February 15, 2018

Reopening the Gate on Stargate Origins

A cool shot from behind the Stargate from the new series Stargate Origins.

Ever since the abrupt cancellation of Stargate Universe (SGU) in 2011, fans of the long-running franchise have wondered if Stargate is gone for good. The three series were basically an institution on the cable airwaves for nearly 15 years and provided 17 seasons of sci-fi adventures. The TV landscape has changed dramatically, however; the syndicated model and popularity of DVDs that helped Stargate SG-1 thrive are gone. When the SyFy network moved away from space-driven shows (for a time), Stargate was the prime casualty. Financial struggles for MGM killed a chance for straight-to-DVD movies, and that loss placed the franchise into limbo.

Hope arose in the form of a planned reboot on the big screen from Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. They created the film Stargate back in 1994 and had always wanted to revisit the franchise. This wasn’t the ideal scenario for devoted fans of the TV series, but a popular movie might re-ignite the chance to continue the stories of SGU and Stargate Atlantis (SGA). With plans of a movie on hold or dead, MGM decided on a small-scale approach. The result is a new prequel series Stargate Origins, which premiered this week. There’s a big catch, however.

The old-school adventure is only available through MGM’s new streaming service —  Stargate Command. Available for a one-time fee of $20, the site gives viewers a chance to watch both Origins and the original three shows, plus the movies. While most of us already have DVD copies, it’s cool to have everything available in a single place online. Stargate Command also includes bonus interviews and other content to make it a better value. The first three episodes of Origins dropped on Valentine’s Day, and more will arrive next Thursday.

The pivotal question is whether the new show will be enough of a draw to expand the audience beyond completists like me. I even watched the terrible animated series Stargate Infinity, so my bar is very low. The downside for MGM is that only hardcore fans likely know about Origins, and some of them won’t pay. Casual viewers that might check out a network show won’t buy a service with just Stargate. It’s an uphill battle to sell the value, even without a monthly fee.

The familiar sight of the DHD in Stargate Origins.

What Really Matters

MGM’s distribution model is important, but it’s secondary to the larger question: Is Origins any good? If the show is thrilling, viewers will find it. It’s easier than ever to spread the word through social media and positive word of mouth. There’s a flipside to this landscape, though. If a show doesn’t grab audiences immediately, it will die quickly. There is too much competition on many different platforms, and sci-fi fans have plenty of worthy options to see each month. Can a show with a shoestring budget and no stars stand out from the fray?

The most recognizable actor is Connor Trinneer, who played Michael on SGA and Trip on Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s a familiar face to sci-fi fans and portrayed one of the more notable villains from SGA’s run. Despite being stuck behind a silly mustache as Professor Paul Langford, he’s the most convincing character in Origins. The lead is Ellie Gall, who plays the iconic Stargate character of Catherine Langford as a young adult. The 20-year-old Australian actress has a decent collection of TV roles but is not well-known in this genre. She’s actually the sixth person to play this character, though Elizabeth Hoffman from SG-1 was the most frequent.

The good news for Gall is that we’ve only seen a few moments with Catherine near her age in 1939. She can basically do anything with the character and not seem out of place. Catherine must be a smart and effective force based on what we know from previous shows. The first three episodes make sure to highlight her capabilities, and they overdo it a bit. The guys are comically inept and stand little chance against her, especially the Nazis. I expect that trend to continue as the story continues. I’ll cover the other actors as we go, but few leave a major impression thus far compared to the two leads.

Aylam Orian as Dr. Wilhelm Brücke on Stargate Origins.

A Diminished Scope

One aspect that has always stood out in Stargate is its epic storytelling. The 1994 movie has issues, but it still includes stunning physical sets and action scenes. Despite having a TV budget, the series found ways to maintain that giant scale. They conveyed epic battles for the survival of Earth and the galaxy. The creators were experts at re-using spaces to fit any location. Beautiful exteriors in British Columbia also allowed for location shooting that expanded the scope.

Origins must convey a feeling of grand adventure despite having a razor-thin budget. I have no information on the cost, but you can tell it’s fairly small. An early conversation between Dr. Langford and Catherine obviously happens in front of a green screen, and it lasts for quite a while. The planet (which I assume is Abydos) that Dr. Langford and the Nazis visit in episode 3 is a small room that feels like a movie set. There are a limited number of characters and few extras to create a believable world. Origins resembles a stage play more than a typical series.

