Stargate: Origins, 2018

Stargate was the greatest science fiction franchise on TV that no one watched.  At least, it certainly felt that way sometimes.  Aside from a handful of friends in my core group, it seemed that the only people watching it were on the other side of the fledgling internet.  By the time social media became a thing, MGM went bankrupt, and Stargate was a casualty.  Further direct-to-video films to continue Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis were shelved, and Stargate: Universe was mercy-killed.  Talk of two more feature film sequels to the original 1994 adventure also ended.  Yet… the fanbase continued.

Almost a decade later, Stargate has decided to seed its future in the form of the Stargate Command streaming app.  In an effort to woo back the fans, and to say “thank you,” the app’s first original content is a webisode series called Stargate: Origins.  It’s ten episodes, about ten minutes each, put together with a young cast and a shoestring budget.  When the first three episodes were released for free, fan voices howled in protest over the perceptions of what was seen.  The production team came forward and promised us all: this is in canon.

Based on the incomplete episodes, admittedly, that’s a hard sell.  But such is the nature of storytelling.  Sometimes it’s easy to spot the holes, and sometimes the holes are just plot points to be fixed at the end.  In the case of Stargate: Origins, it’s mostly the latter, done in the only manner possible… which is a bit cheesy and convenient, but it is there.

Now that I’ve got that little point of worry out of the way, I can give this little webisode series its proper due.

This series begins with footage from the original film: Giza, 1928.  The stargate has been unearthed under the archaeological direction of Professor Langford.  His daughter, Catherine Langford, will go on to be instrumental in making the stargate a viable opportunity for the U. S. Air Force when she recruits Dr. Daniel Jackson to decode the inscriptions, allowing them to open the gate.  In SG-1, we learn that the gate was initially opened in 1945, and Catherine would believe her fiancé, Ernest Littlefield, was killed, though he secretly made it through the gate and was lost for 50 years.

But here, we go further back, re-establishing the beginning shots, then moving forward ten years to 1938.  Professor Langford’s project is running out of money and is being shut down despite having made no progress on deciphering the inscriptions.  Then a German officer, Wilhelm Brücke, arrives after hours with a handful of soldiers and a camerawoman.  Not only has he figured out the gate’s purpose and deciphered the symbols, his plan is go to the other side and find enough power, troops, and weapons to make himself a god in the image of those mythological beings from the gate’s ancient past.  Kidnapping the professor, Brücke and his small team step through the gate in mad pursuit of his would-be deification.

 

Catherine enlists her puppy-love interest, British officer James Beal, and his attaché Wasif, to go through the gate with her to rescue her father.  On the other side, Brücke tries to align himself with the Egyptian goddess Aset and her equally godly assassin Serqet while Catherine and her allies attempt to make friends with the local slave population.

With all of the reboots, remakes, and reimaginings out there, I’m understandably cautious — no, I’m skeptical as hell, that’s the more honest way to say it — about a return of Stargate, especially under these conditions.  Even so, in spite of not being “wowwed” by it, and in spite of my questioning of the canon, I decided to give Origins the full ten episodes.  I figured that in the end, that’s still far less time than I gave to Stargate: Universe before I walked on it.  SGU (and that little animated series Stargate: Infinity aside), Stargate is a franchise that has rarely let me down.  It was never as epic as Star Wars, it was never as optimistic as Star Trek, and it was never as fully-developed as Babylon 5.  But what at its core, Stargate was about the explorers of our own time, making a difference and standing up to ancient oppressors.  I’ve loved it from the beginning, even when it was just a film and then a handful of novels, before SG-1 was even a pipe dream.  I may have been skeptical of Origins, but I also know the creative teams behind Stargate would make a heartfelt attempt at whatever they pulled.

That’s what this little series has in abundance: heart.  It’s not going to plumb the depths of nostalgia, it’s not going to live up to promises of expectation, and it’s certainly not going to win any awards.  But it has heart.  I wanted so much to love this series based on that alone.  Heart is not enough.  Likable characters are not enough.  But… it doesn’t have to be either.  Origins is a proof of concept.  It’s purpose is to gauge fan response, to find out there are enough people willing to plunk down their hard-earned cash to make more and bigger productions, to keep the gate open for another generation.  Based on the reactions I’ve seen, that response is mixed to negative, mostly based on the first episode or two.  The heart is still there, for those willing to give the entire story a chance.

I have a number of negative criticisms, up to and including the lingering question of if Aset is also Isis, whose fate we know is to end up dead and decayed in a canopic jar.  Stargate’s mythology hasn’t always been its strong suit, and sometimes a god with multiple names becomes multiple characters (such as Hathor and Sekhmet).  So I wonder that here.  There’s a trend in moviemaking these days where the reboot or sequel has to line up all the nostalgic tones as though to say “We know we can’t live up, but remember how good it used to be?”  These are the kinds of gripes I had with The Force Awakens and Jurassic World.  I have the same kind of gripe here.  The argument is you have to remind audiences.  No, you don’t.  It’s the age of the internet and multimedia… and for those who don’t already have it all on hand, it’s all on the new app.  Those hours of footage are out there, and the loyal audiences this is trying to bring back into the fold have never forgotten.  Beyond that, the humor was a little flat and slapsticky, as opposed to the natural humor the franchise used to generate on a regular basis.  Here, it seemed forced.  If you call it out and make time for it, it’s not funny.  Not really.  And, as I mentioned, the ending was way too convenient, but then, it sort of had to be.  That’s the downside to prequels, as much as I love the idea of prequels.  I’m one of those that appreciates the attempts when they’re done well.  And an old friend, Kasuf, here portrayed as a young man, should probably be in his infancy at this time, if he’s born at all.  That doesn’t fit the timeline so much.  That’s another danger of trying to shoehorn in all the things when doing a reboot, even a soft one like this.

On the positive side, I didn’t hate what I saw.  I know, that sounds terrible, but these days that feels like a small victory.  I didn’t love it, but wasn’t turned off either.  I’ve seen a great many of my favorite stories and characters lately go forth with far bigger budgets and resources only to crash and burn away my love and interest.  Stargate: Origins… the jury’s out because I see what’s going on.  I accepted what it for what it was, and it really felt a bit like watching early Doctor Who episodes, where they try to tell a story far bigger than the money and resources they have to work with.  When you tone down the expectations and simply take it at face value (which I really hate doing because I’ve been spoiled by the best), the story still works on some level.  The idea is a great deal bigger, and that offers us an indication of perhaps where the franchise could go in the future.  Proof of concept is an offer of a promise.  The Powers That Be have heard the fans and were proud of us for sticking with them in the long absence with no new content.  They want to bring Stargate back to us, but they need our help to do it.  Whatever they have planned, it’s bigger than this.  This is for fun.  This is just to show that someone’s crewing the ship.   It’s not grandiose… not yet.  We’re still in the crowdfunding phase.

What does the future hold?  Hard to say, but there are some loose threads and a bold future with a giant question mark on it still waiting for answers.  If for some reason the promise doesn’t get fulfilled, well, the gate will be turned off and buried for a while longer, but I’m willing to trust.  I base that trust on the fact that, underfunded visuals and campiness aside, they didn’t muck this up.  The heart of Stargate still beats.  It’s a good start.  I, for one, am ready to step through the gate once more.

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