REACHING OUT INTO THE UNIVERSE AND BACK – STARGATE UNIVERSE, STARGATE ORIGINS AND THE LEGACY
With the cancellation of Stargate Atlantis and the announcement that the new series of Stargate would be going after a younger, sexier demographic; Stargate Universe was already on a back foot before a single scene had been shot. The loyal audience of Stargate SG1 and Stargate Atlantis felt ostracized by the producers of Stargate Universe with the announcement. It didn’t help that they also decided to take the series in a darker direction, capitalizing on the success of the recent Battlestar Galactica remake which was getting high critical acclaim. Because they copied the grittier tone of Battlestar Galactica, the sense of humor was almost entirely stripped away from the series- this left the fans feeling like it wasn’t a Stargate series at all. Add to it that most of the characters in the series were seen as bland or downright unlikable, there was this feeling of disassociation from the brand that turned off many Stargate fans away from the series. The series also took too long to find its direction- many of the early episodes felt like their hook was literally just about what resource they needed to replenish this week.
Stargate Universe was developed by Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. The idea to be a more serious character-focused series was mostly down to Cooper. He wanted to do something a little more grown up and mature and get away from doing what he referred to as “the same old thing”.
For the aliens, they wanted to get away from the latex-faced, English-speaking characters that they had done previously. In setting the series so far away from the other two series, they freed themselves up to have a fresh start in the storytelling. The rationale behind the unlikable characters was looking at a series like Survivor, where you have lots of people on a desert island and the best and worst of them comes out. Cooper wanted to do that with a Stargate series; really showcase how un-heroic and heroic humanity can really be.
With the new approach to the series they decided to change up some of the crew, which included a new director of photography. Both SG1 and Atlantis had been primarily photographed by Jim Menard and Michael Blundell, but for Universe they brought in Ronn Schmidt (who had shot The Shield), for the first three episodes to establish a new, grittier look for the series, Menard and Blundell took over after those initial episodes. The idea was to have the series shot like a documentary crew was following them around- this again was a technique employed on Battlestar Galactica. Although Cooper spoke about how he expected to be accused of copying other shows, he felt that as they were going for more reality in the series that shooting it in the style of a documentary would help that. Shooting in this manner also meant that the way they shot the scenes was different- they would shoot whole scenes in one go instead of doing masters and close ups like they had done on SG1 and Atlantis.
When it came to the cast, they wanted a true ensemble. Instead of the four-person team with several supporting characters, they wanted to have nine characters that were just as important to the show as the other. Leading the cast though was Robert Carlyle as Dr Nicholas Rush. Rush was a character who had very little redeeming qualities and Carlyle loved playing a character like that. As he said in an interview, just when you start to like him (Rush) -he will do something so reprehensibly dreadful you hate him all over again. He was a character who had so many layers to him and that was one of the main things that attracted Carlyle to the character. I remember when he was cast in the role there were a lot of people who were surprised at the casting, as Carlyle was a very serious film actor and here he was appearing in a Science Fiction television series. The producers had actually got in contact with Carlyle a year before they had even started production on the series about him being involved. Reluctant at first, it was actually Carlyle’s manager who convinced him to take the role.
In season 2 of the series Carlyle was offered the chance to direct, a chance he jumped at. Even though the episode he was scheduled to direct was the fourth episode of the series it was actually the first one shot of the season. Because there was a highly emotional scene in the episode for the character of Eli, Carlyle contacted David Blue’s real parents and had them send him a photograph of Blue as a child. He used this to illicit a more realistic emotional response from Blue and it worked. It took Blue utterly by surprise when he presented him with the photograph as nobody had told him that it was going to happen.
The character Eli Wallace was, in the original character breakdown, compared to Matt Damon’s character from Good Will Hunting with a little Jack Black thrown in there. A genius in mathematics and computers, but also a slacker. David Blue was very much like Eli in the sense that he was a gamer and into Sci-Fi. Blue was also a big fan of the Stargate franchise. He would watch SG1 after school and when Atlantis premiered he taped it. In his days of waiting tables he served Christopher Judge and was taken aback by how huge he was, he was too intimidated to even fan boy over the actor. Of his character, Blue described him as a person who got bored easily, he saw the reason that Eli dropped out of MIT was not because he was an outcast or because of bad grades but because he wasn’t getting the challenge he hoped for.
