The Familiarity of Spectacle in Stargate SG-1
Television and film are inherently linked not only through their respective use of the screen as a form of mediation but also in the way they borrow formal and narrative aspects from one another. Given this natural interplay between film and television, one might assume that adaptation, the act of retelling a story in a new medium, would be relatively painless between the two visual forms. Despite the frequent attempts to retell films as television serials, it is rare for a narrative to successfully navigate this form of adaptation. One merely has to look at the ever-popular science fiction genre, for this trend of failed adaptations to become apparent. For example, consider the 1968 film Planet of the Apes (1968), which, despite its popularity as a film franchise, survived only thirteen episodes as a television series on CBS. Terminator (1984) also attempted to translate its film narrative into a television series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but with no more success as it was cancelled after two short seasons. As Gerald Duchovnay suggests in his essay “From Big Screen to Small Box,” science fiction’s emphasis on the aesthetic experience of wonder brings with it a large financial and technological burden, thus making it difficult to translate from a big screen onto a small one (Duchovnay 70). Yet, despite falling under the category of science fiction, the adaptation of the film Stargate (1994) into the television series Stargate SG-1 is arguably one of the most successful film-to-television adaptations in terms of sheer magnitude. The success of this adaptation lies greatly in the historical time period in which it was released. But upon closer examination, its ultimate success can be seen in the balance it draws between the spectacular and the familiar. An investigation of this balance will perhaps shed light on why the adaptation of genre films into television serials is so often attempted.
The 1994 film Stargate directed by Roland Emmerich is the story of a military operation that discovers a portal, or stargate, that has the power to instantaneously transport those who step through it to other worlds. When released in cinemas it was fairly successful breaking some minor box office records, but was ultimately dismissed by critics as being too similar to other science fiction films such as Star Wars (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The small amount of success associated with the film Stargate was completely eclipsed two years later by its television adaptation, which would eventually become one of the most long-lasting science fiction series on television. Stargate SG-1 premiered on the cable network Showtime in 1997 and ran for ten consecutive years. It also fostered two spin-off series, two movies, and a cult following that rivaled that of the legendary Star Trek franchise. Amidst the many failed attempts to translate science fiction from film to television, Stargate SG-1 was able to survive the adaptation process and even distinguish itself among a large number of popular science fiction programs.
Given Stargate’s grounding in the world of science fiction, it is necessary to give a working definition for the science fiction genre before looking at it in relation to other genre films. Damon Knight, in an effort to point out the difficulty in defining genre in general, states, “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it (Rieder 192).” While this was meant as a dismissive statement, Knight was not far from the truth. For at its core, genre is the set of expectations that the audience has for the form and narrative of a program. This set of expectations is determined by the history of works associated with it as well as the viewer’s personal interaction with similar material. In the case of science fiction, it is common for audiences to expect a reliance on visual special effects and an aesthetic sense of wonder that is relatively consistent throughout both science fiction film and television (Duchovnay 70). Framing the adaptation of Stargate with these expectations allows us to focus on the translation of spectacle, an influential trait in science fiction, across the screens.
This form of spectacle, or sense of wonder, is often associated with cinema as Tom Gunning accounts for it in his essay “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde.” Spectacle refers to the exhibitionist quality of film, the idea of showing something to prove it can be shown. This elicits a sense of wonder from audiences when the images, as they are mediated through film, are defamiliarized. While Gunning claims the existence of this spectacle in early avant-garde film, with the rise of visual effects a return to this Cinema of Attractions can be accounted for. Given the inherent and historically grounded existence of spectacle in the cinema, it would seem an easy characteristic to adapt from film. Unfortunately, despite the abundance of cinematic spectacle in films such as Stargate, much of what makes spectacle possible in the cinema does not exist in television, such as the large format screen and the public cinema space. The creators of Stargate SG-1 recognized this difference and, while adapting the narrative to television, also adapted the method of expressing spectacle to better fit the televisual form.
This translation of cinematic spectacle to televisual spectacle can be clearly seen in the pilot episode, Children of the Gods, that originally aired on Showtime in 1997 and was later re-cut and released on DVD in 2009. This episode serves as a bridge between the film and television series as it both formally and narratively exhibits the transformation from one form of media to the other. The depiction of the stargate itself is possibly one of the most striking differences between the two representations of spectacle. In the film, the opening of the stargate is a momentous event that includes an extended sequence of seismic activity throughout the facility, as well as a funnel of water emanating from the front and rear of the gate. While in the pilot episode the lengthy earthquake is preserved in the first opening of the stargate, it is eliminated in all subsequent encounters.
