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 his convictions."
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 isn't!"
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" universe).
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."