Because Eli was in the science part of the group he had to deal with technobabble, but because the series was more of an ensemble there were more characters to pass the technobabble to and Robert Carlyle would often end up with the worst of it. Eli was partially inspired by the vloggers that had been rising in popularity and the Kinos were a way for the audience feel like they were there with the crew. Eli running the Kinos made him the pseudo documentarian who was shooting all the footage we were seeing. The character of Eli was the best person to be running them as well; because of his geeky nature, he was like the audience and was the person who they could relate with the most in the series.
Eli always was in the middle of the central power struggle between Rush and Colonel Young. There were two sides to the characters; whilst Rush was someone who Eli looked up to, Young was someone whom he respected, so he was always torn between who he should side with if it came down to it. The main relationship in Eli’s story is the relationship he shares with Lt. Scott. As the series progressed Eli and Scott’s friendship built and built into something that the writers themselves never expected. That came from Blue and Brian J. Smith’s real-life friendship- they hit it off pretty quickly and that friendship translated into a great on-screen chemistry. Eli suffered a lot over the course of the series and instead of crumbling, the character came out stronger. When the woman he fell in love with, Ginn, was murdered, he finally started to take more responsibility for his life. These events were what led to his decision to remain alone on the ship and try to repair the last stasis pod.
Colonel Everett Young was the military commander of Stargate Universe and throughout the first part of the season he was recovering from injuries sustained when the team arrived onboard the Destiny. He was in a constant power struggle with Rush throughout the series and even when they appeared to have reached a common ground, something would come along to drive a wedge between the two. It was an interesting dynamic in that the two senior members of the team had such wildly opposing viewpoints. Young started to doubt his abilities and question if he was the right person for the job and made some questionable decisions throughout the show including beating Rush unconscious and leaving him to die on an alien planet.
Young was played by Louis Ferreira, a seasoned actor who had appeared in several films and TV series as minor characters or guest roles. Ferreira saw Colonel Young as a character who had lost a lust for life, someone who was almost dead inside, desperately trying to find some sort of spark to reignite that love of life he had lost. As a fan of the Stargate franchise-specifically SG1– Ferreira was drawn in by the new direction the series was taking and, even more specifically, the inclusion of Robert Carlyle. Of Carlyle he said that it was wonderful being able to play opposite someone who was a brilliant actor but also very humble and giving. When he did a screen test with Carlyle, Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper immediately saw something between them that could become something really special. They had a great on-screen chemistry, even though they were at each other’s throats a lot of the time.
Ferreira really enjoyed playing a character who had literally hit rock bottom. Completely cut off from everyone he ever knew apart from the people who made it onto Destiny with him. The challenge of playing a character who started to question if the rules he obeyed before still applied anymore. Someone who felt like to survive, he was going to have to break the rules, change them or die. Young was seen as both the protagonist and the antagonist in the series and that was such a fascinating role for him to play. Having the audience constantly switch between loving him and hating him in the same episode was something that he loved about the character. There was no black or white with Young; everything was grey.
Ferreira was known for pulling pranks and cracking jokes a lot on set, including setting up a fart machine near the Stargate which he would keep setting off whenever Alaina Huffman was nearby. Lightening the mood on set was one of the things that got them through the long days and the tough shooting conditions, Ferreira loved being able to keep everyone’s spirits up with his hi-jinks.
Whilst Colonel Young was the official military leader on Destiny, it fell to Lt. Matthew Scott to take charge at times. Scott and Eli built up an unlikely friendship and there was also a love triangle that developed between Eli, Scott and Chloe Armstrong. The love triangle aspect was one of the things that actually put some viewers off as they felt it was too soap opera-like and thankfully the writers did away with it after a while. Scott was usually at the forefront of any of the conflicts in the series and would often be in harms way trying to save everyone. He found his natural leadership skills through a baptism of fire, being given command of the military personnel whilst Colonel Young was incapacitated meant he had to step up and take charge. He would not only excel in the role but when Young starts to crack under the pressure, he puts his commander in his place and tells him that he needs to shape up. For a young Lieutenant to stand up to his commanding officer like that takes real guts and Scott had guts. Even with his lack of experience he was an effective commander.
