Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Stargate SG-1' - Season 1 (1997)

Starring Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks and Amanda Tapping
Developed by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner
See Also: Stargate reviews

A year after the events of the "Stargate" film, the alien transportation device remains inactive in a US Air Force base in Colorado. But one day it activates, and alien invaders step through. The invaders kill several of the guards standing watch over the stargate, and kidnap another. The man now in charge of the base, General George Hammond (Don S. Davis) brings Colonel Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) out of retirement in his search for answers.

O'Neill reveals that, despite his report to the contrary, he left Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) alive on the alien world Abydos a year earlier instead of having detonated a massive nuclear device that was supposed to wipe the planet clean of the threat to Earth. Now, searching for their kidnapped colleague, O'Neill leads a team back to Abydos. He's joined by Captain Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), one of the Air Force's most brilliant astrophysicists and a leading expert on the stargate technology.

On Abydos, Jackson reveals to O'Neill and Carter that Ra was not the only alien posing as an ancient Egyptian god. There are a whole race of beings known as Goa'uld, parasites who take human hosts and subjugate worlds across the entire galaxy.

Not long after their arrival on Abydos and reunion with Jackson, the Goa'uld's alien warriors, known as Jaffa, arrive once more. This time, they kidnap Jackson's wife Sha're (Vaitiare Bandera) and her brother Skaara (Alexis Cruz). Jackson begs to join O'Neill in the search, and Hammond allows the team to follow the aliens back to their homeworld. There, they encounter a Jaffa named Teal'c (Christopher Judge) who believes that the Goa'uld are, in fact, not gods as they claim. Teal'c helps O'Neill and the others escape, but they are unable to recover Sha're and Skaara.

Under the leadership of Hammond, a number of teams are created with the purpose of traveling through the stargate to explore alien worlds, find alien technology and allies to help defend Earth against the Goa'uld. O'Neill, Jackson, Carter and Teal'c are the front line team, SG-1, defending our world in secret from certain doom.

"Stargate SG-1" picks up a year after the movie that spawned it, making a few changes to open the world up for a weekly TV series. Over the course of 22 episodes, SG-1 travels to a variety of alien planets and encounters other civilizations of humans mostly based on our own cultures, who have been enslaved by Goa'uld posing as gods. It's a bit of a complicated setup, but it actually allows the series a great deal of freedom and variety.

Unfortunately, the limitations of a TV budget often constrain that variety. Many of the worlds SG-1 visits look suspiciously like forests not far from Vancouver, Canada. Many, many worlds. In later seasons, this would become something of an in-joke on the show, but in this initial batch of episodes, it's one of the things that hinders the proceedings. There's a cheapness to some episodes that really hurt them - costumes and props are sometimes laughably bad, though the show's special effects are generally rather impressive.

The first season of "SG-1" suffers from a lot of problems many freshman shows have. The actors aren't quite settled yet, nor have the writers quite found their groove. There are a number of real stinkers in this season, including "Emancipation," a low-point for the season that's only the series' third episode. But for every episode worth skipping, there's one that's either quite good or shows the series potential.

The show explores its world and mythology rather quickly. "The Torment of Tantalus" hints at other advanced alien races who abandoned the galaxy long ago. "Bloodlines" introduces Teal'c's family, who will become recurring characters throughout the show's long run.

Mixed in with the mythology are some decent character pieces. "Cold Lazarus" isn't the season's strongest episode, but it does deal with O'Neill's grief over the death of his son. "Solitudes" is a good episode that hints at a deeper relationship for O'Neill and Carter. Both "Bloodlines" and "Cor-Ai" explore Teal'c's motivations for betraying the Goa'uld Apophis (Peter Williams).

Things end on a high note with one of my favorite sci-fi tropes - the dark alternate universe. In a three-episode finale arc, Jackson is transported to a universe where the Goa'uld have attacked Earth, decimating its cities. When he makes it back to his own world, he and SG-1 find that Stargate Command has been shut down, and they must defy orders to save Earth from an impending attack. There's a fine sense of urgency to these episodes that helps, and even the clip episode "Politics" sandwiched in there continues the plot forward rather than feeling like a stall.

The series is lighter than the film, but really only because it more openly acknowledges its comedic bent. Richard Dean Anderson plays O'Neill more sarcastically. O'Neill will often openly mock the series' villains, which is truly entertaining. Michael Shanks does a fine impression of James Spader for a while, but doesn't really come into his own in the role.

Amanda Tapping has the benefit of creating the Carter character from scratch, but the show stumbles with its heavy-handed gender equality episode. It did a better job in the first two episodes by simply presenting Carter as a woman who is a capable warrior and scientist. But then "Emancipation" comes along and, oh, look, we're on patriarchy world and Carter has to prove she's not property.

Christopher Judge is physically imposing as the Jaffa Teal'c, but he's not really that great an actor. He does have very nice comedic timing, though. While his emotional scenes can come off as hollow, some of Teal'c's fish-out-of-water lines of dialogue are absolute howlers.

The first season introduces a host of other characters who will recur, including Teal'c's son Rya'c (Neil Denis), his mentor Bra'tac (Tony Amendola), the villain Apophis, Senator Kinsey (Ronny Cox), and members of the alien race the Nox.

As a first season goes, this one is pretty average. It has its ups and downs, but it does a good job building the world of the series, and it ends with a bang.

Stargate SG-1 - Season 1 streams on Amazon Prime.