Beware of SPOILERS for the final episodes of Stargate SG-1, as well as details on the upcoming movie Stargate: The Ark of Truth in this interview.
Humans are the Fifth Race. Stargate Command has the advanced knowledge and technology of the Asgard. And the Ori may have been destroyed … though their mortal followers continue their bloody crusade to bend our galaxy to their religious fervor. The Stargate universe has reached a turning point in SG-1‘s final episodes, and things will never be the same.
GateWorld recently sat down with executive producer Robert C. Cooper to talk about these developments, and much more. Cooper started as a writer and story editor in SG-1‘s first season, working his way up to executive producer and show-runner. With Brad Wright he is steering the future of the franchise, and both wrote and directed the 2008 direct-to-DVD SG-1 movie, Stargate: The Ark of Truth.
In Part 1 of this interview, Cooper reveals one major factor behind the cancellation of Stargate SG-1. He also discusses the monumental events of the series finale, “Unending,” and its implications for the future of the Stargate universe, as well as his original plans for an eleventh season.
GateWorld’s interview with Robert Cooper is available in MP3 audio format for easy listening, and runs about 30 minutes. It is also transcribed below. You can also download the interview to your MP3 player and take GateWorld with you!
GateWorld: For GateWorld.net I’m Darren Sumner. David Read and I are here with Mr. Robert C. Cooper. Thanks for having us into your little home again.
Robert C. Cooper: You’re very welcome!
GW: Let’s talk first about SG-1.
GW: The cancellation kind of dropped [on] the whole Stargate world like a hammer. What were your thoughts about it then, and how does that compare to how you’re feeling about things now?
RCC: Well, it was a while ago, so obviously I’m over it a little bit. I actually just did the DVD audio commentary for “Unending” with Amanda. She had not seen the fully finished episode. So watching it again with her and talking about it really kind of dredged up a little of the emotion that went on during all that.
It really goes back to the 200th episode party. And I think I’ve talked about this publicly before, but it was rather unfortunate timing on the part of the network to give us the call that they were going to not renew — I wouldn’t say “cancel” — they were going to not renew SG-1 for the eleventh season. And unfortunately it was one of those good news / bad news calls, where we couldn’t be really angry about it because they were also picking up the fourth season of Atlantis, which was very important to us, obviously.
And it was surprising, because I think we had felt for the first time in a very long time that we were going to do another year. The studio was really looking forward to doing an eleventh season. We had contracts for all the actors, which is usually the biggest stumbling block. And we felt that creatively the show was in good stride, and as strong as it had been in the past. And — I know certain segments of the fans disagree — but we felt that it was still a pretty good show.
So it was a bit surprising, but also you have to understand that we are well aware of certain internal politics and business decisions and why things get done the way they’re done. It wasn’t that much of a surprise. SCI FI has a budget, and they have to make decisions about how they want to spend that money. And it’s obviously still very important to them to have the Stargate franchise on their air. But — I think I’ve said this many, many times in interviews before — shows get expensive the more you do. And ten seasons is a lot. And SG-1 was not a cheap show to make anymore.
So we had to sort of scramble, because we really were proceeding as though we were going to do an eleventh season. I had a two-parter mapped out, a cliff-hanger ending for Season Ten. And we were just right on the edge of when we needed to know. And SCI FI was like, “So, how are you going to wrap everything up and end the series?” And I said, “We’re not going to. Just because the ending isn’t going to be on your air doesn’t mean …” [Laughter]
GW: Can you tell us anything about the original ending without giving away the movie?
RCC: Yeah. The idea was to introduce the concept of the Ark of Truth, which is the artifact that the team is searching for. And we were always intending to do a story where the team learns that this device [exists] which could be helpful in turning the Ori warriors from their crusade, and that it was in the Ori galaxy. So we had to take the Odyssey through the Supergate and go on a mission behind enemy lines. That was always the intention for the two-parter, for the end of the season.
And SCI FI was kind of like — they wanted us to tie everything up. And we said, “No. A) We don’t have time, and B) we don’t want to do that. If we’re going to end the show on SCI FI, on your air, we agree we think we should do something that is respectful of the fans who have been watching the show for so long, and kind of ends it without ending it.” And that’s where the title comes from.
GW: It’s [kind of] the same thing you did with Showtime.
RCC: Yeah … Tom Vitale, who is really the guy at SCI FI who is really responsible for bringing the franchise to SCI FI network. He’s the guy in New York who handles the deals and the acquisitions. He’s a huge fan of the show and has always been a very big supporter. But he’s also the guy who saw the value in the repeats. I mean, that’s really why SCI FI bought the series.
