"Never ask a writer where he gets his ideas. In truth, we don't know," Martin Lloyd advised with a self-satisfied smile in the episode Wormhole X-treme!. One thing is certain, however, there is no shortage of ideas floating about the halls of the Bridge Studios. Week after week, the writing staff of Stargate SG-1 creates worlds and characters and adventures of wonder and imagination. Three of those writers, partners Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, joined by Damian Kindler, gather in Joe's small office, surrounded by memorabilia and an impressive collection of Simpsons figures, to talk about how those intangible ideas become Stargate episodes.
Joe and Paul joined the writing staff at the beginning of the fourth season with their scripts for Scorched Earth and Window of Opportunity. They had been writing as a team for several years, having gotten their start in animation, and they brought their collaborative writing style to SG-1. "Usually, we will come up with an idea separately, then we'll bounce it off one another," Joe explains. "We'll brainstorm and then when we feel it's solid enough for someone else to shoot down, we'll go in and sit in 'the room' with Damian and Brad and Robert. We'll pitch out the story, at which point everybody throws in their ideas, suggestions are made, and then we're off to write the outline. Usually the outline stage we write together. One of us sits at the computer and writes, and the other one dictates, or vice versa. We'll flesh out beat by beat what the story will be, break it into acts, what happens in each scene. Then once again we go back to the room, and we get the idea shot down again, or suggestions are made, and then we get the green light to go to the script stage." Some of the work might be done individually. "Any homework, we do separately, overnight or on the weekends, but when we're in the office together, we work together," Paul adds. "We'll run dialogue," Joe continues. "It's easier to write dialogue when you have someone else in the room to basically say, 'Oh, that sounds ridiculous,' or, 'That doesn't sound like O'Neill, O'Neill would never say that'." But each script that carries their names is a genuine collaboration. "We definitely write them together," Paul agrees, and Damian confirms with a smile, "It's true, I've seen them, it's very true."
Although Damian joined the writing staff for the sixth season, with his script for The Other Guys, he had actually been a fan of the show since long before that, and had earned a co-story credit for the episode Need during the second season. He laughs modestly, recalling how that came about. "Yes, I have a name on a Stargate previous to this, but I just pitched some ideas, and Rob was writing this story, and he really liked the core of an idea I pitched in part. So I had a co-story credit, which was just a nice sort of nod to the idea I pitched way back." Looking back now, he doesn't recall exactly which part of the ideas he had pitched back then had ended up embellishing Robert Cooper's script. "I think your idea was 'Daniel Jackson wears shoes,' wasn't it?" quips Joe, laughing. "To be honest, I can't remember," Damian admits. "I think that it was more to do with the mining of naquadah. I actually had pitched something earlier, way earlier, about the stargate being addictive and causing some kind of disease. And they said, oh we're doing the sarcophagus so we can't do the stargate, but we like this naquadah angle. It was so long ago, and I was in the middle of some other project, but that shows how much I loved the show even back then. I was like, let me throw some ideas at you because I'd like to get involved in some way." Before arriving at Stargate, Damian had started out in Toronto, where he had first met Robert Cooper. "I met Rob on a show called Psi Factor. It's shot in Toronto which is where I'm from, and where Rob's from, and we were both on that show together. Then he came out here, and I stayed on Psi Factor for the next three seasons, as well as doing other things. So, I really did the bulk of my work in Toronto up until recently."
Having arrived at SG-1, Damian quickly developed a reputation for humor with the quirky characters he created in his episode The Other Guys. Humor is something all three writers enjoy. Although Joe and Paul's first episode to be produced was Scorched Earth, it was Window of Opportunity which aired first, and which is widely regarded by fans as among the wittiest of the SG-1 episodes. Still, it's not just the humor, but the opportunities for variety that all three writers appreciate so much about Stargate. "It's not specifically humorous episodes," Joe explains, "but we like to inject a bit of humor whenever possible. What I like about it is we've done a wide variety. I mean, Desperate Measures is very different from Revelations, which is very different from The Curse, which is very different from Point of No Return, which is different from Scorched Earth. Especially with a character like Jack O'Neill leading the team, you'll always have humor. But even in an episode like Nightwalkers, one of the only episodes where O'Neill didn't appear, the humor was still there." Damian agrees, "The humor is like the common thread in a way. The sort of light hearted or slightly off centered take that people have is what seems to be the thread between an espionage episode, or earth-based episode, conspiracy episode, or off-world episode. This approach that they take, this very human approach which you can construe as humor, often is what ties it all together, and makes it seem like an episode of Stargate."
