It isn’t a stretch to say that Colonel Jack O’Neill is pretty much synonymous with Stargate SG-1. Along with Daniel Jackson, Jack was a hold-over from the 1994 feature film and the man who led the SG-1 team through the gate to new adventures each week.
So what was the show to do when its leading man, Richard Dean Anderson, chose to reduce his role on the long-running series? It was time for some creative thinking in the writers’ room.
Stargate filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, while the actor spent his weekends at home in southern California. RDA’s daughter Wylie was born in 1998, while Stargate SG-1 was filming its second season. At first the show was meant to end with its fifth and final season on Showtime — but then, the series won an eleventh-hour reprieve. SG-1 would move to SCI FI Channel, where it found a new lease on life with the basic cable audience.
The show must go on — but as Season Five rolled into Season Six, Anderson wanted to prioritize spending more time at home with his young daughter. He agreed to another year, but with some extra days off. When the show was renewed yet again a year later Anderson agreed to continue on, but only with a significantly reduced schedule that had him shooting in Vancouver fewer days every week.
As a result, the show’s writers spent more than one year thinking up clever ways to keep Jack O’Neill as the star of the show … while also sidelining the character for numerous stories. And if you aren’t looking for it, you might not have noticed them all. But once you realize what was going on behind the scenes — well, the actor’s absence for some or all of an episode starts to get conspicuous.
#12 – Skewered
Season Two, Episode 13
Before we get to RDA’s reduced work schedule starting in Season Six, it’s worth noting one prominent episode that saw Colonel O’Neill sidelined early in SG-1‘s run. It’s Season Two’s “Spirits,” which gave Captain Samantha Carter her first chance to command the team off-world after the Colonel was injured at the start of the episode. The Salish fire a trinium dart through the Stargate, penetrating the glass window of the S.G.C. control room … and skewering Jack’s arm.
This was the writers’ creative solution for the birth of Anderson’s daughter, which had him away for several days. The shooting schedule was arranged to keep Jack in the second half of the episode, when the Salish Spirits are running around Stargate Command.
#11 – Jack Falls Deathly Ill
Season Six, Episodes 4-5
In “Frozen,” the discovery of the Ancient woman Ayiana beneath the surface of Antarctica exposes SG-1 to a deadly illness — probably the same plague that nearly wiped out the Ancients millions of years ago. Although Ayiana manages to heal the rest of the team and the scientists at the research outpost before she dies, Jack is not so lucky.
He reluctantly agrees to take on a Tok’ra symbiote in order to save his life — which explains why Jack is entirely absent from the next episode, “Nightwalkers.” But he comes back in a big way: Anderson returned to set to film “Abyss,” in which O’Neill is imprisoned and tortured by Baal. It’s one of the character’s best episodes ever.
#10 – Accused of Murder!
Season Six, Episode 14
Jack is at the center of “Smoke and Mirrors,” but because he is arrested on suspicion of murder Anderson is barely in the episode at all. The Colonel is arrested at the beginning of the first act, as authorities have hard evidence implicating him in the assassination of Senator Kinsey. The rest of his team set out to clear Jack’s name.
After they expose a rogue N.I.D. agent and a cabal of businessmen known as The Committee as the ones behind the assassination attempt, Colonel O’Neill’s good name is cleared. He returns at the end of the episode for a reluctant photo op with the Senator.
#9 – A Mini-Jack?
Season Seven, Episode 3
Maybe the most brilliant example of writing out Richard Dean Anderson but still focusing the story on Jack O’Neill is Season Seven’s “Fragile Balance.” Here the role of Colonel O’Neill is played by a different actor — Michael Welch, who portrays a teenage version of Jack (with a dead-on impression). He is taken into custody when he tries to access Stargate Command, and his friends take a bit of convincing that he really is who he says he is.
Eventually SG-1 discovers that this isn’t their Colonel, de-aged or sent back in time. He’s a clone of Jack, engineered by the Asgard Loki, who didn’t end up fully mature because the Asgard put a protective lock on O’Neill’s DNA to prevent manipulation. Anderson returns at the episode’s end to meet his double face-to-face, and sends him off to live a life of his own.
