Never let it be said that Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer isn’t willing to take a risk.
In 2001, Hammer gambled on the aging Stargate SG-1 after the show had hit a speed bump. The series, based on the 1994 feature film, was cancelled by Showtime after five seasons.
Syndicated but broadcast at odd hours, audience exposure to Stargatewas limited. A popular cast member, Michael Shanks (Dr. Daniel Jackson) had quit the series. And star and executive producer Richard Dean Anderson (Col. Jack O’Neill), anxious to devote more time to his young daughter and his environmental causes, sometimes uttered the dreaded “R” word in his interviews: “retirement.”
Around the same time, the network decided to revive Battlestar Galactica, a thinly veiled Star Wars derivative that aired in 1978. Cult fans wedded to the original seethed over Sci Fi’s proposed “re-imagining.” For months they bombarded the network’s own website bulletin boards with venomous comments.
Finally, an exasperated Edward James Olmos, cast as Commander Adama, came out swinging. Before more than 100 reporters at Sci Fi’s 2003 Television Critics Association presentation, he goaded the purists. As Hammer winced from the sidelines, Olmos told fans to avoid the remake.
“If you are a person who really has a strict belief in the original, I would not advise that you watch this program,” he said. “It will hurt.”
Quipped Hammer when she returned to the stage: “Kill me now.”
Perhaps it was all a Solaris-like dream, because “everything is forgiven.” Following a protracted viewer campaign to reinstate his character, matters were settled with Shanks and he returned to Stargate. Anderson mapped out a contract allowing him to work a reduced schedule.
Stargate SG-1 is thriving on Sci Fi Channel, part of Universal Television Networks and soon to be part of NBC Entertainment.
Lately, the series has been on a ratings upswing, breaking network records and helping in no small measure to propel the channel into cable’s top 10.
This summer, when the show launches its eighth season, it will be second only to The X-Files as the longest running science-fiction series in U.S. television history.
Battlestar Galactica soldiered on to become the most-watched 2003 cable miniseries and the third highest rated event in Sci Fi’s history (behind Taken and Dune). Sci Fi ordered a 13-episode scripted series which reunites the miniseries cast. Magnanimous in victory, executive producer Ron Moore even extended an olive branch to one of his most vociferous critics, Richard Hatch (Apollo in the original series) by offering him a meaty guest role. Hatch accepted.
And a lavish spinoff, Stargate Atlantis — co-created by Stargate SG-1 executive producers Brad Wright and Rob Cooper — will debut alongside Stargate SG-1 in July 2004.
Battlestar, Stargate SG-1, and Stargate Atlantis are the channel’s triumvirate of scripted series. Despite its maturity, special effects laden SG-1 (which still airs in syndication, with season six now queued for broadcast) is gaining momentum. And Atlantis, equally rich in production values, targets the younger viewer. Character-driven Battlestar aspires to be science fiction’s version of The West Wing or The Sopranos.
“I didn’t look at Stargate SG-1 as a risk, as much as a challenge,” said Hammer, who saw potential in the series. “What we needed to do for the channel, we saw in Stargate.”
Though the show does have a limited story arc, it isn’t serialized.
“We loved this about Stargate,” she said. “You can tune-in to episode 22 or 120 and get a great show. It allows the audience to drop in when they want.”
And while the series is true to the sci-fi genre, she added, it has crossover appeal.
“People who enjoy commercial television can tune in for the characterization, but it also kind of winks at the audience,” she said. “It’s fun and it isn’t offensive. The whole family can watch but it has enough space opera to keep [our core] sci-fi fans tuning in. It’s pure escapism at its best.”
The problem, in Hammer’s view, was that Stargate hadn’t found a proper home. She and her Sci Fi Channel team set out to nurture the series in a way it hadn’t been nurtured in the past.
“On Showtime, it was in the mix of a bunch of different kinds of programs,” she said. “It wasn’t embraced to the same degree by Showtime because it’s not a genre home.
“We put it on a night that we believed the fan base was there to watch it. For some reason, science fiction fans love Friday nights. We embraced it with the right on-air promotion, the right marketing, the right press. We embraced the creatives in Vancouver and we worked very closely with Hank [Cohen, president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Television].
