By Jennifer Pendleton
Special to TelevisionWeek
Science-fiction fans are some of television’s most dedicated viewers, which is why launching a spinoff of Sci Fi Channel’s highly popular “Stargate SG-1” was a risky proposition. Woe to the television network that pumps out a pale clone or isn’t up to snuff in casting, writing or visual effects. Fans can turn hostile in an intergalactic moment, potentially undercutting the value of the original franchise.
“The worst sin you could do is create a carbon copy of the original series,” said Mark Stern, Sci Fi’s executive VP of original programming. “These fans are the most discerning.”
That’s why it took six months to select the actors in the ensemble series “Stargate Atlantis,” which follows a group of Stargate travelers to a faraway galaxy, pursuing technological secrets of the lost city of Atlantis. Chemistry was essential, in addition to the ability to deliver the irreverent humor that punctuates the scripts.
An earnest Torri Higginson plays diplomat Elizabeth Weir, who regularly tangles with the gung-ho, wisecracking Major John Sheppard, played by actor Joe Flanigan. The producers brought in an experienced director from “Stargate SG-1,” Martin Wood, to direct the “Stargate Atlantis” pilot.
Audiences responded, including a healthy number who aren’t devotees of science fiction, according to Hank Cohen, president of MGM Television Entertainment, the program’s distributor. Mr. Cohen said he routinely hears from viewers by e-mail. “They tell me they think this show is terrific because it hits very emotional beats,” he said.
“Stargate Atlantis”‘ two-hour premiere Friday, July 16, pulled in 4.2 million viewers, making it the highest-rated episode ever of any series on the Sci Fi Channel, according to Nielsen numbers supplied by the network. It was also the highest-rated cable program of the day among 18- to 49-year-old and 25- to 54-year-old audiences.
In addition, its presence gave a boost to “Stargate SG-1,” which drew 31percent more households than its average over summer 2003. By the end of “Stargate Atlantis”‘ summer run, it had become the No. 1 Friday night nonsports entertainment program on both cable and broadcast with 18- to 49-year-old men.