A Stargate Retrospective: Stargate SG-1 - Behind the Scenes

Screenshot: MGM (Stargate SG-1)

The year is 1997.

Earlier this year, King of the Hill premiered on Fox, Toonami debuted on Cartoon Network introducing an entire generation to anime, Disney introduced Playhouse Disney...the precursor to the bane of my and many a parents’ existence, Disney Junior…, and appropriately enough given Col O’Neill’s taste in cartoons, The Simpsons passes The Flintstones as the longest running prime time cartoon series. Later this same year, Jeopardy! would reach its 3,000th episode, animated series South Park, Recess, and the “New Adventures” of Batman and Superman would premiere, The Shining was originally aired on ABC, and appropriately enough given the nature of this article, The Rugrats returned to the air after it had been previously cancelled...in 1994.

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Also this year, just as the movie had released alongside Stargate, Timecop would also premiere. While it did last more than one season, it is hard to compare it to the Stargate franchise in the long term.

Pre-Production

Brad Wright speaking at Vancouver Film School - August 2008
Photo: Vancouver Film School
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Brad Wright and Jon Glassner were both working on the television series The Outer Limits as co-executive producers when the original Stargate film released back in 1994. For those who do not know, The Outer Limits was a sort of spiritual successor to the old Twilight Zone series; each episode was a self-contained science fiction narrative, many of which erred on the side of light horror. After seeing the movie, Brad Wright had the thought “this would make a far better television series than it did even as a movie because of the possibilities” in his words. It came up in discussion between himself and Jon Glassner and Jon agreed with Brad.

MGM soon noticed how well the two worked together. Brad notes that they seemed to do exceptionally well together when Jon would direct while he himself would do the writing. MGM wanted them to be partners and considering how well they already got along and worked together, they were happy to do so. Unfortunately, MGM however was not ready to let them do their own thing and instead wished for them to remain on The Outer Limits for the foreseeable future. While it might not have been the work they wanted, it paid the bills and at least they had the chance to work together.

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Some time later, Glassner was ready to be done with production of The Outer Limits. It was not anything dramatic or any problems with the staff and crew, but rather the fact that Glassner was from L.A. and was just getting tired of being in Vancouver where The Outer Limits was produced. In a last ditch attempt to keep Glassner on board at MGM, some of the top brass came to him and asked him what it would take for him to stay. Glassner was not terrible keen on staying regardless, so he decided to take a longshot and he told them “you have this movie... [that] lent itself better to being a series than it did a movie…if you let me do Stargate as a series I’d be willing to stay.”

Needless to say, the top brass was not quick to jump on that idea. Emmerich and Devlin had plans for the franchise as a proposed trilogy, so handing off the franchise to a television posed some problems both in terms of marketing and relations with the movie-making duo. The executive responded that he did not think it would be possible, but he would look into it. After what seemed like a nice way of saying “no”, Glassner did not expect anything to come of it. However, two weeks later, the executive returns and gives him the greenlight to start pre-production on the series...with one caveat. It turns out that Brad had also approached them with the same idea at some point, so MGM asked them to work on the project together to which they happily agreed. They were so confident in the series in fact that they ordered 44 episodes up front on Showtime.

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Graphic: Showtime

They spent the next three months going over every second of the film. They were looking for minor plot points, hooks for launching the world beyond the film, and how they were going to adjust the mechanics to work in a television setting. This included things like expanding the range of destinations the gate could connect to, who was Ra and what was his place in the greater galaxy, how does the gate itself work, and how does the modern military deal with these futuristic threats? Most of those questions fall into issues of lore to be built, but the last falls more to how this show was going to present itself. Brad specifically pitched the SG teams as being less military strike forces and more akin to NASA...they were explorers. Glassner points out that they wanted to very much stay away from the Star Trek conceit of being able to determine what and how things work via convenient scanners. These people were just like us and they were learning as they went the same as the audience...and the writers.

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So, with the concept set, it was time to expand the cast. While the film had a forgettable group of military men, they wanted to create a group that was more dynamic and diverse with Stargate SG-1. They would of course have to recast O’Neil and Dr. Jackson as well since neither Russell or Spader would be financially feasible for a television series which was already committed to 44 episodes. They also wanted to introduce Teal’c who could serve as an alien presence and also be a bit of the lorekeeper early on. Glassner was adamant that they have a strong female lead, so Captain Carter was added to the team as well.

