Beware of SPOILERS for Stargate: The Ark of Truth in this interview!
Robert C. Cooper has worn many different hats for the Stargate franchise, from story editor and writer to executive producer and director. His influence has culminated in the Ori story arc, which he played a major role in creating. The Ori spanned the final two years of Stargate SG-1 and the new DVD movie, Stargate: The Ark of Truth — which Cooper also wrote and directed.
The Ark of Truth left us with a number of questions about the mythology, from the Ancients and the Ori to the final fates of some of our favorite characters. In this extensive, two-part interview, Cooper goes more in-depth than ever before on the Ori storyline and The Ark of Truth.
In Part 1 he answers questions about the concept of the Ori and what he found most interesting about them, Adria and her relationship with Vala, and the challenge of keeping the series accessible to a broad audience. He also reveals what Season Eleven would have looked like, had SG-1 not been canceled when it was.
GateWorld: Conceptually, the Ori as false gods were like the Goa’uld taken to the Nth degree. They use their power to force people to worship them. Do you think this aspect worked as well as you intended it to in the last two years of the show, and in the film? Especially considering that we ended up spending so much time fighting the followers of the Ori, rather than the Ori themselves?
Robert C. Cooper: Well, that was always the intention. To me the followers of the Ori were the interesting part. I wanted to do a story that was in some way reflective of the differences between people’s beliefs that we see around us in our society, and how conflicts arise as a result of that.
And, you know, I think that you appropriately identified [in GateWorld’s review of The Ark of Truth] the fact that Stargate is essentially an action-adventure show first, and that while we do try and layer issues and mythology and maybe more realistic analogies into the fabric of the show, first and foremost we’re trying to entertain people. We’re really not trying to preach to them or beat them over the head.
To me, the Ori was a natural extension of where the Ancient mythology had gone. And in trying to create a new bad guy — because I felt we needed to reinvigorate the show in Season Nine — we talked about what hadn’t we done. Where hadn’t we gone? Wouldn’t it be pretty scary if there was a group of “Ancients” out there, essentially, who didn’t follow the non-interference code that the Ancients we know follow? And what if they were bad guys? What if they used that knowledge and power to their own advantage?
It took the stakes of impersonating a god that the Goa’uld sort of began — but they were essentially just a physiological parasite inside a human being, and they used technology to create the illusion of their godlike status and power — but what if the person or being taking on that position actually had very much more godlike powers? Wouldn’t it be much harder to convince people not to follow them?
Those are the stakes that I thought it would be interesting to set up with the Ori in Season Nine. A lot of die-hard SG-1 fans kind of feel like the show kind of ended in Season Eight and a new show started. And there’s a little bit of a division amongst fans. Some people love Seasons Nine and Ten, some people think the show was over at the end of Season Eight and everything else has been an insult to the first eight seasons.
I really do feel like we were given a choice, at the time, of continuing to make the show under the umbrella of SG-1, or not. Originally we had talked about possibly re-titling the show, reinventing it and making it a new series. But ultimately, when it came down to it with the discussions with the network and the studio, we wanted to keep the core cast of SG-1. And so we decided to just reinvent the show within it.
And so we tried to take the bad guys in a new direction, take it up a notch, make it a little more of a challenge. Because, as we’ve discussed before, it came to a point in the later seasons — Six, Seven, Eight — it felt like our guys were going to win every time. And we wanted to set something up that felt really difficult to deal with.
I think to a certain extent people had certain expectations about dealing with the Ori. But the gods themselves were never the aspect of the mythology that was as interesting to me, because they are so powerful. How do the humans who are dealing with that interact? And how are they affected by that? I find that more interesting and identifiable, and more of an analogy to our own existence, because we can’t seem to prove one way or the other who’s right! And that leads to a lot of conflict. And I think that’s interesting, and I think that’s an interesting thing to explore in the milieu of science fiction.
GW: Right. You know, from a fan’s perspective looking back at the Ori story arc, it feels kind of strange that the Ori themselves have been so elusive — that we haven’t actually seen them a whole lot, other than at Celestis in early Season Nine (“Origin”), and briefly when Vala is impregnated (“Crusade”).
RCC: Yes. And that’s because to me if you look at any religion that mankind has ever been exposed to, there’s very little direct interaction with the actual deity of the religion. There’s a whole lot of interaction with the subsequent writings and the human beings who follow those religions. But there’s a mysterious aspect and quality to religious belief and the passion that it invokes. And that was the interesting aspect of the story to me.
That’s not to say we didn’t meet the Ori or didn’t come to know who they were. But the Stargate mythology has always kept the Ancients at a bit of an arm’s length distance. And that’s because I think that the show is ultimately still about us. It’s not about them. It’s about human beings going out into this unexplored, fantastical world.
And the more you answer, the less interesting I think it becomes. And that doesn’t mean you don’t want to progress and you don’t want to discover new things, but if you got every answer you will never want to watch more!