The new episodes were a loss-leader, if you know what I mean by that: They were always — the cancellation of the series was as much to do with the decline of the ratings of the Monday night rerun pack than it had anything to do with the ratings of the new episodes. What happened was, when they originally acquired SG-1, they had a business plan for the third window repeats that saw them getting a particular value out of running the strip for about two years. And they ended up getting four years at a level that they could only have ever dreamed about.
So the value was great. And one of the things they didn’t expect, but quite clearly saw, was that when there were new episodes on their air the rerun packs did better. So it was sort of a brand awareness issue, and the fact that people felt, I think, that there were always going to be new episodes so they kept up watching the reruns. But you know, that can only go on for so long.
And so, eventually — and I think the first signal for people that SG-1 was in trouble was when the Monday night rerun pack disappeared. I mean, after four years the tapes have to have worn out, right? They ran them so much. But when those ratings started to decline, that became the harbinger of the end for the new episodes.
Anyway, Tom always said that whenever you do things to the series that are huge changes, like killing characters or changing bad guys — things that are somewhat counter-productive to the mythology. The equivalent would be if in the last episode of Star Trek they crashed the Enterprise and killed everyone on board — the reruns get significantly hurt by that, because suddenly those people don’t exist in the fans’ minds anymore. They feel like they’ve seen the ending. And so when they’re watching the old episodes suddenly the tragedy lives in their minds, as opposed to the idea that maybe the team is still out there and it’s all still really going on.
So we never intended, ever, to end the series — especially because the franchise is still so strong. MGM had no intention of quitting at the end of the tenth season, even though SCI FI had not renewed the show. We obviously are proceeding with these two straight-to-DVD movies. And there’s other elements to the franchise that are going to continue, as well. There may be cross-over of characters from the SG-1 franchise into Atlantis. There’s been some talk of the third series, and that’s a very real thing that’s in development now.
So the idea for “Unending” was to somehow create something that would be an emotional tribute to the ten seasons that have come before, and to feel like it was the last chapter in the book — but not necessarily in the series of books. It was a chance to show, using science fiction, to show people one version of what the future might be like for these characters that they’ve spent so much time with and loved so much.
And I think if there’s one thing that fans have always been very vocal about, liking about the show, is the team and liking team episodes, and wanting to spend time where the team is all together. So … “You want a team episode? You want them to be together? I’ll give you them together! They’ll be together for 50 years!”
GW: You know obviously, fans look back to “The Fifth Race” a lot as sort of an epoch-setting moment when O’Neill visits the Asgard. Share with us a little bit about your decision to bring that back in in “Unending,” with humanity being declared to be the Fifth Race by the Asgard.
RCC: Like I said, I think we were trying to achieve certain things in this episode. You’re trying to get a sense of closure even though you’re not ending the series. You want to feel as though what has come before has had meaning.
I think one of the things fans have always appreciated the series for is the fact that we don’t reset to zero at the end of every episode, that we’ve been a part of the show from the beginning and we have a respect for the mythology we’ve developed — and that it expands. It’s there for us to pay tribute to.
And that was always going to be a part of that sense of closure — let’s finally show a major milestone that something happens. Something has to have happened in this episode that people can feel somewhat satisfied: “Hey, I’ve watched the show since then, since those days, and now I finally get to see the pay-off beat, that we’re finally the Fifth Race.”
GW: And there’s a major change there for the mythology, of the planet Earth to have received all of the Asgard’s technology and knowledge. With Stargate going on, how does that impact the franchise, the universe?
RCC: Well, we’ve had relative access to the knowledge of the Ancients for some time now. And it’s just a question of it being so vast and that it takes time to go through. I don’t think we’re going to immediately see us elevated to the level of the Asgard in terms of technology and [its] uses.
I mean, look — what it comes down to for a lot of fans is lasers! Really, let’s be real about this. Everybody thought, “Wow! The Odyssey finally has laser weapons. Cool! Are all the ships going to have laser weapons?” Eventually, yeah, we’re going to move that technology into the other Earth ships. But I see it as being — we’ve also done a lot of stories about having advanced knowledge and technology and having us get into a lot of trouble because we don’t understand it or because we take a piece of it and don’t know the whole thing.
And so I think to a certain extent we’ve learned our lesson a little, and we need to show that we’re a little smarter than we used to be and that we’re not just going to stumble in and make the mistake of saying, “Oh, this is really cool! We’ll do this!”
And in fact there’s an element to the movie, The Ark of Truth, that is really about that. Somebody — and I don’t want to give away too much — but somebody makes the mistake of trying to use a piece of knowledge from the Asgard core, and it backfires in a way that almost leads to a galaxy-wide disaster. So, there’s a little bit of a lesson to be learned and that we — our heroes have learned — not everyone has.