There’s nothing wrong in theory with a smaller version of Stargate. Plenty of indie films have succeeded with small budgets and limited casts. SGU had its epic moments, but it also delivered gripping drama within a confined space. The challenge is when a show falls below expectations for its genre. Origins is a prequel to Stargate the movie, and it’s going back to 1939. Viewers expect some period details plus solid visual effects. It’s hard to do either on a small budget.

Ellie Gall and Connor Trineer star in Stargate Origins.

A Tricky Start

Unlike the other three series, Origins doesn’t have the luxury of a two-hour pilot to build a foundation. The running time of this entire show is similar to SG-1’s premiere “Children of the Gods”. The 10 webisodes last about 10 minutes each, and the first three entries move quickly. After a short time at Giza in 1928 for the original reveal of the Stargate, we jump ahead 10 years and meet Dr. Langford and Catherine inside a facility. Her boyfriend James (Phillip Alexander) appears for a cute scene and dinner with her dad, and the Nazis arrive quickly.

I appreciate the lack of an extended introduction; we don’t spend the first half hour just meeting each character. On the other hand, the stakes are lower without a better connection. If viewers don’t know the Langfords’ importance to the franchise, they may not care as much about their survival. It’s hard to get too attached to anyone in five minutes, even with likable actors. The Nazis are less winning and fall way into obvious B-movie stereotypes. Their salutes reminded me more of the Disney propaganda short Der Fuehrer’s Face than anything sinister.

We’re definitely in old-school serials territory with these Nazis. Even the odd way that Gall yells “Let go of me!” at her captor feels more out of a classic adventure than a modern series. I like the goofy vibe of this show, which has more in common with the Richard Chamberlain comedy King Solomon’s Mines than Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s an easy viewing, particularly in such small doses. The spinning camera effect at the end of each episode goes a step too far, however. It did make me laugh, but it takes you right out of the drama that’s happening on screen.

A Goa'uld enemy in Stargate Origins, a new MGM series available at Stargate Command.

That’s One Powerful Jeep!

By the second episode, we’ve already seen the Stargate activated by those pesky Germans. Who knew it was so easy? Power from a revved up jeep engine (and maybe some lights) is enough to create a stable wormhole. What makes this episode less painful is the hammy performance from Aylam Orian as Dr. Wilhelm Brücke. He keeps trying to give speeches about his great discovery, and few really care. His fellow Nazi Eva Reinhardt (Sarah Navratil) tries to document everything on film with a camera, but she’s not very successful. These are hardly evil villains with brilliant plans; they seem to have stumbled upon the Stargate discovery by accident.

What’s missing from this episode is a sense of wonder for the Stargate. It feels secondary towards Dr. Langford being forced to walk through it. We know that he’ll be fine, and there’s no tension about his survival. When Catherine vows that Brücke is a dead man, we figure that she’s probably right. Origins is so light that even when I enjoyed it, I was never on the edge of my seat. It’s an easy show to watch late at night before you go to bed, which goes back to the franchise’s syndicated origins. I just hope there’s more to it than what we see at the start.

Episode 3 is the most fun because we finally escape that drab facility. The room where they arrive has a few cool effects, including some floating gems that aren’t explained. It’s refreshing to see a DHD, which will certainly come into play down the road. I also enjoyed Dr. Langford’s amazed response to reaching this new world. Yes, the Stargate is not like the Rosetta Stone. Less inspiring are the scenes back on Earth, where a dim-witted Nazi is easily outsmarted by Catherine. Sadly, the post-credit scene implies that he’ll also venture through the gate.

The big reveal of the Goa’uld arrives so suddenly for Dr. Langford and the Nazis. They walk into one room and stumble upon the powerful enemy holding a baby. I loved seeing the old-school hand device, which recalls the classic days on SG-1. Moments like that give me hope that perhaps Origins could deliver a fun adventure. Catherine’s trip through the Stargate has a similar vibe and is easily the highlight so far. The extended visual effects sequence sells the grandeur of venturing into the great unknown. The shot of her face partially covered by the event horizon is gorgeous. We need more of this and fewer lame Nazis; I suspect we’ll see both in the future.

Ellie Gall as Catherine Langford in Stargate Origins.

