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Stargate SG-1 Cast Interviews: Michael Shanks

Return to Duty
Rhonda Krafchin, Starlog #312,Jul 03

Half a dozen episodes into production on Season Seven, Michael Shanks feels like he never even left the cast of Stargate SG-1.  Once all the welcome-back hugging and kissing was done, he notes, it was a return to business as usual.  "The chemistry's still as strong as ever," Michael Shanks says.  "It's a warm, comfortable environment to be in, and that's what I really missed more than anything else."

Of course, Shanks' anthropologist alter=ego Daniel Jackson did make several appearances on the show after being mortally wounded and popping off to a higher plane of existence in the Season Five heartbreaker "Meridian," and the actor continued to provide vocal talent for the recurring character of Thor.  While those assignments periodically kept Shanks attached to the series, it did create an odd scenario: Shanks had become a guest-star on a show where he once shared top billing for years.

These days, Shanks is once again fully occupied with a mothership-load of work, as Dr. Jackson assumes a pivotal role in SG-1's newest dramatic thrust - unseating the villainous Anubis.  "When the [the producers] came to me with their proposal, they said, 'You're going to have to do a lot more work'.  And I said, 'Are you kidding?  That's exactly what I wanted!'"

Into the Abyss

Turn back the clock a season, and it did not seem quite so obvious that a solution could resolve Shanks' Stargate situation.  And while details of the negotiations between Shanks and the show's producers are respectfully left vague by the actor, there were certain issues that he's happy to clear up.  For one, "The notion that I was unhappy with [Jackson's] development is a little bit inaccurate," Shanks says.  "I was completely content with the way he had evolved over time on the show.  It was more about where the future was, how he was being involved in the storylines, not specifically the development.  I was quite content with who the character was, who he had become as a result of his experiences.  I really wanted Daniel to be more involved and it seemed like he was becoming a little less. 

The other rumour Shanks is quick to address is that "there were never any personal issues with anyone.  It was just a matter of the work situation needing to be the right one," he says.  Obviously, the negotiations proceeded without animosity, as the producers not only found a logical way to keep Jackson figuratively alive, but approached Shanks when the supposedly final Season Six turned out not to be so final.

"The producers thought that it was going to be the last year of the show," Shanks explains.  "They were tying up all of the loose ends that had been created, killing off villains, eliminating dangling threads."  But then the SCI FI Channel unexpectedly renewed the show for a seventh season, and so the producers were faced with a new logistical challenge.  Series star Richard Dean Anderson was hoping to adjust his work schedule more in favour of family needs.  Enter the very popular Jackson, whose occasional appearances in Season Six kept fans buzzing with anticipation.

As if by some diving intervention (and there are some - including Shanks - who would liken Stargate writer-producer Brad Wright to a god), Jackson's minor Season Six storyline suddenly blossomed into a major story arc.  In the season cliffhanger "Full Circle'", Jackson discovers that the newest Goa'uld supevillain, Anubis, is none other than an Ancient, one of the series' mote mysterious alien races, and the builders of the Stargate system.  Jackson also realises that the "Others" - those, like himself, who have ascended - are members of the Ancients.  The plot heads to an emotional climax when Anubis threatens Jackson's adopted homeworld of Abydos and Jackson - under the rules of ascension - cannot intervene.

These events became the launching point for Season Seven, which will center on "the characters working towards a final confrontation with Anubis," Shanks reveals.  "The set-up in "Full Circle" was designed to do that.  The big objective is for the group to find the Lost City. to get there and find the technology and weapons that will allow them do deal with someone as powerful as Anubis.  To use a metaphor, it's kind of a Star Wars thing, where the Empire is looming large over the galaxy, and the heroes are banding together with whomever will fight with them to find the one thing that will trump the villains."  Shanks indicates there is a strong possibility of more Stargate SG-1 after Season Seven but cautions, "Everybody is still treating this season like it's the last year of the show."

