Tomorrow the first two episodes of Stargate Origins will debut on Stargate Command (the franchise’s digital distribution platform), marking the first live-action Stargate content to hit the “airwaves” since Stargate Universe signed off in May of 2011.
It’s an historic time for the franchise — but not everyone is lining up for the release. On top of that some degree of ambiguity has shrouded the roll-out, and a premium Stargate Command membership is only available in a select few countries — leaving out a number of key foreign markets. But even with the pesky distribution legalities aside, fans seem cautious about the 10-part Web series itself.
While a lack of enthusiasm may be disappointing, it is not surprising. Fans are highly protective of their favorite properties, and inherently skeptical when new storytellers and studio executives assume the mantle. We have high standards, and rightfully so. We want the new material to respect the legacy that came before and, at the very least, match it’s predecessors quality.
There are other pervading questions, like why Stargate Atlantis or Stargate Universe can’t get a proper resolution first. Or why the previously shelved DVD movies can’t lead the charge into the new era.
The answers to these questions are complicated and multifaceted. And perhaps they are best answered by first analyzing what Stargate Origins is and what it means for the franchise going forward.
A SOFT REBOOT
Back in 2014, we got wind that MGM was developing a new Stargate trilogy with its original creators — Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. The films were conceived as high-budget theatrical releases and hard reboots — movies that would circumvent (and more likely erase) the TV-verse canon.Ultimately the deal fell apart, and was declared dead in November, 2016.
Less than a year later MGM announced a new online, digital series at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con. While significantly more modest in its aspirations — and touting young, fresh-faced filmmakers instead of a big-budget titans like Emmerich — Origins promised to honor the legacy of Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner, and Robert C. Cooper. The 10-part prequel narrative would not demolish canon but instead take place in the same universe as Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe.
This is a crucial and overlooked point of interest — namely because it indicates MGM is not finished with the Stargate universe we’ve come to know and love since 1997. Plenty of franchises see their past canon undermined or minimized (like the J.J. Abrams-led Star Trek Kelvin timeline). But thanks to Origins, the fabric of the existing Stargate universe remains intact.
Furthermore, the production model for large franchises has undergone a major metamorphosis in the past decade. Studios aren’t just interested in making a movie or TV show; they want to build cinematic universes, multifaceted worlds, and larger stories that can exist across a variety of mediums.
If Origins is any indication we could very well see familiar Stargate characters, worlds, and story threads return in future iterations of the franchise. The sky’s the limit.
A MYTHOLOGY-CENTERED PREQUEL
The Langfords are arguably the most important Tau’ri family in the Stargate universe. Professor Paul Langford discovered the Stargate, and his daughter Catherine is the pioneer of the Stargate Program. What better way to re-engage with Stargate than to share an adventure in 1930s Africa with those who made it all possible? This story is a perfect opportunity to write a very specific love letter to the franchise’s … well, origins.The format and focus of Stargate Origins is yet another hint regarding the studio’s possible strategy. If MGM is not pursuing a blockbuster theatrical release, there are more storytelling options available — as there is less pressure to shoehorn in indulgent set pieces and crowd-pleasing action spectacles that drain a story of its narrative depth and impact. (In case you hadn’t noticed, Emmerich and Devlin aren’t exactly renowned for profound character work.)
Now, whether MGM chooses to explore more mythology-centric storytelling (like Stargate SG-1), adventure-of-the-week dilemmas (like Stargate Atlantis), or darker, character dramas (like Stargate Universe) is hard to predict. Nonetheless, a modest production budget — and an “in house” distribution platform like Stargate Command — will free up studio mandates and put more power in the hands of the filmmakers.
But before we get carried away, let’s not forget …
A MODESTLY BUDGETED WEB SERIES
This is one of the hardest pills to swallow for the fandom: Stargate Origins just doesn’t have a big budget. We’ve been undeniably spoiled by beautiful imagery and a high production value with previous Stargate series — and that has become the status quo. As I said earlier, fans are reticent to compromise or backpedal to a smaller scale.
However, a story ultimately works because it is well-told — not because of the number of zeroes in its budget or the number of shiny VFX shots worked in. Some of the best films ever made have been produced on a micro budget, or confined to a single location. So it will be up to the writers and director Mercedes Bryce Morgan to work with what they are given and make something thrifty yet resonant.Furthermore, the show’s creators have ensured us that Stargate Origins is structured and designed like a feature film, where the episodes are intended to be binge-watched and compiled into a full “movie” once they’re all released. So if you thought they were skimping by going the digital series route, rest assured — it will feel like one complete, cinematic story.