Stargate Canon Questions

The obvious challenge with a prequel is how it will connect to stories created in past material. We don’t know everything about Catherine’s past, but there are some basic points from the movie and SG-1. She didn’t know how to complete the dialing sequence until Daniel Jackson discovered how the seventh chevron worked. Catherine also never used the Stargate until she joined SG-1 to visit Heliopolis in “The Torment of Tantalus”. Her fiancé Ernest Littlefield disappeared in 1945 after walking through the Stargate, and he worked with Dr. Langford.

Based on what we’ve seen thus far, all three of those items don’t mesh with Origins. Catherine figured out how to dial the gate with few issues in episode 3. She also used the Stargate to follow her father at the end of the episode. It’s possible that Catherine still met Ernest and that he was her fiancé. However, would Dr. Langford be testing the gate the way he did if he already knew how it worked? My last point veers towards speculation, but the first two are pretty concrete.

There are two ways to escape the corner the writers have entered. The first is to convince us that Catherine held back knowledge of the gate from Daniel and acted like her trip with SG-1 was the first. That would be retconning and change her character significantly, but it wouldn’t be impossible. The other move would be to induce amnesia and make Catherine forget about this experience. That’s a cheap tactic, and I would rather see Origins veer away from canon that go that obvious route.

How much should Origins stick to the Stargate canon? Plenty of origins stories have gone back and changed things. Just look at the Star Wars prequels, which aren’t a great model obviously. The difficulty here is that MGM is almost solely targeting Stargate fans. If this was airing on SyFy, you could argue that it was a separate entity for general sci-fi viewers. That’s a harder sell here because MGM knows that avid fans will poke holes in this story. I suspect that a future episode will address this dilemma somehow. Whether it will work is the big question.

Connor Trineer stars as Professor Paul Langford in Stargate Origins.

An Uncertain Future

I’ve only seen 30% of Origins, so I’m not ready to give it a full assessment. I’ll save that for a future article once all the episodes have been released. What concerns me is that the show won’t find an audience beyond fans that need to see everything. MGM could use this fact as a reason to shut down future plans for the property. I may be over thinking it, but this feels like a test of whether Stargate has legs. A low-budget prequel already faces major obstacles, and I may be placing too large a burden on Origins. Even so, I’m glad to have a Stargate series back on my screen and hope this isn’t the last hurrah for one of my favorite franchises.

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December 27, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)

Daisy Ridley's Rey wields Luke's lightsaber in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

It's a fascinating time for the Star Wars franchise. Despite huge box-office receipts for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, some naysayers are questioning its long-term future. Critical and audience response has been very positive, but a vocal group of fans has spewed vitriol about certain story choices. In particular, the depiction of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and some new Jedi powers have drawn scrutiny. A lot of the anger is silly because it's so hyperbolic. On the other hand, that doesn't mean all of the issues should be tossed aside. Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) has crafted a film that's brilliant, daring, and quite divisive. I love the fact that fans are having tough discussions about this new chapter.

I was a little behind the curve and caught up with The Last Jedi this past Friday. I managed to avoid spoilers and entered the theater mostly cold beyond the basic elements. This led to a fun and surprising experience that kept me on my toes. I really liked the movie overall, though a few choices didn't stick as strongly. A big selling point for Johnson's film is the fact that I want to see it again as soon as possible. So much happens within the 152-minute running time, so I need more time to digest it on a rewatch. Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver are all excellent, and the two young actors shine in developing their characters beyond The Force Awakens.

My full review of The Last Jedi was just posted tonight on my other blog at The Tomorrow Society. That site focuses on theme parks, especially Disney, so it made sense to write about that studio's blockbuster film on that blog instead of here. If you're a fan of Disney World and other theme parks, you should also check out my other blogs and podcasts on that topic. Regardless, I'd love to hear what you think of my reactions to The Last Jedi. You can check out that review by clicking here.

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September 21, 2017

Anthony Desiato’s My Comic Shop Country

Poster for the upcoming film My Comic Shop Country by Anthony Desiato
Back in 2011, I covered my hometown St. Louis International Film Festival for the now-defunct Sound on Sight and also published the reviews on this blog. One of the surprises was My Comic Shop DocumentARy, an up-close look at the Alternate Realities store in Scarsdale, New York. What made the documentary charming was the close perspective on both customers and employees of this comic shop. It was directed by Anthony Desiato, who worked at Alternate Realities for more than 10 years. His personal experience with the shop and owner Steve Oto made the film more engaging than I expected. Desiato did a Q&A at the festival, and it was clear how much the store meant to him.