“It’s not just a show for us. It belongs to us. It finally came to a place it could call a home.”
20% NIELSEN BUMP
SG-1 inhabits Sci Fi’s Friday 9 p.m. slot. The series recently concluded the latter half of its seventh season — its second on Sci Fi since leaving Showtime — with a 1.9 HH average, up almost 20% from the same period the year before.
The season finale leaped to 2.1, just shy of the 2.2 record set in January, when the show delivered more viewers than any episode of any original series on Sci Fi Channel.
“And then we gave the viewers a Monday night block,” said Hammer. “We figured this was a way to give the fans consistency. It was there in a reliable block where they could come to it at their leisure. “
This popular stack of reruns from Stargate seasons one through five is telecast every Monday night from 7 to 11 p.m. Even though these classics are now in their fourth round of continuous play, ratings continue to climb.
The Stack has delivered for the network since its launch in 2002. As of the first quarter of 2004, Sci Fi’s Monday numbers were up 114% over first-quarter 2002.
In the first quarter of 2004, the block averaged a 1.5 rating — its third consecutive quarterly uptick.
The highest rated hour, the 8 p.m. telecast, averages a 1.6 rating.
Sometimes single episodes score between a 1.7 and 1.9, rivaling the numbers achieved by the first-run Friday originals.
In October 2003, Sci Fi introduced a Monday-Friday 6 p.m. telecast of reruns from the first through fifth season of Stargate.
Ratings jumped 100% in the time slot, first-quarter 2004 versus a year ago.
Stargate SG-1 alone now comprises 22% of the network’s primetime (8-11 p.m.) schedule
With SG-1 shooting just 20 feet away, executive producer Michael Greenburg relaxed in the low light of the set as Christopher Judge (Teal’c) filmed a scene, and reflected on the staying power of Stargate.
Greenburg — the 17-year business partner of Richard Dean Anderson, stretching back to their days on ABC’s MacGyver (1985-1992) — has worked on SG-1 since its inception. He isn’t surprised by the recent ratings surge.
“Rick [Anderson] and I are kind of used to that. MacGyver did the same thing. MacGyver just grew and grew.
“We were in the teens and went off the air with something like a 23. Rick is a slow build. He’s not flashy, but he’s such a strong, constant presence on the screen, someone you can count on to deliver the performance, the beats. He does comedy, drama, action. He has a huge range.”
Greenburg spreads the credit for SG-1’s longevity among a complicated mix of the right network, serendipitous casting, consistent delivery of exceptional production values, and a unique concept.
“First, the success of the series depends on the franchise,” he said. “Stargate has a great branded name. And the icon — the stargate — is quite a prop.
“The fact that we’re able to go anywhere in any galaxy [through a wormhole created by the gate] opens up to any type of storytelling, as evidenced by the 150 episodes we’ve done.”
The setting is contemporary. Greenburg says the elements are “relatable and human-scale.” There aren’t many aliens; distant planets are seeded with humans placed there centuries before by an evil advanced race.
The principal characters, a team of four who set out through the gate to defeat the bad guys, are lot like that brainy, polite but mysterious next-door neighbor — the one who’s single and gone a lot and never talks about what he does. They face galactic size problems but have complicated love lives.
“We can tell the same stories that everyone else is telling — like CSI or The Practice,” Greenburg said, “It’s a high quality action-adventure series with stories that mean something.”
Greenburg and company say high production values also keep viewers tuned in. He points to the visual effects, created by Michelle Comens, which he said are “on par with any feature.”
“We know we’re fortunate to have a great production staff. We have talented directors, strong writers. I look at the Star Trek franchise. And I think our franchise is every bit as good.”
Paul Brown, president of Legends Memorabilia, agreed. Brown has been in the memorabilia business for nearly 30 years, and auctions product on behalf of major studios like MGM and Revolution. Legends is the only vendor authorized to sell SG-1 props, costumes, and studio art worldwide.
“Most [television] memorabilia has a life-expectancy [in terms of salability] of about two years following the end of production,” Brown said, noting demand for Stargate product has always been very high. “It has never dropped off and continues to increase in popularity. I believe the Stargate franchise is going to become legendary, not dissimilar from what we see today with Star Trek.”
