even borrowed several cast members. Really, Atlantis followed a pretty similar format to SG-1, but with different evil aliens and a Stargate with blue lights instead of orange. The main difference was that the Atlantis team lived on the lost city of Atlantis (actually a giant intergalactic spaceship created by an even more powerful, benevolent alien race called the Ancients), and also, they hang out in the Pegasus galaxy.
The Atlantis team (and show) was led by Torri Higginson’s civilian commander Dr. Elizabeth Weir, who was joined in her mission by more military folks, some crossover characters from SG-1, and, most importantly, Jason Momoa as the very grumpy, butt-kicking alien Ronon Dex (from season two onwards). While trying to uncover the secrets of Atlantis and the Ancients, unfortunately, they also run afoul of telepathic space vampires called the Wraith, who eventually decide to attack Earth itself. And then there’s a new race of slightly different Replicators called Asurans, an evil Wraith-turned-human named Michael, a device that can destroy all Stargates across the universe, and other shenanigans.
The last episode of Atlantis aired in January of 2009; in October, a new—and much more divisive—chapter began with Stargate Universe. Though the overlap in creative teams from the old series was not small, Universe went for a darker, grittier feel. Former Trainspotting and future Once Upon a Time star Robert Carlyle played Dr. Nicholas Rush, heading up a crew stranded on a floating ship with failing life support systems—think Battlestar Galactica meets Star Trek: Voyager. As understandable as it was that a creative team that had been making basically the same show for 15 seasons wanted to try something different, Universe was ultimately a misfire, canceled after just two low-rated seasons.
Because today, February 15, the first new Stargate series since 2011 is making its debut. Stargate Origins is a 10-episode webseries premiering on the franchise’s new online platform, Stargate Command. Best of all, it’s a prequel, so prior knowledge of the Stargate universe is optional.
Set in 1939, Origins follows Catherine Langford, the daughter of the man who dug up the Stargate in Giza 10 years prior. She dedicated her life to unraveling the mysteries of the gate and eventually became that mysterious benefactor from the original movie. According to MGM, with World War II on the horizon, Catherine finds herself in danger when “Nazi Occultist Dr. Wilhelm Brücke approaches their facility with a sinister motive. Enlisting the help of two young soldiers, Catherine must use all of her wit and nous as she and her new allies embark on an adventure into the unknown to rescue her father, and save the Earth from an unimaginable darkness.”
Origins stars seasoned Australian TV actress Ellie Gall as Catherine, Star Trek: Enterprise alum Connor Trinneer as her father, and Shvan Aladdin and Philip Alexander as new characters Wasif and Beal. Catharine is a fan-favorite Stargate character who is basically responsible for everything the Stargate teams ever accomplished, and any time she appeared on SG-1 it was like your badass grandma had come to visit. She is basically the coolest.
The first two episodes of Origins will be free to watch—episodes 1-3 are up now—but to see the rest you’ll need to purchase an all-access pass for $20 (though it does appear to be region-locked to the United States for the moment). It might seem steep, and it only lasts through May. But it’ll also get you streaming access to all the shows and the two TV movies—and Stargate Command is the only place that has them. Also, Stargate Command has apps for iOS and Android and “Gate Cast” so you can stream the video to your smart TV.
Well, that mainly depends on if you like what you’ve read in this guide. But I will say the strength of Stargate, in all of its myriad forms, has always been its characters—and its sense of adventure. Jack O’Neill, Sam Carter, Ronon Dex, Teal’c, and the rest are characters you’ll actually want to spend 17 seasons watching. And with the exception of Universe, which wasn’t bad as much as it was different, the Stargate franchise is pure fun, and entertaining as hell, too. Getting 300-plus episodes of scifi comfort food for $20 definitely isn’t the worst deal in the universe.