Since that time, Desiato has directed several other documentaries on the interesting people that he’s met along the way. By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story focused on the eccentric guy we first met in My Comic Shop DocumentARy, and Wacky Man: The Rise of the Puppeteer covered an idealistic puppeteer. Desiato also created the podcast My Comic History to chronicle the sad closing of Alternate Realities. In the third season of that show, he traveled to comic shops around the country to uncover the business side of running a store. I’m not a comics expert, but it’s still intriguing to learn more about what happens behind the scenes.

Desiato’s next project is a feature film called My Comic Shop Country, which will continue the work from the podcast. He’ll visit comic shops around the nation to explore how local stores function and the communities around them. Desiato has set up a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this new film. Judging by his other work, this documentary should have plenty to offer for anyone interested in the industry or even how small businesses thrive. To give a better idea of Desiato’s style, I caught up with other films that he’s created in recent years.

The poster from By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story, a documentary from 2014

By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story (2014)

The first line of By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story is the title guy saying “fuck technology!” into the camera. It’s a sad time for parts of the industry that have been forced to change to survive. Meisel isn’t exactly a technologically advanced guy, so moving to the digital realm is unlikely. The big character spends his life in a tight spot among the comic books in the Empire State Flea Market. He’s a fiery, old-school New York guy that grumbles at customers. Of course, this doc shows how his gruff demeanor hides an endearing soul beneath the surface.

It’s the small touches of Meisel’s personality that make him engaging. He buys movie posters that aren’t particularly memorable and rarely sells them. He’s doesn’t seem that forward-thinking when it comes to other cultures, though he’s hardly that simple. The sad cloud hanging over the film is the impending closure of the flea market. It’s not like Meisel has done anything else for decades. He refuses to go on eBay and instead uses his garage. The whole thing is unfortunate.

Desiato clearly likes Meisel, and the loss of his shop feels tragic. Watching him trying to sell products out of the garage is sad. His former spot is empty and won’t be the same even when new tenants buy the space. A montage of happy interactions between Meisel and various customers pinpoint what’s now missing. It was more about the human connections than the individual comic books. This sweet film shows how many people a guy like Meisel charmed during the numerous years in his shop. Like My Comic Shop DocumentARy, it reveals wonderful characters that we often don’t see on our screens.

The poster from Wacky Man: Rise of the Puppeteer, a film by Anthony Desiato.

Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer (2016)

How does a person become a puppeteer? Zach Woliner has that dream and created the character Wally Wackiman to make that happen. Jim Henson set the standard with The Muppets and related projects, but there are still limited professional roles for puppeteers. Can Zach do it? That quest is the subject of Wacky Man: The Rise of a Puppeteer. Recording videos at home with his wife Veronica, Woliner is idealistic but recognizes that challenges he faces with this dream. Balancing it with a full-time office job makes his goals even harder to fulfill.

Woliner’s brother and parents give some background on the life that inspired him. It’s clear that this passion for puppetry has been central since an early age. You don’t get the sense that anyone pressured him to give up the dream, and that’s important. The chances of success are slim, but Woliner makes an impression at a puppeteers’ workshop. There’s something inside him that might click with others if luck goes in Woliner’s favor.

Wally Wackiman is a self-aware puppet, which opens up a new realm of comedy for Woliner. It’s sometimes tricky to separate Woliner’s persona from the puppet. The segment on that separation is one of the most interesting parts of the movie. We also see the possible limits of this character in YouTube videos. Woliner is a talented guy, but there are so many entertainers competing for our time. Observing the DIY approach of the videos shows the hard work that’s involved with online production. Parties are no easy feat either.

What rings true in the ups and downs of Wacky Man is Woliner’s heart. This isn’t a callous guy with an obsessive dream. The strong relationships with Veronica and his brother keep Woliner grounded in a challenging field. Sesame Street is the dream job, and the moment when Wally hits the stage with Oscar the Grouch is charming. But can he break through and reach that level? The commitment is there in spades, though it may take a lot more to achieve his dream.

Interview with Anthony Desiato

Desiato was kind enough to answer some questions about My Comic Shop Country, the Kickstarter campaign, and why he’s so interested in making this project happen.