Talk to almost any devoted Stargate fan and they reveal a Trek-like obsession with the original cast. Greenburg agrees that SG-1 has arguably the most unsung cast on television. The magic was immediately apparent.
“Our cast is made up of four very unique actors. Yet, when they come together they have tremendous chemistry,” said Greenburg “I can tell you when the [supporting cast] were auditioning — Michael [Shanks], Amanda [Tapping], and Chris [Judge] — they just popped out. They made the casting situation very easy. It was very obvious, as obvious and as serendipitous as I’ve ever had in a casting involvement.”
A veteran of both network and cable series, Greenburg joins a long list of creatives who migrated to cable after becoming disenchanted with the big networks. “Rick and I created Legend [a series which aired in 1995] with Michael Pillar. We thought we delivered an extremely original and unique show. But we got caught in all sorts of political/executive office suite changes at UPN and we only did thirteen hours.”
Greenburg said they’ve been treated far differently by their cable broadcasters. “Now, [Rick and I] have a lot of leeway. There’s not a lot of meddling by Sci Fi. They pretty much let you do your thing, unlike being in the hot seat on a network series where you have all the executives breathing down your neck and trying to mold your show. We started this thing with a 44-episode commitment [from Showtime]. This enabled us to make some interesting creative choices. We weren’t afraid to push the envelope…because we never had the fear of being cancelled…Rick and I knew we could tell pretty much whatever stories we wanted to tell.”
Sci Fi doesn’t back-seat-drive their creatives. “Our notes are broad,” Hammer said. “We don’t rewrite pages. I know some [micromanaging] executives who are less secure than Mark [Stern, Sci Fi’s senior vice president of original programming]. If you’re going as far as to rewrite dialogue, that’s a huge insult to the creatives. If you have to do that, you’ve hired the wrong people in the first place.”
BEYOND SEASON 8?
SG-1’s ratings momentum begs the obvious question: Is season eight, rumored to be the last, truly the end of the line?
“I don’t! I don’t think it will be. “Greenburg asserted, “If the demand is there, I think the show will be there. I think it can continue. Sci Fi’s a fairly new network. We’re the highest rated show they’ve ever had. We’ve broken their records. It just feels like it’s too early to go away.”
Can Atlantis and SG-1 really co-exist in parallel universes? “Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if Rick would continue. But who knows? You never know until the offer’s on the table. But I think the franchise now is becoming bigger than the people.”
Even Hammer leaves the door ajar. “Never say never. We love it, we embrace it…it’s such an amazing franchise. I couldn’t honestly say to you: now it’s season eight and it’s over. It just might not be.”
SG-1 now costs about $1.7M an episode. As series age and costs escalate, contract negotiations inevitably get tougher.
Asked if he can weather another negotiation season (insiders say an unusually robust game of brinksmanship played out last year between the supporting cast and the powers that be), Greenburg is the sanguine veteran who’s been there, done that.
“There’s a lot of bravado and a lot of hemming and hawing and white knuckling,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for three decades. I just roll with the punches now. As long as there’s a name on a parking spot that resembles mine I’ll pull into it and show up for work.”
“SG-1 has a great block of loyal viewers,” said Hammer, “We thought: why not try a spin-off with a fresh twist, using the same wonderful creators – Brad and Rob – written in the same voice but bringing in a little younger cast for a younger audience” And, she added, “the Atlantis team is led by a woman, which I really like. For us, it was a no brainer.”
Brad Wright was the executive producer and show runner for the first five seasons of SG-1. (For the first three years, he shared those responsibilities with Jonathan Glassner, currently with CSI: Miami.)
Now the Atlantis show-runner, Wright hit the ground when Sci Fi gave the green light in late November, with a delivery date of July 2004. “We were whipping people together, getting to agents during the holidays” Wright said, from a leather sofa in his corner office overlooking Bridge Studios. “We were shooting four days before all the cast was in place. Bridget [McGuire] was designing the set as we were writing the pilot. There was no script.”
