FEATURE ARTICLES

NEW ORDER

An Interview with Stargate's Executive Producers, Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper


Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright Change is afoot at the SGC, not only at the base of Cheyenne Mountain, but upstairs in the production offices as well, as Stargate SG-1 prepares to launch both an unprecedented eighth season, and a brand new spin-off. After taking a year away in a consulting capacity, Brad Wright has returned to join Robert Cooper in taking on the mammoth task of executive producing two television series simultaneously. "It's exciting and insane at the same time," Brad laughs. "Robert and I are right at the midpoint of when you have almost all 40 stories in your head at once, because you're not finished the beginning of the seasons, and you're just starting to think about the end of them." Robert concurs, "But we're also at the point where we've run out of all the scripts we've developed during the off season. Now we've shot them, and we're having to actually come up with new scripts on the fly." Brad points out, "Of course, it happens every time, but it doesn't happen with two shows! So since we're doing it basically with the same writing staff we have, it's going to get tight. It's going to get very tight!" he laughs.

Of course, with seven years of experience under their collective belt, the well oiled machine that is Stargate SG-1 is more than up to the task. If the ambitious season opener is any indication, fans can look forward to an amazing ride. New Order, the two-hour season premiere, picks up where season seven's cliffhanger left off, and lays the foundation for a new dynamic at the SGC, as well as a new direction that will become Stargate Atlantis.

Robert summarizes, "One of the things we wanted to do was tell a little more of a bridge between Lost City and the pilot of Atlantis. The two-hour premiere of season eight of SG-1 airs a week before the pilot [of Stargate Atlantis] premieres on SciFi. Last we saw in Lost City, Dr. Elizabeth Weir was left in charge of the SGC. Hammond was sort of up in the air as to what was happening with him, and O'Neill was frozen down in Antarctica. So the two-hour premiere deals with SG-1 trying to get O'Neill unfrozen and get the Ancient knowledge out of his head.

"There's also another storyline in which we realize that in the vacuum that's been left by us having killed Anubis with this super powerful Ancient weapon, Ba'al has moved in and claimed that territory and taken over a lot of stuff. He's gone to war with the other System Lords and it looks like he's winning. The rest of the System Lords are going, 'Hey, wait a minute! The Earth people killed Anubis. We were trying to do that for a long time. Now Ba'al's become a threat to us.' The System Lords actually come to Earth to ask for our help in getting rid of Ba'al, to use our weapon. And of course we can't use it anymore. The one guy who was able to use it is now in suspended animation. Plus, we don't know how much power it has.

"So the story is about that, and the fact that our quest to save O'Neill takes us to the Asgard and Thor and what he's been up to. And what he's been up to is trying to make sure that the Replicator humans, who we trapped in the time dilation field in an episode called Unnatural Selection that Brad wrote, never get out of that." Brad interjects, "We knew that within a couple of years they would be able to get out of the time dilation field. So Thor had that much time to come up with another solution." Robert continues, "And he was sort of in the final stages of enacting that solution when we show up to ask for his help in saving O'Neill. As it turns out, his solution doesn't really work, and the Replicator humans escape. Some of them do. And we are forced to help Thor deal with that before he can help us with O'Neill."

It's unlikely that the episode will see the end of the Replicators, either, as they become the focus of a significant story arc for season eight. Brad explains, "We wanted to set up the human Replicators as a potential villain for Atlantis, but with us doing Atlantis and SG-1 at the same time, which we really never planned to do, we had to come up with another villain for Atlantis. And the Replicators became the perfect villain to step in and fill in the vacuum beyond Anubis. Not that the Goa'uld aren't still out there doing stuff."

New Order will also establish the changes within the SGC. "The other big thing is that at the end of the episode O'Neill is promoted to general and given full command of the base," Robert goes on. "And Dr. Weir is sent off to supervise the Antarctic project." Meanwhile, General Hammond takes the next step in his career. "He gets promoted. He's in charge of everything that is off-world related. He's got the Prometheus, and the fleet of ships that have to be dealt with. He has the Alpha Site, the SGC, and the Antarctic site. So there's a lot to deal with. He's basically given a promotion and placed out of the Pentagon. His new post is basically dubbed 'Chief of Homeworld Security'," he grins.

Hammond's presence will continue to be felt at the SGC, and the door is left open for him to return. "O'Neill reports directly to Hammond, and we'll see him talking to him several times on the phone." Brad adds, "Actually Robert wrote this wonderful runner where O'Neill is writing a letter to General Hammond. 'Dear General Hammond…' And that's sort of kind of neat," he laughs. "And the good news is Rick's embracing it wholeheartedly, and he's been very very good, and very funny."

