In the mid-1990s, Showtime was trying something new. To attract subscribers to the premium cable service Showtime was investing in its own original content — dramas and adult comedies, and a healthy dose of mature science fiction.
While the big broadcast networks were trying out shows like Earth-2 and Space: Above and Beyond (which would prove to be short-lived), science fiction and fantasy was really thriving in the realm of syndication — local TV affiliates that would air shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Hercules, and Earth: Final Conflict. Syndicated shows could air at any hour of the day, often on a Saturday afternoon. But still, they garnered millions of viewers.
On basic cable, SCI FI Channel too was beginning to experiment with originals like Welcome to Paradox, and to import already produced shows from elsewhere in the world, like Lexx. But it would be a few years before the channel really found its original series groove with the likes of Sliders (picked up in 1998 after Fox cancelled it) and Farscape (1999).
Showtime turned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to help fill the new schedule, signing a multi-show deal with the historic studio’s television arm. In 1994 MGM had hired John Symes away from Paramount to rebuild its fledgling TV division, and Showtime was to be the focus.
Stargate SG-1 might have started as a way to create an original series for Showtime by capitalizing on a popular movie. But under the guidance of co-creators Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright, and a really exceptional cast and crew, SG-1 helped to create a new renaissance in science fiction on cable. It ran for 214 episodes and spawned two spin-off series (so far!), as well as a pair of DVD movies, far exceeding the ambitions of the original movie.
For more than a decade Stargate was the cornerstone of the Vancouver television industry. And let’s be honest: after it jumped networks in 2002, Stargate helped to put SCI FI Channel on the map.
In celebration of today’s 25th anniversary of the show’s premiere, let’s look back on the history that made Stargate SG-1 such a great show, how it weathered big challenges over 10 years in production, and why its legacy continues to endure with fans old and new.
CHAPTER 1: CHILDREN OF THE GODS
Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Stargate was a surprise hit at the 1994 box office. The movie was produced with independent financing from partners around the world, and MGM signed on to distribute the film to theaters. But as Devlin tells it, at the eleventh hour Stargate‘s investors got cold feet. Fearing they had a flop on their hands, they sold the rights lock, stock, and barrel to MGM — a steal at just $5 million.
Stargate premiered in October (an off month for spectacle science fiction, to be sure) and grossed $200 million worldwide. It set a record for an October theatrical release.
Coming off an even bigger success with 1996’s Independence Day, Emmerich and Devlin would approach executives at MGM about their intentions to make Stargate a trilogy. Each sequel film would expand the mythology, exploring other ancient Earth cultures and using the other chevrons on the Stargate to dial up new worlds.
But MGM had already set its sights on a television show. The Outer Limits producers Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright had each approached their bosses about turning MGM’s latest acquisition into a weekly series. Devlin and Emmerich were asked to come on board in more of a consulting role, and flatly refused.
Stargate was to become something very different.
MGM Television provided the backbone to a new Friday night block of cutting-edge science fiction on Showtime. The Outer Limits had premiered in 1995, reviving the iconic 1960s anthology to great success. The next year MGM and Showtime premiered Poltergeist: The Legacy (another movie adaptation). A western anthology, Dead Man’s Gun, premiered in March of 1997.
The studio had signed a multi-series deal with Showtime, and Stargate was now primed to take the next slot. Wright and Glassner made a successful pitch, and by the fall of 1996 had handed in an imaginative script that brought back characters from the movie, introduced new team members, and began to explore the truth about Ra’s race: the Goa’uld were not extinct, but a thriving civilization that enslaved countless worlds throughout the galaxy.
The original script underwent several changes before filming commenced in February of 1997, including changing the original names for Samantha Carter and Apophis. The two-hour pilot had an ambitious budget of $6 million.
Stargate SG-1 premiered on Showtime on July 27, 1997, with the movie event “Children of the Gods.”
It was a hit with audiences, where Stargate fandom was born anew. While of course many fans loved the feature film, now Jack O’Neill was very much Richard Dean Anderson — and Daniel Jackson was no one but Michael Shanks. As new episodes rolled out each Friday night new villains and allies were introduced, and the young SG-1 team grew to become a family. Stargate wasn’t Stargate without the Jaffa Teal’c, the brilliant astrophysicist Samantha Carter, the paternal General Hammond, and the strong and compassionate Dr. Fraiser.