Brian J. Smith was 27 when he was cast in the role of Lt. Scott and he had done very little screen acting- a guest role here and there, but mostly he was a stage actor. Taking on the role of Lt. Scott was a bit of a worry for Smith as he wasn’t used to screen acting as much as he had spent the last year and a half before his casting doing off-Broadway plays. When interviewed shortly before filming had begun, he expressed how he got chills whenever he thought about doing a scene with Robert Carlyle as he was in awe of him as an actor. When talking about the leadership style of Scott he talked about how he felt that Scott was more of an emotional leader, which meant he was prone to hot headed decisions instead of a more level headed approach. The character was still learning how to be a leader throughout the course of the series. His arc throughout the series was mostly about stepping up to being the leader that everyone needed. Smith wanted to explore more of Scott’s spiritual side as he was a deeply religious character, considering priesthood before joining the military and keeping his faith throughout everything. He wanted to explore more of this side of the character because of the notion that the Destiny was searching for the source of where everything came from and what that would do to someone’s faith in God.
Alaina Huffman portrayed Tamara Johansen, or T.J as she was known by. T.J was a medic who found herself promoted to the medical doctor of Destiny and it was a position that she was unprepared for. Like a lot of the other characters thrown into the situation they found themselves in, T.J found herself overwhelmed at first but she eventually rose to the situation and found the strength inside herself to really take on her new role. Huffman found T.J to be a very vulnerable character who had a strength inside her, but she also doubts herself a lot. All the characters suffered in some way during the course of the series but none more so than T.J. It was discovered early on that she was pregnant and in the season 1 finale she was shot in the abdomen and lost her baby. She wasn’t able to truly grieve for the loss of her child because of the situation she was in which affected her greatly. Whilst there were moments where she kept processing the loss it was never truly dealt with and she still suffered with it throughout the course of the series.
The reason for T.J’s pregnancy was because early into shooting season 1, Huffman herself fell pregnant and rather than work around it the writers wrote it in as a plot point. This was a smart move as it really helped the character evolve and grow, and they wouldn’t have to worry about hiding her bump behind folders and tables and all those other things productions did to hide pregnancies in series. However, they always knew that they didn’t want to have to deal with a baby on Destiny so the pregnancy was never going to have a happy conclusion.
Huffman herself was no stranger to Sci-Fi, having appeared in Smallville and Painkiller Jane previously. She was not prepared for how big an audience Stargate had, as she wasn’t really familiar with the Sci-Fi genre itself. She knew which shows were shooting around Vancouver but that was where her knowledge ended. Having acted in several Sci-Fi series she started to get into the genre itself and found that it was a genre she loved. She was one of the few actors on the series that was actually approached to audition by the producers themselves. She initially read for Chloe but quickly realized that she wasn’t right for that role. She ended up finding herself in the role of T.J and when auditioning for that role, she nailed it.
What really attracted Huffman to the series was the fact that they took the time to develop the characters and focus on them over the flashy effects. Whilst she felt there was some negativity towards this approach as it was vastly different from the previous Stargate series, she also felt that the stories that came out of the character driven aspects were a lot stronger. She enjoyed evolving T.J throughout the series and played on the fact that the character was maturing in her role as the medical doctor, and that she was no longer just flying by the seat of her pants- but actually starting to get the confidence in her abilities as a healer.
Chloe Armstrong was the daughter of a visiting Senator to the Icarus base who was caught up in everything that happened. She takes a mental beating very early in the series with her father dying and facing imminent death herself. She sought solace in Lt. Scott, which turned into a relationship. Initially her story lines all revolved around her relationship with Lt. Scott and Eli, however, in the season 1 episode, Space, she was abducted by a group of aliens. From then on, the aliens influence on her evolved into her beginning a sort of transformation. Whilst the transformation was halted, there were lingering side effects which were never fully explored due to the series end.