Yet even if the finished product is rock-solid, it still needs to get in front of an audience before it can make the necessary impact. Which leads us to our final discussion point.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
While Stargate Command was rushed into action to accommodate the release of the fast-tracked Web series, its ambitions stretch far beyond Stargate Origins. The platform intends to give Stargate fans the home they truly deserve: a place where they can watch, read, and discuss all things Stargate — both now and in the future.
And apparently, it has the potential to become a hub for a variety of other sci-fi entertainment, too.
Last fall, we found out that MGM nearly reached a deal that would have seen Stargate Command distribute a fourth and final season of the Syfy original series Dark Matter (created by Stargate writer/producer Joseph Mallozzi). The digitally-distributed season of Dark Matter would have also provided the opportunity for a crossover with Stargate (while still retaining it’s own mythology and characters). This harkens back to my earlier point that MGM is more interested in building worlds than building a single show or event film.
This would-be Dark Matter scenario is a strong indicator of MGM’s faith in Stargate Command — and its significance in the studio’s long-term strategy. But why would Stargate Command invest in a proper season of Dark Matter but not Stargate, you ask? Well, there’s a good answer for that, as well.At the moment, franchise investments are high-risk, high-reward. Failed franchise have wiped out many-a-company, and MGM’s recent bankruptcy (which involved crippling, multi-billion dollar debt) serves as a cautionary tale for new leadership not to over-invest or jump the gun. Sometimes it is necessary to test the waters and gauge interest before diving in — and not with a focus group in a controlled setting, but through practical application.
While Dark Matter has an impressive and well-networked global fan base that’s had a chance to prove its strength as recently as a few months ago, Stargate has been dormant now for almost seven years. Among the general public it doesn’t have many recent reference points. It would take at least $40 to 50 million to produce a full season of long-form Stargate, and perhaps three or four times as much to produce an event film — a hefty upfront sum.
Origins is the perfect test — or ping notification — to signal the return of the franchise, bringing both old and new fans into the fictional universe for a warm-up round.
Stargate Origins came together rather quickly, too: the idea was pitched and greenlit in early 2017, and by the end of the year production was complete and the project was already deep into post-production. That process would have taken triple the time if it was a $200 million theatrical release. Ultimately, it’s a tangible, low-risk, contained adventure — and much more rewarding than the vague, ongoing promises of a grand return that never comes.
Make no mistake — this is just the beginning.
STARGATES YET TO COME
“Depending on your reaction to it [Stargate Origins], that could reopen the entire Stargate franchise” SG-1 actor Christopher Judge (Teal’c) tells an excited crowd last September at Salt Lake Comic Con. “The guys at MGM now — we actually have dudes who are sci-fi fans, who are Stargate fans … and, really, are very open to continuing the saga in one form or another.”
“I give you my word,” Judge declares in a deep, reassuring tone: “the future of the Stargate franchise is in your hands.”Now, 20 years after Stargate SG-1 first aired on Showtime, and almost 25 years after the original Stargate movie hit theaters — new life is being breathed into this franchise. MGM wants to open a dialogue, and engage in a relationship that has been absent for far too long.
This takes time.
Launching a digital media platform (with premium content) and distributing it worldwide is no easy feat. There will be misfires, and it will take time to iron out the kinks (like regional restrictions). But the intent is there, and now that MGM has emerged from bankruptcy and restructured — so is the necessary capital.
Back when Stargate was on Syfy Channel, the most crucial (and arguably, the only) thing that mattered was the live viewership. Ultimately, all three shows were cancelled not at the behest of the creators or studio, but at the network’s dissatisfaction with the ratings. This time around (provided the audience watches the show legally), there are far fewer risk factors. Syfy can no longer hold the rights captive from other willing investors, or topple the production infrastructure because of a selfish and short-sighted decision.
Stargate Command represents an opportunity to cut out the middle man and bring quality content directly to the fans. Stargate Origins is the first piece of that experiment. This is a pivotal time in the Stargate saga, and one that fans, producers, and executives alike can use to improve upon the past.
So sit back, take your shoes off, and enjoy the ride …
COMING IN PART 2: What’s on the table after Origins? Adam Barnard looks at possibilities, probabilities, and pipe dreams in the future potential of the franchise.