Principal photography began Feb. 23, three months after Sci Fi’s go-ahead. Ultimately, the sumptuous two-hour pilot soaked up 20 shooting days and cost in excess of $5 million. Single episodes will average $1.5 million.
“MGM gave us plenty of money to do the job right, and it’s all there on the screen,” said Wright.
The series is set in the Pegasus Galaxy, far from earth. The premise is a departure from the military-based SG-1.
“SG-1 is circumscribed by its relationship with the Air Force,” said Wright. “The Atlantis team is led by a civilian,” so the issues faced by this team will be more complex and sociopolitical in emphasis, he said.
Atlantis is an ancient, underwater city abandoned by its creators, left pristine and untouched for 10,000 years. An exploratory team from Earth drops in to investigate.
“We discover a whole new villain right away called The Wraith. They are just as bad, if not worse, than the Goa’uld,” Wright explained. (The Goa’uld are SG-1’s bad guys, living mythological characters with god-like pretensions and a Trump-size craving to be worshipped.)
The Wraith are a cooler adversary, an advanced race indifferent to the affairs of humans. They awaken from their technological hibernation every 200 years to feed; humans are merely a convenient food source, a herd to be culled.
BATTLING THE WRAITH
For Wright, the concept allows him to study how societies organize themselves in response to Wraith domination.
“We don’t see them [the Wraith] that often. But they are the rationale for why the Pegasus Galaxy is the way it is. Instead, we meet the cultures who are impacted by them.”
Some societies respond by digging in, he said, rebuilding repeatedly after each successive culling. Others, he says, become tribal and nomadic, constantly on the move in hopes of avoiding the terrible enemy.
In an episode titled “Underground,” Wright revealed, “we will meet a culture that will become a nemesis. They’re human and they have a plan to fight the Wraith. And they’re furious because we woke up the Wraith.”
The Wraith harvest life energy and the taste of defiance is their ambrosia. And Wright hints ominously, “the Wraith soon discover that there’s a whole new feeding ground to be exploited in another galaxy.”
The launch of the Atlantis pilot is a testament to the SG-1 crew (production personnel overlap) and the well-oiled teamwork that comes from years of working together. Hammer affectionately calls them “The Machine” and she says they’ve become “more passionate about their work, not less.”
Adding to the complexity of the job for The Machine was Wright’s mandate: “We have do a city here. It has to go forever.
“On SG-1, the stargate is fixed. We can’t turn that giant set into anything else. On Atlantis, I wanted to turn this gigantic space into anything. So Bridget [McGuire, the production designer] took that concept and built it into the design — theoretically, it’s a city that can go on forever. “
McGuire is part of The Machine. She’s worked on the production since the first Stargate pilot was filmed eight years ago. Remarkably soft-spoken and self-effacing, McGuire only admitted after some prodding that Atlantis was an “ambitious undertaking. It’s not unusual for a feature to have this scale but usually you have a much longer timeline.”
McGuire logged many 80-hour weeks. “It was flat out,” she said. “The floor plan and general approach were done in two weeks because we had to get things costed. Construction and design happened concurrently. We had a huge crew — 200-plus people working to get the setup. They had to have the information.”
SETS: DOWN TO WIRE
In addition to the formidable main set, McGuire and the crew were designing and building an ice cave set, an alien lair, the puddle-jumper space ship (both exterior and interior), and a tent village out on location.
Wright says the main set was finished “the morning on the first day of shooting. Literally, the crew worked through the night starting in late November, stopping at Christmas to put in the green beds [the catwalks] and then worked on 24 hours shifts all the way through. It was intense.”
The result is a multitiered main set, embellished with faux-stained glass and geometric forms. Metal staircases are lined with backlit, pierced-in hieroglyphics.
McGuire’s inspiration was Frank Lloyd Wright.
“It was a nice jumping-off place, because his architecture is so distinctive. His ideas didn’t grow out of a lot of other influences.”
Because Wright favored copper, the color palette throughout is based on variations of copper oxidizing, from bright reds to blue-green aged exterior copper.
The set is filled with windows giving the impression of outside spaces and streaming light.