Showtime had ordered two seasons (44 episodes) right off the bat, and already before the show premiered ordered two more. Cast and crew knew they had steady jobs for at least four years.
What followed was five seasons of amazing science fiction storytelling: an ancient meeting hall in “The Torment of Tantalus” and an alternate universe in “There But For the Grace of God”; a black hole in “A Matter of Time” and an encounter with the mysterious Asgard in “The Fifth Race”; an uneasy truce with the System Lords in “Fair Game,” an Asgard ship infested with Replicators in “Nemesis,” and a time-loop conundrum in “Window of Opportunity.”
Then, after five seasons, Showtime decided it had had enough. The cable service was pivoting toward darker and more adult shows like Jeremiah and Odyssey 5, and Stargate SG-1 was cancelled.
Then things really got interesting.
CHAPTER 2: NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Charlie Cohen was an executive VP at MGM … and he was also a big fan of Stargate SG-1. Not just as a Hollywood executive who knows a lucrative intellectual property when he sees it. He loved the show. And he knew this cast and crew had plenty of gas left in the tank.
While Wright and fellow executive producer Robert C. Cooper (promoted after Glassner left the show after three seasons) turned their attention to developing a Stargate feature film and spin-off series, Cohen was determined to find SG-1 a new home.
It was Cohen who negotiated Stargate‘s move from Showtime to the SCI FI Channel. It was meant to be one final year for the show. SCI FI was a basic cable channel, ad-supported, which came included with most people’s cable service at no additional cost. So the result was that SG-1 — which had been reserved for paying audiences and syndication repeats delayed by more than a year — suddenly became available to a much, much larger audience.
Not that SCI FI Channel already had that audience, mind you. Founded in 1992, SCI FI was doing … fine with off-network reruns of old shows and horror movies. In the years before DVDs and streaming, this was pretty much the only way to watch older content … unless you had a friend whose rich uncle collected the VHS tapes two episodes at a time.
SCI FI had seen some modest success with originals like Sliders, Farscape, and First Wave (an early acquisition from Canada’s SPACE channel). But in the ratings and ad revenue races, the channel was pretty far down in the cable rankings.
Stargate‘s arrival on SCI FI in 2002 began in the form of a daily “strip” of its first few seasons, while Season Five was wrapping up its run on Showtime. These older episodes aired late in the afternoon or early evening, Monday through Friday (with an occasional weekend marathon), allowing newcomers to catch up with the story in just a few months.
Stargate’s audience grew, and thanks to MGM’s global distribution strategy it was also truly international. The show went out to more than 120 countries, and a devoted fan base sprouted up in Canada and the U.K., Germany, France, and Italy, Australia and New Zealand, and beyond.
Not everyone made the trip over from Showtime, however. After five seasons as the fan-favorite Dr. Daniel Jackson, actor Michael Shanks decided not to renew his contract. Shanks was ready to try new things as an actor, and believed that his character had largely run his course.
Out of courtesy to the Showtime audience the writers decided not to end Season Five on a cliffhanger. But they did write Shanks out in the tear-jerking penultimate episode, “Meridian” — which also introduced Daniel’s eventual replacement on the team. Corin Nemec was cast as Jonas Quinn, a brilliant and enthusiastic man from another world. When his people attempt to scapegoat Daniel for a near-catastrophic lab accident, Jonas defects to Earth with the precious mineral naquadria.
At the moment of his death Daniel ascended to a higher plane of existence, allowing the writers to bring him back for guest appearances. There was no bad blood with Shanks, who in fact appeared in one capacity or another for a third of the next season — as he also voices the Asgard Thor.
With a new and growing audience on SCI FI the show stretched its creative legs in Season Six, with a new team member to get to know and the introduction of Earth’s first (working) interstellar ship: the Prometheus. The Replicators evolved into an even deadlier form, the identity of the Ancients was finally revealed, and Anubis — introduced the previous year through whispers and shadows — stepped into the foreground as SG-1’s chief antagonist.
Jonas certainly won his own loyal fan base, and newcomers who had started watching with the move to SCI FI Channel may have been especially partial to his character. But there was no shortage of controversy among fans. Daniel Jackson’s hardcore fan base petitioned producers and the network to bring the character back, and at times Corin Nemec bore the brunt of some pretty nasty hate mail.
But with a new hit of its very own, SCI FI Channel was reaping an avalanche of new viewers.