Elyse Levesque had been a child actor on Incredible Story Studio before moving on to other roles, mostly guest appearances on various TV series and the odd TV Movie. She was cast in the role of Chloe after a successful screen test; they wanted her to cry in the screen test and of course as soon as she needed to for her audition she was unable to get many tears up. She saw the next woman coming out of the screen test and she was drenched with tears. At that point she thought she had lost out on the role, but she was successful. Levesque expected that her character would move more into a leadership role but when she got the outline of where the character was heading in season 2 she was really surprised and excited about the direction Chloe was heading in. Of the love triangle between Chloe, Scott and Eli, she spoke about how Eli was a friend to Chloe unlike any she had before, because she came from a world where she didn’t really trust anyone. Eli was the first person she met who would literally give his life for her and Levesque did feel that Chloe loved Eli, but that she also saw him as just a friend and nothing more.
The first time we meet Master Sergeant Ronald Greer he is in the brig for assaulting a superior officer, and yet his fellow officers placed a great amount of trust in Greer. He was a bit of a renegade and thrived in the hostile environment that Destiny took them to. He was always willing to put himself in harm’s way to save the lives of others, even to the point of offering to donate a kidney to save the life of one of the scientists. He was portrayed by Jamil Walker Smith, who-at the time-was best known for his voice acting work in the series Hey Arnold. Comparing the two roles, he felt that the voice acting helped prepare him for screen acting because it was mostly dialogue work which prepared him for cold reading. At the time of his casting, he had just written and directed a film that was about marines going away to war- so he had interviewed several Marines at Camp Pendleton. Smith’s favorite episode of the first season was Lost because it was the first episode that really delved into Greer’s past and explored where he came from.
Of all the characters in Stargate Universe, Camile Wray was a character in an unexpected position for a Sci-Fi series. A human resources officer, Camile was also the first gay character in a Stargate series. The character struggled with being away from her long-term partner, however, she stepped up to a leadership role taking on the role of the leader of the civilian population of Destiny. Camile was portrayed by Ming-Na Wen, a veteran actor known most notably for her long running role in the hit series E.R. Ming-Na rarely took work outside of Los Angeles because of her family commitments, but Robert C. Cooper talked her into taking the role and assured her that they could work out a schedule so she could be in Los Angeles with her family as often as possible. Of course, this meant a lot of flying back and forth- she joked about having meetings on flights that she never would have had if she had stayed in Los Angeles. Camile was always battling for complete control of Destiny and whilst she didn’t trust Rush, she allied herself with him in order to try and get more people on board. Ming-Na is a big fan of Sci-Fi and she had so much fun working on the series, even the simple things such as standing on the set gave her pause and she felt like she was a little girl playing Star Wars.
The series was shot mostly on sound stages but they did get the chance to shoot some location work from time to time. For the episode Cloverdale they shot on location in Cloverdale, British Columbia. Cloverdale is one of the major shooting locations for Vancouver-based film and TV series. For the third episode, Air Part 3, they actually left Vancouver to shoot the desert scenes and moved to White Sands, New Mexico. The five day shoot in New Mexico was a horrible shoot for everyone involved, due mostly to the extreme heat. Towards the end of the shoot the temperatures got as high as 117 degrees Celsius (242 degrees Fahrenheit) and the cast especially really suffered as they were in full costume.
The major issue a lot of Stargate fans had with Stargate Universe was the fact that it had become more of a soap opera than a Sci-Fi series. Whilst the other series had relationships, they never had full on love triangles and jealous ex-lovers. Another thing that really hurt it was that in the 200th episode of Stargate SG1, one of the parodies was a recast younger edgier version of the show, and whilst they were parodying it, Stargate Universe actually did most of what they were parodying in the clip. Although there was some solid Sci-Fi in the series, the soap opera aspects of the show put off a lot of people. Another issue was that it took too long to really find its feet and by the time it had done, a lot of people had already tuned out. I have watched Stargate SG1 more times than I can count, same for Atlantis, but I’ve only seen Stargate Universe once. Whilst I did enjoy it, whenever I wanted to watch Stargate it was never the series that I would go to. I would always go to either SG1 or Atlantis. Maybe at some point I will re-watch the whole series again and given more time away, I might have a much greater appreciation for it. But at the moment I felt that it was an OK addition to the franchise. I don’t think it was the dog shit entry that some people accuse it of being, but it is far from the best series in the franchise. The series was cancelled after its second season and the main reason was due to MGM’s bankruptcy. With the cancellation of Stargate Universe, for the first time in 15 years the Stargate franchise itself had ceased production.
