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Step Through the Stargate

In these days when television series of the oldest, most moldy sort become Major Hollywood Motion Pictures, it almost seems quaint when a Major Hollywood Motion Picture becomes a TV series. Not that either of these practices has seen a whole lot of success. For every Star Trek there's a "McHale's Navy" and a "My Favorite Martian" and a Dirty Dancing: The Television Series.

But every now and then, a TV series comes along that, while generated by a movie, is even better than the film that spawned it. Sages of the video screen would probably explain that the motion picture format, while great a presenting you with a two-hour blast of excitement, can't really compete with the depth of character and plot that a continuing TV series can offer.

Others would simply say that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" sucked so bad, there's no way that the Buffy TV series -- and it's a wonderful show -- could've ever been any worse than the original.

This is my way of explaining that I'm neither feverish nor simply suffering from bad television judgment when I tell you that not only is there a TV series based on the execrable Kurt Russell-James Spader opus "Stargate," but that it's actually a blast to watch.

Let me put all my cards out on the table. I rented "Stargate" a few years ago, because it made a lot of money and apparently had built up quite a cult following. For the next two hours, I stared in horror at my TV screen, watching an inexplicable plot about Egyptian gods who are really aliens with powerful spaceships but still insist on using slave laborers -- because no slave labor is more evil than unnecessary slave labor.

Kurt Russell was bad, James Spader was worse, and Jaye Davison -- the guy who played the girl who was a guy in "The Crying Game" -- got to wear a funny Egyptian headdress.

By the way, the creative team behind "Stargate" went on to make "Godzilla." So there you go.

Fast-forward a few years, and Showtime announces that it's given a 50-episode commitment to a new series called Stargate: SG-1, based on this awful film. A 50-episode commitment is a bit rich -- that's two years worth of episodes -- but apparently it was enough to get MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson, to come on board as the character played by Russell in the movie.

Because Stargate: SG-1 originated on Showtime, it took a year or two for the series to make an appearance on free television. But now it's available in syndication on local TV stations all around the country. Since I'm one of those folks who refuses to pay extra for movie channels, it's only been recently that I've stumbled across this series. I gave it a try, and now I'm hooked.

Here's the concept: Us clever Earthlings have discovered an alien artifact we call the Stargate, a gateway to other planets. Or, in fact, we've rediscovered it -- the Stargate was used thousands of years ago to scatter humanity across thousands of worlds, a convenient explanation for why most of the shows guest "aliens" look like human beings. The prime users of the Stargate system, however, are the Goa'uld, a nasty bunch of parasitic creatures who take over humans as host bodies and rule most of known space.

The show follows a team of military specialists, called SG-1, as they use the Stargate to explore various worlds as well as gather information on how to protect Earth (and the rest of the galaxy) from the threat of the Goa'uld. The SG-1 team is led by Jack O'Neill (Anderson), who's got a harder edge than the weapon-free MacGyver had, but is far softer than the hard-as-nails military man played by Russell in the original film. Also on the team are Daniel Jackson (Michael G. Shanks, playing Spader's brainy-scientist guy part), Dr. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and alien strongman Teal'c (Christopher Judge). If you look close, you'll also recognize Don Davis as the team's boss, Gen. Hammond -- Davis previously played Scully's father on The X-Files and Major Briggs on Twin Peaks.

Credit the show's producers for showing some restraint. While there's a collection of recurring characters, the core of the show is only the four SG-1 team members. These days, most sci-fi shows -- in fact, most hour-long TV series in general -- feature a ridiculously large cast, full of poorly-defined characters who can be used interchangeably. In Stargate, each of the four characters is very clearly defined, has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and functions with the other team members as part of a well-coordinated group. Take note, TV series producers -- less is more.

But ultimately, the part of Stargate: SG-1 that has me hooked is its premise. That's because Stargate has managed to outdo Star Trek at its own game.

The original premise of Star Trek was very simple -- the show was about visiting strange new worlds and exploring them. But this is where the reality of televison production intrudes: If you spend a lot of money building sets of the spaceship your characters use to travel from planet to planet, you want to get your money's worth out of them. And so all the Star Trek series (and their knockoffs) end up spending the bulk of their time onboard their ships themselves, boldly sitting where we've been sitting since we finished our cup of coffee in the ship's mess that morning.

That's where Stargate is different: it doesn't have the crutch of a spaceship to lean on. Sure, the show does have one major set -- the military bunker in which the Stargate is kept -- but it's basically an anteroom. The big stuff happens on the other side of the Stargate, on the surface of strange, far-off planets, populated with weird cultures and unknown technologies, as well as a liberal dose of danger. As a result, it's harder for Stargate to get caught up in the navel-gazing rut that ship-bound sci-fi series fall into with ease.

Sure, the show has its Earthbound episodes and its overarching story arcs. But almost every week, the show's four cast members participate in a scene that gives me exactly what I'm looking for in a science-fiction TV show: the purity, the excitement, of exploring the unknown: The SG-1 team stands at the shimmering, opaque entrance to the Stargate, not knowing what danger-filled alien world awaits them on the other side... and then they all step through.

It sure beats spending an hour sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise, let me tell you.


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