Another characteristic of Stargate episodes is the delicate intertwining of story threads, and the careful balance of stand-alone episodes and arc-driven plots. Despite Martin Lloyd's remark in Wormhole X-treme!, story ideas can come from almost anywhere, but more often than not, they undergo a significant metamorphosis before they take their final form. The meeting of the writing staff during which story ideas are proposed and spun, known as "the room," is where plots are suggested and story arcs are mapped out. Occasionally unique stories are fitted into an existing thread. Sometimes a particular story arc needs to be addressed, and a script is planned specifically to meet that need. Season six presented a significant challenge in that regard since certain threads needed to be resolved, but the future of the series was unknown until after the season had actually wrapped, leaving the writers to head toward a season finale that left open multiple possibilities.
"Especially in season six, when we're wrapping up storylines, it's more of a, 'okay, these are the stories we need to tell'," Joe explains. "We need to chart Anubis's rise. For instance, earlier, we needed to deal with the Tollan. That was a story that needed to be told, so Ron [Wilkerson] got to write Between Two Fires." Paul adds, "Sometimes you have an idea for an episode that's not necessarily related to anything, and you go in the room and you start talking about it, and then somebody says, well we need to do this to this character, so why don't we marry those two ideas and make that an episode about something that's been set up previously. Something that started as an original idea may become an arc story or something like that." Joe continues, "Or it will be just a stand-alone only. Damian's episode called Forsaken is a rarity in season six given the fact that we have to wrap so many storylines, and so many of the stories are arc driven. As the series progresses, it's rarer and rarer that you have these stand-alone episodes like a Red Sky where you can just go off-world and tell one story and leave it at that and move on." Damian acknowledges, "I think that everybody's fingerprints are generally on every story we do, and that's what makes them all consistent in Stargate. To me, it doesn't really snap to grid as a real Stargate story until it's been in the room, until everyone's sort of said, what about this, what about that, here's what you should look out for, here's what might help. As the new guy, I notice it needs everyone's input. This team's pretty good at making them whole, as far as story goes."
Another challenge for the writers is working around scheduling issues. In special instances such as the birth of Richard Dean Anderson's daughter, or Corin Nemec's marriage, or Michael Shanks's preparation to direct, scripts have to be altered to allow reduced screen time for certain characters. Usually a story is pitched for the entire cast, and reworked later when scheduling issues arise. During the fourth season, for example, Richard Dean Anderson was going to be away for a river rafting expedition, and his absence had to be accounted for. The result was his reduced presence in The Curse, although that hadn't been the original plan. "Brad was originally going to write him out of 2010, or make him very light in 2010, then he realized actually he could be light in our episode," Joe explains. "The Curse was just convenient," Paul adds. "We had the idea for the episode, and they said Rick's not going to be available for whatever period of time because he was going away. So that was just kind of fortuitous timing. They just moved the schedule around a little bit, and then said, okay write your episode without him in it, or write him very light in it. But it wasn't that we originally pitched a story that didn't have him in it. The story was so focused on Daniel that we didn't really worry too much about where the other characters were going to be until we got into the outline stage. But at that point we knew that Rick wasn't going to be in it very much."