What makes Season Seven's storyline work so well, Shanks observes, is that like the best of Stargate SG-1, there's an emotional heart to it.  "People always seem to love our season enders because they have all the money thrown at them, with the big spaceships, explosions and gunfights.  But I'm much more of a fan of the simpler stories because they really get you inside the people themselves. That's how we're able to sell our season enders.  Because when the characters are faced with extraordinary situations, we've gotten to know these people - the little tidbits and slices of humanity about them.  And we want to see how all those things are going to come together when these characters have to deal with that situation."

The context of Jackson's emotional attachment to Abydos began in the Stargate film and has continued throughout the series.  In Season Six, Jackson's ascension allowed for even further character growth, and in more subtle and creative ways than the mortally bound characters developed.  In "Abyss," Jackson's first appearance since his ascension, the story focused on the relationship between O'Neill and Jackson, which couldn't have been more enticing to Shanks.

"Rick and I really enjoy working with one another," Shanks says.  "We have a very similar sort of humour and sensibility.  He's one of those friends that you have where you just have to look at them and they know what you're thinking and you know what they're thinking.  To lock those to characters in a broom closet, like in "Abyss" and just have  them go back and forth and see what happens was a lot of fun.  I think that was the first time we had that level of focus on the give-and-take of those two."

"Daniel is someone who has always questioned authority.  In working with the military, he was aware that there were certain guidelines that he had to follow.  If he absolutely contradicted everybody and stood on his own, he knew he would be tossed out of there.  It's like the idea: 'You can think outside the box and change things subtly, but you can't just pull the carpet out from beneath the people whom you're working for.'  It's about finding ways to work within the confines of the system to make your objectives happen, so it doesn't appear as if you're rebelling against the authority of the structure.  I think that was the same notion with the ascension process and its evolution over the sixth season.  "Abyss" is the first time that we see Daniel.  So he hasn't really been there that long.  He knows the golden rules - like non-interference - but he bends them somewhat slightly by going and talking to a friend and appearing in corporeal form.  But so long as he doesn't do anything dramatic to draw the attention or wrath of the Ancients,, he figures, 'I can get away with this.'"

Full Circle

Jackson appeared again in "Changeling," helping to see his friend Teal'c through a near-fatal ordeal.  What became clear by the time of "Full Circle" is that Jackson feels a growing sense of helplessness in his new position.  "When push finally comes to shove," Shanks says, "he has had enough experiences where he has sat around and done nothing about things.  Finally, an entire planet - Abydos - where he has become one of the citizens - jeopardised in one fell swoop.  Not only that, but the lives of all his Stargate friends are threatened, as well as everything that he stands for as a human being.  Daniel realises that he isn't going to be able to sit idly by and watch this happen.  He has to try and do what he can to change the situation."

While Jackson's physical confrontation with Anubis is an uncharacteristic reaction, Shanks points out: "Daniel has demonstrated before that when he's finally pushed up against a wall and there's no other way out, he will choose to fight.  That's consistent with his character.  He doesn't do it cavalierly.  There have been many times when his back has been pushed up against a wall and didn't take the physical approach."

"That's the thing about "Abyss"," Shanks says.  "When Jackson is faced with the choice of stepping away from a friend in need, his response is, 'No.  I can't. There's another way around it.  There has to be a better way.'  But as time wears on, he realises, 'I'm not able to do as much as I can.'  So, finally, he just snaps and does something somewhat out of character and more like Jack."

"Daniel and Jack are two people cut from the same cloth," Shanks adds.  "They both find ways to make their agendas happen outside of the rules.  Each has rubbed off on the other over the course of time."

Fallen

In "Full Circle," Jackson finally reaches his breaking point and confronts Anubis.  But before Jackson can end it, he's taken away by the Ancients.  Cut to the Season Seven premiere "Fallen" where Jackson is not only human again, but without memory.  While this will initially leave fans with some big questions, the set-up gives Shanks and the show's writers the opportunity for the character to do plenty of serious soul-searching.  Now, back in the refuge of his SG-1 friends, Jackson must not only find out who he is, but what his reason for being is and how his ascension has changed him.