In 2018, a ten mini-sode series called Stargate Origins was released. Each episode was ten minutes long, which when edited together would make a 100-minute film. The series was a prequel to the original film that followed Catherine Langford’s exploits in 1939 as her and her father tried to uncover the secrets of the mysterious ring that was found in the Egyptian desert ten years previously. The series was directed by Mercedes Bryce Morgan and written by Justin Michael Terry and Mark Ilvedson. Origins would be available exclusively on the new streaming service that MGM had set up for all things Stargate; Stargate Command. They said that the series would be a thank you to the fans and that it wouldn’t step on any previously established canon.
Where to begin with this series? Abysmal is not a word that I normally use- I tend to go with more colorful metaphors such as shit, or fucking shit. Stargate Origins was the biggest steamiest pile of shit that the Stargate franchise has ever produced. Now, I watched it from start to finish in one sitting. If I hadn’t been writing this article I would have given up after two episodes, maximum. The writing, acting, visual effects, editing and even the sound mixing was just awful. It had such a predictable ending to it which was even worse than I had even Imagined. The first ten-minute episode is made up of about five minutes of stock footage from the original film. When they say Naquadah they pronounce it Nagada- but the subtitles say Naquadah. There are things in the series that just wouldn’t have happened in 1939 and the way they keep it from stepping on previously established canon is the Sci-Fi equivalent of “and it was all a crazy dream.”
The whole series was an insult to the fans, as soon as Catherine sees how the Stargate opens, I immediately thought to myself that she is getting her memory wiped. And then they doubled down on it and had her instruct her two companions on how to open the Stargate. When they travel through the Stargate in an attempt-a very, very loose attempt- to recreate the shot of Daniel Jackson’s face passing through the water from the original film, they basically have the actress playing Catherine dunk her head into what looks like a fish tank. That effect in the original film was well thought out and done to make it look nothing like putting someone’s head into a tank of water- in Origins, it felt like they just said, “Oh dunk your head in this fish tank and look surprised.” The Goa’uld had yellow contact lenses in instead of glowing eyes which just looked weird, there was a strange decision to have a Harsesis child which went nowhere and Ra’s appearance at the end was just to monologue about how evil he is.
I’m going to speak about the end and then I’m going to move on because frankly four paragraphs is too much to dedicate to this train wreck but it’s part of the franchise now, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t. So, I mentioned the mind erasure earlier on- it gets worse though. Aset, or as she was also known as Isis (who was established to be dead in Stargate SG1 in a canopic jar at this point, but that’s another issue that I won’t go any further into) uses a Goa’uld hand device to erase Catherine and her father’s memories. But what she also does is then tell them to assemble a team and come back and overthrow Ra. The list of things she doles out to Catherine to do was ridiculous and I was half expecting her to say “You will find a man called Daniel Jackson and he will work out how the Stargate works.” This decision to have Aset tell Catherine to do all of these things just takes away so much from the character. In the series, Catherine was seen to be this wonderful woman who spent her life fighting for the government to let her research the Stargate and to have the drive and determination taken away and replaced with some sort of weird command from an alien ruins her character’s motivation. I can safely say that I will not watch Stargate Origins ever again and I actively advise Stargate fans who haven’t seen it to avoid it.
The Stargate franchise started out as a single film with a modest budget for a Sci-Fi epic- it has since ballooned into an epic franchise that rivals the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars in fandom circles. It now comprises of three live action TV series spanning seventeen seasons and 352 episodes, 4 films (if you include the film release of Origins), numerous books, a mobile game, fan made video games, role-playing games and merchandise. Two officially licenced video games went into production during the series run, Stargate SG1: The Alliance and Stargate Worlds. Neither of them were ever finished, however, two trailers did come out for The Alliance and footage of it was actually used in the episode Avatar. There are Stargate conventions that take place all over the world and the cast have been attending conventions since the beginning.