The shot angle and framing of the stargate in both the film and television series also indicates a level of adapted grandeur associated with the alien technology. In the film, the gate is rarely seen at eye level but rather in both high and low angle shots. The high angle shots typically begin in the upper corners of the room and slowly track down to indicate the massive scale of the stargate. When it is not framed in a high angle shot, the stargate is shown from a low angle, which exaggerates the size of the object as it is seen looming over the characters. The opening shot of the television pilot emulates this cinematic method of portraying spectacle with extreme angles and moving cameras. The camera begins in the upper corner of the room looking down over the massive gate at a group of people playing cards at a table below. The camera slowly moves down and around to a low position where the massive gate can be seen towering over the group. Yet by the end of the pilot episode, the camera has become a stable object, making use of high and low angles but eliminating the majority of tracking shots.
A similar transformation to a smaller scale spectacle can be seen in the way the characters interact with the gate during their first encounters with it. As Dr. Daniel Jackson approaches the active stargate for the first time in the film, he lingers at its event horizon to marvel at its spectacular effect. He slowly dips his fingers into the reflective surface, creating impressive ripples. The audience then watches as his face breaks the surface in a spectacular shot where Jackson is seen halfway in and halfway out of the wormhole. As his eyes slowly open, he is whisked away to another world through a sequence of brightly colored wormholes tunnels. This scene of pure spectacle can be seen in contrast to Captain Samantha Carter’s first encounter with the stargate in the pilot episode of the television series. While Carter seems to mimic Jackson as she pauses to marvel at the event horizon of the stargate, Colonel Jack O’Neill unceremoniously shoves here through the watery surface of the gate. The speed with which Carter is forced through the gate, and denied the moment to gaze upon it, implies the possibility of a new form of televisual spectacle that the series uses.
These examples regarding the depiction of the stargate continue the tradition of visual spectacle but on a much smaller scale. Given the smaller screen and private space associated with television, visual spectacle is more difficult to convey. Rather than dwelling on fantastic, and thus expensive, visual effects, Stargate SG-1 uses the gate to convey a different form of spectacle: narrative spectacle. This narrative spectacle differs however from that described by Jason Mittell in his “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” as it does not incorporate the truly complex narrative style that he discusses but is rather a basic method through which a less grandiose visual spectacle can maintain its splendor (Mittell 36). The stargate is a form of alien technology that allows for instantaneous travel between worlds. The television series focuses on this as a form of spectacle in addition to the physical object. The existence of a form of instantaneous transportation between worlds allows for the narrative to cut between planets while maintaining a sense of narrative cohesion. When the narrative cuts between worlds, it is as if the audience is transported through the stargate between each beat of the show. Very few science fiction stories have this natural connection between locations, making it difficult to use more than one setting. But because of this connection, Stargate SG-1 is able to use the sheer quantity of worlds in its narrative as something to marvel at and thus make up for the smaller-scale visual spectacle.
Stargate SG-1 is able to translate the cinematic spectacle that permeates its film counterpart into a form that can elicit a comparable effect through television. But if this were the only aspect of science fiction adaptation necessary for success, then many more programs would be able to navigate between film and television. In fact there is another aspect of its adaptation that balances out the visual and narrative spectacle and helps Stargate survive the adaptation process. Given its existence within the private space of the home, television naturally must undergo a level of familiarization before it can successfully permeate, rather than invade, the domestic space. In order for television programs to be granted an intimate position in the home, viewers must be comfortable enough, or at least familiar enough, with it formal characteristics or narrative subject matter to accept it. While it is rare to find a television show that does not challenge this idea of comfort through its narrative, the formal aspects of the traditional televisual form are consistent with the audiences need for something familiar. Despite its obsession with spectacle and the fantastic, science fiction is no exception.
In fact, given its comfortable existence under the umbrella of the science fiction genre, Stargate SG-1 may have an easier time incorporating the familiar into its form and narrative than programs that overtly challenge the borders of genre categorization. The definition of genre as a set of expectations determined by similar narratives implies a familiarity with the style and clichés of such programs. On the cusp of the post-network era when Stargate SG-1 is aired, the rise and popularity of cable networks ushers in an age of narrowcasting in which a series can assume its audience has a level of familiarity with similar programming. Therefore a sense of the familiar inherently exists within shows such as Stargate SG-1 which, when originally aired, was tailored to an audience that had experience with other science fiction programs.
Stargate SG-1 takes advantage of this familiarity by referencing other genre shows such as Star Wars, MacGyver, Independence Day (1996), and even its own film counterpart. In a moment of humor during the pilot episode, Carter tells O’Neill “It took us fifteen years and three supercomputers to MacGyver a system for the gate.” Not only does this line of dialogue reference another popular science fiction series, MacGyver, but also, for viewers familiar with the show, provides a moment of engaging recognition when they realize that the actor who portrayed MacGyver, Richard Dean Anderson, is seen playing opposite Carter in the role of O’Neill.