CHAPTER 3: HIT MAKER
It is not hyperbole to say that Stargate SG-1 made SCI FI Channel a Top 10 cable network. After Stargate moved over from Showtime, the channel regularly began placing in the weekly rankings of total ratings figures. Syfy as it exists today (the network rebranded in 2009) owes a great deal to the SG-1 team.
In addition to new weekly episodes, daily airings of Stargate did wonders for SCI FI. The show was a perfect fit for its target audience — action and adventure, humor, interesting characters and exciting cliffhangers, and family-friendly to boot. When the show’s sixth season premiered as a SCI FI original, everyone involved — from the network to MGM to the Vancouver production crew — saw what a big success they had on their hands.
The reruns on Monday through Friday proved to be a perfecting jumping-on point for new viewers, who would then tune in with great anticipation for a brand new episode on Friday nights. Viewers could catch up on plot points quickly, and long-time fans had a way to revisit favorite episodes nearly every day of the week.
SCI FI’s number crunchers also soon discovered that the ratings for the daytime reruns did better when new episodes were also airing at the end of the week. They were seeing ratings at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. that matched or exceeded what the network used to get in prime time. And so the decision was easy: instead of Season Six being the show’s swan song, SCI FI renewed it.
Corin Nemec knocked it out of the park during his year on the cast, with both the actor and his character filling some very big shoes. Jonas was interesting and original, not a clone of Dr. Jackson (though scripts sometimes called for him to have a photographic memory of Daniel’s notes) but a man trying to do right for his people. He was eager to learn, and only over time earned the respect of Colonel O’Neill — and the viewers.
But with a seventh season on the horizon, producers extended an olive branch to Michael Shanks. He agreed to return to the series full-time, and that meant Jonas was to be written out. Aside from budget considerations (shows tend to get more expensive year after year due in part to salaries), from the vantage point of the writers there just wasn’t room on the team for two characters who served essentially the same story function.
In Season Seven Stargate was riding high, with great ratings, new licensees signing up to make SG-1 merchandise, a spin-off in the works, and more widespread name recognition. This is symbolized by the show’s first TV Guide cover, which featured Anderson and Shanks and the headline “Forget Trek! Stargate SG-1 is now sci-fi’s biggest hit!”
With plans in the works to take SG-1 to the big screen (and set up that spin-off), SCI FI surprised the crew by renewing it again. The feature script became the brilliant two-parter “Lost City” to end the season, and (Spoiler Alert!) the lost city of Atlantis was relocated from Antarctica to another galaxy.
As Stargate SG-1 entered its eighth season, it would air alongside its spin-off each week. This is remembered fondly by many of us as the Golden Age of “SCI FI Friday,” with a one-two punch of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, followed by the new hit (and critical darling) Battlestar Galactica.
This success came, of course, with new challenges behind the scenes. In order to spend more time at home in California with his young daughter, series lead Richard Dean Anderson had been stepping down his role since the sixth season. The decision to promote Jack O’Neill to Brigadier General and put him in command of the base allowed the writers to maximize the limited shooting days he had available. (The change also helped fill the gap left by the great Don S. Davis, who on advice from his doctors had to decrease his own workload.)
Thus Season Eight has more Earth-based stories, and more of Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c running around and getting into trouble without General O’Neill.
As the fishing line hit the pond next to Jack’s cabin at the end of the season (… twice), Anderson officially retired from the show. But SCI FI wanted a ninth season: the Friday night block of originals was a huge success, and clearly two Stargate shows airing in tandem did better than one holding on to viewers by itself. The show would go on — but it meant more changes in order to make it happen.
CHAPTER 4: SUNSET OVER CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN
Perhaps the most impressive feat accomplished in the final years of Stargate SG-1‘s 10-season run was not replacing original cast members or introducing a brand new villain following the defeat of the Goa’uld, but the fact that the production team accomplished all of this while also making another show. SG-1 and Atlantis were shot on adjoining sound stages at The Bridge Studios, and so too they aired in adjoining time slots for three years.
That meant conceiving, writing, filming, and producing 40 hours of television every year. Rather than staffing up with a second show’s worth of writers, directors, props and makeup artists, and more, MGM optimized costs by having the two shows share almost most everything.
