Fan Rebellion Threatens Stargate|
Mary McNamara, Salon.com, 13 Feb 02
its most beloved character dead, its adult female fans up in arms and its
ratings in ruins, the once-hot sci-fi series "Stargate SG-1" may be doomed.
Feb. 13, 2002 | At one time -- actually, just two years ago -- the syndicated
science-fiction series "Stargate SG-1" seemed to have it all: a fervent core
audience and hot, hot ratings. The series, which airs on Showtime as well as on
most Fox stations across the United States, appeared to many industry observers
as if it might be building into a bazillion-dollar "Star Trek"-like franchise.
In May 2000, at the end of its second season in syndication (each new season of
episodes airs on Fox a year after it premieres on Showtime), "Stargate SG-1" was
the top-rated show in the "syndicated action hour" category. Based on the 1994
hit movie "Stargate," which starred Kurt Russell and James Spader, the show had
developed an intensely loyal following of fans who loved its Trekkian premise:
interplanetary adventure in which a team of four explorers dials a set of
symbols embedded in a gate, allowing them to pass through and set foot in other
worlds. What's more, in a category largely aimed at males in their teens and
20s, "Stargate" appealed to a broad audience that included many adult women.
Viewers loved the chemistry among the four leading cast members, a dynamic that
some felt rivaled the camaraderie of the original "Star Trek" series. They were
enthusiastic about Sam (Amanda Tapping), a strong female officer physicist, and
they fell for the alien Teal'c (Christopher Judge), a paragon of dignity and
strength. In particular, they attached themselves to the relationship between
Jack, a crusty Air Force colonel (Richard Dean Anderson), and the learned
archeologist and linguist Dr. Daniel Jackson, played by Michael Shanks.
Indeed it was Shanks' character, with his Spock-like appeal to female fans, whom
many viewers saw as the pivotal figure in the "Stargate" universe. At least 40
distinct fan-produced Web sites are devoted to Shanks alone, about the same
number as are devoted to Matt Damon or Brad Pitt. All this for an actor on an
off-network show who employs no personal publicist.
Over the last year or so, however, the wheels have fallen off the "Stargate"
chariot. MGM, which produces the series, reshaped its premise and focus,
introducing conspiracy-theory plot lines and a latex-clad babe in an evident
effort to appeal to a younger male demographic. Ratings plunged and Shanks,
after publicly expressing his displeasure with the show's new direction, decided
to leave the cast in October.
In the months since then, grieving female fans have launched an open rebellion,
a wave of cyber-outrage reaching from California to Australia to England to
Pakistan. They have deluged MGM with phone calls and have raised thousands of
dollars to establish a Web site and buy protest ads, including a full page in
the Jan. 29 Hollywood Reporter. Many say they will abandon the sixth and final
TV season of "Stargate," and MGM's plans to send the characters back to the big
screen for a lucrative film series now hang in the balance.
The fan insurrection began in earnest when the episode "Meridian" was seen by
British viewers on Jan. 30. (It has yet to air in the U.S.) With little advance
warning, viewers saw their beloved Daniel Jackson receive a lethal dose of
radiation and ascend to a higher plane. (No one ever exactly dies on "Stargate
SG-1.") It was this episode that triggered the initial cascade of phone calls to
MGM president Hank Cohen.
The "Daniel debacle" comes at a sensitive time for MGM; the company is preening
in preparation for its expected multibillion-dollar sale (although no buyer has
yet come forward and some observers speculate that the asking price is too
high). So far MGM has sought to downplay the extent of the "Stargate" fan
revolt. Paul Gendreau, the Los Angeles publicist hired by the studio to field
calls from fans, will only say that there has been "some groundswell of support"
for Shanks. Others at MGM have said that by mid-afternoon on the day after
"Meridian" was broadcast in the U.K., more than 1,000 protests had been phoned
into Cohen's office.