#8 – Observation Room
Season Seven, Episode 6
SG-1 boards a crashed alien ship and finds the survivors of the Talthans in stasis. The ship was ferrying refugees from their doomed planet to the new Talthan homeworld, but now the ship has crashed and power is failing. A desperate engineer downloads a dozen minds from the ship’s systems into Daniel’s head in an effort to save them.
What follows with “Lifeboat” is an acting tour de force for Michael Shanks, along with the excellent Teryl Rothery as Dr. Janet Fraiser. And where is Colonel O’Neill during this trial? After he gets a clean bill of health he parks himself in the observation room, ostensibly there to support his friend — though he’s off screen for most of the episode.
As one personality after another emerges and takes control of Daniel, the scenes frequently cut to Jack watching it all unfold … though of course these were not shot contemporaneously. Jack is back at the episode’s end for the resolution.
#7 – Unas Attack
Season Seven, Episode 7
In “Enemy Mine” Stargate Command runs afoul of a tribe of Unas while attempting to mine for naquadah on their sacred grounds. Although SG-1 is called in to evaluate the situation, it’s Colonel Edwards (played by Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Michael Rooker) who is in command of the operation. Soon Jack is injured in an Unas attack, and he’s out for the rest of the episode.
Pretty much everything you remember about this episode comes after Jack is sent to the infirmary: Daniel calls on his old Unas friend Chaka to help mediate the dispute, and after showing deference and respect to the Unas leader they broker a treaty. Because they share a common enemy in the Goa’uld, the Unas are going to help mine the naquadah for us.
#6 – Carter’s Side Projects
Season Seven, Episodes 8-9
When the Serrakin pilot Warrick shows up asking for the team’s help to win a space race, Major Carter is more than up for the challenge. While she and Warrick enter the dangerous Loop of Kon Garat, “Space Race” sees the rest of SG-1 getting into trouble on the planet Hebridan. Teal’c and Warrick’s brother Eamon get the B-plot, captured while trying to expose sabotage and corruption inside the company behind the race. Jack and Daniel are elsewhere for most of the episode, only turning up in time to see the bad guys get their just deserts.
Then there’s the next episode, “Avenger 2.0,” which also follows Sam Carter for the main storyline. Sam tries to help S.G.C. scientist Jay Felger avoid getting fired by finishing and deploying his “Avenger” computer virus. The program is meant to completely disable a target D.H.D., taking its Stargate offline. But when Baal gets his hands on the program he modifies it, resulting in the failure of the entire Stargate network.
Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c spend most of the episode off-world negotiating with rebel Jaffa leaders. And while they do check in occasionally by radio, it again allowed Richard Dean Anderson to film all of his scenes in just a couple of days.
#5 – A Jaffa Thing
Season Seven, Episode 10
It’s easy to miss the fact that Jack steps out of Season Seven “Birthright” halfway through. This is a Teal’c episode through and through, as the team encounters a group of all-female rebel Jaffa led by Ishta (played by Star Trek‘s Jolene Blalock). When she meets the team, Ishta more or less ignores O’Neill and addresses Teal’c instead. Rather than killing fellow Jaffa to acquire symbiotes for their young girls, Teal’c tries to convince the Hak’tyl that the drug tretonin will free them from dependence on the Goa’uld.
It’s an emotional and important episode for Christopher Judge’s character. Teal’c has only recently started taking tretonin himself, and he must prove to Ishta that he is not less of a Jaffa because of it. And after the Hak’tyl agree to send four warriors to Earth for a drug trial, one of them does not survive.
Once the Hak’tyl arrive on Earth, Jack is off doing something else until the farewell scene at the Stargate.
