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.
What Really MattersMGM’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.
A Diminished ScopeOne 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.
A Tricky StartUnlike 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.
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.
That’s One Powerful Jeep!
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.
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.
Stargate Canon Questions
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.
An Uncertain FutureI’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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