Shanks' departure also falls, somewhat uncomfortably, on the eve of "Stargate's"
transfer from Showtime to the SciFi Channel, where the series will play out its
final season before the long-contemplated leap into feature films. Just a few
months ago, SciFi president Bonnie Hammer was gushing over the network's
substantial female audience and the loyal viewership of "Stargate." But in the
wake of the show's controversial creative changes, "Stargate" has been shedding
its female and adult audiences like water from a seal pelt. Shanks' departure
may be the final straw for that demographic. Hammer, as one fan suggested on
SciFi's own message board, might consider asking for her money back.
It's unclear how MGM and SciFi Channel could have misread the core audience for
"Stargate" so dramatically and allowed Shanks, whom many viewers saw as the
show's heart and soul, to slip through their fingers. Even a cursory sweep of
the Internet makes clear that Shanks and his character are the focus of numerous
devotional Web sites and discussion groups. Fellow cast member Christopher Judge
once referred to his friend Shanks as "the young lord of the Internet." Had
"Stargate" enjoyed better U.S. distribution -- most Fox stations carry it late
at night or on weekend afternoons -- Shanks might be a household name.
Dr. Daniel Jackson speaks 23 languages, wears glasses, suffers from allergies,
and occasionally launches into tedious Spock-like discourses on obscure academic
subjects. But women have decided that the quirky character, and the actor who
plays him, are all the more appealing for it.
Of course the Internet is a haven for obsessive fans and obscure enthusiasms of
all kinds. But the Jackson/Shanks phenomenon is impressive from any point of
view. Fans post by the hundreds to "Stargate" discussion boards and fat Yahoo
newsgroups. Furthermore, Jackson is the object of countless Internet "fanfics,"
or fan-authored fictions.
So beloved is Dr. Daniel Jackson that male fans in "Stargate" newsgroup
discussions tend to tiptoe around the character in deference to women's
feelings. In one recent online discussion, a young man made the mistake of "dissing
the geek" but was quickly brought into line by other men in the group. One,
called "Unbeliever," warned the Daniel-disser he would be "so dead" when women
read his post. Another male respondent said he was retiring to a bunker for a
few weeks in hopes that when he emerged there might be "a couple of cities still
standing." A third, called "DeathBunny," explained: "You miss his appeal. From
listening to the female-types around here, he has one of the most appealing of
attributes in a non-significant-other person: A cute guy that needs mothering.
Because of it, he's a babe-magnet and therefore it's taboo to rag on him."
When I asked female fans why Daniel commands such depth of feeling, they counted
the ways. Arguably, their comments reveal a great deal about what captures the
imaginations of women: They are enchanted by flawed but heroic characters.
Courage of conviction, contagious passion, dimensionality and a sense of wonder
were recurring themes.
"Daniel is indeed a cute guy that needs mothering," admits L. from the U.K., who
writes fanfics about Daniel and the other "Stargate" characters. "But he is also
a fascinating combination of contradictions ... honest, considerate and
compassionate, at times endearingly sneaky, sulky and difficult as a thwarted
toddler. There has never been a character out there with more of the courage of
Nuria from Barcelona adds: "He's incredibly loyal and caring, courageous and
understanding, but ... he has lots of flaws, he tends to get carried away, tends
to present a major case of tunnel vision and can be very, very rude in the worse
moments. That makes him even more realistic."
Viewers have bonded with the character in a way that seems remarkable, even by
the standards of obsessive fandom. "Daniel is someone who has grown and
developed before our eyes in a way that few fictional characters are permitted
to do," says L. "We have seen the events that have shaped him and seen him
logically altered by them." Jackson seems so real to viewers that many report
feeling stunned by the grief they are experiencing at his "ascension."
That intensity of feeling may be partly explained by the fact that viewers see
the character as tapping into an ancient, ancestral current of meaning. His
background is classically heroic: orphaned and alone with a tragic love history.
"We had Gilgamesh, Ulysses, Beowulf, Don Quixote, David Copperfield and now
Daniel Jackson," writes Nuria. "I see that as a common tradition. This connects
him with the Western tradition of the journey to discover."
Then there's the wonder. To be specific, there is The Wonder That Is Daniel, or
TWTID, an abbreviation often seen on the Internet. TWTID appears to be a global
phenomenon that makes women's hearts go pitter-patter, without regard to race,
creed or national origin. "When he gets excited over something, it's like it
flows out of the TV screen and just grabs hold and takes me along for the ride,"
says Gen, an American fan. "His passion for life is contagious."