While there was no dip in quality, the end of the Goa’uld and Replicator storylines and the departure of Anderson presented an array of issues for the ninth season. When the writers assembled at the end of 2004 they had to build something that was largely new, but that still kept the DNA of the show fans loved. Farscape star Ben Browder was cast as Lt. Colonel Cameron Mitchell, and veteran actor Beau Bridges took over the S.G.C. as Major General Hank Landry. And when Amanda Tapping stepped away for maternity leave at the very start of filming, Claudia Black returned as Vala Mal Doran for a 6-episode arc.
Then there was the story. With a fleet of Asgard-enhanced ships and an outpost in the Pegasus Galaxy, Earth was kind of O.P. The series needed a new antagonist that would set our heroes back on their heels, and pose a real threat.
The Ori (and, more immediately, their human followers) were the creation of executive producer Robert C. Cooper, who had joined the show as a story editor in Season One and worked his way up through the ranks to become showrunner. Like the Goa’uld, the Ori were nothing more than aliens posing as gods to enslave human cultures; but very much unlike the Goa’uld, as ascended beings they possessed not just advanced technology but powers that really were godlike in appearance. They could control the weather, turn planets into black holes, allow their emissaries to move things with their minds, and bring disease … or instantly cure it.
Not only could Earth and its allies not stand up to them technologically, but it became exponentially more difficult to convince primitive worlds that the Ori did not deserve their worship.
And there was a serious conversation between producers, MGM, and the network that perhaps it was time to rebrand the series. Instead of Season Nine of Stargate SG-1, this would be the start of a new show: Stargate Command Season One. The new show would of course have the same setting and many of the same actors, but mark a fresh starting point for the audience. New viewers wary of jumping on in a show’s ninth year might find “Season One” more appealing … and contracts could be renegotiated in ways that might give the show a longer lifespan.
In the end, the decision was made that it was better to keep the Stargate SG-1 brand. And, for what it’s worth, early in its tenth season the show entered The Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running science fiction series produced in North America (surpassing The X-Files).
The ninth season debuted in the summer of 2005. And while the show continued to draw solid viewership on SCI FI, it was clear that the ratings had peaked. It’s not clear whether this was due to Anderson’s departure, or a new story arc, or the natural aging process that is the fate of all hit television shows.
In Season Ten Stargate celebrated its 200th episode. The bonkers comedic episode “200” was broadcast in August of 2006, and as the crew gathered to celebrate word came down from the network: the series had been cancelled.
The last handful of episodes were still in production, giving the writers a chance to take the Ori story as far as they could and give the show a fitting send-off with the emotional finale, “Unending.” They also took a few shots at SCI FI on their way out, in guest star Fred Willard’s (“Jacek”) exchange with Carter in the episode “Family Ties”:
I don’t mind telling you, I’m a little disappointed in this facility. I was expecting more.
Well, at times, so do we. But the truth is the Stargate program just doesn’t get the support it used to from the people in charge.
Eureka! One down, twelve to go!
That’s too bad. Because after all your Stargate program has accomplished for this network of planets, I would think the decision makers would show it the respect it deserves.
CHAPTER 5: ONE MORE TRY
So if Stargate could be saved from cancellation once by moving to another network, why not try again?
MGM and the show’s producers certainly tried. With the discovery of Merlin’s weapon and the ascension of Adria the Ori storyline was really just getting started, and the Powers That Be supported a fan campaign to try and save the show. Evidently pitches were made to other potential partners, and the studio landed on Apple as a home for an eleventh season of Stargate SG-1.
In the days before streaming television on demand (this was only 2007, after all) Apple was a major player in the digital content sphere. The iTunes service had expanded from being a retail music hub to also offering downloadable TV and film content. And they had eyes on competing with Netflix in creating their own original programming, in order to support the launch of a subscription platform.
Apple TV+ was still a decade away, but for a while the talks with MGM were serious. Stargate SG-1 Season 11 might have been a cornerstone program for Apple’s online ambitions.
Ultimately the party that rescued SG-1 from cancellation the first time was the same one that delivered the final blow. MGM’s contract with SCI FI Channel essentially gave the network a veto: MGM could only take the series to another outlet if SCI FI gave its OK. And in 2007, it didn’t. The network was still airing Stargate Atlantis, with talk beginning of a second spin-off down the road, and executives probably didn’t like the idea of the Stargate franchise not being synonymous with SCI FI. (Ironically, had they relaunched the show as Stargate Command in 2005, the contract might have been more favorable to the eleventh-hour attempts to save the series.)
