Seventh Heaven

From SFX magazine, issue 105, June 2003.

Stargate SG-1 is returning for its seventh year and things are looking good, as Paul Simpson discovers when he visits the set.

Everyone knows that the seventh year of a show isn't worth watching. After all, by the time the seventh season began, The X Files was well past its peak, although it lingered on for two more years. Even the mighty Star Trek franchise was scrabbling for plots once the episode numbers clicked up past the 170 mark.

Except... it's not true any more. That particular urban myth is continually being disproved. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has shown that a show can still produce surprises and good tales even after seven years, and Stargate SG-1 is set to do the same over the coming months.

Part of the problem normally seems to be the fact that the "forced marriage" between the actors is coming apart at the seams, and no-one can wait for the parting of the ways. That's hardly the case amongst the Stargate cast, who meet up at each other's houses over the weekends, and travel the world together to conventions during the hiatus between seasons. It's a group whose friendships were forged during the two months spent filming "Children of the Gods", the pilot episode way back in the mid-'90s, when they were all effectively trapped in a hotel with each other and the obvious thing to do was to get along. Even when Michael Shanks had a year away from the series, he still regularly met up with his former colleagues for barbecues. They do seem to be that cliché of television and film making - a happy family.

It's also helped that there haven't been a lot of changes at the top of the creative ladder. The show was created by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner from characters and concepts seen in the Devlin and Emmerich movie, and until he decided to focus his attention this year on the recently announced spin-off, Stargate:Atlantis, Wright has been a continual presence at the Vancouver studios. In fact, when SFX visited the set a month into shooting the seventh season, Wright is still hovering around, clutching one of the scripts that he's written for the year, enthusing about the material he's written to each of the actors. When Glassner decided to return to Los Angeles, Robert C Cooper stepped up as producer, and this year, it's his vision guiding the show forward.

"I work closely with everyone else on the show," Cooper says firmly, pointing out that fellow executive producers Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Greenburg are very heavily involved with the process. "Michael is very much a co-showrunner, and [producer] John Smith is a contributor to how the show is produced on a day-to-day basis. [Writer/producers] Joe Mallozi and Paul Mullie are taking up a lot of the slack from not having Brad here every day, and I couldn't do this without them."

There's not a single person on the set who thinks that Stargate is running out of steam. "I think we could go for another ten years," maintains Don S Davis, alias SG's commanding officer General Hammond. "The spine of our story is that the universe is peopled with races whose origins were on Earth, and they were farmed out to other inhabitable planets by these aliens who were more advanced and used them like cattle. When these aliens were here on Earth throughout our early history, they settled in different areas of the world, and created mythologies that suited their own nature. The god that landed in the northern frozen regions had a certain type of drive and appetites, which created the Celtic mythologies. The Egyptian gods had their appetites. With that spine, there's a never-ending cycle of stories that have universal appeal."

Stargate switched from the Showtime Network in America to the Sci-Fi Channel for its sixth year, and it was the success of the new episodes that prompted the channel to order another season. When SFX visited the set last September, no-one knew whether it would happen or not. "If the ratings had been declining, and people weren't enjoying the show any more, I think everyone would have been happy and satisfied to have done six good years," Chris Judge points out. "But we've been so warmly received on Sci-Fi that everyone was happy to come back. The shows are still strong, and in fact more people than ever are watching it! It made sense for it to continue on."

But that doesn't mean same old, same old. The show has moved far away from the original idea of simply setting the chevrons on the Gate to a new combination and "boldly going" to some new planet which bears a striking resemblance to somewhere not a million miles away from Vancouver. New technology has been brought back to Earth, and humans are starting to get to grips with it. The team have had to deal with the consequences of their actions more than once as old foes come back for more. And there are still new foes to meet.

"Anubis is going to create a much more efficient soldier than the Jaffa," Robert Cooper says excitedly. "In his mind, it's because the Jaffa are being turned against him. The new soldier is going to be a little more palatable for us to fight. We wanted to create something that would not only be a much more powerful adversary than the Jaffa, but one that we would relish the challenge of dealing with, and have a little more fun with. We don't mind shooting this guy; he's bad and deserves to be destroyed. In fact, whether he's even a live is going to be part of the question of the show..."

The biggest change for the year is actually a step back in some ways, as Corin Nemec's Jonas Quinn departs from the team at the end of the opening two-parter, and Daniel Jackson returns. Understandably, no-one wants to give away all the details of Jackson's return, but Shanks hints that "there's about a four to five episode arc where Jackson is reintegrating himself into his life. He's finding things out, and he really can't remember certain things. At core, Daniel Jackson is still going to be the same character, but Rob Cooper wanted to make him more proactive, and I agree with that. It allows him to become more involved by taking a more active approach, and it's a great part of the Ascension arc."

So Daniel Jackson didn't really enjoy Ascension? "We have to justify why he would come back down," Shanks says, "and it's because he saw what the Ancients' inactivity would lead to. We're not going to press the reset button and make it seem like the last year never happened. We're going to find out what he learned from this experience. He doesn't remember at the outset, but in Peter DeLuise's episode, 'Orpheus', it starts to dawn on him gradually that he made a decision to come back down. He wasn't kicked out. He realised he could do more good here."

