|Taking the Michael
Blackwell, Cult Times Special #8, Winter 98
It has, to say the least, been a rocky ride for Stragate SG-1. Critics, especially in America, initially hated the show before (ever so slightly) relenting. Fans queued up to say how lousy the series was in comparison to the original StarGate movie. And then...well things started to go very right. You see, while other Sci-Fi shows crash and burn- Mercy Point was definitely shown no mercy when it was cancelled by UPN after a mere two episodes- Stargate SG-1 is doing quite nicely. The show was the number one new weekly syndicated show when, after a run on the pay channel Showtime, it hit mainstream US television. In the UK, it has consistently got higher ratings for Sky One than Star Trek: Voyager. Hell, the show even makes money for its producers MGM. So why exactly did things go so right for SG-1? Perhaps one reason is that Stargate is both a Sci-Fi and an action series which doesn't lose casual viewers with pompous dialogue (not mentioning any specific space stations, but...).
This is a point that's not lost on Canadian actor Michael Shanks who plays the whimsical Egyptologist, Professor Daniel Jackson. "The show itself is something that I don't think you can ever begin to take too, too seriously in terms of story ideas and concepts and what-not," he tells Cult Times. "So, you just have to use your imagination a lot of the time, trust your instincts and just go with it. That ends up being pretty exciting in terms of creating things that have never been done before or- if they have been done- I've never seen them." Despite this, Shanks, who began his career as a Shakespearean theatre actor, acknowledges that some episodes of the show have been disappointing. "It's a peculiar thing," he says. "What I noticed about our first year is that we were very hit and miss. The first half of the season- the pilot and the first episode- starts with a bit of a bang. Then it fizzles out a little bit before it starts to pick up speed. Then there's a couple of misses during the last part of the season, but we start hitting a lot more than we miss."
As Season Two progresses, it's obvious this momentum has continued. More consistent than Season One, the second series see the show beginning to develop its own strong identity as it moves further- in both Time and plot lines- from the Stargate movie. Season Two also sees the development of the main characters Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson), Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and Teal'c (Christopher Judge), and allows the viewer to find out more about the characters' backgrounds. Shanks seems to genuinely relish working with his fellow stars. "There's a really lovely family atmosphere," he says, "and, for an actor, it creates an atmosphere of support so that, when you're doing your stuff in front of the camera, you know that people want you to do well. There's no competition. It's not like a Spelling show where everyone's trying to look pretty or something. We're trying to find depth of the acting within this very non-acting environment."
However, as the show's main star and executive producer, Richard Dean Anderson is not above taking centre-stage when he thinks it's necessary. "There are moments and there's no doubt about it- I don't think there's any doubt about it- when he is the boss," says Shanks. "You know, most of the rest of the cast is Canadian and, although people like Don [S. Davis, who plays General Hammond] have a lot of experience under their belts, they don't have the stardom that he [Anderson] does. I think that, based on his experience, there's certainly a large ego there. But I think he manifests it very well in terms of working. There's moments- you know we all have our moments of grumpiness and tendencies towards mischievousness- that he has that put people off. But, I think for the most part he's been very positive and very amicable. I've found working with him a real charm. He's been very generous to me based on me coming in with absolutely no experience and him coming in with...he's been acting as long as I've been alive so I step out of his way for the most part."
Shanks doesn't intend these comments as a serious criticism of Anderson. Outside of work, the two men play hockey and golf together, and there seems to be none of the bad feeling between actors that characterized, for example, the orginal Trek. This is probably just as well because, if Anderson's character O'Neill is Stargate's man of action, Daniel Jackson is the show's innocent abroad, the character who thinks it might be a better idea to talk to the aliens before shooting them. Because of this, much of the energy of Stargate lies in the two character's differing attitudes. If both Anderson and O'Neill know how to get things done, how similar are Shanks and Jackson? "I think the part's a little kookier than I am," the actor reflects. "I'm a little more brooding than kooky, but I have that kind of geeky dry sense of humour in real life. I think there are a lot of aspects of my character in me, but there's more oddness in the character than in me." Probably just as well. You wouldn't want to find yourself on the fairways with a kooky Egyptologist.
© 1998, Cult Times.
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