April 25, 2011

What Stargate's "Demise" Can Teach Us About Life (and Storytelling)

If you know me, you know I am a big fan of Stargate Universe. This is obvious if you follow my tweets (I'm @whisperingloon on Twitter) or if you listen to my podcast (The Fanboy Tollbooth), especially the most recent episode and it's "The Adventures of Ben and Lou, Lou Bitterman" segments, which features a sci-fi fanboy dealing with Lost withdrawal and finding comfort in a Lost replacement show: Stargate Universe.

Spoiler alert for "Ben and Lou": Stargate Universe was canceled.

Which is what this blog post is about. No, not Lou. Stargate Universe. And the universe of Stargate.

Here's the deal, for those who are unfamiliar with Stargate. I'm going to avoid arcane details for people who could care less about the Stargate franchise, because this blog post is both about Stargate (which is really only for geeks -- which I am) and the art of storytelling and how it relates to life (which is really only for humans -- which I am as well).

But you do need some background. There have been three Stargate series (although I count them as four because I'm a geek). Series 1 is Stargate SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons. To me, the last two seasons were a new series because it featured two new cast members in lead positions and had a completely different story arc going. Meanwhile, during the last few seasons of Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis was also on the air. It ran for five seasons. Finally, after an abrupt cancelation of Stargate: Atlantis, a third Stargate series, Stargate: Universe, was launched.

So what happened? Well, much has been written about how Stargate died and how it didn't pull in the numbers and all of that, and how science fiction fans are not watching television live, when advertising matters, but instead are watching online or recording it to watch later, when they can skip advertising. Much more will be written about the issue in more general terms, because while science fiction is ahead of the curve in these matters, all of Hollywood, from movie makers to television creators, are trying to figure this out. And they are a lot smarter than me, so I'm not going to figure this out.

Okay, they're a lot richer than me anyway.

No, I'm looking at this with an eye toward storytelling and connecting with your audience. Again, without getting into the arcane details, here's what happened with the different Stargate series:

 Almost the entire "main" cast from the ten seasons of Stagate

Stargate: SG-1 always seemed to be ready to be canceled, to me anyway. So the show was very episodic, with self-contained stories, but as they went they started doing some longer story arcs that resolved themselves at the end of the season, when they thought they'd be canceled. Now, I don't know if that is true, because I only started really watching Stargate last summer. This is just my impression. But a number of seasons have season finales that would have made for very satisfying series finales. Toward the end of the series, though, the season finales started becoming big cliffhangers. Like "how will the universe survive?" type cliffhangers. And after one of those cliffhangers, at the end of season 10, Stargate: SG-1 was canceled. But no fear, the storyline was resolved in a very well made direct-to-DVD movie. And then, to top it off, they made a second direct-to-DVD film, a stand alone movie that gave a satisfying send off to some of the characters. Another direct-to-DVD movie was planned . . . more on that a few paragraphs in the future.

Love this image of the Stargate: Atlantis cast. Can you tell that Atlantis had something to do with water?

Stargate: Atlantis is much more cut and dry. Every season ended on a cliffhanger, and they were told that Stargate: Atlantis was going to be canceled and they had just enough time to make their final episode serve as both a sort of conclusion to the show and a sort of cliffhanger. And the cliffhanger was going to be resolved in a direct-to-DVD movie . . . more on that a few paragraphs down.

 Stargate: Universe's Lost-like ensemble cast

Stargate: Universe was even MORE cut and dry. Less space opera fantasy and more Lost-like or Battlestar Galactica-like, it was a continuing story that was meant to be more gritty and more "real". Very few episodes were just stand alone episodes. Instead, you had to watch every episode to make sense of what was going on. Ratings got lower and lower . . . and then, after season 2 was in full swing and had pretty much been set in stone, Stargate: Universe was canceled. The finale airs next Tuesday, and it is supposed to end on a cliffhanger. (I've heard someone say that it would either serve as an exciting cliffhanger or a bittersweet finale, or something similar. we'll find out next week.)

Of course.

So the suggestion of a direct-to-DVD or direct-to-digital download has been floated around. Something that would give some closure to the novel-like storytelling used for Stargate: Universe. But it was just announced that MGM has officially stated it will not happen, and now sets are being struck and offices cleared out.

