#YVRShoots – Stargate Universe (SGU) Meets Its Destiny

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This series had its genesis when I began photographing Vancouver area location shoots last summer to get over a long post-Olympics funk. Film and TV productions like This Means War, Mission Impossible 4, Fringe and the new AMC series The Killing showcase our city in similar fashion and sometimes put a celebrity actor or two in the frame.

I came to the Stargate TV franchise at the tail end of its incredible 14-year run in Vancouver. The third and final series Stargate Universe (SGU), set aboard an Ancient starship called the Destiny, reminded me of Battlestar Galactica, my favourite sci-fi series ever, also filmed here. Only the long, complex mythology of the long-running sci-fi Stargate saga occasionally defeated me.

To summarize: stargates are ring-shaped technology from the Ancients which create wormholes that allow travel between worlds cosmic distances away. In the 1994 MGM feature film Stargate, one is discovered on Earth and kept secret from the public by the U.S. military. Following up on the movie’s mammoth success, TV series Stargate SG-1 began filming in Vancouver in 1997 and ran for ten seasons. Partway through. a spinoff Stargate Atlantis (SGA) — set in the legendary city of Atlantis — launched in 2004 and ran for five seasons. It seemed like  Stargate, already setting records for series longevity, would go on forever here when the third series Stargate Universe (SGU) started airing in 2009, but it was not to be.

Darker-edged but more critically-acclaimed Stargate Universe took home six Leo awards at last year’s annual celebration of film and television in British Columbia, winning Best Dramatic Series and Best Supporting Actress for Julia Benson. I took photos of Destiny crew Benson (Lt. James), Patrick Gilmore (Volker), Elyse Levesque (Chloe) and fan favourite Lou Diamond Phillips (Col. Telford) on the red carpet, without knowing what characters they played.

Not long after, I caught up with Stargate Universe’s first season and wondered if it would be possible to see them filming any of the second season on location in Vancouver. That was easier said than done, since 80% of SGU was filmed on studio sound stages, i.e. the Destiny, with the production only going on location to film rare planetary visits using the ship’s stargate or Earth visits using the communication stones (don’t ask).

Four months later, I found Stargate Universe filming a planetary visit at the old Terminal City Ironworks site (often used by film & TV productions) in East Vancouver. SGU filmed there for several days with a CGIed Stargate inside one of the buildings and virtually the entire cast there, with the exception of Robert Carlyle (Rush) and David Blue (Eli) left aboard the Destiny in studio. I photographed a green-screen on the roof to CGI a scene of Louis Ferreira (Col. Young) looking down on a deserted city: “It wasn’t abandoned. These people were wiped out.” I didn’t stick around once they finished the roof scene and moved inside, so I didn`t get to witness any of the cast`s crazy antics or shenanigans often involving cutup Ferreira, but I did see a happy and relaxed Jamil Walker Smith (Master Sgt. Greer) and Alaina Huffman (TJ), with her two young children, chatting outside their trailers with crew and fans while Ming-Na (Camille Wray) strolled around the block in the sun. SGU filmed other key scenes of this deserted city at the old Watchmen set in Burnaby. And these scenes ended up in the penultimate episode of the SGU series, in fact of the entire Stargate TV franchise.

More critical acclaim fell on Stargate Universe’s first season when the series earned multiple Gemini Award nominations last fall, including one for Best Dramatic Series. The entire cast and the creators flew to Toronto for an action-packed day on November 12th, with stops at Canada AM and then an InnerSPACE: SGU Special taped at CTV`s Masonic temple. Brian Jacob Smith (Lt. Scott) recalled standing behind the audience as they watched an SGU episode in the Masonic temple as his favourite memory of the series. SGU cast and creators capped off their trip with the Gemini Awards the next night, where Robert Carlyle won Best Dramatic Actor. It seemed SGU had helped Vancouver`s sci-fi hub finally earn some respect at the Geminis.

But Stargate Universe’s U.S. ratings didn’t improve, especially after its American cable network SyFy switched it to Tuesday from Friday nights. Concerned about the future, executive producers decided to write the second season finale not just as a set up for a third season but also to provide fans with some degree of closure in case the show wasn’t renewed. SGU had their wrap party and cast headed home for the hiatus not sure whether they were coming back. Then on December 16th, SyFy tweeted that it had cancelled SGU but would air the final 10 episodes this spring. Within seconds fans tweeted consolation to cast members, meaning they learned about this “punch in the gut” cancellation from Twitter not from the network.

Any cancellation is harsh, but the manner of this one seemed disrepectful to a franchise that had aired on SyFy for almost a decade (after five seasons on Showtime). Over the 14 years of filming in Vancouver, dozens of children had been born to the Stargate’s Vancouver crew, which by and large stayed intact throughout the various Stargate incarnations. SGU producers felt so shattered by the cancellation that they made no show submissions for the Leo nominations. Fortunately, actors make their own submissions, so SGU is up for one Leo Award next month, a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Jennifer Spence (Lisa Park).

Earlier this week, while the studio started tearing down SGU sets , the series finale of the Stargate TV franchise finally aired on SyFy in the U.S. and SPACE channel in Canada. It left the Destiny crew in a three-year-suspended-animation en route to the next galaxy, except for one character watching the ship move through space. On the InnerSPACE sendoff show, Brian Jacob Smith described the finale as a piece of music that ends in an unresolved chord. One Canadian fan tweeted the show about how she’d come to care about the SGU actors like Smith as much as the characters thanks to Twitter. Almost the entire cast, with the exceptions of Robert Carlyle and Louis Ferreira, have active Twitter accounts, as do stunt coordinator James “BamBam” Bamford and visual effects supervisor Mark Savelo. So it was appropriate that fans tweeted hundreds of Standing Os(standing ovations) to them this week, me included.

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