Right now we’re existing with the safeguard of: “We really can’t use it, or it will draw the Ori down on us. It’s there, we know it’s there; it’s something we may eventually be able to get at. But even when we can, we’d better be very, very cautious and very careful about how we incorporate these changes and this knowledge.” So I don’t think it’s going to result in as immediate a change as people may assume. But for a good reason. Hopefully we’ve learned some lessons over the ten years.
The greatest thing about Stargate is that it’s about us — people from our time and age — dealing with things that are far beyond us. And we haven’t been afraid to show our characters making mistakes. But in dealing with all of the problems that may result from us going out there and sort of stumbling around with technology and in areas where we really don’t have the right to be, or should be far more careful than we really are! We’re walking around in minefields where the mines are very close together.
GW: Which has always been a running thread through Atlantis. It’s this risk of …
RCC: Yeah. We’ve have this wonderful city full of technology … but be very careful about what buttons you push! That’s the balance we’re going to try and strike with this, as well. It’s got a lot of potential, but it’s also potentially very dangerous.
And that’s why the Asgard didn’t give it to us all the way along. A lot of people would wonder, “Well, why don’t they do more?” Well, there’s a good reason why they felt that we shouldn’t have that. You don’t give little kids guns to play with. It’s because it’s dangerous.
GW: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about Ark of Truth. This is your baby for the year. This is your project.
RCC: Yes! Well, that and Continuum. Brad and I are both producing both, although we’ve divvied up certain responsibilities. And I wrote and I’m directing Ark of Truth. So I guess that one’s a little more my baby, and Continuum is his. But we both certainly participated in the genesis of both scripts.
It’s the story that I kind of laid out for the end of Season Ten [and] beginning of Season Eleven, only it’s all crunched into one script.
GW: So you wouldn’t say it’s necessarily all of Season Eleven —
RCC: Oh, God no.
GW: — five or six arc episodes all crammed in.
RCC: No, it’s a very big, two-part episode. It’s hopefully going to be as successful creatively as I feel like “Lost City” was, or “Reckoning” was as a two-part episode in which major things happen. Huge arc issues are dealt with. And it is, I think, as much, for me, a pay-off of a lot of the threads that got set up throughout Seasons Nine and Ten.
So it’s much more the icing on the cake for the last two seasons as it is really a Season Eleven. This is the ultimate resolution of the Ori storyline … assuming all goes according to plan! [Laughter]
GW: One of the things that I wish that we would have gotten to see more of over the last two seasons was everything Ori in their home galaxy. We see Celestis, we see the Doci and the wall of fire where the Ori live. And these are really powerful, striking images. Are we going to get to see more of that now that we’re going to the Ori’s galaxy?
RCC: Yeah, absolutely. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what the story is. We go to them, basically. We’re going back to Celestis. We’re going back to all of those places.
GW: Excellent! Is Julian [Sands, the Doci] interested?
RCC: Well, that is not a confirmation yet. We are juggling a lot of balls in the air right now, schedule-wise. Just in terms of bringing in so many actors. One of the problems with setting up all these regular — not just the regular stars of the show, but regular characters who come back into it, like Adria — that’s tough to coordinate and schedule and make sure that we’re going to get going.
Hopefully — we are proceeding as though we would like to bring Julian Sands back as the Doci. But I don’t know for sure yet.
GW: It would be great.
RCC: Yeah. It would be great. And, if not — if that doesn’t work out for whatever reason, we are still going to be back in Celestis. And who’s to say that there isn’t a different Doci in charge by now.
GW: [They’ve] elected a new pope!
RCC: They have a pope every now and then, a new pope.
RCC: She gets de-Goa’ulded before she ascends! Yeah, that was, I thought, a really interesting idea. It was the marriage of the old villains and the new villains. And it was sort of — How could you not do that story? Especially because really the two remaining bad guys — the Ori obviously, and Adria, but also Baal was our other adversary — to me it was similar to the episode “Enemies,” where the Replicators and the Goa’uld met and dealt with each other. This was that, between the Ori and the Goa’uld. I thought it was very interesting.
And, again, all of that plays into the movie. “The Shroud” is another episode that has a big impact on what happens in the movie — the idea that the Ori have themselves … there’s a distinction, a very specific distinction that is often overlooked, and that is that between the Ori and the Ori’s followers. The Ori are ascended gods. The followers are what we have to deal with. And if you choose to believe that the Ori were actually destroyed by the Ancient weapon, Merlin’s weapon that Daniel constructed, then the Ori are dead. And the real issue for us is the followers.
