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Star Trek is so five minutes ago. Stargate SG-1's the galactic force to be reckoned with -- just ask the fans

TV Guide Cover

If you can accept the premise that it's possible to step through a gigantic spinning hoop and end up somewhere on the other side of the galaxy - and, seriously, is that any harder to believe than the idea that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be the next governor of California? - then the recent surge of interest in Stargate SG-1 starts to make a kind of sense. In its seventh season, the series has suddenly exploded into the biggest hit Sci Fi Channel has ever had.

This is, after all, a show about a gung ho American military commando team called SG-1 (well, they're mostly American; there is that big, bald guy from the planet Chulak with the gold tattoo on his forehead) that undertakes dangerous missions in faraway places and, fairly often, blows things up. Except for the spaceships, zat guns and evil Goa'uld System Lords - who, in their true form, look a little like snakes and have been secretly kidnapping humans for years and using them as slaves - it's practically ripped from the headlines.

But here's the weird part: While Stargate SG-1, starring Richard Dean Anderson, the Artist Formerly Known as MacGyver, as irreverent Air Force Col. Jack O'Neill, is just now catching on with American audiences, it's already big in France. And Germany. Not to mention England, where Stargate conventions draw crowds of up to 3,000 fans. MGM, the show's producer, sells more Stargate SG-1 DVDs overseas than it does James Bond DVDs. What you've got here is a bona fide worldwide TV phenomenon.

"It's like black musicians in the '50s," says Christopher Judge, who plays the Jaffa warrior Teal'c, the aforementioned bald guy. "We had to go to Europe to make it big, and the reverberations are just now hitting North America." In fact, Judge recently found himself being mobbed by adoring kids in Paris shouting "Monsieur Teal'c! Monsieur Teal'c!" as he attempted an anonymous stroll down the Champs Elysées.

Sci Fi Channel is so convinced that Stargate SG-1 has long-term franchise potential that it has renewed the show for an eighth season, which will make it the second-longest-running individual sci-fi series in American TV history, second only to The X-Files. The network also has given the go-ahead for a spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis, which should premiere in the summer of 2004.

When asked why Stargate has sustained itself while other sci-fi shows seem to be struggling right now, Anderson says the answer is clear: "You can only fool an audience for a few minutes with special effects. It's the stories that make them stick around."

Stargate SG-1, based on the 1994 feature film starring Kurt Russell as O'Neill, was picked up by Sci Fi Channel last year after airing for five seasons on Showtime. The series has more than its share of razzle-dazzle computer-augmented effects, not the least of which is the Stargate itself - an ancient doorway that opens a wormhole through which the SG-1 team, including O'Neill, Teal'c, archaeologist Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) and Maj. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), travels instantly across the galaxy for their adventures in strange worlds.

Production designer Bridget McGuire describes the spinning, blinking 20-foot wheel of plastic and steel as "fully operational, except that it doesn't actually produce a wormhole."

The Stargate SG-1 Team

Others agree with Anderson that it's not just the bells and whistles that keep audiences tuning in. "Stargate is really more of an action-adventure show than straight sci-fi," says Anthony C. Ferrante, editor-in-chief of Cinescape magazine. "When you look at shows like Enterprise and Andromeda, they really have a finite audience. [But] people don't feel like they have to be an übergeek to enjoy Stargate."

So while the producers do get letters asking about how to fend off Replicators, they get just as many inquiries about whether O'Neill and Carter will ever kiss. What's more, when Shanks left the show for a year, MGM had to put in a special phone line just to field calls from frantic fans who were afraid they might never see his character, Daniel, again.

What breeds that kind of loyalty? "A lot of other science fiction series either become too complicated or start to take themselves too seriously," says Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer. "Sometimes shows are too smart for the audience. Stargate is smart, but it doesn't make people do homework."

And if it did, Anderson wouldn't turn his in. As one of the show's executive producers, he insists that the series not get bogged down in technospeak or caught up in cosmic pretension. Which isn't to say that Stargate doesn't have more than its share of time warps, memory implants and villains straight out of the Darth Vader School of Cloaks and Heavy Breathing.

But rather than trying to avoid the clichés - or, worse yet, pretending they don't exist - Stargate delights in pointing them out. "The bad guys all kind of blend together for me," Anderson says, "but once, one of them was standing by the Stargate, kind of gurgling, and we altered his voice so it was echoey and weird. Then they cut to me and I lean over to Carter and say, 'Oh, puh-leez! Who talks like that?'"

Which may, as much as anything, explain why Stargate SG-1 continues to prosper while other, more ambitious series have stumbled or died. "The Stargate itself is a magical thing," says series co-creator Brad Wright, "but the show isn't about some futuristic society. It's about people who are pretty similar to the people watching. It's really just about a bunch of schmoes."

Richard in Stargate SG-1 Richard in Stargate SG-1

Sci Fi Channel is ready to explore new territory with the spin-off series Stargate: Atlantis

It's not easy keeping secrets from the Internet-connected network of hard-core Stargate SG-1 fans, especially since word leaked out that Stargate: Atlantis, a long-rumored spin-off, is finally going to happen. But unless the diehards have already hacked into this reporter's computer, here's the inside scoop on the new show and the just-announced eighth season of Stargate SG-1.

  • Executive producer Robert C. Cooper promises that the identity of the Ancients and the location of the Lost City will be revealed this season. Col. Jack O'Neill and Maj. Samantha Carter will get closer (nudge, nudge), and a beloved character will meet an untimely end.

  • Richard Dean Anderson is definitely coming back for the eighth season. He says he'll continue to work a reduced schedule so that he can spend more time in California with his daughter. And his character, O'Neill, is going to get a promotion.

  • According to co-creator Brad Wright, Stargate: Atlantis will take place in another galaxy. The Stargate team featured in the series will be led by civilians, not people in the military, and will be headed by a woman. There also will be new villains, including, Wright says, "a bad guy who makes the Goa'uld look tame by comparison."

Rhodes, Joe. "Ace in the Wormhole." TV Guide. July 26, 2003: p. 18-21.