New Order

Lockdown

The other good news is that O'Neill's promotion won't spell the end of the SG-1 team dynamic. By focusing a number of stories on Earth, the four-person team remains intact. "A lot more of the stories of season eight center around the SGC," Robert explains. "There's a lot less of SG-1 going out to alien worlds. They've become much more the sort of expert consultants of the SGC. They get called into situations that require their expertise."

"They're still really engaging character stories," Brad adds. "They're about our people. There's a great story called Affinity. It's a story we've been trying to tell for years, in a way, of Teal'c out in the world. What's it like when Teal'c is out in the world?" Robert continues, "And now that he's on tretonin and doesn't carry a symbiote around, O'Neill argues with the Pentagon that he's no longer a serious threat. He can get an apartment in Colorado Springs. So what happens when someone with a Jaffa mentality ends up living in our society? It's kind of fun."

"He has hair, too!" Brad points out. "That's the other [big change]: It's 'General O'Neill', and 'Teal'c has hair'." Robert corrects, "He has hair sometimes," eliciting laughter from Brad as he goes on to explain, "We had a bit of a continuity issue with Chris's hair off the top there, but it's settled down." Teal'c's hair is something of a victory for Christopher Judge, a victory none of them had foreseen. Brad laughs, "Every year since season one, Chris has come up to me and said, 'Uh, Brad, can I have hair?' and I said 'No!' And Robert said, 'Okay, if there's a season eight, you can have hair,' not thinking in a MILLION years that there would be a season eight!"

Another advantage of Earth-based stories is that Richard Dean Anderson's diminished shooting schedule doesn't necessarily translate into diminished screen time. Comparing O'Neill's on-screen presence in season eight to the previous year, Brad considers, "I would say there's more, really. If you think about it, it's easier to get more of O'Neill at the base as a general, in terms of being an integral part of the story." Robert agrees, "And one of the nice things for us is we don't have to come up with wacky reasons as to why he's not on the mission. I mean, he's a general. He's got business to attend to.

"In fact, I wrote an episode that's going to air early in the season called Zero Hour, that is about a week in the life of General O'Neill. The idea was that we always see the adventures that SG-1 gets into, and the catastrophes that result, but there are fifteen, twenty other SG teams who are always also out there doing stuff. And it's not like they're always just on these really boring missions. Stuff is always happening to them, too. We just never saw it. Now that O'Neill is sort of the center of the base, we watch him as he tries to deal with being General, and all the different things that are happening."

"SG-13 gets into shit too," Brad confirms with a laugh. "It's not to say that we're not going off-planet, either," he hastens to add. "There's an episode coming called Icon which is fulfilling an idea that we were talking about for a long time. What happens if our arrival on an alien world, our very arrival, creates a wholesale cultural change that leads to disaster?"

"We've often talked in the show about why the SGC and the stargate is being kept a secret," Robert goes on. "Certainly the repercussions of the Anubis attack in Lost City have led to an even bigger cover-up on Earth. One of the things we wanted to do was present the worst case scenario for why it's being kept a secret. What could possibly happen that would be so bad? Why do they want to keep it a secret? Well, here, we'll show you.

"And then later, after that, we do a story [Covenant] where a very rich and powerful businessman, sort of a Richard Branson kind of character, has basically gathered enough evidence that he thinks will expose the stargate program. And after having pressured the government to do that without success, he decides to do it himself. And what are the repercussions of that?"

Brad recalls, "I asked the Air Force a long time ago what would happen if somebody did find out, and did want to go public. They said, well, we would bring them in. We would show them everything, and then say, now that you've seen everything, you see why we can't tell the world. Because that happens. I mean, that happens in war. Reporters see stuff they're not supposed to see, and they're asked not to reveal it, and they don't. But in this case, the twist on this story is that, they do bring him in, and he goes, 'Now I want to show the world even more'."

The third episode of the season, Lockdown, is another story based at the SGC, with a particular twist that Brad and Robert are cautious not to give away. "There's a Russian space station trying to steer out of the way of a piece of space junk. And out of the space junk, an entity goes into the Russian, and that entity may be possessing people at the SGC."

"And we're doing an interesting story, working with the people who just got the rights to do the games," Robert continues, referring to the episode Avatar. "I don't know if you read about a company in Australia that just signed a multi-million dollar deal with MGM to do a PlayStation2 platform game? We're doing a story where we're using the chairs from Gamekeeper, and we're working with those scientists. We've created what we think is a virtual reality simulator, a combat scenario, for training SG soldiers. Teal'c is testing it out and he gets trapped inside of it. A programming error gets him caught in this simulation. And we're actually using footage from the video games as representation of what he's going through. It's inter-cut throughout the show."