Everyone is pleased that Jackson - and Shanks - is back. "I was truly happy to hear that Michael was coming back," Amanda Tapping recalls. "When we're out on missions, Michael and I would carry the ball for the technobabble. During season six, I felt very much like the technobabble speaker, and I facilitated the story without having any real heart vested in it. With Michael gone, it was like, 'Crap! I'm meant to be explaining this one!' But now he's back, and that's one of the many reasons I'm glad he's here. It's the Three Amigos again."

"I said all along through his absence that he was missed," series star Richard Dean Anderson says firmly. "His energy, his talent and his humour, particularly. I missed the banter. There was an acknowledgement of rhythms between us, and from it came a shared sense of humour, which the writers jumped on and wrote towards. We had a sand-papery relationship as characters, which was genuinely fun. Ultimately, I'm really glad he's back and I told him so!"

Anderson's own involvement was crucial to the continuation of the series, and the actor is very clear where his priorities lie. "It's pretty much about my daughter these days," he says bluntly. "I was very clear about what I needed to be able to remain connected to the show on camera. I just needed to have more time. I'd never asked for more money, or more perks or any of that business. It was about time for me, which is very expensive. I have a four year-old daughter - but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that she insists on being called four-and-a-half - and I had to be afforded the opportunity to spend more time with her. This is time that I will never get back. MGM acknowledged that, appreciated my honesty about what I was going to take, and presented a viable and workable schedule."

The reality of that is that Anderson is now not available one week in every four as well as normally being away either side of the weekend. "It's a mad scramble to make the cogs fit," he admits. "I know all the guys will say that it's cool, but I know it's been difficult. I sat down with everyone before I made the final call to MGM, to make sure that they were amenable."

It used to be rare for Stargate to shoot episodes out of order. On Farscape there might be four or even five different episodes being shot simultaneously, but on SG-1, the worst that normally happened was the penultimate episode of the season being filmed after the finale. Not this year. "I've got three scripts in my bag," Amanda Tapping points out. "We're doing a lot of running about between second unit and main unit. It's insane, but I don't think the quality of the show has been compromised at all, because this is a great season."

Co-executive producer Paul Mullie agrees. "It's been crazy, and it's been hard on the crew and the actors, but in a way it has forced a creativity in what stories we could tell," he explains.

"Necessity has been the mother of invention," his writing partner Joe Mallozi adds. "There have been pressures in terms of what we had to do to make the budget work and work around Rick's schedule. Those sorts of constraints have made us think in a way that maybe we wouldn't if we'd just been sitting there thinking, 'Okay, we've got to fill 22 slots.' It was more like, 'Okay, in the first week, Rick's not there, then we have to do the big two-parter, and we've got to block shoot that.' The system of preparing one episode while you're shooting another has been thrown completely out of the window this year."

During the three-day period that SFX is a guest on the set, scenes from five different episodes are being filmed. While Chris Judge and Michael Shanks share a heart-to-heart in a scene in Teal'c's quarters for "Orpheus", close-ups are being filmed of Jack O'Neill's hands for the opening two-parter, before the camera focuses on O'Neill himself watching a videotape in the closing scenes of the midseason episode, "Heroes". Then the second unit takes itself a mile or so up the road from the studio to a small park, only a few feet away from one of the major highways that cross the Vancouver suburbs, and quickly transform it into the war-torn landscape of an alien world, on which one of the SG team will lose their life...

It's business as usual the following day, as the unit ventures into the centre of the city of Vancouver and takes over part of the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens, which are standing in for yet another alien world for an early season story called "Revisions".

The war in Iraq was launched a week earlier, and the Stargate cast are particularly conscious that they are portraying the military at a sensitive time. "It would be nice to deal with the patriotic element of O'Neill's character," Richard Dean Anderson says. "As irreverent as he is, he's still a patriot, and I think he would be gung-ho for the whole thing. The real war has made me reflect that we haven't done much on this show to address that."

Amanda Tapping is also looking forward to some character development during the upcoming season. "I really want to find the heart of Carter, and see what makes her tick," she says. "What gets her juices flowing and her blood boiling? 'Space Race doesn't show any deep hidden secret about her but we get to see her having fun. She's an adrenaline junky. She's got a much better sense of humour now. There's also the potential for her to get a boyfriend - not named Jack O'Neill, sadly. It'll be someone off the base, and creates a million problems. If the storyline happens, it'll be about this person not understanding what she does for a living, and her not being able to tell him. It will force her to take a long hard look at how she's lived her life and the choices she's made.

Chris Judge has enjoyed the chance to "make Teal'c a tad bit more human. He's not so stoic. This year he actually reacts to a lot more, and says a lot more! He's affected by things around him and expresses his happiness that Daniel is actually back."

"Rob came into the script meeting with a real agenda," writer and supervising producer Damien Kindler recalls, "and we had a good consensus in the room about the stories we wanted to tell. Rob had the idea for the Carter relationship story, Peter wanted to deal with Teal'c, Brad wrote a story, Chris Judge has pitched another story, and Michael Shanks is writing an episode. Suddenly we had ten or twelve stories as well as the stories we had to tell about Daniel coming back, and introducing the new baddie."

Stargate SG-1 attracts a large female audience, which is the opposite of Enterprises' virtually exclusively male following. "There should be a mixer for the two audiences," Joe Mallozi jokes. It's also very difficult to pigeonhole. "There are action stories and character stories, humorous and off-the-wall episodes," Paul Mullie notes. "You're on Earth, then you're off-world. We're not just stuck on a ship all the time. I don't think there's anything that we couldn't do with Stargate - except maybe shoot before a studio audience."
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