GW: How do you convince them?
RCC: Well, yeah, how did we ever convince them before? That’s an interesting idea to me — when you have philosophical arguments with various religious people, the whole challenge is how do you prove whose God exists or whether God exists at all? That is an interesting idea.
And with the Goa’uld it was maybe not immediately obvious, but more obvious when you killed the Goa’uld and you showed someone the snake in their head and how the technology worked. Suddenly that person went, “Oh, yeah, right — he’s not a god. He’s just a guy with a snake in his head.”
But in this case, we were having a hard time telling these people that their gods were not gods. Now, even if the gods are dead, what difference does it make? They still believe as fervently as they did before. What’s interesting to me, and what we’re going to also explore in the movie, is that the Ancients have always had this non-interference policy. They’ve been sort of these bystanders watching their experiment develop. And the Ancients are the ones being threatened by the Ori.
We believe that our best chance of surviving the onslaught from the followers was to at least eliminate the “magic powers” of their gods. So we took what was at hand and we hope[fully] destroyed the Ori. In fact, we still have the biggest problem facing us, which is the followers with their technology and their ships and the Priors who have these incredible, superhuman powers.
And we actually did this big favor to the Ancients, if you believe the Ori are dead! And what are they going to do for us? How are they going to help us out of this situation after what we’ve essentially done for them? That’s partly what we’re going for.
I think there are a lot of really fun pay-offs that are coming in this movie. The other one is the Ark itself, which I find a truly fascinating centerpiece. It’s a device that essentially is a — I don’t want to say “brain-washing” — but it can be used to convince you of the truth.
Say you believe something, and I think that what you believe is wrong and so I program the Ark a certain way and open it and show you the inside, and now you’ll believe the truth — or believe what I’ve programmed. It’s a mass brain-washing device. And the Ancients, before they were the Ancients, back when they were the Alterans. They were in this very tenuous predicament in their galaxy with the Ori being far, far greater numbers, and the Alterans believing in science and wanting to become a more progressive society — the Ori being religious and wanting to eliminate that aspect from existence.
One of the Alteran scientists invented this device and said, “Look, we can avoid any kind of war by just using this on them and brain-washing them.” And the rest of the Alterans said, “No, that’s just wrong. Philosophically and morally it’s wrong.” And so instead what they did, was what is part of series canon, is they left. Instead of facing fighting, because they also didn’t believe in using — they had a ship, they had weapons, they could have killed the Ori (the people, human beings the Ori) — they left. And they came to our galaxy. And history happened the way the series has told us.
But now, Daniel has found evidence that that device, the Ark of Truth, may still exist. And so we have to put ourselves in the position of: “Is this morally wrong?” Even if we do find it, should we use it? Is it the right thing to do to convince the Ori followers that their beliefs are wrong? Because, in fact, it’s not necessarily wrong to believe in something … what’s wrong is to murder somebody because they don’t believe the way you do. So we’re not convincing them not to kill people — we’re actually changing their beliefs, if this all works out the way we think it might.
So, philosophically, it’s a very interesting moral argument, which I think is very current and a very contemporary idea. To me, I really hate getting too serious about the meaning behind these things, but to me it’s representative of television. It’s the media, and how we have this “magic box” now that can kind of make people believe whatever the people in charge of that magic box — whatever they want you to believe they can pretty much convince you, or convince the vast majority of people.
I find that fascinating. And I love taking ideas like that and incorporating them in a fun way into our science fiction world.
GW: So now you mentioned the Ancients. I’ve got to ask, watching Adria ascend [and] thinking about the fact that she ascended in our galaxy: Is she going to have to face the Ancients directly?
RCC: Well, ascended beings — their powers and their rules are sort of mysterious to us all, aren’t they.
GW: It’s sort of nebulous. We have a sense that they’re isolated in terms of geographic location.
RCC: There is a geographic — they don’t have physical bodies in our plane of existence, as we’ve explained it. But they are a localized energy form. And they may be able to access knowledge and awareness of things in a way that we can’t perceive. But I don’t think they are entirely omnipresent, universally. And so there are limitations.
The very first time we saw one, in “Maternal Instinct,” we saw Oma actually physically — and in that case she was transporting the human baby, the Harcesis — but they have a physical space. They’re an energy form that lives in a localized area.
So she probably had, I think, the ability to leave. And I think that the Ancients, in terms of being true to their code, they’re fairly non-violent. They would have defended themselves probably if she had attempted to attack them, but if her only goal was to escape, I doubt very much they would have done anything to stop her.
I actually know … I’m just speaking speculatively because I don’t want to totally give it away!