Brad continues, "Robert came up with this great thing. The game is designed to shut down if you give up. And this is tested by a bunch of scientists, who give up. But Teal'c, being Teal'c, and it being connected to your subconscious, Teal'c will never give up." Robert adds, "And even when he tries, the machine knows that he wouldn't, in a real situation, and the game is designed to simulate a real situation. So even though he's trying to quit the game, it won't let him quit the situation."

Zero Hour

Avatar

"So we have high hopes for season eight being a great final season," Brad grins, knowing that he has expressed the same sentiment each year since season five. Each year the writers have attempted to close out certain story threads in preparation for a series finale, while leaving others open for the possibility of renewal. Under those circumstances, maintaining the feel of a grand story arc can be a challenge. By way of example, Robert offers an intriguing hint of an as yet unnamed episode in the planning stages for later in the season. "We're going to do a story this year where we're going to kind of resolve the whole Daniel-Oma storyline, and what it was like for him to be ascended, and what the issues were. And hopefully when you see that episode it will feel like that story was always going to happen from the moment we first saw Oma."

The reality of maintaining both SG-1 and Atlantis simultaneously also has an impact on the storylines. "I don't feel like I want to do a bait-and-switch," Robert explains. "I don't want to say, 'Oh, this is going to be the biggest, best year ever.' This is going to be a smaller year than we have done in the past. I feel the stories and scripts are as strong as we've ever done, but there's not as much blowing stuff up." Brad agrees, "There's going to be more character based stuff, which the real fans like just as much. And in a way, that makes it more mainstream."

"You know, we spent more money on Lost City than we've ever spent, ever," Robert goes on. "One of the scene I noticed on the fansites that everybody was talking about was the scene where they're all just sitting around in O'Neill's living room talking. Well, they're going to get a lot more of that."

Brad laughs at his simple explanation, "Well, the truth is, that was a nice team scene, and it worked. They enjoyed it. We enjoyed writing it." Robert adds, "And there's another scene that I purposely echoed in the two-hour premiere where the four of them are all sitting around in Daniel's lab talking about whether O'Neill should take the general's job or not. And so that's what we're going to be able to do a lot more of this year. We are fortunate to say, we will be doing a lot more of the team sitting around talking!" he laughs.

Balancing both SG-1 and Atlantis also has advantages in that each series can be used to support the other with possible crossovers. "One of the only ways we could afford to do season eight was by running it concurrent with Atlantis," Brad explains. "We also have an idea for the end of Atlantis. Right now, for the whole season, we're cut off. But we're going to make it home at least once at the end of the season, or connect with people from Earth at least once, to touch base, to provide the opportunity for the Stargate universe to occasionally cross over. After this season it will become much more possible for any one of the SG team members to appear."

"It's also maybe another way that, even if there isn't a season nine, SG-1 will continue to live in our universe," Robert agrees. "We don't want to end SG-1. In other words, we're not going to blow up the SGC," Brad emphasizes. "Although I did think about it!" he jokes.

Brad sees part of Stargate's success as its ability to build upon an established foundation, while still making it accessible to new viewers. "SG-1 has become a little bit more mainstream now than it was, say, in season one or two. And Atlantis isn't so far out there either. It's not going to be steeped in such mythology that if you miss an episode you think, 'I don't know what's going on!' We're trying to tell slightly more mainstream stories and just good solid science fiction stories. Here's the thing about any television show. As much as we like to think it's the writing, and a lot of it is, what it is in terms of ratings numbers is, do people want to invite these characters into their homes every week? If they like these characters, if they want to spend an hour with them, care about what's going to happen to them, that's a successful show. I mean, what's the plot of Friends?" he asks rhetorically. "They're friends! But you would love to spend a half an hour with them every week. You just love that friend. A science fiction show is that plus the worlds we take them to, the imagination that we bring to it on top of that."

Both Brad and Robert hope that the same magic will continue as SG-1 spins off into Stargate Atlantis. Two of the lead characters of the new series are already familiar to viewers of SG-1. Dr. Rodney McKay has appeared previously in 48 Hours and Redemption, and Dr. Elizabeth Weir was first introduced in Lost City.

