Groundhog Day is many things. For sure, it’s a much-loved, classic comedy of the 1990s and one that stars Bill Murray at that. That should be enough to make it noteworthy.
But it’s also a genre-defining movie. The tale of man doomed to relive the same day, day after day, no matter what he does, it is much emulated. If you watch as many TV shows as I do, you’ll notice that pretty much every long-running sci-fi show will do a Groundhog Day episode, whether it’s Stargate SG-1, Dark Matter, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Doctor Who, Fringe, Star Trek: Discovery, 12 Monkeys, Supernatural, The X-Files or Travelers, to name but a few.
Indeed, I’ve seen so many now, it feels like I’m in my own TV Groundhog Day, and one of my golden laws of sci-fi TV is that any sufficiently long-running sci-fi show will eventually do a Groundhog Day episode of its own.
So iconic is Groundhog Day that most shows don’t even try to hide what they’re doing and will even namecheck It. It’s also made it into the dictionary now.
Not Groundhog Day
Look up at the first part of that definition and you’ll suddenly remember that Groundhog Day is named after a real-life event celebrated in the US on February 2, in which a groundhog is used to predict the weather (this year: an early spring). So kudos to Netflix on three scores.
First, for releasing Russian Doll, its version of Groundhog Day, on February 1, just in time for the actual Groundhog Day, but with no fanfare pointing this out.
Second, for not mentioning Groundhog Day throughout the eight episodes, despite having a computer game designer as a heroine who drops copious mentions of other genre movies and TV shows.
And third, for doing something that while having much in common with Groundhog Day somehow manages to do something surprisingly different with its central time loop.
Given the need for there to be some cause for a time loop, most shows that use ‘the Groundhog Day’ scenario are by their very nature sci-fi shows, with the likes of Daybreak being one of the very few exceptions – until now.
But beyond a slight horror theme that gets more and more pronounced until the surprisingly disturbing seventh episode, Russian Doll is actually a dark relationship comedy. Co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne plays the eponymous Russian Doll and Bill Murray of the piece, ‘Nadia Vulvokov’. When the action starts, she’s at her 36th birthday party and there appears to be a vortex in her bathroom, not that she pays much attention to it. At the party, she meets a guy called Mike (Jeremy Lowell Bobb) and hooks up with him. However, on the way home, she’s hit by a taxi… and killed.
And is back in the bathroom again. What’s going on, why is this happening, how can she escape from the loop and how many times will she have to die along the way?
The Stargate series is one of the most successful science-fiction franchises in history. While it doesn’t yet have the longevity of Doctor Who, it could get there, even though it’s struggled a bit at times.
It began with a relatively simple, blockbuster movie that sees the US military hiring an archaeologist (James Spader) to help them understand an ancient alien artefact found in the Egyptian desert in the 1920s. The giant metal ring turns out to be a gateway to another world, on the other side of which are the descendants of Egyptian slaves still in thrall to an alien pretending to be their god, Ra. Although the military, led by Kurt Russell, initially plans just to nuke the planet, they end up freeing the slaves and killing the bad guy. Hoorah!
Since this wasn’t yet the age of the three-movie franchise, from that idea was born a follow-up TV series Stargate SG-1 that continued the story and expanded it. Before you knew it (well, after 10 seasons), there were different races of different aliens impersonating different gods on countless worlds, dozens of Stargate teams, and further spin-off series including Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, all of which added up to a metric fuck-tonne of continuity and mythology.
All good things have to end some time, though, so the franchise has been somewhat dormant for a few years. But since August, it’s been building an online presence over at ‘Stargate Command’, which now has its own, exclusive, 10-part, shortform series, Stargate Origins.
Saving the world again
Stargate Origins does a tricky job of navigating that decade+ of mythology to give us a show that almost miraculously fits in with Stargate continuity, and acts as both a sequel to the movie and a prequel to the various TV series, all while being faithful to its predecessors yet doing something a bit different.