#4 – Not A Diplomat
Season Seven, Episode 14
Former SG-1 team member Jonas Quinn makes his grand return in “Fallout,” with a story from former cast member Corin Nemec. The planet Langara is at imminent risk of total catastrophe, as the Kelownans’ recent detonation of a naquadria bomb has begun transforming a deep vein of naquadah into the highly volatile variant. Sam and Teal’c join Jonas and his colleague (and secret Goa’uld flame) Kianna in a massive excavator to try and cut off the naquadria and save the planet.
Where is Colonel O’Neill while his team is saving another planet? Jack doesn’t have a ton of patience for the petty squabbling of the delegates from Langara’s three rival nations. When they balk at efforts to unify their people and resettle on another planet, Jack decides to bail: he puts Daniel in charge of the negotiations, and leaves.
Jack later returns near the end of the episode to deliver some bad news to the delegates: the deal’s off. Resettlement is no longer an option. “That’s what you get for dickin’ around!”
#3 – In the Line of Duty
Season Seven, Episode 19
Colonel O’Neill is hit by a staff weapon blast square in the torso during an off-world firefight, seen in “Heroes, Part 2.” While the S.G.C.’s new ceramic armor plate saves his life, he gets some well-earned R&R to recover from his close brush with death.
The episode that follows is “Resurrection,” written by Michael Shanks and directed by Amanda Tapping. Like “Nightwalkers” in Season Six this is a rare episode that Richard Dean Anderson doesn’t appear in at all. Sam tells Agent Barrett at the top of the episode that the Colonel is taking some time off, and that’s the last we hear of it.
#2 – Frozen in Carbonite
Season Eight, Episode 1
The seventh season of SG-1 ends with a heartbreaking cliffhanger: after sacrificing himself to obtain the knowledge of the Ancients and saving Earth from Anubis’ fleet, Jack is left near death. His only hope is a stasis chamber left behind by the Ancients deep beneath the ice of Antarctica. There he is frozen, and with the Ancients’ database in his head the team knows that unless they can get help from the Asgard they dare not revive him.
This leaves Colonel O’Neill completely out of the first hour of Season Eight’s two-part premiere, “New Order.” And it meant that Anderson got an extra week off before reporting to Vancouver for the start of the new season.
Sam and Teal’c finally convince the base’s new commander to let them take their modified ship to find the Asgard. But it’s only in part two that Thor comes to Earth, beams up Jack, interfaces his mind with the ship’s computer to build an anti-Replicator weapon, and revives him to start a new season of adventures.
#1 – Brigadier General
When Stargate SG-1 was renewed for yet another season, it was not a certainty that Anderson would come back. But the writers had one more ace up their sleeve. Their leading man would return for one final year as a member of the main cast, but again with a filming schedule that was reduced even further still to accommodate his family priorities.
So how do you keep the character on the show but not send him off-world with the team every week? How do you avoid another year of sticking Jack in the infirmary with an injury, or sending him fishing during tense negotiations, or tucking him into a broom closet when Kinsey comes to visit — but instead give him a permanent reason to have less screen time?
Promote him, of course!
O’Neill is promoted to Brigadier General at the end of “New Order, Part 2.” Commanding Stargate operations at the S.G.C. is his new reality for the rest of the season. It makes for intriguing and sometimes awkward growth for the character, who is reluctant to take the job and sometimes seems like a fish out of water in that big chair. Jack becomes the decision-maker and quipper-in-chief, while the also promoted Lt. Colonel Carter now leads SG-1.
And it makes it all the more special when General O’Neill does go into the field — like when he visits Harry Maybourne’s new planet in “It’s Good To Be King,” or pilots a time-traveling Puddle Jumper in the season finale, “Moebius.”
At this point Jack had more than earned his retirement. But as Richard Dean Anderson departed the show, the writers sent O’Neill to Washington to head up the newly formed division of Homeworld Command — leaving the door open for the many guest appearances still to come!
Which of these ideas to keep Jack O’Neill around but write him out of the main action do you think was the most brilliant? What did you think of the Colonel’s role in Seasons Six, Seven, and Eight? Post your thoughts in the comments below!