Amanda Tapping’s first convention experience was in England and when she went out on stage, she was freaked out how many people were there to see her. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before. Women have come up to Tapping and told her how they got into engineering, or science or joined the military because of her portrayal of Samantha Carter. She has been given so many gifts by fans and in the episode, Ascension, she actually included some of the gifts in the decoration of Carter’s house. She has spoken numerous times about how moving it is having people come up to her and tell her how much of an influence she has been in their lives. At a convention it was revealed to be her birthday so the entire convention hall sang her “Happy Birthday“.
Christopher Judge loves the convention appearances, he always warns people at the start of his talks that he has ADD and mild Tourette’s and tries so hard to keep his language clean. However, he tells the audience that if he does swear, he will give every child in the hall a dollar. At one convention appearance, a rather strong swear word slipped out and he asked all the children in the audience to come and get their dollar- suddenly a sea of children appeared and he had to get someone to go change a $50 to have enough dollars for all the kids. Judge loves the conventions because he got to show everyone more of himself- people expected him to be this stoic warrior when in reality he is so goofy.
Initially Michael Shanks avoided the conventions because he didn’t know what to expect and had a pre-conceived notion of what they would be like. He felt that they would be much more intimidating but when he finally went to a convention, he realised how much fun they can be. He still found it a little overwhelming when he had the one on one time with some people and they got a little too close, but apart from those rare occasions, he loved it. He is also probably the most honest of the cast at conventions. When being asked about the Zat’nik’tel weapon, he didn’t mince his words when he said that it looked like a penis and he thought the way it operated was stupid. One shot stun, two kill and three disintegrates. He also revealed that if he could avoid it, he would never carry a Zat and it was rare that you would ever see him with one.
Richard Dean Anderson was late to the conventions- I don’t think he attended a single convention whilst the series was still on the air. However, in recent years he has made several appearances in conventions. For Anderson he loved just talking to people; his sense of humor would come out very quickly and that sarcastic O’Neill character we all loved would be there on stage because that is pretty much what Anderson is like in real life. He has told stories about him and Christopher Judge trying to out-fart each other, and stories about getting into trouble for ad-libbing. When asked at a convention if he would return to Stargate, he said “absolutely”.
Joe Flanigan was a huge fan of the conventions because it was really the only time he managed to interact with any of the fans. He would always get such an intense feeling of gratitude from the fans at conventions and it was at a convention that he revealed that he had tried to lease the Stargate franchise. He hadn’t talked about it up until that point because he was so disappointed by the outcome and he felt like he had let the fans down, but getting it out really helped clear that feeling.
The future of the Stargate franchise is uncertain, with the reboot of the film dead and the fan outcry against Origins, MGM has apparently spoken with Brad Wright to discuss where they can take the series next. Wright has publicly stated that fans should not expect a full TV series anytime soon but he has said that MGM are interested in doing something, as they realize that it is a genuine franchise and they are taking it very seriously. With Richard Dean Anderson saying that he wants the series to come back with Brad Wright behind i, and saying that if Brad wants him back he will do it, the chances that Stargate will return in some form are high. I hope that whatever we get is much closer to SG1 and Atlantis and very far away from Origins. However, if I have one wish it would be to see Stargate SG1 get a Blu-ray release sometime soon, because it deserves it.
The franchise has survived and endured 25 years; it gave us all so many wonderful moments- funny, heartbreaking, nail-biting, exciting moments. It taught us about mythology, about science, it inspired and opened our eyes to the mysteries of life and the universe. For me the Stargate franchise isn’t just another TV series or film to watch,-it is an important part of my life. I am so glad that I turned the channel onto Sky One all those years ago and saw the final ten minutes of the season 3 finale, Nemesis. In doing so I found a series,-and later franchise- that has become a huge part of my life in ways that no other TV series or film has ever done before. If there is more Stargate to come and it is closer in quality to Stargate SG1, I cannot wait to see what the next 25 years brings us.
Matt is a huge film and TV buff who studied film and moving image production at university. In his spare time he enjoys reading comics and books, the occasional gaming session and writing novels.