This means that the Stargate: SG-1 movie, which was supposed to be an incredible adventure to send off the main character of Stargate (Richard Dean Anderson's character O'Neil -- can't remember if it's one "L" or two -- who wasn't in the first DVD movie and was a minor character in the second) is dead. This means that the Stargate: Atlantis movie, which was supposed to wrap up any dangling plot threads (and there were a few) is dead. This means the Stargate: Universe movie which would have completed the planned plot (three seasons worth!) is dead.

It also means no resolution for the Saturday morning Stargate show, something no one cares about anyway (although I strangely want to see it because of the intense negativity toward it)

This makes me sad. For two reasons. One, I like the story and the characters! A lot! Two, I've had comic series canceled on ME before, before I had a chance to finish the story I wanted to tell, and that hurts! It happened with ArmorQuest (although I've had a chance to revisit that, and more AQ stories in in process as we speak) and it happened on Lullaby and The Imaginaries. Like the Stargate: Universe people, I dream of a chance to make the comic book version of a direct-to-DVD movie . . . perhaps just 48 pages to complete Alice and her fellowship's quest in Lullaby or 48 pages to complete Tanner and Greatman's mission. So far as I know, that chance will never come.

But on the flip side, ending the Stargate franchise like this is, in a way, satisfying to me. The more I thought about it, the more "real" this felt. And not in the way that Stargate: Universe was supposed to be more "real" because it was all gritty.

 Stargate: Universe also boasted some of the best and most beautiful TV sci-fi visual effects

I understand that a satisfaction comes from a completed story. There is something in human nature that wants an ending for a story, and especially wants a satisfying ending to a story. I do not know exactly why this is. I have some ideas, mostly philosophical (in the loosest sense of the word) and religious, and maybe just a little bit psychological . . . but only accidentally. As humans, we want to see justice. We want to see people we care about (and characters we care about) prevail. We want to see people face challenges and overcome them. We want to be encouraged that there is a happy ending to all this strife. (Because, as I believe, there IS in truth a happy ending to all this strife.) This is when we are watching the news, watching our friends, and watching our stories.

So, for Stargate fans, when they watched the characters they grew to love on Stargate: SG-1, they were glad to see the heroes beat the bad guys and overcome their personal issues.

And when they watched the characters they grew to love on Stargate: Atlantis, they were sort of glad to see some conclusion to the problems those characters faced, even if there were some lingering issues.

And when they watch the characters they grew to love on Stargate: Universe (admittedly, fewer Stargate fans seemed to love these character, partly because they were harder to love since they weren't as heroic or perfect) they aren't going to get a chance to see them overcome their main conflicts. (Although, in reference to the last parenthetical, there were a LOT more conflicts and the characters have had to make greater strides to overcome their problems and some problems were, indeed, overcome.)

 No more new journeys through the gate to explore strange new worlds and seek out new . . . sorry

But here's what I like about the Stargate franchise going out like this: it's a lot like watching the people in our lives. Life doesn't wrap up a character arc in a nice bow and then roll credits. No, we overcome a problem and then face another or perhaps the other problem comes back to bite us. And so things that I have seen people complain about in Stargate: Universe, and things that bugged me, don't anymore. For example, in Stargate: Universe, characters from the other two series have shown up. And they've shown up in ways that are a little vague. One character was promoted to command a starship. Another character has become the "big boss", having been promoted to general. Another character, who used to be a "suit" (in SG-1) and was made into an "officer" (of sorts, in Atlantis) showed up as a "suit" again in Universe. How? Why? They never said. Meanwhile, another character shows up and very little seems to have changed. And in the meantime, the crew who make up the main cast of Stargate: Universe? Their story is either going to have a bittersweet ending or just be forever a cliffhanger.

In other words, here's what we can take away from Stargate: Universe:

Life goes on. No, I don't mean that in the William Shatner telling Trekkies to "get a life" sense. And I don't mean "you show was canceled, but don't worry, life goes on".

I mean that "life goes on" has become the THEME of the entire franchise.

People grow.

Challenges come and go. And come. And go. And . . .

There's only one set of end credits.

Now, for some these kind of statements may strike a negative chord. For others, it's a positive one. And for others, it's bittersweet. But this is the theme of the franchise, and like any theme of any story, what the audience does with it is up to the individuals of the audience.

Am I reading too much into a science fiction fantasy? Perhaps. Is this what the creators intended people to think about? I doubt it.