Michael Shanks's departure at the end of season five also presented a challenge for the writers, who wanted to leave Daniel's story arc open. They chose to have Daniel ascend, leaving the door open for his possible return in episodes like Abyss. "Brad wrote Abyss, and it was his idea, but I'm sure that he had a story like that, or similar, in his mind, at the end of the previous season," Paul points out, and Damian agrees that Abyss was simply a logical continuation of an arc. "It's important to note that Abyss was not 'we've got to bring back the people that aren't going to watch.' It just seemed like it was a logical insertion of the character who they'd ascended. It makes sense." Joe continues, "The reason we didn't kill off the character of Daniel Jackson, or the reason Rob and Brad decided not to, and chose to have him ascend, was to allow for stories like Abyss, where he would return, rather than have the cloned Daniel Jackson returning, or the evil twin coming back. It was another way to leave the door open, and let the audience know that there's a possibility he will be dropping in now and again." The decision left the door open for Daniel's return in season seven, as well, a season that no one expected back when the series first began.
Originally, season five was expected to be the last for Stargate, but strong ratings led to its renewal for season six, and again for season seven. Richard Dean Anderson agreed to return as Jack O'Neill, but requested more time to be with his daughter in Los Angeles, giving the writers and producers the task of putting him in as many scenes as possible while reducing his schedule. "We had a mandate to give Rick more time off this year," Paul explains. Working from that mandate, Nightwalkers was adjusted to exclude O'Neill, while other episodes relied on his presence in varying degrees. Paul continues, "We had a concept for a story that could become an episode where Rick was either not in it or very light. So we said, let's do that, because we know we have to do that a certain amount this year anyway. Certain other episodes he's going to be wall to wall, like Abyss, he's just going to be in every scene. So we pitch an idea for a story, and we'll say, this might be a good Rick-lite story. And they go, okay, let's see how it works in the schedule or whatever, and where it's going to fit. It all depends on timing and scheduling and stuff like that. But we didn't think of the story without him. We just thought of the story, of stuff happening in a small town on Earth, and then we thought, maybe Rick could be out of this one. That was all it was." Damian adds, "But if he needs to be in it, if it's not working, and you've made it a bit light, you put him back in. When I wrote Sight Unseen, we were going to take him out a little bit, and he's at his cabin. But we realized he was just needed, so we put him right back in, and that was fine. I mean, the story came first, as far as what the story needed to work well." Even an episode like Smoke & Mirrors was able to be written with fewer scenes for O'Neill, even though its description gives the impression of a Jack-centric story. "Aptly named!" Damian interjects with a grin. "But it's more about days than episodes," he concludes, allowing that careful writing and scheduling will guarantee O'Neill's continued presence.
In fact, Smoke & Mirrors was one of those episodes that evolved as a means to wrap up a story arc. Joe and Paul wrote the script, but the story actually came from Katharyn Powers, who had written several episodes in earlier seasons. "She pitched this story, and basically we took over after the outline stage, which means that she gets a story credit and we get a teleplay-by credit," Paul explains. Damian adds, "The same thing happened when Ron Wilkerson pitched an idea which became Sight Unseen, and I took over and did the teleplay for it." Paul continues, "The truth is, it's really tough to be a freelancer, or to be outside the walls, and to write a script. You need everybody in the room at the same time to be able to discuss and get everybody on board in a script, and you can't schedule to bring a writer in. We just needed the script fast, and so it was just, let's give her the story credit. But it was Katharyn's idea. I suspect that she probably just remembered that we had that stuff left over from the foothold, you know those little things that make you look like somebody else, and decided to use that as a takeoff point for a story. This is actually an end to a continuing arc. But what happens is, you get an idea for a story, and you start to break it in the room with the group, and then you realize that it fits certain arc elements that are just hanging out there. So you don't say 'we need a story where we wrap up the NID, come up with something.' You have an idea for a story and you go, 'this could be the story where we wrap up the NID.' And then you mold it to fit that."