1. What initially attracted you to comics and working at a comic shop when you were younger?
The character of Superman drew me in initially when I was five, but as I got older and my reading selections expanded, I came to appreciate everything the medium can do. Comics invite the reader to engage with the material like prose books, but they also offer the visual dimension like films and television (albeit with unlimited budgets). As a medium, you really get the best of both worlds. As far as working at a comic shop, if you're a comic fan looking for an after-school job, there's really nothing better.

2. You’ve visited stores across the country for the My Comic History podcast. What inspires you to dig further and produce the documentary?
The styles of storytelling in a podcast vs. a documentary film are distinct enough that each project will stand on its own. For example, if there's a story that takes five minutes to recount, that's perfect podcast fodder, but it would be an eternity on film. At the same time, podcasts are an auditory medium, so I'm tremendously excited to SHOW these stores in the documentary. I've discovered some terrific stores with eye-catching layouts, merchandise, and displays, and I can’t wait for viewers to see them.

A poster from the podcast My Comic History from Anthony Desiato

3. Your podcast often delves into the business side of running a comic shop. What interests you about exploring that aspect of running a store?
Maybe I secretly wish I had gotten my MBA instead of my law degree? It's funny — I'm not entirely sure why the business of comics retail appeals to me the way it does. I think it has to do with the fact that most retailers (it seems) start as fans and collectors first who decide to pursue comics as a career. The process of turning your passion into a business can be a tricky proposition, and I’m always curious to hear how people navigate that. I’m also keenly aware of the challenges retailers face on multiple fronts. However, rather than take a doom-and-gloom approach, I love to hear HOW retailers are responding to these challenges.

4. In both the feature My Comic Shop DocumentARy and your short film By Spoon!, we see the ways the industry has changed and even left some people behind. Why have some comic shops been able to thrive in this evolving world?
There are a lot of ways to answer that, but I think your question gets at a critical point. The industry has changed and continues to change, and the stores that recognize that and are willing to innovate are the ones that may just make it.

5. What continues to interest you about comic shops today?
Well, for the longest time I thought it was only MY comic shop that interested me, but when Alternate Realities closed, I re-examined that proposition and realized that the local comic shop as an institution held great appeal to me. I had captured the community of AR on film and in podcast form, and I wanted to try to capture the larger comic shop community as well.

A look at the comic shop Alternate Realities, which closed a few years ago.

6. How did you choose the comic shops to be featured on the podcast and the upcoming documentary?
It was a combination of factors both creative and practical. I knew I wanted a cross-section of stores in terms of geography and history. There were stores I already knew; I solicited recommendations; and I looked at trips I was already taking (for work, weddings, etc.) to see where I could tie in shop visits.

7. You’ll basically travel the country as a one-man crew for this film. How challenging with the production be for you to shoot all the footage?
These days, I have my wife traveling with me, which has been a huge help. I’d also think about bringing in a crew person if possible.  But as far as shooting everything myself, it's all I know! That's how I've made all three of my previous docs.

8. How long do you anticipate it will take to shoot and complete the film?
The plan is to shoot and edit next spring and summer, with an eye toward completing the film in Fall 2018.

9. One of the highlights of My Comic Shop DocumentARy was spending time with all the unique figures that inhabit the world of Alternate Realities. Do you hope to connect with similar characters around the country in your new film?
Absolutely. With everything I’ve done, it's always about the people above all else. Comic shops are perhaps the best place to find colorful personalities — on both sides of the counter.

10. The Kickstarter rewards include some pretty cool incentives for backers, including a cooking class with you and your wife, a portfolio review, and a superhero photo shoot. How did you go about putting together the rewards?
When I turned my attention toward designing the reward structure, I wanted to make sure there was variety in both the prices as well as the rewards themselves. Whether you're looking to contribute $5 or $5,000 — or anywhere in between — there's something for you to choose. I thought about what might appeal to someone who's followed my past work (hence rewards like exclusive podcast episodes and the My Comic Shop DocumentARy Blu-ray), but I also considered the folks coming into this cold, who might be interested in the original art, custom toy, or portfolio review rewards. There are essentially five reward categories: digital, physical, one-of-a-kind, experiential, and sponsorships.

Learn More

Check out the My Comic Shop Country Kickstarter page to learn more about the film and the benefits of supporting the project. Stay updated through the My Comic Shop History page on Facebook.