There have been many a great science fiction franchises throughout the years. What started with Star Trek in 1966, exploded into pop culture in 1977 with the release of Star Wars, and still continues today in the mainstream entertainment industry. With new entries into both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises as well as the descendants of those early days of pop culture sci-fi with entries such as the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), television series like Killjoys and Dark Matter, as well as the plethora of new or slightly used concepts which are regularly used for modern day sci-fi flicks, science fiction as a visual media flourished and continues to do so despite certain setbacks.
While names like “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” are usually recognized even by the general public, there is another sci-fi franchise which I personally place among them both in terms of how much I enjoy them, but also in regard to the expanse of the franchise. Star Trek alone has more than thirty seasons across seven different shows and that does not even include the thirteen feature films, plethora of novels, and even a few comic books. Star Wars likewise has had eight main feature films with a ninth in development as well as two spinoff films, multiple televisions series at this point, as well as their own comics as well. These are truly juggernauts of shared universe properties and they existed well before the modern MCU made shared universes a buzzword. I would add another property to that list though: Stargate.
Stargate as a franchise is a bit of a conundrum in many ways. If someone were to ask if someone had seen “Stargate”, most people would answer no and some might answer that they say the film back in 1994 when in released. The person asking that question though likely was not referencing the 1994 film though as most of the Stargate fanbase views the movie as little more than inspiration for the television series that would run in some fashion for nearly 15 years across three separate television shows with a total of 17 seasons and two direct-to-DVD movies. They would tell you that Colonel Jack O’Neill was played by Richard Dean Anderson of MacGyver fame and that Daniel Jackson will always be Michael Shanks rather than James Spader, Abydos will always be a relatively nearby planet rather than in another galaxy (they will get to another galaxy one day though), and the Goa’uld will always be those writhing, head snakes rather than what looks remarkably like a later day Asgard.
Stargate fandom almost exclusively focuses on the television series that it spawned and all but ignores the movie entirely, largely due to the fact that changes were made for either stylistic or practical reasons that makes many aspects of the movie incompatible with the series going forward. The other reason that fans have latched onto the series more so than the movie was the very nature of television itself. Television allowed the writers the chance to really expand on the concepts of the movie and build an entire galaxy (and eventually a universe and multiverse) from there. It gave us a chance to get to know these characters and also gave the writers a chance to make some tweaks to characters to make them more entertaining and less broken in the case of Col O’Neil (no that’s not a typo, but we will get to that in a later article).
Stargate had an unusual premise that gave it a fairly unique appeal. I will get into the history of the franchise and the world built within it in future articles, but here is a brief summary: a device is found which allows the then modern day American military to travel to other planets across the galaxy in seconds. This results in the expected problems due to not knowing the state of the galaxy at large, drawing undo attention to themselves, and the severe lack of technological power to stand up to the threats they faced in the galaxy they just jumped into blindly. Where Star Trek took a hypothetical look at our future and Star Wars was much like a samurai movie with sci-fi trappings, Stargate took place in modern times. It allowed for viewers to relate to the characters as, outside of the fact that they can travel to other worlds, they were in a lot of ways just like the viewer. The idea that this could all very well be happening deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain was intriguing and for many people intoxicating.
While the earthbound aspects of Stargate would give viewers some level of comfort (or discomfort depending on your outlook I suppose) and familiarity, the world off-planet was anything but familiar. While there were items, images, and themes which would be recognizable to viewers, we quickly learn the reason for that. Stargate had taken the quote from Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”, to the literal conclusion. The Goa’uld, the dominant force in the galaxy at the time, were using the advanced technology that they had discovered and confiscated in order to set themselves up as gods, many of whom we recognize from their time on Earth. Ra, Apophis, Anubis, Ba’al, Osiris...but a few ancient Earth gods who had been created or co opted by Goa’uld in order to enslave the people of Earth and the galaxy at large. This established both their power as well as their character in a single action. They were charlatans, but they were powerful and dangerous.
There are a lot of things that have to go right for a franchise to take off and have staying power like these franchises do. It is a delicate mix of world building, character development as well making those characters enjoyable, a good use of special effects given the budget constraints, and sci-fi in particular tends to stand on some level of moral story telling. Science fiction has long been used as allegory for modern day or historical issues. Whether that is a story regarding race, sex, class, or even genetic purity, these are all stories derived from some part of human history which the writers want to examine, explore, or expose. Sometimes the stories reflected belief in oneself over the will and power of others, other times it addressed the idea of religious fanaticism above all evidence, and other times it simply told a story about a strange aspect of science, sometimes real and other times fictional.
The franchise spanned a spectrum of types including action/adventure, political thriller, old-school cop procedural, medical mystery, and even marionettes if you can believe it. Each season and series had its serious overarching story, but despite the drama and high stakes involved, they managed to keep tongue firmly in cheek...most of the time at least. Settings ranged from Earth-based Stargate Command, the lost city of Atlantis, to a deep-space exploratory vessel which was millions of years old. In each instance, they took that initial premise as well as established and new characters to pass the torch and establish themselves within the greater narrative with varying degrees of success.
While Stargate never received the ratings levels which Star Trek did, it was also never available on broadcast television other than syndication. The series premiered on Showtime and after five years moved to SciFi (now known as SyFy). It was never going to get the same level of exposure and general audience viewership as shows like Star Trek which was airing on a major broadcast network. Even Star Trek saw ratings dwindle as it was pushed out of the major networks over the years and as it saw more competition as the years went on.
I am currently rewatching the series via the Stargate Command app and have just finished Stargate Atlantis and will be starting Stargate Universe now. So, over the course of the next few months, I hope to continue to bring you more focused retrospectives on the franchise, starting with the movie and then leading through each main series with hopefully more in-depth articles regarding prominent aspects of the shows after that.
If you are interested in watching the series for the first time or rewatching it again, there are several options for doing so. Much of the Stargate series is available on video services such as Hulu and Amazon, but it is not on Netflix in the US any longer. Another option would be the Stargate-only app I mentioned earlier, Stargate Command. As of this writing there are a mere few weeks left of the service as it is currently structured, but there is hope that they come up with a better structure after that. However, if you purchase your year subscription early (yes, the year does not change based on when you purchase, so the sooner the better), it was a decent deal for a full year of access to both the movies and shows, as well as quizzes, forums, and behind the scenes content, assuming of course you do not have access to the content via a prexisting subscription.
RadzPrower is a Georgia native with an interest in video games, science fiction, and comic books. He is a software engineer, but enjoys writing in his spare time. For a more in-depth bio, read here.