At Sci Fi Channel last week, the cycle went like this: cancel Stargate Atlantis on Wednesday, suffer the slings and arrows of outraged loyal fans for a day — and then announce Friday the creation of a brand new Stargate Universe next year.
“It's kind of hard to cancel one, but it's good news to announce a new one,” Dave Howe, the network's president, said on Friday.
For producer MGM Domestic Television and NBC Universal-owned Sci Fi, the Stargate franchise is big business, one that has now expanded beyond one-hour series to also include two-hour movie “events.”
Atlantis, now five episodes into its fifth 20-episode season, will wrap next January but be followed by a two-hour movie Sci Fi said last week it has green-lighted for 2009.
There could be more Atlantis movies after that, as MGM has produced two so far extending the original Stargate SG-1 franchise after it ended a 10-year run of new episodes on cable (lastly on Sci Fi) in 2007.
“I think these things lend themselves to a bigger, kind of high-production-value, two hour event, which is great,” Howe said of Atlantis.
When the network canceled Stargate SG-1, fans reacted sharply, but Sci Fi had already put the spinoff Atlantis on the schedule.
This time, the network not only had the promise of continued life for the show in the form of at least one followup movie — it also said it will have a replacement show from the same creators (Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper) on the schedule next year. Stargate Universe will start with a two-hour movie early next year. Over the summer it will join the weekly schedule, with 18 more one-hour episodes to follow the movie.
Those moves may have muted the fans' reaction to the cancelation — but not completely. One barometer: an online petition to save the show had close to 1,000 signatures the morning after the cancellation news broke at night. By 1 p.m. Friday it had 3,774 names.
“There's no sign of a letup in my e-mail inbox, I can tell you,” Howe said in a telephone interview from England Friday. “I've had to get on with IT because it is so clogged up with e-mails to 'Save Atlantis.'
“There's obviously a passionate audience for Atlantis and the characters of Atlantis,” Howe said. “And yes, they're absolutely going to continue in the movie franchise. But people need to mourn for a while and come to terms with it. I don't anticipate that that will subside quickly. But once Universe is on air and they have kind of their next fix of the Stargate franchise, I think hopefully people will realize that it's in safe hands at Sci Fi, that we really value this franchise and it's in our interest and the fans' interest to let us continue the story and figure out how to retell it for a new audience every few years.”
“I think there's a natural life to each of the chapters of the story,” Howe said of the series that fed off the 1994 movie with Kurt Russell and James Spader and launched on Showtime with a name star, Richard Dean Anderson.
“What we endeavor to do each time is to introduce the franchise to a new audience, make it a bit more contemporary, more relatable,” he said. The ambition with Universe is to skew it younger than the previous two chapters and fill it with a fresh-faced cast; and a storytelling that is more for the late 2000s than it is for the 1990s.”
Sci Fi shows such as Eureka and Ghost Hunters have surpassed the Stargate series in viewer numbers, but hit Battlestar Galactica has proven there's significant life in the “space-opera” genre. Battlestar is in its fourth and last season on Sci Fi. A “prequel” to it, called Caprica, could join the schedule as a new series, but for now is only scheduled as a two-hour movie.
“What's unique about this [Stargate] chapter is it's going to be set entirely in space,” Howe said. SG-1 was based on Earth, and Atlantis was set on a base in another galaxy. Universe will be based on a ship called the Destiny.
“That's also an opportunity for us because as Battlestar Galactica reaches a conclusion, it's nice for us to have within the mix of programming a space opera that serves the audience that's really into space operas,” he said.
The myth of the series concerns a device that transports present-day people to different planets or galaxies. The new series also will be set in the present day, as humans discover a space vessel designed to travel between galaxies where the stargate portals have been placed. And then the crew members aboard the Destiny learn they can't return to Earth.
Joseph Mallozzi, one of two show runners on Atlantis, noted in his blog last Friday that rising production costs and a steep climb in the Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar were among the factors that stacked the odds against a renewal. Multichannel News reported in 2006 that the original series, SG-1, cost at least $2 million per episode in U.S. dollars its final year.
Atlantis's ratings had declined from an average of more than 3 million for the very first 10 episodes, in 2004, to about 2.1 million viewers for the four episodes this season that also include seven-day recorded viewing. The current season, though, ratings were up versus the second half of season four.
Howe said the plan is to produce Universe in Vancouver — “the good news is the greenback is bouncing back” — and said it would have high production values, which he said the fans expect.
Mallozzi said on his blog the 100th and final Atlantis episode, contrary to some online speculation, would not end with a cliffhanger.
“Regardless of whether we got the pick-up or not, we had always planned a clean conclusion to our 100th episode, one that would hopefully leave fans satisfied yet eager for more,” he posted. “And that 'more' will come in the form of the Stargate Atlantis movie.”
Mallozzi and co executive producer Paul Mullie will write the movie, Sci Fi and MGM said. Mallozzi also said he expected the entire Atlantis cast to be in the movie, plus “a certain gaunt and pallid flowing-locked guest star,” apparently referring to former cast member Amanda Tapping.