The show is set in 1938, 10 years after archaeologist Paul Langford (now played by Star Trek: Enterprise‘s Connor Trinneer) discovered the Stargate in Egypt with his then young daughter Catherine. He’s still in Egypt. He still doesn’t know what the Stargate does. In fact, he thinks it’s a new kind of Rosetta Stone.
Meanwhile, Catherine (Ellie Gall) is now a grown woman on the verge of marriage to a British soldier (Philip Alexander). She’s losing interest in the Stargate and is thinking of heading off to archaeological projects new.
Then the head of Hitler’s Occult Unit (Aylam Orian) turns up. He’s found a bit of parchment in Thailand that reveals the Stargate’s true nature, as well as a set of seven signs on the gate that will open up the doorway to another planet. Hopefully he’ll be able to find something he can steal for Hitler and Germany while he’s there – and he’s taking Trinneer along to help him.
Can Gall, Alexander and local soldier Shvan Aladdin open the gate, rescue Trinneer and save the world from both aliens and Nazis?
Raiders of the Lost Gate
And that’s the first three episodes – they’re only 10 minutes each, so we’ve effectively had just the first act of a three- to four-act, 1h40 movie. Overall, while they’re a bit cheaper looking than the TV series and movie, they’re actually not half bad.
Stargate Origins is also fun and smart. While carefully not really contradicting anything the future shows say about both Stargates and Catherine Langford, it manages to avoid the heavy weight of continuity previous shows have had to deal with, while marrying the strengths of Stargate and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Raiders comparison I don’t really have to explain – you can spot the parallels even from the plot summary above – but it’s not an angle the show has ever taken before, despite the time travel options it made available to itself in episodes such as 1969. That gives it a both a different tone to the other shows as well as a period charm.
Also as per Raiders, the Nazis are a smart and worthy bunch of adversaries, not merely mono-dimensional moustache twirlers. They know a lot more than Trinneer does and Orian spends a lot of time guessing correctly what’s going on while Trinneer makes obvious gaffs. There’s also comedy: Orian has a camera crew with him to record everything for posterity and despite the short runtime of each episode, Stargate Origins is wise enough to have silly little scenes, such as when director Sarah Navratil tries to work out which side is Orian’s best side.
It also keeps in some of the features of the movie that didn’t quite make it to the TV series, such as the Go’auld and their followers still only speak a derivation of Ancient Egyptian, not English. Yet at the same time, all the more established features of the TV shows are there, such as the ‘dial home devices’ that are supposed to run the Stargate and continuity is respected.
New team, new pricing
This is a web series for a small platform so expecting great acting is probably a mistake. All the same, both Gall and Trinneer make for a decent pair of leads whom you want to root for. Everyone else is a little bit hammier than is optimal and Alexander doesn’t exactly make you have huge hopes for Britain’s chances in Africa in the Second World War – you can tell why Catherine ends up with Ernest. But we’re not talking ‘YouTube Star’ bad and everyone is more than watchable.
Is this all worth the price? Well, what is the price? It’s a little unclear. You get the first three episodes for free, just by registering for a Stargate Command account. After that? Dunno.
It may be that the remaining episodes will be available for a fee. At the moment, for US$20, you currently get access to not just Stargate Origins but every Stargate TV series, so it might be bundled with that. $20 sounds a bit pricey for the final to two or three acts of a single movie, but if you want all the other TV series, too, that’s not bad.
However, $20 only gets you access to May 15, after which “the All-Access content will no longer be available through your All-Access Pass, but you will still be a member of the Stargate Command community, which will continue.”
What happens after that? Dunno. This interview doesn’t make it much clearer either.
So it’s all a good start, but you might want to hold off getting sucked into Stargate Origins until the final pricing model is revealed, just in case it turns out there’s something scary on the other side.
Trailer for ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Station 19
ABC green lights: pilots of group of dysfunctional single parents comedy Single Parents and four adults/three houses/three kids/two divorces comedy Steps, based on SVT (Sweden)’s Bonusfamiljen (Bonus Family)