We have watched several samples of MacGyver and all of Legend, and so I feel comfortable saying that even at either show’s worst, Richard Dean Anderson brought a very watchable sparkle and wit to his performances. Let me illustrate by noting that Roger Moore honestly didn’t have a lot of range, but he was always really entertaining in every role because he knew how to find life in the deadest lines, and precisely when to arch his eyebrow just enough. I think it’s reasonable to say that Anderson has a similar range and style. He’s an actor who knows when to puff his cheeks and furrow his brow and silently bring the right humor to a tough scene.
In the original Stargate film, Kurt Russell had the difficult job of playing Col. Jack O’Neill, a man who was (a) a no-nonsense military bore, who (b) had recently lost his young child in a shooting accident, and who (c) had nothing left to live for and was prepared, willing, and perfectly content to kill himself if the mission went wrong. (This begs the question: was O’Neill selected for that mission and reactivated specifically because the Air Force wanted a man with no desire to live? Lord, that’s depressing.) Now, I don’t pretend to understand casting directors, but knowing where Richard Dean Anderson excels, he strikes me as a breathtakingly strange choice to be offered the part of O’Neill in the series version of Stargate, which began in the summer of 1997.
And yet, thank heaven somebody made that wild connection, because while, as I’ll explain in a post later this week, the first two years of this show are disappointing and largely awful, they would be utterly unbearable without Richard Dean Anderson to carry their weight. He can’t completely save it – absent a total rethink, nothing could – but if Anderson hadn’t found O’Neill’s reason to live, a little bit healed a year after his son’s accidental death, and given this character just the right level of intelligence and gentle sarcasm, I wouldn’t have the patience to watch any of this mess.
And he’s helped so much by Michael Shanks as Daniel Jackson, who actually has a human reason to be involved this time around. In the film, Kurt Russell and James Spader have no chemistry whatsoever, because Russell is written to have no chemistry with anybody, and Spader’s character is only looking for chemistry in old languages. Shanks is just terrific as Jackson. He brings the life and the anger and the drive; Anderson brings the backbone and the reason. (Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge are here as well; in time, they’ll each shine very brightly, but in “Children of the Gods,” they serve the plot without getting in the others’ way much.)
So this story gets some of the gang back together and establishes the principal villain for this phase of the program. The foes are a parasitic race of worm-things called Goa’uld who live inside humans. They set themselves up as intergalactic “System Lords” and, with a couple of devious, amusing, or interesting exceptions we meet years from now, they are incredibly boring “evil for evil’s sake” villains. For a long while, the only one that we meet is the powerful Apophis, played by Peter Williams. So he’s here, along with his new evil queen Sha’re, and the quest to defeat Apophis and save Sha’re, who had been married to Daniel before she was infected, is the first ongoing arc of the program.
The kid enjoyed it restlessly until a very well-staged shootout at the conclusion. He loved that a lot. What he didn’t love – and what we didn’t let him watch – was the infection of Sha’re, which really has no place in an otherwise PG-style program like this. It’s so amazingly out of place and boneheadedly wrong that everybody mentions it, and not just because they get kicks talking about full-frontal nudity. The world of Stargate is otherwise really chaste and sexless, and yet here’s this moment where the actress gets shown off and has a big slimy worm prop run around her naked back. I’ve read the producers didn’t want to do it, but the network – then, Showtime – insisted, and they later issued an edited version of the film to remove the most gratuitous shots. What I’ve never understood is why Showtime wanted the nude scene in the movie but none of the subsequent episodes. It would only make sense if Showtime wanted something like Game of Thrones fifteen years early, with rapey Goa’uld infections on other planets, characters having sex, and shower scenes back at the military base.
There are many misfires to come, but few of them are as downright weird as this scene. More in a few days, when I explain why we’re watching this dumb program. I’ll try not to spend the days wishing that it would have been better for all concerned if Richard Dean Anderson had the opportunity to keep playing Legend for two or three more seasons.