In keeping with Wright’s mandate that the spaces be adaptable, the stargate is built over a trap. Sections of the floor lift out and the stargate folds down like a hide-a-bed. A center platform rolls away and a back wall is actually three different panels set on sliding tracks. The new stargate is wired with a state- of-the-art fiber optic system designed in-house by Paco Don.
Unlike the old system (which has a rotating ring on the inside), McGuire says the new gate is actually “a chase pattern of light. Each panel is made up of LEDs, each little point of light that joins the LEDs is the end of a fiber-optic cable and all that’s programmed into a computer to make it run.”
While the sets might have gone up in record time, Stargate’s reputation for high production values hasn’t suffered.
The show will play well on HDTV. From faux-stone tables to minty leather-like chairs, the workmanship is fastidious.
“When we started the original series, just about everyone came out of a feature background,” said McGuire. “With a feature you have to take the same care as high def. The people doing the work have those skills.”
How has The Machine managed to thrive for eight years? Wright says they’ve been “very good at problem-solving. There’s not a lot of ego as I’ve seen in other series. “The best idea wins and I think it shows. Most people’s reaction to Stargate when they see it for the first time is surprise. 'Hey, this is really good!’ We’re proud of our show.”
Bonnie Hammer may have been eviscerated by fans when the channel decided to update Battlestar Galactica but she was firm in her convictions.
“We’re willing to experiment,” she said. “That’s the fun of the game. Take the risk. Try something different. If you’re going to fail, fail forward.”
Nevertheless, Hammer has her line in the sand. “We will not move forward with a series that can’t be done properly. We will not allow a series on the air that looks like a two-bit production. We almost didn’t greenlight [scripted series] Battlestar because we didn’t know if we could afford to do it right. In the eleventh hour, we partnered with Sky One which allowed us to greenlight the series knowing it would be done up to expectation, at the same level of quality as the mini-series.”
Executive producers Ron Moore and David Eick, who produced the mini, have signed on with the new series.
Moore, armed with a degree in political science from Cornell University, began his career as a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He subsequently produced and/or executive produced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Roswell and Carnivale.
THE 'SPACE OPERA’
Most of Moore’s projects, including Battlestar — about a ragtag band of humans who set out to look for another home after their own planetary system is destroyed — fall under the rubric of space opera.
It’s a subgenre that took its cue from the original Star Trek. Little has changed in the interim.
“It’s a group of characters, they sit on the bridge, they fall out of their chairs, they look at a big view screen,” Moore, as if reading from an indictment.
“The show is usually shot in a very presentational way. The bridge is a big proscenium. Hallways are usually carpeted. It’s an antiseptic view of the future.
“If you watch TNG, DS9 and Voyager, Enterprise, Andromeda, and Farscape — although Farscape pushes the envelope more than the others, by and large they’re all shot and edited in the same way. It’s master closeup, two shot. The editing is predictable.
“Everything has been scored in a big, sweeping orchestral score. A lot of the production design goes out of its way to say 'Hey, it’s in space! It’s wacky! That’s what a lamp looks like in space!’
“I find the space hair and space lamps a bit distracting. I think it distances the audience from the drama.”
Moore isn’t disillusioned with the space opera, but he believes the genre needs some serious refurbishing.
So, in spite of its questionable pedigree — the original Battlestar was campy and blatantly derivative, intent on exploiting the Star Wars mania of the late ’70s — Moore hopes to reinvent the space opera.
“They dress like us, their furniture looks like our furniture. They act like human beings, they have the same flaws, wants, and desires as recognizable 21st-century human beings. Let the audience put themselves in the drama. This isn’t another wacky other alien race. This is us. This is what would happen if we went through this tragedy.”
Battlestar will be primarily character-driven. Moore has thought long and hard about motivation, and has mapped out rich back stories for his characters, extending deep into childhood. “We’re creating complicated characters who are not just techno-talking their way out of situations.”
Hammer believes that Battlestar is “of the quality, the ilk, and the commitment of any of the winning HBO series.” Hammer declined to talk specifics but she said the show is the channel’s “most expensive weekly series” to date.
Moore admitted that the figure per episode was “above” Stargate SG-1’s $1.7 million — yet another risk for Hammer’s Sci Fi.