As story arcs become more intertwined, the story "bible," or background reference, becomes increasingly complex. Joe asserts, "Brad is our walking bible." But the foundation that establishes canon for the series is constantly evolving as new episodes are completed. "We all know basically what the backgrounds of the characters are," Paul says, "But if we have an idea for some backstory that has never been specified before, then it's just a matter of going in and asking Brad or Robert what they think. And if he says okay, then you put it in your script, and it becomes part of the bible." One example, often commented upon by fans, is the question of whether O'Neill or Carter is actually a pilot. Neither wears pilot's wings, but when a story called for the ability to fly an alien craft, it became necessary to give O'Neill and Carter specialized training. "I would say O'Neill definitely knows how to fly alien spacecraft," Damian remarks, "And I think that's what made him the man for the job in Redemption." Paul recalls the discussion that had led to the decision. "They have gone back and forth a little bit on the pilot issue. We asked Brad if he was a pilot, and at first Brad said no, and then he said yeah he is. But let's face it, they're our heroes, and they're going to get a lot of special skills, let's put it that way," he concludes with a smile. "Who knew O'Neill could juggle?" Joe grins, by way of example. Yet another skill to be added to the bible.
It seems to happen frequently that fan feedback parallels the thinking of the writers. Occasionally remarks inserted into scripts will cause fans to wonder if the writers are following internet discussions. "My God, they're on to us!" jokes Paul at the suggestion that the writers might be aware of fan discussions. However, while a few of the writers and producers have been known to occasionally lurk in various forums, for the most part, the lead time on episodes dictates that stories are planned and filmed well in advance of fan feedback. In many cases it is a matter of fans' discussions mirroring discussions that had already taken place in "the room."
When Jonas first joined the team, for example, many fans questioned whether he had been chosen merely to avoid a Russian, and Jonas himself asked the same question of Teal'c. "That was just a logical expression of his own insecurity," Paul notes. "He's gone on a mission and yet he's not really allowed to do anything because O'Neill's very strict with him at first. So we wanted a scene where Jonas is expressing his confusion about that, and we figured that whole Russian thing is a good way of getting that out. It didn't really have anything to do with fan response or anything on the internet." Similarly, Jonas's eager enthusiasm was addressed by both the writers and the fans. "We started to play on his wide eyed bushy-tailness," Damian remarks about the joint molding of the character by both the actor and the writers. Paul clarifies, "Super enthusiasm was what we told him to do, and so he played it that way for sure. Corin was trying to find his character a little bit, and we were writing it, watching dailies, seeing how he was doing it. It's a little bit of two tracks coming together. There's the actor finding his character, and then there's us kind of writing it to what he's doing, but also trying to shape a little bit what he's doing." Occasionally, however, fan reaction is addressed in a script, Joe acknowledges. "On the other hand there are concerns or questions that the fans put out that we will address. For instance where Teal'c and Jonas have the talk and discuss their relative positions in regards to the fact that they're in a sense both traitors to their cause." Rather than the fans mirroring the writers' thoughts, in this case, the writing mirrored discussion by the fans.
Many fans also expressed their confusion after the episode 48 Hours, when no mention was made of the second DHD in storage at Area 51. Joe and Paul remember the discussions in the room at the time, and insist it was not an oversight. The writers had had the same questions. Joe recalls, "I think this was something that Brad and Robert always had in mind, because I remember asking the question, and they answered it in the room. I thought that's kind of strange, we do have that second DHD, why don't we just use that? And then when I saw the online community reacting, I realized they would have caught it if it had been mentioned, so I don't know if maybe they had mentioned it and it had been edited out." Eventually the mystery of the second DHD was solved when it became a plot point in the episode Frozen.
Frequently, scripts include little nods to the fans, and inside jokes that indicate that the writers often share the fans' perspective. When fans wondered about the significance of the blue vs. green uniforms worn by the team while on the base, Jonas finally asked the question, "How do I know what color to wear?" Paul laughs, "The color issue was Robert. I'm pretty sure that he actually had that question in his mind too. He was like, how do they know what color to wear? I mean, I think he literally was asking that question." Damian adds, "There's a serendipity. We ask these questions, too. Do they call each other?" Apparently they do.