In another moment later in the series, Daniel Jackson sarcastically suggests that the solution to an impending alien invasion is to “upload a computer virus to the mothership.” The responding glare from another character confirms that Jackson has referenced the cliché tactic from Independence Day, which was coincidentally directed by Roland Emmerich, the mind behind the Stargate film. In this instance the characters within the diegesis of the show indicate a level of familiarity with the audience’s world of entertainment. Rather than taking place in a distant future or location, Stargate is based on Earth in the present day. It acknowledges the familiar entertainments of the audience’s world and suggests that the characters engage in similar forms of leisure as the viewer.
The most effective moment in which this awareness occurs is when the television series goes so far as to directly reference its source material, the film Stargate. In an episode in the second season, Secrets, O’Neill ensures his name is spelled correctly in an attempt to distinguish himself from “another Colonel O’Neil, with only one ‘l’. He has no sense of humor at all.” This appears to be a reference to a more reserved Colonel O’Neil, with one ‘l’, played by Kurt Russell in the film. The television series’ reference to its own source material serves to reinforce the fact that its narrative exists in the audience’s world, with absolutely no exceptions. In addition, Dave Hipple suggests that such references to other science fiction narratives has the fortunate side effect of distancing the show from its competitors by drawing attention to the fact that, despite the existing similarities, Stargate SG-1 is its own entity (Hipple 34).
So as not to stray too far from the familiar in the realm of science fiction, Stargate SG-1 also chose to have very few alien species despite visiting a new planet in every episode. Stargate SG-1 is very judicious with introducing new alien species, an event that occurs only a handful of time throughout its entire ten seasons. Instead, on each new planet the characters encounter human colonies that were trafficked from Earth at convenient moments throughout history. The existence of alien species is an aspect of science fiction that can easily alienate its viewers. With respect to alien species, Stargate SG-1 chose to emphasize the familiar, in this case the human, rather than the spectacular. Even the villains for much of the series appear in human form, as they are parasites that inhabit human hosts. When considering the domestic space in which television exists, it is much easier for audiences to relate to human characters rather than alien ones.
Stargate SG-1 also makes use of repetition to reinforce narratives and character traits, creating a world that one can easily become familiar with. While repetition is an important aspect of most television programming, it is worth noting in this discussion given its familiarizing effects. One obvious repetition that occurs throughout the series, first appearing extensively in the pilot, is the show’s theme music. While in the film the musical theme is only noticeable near the end as the characters are celebrating their victory, the same theme can be heard in nearly every beat during the television pilot creating a familiar, consistent, and somewhat redundant diegesis. A repetition of narrative information also exists within each episode. In the pilot, as O’Neill’s team makes their way through a network of hallways towards the stargate, they are told that they will be stranded on an alien planet if they do not return within 24 hours. Seconds later, this exact information is repeated while they stand in front of the stargate. By repeating plot information multiple times, the viewer becomes familiar not only with the narrative of the episode but also with the rules of the series, helping them predict outcomes and establish expectations.
As demonstrated through these examples, the adaptation of Stargate from film to television capitalizes on the use of both spectacle and the familiar. In his study of interpretation, Umberto Eco indicates that for a work to be considered well done it must achieve a dialectic between order and novelty (Eco 91). In other words, a successful aesthetic work must strike a balance between a familiar scheme and an innovative spectacle. Herein lies the success of the adaptation of Stargate from film to television. The unique balance between novelty and order not only exists in the adaptation of Stargate but also comes together in a challenging and often unintuitive manner. Together the familiar and unfamiliar are often associated with the uncanny, or the defamiliarization of that which is familiar. Yet Stargate SG-1 combines the two in order to further familiarize its viewers with that which is unfamiliar. While the formal and narrative aspects of Stargate SG-1 seem natural and unremarkable when considered individually, when examined together as a blending of the familiar and the unfamiliar the viewer is familiarized with the nature of spectacle. The level of familiarity inherent in all genre films along with a recent return to a Cinema of Attractions indicates a possible account for the frequency with which the adaptation of such films for television is attempted, both successfully and unsuccessfully.
Despite the fact that genre films often lack the complex and intricate narratives that have become popular on cable networks such as HBO and AMC, Stargate SG-1 embraces its existence in a world of science fiction clichés in it’s final episode as the characters walk through the stargate one final time. As they approach they gate, they exchange a series of cliché phrases such as “better late than never,” “Jack of all trades, master of none,” and “life is too short.” As they share these clichés, the gate is opened one final time behind them, with its grand waterspout effect and loud audio track. This shot, with both familiar clichés and grandiose effects, acknowledges an aspect of the series that enabled its great success as an adaption: its familiarity blended with a spectacle to be rivaled.
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