The production crew reached out to Richard Dean Anderson’s production company, Gekko Film Corp., to see if he along with his company and Michael Greenburg would be interesting in working on the show with Anderson taking on the role of Col O’Neil. Anderson was originally hesitant as Russell’s portrayal of O’Neil had been a very strict military man who was not exactly lighthearted, a trait that Anderson was well known for and very comfortable with. While he initially declined, they replied back that Anderson was free to do whatever he wanted with the character...and that they already had an order for 44 episodes. Anderson then decided to join the team.

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Screenshot: MGM (Stargate SG-1)

One particular incident which cemented Anderson and Brad’s working relationship was when Anderson read the script for the first episode. In it there was an exchange between O’Neill and Teal’c after a very tense and dramatic scene. O’Neill tells him to come on, to which Teal’c replies that he has nowhere to go. O’Neill responds with a line that hit a sweet spot for Anderson and essentially centered what the series would be going forward...that line was “for this, you can stay at my place!”...a bit of humor despite the dramatic situation which added levity to what might have otherwise been a dire scene. This would be the identity of the entire franchise for the next 12 years.

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While Anderson was the only candidate they considered for the role of O’Neill, the other main cast members were all attached to the show via standard audition processes. Of the three, SG-1 team members remaining, Christopher Judge (Teal’c) probably has the most unique story. Chris at the time was a young, up and coming actor who’s most prominent roles had been, in his words, “guy number two”. However, we was at a friend’s house and it turns out his roommate was going over lines. It turns out that he was auditioning for a part in Stargate SG-1 and Chris took the script and looked it over and immediately called his agent. He told him that he wanted an audition for the Stargate television series or he would be leaving the agency. Sure enough, the agent got him an audition and he would end up on a short list of final candidates.

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Stargate SG-1 quite frankly had an impossibly good start before production even began. They had managed a 44 episode order without so much as a pilot, had scored their only choice for lead actor, and even before they were officially cast, the three additional lead actors had an undeniable chemistry. While they had narrowed each role, including that of General Hammond, down to just 2-3 candidates each, Chris, Michael, and Amanda had formed a bond even before a decision was made. I cannot help but wonder if the casting director took notice to this and if that was a significant influence on their ultimate decision to hire the three of them.

While pre-production had gone exceedingly well, their first day of on location shooting was anything but a good experience. It rained the entire time which resulted in a plethora of issues including props washing away, extras who were less than thrilled to be involved in that moment, and even the film itself was significantly ruined. A more superstitious crew would have taken that as an omen, but the franchise made it through that rough day and went on to last longer than any other television series at the time.

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Air Force Involvement

Graphic: US Air Force
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You cannot talk about Stargate and it not be intrinsically linked to the US Air Force, both narratively and behind the scenes. The core concepts of Stargate all revolve around the Air Force as they are the military branch that ultimately takes control of the stargate itself. While initially, they were not as involved and a few inaccuracies made it through, over the course of the franchise, the Air Force became closely tied to the Stargate franchise as subject matter experts, script approvals, using the series as a bit of recruitment, and even providing real world officers as characters on the show.

The Air Force takes their image very seriously and as such seeked to approve each script before filming and would make comments and suggestions in order to best represent the organization and ensure authenticity. Being a science fiction series, this would occasionally cause issues considering that the Air Force that may be presented was not actually the same Air Force in reality. This was evident in an early episode certain protocols were being violated in an alternate reality, but they were still asked to make changes to stick to protocol. There is also however evidence that over the years the Air Force came to better understand the series and the implications of its science fiction setting as they were over time stories which painted alternate versions of the US and the Air Force in less than desirable light...that or they proceeded without the blessing of the Air Force for those episodes.

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The Air Force was so accommodating of the Stargate crew that they even allowed them to travel to the real NORAD to do filming both inside and out for establishing shots. They actually tend to wear the Stargate franchise as a badge of pride, going so far as to be a bit cheeky by labelling a door “Top Secret Stargate”. Multiple Air Force Chiefs of Staff actually guest starred as themselves on the series with one of the first things General Jumper asked upon being assigned the position was when he would get his chance to appear on Stargate.

Air Force Chief of Staffs making appearances as themselves
Left: General Jumper
Right: General Ryan
Photo: MGM (Stargate SG-1)
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The Air Force would consistently provide their services both voluntarily as as requested. Many times they would be doing flights and invite cast and crew to meet and greets or even let them fly with them. They provided planes, flight footage, and even smashed a submarine through the ice in the Arctic in order to help the Stargate crew get the footage they needed to make excellent television and movies. It is safe to say that Stargate would likely not be what it was without the aid of the US Air Force and the reverse may also be true. The crew of Stargate often heard that the other military branches were more than a bit jealous of all the good press the Air Force was getting because of the show.