With the attempt at rescue having failed, MGM and the producers pivoted SG-1 to a new plan — one that also satisfied Wright and Cooper’s years-long desire to make movies. SG-1 would continue in the form of original, direct-to-DVD movies. This gave the studio complete autonomy over the content and distribution (though it also had to front the entire production cost). And it gave producers the chance to tell bigger stories with more money and a larger format.
The first movie debuted in 2008 and did what the eleventh season was meant to do: wrap up the Ori story arc. Stargate: The Ark of Truth was written and directed by Robert Cooper, and showcased what the cast and crew could do with more time, more money, and a larger canvas. This was followed by Stargate: Continuum later that year, a stand-alone time travel romp written by Brad Wright and directed by long-time franchise director Martin Wood (and my personal favorite).
The films were financially successful — but only moderately so. For most of the decade the DVD market had been a cash cow for studios, as millions of customers forked out their hard-earned cash to build home media libraries of our favorite films and television series. But by 2008 sales were softening, as the market began its transition to digital downloads (and ultimately to streaming). While Wright and Cooper drew up plans for Jack O’Neill’s big return and the disclosure of the Stargate program to the public in the third movie, Stargate: Revolution … MGM hit pause.
There just wasn’t any way to make the numbers work, and as time passed it became apparent that MGM was staring down the barrel of its own financial collapse. (The studio declared bankruptcy in 2010.) The third SG-1 film would never be made.
It was the end of the road for one of science fiction’s biggest hits. From its start on Showtime in 1997 to its move into syndication and global markets, to new life on basic cable and in the DVD market, Stargate SG-1‘s influence on its era is hard to over-estimate. It helped Showtime succeed in its venture into original programming. It made SCI FI a Top 10 cable channel, paving the road for other shows and mini-series that came after it. And it provided countless jobs to men and women throughout the Vancouver film industry, spawning a franchise that reigned over The Bridge Studios for fourteen years.
Stargate SG-1 wasn’t just great television. It’s a show that made a difference.
CHAPTER 6: STARGATE MATTERS
Since sometime last year I have been watching Stargate SG-1 with my three children for the very first time. It’s been a remarkable experience, as a fan who has loved this universe since 1994, and who has been working on it through GateWorld for more than 20 years.
Through my kids I get to see these characters and stories through fresh eyes. I get to experience their heartbreak at the deaths of beloved characters, and hear them laugh out loud at Jack’s one-liners and Teal’c’s Jaffa jokes. And I witness how they are positively affected by the bravery and wry humor of Jack O’Neill, the honor of Teal’c, the intelligence and grace of Sam Carter, the compassion and moral courage of Daniel Jackson … all of it 25 years after it was made.
Stargate is enduring today as we share it with others. What my family is enjoying together every night at dinner time is the same history that my friends and I lived two decades ago. My daughter immediately latched on to Sam as a take-no-guff role model; my youngest son became a walking encyclopedia of quotes and facts from episodes he’s only seen a single time. They mourned for Daniel (while also recognizing that he was back on the box art two seasons later!), started out resenting Jonas Quinn, and then came to adore him and cheer for his return in “Fallout.”
“It’s just a TV show” is an old punchline from William Shatner’s gig hosting Saturday Night Live. While funny it wasn’t actually true then, and it isn’t true now. We are, all of us, shaped by the stories we love, and we aspire to be like the people we admire — whether they are our real-life parents, teachers, coaches, and firefighters, or the fictional characters we walk alongside week by week.
Some TV shows — perhaps a precious few — really matter. And as I watch my kids lean into the world created by Dean and Roland, Jonathan and Brad (they’re currently watching Season Seven and teaching themselves how to play the RPG together), I’ve realized how much this show has shaped me as a person. It’s given me new friendships and opportunities, countless hours of excitement and laughter, and a feeling that all of us together are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Stargate isn’t just a TV show — not to me.
All of that is just as true in 2022, 25 years after the show premiered and 15 years since it went off the air. And, for what it’s worth, it is something that MGM and its new owner Amazon ought to keep in mind as they weigh the franchise’s future. Stargate matters to millions of people, and that is a precious resource indeed.
So, to all who made Stargate SG-1 behind the camera and in front of it: Thank you.
And happy anniversary!
Celebrate 25 years of Stargate SG-1! Post your favorite memories and what the show has meant to you in the comments below. Tag us on Twitter and use the hashtag #WeWantStargate!