GW: I’ve felt since Daniel returned in Season Seven that the Ancients have been stepping into the fore. And there’s a scene in my head — a sort of council of ascended beings who finally explain themselves.
Other than the diner in “Threads,” we’ve never really seen the Ancients as themselves in their own environment. We see them through young Orlin (“The Fourth Horseman”), we see them through Daniel’s discoveries about Merlin’s past. Talk about your decision to represent the Ancients through Morgan in The Ark of Truth, rather than actually getting to see the Ancients themselves.
RCC: You know, it’s kind of like if you ask someone, “What does the face of God look like?” [If] you ask a bunch of different people, they’re all going to give you different answers. If you draw a picture, it’s less interesting. I just find that if you try and tell people what they look like it’s not as interesting as allowing their imaginations to create it themselves.
And there are certain aspects to the show — you obviously want to tell a story, you want to create characters that you are following that are interesting. But with certain aspects of the show it’s almost like a monster movie, where it’s more interesting when you’re not seeing the monster.
GW: Right, right. You want to hold the mystery there.
RCC: Yeah. And I think that if you ever did, because the Ancients are so “out there” on a mystical, magical, powerful level, that there’s really almost no visual that could do it justice. And I feel like it would have been maybe deflating to the whole concept of who they are if you ever did see them. So the few times that we did portray them in certain ways, they were kind of very simple, human representations of them in the show — a slightly glowy person or the people who were in the diner.
I think that it was something where, if we did try and show it, it might have ruined it because everybody gets to imagine what it is really like. And I think that is part of the adventure of what it is to be human, to not have all the answers and to go out into this mysterious universe and go exploring.
Some people want to know everything, and have it all given to them, and are disappointed when a story doesn’t have every answer in it. And I’m never going to write that story. I’m never going to write the story that has every answer. I think that’s uninteresting.
GW: Had you always planned on ending Adria’s story this way, with her taking over the power of the Ori for herself? Was her relationship with her mother ever something that was redeemable?
RCC: I felt that Adria’s relationship with Vala was created as much to give Vala a justification, I guess, for becoming who she was. I guess it was more about Vala for us, writing, than it was about Adria. It created an arc for Vala.
When we first looked at bringing Vala onto the team, we looked at her character and said, “Well, why do you like Vala? Why is she even interesting?” It’s because she’s a bit of a rogue. She’s outside the box. She’s not a “team player.” And if you want to bring her in and make her part of the team, how do you do that and still preserve the essence of who the character is? And the way that we chose to do that was to make Adria, her daughter — make Vala in some way responsible for what is going on and give her the motivation to participate in being a hero.
She could still be the reluctant hero and be who we really like — the wisecracking, selfish, out-for-herself Vala. But it created conflict for her, that she had been used in the way she was in order to create Adria. It turned into a really interesting mother-daughter relationship. But initially it was all about “How do we involve the Vala character in the arc, in the story?”
GW: There was a good deal of softening of Vala’s character, especially since her introduction in Season Eight (“Prometheus Unbound”), through those familiar relationships with Adria and Tomin. Her marriage with Tomin has been, from everything that I can see, very positive for both of them. And they still seem to have feelings for each other.
RCC: Yes. And that came out of my wanting to humanize, in some way, the people who believe differently than we did. I didn’t want them to be just cartoon bad guys who didn’t believe the right thing. I wanted them to be human beings, and I wanted you to understand and see why they were doing the things they did. And that was, again, more interesting to me.
GW: Tomin’s character was fantastic for that.
RCC: Tim Guinee is just a fabulous actor who instantly creates that humanity and empathy … while he’s mass-murdering people. I think it’s very compelling.
GW: But even just the small arc that he has over the course of the film, from the warm and friendly way that he greets Vala on Dakara through — just put Tim Guinee in a room on the Odyssey and have him stare, and you’ve got a scene right there! He’s just so good.
RCC: Yeah, he’s terrific. I think that when we realized that the series was not going to be renewed toward the end of Season Ten, and we did the episode where Adria ascended, at that point obviously the intention was that Merlin’s weapon had worked, the Ori had been destroyed, but that Adria was going to take over as this “über-Ori” — a single person taking all the power and becoming the figurehead bad guy that we would have to deal with in the movie.
Unfortunately, I wish this wasn’t the case, but in many ways sometimes the creative process is steered by real-world circumstances. We had basically our schedule and Morena Baccarin was just only available to us for one day.
GW: Oh, wow.
RCC: And I had scenes that were with her and Julian Sands (“The Doci”), and the whole team. Unfortunately there was just no other way to make it work. And so I knew I could only write a certain number of scenes with her. They could only be in the one set. And there was either a choice of not having her in the film or having her in the film to the capacity that she is in it. And I chose the latter. I thought: I want the character, I want to have the actress in the movie.
But the reason she doesn’t play a bigger part is I knew I could only shoot six pages of material with her.
