Anatomy of a hit: 'Stargate SG-1'

How did the 10-year-old show transcend the space-time continuum?

Its premise is based on an only moderately successful sci-fi feature. It has endured the loss of its lead actor and changes in time slots and channels, yet it still draws 2.2 million viewers each week. Perhaps it was simply in the stars for "Stargate SG-1" to become the longest-running sci-fi show on U.S. television to date, with its 200th episode airing tonight on the Sci Fi Channel.

The show has defied multiple attempts to kill it off and spawned an even higher-rated spinoff in "Stargate Atlantis" in 2004. Yet, the question of whether it's time to end the show's run pops up each season.

"I've been here for five years, and almost every year we've had the debate, 'Is this the last year?'" Sci Fi Channel executive vp and general manager David Howe says. "And every year, we say 'No, one more season, but next year is definitely the last.' We thought we'd pass the baton to 'Atlantis,' but all we've done is double money and our audience.'"

Sometimes, there's no explaining the rules of attraction. When "Stargate," the feature film starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, opened in theaters in October 1994, at least one audience member saw the possibility of mining the intergalactic battle between mortals and Ra-worshipping aliens for TV thrills.

"I recognized immediately that there was a terrific series there, simply because there's a gate that can get you to other planets," remembers "Atlantis" co-creator and "SG-1" executive producer and writer Brad Wright, then a co-executive producer and writer on the syndicated "The Outer Limits." One other person agreed: Wright's fellow "Limits" executive producer Jonathan Glassner. That summer, Wright and Glassner pitched the idea separately to MGM Worldwide Television Group president John Symes (who has since left MGM), who made them a team. ("Stargate" filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had chosen to focus on developing 1996's "Independence Day.")

"Our feeling was that if you had the capability of stepping through to another planet, the first thing you'd do is create an early NASA-like organization of small teams who go off and explore," Wright says. "And Jonathan had a notion that Ra was not the last of its kind, so you could have any number of ancient gods."

Showtime gave Wright and Glassner a two-season commitment, and in February 1996, they were on a soundstage in Vancouver filming the two-hour, $6 million pilot of "SG-1." Richard Dean Anderson ("MacGyver") agreed to play then-Col. Jack O'Neill, the part originated by Russell, with Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge joining on as his alien-battling colleagues. "Dick was the only person we went to for the lead," Wright says. "In the series, O'Neill has hope and is funny. Dick can't not be funny."

Anderson's humor served him well during the show's first season, which even Wright and executive producer Robert Cooper, who came onboard as a writer, admit got off to a shaky start. There were rocky story lines, and there was cringe-worthy dialogue. And there was a creative argument with Showtime.

Wright still bristles at remembering how the channel wanted full-frontal nudity. "People said, 'It's Showtime sci-fi -- that's what fans want,'" he says. "We got lambasted by the critics for it. Here was this fun 'Star Wars'-like show with flashes of naked women."

Showtime's two-year commitment and a solid business plan that spun the show into syndication after a year (thus creating two revenue streams) meant the cast and crew had a chance to develop space legs. And MGM realized the genre's potential for the company, according to MGM Inc. executive vp Charlie Cohen: "Early on, 'Stargate' helped to cement MGM as a leading supplier of science-fiction content."

With the show thriving by Season 3, Glassner made his exit. "Jonathan had been clear he was going back to L.A., so I'd sneak into his office at night and decide how I was going to rearrange his furniture," jokes Cooper, who was made executive producer by Season 5.

But the following year, Showtime decided not to renew the series. Explains Cohen: "Showtime decided they wanted fresh programming despite the fact that 'Stargate' was popular and performing well. We were determined to find it a new home."

Nevertheless, Wright and Cooper prepared for the show's demise. "I said to MGM, 'Let's have a spinoff show ready to launch, which would fall on the heels of a feature film,'" Wright says.

Enter Sci Fi Channel, a natural fit for the series (no full-frontal nudity required). "The show hits squarely with our fan base," executive vp original programming Mark Stern says.

MGM and Sci Fi loved the spinoff idea but weren't willing to end "SG-1," which was garnering more than 2 million viewers during its Friday-night time slot. Instead, the movie idea was rewritten as the finale of Season 6, and "Stargate Atlantis" launched in 2004 as its own show. In order to keep costs down -- two-thirds of "SG-1's" $2.2 million-per-episode budget is covered by MGM, with the remainder picked up by Sci Fi -- "Atlantis" and "SG-1" share soundstages and production crew.

"Atlantis" was a hit out of the gate with 2.9 million viewers, and for the next few seasons, Wright and Cooper prepared for the end of the mothership. But the series has been renewed and has even survived the departure of Anderson, who left in Season 9 (he returned for several episodes this year).

"I was concerned when Anderson left," Cohen says. While Cooper and Wright had retooled the show to introduce new characters, "I just wasn't sure how it would come together. The fans would tune in, but would they stay?"

So far, they have, which Cooper finds bemusing. "It's been an odd kind of situation because in some ways, our own attempts to end the show have been defeated by our own success," he says.

For Tapping, the show's longevity is a double-edged sword. "How can you look a gift horse in the mouth?" she asks, adding, "Someday, I'd love to play a character who wore Manolo Blahniks instead of army boots."

Sci Fi has committed to air "SG-1" though March 2007, and MGM has no plans to put it out to pasture. "We're not going to allow the show to end if we can help it," Cohen says. "When a show gets to Season 5, that means you're making money, so you can only imagine what it means by Season 10."

The show has also given its production company unexpected cachet. "It also helps us get in the doors to sell other products," Cohen says. "It's such a big franchise -- when people know you've got 'SG-1,' they say, 'Let's talk.'"

To that end, a live-player online game is in the works (see related story at right), and Cohen is counting on Wright and Cooper to create another spinoff to air alongside "SG-1" and "Atlantis." "Brad and Robert are young -- they don't need a break," Cohen laughs. "They can go another 10 years, at least."

Wright, for one, is happy to give it a shot. Only half-kidding, he says, "I'm still hoping that one day, we really break out of the box."
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