MGM // 1998 // 970 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 3rd, 2002
"I feel my search will continue for many seasons." -- Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks)
Stop me if you've heard this one: once upon a time, the U.S. military decided to trifle with some alien technology, an interstellar transport device dug up in Egypt. Colonel Jack O'Neill (a humorless Kurt Russell) and Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) teleported to another world, where they discovered that the gods of ancient Egypt were space aliens. Of course, all Earthlings are lovers of freedom and justice, so O'Neill and Jackson led an uprising of the primitive locals against their oppressors. Lots of special effects followed, and the day was saved.
So went the mediocre 1994 movie Stargate. A couple of years later, a couple of clever producers, looking for a new vehicle for perennial television hero Richard Dean Anderson, decided to adapt the premise for a series. After all, there has got to be more than one stargate in the universe, right? Of course, a television show has lots of time to fill and not much money, so the focus would have to shift toward character development and not endless Nintendo-inspired battle scenes. Since that seemed to run completely counter to the aesthetic of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who love to throw money at special effects guys instead of screenwriters (Godzilla, anyone?), the two original Stargate creators pulled their names off the project.
The upshot: Stargate SG-1. And it isn't half bad.
Most of the time, the transition between the big screen and small screen does not pay off. How many lousy movies have been made from television shows? And how many movies have seemed even more pointlessly padded when extended to a full season of television? But rarely, a movie, even a mediocre movie, can shine on television. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example. In the case of Stargate, television was exactly what Devlin and Emmerich's overblown and underwritten premise needed: modest expectations and room to expand its mythology. Plus, Richard Dean Anderson.
Stargate SG-1 is a star vehicle for Anderson, allowing Colonel O'Neill to steal every scene with a more rebellious and sarcastic streak than the character was given in the original movie. "Without meaning, this time, to sound like a smart-ass, are you cracked?" he snaps to his commanding officer (Don Davis as General Hammond) in one scene. You can tell that O'Neill is the center of attention here: he not only gets the heroic scenes, but most of the comic dialogue. Anderson's tongue-in-cheek attitude on the show is crucial to its success -- so crucial in fact that the episode trailers prominently name him rather than his character: "Richard Dean Anderson and the SG-1 team meet an alien presence!" As if Anderson is somehow just playing himself...
There are other characters, though, but at first glance they come across as pretty much stock science-fiction show types. Amanda Topping plays Captain Samantha Carter, the straight-laced, overachieving female officer (she also gets to spout most of the pseudoscience). Christopher Judge is the requisite stoic alien, a former guard named Teal'c. [Editor's Note: Aspiring sci-fi writers take note: To make an alien character seem more alien, put an apostrophe in its name.] And Michael Shanks picks up the James Spader role from the movie, Dr. Daniel Jackson, and plays it as, well, James Spader, weepy puppy-dog eyes and all.
The show's premise is simple: every week, the SG-1 team (there are apparently a dozen stargate teams run out of Cheyenne Mountain, a few floors down from NORAD) visits strange new worlds, seeks out new civilizations, and -- well, you get the drill. The Star Trek comparison here is not facetious. Most weeks, the show seems to crank along with a fairly familiar premise. There are a couple of "alien possession" episodes: Carter gets an alien rebel stuck inside her ("In the Line of Duty"), and O'Neill gets an alien library downloaded into his brain ("The Fifth Race"). There is a "trapped in virtual reality" plot ("The Gamekeeper"), a body-switching story ("Holiday"), and a "prison planet" ("Prisoners"). And some "alien disease" stories (in "Bane" and "Message in a Bottle" we get the disease; in "One False Step," we mess up the local environment and have to save the natives).
But while some of these episodes seem pretty routine ("Bane," where Teal'c is stung by a fake-looking insect and nearly turns into a cocoon, but not before making friends with the necessary spunky street urchin character), Stargate SG-1 succeeds more often than it fails by taking advantage of a usually clever third-act twist. For example, "Spirits" starts off like a traditional Star Trek type story about exploitation of native populations. Remember "The Apple," where Kirk and company met a primitive race protected by a local "god?" Remember how many Trek episodes featured allegorical plots about our treatment of American Indians? Just in case you don't, the Salish in "Spirits" are American Indians, transplanted by aliens to a different planet. And yes, they are protected by local "gods," really shapeshifting aliens. But what keeps the episode interesting is a third-act battle at SGC headquarters, and a charming performance by Rodney Grant as Tonane. "Show and Tell" features a tense bug hunt against invisible aliens. "The Gamekeeper" has guest star Dwight Schultz, who is always good for a laugh, even if the plot itself is fairly lame.