Many other questions that arise in the room have found their way into the scripts as well. How did the stargate get into the gateroom? Why does everyone speak English? Why are wormholes only one-way? Why do zat guns disintegrate on the third shot? The fans aren't the only ones who ask those questions. The episode Wormhole X-treme! provided a perfect opportunity to address some of these, and Joe and Paul filled their script with inside jokes and references. How is it that episodes so often change from the writer's original vision? The timid writer on the Wormhole X-treme! set, portrayed by Robert Cooper in his cameo appearance, was perhaps speaking for all writers when he suggested, "We could always go back to the way it was in the script."
In fact, the many cameo appearances in the episodes are a nod to the fans, too, although it's hard to say who has more fun with them. From textbook covers like the national bestseller "Dust Off That Old Screenplay and Sell It!," by Robert Cooper in Wormhole X-treme!, or "Precognition: Your Dreams DO Come True," by W. Waring Ph.D. in Prophecy, or "Latin for the Novice," by Joseph Mallozzi in Window of Opportunity, ("Just a Ph.D. in Latin, something to fall back on when Stargate is over," Joe quips), inside references appear on a regular basis. Nightwalkers included Mallozzi Courier and Sheriff's Deputy P. Mullie, and a framed picture of Paul appeared in Prodigy. "It's not a very good picture," Paul points out. "I had a three day growth of beard, and I was really tired. It was first thing in the morning and, 'Here! Put this hat on, we're taking your picture!' But that's Peter," he says of director Peter DeLuise. "You'll notice those are all Peter's. Peter insists on putting in people's names and people's faces if he can." Damian admits, "He's been trying to get me into an episode. He was talking to me about Sykes, the arms dealer," he says of a role in Smoke & Mirrors that eventually remained a guest role rather than a cameo. "You never want to be an extra in one of Peter's shows, though," warns Joe with a grin. "He always wants to put people in. He's like, 'Oh yeah, you can be an extra! Just put a lab coat on, I'll put you in the background!'" Perhaps the warning would have been more helpful had it come before members of the Explorer Unit were drafted as extras in the opening scene of Smoke & Mirrors, but that experience had gone smoothly enough, and Paul grins, "Oh, that's good. He was on his best behavior. But he's very good at that. 'Oh, come on down to the set, it'll be fun!' You should have seen him directing Robert in Wormhole X-treme! That was too funny. And he never turns the camera off. He just keeps it rolling. So he's yelling instructions and people are running around doing something, and it's all on film. You see it all in the dailies." The trio launches into an imitation of Peter's directing style as Paul laughs, "And it's all on film, because he never cuts!"
Despite their protests and good natured warnings, it's clear that these three enjoy the inside jokes and cameos as much as the fans do. And in increasing numbers, the fans have made the series a hit year after year. Although no one expected the show to go beyond six seasons, the early ratings for season six were so promising that whispers of a seventh season had already begun not long after its debut. Joe remarks, "It's the number one show on Sci-Fi. Sci-Fi's really happy. We're very happy." But the show's success only opened new question marks. How would season six end? After months of negotiations at many different levels, word of the series' official renewal came only after season six had wrapped. By mid season, the writing team had been faced with the dilemma of writing toward an unknown conclusion, one that allowed for the possibility of three different scenarios: a seventh season, a spin-off series, or a feature film. The uncertainty resulted in many meetings and long hours during the final weeks of production on season six. Damian explains, "We're used to the luxury of lead time. We're used to 'I know what I'm doing and I have a month to get it all finally together.' Everyone sort of getting jammed up waiting for the last leg of the journey is hard. We're used to being well ahead of the curve, and it's hard when we don't know." For a time, the writing team even considered the option of shooting the movie script as the final two episodes of season six. In the end, however, they found a way to leave the series open-ended, and to navigate toward the perfect springboard for whatever option MGM would decide for the show's future.