"I love how he talks with his hands and does his little frustrated dance," says
Lea, also an American. "I love those expressive blue eyes that light up with the
thrill of discovery." Ayesha from Pakistan, on the other hand, loves "the
wide-eyed wonder of Daniel, the explorations, the new cultures."
If men should find a lesson here, perhaps it is to consider the seductive
possibilities of an archeology career. "Daniel is the kind of guy who has an
infectious passion for his work," sighs Sharon, also an American. "Who wouldn't
want to spend an hour in an Egyptian tomb listening to that soft, sensitive
voice explaining the technicalities of hieroglyphs? There is something uniquely
attractive about a man so absorbed in discovery. Plus I suppose also there is
the thought of what it might be like to be the focus of that intensity."
MGM and SciFi only made matters worse by promising female viewers a "handsome
hunk" in Daniel's place. As a fan named Paula fumed in a letter to SciFi: "How
could you hope to replace a complex, three-dimensional and so very human
character with just another pretty face? You thought that was enough for us. It
To many fans, the creative changes that drove both Shanks and the core
viewership away from "Stargate SG-1" seemed to stem from TV programmers' undying
obsession with the young male demographic. On the DVD version of the
fourth-season episode "Crossroads," director Peter DeLuise (a fan favorite)
remarks, "This was a time during the show when we were trying to bump up the
ratings. We took our cue from [the "Star Trek" character] Seven of Nine,
thinking that might help the show and in fact the show didn't need help. It was
perfectly fine the way it was and we didn't need half-naked, really hot, skilled
actresses walking around."
Indeed, it was during the fourth Showtime season -- which is only now being seen
in U.S. syndication -- that "Stargate" was significantly retooled. The
planetary-exploration premise was dumped for "X-Files"-style conspiracy-theory
plots. In the eyes of many viewers, the warm, "Trek"-like camaraderie vanished.
A new latex-clad female cast member briefly appeared, who was dubbed "Tok'ra
Barbie" by longtime fans (the Tok'ra being an alien race in the "Stargate"
Disenchanted female fans found that their favorite characters had become
unrecognizable. Internet "word of mouse" turned increasingly negative and
ratings began to tumble. By mid-August of 2000, a third of the way through the
fourth season, Showtime reported that "Stargate SG-1" had lost 26 percent of its
adult audience from the year before. The young male demo, however, was up.
Now in its fifth season on Showtime and its fourth in syndication, "Stargate"
seems to be sinking still further in the ratings books, although there have been
one or two trend-defying exceptions. Several weeks ago, an episode titled "The
Curse" spiked sharply in the ratings. That episode focused almost exclusively on
Dr. Daniel Jackson. Showtime has not returned calls requesting information on
the fifth-season ratings. No news, in Hollywood, is generally bad news.
With Jackson having "ascended" from the show and Shanks' status for the spinoff
film in considerable doubt, many core fans say they're no longer interested in
either season six on SciFi or the feature film (if it ever happens). Some
beloved television franchises have survived traumatic cast departures but
"Stargate SG-1," many of them suggest, may not be among them. Alison, a British
fan, writes: "I totally agree with [another poster's] point about the sheer
power of Daniel Jackson and his portrayal by Michael Shanks. It is a unique
combination indeed that would make so many fans not just grieve his loss, but
leave with him because we literally cannot bear to watch without him."
MGM has already introduced Jonas Quinn (Corin Nemec), the new "Stargate" hunk,
but female viewers want their ethereal geek restored to the screen and insist
that they will accept no beefcake substitutes. "Daniel is unlike so many
fictional characters. He is three-dimensional, thoroughly believable and
lovable," writes Erique from Germany. "Out of all the characters on 'Stargate,'
we, as viewers, are most likely to identify with him, because he represents our
own wonder at the miracles out there. His passion, courage, morality and
intelligence are what draws us in. He is the main reason I watch the show. When
he died, it seemed more real to me than the passing of other characters on
television. And infinitely more tragic, because the wonder and passion of the
show died with him."
© 2002, Salon.com.
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