But the ever-popular time-travel plot ("1969") never fulfills its potential or rises much above hippie jokes. And the whole show's premise that "mythological gods are really aliens" has been done before. But that is not to dismiss Stargate SG-1 as merely derivative. When it develops its own story elements, the show really takes off. The main antagonist of the series is the Goa'uld, a race of parasitic organisms that have conquered a large portion of the galaxy by pretending to be Egyptian gods. Ra, the enemy from the Stargate movie, was one of these aliens. Much of Season 1, apart from the Star Trek exploration stuff, dealt with the SG-1 team's battle against the Goa'uld tyrant Apophis. Indeed, this Season 2 boxed set picks up with the second part of the season cliffhanger, "The Serpent's Lair," in which our heroes save the Earth from Apophis' invasion fleet. Much of the second season seems devoted to consensus building, as the SG-1 team looks for allies among other races. In the two-parter "The Tok'ra," they find a Goa'uld faction sympathetic to their war against the evil System Lords. In "Thor's Chariot" and "The Fifth Race," they sign up a race of alien grays called the Asgard (yes, they disguised themselves as Norse gods in our history). Meanwhile, main baddie Apophis falls from favor, mostly offstage, as he first has his son stolen by the SG-1 team ("Secrets") and then is hunted down and killed by a rival System Lord ("Serpent's Lair"). Don't fret, because the show clearly hints that he will be back, and there are plenty of other pompous Goa'uld overlords to take his place, like the evil Hathor, who captures our heroes in the season cliffhanger, "Out of Mind." Actually, that seems to be the main drawback to these villains: they are all humorless bores, not nearly as interesting as, say, an Al Bester or Scorpius (from Babylon 5 and Farscape, respectively). You've met one Goa'uld System Lord, you've met them all.
In addition to the running subplots about the war against the Goa'uld, the show gets to develop its own characters and internal mythology periodically. We get the requisite character-building episodes like "Family" (Teal'c saves his son) and "Need" (Daniel deals with withdrawal symptoms from overuse of a Goa'uld healing machine). These sorts of episodes give the actors a little room to breathe, and both Christopher Judge and Michael Shanks show that they can do more than stand around waiting for Richard Dean Anderson's next quip. The show also gets to play a bit with the pseudoscience of its world, as in "A Matter of Time," where the stargate accidentally hooks into a passing black hole, causing nasty time dilation effects. And military conspiracies get featured in "Touchstone," where spies mess with a second stargate. These sorts of episodes help the show feel like it is moving forward, that it has its own identity, rather than simply treading water.
MGM fits the entire second season of Stargate SG-1 onto five discs in this boxed set. Each episode is treated like a mini-movie, presented in anamorphic widescreen with a 5.1 soundtrack. Do not expect either the visuals or the audio to be showy: this is a television series with a modest budget. The production design tends to range from Doctor Who silliness (the snake-head guard costumes or the bugs from "Bane") to decent CG spaceships. And why is it that every planet only seems to consist of one village tucked into a forest in Canada? Are there any planets in the Stargate universe with a population of more than 200?
Although other recent boxed sets for television shows pack on plenty of extras for fans, MGM gives little out here. Three featurettes, presumably created to promote the show during its run on Showtime (it has since moved over to Sci-Fi Channel) turn up, one with production designer Richard Hudolin, and interviews with Christopher Judge and Michael Shanks, who reveals he was inspired to become an actor while watching the filming of a MacGyver episode -- will Richard Dean Anderson ever be able to put that show behind him? None of the featurettes runs over 10 minutes, and they are padded with a lot of clips.
Hardcore fans of Stargate SG-1 -- well, you guys are going to buy this boxed set regardless of what I say about it. But if you have never watched the television series before (and I had not, prior to this set), you might want to check out a couple of episodes and see if you like it. It is an entertaining show. It rarely aspires to the resonance of the best of science-fiction television, and it has yet to produce a "City on the Edge of Forever" or "Severed Dreams." But with Richard Dean Anderson at the helm, it can be a lot of fun. And since the show originally ran on pay cable, most people have not had a chance to warm up to it. On that basis alone, Stargate SG-1 is worth a look.
MGM is fined for failing to provide adequate supplemental material for this boxed set. The SG-1 team is released to explore the galaxy and go where no one has gone before.
Review content copyright © 2002 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 970 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Profiles: Production Designer Richard Hudolin, Actors Christopher Judge and Michael Shanks
* Episode Trailers
* Sci-Fi Channel Official Site
* Gateworld Fansite