"With a new series, you cast, you write roles and create characters, you cross your fingers, and you hope!" Brad states simply. "And I happen to think that our cast is going to be great. I mean, we took some risks, let's be honest. David Hewlett playing Dr. McKay in his acerbic, mile-a-minute hilarious way? We love it. We think it's entertaining." Robert agrees, "He's one of the most antagonistic lead characters. He's unapologetic for who he is, and almost dares you to like him, despite himself. He does heroic things while he's whining about it and saying things that make you think you want to hate him, but he's still doing those heroic things."

Considered much more of a sure thing is the character of Dr. Elizabeth Weir, and both Brad and Robert speak in glowing terms of Torri Higginson, who will be taking the role originated by Jessica Steen. "She became the bar, and no one got near it," Brad says of Torri during the casting process. Robert adds, "We found Torri right away, and fell in love with her. Actually, it was, like, five seconds into her audition, it was halfway through the speech, and Brad said, 'O.T.W.!' which just means 'On To Wardrobe!'" he laughs.

What they both saw in her performance was an ability to play a strong leader without approaching the role as a man would. "What I love about her," Brad says, "is she's just strong. Torri is just strong. She doesn't have to put on any airs." "And yet she is able to appear vulnerable, and feminine, and all those things," Robert interjects as Brad continues, "But when she takes command, like when she says to Sheppard in the pilot, 'Look, just shut up for a minute!', you don't feel like it's…" "…bitchy," Robert finishes.

"She's just strong," Brad repeats, "and she's a great balance for Joe [Flanigan, who plays Major John Sheppard], and smart! In the SG-1 two parter, we get to see her in her natural element, too, being a diplomat. She's negotiating with Goa'ulds, and she shows off just how good she can be." Robert notes, "And I think you see in the two-hour of SG-1 as well, that the other actors obviously developed an immediate respect for her, and that that came across in the way that the characters saw her now in command of the SGC."

With familiar characters and a familiar premise, Brad and Robert hope that Atlantis will draw fans of SG-1, but the series is meant to stand on its own, and to attract fans in its own right. "It is a different show," Brad points out. "I mean, it's set in a different milieu, it's got different characters. It's got the same writers, though, with our sensibilities of storytelling." Robert explains, "We're starting fresh in a lot of ways. You don't have to know what a Goa'uld is to watch Atlantis. You don't have to know what a Jaffa is. It would be nice if you knew what a stargate is, but we'll kind of explain that too, without trying to spoon feed information to the people who have been watching Stargate for seven years. I don't think you'll feel like, 'Oh God, I can't believe I have to sit through two hours of this.' You'll still feel like you're seeing a new, fresh, interesting story, but hopefully people who have never seen Stargate SG-1 will still be able to sit down and watch Atlantis.

What the future holds for both series has yet to be decided. Two years ago, when season five was expected to be the final year of SG-1, Brad and Robert sold an SG-1 feature film to MGM. "We wrote it between season five and six," Brad recalls. "And it became Lost City. I mean, it's not the same script. Lost City became the [season finale]. In the feature script that we wrote, the world found out about the existence of the stargate. Naturally in Lost City we couldn't, because it was continuing.

"But, ironically," he continues, "when Atlantis wasn't going to work [as a series], we then went and pitched Atlantis as a feature and sold that. And then SciFi came back to the table. There was a pilot version of the story, and a feature version of the story," he says of Atlantis. "And they've actually contracted us to write a third," Robert adds. What form that third feature script might take is still uncertain. "Most likely it would be the known SG-1 quantity, with maybe some crossover," Brad speculates, but he acknowledges that MGM is still very much interested in pursuing the possibility of Stargate on the big screen. "They don't know what it is. They just figure we'll come up with something," he smiles.

As for continuing on the small screen, both men break into laughter at the mention of 'season nine.' "Oh, I've given up saying 'no more'. I've given up saying that'll be the last year," Brad admits. Robert clarifies, "No conversation has gone on between the studio and the network, or the studio and us, or any of that. Having said that, no conversation is going to happen until season eight debuts, until Atlantis debuts. They are very focused on Atlantis."

"What's happened with Stargate that has made it unusual in television," Brad notes, "is that even as far back as on Showtime, as all the other shows were diminishing in ratings, ours kind of built. We, as a series, have been bucking the trend of diminishing ratings. Even successful shows have had diminishing ratings, and ours have been, in syndication, holding their ground, which is a de facto increase, really. And when we switched over to SciFi in season six, it kind of gave the series a whole new life. People are finding it again, and it allowed us to get something of a life in syndication."

"There was no ratings pressure," Robert continues. "It was never, 'Oh you guys are not doing well enough to get renewed'. It's, 'We still like the show, it brings in subscribers'. It's the cover of TV Guide. I mean those things are huge for us. And the repeat blocks that SciFi is doing on Monday night, they get almost as high ratings as our new episodes." Brad laughs, "It's amazing. It's bizarre. It's like we're an actor who didn't get famous until they were in their seventies."