Now with season seven set to debut on Sci-Fi, and production completed on nearly half of the episodes for the year, new question marks are once again starting to appear as talks of an eighth season have already begun. However, Joe feels the situation this year is a little less stressful than it was a year ago. "I think we're in a better position, actually, because last year we didn't really know until November, but this year they're already talking season eight, and spin-off. So it's good news, it's just a matter of, now we're a little more anxious a little earlier in the year. In all honesty, there's been talk that there could be a season eight, there's talk that there could be a spin-off, there was talk that there could be a season eight and a spin-off, and there was talk that there could be a movie. But honestly, so many things have to fall into place. First of all, Sci-Fi and MGM have to come to a satisfactory understanding, or deal, or what have you. And for season eight to work, they need Rick. It just seems fairly obvious, I mean, we're the number one show on Sci-Fi, you would think that they'd be interested in doing a season eight and/or a spin-off. And I'm sure they are, it's just a matter of working things out with MGM. So we're waiting. Hopefully we're not going to have to wait as long as we did last season.
"But honestly, if we're going to be doing a spin-off, then we're going to have to know sooner than later, because we're going to need time to prepare. It's not going to be like a season seven where we found out about it late and we were able to just get together and work on the scripts, because we already had standing sets for the show. In order for the scheduling to work for the spin-off, we're going to need to know well ahead of time, so we can actually get a pilot script done, so we can build some standing sets that will serve us through the series, sort of like SG-1 has its gateroom and the various rooms around the base. We're going to need to come up with something for the spin-off as well. And that's going to take time." In the meantime, the direction for the seventh season of Stargate has nearly been plotted out. Asked if the conclusion for the season has already been decided, Joe responds, "More or less. We have maybe one or two slots still open in terms of story, but we know more or less where we're going."
As season seven began, show runner Brad Wright chose to leave his role of executive producer, concentrating instead on developing the possible spin-off series and feature film which are being considered by MGM. Although he will be contributing a script or two during the season, his new title of executive consultant brought about a shift in the responsibilities of the executive producers. For season seven, Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie have taken on the role of co-executive producers, and Damian Kindler has become a supervising producer.
As with season six, the writers are faced with creating stories that include O'Neill while allowing Richard Dean Anderson an abbreviated shooting schedule. However, fans need not worry that their favorite colonel will be disappearing any time soon. Joe hopes that O'Neill's screen time will be similar to what it had been in season six. "In terms of scheduling, he's not available to us as much, but what we've tried to do is work out a schedule for him whereby when he's available, we just shoot strictly Rick. So we write a script in a way that, if he's not essential in a scene, we won't write him into the scene. And on the other hand, when he does come in, we make sure that his days are packed. So we try to get him in as much as possible. Of course, near the latter half of the season, there may be a couple of episodes in which he may not be present, sort of like a Nightwalkers, but we haven't gotten there yet."
Season seven will also see the highly anticipated return of Daniel Jackson. While several of the early episodes will deal with Daniel's return to the team, the writers have carefully provided opportunities for all of the characters to share in driving the stories of the upcoming episodes. "It's not going to become the 'Daniel Jackson Show' in season seven," Joe continues. "The reason why there was so much talk about Daniel Jackson is that's what Sci-Fi is spinning, the fact that he's coming back, and that's big news. And the fact that Rick's schedule will be a lot tighter this year, and that the character of O'Neill may not be as present a force as he's been in previous seasons, will sort of necessitate that the other characters step into the fore, like a Daniel, like a Teal'c, like a Carter." With balance as the goal, Joe points out that of the episodes completed to date, the driving storylines are equally divided among the lead characters, and the team as a whole.
It promises to be a compelling season, with something for everyone. "Season seven will have, I think, everything," Joe declares. "It'll have comedy, it'll have tragedy, it'll have resolutions to a number of hanging plot threads, something we've been doing since season five. It'll have the most two-parters we've ever had of any season. Fallen and Homecoming are a two-parter, Heroes is a two-parter, Evolution is a mid-season two-parter, and the season finale is a two-parter." There will be recurring characters and new discoveries, story arcs and stand-alone episodes, off-world stories and spaceships, character driven stories, and action/adventure. Martin Lloyd may claim that inspiration is an unknown entity, but year after year the writers of Stargate SG-1 manage to generate the variety, imagination, and quality that viewers have come to expect.
Ritter, Kate. "We Could Always Go Back to the Way It Was in the Script." July 16, 2002.