"We've established that he [Daniel] had to make a conscious choice," Shanks says of Jackson's departure from the Ancients.  "He was confronted with an almost court-like structure and given an ultimatum: 'You either play by the rules of and stay, or, if you choose not to, you're out.'  And Daniel says, 'Well, you know what?  I don't like the way you do things.  I don't think it's the best thing for me, and I'm going back.'  And when he [Daniel] goes back, he doesn't remember exactly what happened.  But over the first five episodes - and one episode specifically, Orpheus - he realises why he came back.  He recalls how helpless he felt watching his friends go through [these ordeals] and not being able to do anything about it.  He understands that he's here to do something and the Ancients…are just another alien race with their own, separate agenda, and Daniel realises if he's going to do something for humanity and for Earth, he has to take a more pro-active role."

Season Seven promises some serious inter-galactic war, and fans will have much more to look forward to as Stargate SG-1 flies along under the new leadership of long-time producer Robert Cooper while Brad Wright develops Atlantis. "It's a bit of a different vibe," Shanks admits, "but it's a lot of the same faces.  We're missing someone who was essentially the show's father figure.  Brad [Wright] was always the voice of reason, the miracle worker.  He could take any story concept and weave it into something that you couldn't believe he came up with.  He was the guy who could really hit the home run.  He was able to take a script that was maybe questionable, rewrite it and transform it into some sort of gem.  We do miss him terribly, but from the actor's end of things, we're so busy right now, it's hard to feel his absence because we're surrounded by the same people as before."

Shanks jokes that throwing Jackson back to the wolves in "Fallen" just to see what happens is the kind of thing a smug, omnipotent, god-like species [Ancients, not producers] would do.  And although Jackson's punishment for breaking the rules could have been death, 'It's far more interesting to let Daniel live and think about the ramifications of the event than to just bump him off," Shanks remarks.  ""The story, the character, is far more important than the flash and bang.  [In SF] you really have to care about the characters and empathise with them to be able to accept the strange circumstances that surround them."

Sabbatical

In his year away from Stargate SG-1, the time away from the grind of a weekly series helped to give Shanks some perspective.  "Within the course of a series, you get to do a bunch of different things, especially in science fiction.  You get to play different characters within the character.  You get to take on different personas and slap on some prosthetics.  It certainly has allowed me to empathise much more with the human condition.  But as an actor, [playing Jackson] has almost hindered me, because the character has become a lot more like the actor and the actor has become a lot more like the character.  Now, sometimes, I'm not sure who is who."

"Something you don't get a chance to do when you're working those kind of house is live," Shanks continues.  "Actors need to draw from life experiences to bring forward character traits, so when your life becomes living on a film set, it's hard to live," Shanks continues.  "The experiences I had as a person this year will help me give more insight and layering to Daniel.  I got to go away to South Africa.  I was like a fish out of water and the environment was totally unfamiliar to me, with politics and racial differences that were completely separate from any experience that I've had before.  And since Daniel's an anthropologist, [that trip to South Africa] and my curiosity to investigate are great attributes that I can bring to the character."

Shanks jokingly calls "Sumuru" his paid vacation.  "The script is classic B-movie material," Shanks confesses.  "We tried to elevate it, bring some humour into it and make the characters as believable as possible.  Some of the stuff is just so cheesy.  I don't think anybody was under the delusion that we were making Lawrence Of Arabia.  It's really a re-imagining of  B-movie concept in a more modern fashion.  Going to South Africa and shooting in the sunlight all the time - and the beauty of the country - was more fun than I could have imagined."

"The thing that I love about the show [Stargate SG-1] is the motion of exploring our past," Michael Shanks comments.  "Questioning it.  naturally, cynicism forces us to say, 'Well, it wasn't aliens that put that there.  We know that.'  But what the show is able to do is present possibilities, if for no other reason than to give the audience the option of going, 'Hey, maybe'.  .  And because it relates strongly to our past, I think that makes Stargate much more significant than other SF shows."

2003, StarlogBuy Starlog #312 online

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