Cast Changes

Maintaining a consistent cast for 10 seasons is difficult. People tend to come and go from series which run as long as Stargate (Sam and Dean have stuck around for 15 seasons of Supernatural though, so it happens). Sometimes this is due to the actors wanting out, sometimes it is for storyline purposes, and sometimes it is just a matter of logistics.

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Left: Corin Nem
Screenshot: MGM (Stargate SG-1)

The first major cast shake-up was in Season 6 with Michael Shanks leaving the show and being replaced by Corin Nemec. I say replaced, but that’s not entirely accurate. Nemec was playing a new character and while he filled the slot on the team left by Shanks, he was not an exact replacement. The reasons for Shanks’ departure depend on who and when you ask, but the general sentiment seems to be that Shanks was not happy with the direction Dr. Jackson was heading in and wanted a larger role in the series. Shanks would return in season 7 to resume his role as Dr. Jackson, but this necessarily facilitated the departure of Nemec after only a single season, though he would return for a few episodes in season 7 along with future guest appearances.

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Don S Davis as General George Hammond
Photo: MGM (Stargate SG-1)

The second major cast change was in the departure of Don S. Davis as a regular cast member in season 8. While Don would continue to make regular appearances on the show, he would no longer be a regular member. He would however make appearances a couple times per season going forward. This would also allow for Anderson to take a lesser role in front of the camera as well as he transitioned away from main cast to supporting cast while maintaining his production role of the series.

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As you can see, the last few seasons saw many casting changes as roles were changed, moved, or otherwise altered. Season 9 would continued this trend with the introduction of Claudia Black in a recurring role which would go on to become a regular role in the tenth season. Also introduced in season 9 would be Ben Browder as well as Beau Bridges as series regulars. At the same time, this would be the season where Anderson left as a recurring role and would instead begin showing up once or twice a season.

Ben Browder and Claudia Black
Photo: MGM (Stargate SG-1)
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Most or all of these late series departures are the result of actors simply reaching a point in their lives where they simply did not have the time or wanted to spend more time outside of their careers. Consequently, the new introductions were necessary to fill in the spaces left behind be these departures. However, there was one notable departure that was not necessarily because the actor chose to leave…

Teryl Rothery as Dr. Janet Fraiser
Photo: MGM (Stargate SG-1)
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Teryl Rothery played Dr. Janet Fraiser on the show from the beginning. She was the base’s Chief Medical Officer and quickly became a fan favorite recurring character. In season 7, the staff seriously thought that they would not be getting picked up for an eighth season, so decided that they needed to raise the stakes a bit as they moved towards the conclusion of the series. Sadly, Dr. Frasier was a casualty of these stakes as she was forced to depart the series.

Network Changes

The initial 44 episode order that the series received was with Showtime. Showtime would go on to renew the series for an additional 44 episodes and then a fifth season. At the end of the fifth season though, Showtime decided that the show was no longer bringing in new viewers despite being the most popular programming on at the time, including movies. This was likely due to the fact that the series was already in syndication on network television as well.

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The Sci Fi Channel however would step in and take the franchise in order to continue it. While most would expect this to be a big and difficult change, but it was ultimately not an issue. Despite moving from a full, uninterrupted hour on Showtime to a commercial filled hour, the editing was actually easier for them since they had been making both the full time Showtime edits as well as syndication edits this whole time. They now only needed to make the single commercial break edit instead.

Conclusion

Even before production began, Stargate appeared to have all the advantages afforded it. It should come as no surprise then that the franchise did as well as it did. The chemistry of the cast and crew both on screen and off made for a magic that is hard to capture. Despite changing motivations for actors, network transitions, and even a first day from hell, these people stayed together and made something that resonated with fans the world over. Something that has shone brighter than the movie that inspired it and inspired a fandom that has lasted well after it ended its run.

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Season 10 Cast Photo
Photo: MGM (Stargate SG-1)

It should also be said that I was unable to address everyone that made Stargate SG-1 the phenomenon that it was. There were many writers, actors, directors, and producers down through the years which all contributed to the legacy and just because they are not included here, does not make them any less important to that legacy.

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There was a lot to cover in regards to pre-production and other behind the scenes events and this article ran quite long, so we will address the full run of Stargate SG-1 next week.

RadzPrower

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.

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