But this IS what science fiction is for, isn't it? To make us think about our world and our place in it? Come to think of it, that's what all storytelling is about.

This is a situation where the theme is unintentional, I think. But, like any story, the theme must be grappled with (or ignored) by the receiver of the story. And I think that too often, storytellers forget that the themes of their stories do connect with the readers or viewers. Conversely, sometimes I think storytellers think too much about their themes, forcing a theme that's not there and missing the theme that has appeared.

 Maybe Stargate will get some sort of hipper, edgier reboot?

I'll still be interested if they do a new Stargate series or movie . . . and if they ever came knocking on my door to ask me to help them out with a Stargate: Universe comic, I'd not hesitate to say yes. But unless they REALLY botch next week's episode I have a feeling that even if the plot is left hanging, I'll have a good feeling about the franchise.

Until then, I have two more episodes of Stargate: Universe to watch. (Yeah, I would be watching as I write this, but I watch it using iTunes . . . so not only do I have to wait until the day after the show airs, I'm also one of the fans who contributed to its demise by not watching it live . . .)

~ Ben

UPDATE: The third to last episode, "Epilogue", could have (with just a few tweaks) been the final episode of the series. And the whole "life goes on" aspect of things I was talking about was directly addressed in the episode.

2nd UPDATE: The penultimate episode, "Blockade", was tense and emotional and exciting and satisfying. This series just kept getting better and better, especially this season.

LAST UPDATE: There is NO way the producers and creators did not know they were facing cancellation when they wrote the finale. In fact, it felt to me like the episode itself, when the characters were talking about a life or death situation they faced, it was almost like they were talking ABOUT the show. And it ended as I hoped . . . (without spoiling it for you) it ended with the implication that the characters have more stories in front of them, but we just won't see them . . . for now.

1 comment:

Hot said...

I've just been searching around for the real story behind the cancellation of Stargate Universe. I never liked the Original Stargate series. I felt the characters (actors) were stiff and forced and lacked any sincere genuineness about them. They were more like hollow paper cut outs. There had to be the mandatory shoot out in almost every episode. I like the shoot outs but not the pretentious gratuitous kind. Like the original Batman series always had to have the fight scene between Batman (and Robin) and the villain(s). The monotonously repetitive plot ; every episode so predictable. Needless to say SG Atlantis and SG1 also fell victim to the same hazard. I tried to like them all but unfortunately just couldn't get into them. Maybe if I were a lot younger and didn't expect so much. When SG Universe came along I was wowed. An original thinking series that kept my interest and was interesting to watch on all levels. Contrary to some : I really liked all the major characters in Universe. "More Real" as has been stated. It's rare when a good series comes along and I thought Universe might have the staying power of say a "Wagon Train". It certainly had a plot line that would almost guarantee it. You could keep those people flying through the Universe forever. Unlike 'fans' I was not eager to see or happy to see the cameo appearances of the old series stars ; it ruined the continuity of the Universe series to me. It really hurts / sucks when your favorite show gets the boot because the network was not selling enough sex pill and vagina products. I don't want to go all PBS on anyone but it just seems to show how little creativity is valued and how short sited the profit motive really is. If it doesn't catch like wild fire right away and become an immediate pop culture phenomenon then it's considered garbage by the industry. No Art for Arts' sake here ! Instead of "V" and SG Universe and "Heroes", Jericho, Terminator, for example (and a dozen others); we get a multitude of cop shows (which I hate and never watch). Cop shows come and never leave; or so it seems. Now series are being canceled before they ever make it to network TV in cable land. Falling Skies might be one of those. I'm going back and watching old episodes of "Combat, Battle Star Gallactica (the updated one), Northern Exposure..." for a fix on an intelligent and creative TV show.
I dread the day when TV programing will be created based solely on the amount of tweets a pilot episode might get and how many they keep getting. I don't even tweet (so I'm out). I'd say we're in for a big load of 'stupid' when that happens but that's what we got now. Don't forget the network motto ; "No choice is a good choice". Now it seems that even Sci Fi has to have a cop element to it. Fringe and Grimm and Awake. Even "Once Upon A Time" is like a cop show of sorts. Thankfully the 'cop show' part is overshadowed by the fantasy part on most of these. I'm expecting a "cops in space" series anytime now.