GW: Well, that goes a long way to explaining, I think you said on the DVD commentary, that those scenes with her circling Vala were shot at 3 or 4 in the morning.
RCC: Yeah. It was a Friday night. She was going to another commitment on Saturday — she had to get on an airplane. She had flown in late Thursday night. Those are issues that are, to a certain extent, out of my control. You make decisions throughout the process that ultimately govern what the movie turns into. And you do the best you can in terms of making those choices.
But they’re not always what you want from the get-go. It’s not like you’re imagining the movie in the best possible scenario, with the most money you could possibly have, that anything your imagination — and then you’re executing that. That’s not how it works. You have an amount of production budget, you know how many days you have.
People have commented that they are disappointed that the movie is as short as it is. Well, when you have 18 days to shoot something, it’s a mathematical equation. The maximum you can shoot is about six to eight pages a day. A feature film will shoot one page a day. We’ll shoot six, seven, eight pages a day in order to get it done.
You can do the math. The most you could shoot would be eight pages, and that’s if there is no action involved. That’s just dialogue scenes.
GW: How much is on the cutting room floor, then?
RCC: Not much. There’s a couple of scenes. It’s interesting — there is a cut-down, TV version that is about four and a half minutes shorter. Because the movie has come out on DVD first, essentially what you are seeing is the director’s cut. Then when it goes to TV it will actually be somewhat shorter, and missing certain scenes.
This version pretty much has almost everything in it. There are a couple of scenes that were deleted as we went because they just didn’t turn out very well, and they were unnecessary. You write something, and sometimes it’s covered in other scenes and so it tends to make the movie drag.
GW: Looking at the fan reception so far, do you think that if you did have additional time and an infinite budget, is there anything you would change?
RCC: Oh, I’d change everything! [Laughter] Essentially the thing that makes Ark of Truth is the fact that it is essentially the last chapter of Season Nine and Ten. In the real world, if we had been given a much bigger budget, probably we would have also been given the instruction to make the movie more accessible to the general public. And it might have not had the same attachment to the series that it does.
I think that one of the reasons the film is what it is, and plays the way it does, is because it is something that was able to be produced specifically for DVD.
GW: While you were making those final years of SG-1, how long did you anticipate the Ori storyline would be? Had the show gone on to an eleventh or even a twelfth season, would things have unfolded any differently?
RCC: Certainly. I think the search for the Ark would have become the overriding story for Season Eleven. You could draw the parallel of the Sangraal in Seasons Nine and Ten: You introduce the idea of Merlin’s weapon towards the end of Season Nine and then it took about 15 episodes to actually come to the point where we had the weapon and we were using it. That’s probably how Season Eleven would have played out with the search for the Ark.
And certainly there would have been some additional detail along the way. But it’s not like I had those answers and they exist somewhere, and there are things that I know that people don’t! We hadn’t gone so far as to explore those ideas. They would have come up as we developed the shows and the particular episodes.
GW: So when you first conceived of the Ori at the start of Season Nine, you didn’t say to yourself, “This feels like a three-year story, or a five-year story?”
RCC: No. We never really do that. And I think it’s one of the things that has made Stargate as a franchise successful, and that is that there’s always open doors. Even when we are answering questions, even when we are tying up loose ends, there’s always still things left out there.
GW: The story-telling remains very flexible.
RCC: Yeah. There’s always new things to discover. The great thing is you can always go through the gate the next week and discover something new! And I’ve always found that the best story-telling was a balance of satisfying long-time viewers with some amount of resolution but also keeping the ongoing story in play, and pulling in different aspects of the mythology.
I think Atlantis really started to get going after — it’s funny, because a lot of shows don’t even last one year or two years. To say that a show needs to go three years before the stories start to get really rich and textured maybe is unfair. But it’s certainly more interesting as story-tellers, once you’ve got that tapestry to draw from, suddenly you’ve got all these aspects of the universe out there to be components of the story.
GW: I was kind of taken aback thinking about, “Well, you know, SG-1 went for 10 years and this [Ori storyline] is only one-fifth of it.” Watching the prelude on the DVD, it just feels like such a large, full story.
RCC: Yeah, it’s cool. When you’re doing it you are trying your best just to get the next episode done! You do think about overall big picture, but you’re trying to come up with good stories to tell on a week-to-week basis. And it’s only when you get some perspective and look back on it do you really see whether it works as a whole story or not.
It was fun to do that little retrospective, because it made it feel like one big story. And that was satisfying.
It’s a little daunting because you want the show to be accessible. You want people to be able to watch it and enjoy it. And it’s always a struggle between people who have seen every episode and follow it very closely and people who are just dipping in, who I think might be somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s delivered in Ark in order to follow the story.
In the second half of our in-depth interview, the writer-director talks about the evolution of the Ori and their conflict with the Ancients, Daniel Jackson and the ethics of the Ark, and the controversial return of the Replicators.