The Hollywood Reporter. September 4-10, 2001
By Melissa J. Perenson
How did an MGM sleeper become a hit syndicated series and then travel into 100th-episode infinity and beyond?
When the MGM film "Stargate" grossed $71 million in 1994, it was enthusiastically hailed as a sleeper hit. The same can now be said of the TV series. The MGM-produced program "Stargate SG-1" has attracted a loyal fan base since its Showtime debut in 1997. Now notching its 100th episode, the show is segueing to a new home on USA Networks' Sci-Fi Channel, where it will launch its sixth season in more than 70 million homes beginning June 2002.
"We've always regarded 'Stargate SG-1' as something that should be on Sci-Fi," says Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci-Fi Channel. "It has a very strong following; it's well-produced; and it's something that we believe is the right product for us."
The series revolves around a present-day U.S. Air Force team composed of a special-operations colonel, an anthropologist, an astrophysicist and an alien warrior. The crew's missions take them through an ancient gate to new worlds where they encounter unearthly and oftentimes treacherous cultures. Known as SG-1, the elite team works under the auspices of a division of Air Force Intelligence that is highly classified - only the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff know of its existence.
MGM Worldwide Television Group was well aware of the crew's existence when it considered bringing the highly intelligent, space-traveling team into viewers' homes in 1994. Hank Cohen, president of TV entertainment for MGM, recalls how he and his predecessor, John Symes, "could easily see what a great series this would make: an elite team of adventurers traveling through the gate to all of these other worlds."
The series sprang from a strong science-fiction foundation. MGM Television's existing $150 million, three-series deal with Showtime had already produced the sci-fi duos "Poltergeist: The Legacy Continues" and "The Outer Limits." "Stargate SG-1" became the third original series in that deal, although at the time, no one suspected the kind of impact the series would have on the young network.
"'Stargate SG-1' was our first continuous character series that worked," recalls Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime Networks. "For three years - until 'Queer As Folk' and 'Soul Food' - ['Stargate SG-1'] was the only original show that was a success. 'Stargate' proved that we could do serialized drama and that was very important for us. It helped convince us that we could do shows with continuous characters. We had a great run with that show."
The timing was fortuitous since Showtime was interested in building its science-fiction block, recalls Pancho Mansfield, senior vp of development, original programming for Showtime.
As it happened, writer-producers Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner had independently approached the studio about writing a "Stargate" TV pilot. "We both knew it was in their library, and we knew MGM was considering it as a series," recalls Wright, who, with Glassner, now serves as executive producer of "Stargate SG-1." As sophomores, Wright and Glassner previously worked together on the production staff for "The Outer Limits" in the mid-'90s.
Although Showtime had confidence in the series, Mansfield admits that spawning a show from a feature was risky. "There's always a danger with built-in preconceptions when you're coming off a film. But the name brand certainly brought people in right from the beginning who were interested in watching the show," he says.
In order to make the concept TV-ready, Wright and Glassner made some adjustments to the original story: "We needed more than one enemy, so we decided that Ra was one of many of his kind who took people from ancient Earth and put them in slavery at various points of human history. That way the galaxy is populated with the peoples of ancient Earth, and we've created new aliens and new allies," Wright explains.
With the one-two punch of producers Wright and Glassner fleshing out the series, Symes set his sights on finding the right actor for the role of Colonel Jonathan "Jack" O'Neill, portrayed by Kurt Russell in the film. Symes approached Richard Dean Anderson ("MacGyver") and his production partner, Michael Greenburg, about signing on. Anderson not only signed on to star in the series - recently upping his contract for a sixth season - he also received an executive producer credit.
For Anderson, who was coming off the short-lived UPN series "Legend," "Stargate SG-1" had just the right mix of elements. "The movie kicked off such a strong premise, [with the gate as] an obvious visual prop that you can use week to week and also simultaneously use as a vehicle for the team to travel to different parts of the universe," Anderson explains. "I'd never done a science-fiction oriented show, and I have a mantra that I'll try anything once."
Finding the right cast for the rest of the "SG-1" team was no easy task. Ultimately, after months of searching, "it became obvious (that) Don Davis, whom Rick (Richard Dean Anderson) and I had worked with on 'MacGyver,' was a perfect General Hammond," recalls Greenburg. "He wasn't just a strict, staunch general; he had a vulnerability about him. Meanwhile, Major Samantha Carter, Amanda Tapping's character, had to be centered and comfortable as a Ph.D. who speaks from the point of view of an astrophysicist. Michael Shanks had the James Spader-Daniel Jackson anthropologist-humanitarian thing down (from the film). He was so believable that he just shined in that role. And Christopher Judge was just so formidable in his aura and his presence. He has charisma just by standing there, and that's what we were looking for in the Jaffa warrior Teal'c," concludes Greenburg.
In addition to the cast and story lines, the series' Emmy-nominated craftspeople created a package that proved a ratings asset to Showtime from the start. According to the network, when "Stargate SG-1" came on in 1997, it did extremely well as a pilot: Its two-hour premiere on a Sunday evening was Showtime's highest-rated original event that year, and the series has since remained consistent. The primary audience for "Stargate SG-1" - a whopping 60% of its viewers - are adults aged 19 to 49, evenly split between males and females, which is unusual for a sci-fi show.
"Younger people have really taken to 'SG-1,'" Cohen says. "[There are] few shows that I've been involved with in my career where I have seen the loyal outpouring of expression and devotion to a show that ['Stargate'] enjoys."
Glassner attributes the show's success to the diversity and real-world humanity of the "SG-1" crew. "One of the things that makes 'Stargate' unique and different from shows like 'Star Trek' is that it's set today, and the people are us. They're not the perfect people of the 'Star Trek' world. As a result, we can go to a planet and screw up, and get in the way and mess things up. We also have something to learn from them rather than always being the ones who have to teach something," Glassner explains.
Apparently, action-packed humanism plays well in other countries, too. "['Stargate'] does extremely well in the syndication market and is frequently ranked No.1 [among] the action-adventure, first-run syndication [shows]," Cohen notes. "It speaks to a universal theme. For two years running, it was the only U.S. import to play during primetime in Europe," Cohen says. The show airs in 64 countries.
It wasn't until the end of the first season that Wright felt the series really found its footing. Now in its fifth season, the show's story lines have been building toward the resolution of outstanding plot threads, while they propel the action forward. "The challenge for 'Stargate SG-1' has been in making sure that the characters stay alive not only for our actors but for us, the writers," maintains Wright, noting that the franchise has a lot of life left. "You want your characters to evolve and to grow, but at the same time, you don't want them to stop being the characters that the audience started tuning in to watch in the first place."
"Previous attempts at turning a feature into a television show, for the most part, haven't been all that successful, and this has been successful beyond what we had even hoped for," says Cohen. "And I think it's because we had such a strong creative team in place, and we put a terrific star and cast in place - that's a winning formula."
According to Wright, there are plans to parlay that winning formula into a new feature film as well as a TV spin-off of the franchise.
Perenson, Melissa J., "Gate Expectations." The Hollywood Reporter. September 4-10, 2001: p. S-1+.