Robert comments that a decision concerning a possible ninth season of SG-1 may be affected as much by the success of Atlantis as by its own ratings. "In some ways Atlantis is designed to ultimately replace SG-1. Granted, it would be great if both continued to live very successfully, but really, I think, in everybody's mind, the studio and the network, Atlantis is kind of designed to just fit in its place."

It would seem that the studio and the network have faith in the new show, having blessed it with an order for 20 episodes from the beginning. "The fact that we got 20 up front for Atlantis is exceptional nowadays," Robert remarks. Brad recalls, "With SG-1, Jonathan [Glassner] and I pitched the series and they bought 44 hours. Halfway through the first season, they bought 44 more hours. We knew we were doing 88 hours of television before the end of season one. Pretty unusual. That gave us carte blanche to make plans. Nowadays, an order of 20 is unheard of. Nobody's ordering 20."

As with any business, weighing production costs against profit is a main consideration. "It gets too bloody expensive," Brad declares. "It's so top-heavy, and so labor intensive." Robert continues, "You can't roll people back to day-one salaries. Even people within the show look at the show and say, 'Oh, it's incredibly successful, it does so well worldwide, it's so popular, it's growing, it's growing.' Yes, but the actual profit money gets smaller and smaller. The license fees don't go up exponentially with the supposed success of the show. MGM's still running a business, and at some point it's not worth making another year."

Brad concurs, "The profit margin for season eight is a fraction of what it was for season five. Even on SciFi, they just license the show first and third window. In syndication, which is still where the lion's share of the income is for MGM, it's been getting 2s and 2.2s and 1-something sometimes. The days of getting 3.8s and 3.5s are slipping, because it's the way the world is. We're still number one in syndication. But advertising dollars are advertising dollars, and that's what ultimately translates into eyeballs watching television. Worldwide it's doing wonderfully, but France [for example] doesn't pay that much money. MGM sells the show, happy they get anything, happy that it sold. Just because we happen to do well doesn't mean that translates into gigantic dollars."

Still, despite the financial realities, the future is hardly bleak. "It's possible, and I think likely, that the show will live on in some form," Robert predicts. "We hope that ultimately it'll go to theatrical feature film format. But at the very least, there will continue to be TV movies, direct to videos, DVDs, two-hour SG-1s, two-hour crossovers, maybe even some other franchise entity, another team that you see going on other adventures."

"The one thing MGM is very much aware of is that Stargate is a franchise," Brad explains. "And it's becoming an increasingly important franchise to them. And what makes a franchise profitable is not taking one show as long as you can take it, but while it is still cooking, create the next leg, and build on that. Hopefully that'll stand on its own. And if it doesn't, well, that's fine, you've bought a little time to move on to the next layer of the franchise. Atlantis was always intended to be the next step in the television world, the second leg of the franchise triangle, while the third one is SG-1 movies, or like what Robert just suggested."

Science fiction franchises have found success before, but Stargate's situation is relatively unique, Brad notes. "Keep in mind, Stargate originated as a feature film. This isn't the Star Trek model, really. We were a feature, that spun off into a television series, that spun off into another television series, that will hopefully one day go back into a feature length."

Meanwhile, Brad and Robert and their team of writers continue to plot out story arcs for both series. Is the direction for each series already mapped out? "Well, only into the next season," Brad responds. "I mean, I don't want to call anybody a liar, but I think anybody who says, 'Oh, I've got the whole thing completely mapped out in detail' is exaggerating slightly, and trapping themselves into not taking advantage of opportunities along the way. Our best episodes have come from, 'Love that guy, I love these people, let's write another story about these people. Hey, I got an idea from that idea you had last week.' I mean, creativity is not bricklaying. You don't know, necessarily, where the wall is going to end up when you're doing a television show. You have an arc. We have a series arc. Every year we think of the arc for this year."

"And yet we have an acute awareness of what's come before, and we mold that into what we're doing next," Robert adds. "So in the end, if you look back on it, it should feel kind of like we knew what we were doing!" Brad laughs in agreement, "Well, we don't contradict ourselves. Somebody once described Stargate as an interesting novel that, just when you think you're at the end of the book, another story starts to open, and you just keep turning the pages. We're writing as fast as we can at the end of that novel!"

And the fans will continue to enjoy turning all those pages.

____________________
Ritter, Kate. "New Order." April 28, 2004.


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