How Stargate inspired a cult following

The science fiction classic is 20 years old. Lisa Granshaw reports on the franchise's growth and fanbase, and the buzz--and mixed feelings--surrounding its forthcoming big-screen reboot.

By Lisa Granshaw at 8:36 am Fri, Aug 29, 2014

After Stargate hit movie theaters in October 1994, it inspired books, comics, games, and three TV spin-offs: Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe. Transmuting Chariots of the Gods-esque cosmic mystery into a modern blockbuster, its recasting of Egyptian myth as a science-fiction epic evolved into a sprawling space opera built around the titular stargates, which offer the lure of instant travel between two points in space.

Between the upcoming 20th anniversary and the announcement of a reboot movie trilogy, it's Stargate's year. Why does such its peculiar blend of influences capture our imagination?

It comes down to how it rewires legend into a world that, for all its futuristic trappings, connects closely to our everyday reality.

“The show’s creators were sticklers for the detail—something that’s clear in the fact they hired a science consultant for the series,” said Dr. Angela Ndalianis, a professor of screen studies at Melbourne University. " ... it rewrites the human understanding of these as myths and legends into a new reality that has scientific credence, albeit one that rationalizes the myths by saying they’re influenced by alien cultures.”

These qualities helped Stargate grow from a single film into a larger media franchise that has a dedicated fanbase to this day. In fact SG-1—which still holds the record for longest consecutive running sci-fi TV series in North America—is often considered a cult hit along with classics like Firefly and Farscape.

There’s more than one reason why Stargate succeeded in keeping and growing a loyal following. Actor David Hewlett who portrayed Dr. Rodney McKay in the TV series believes one of them is timing. The Internet was growing around the time of SG-1, giving fans a way to share their passion and spread the word.

“[Fans] are early adopters of technology and embrace a lot of the new stuff out there,” he said. “They are scientists or amateur scientists or people who are explorers and basically love this stuff. That’s why they like the show. So I think the popularity of the Internet at the same time as the show made a big part of this sort of groundswell of support for Stargate.”

Hewlett also thinks the characters resonate with fans, as does actress Amanda Tapping who portrayed Colonel Samantha Carter on the shows.

“A great comradery was in the cast and that translated to the characters. There was a great sense of joy on that show. We had so much fun making Stargate and I think that it translates in little nuances that make it human and accessible. They are fallible but dedicated characters…” Tapping said. “That made it accessible to people. It told good stories with a moral center and had people who genuinely cared about each other and that made it easy for the audience to care about them.”

To Dr. Ndalianis, characters the audience could grow to love and hate along with imaginative stories especially led to its successful cult following.

“As each series developed and as the franchise grew it managed to create the successful world-building strategy that’s so central to many cult franchises today. The balance between seriousness and humor was also integral to the Stargate magic and, perhaps, the absence of humor was one of the reasons behind the demise of Stargate Universe. This show tried too much to ‘do a Battlestar Galactica’ and abandoned one of the core features that made the show so loved,” she said.

Stargate ’s TV reign may have ended with Universe in 2011, but the franchise continues to have an influence. Dr. Ndalianis believes that in a sense it influenced the genre “through the way it generated successful spinoffs that themselves are examples of the sci-fi genre.”

However Hewlett believes it has a huge impact on people’s lives more than on the genre in general. A programmer once told Hewlett that his character inspired them to get into programming and in his interactions with fans he hears more examples of the shows’ direct effect on people and how it’s helped them.

“When a kid says ‘I’m in astrophysics at school because of your character’ that’s amazing to me. That’s very inspiring, that someone’s interested in science now that wasn’t before,” he said.

News that Stargate will be returning as a movie trilogy has received some mixed responses but there’s no denying it will breath new life into the franchise.

“It’s a clever marketing ploy that, if successful, will introduce a new generation of viewers to the Stargate world. But can there ever be another Jack O’Neill/Richard Dean Anderson?” Dr. Ndalianis said.

Hewlett and Tapping are looking forward to the films. Tapping thinks the TV series and the power of the fandom will help the new movies. She said the culture of sci-fi has changed in terms of fandom to include a larger demographic and the positive power of geek culture, which studios are watching.

“Since the original came out in ’94 20 years ago the culture has changed, so I imagine it’ll do really well. It speaks to the culture of sci-fi fandom, how it’s grown, how the demo has grown, and it’s huge,” she said.

The reboot certainly means that Stargate will continue to live on in the decades to come.

“It’s a testament to the wonderful iconic concept of the stargate,” Hewlett said. “It’s such an amazing image and conjures up feelings of wonder and excitement that you can see why you want to keep using it.”

Illustration: Todd Slater (prints)

Published 8:36 am Fri, Aug 29, 2014

About the Author

Lisa Granshaw is a freelance writer. Lover of pop culture, TV, animals, fashion, & too many video games. You can follow her on Twitter.

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