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Action Jackson - Impact #123
Interview courtesy of Save Daniel Jackson

Action Jackson
Impact #124, April 02
Michael Shanks interviewed by John Mosby

Stargate SG-1 is one of a rare breed of television show. Though not backed by one of the major networks in the US (i.e. FOX, UPN, ABC, NBC, CBS etc) it has become something of an international cult phenomenon. Its regular mix of military action, above-average special effects, humour and great ensemble acting have meant that it has carved out something of a unique niche for itself. A consistent stalwart of Showtime (in the US), Sky's schedule and a regular fixture on Channel 4 in the UK, the show has a massive European following. Which might explain the degree of reaction when Michael Shanks announced that he would not be returning for the show's final (sixth) season. Not only that, but the decision came with Shanks openly critical of the way his character and the series storylines had been heading.

As we sit in an office just off Soho Square in London, Shanks seems tired but relaxed. He's slightly.well, hairier than you expect. Far from being the clean-cut bespectacled language expert of the SG1 team, he's in more formal attire - including a tea-cosy-like SG1 hat and sporting prominent side-burns and whiskers. Think Wolverine on Slim-Fast. Despite suffering from a bad cold, he's just attended a convention and was genuinely touched by the fan reaction to his appearance there. Indeed, when a montage of Daniel's final moments on the show were screened, there apparently wasn't a dry eye in the house - including his own. He came to the microphone and told the attendees they were 'rat-bastard for making me cry!'.

"Yeah, that caught me off-guard," the actor admits. "Someone stuck in a dedication video after I'd had a couple of glasses of wine. It was all set to Celtic music, which is always stirring. I was fighting it really hard, but they got me! It was really nice. I've only done a couple of conventions, but I wanted to thank the fans for their support."

There's no denying that Daniel's departure from the show (in Meridian, the penultimate episode of Season Five which sees Daniel give his life to save an alien world.or maybe not) has been greeted by a strong negative reaction from many of the show's fans. So when did Shanks actually decide he'd had enough?

"It was in the fifth or sixth show of the fifth season where I thought 'That's it'. In the fourth season I wondered what we were doing. I knew that there was something in the air that was changing.something in the writing. Suddenly we'd pulled the rug out from underneath the original concept and we were heading in this new direction, but I wasn't sure where. I held up a red flag when I saw that happening initially and asked what was going on. I was told it was just a phase and that they were experimenting.that everything would be fine. I kept waiting for something to happen.but it never did," the actor explains. "At the start of the fifth season, the first five or six episodes, my character was just not utilised at all. I thought 'You know, something.this is not happening.' and I couldn't see myself finishing the season, yet alone agreeing to do another season."

"My own opinion is that the fifth season is a bit sketchy, writing-wise. It's not that the writers were any less capable, but they were struggling to find ideas for us - which was a shame given the vastness of opportunity that the premise of the show suggested," he continues. "I think there was a bit of a token feel to (my final) episode. It was 'here's an episode where Daniel dies THEN we have a big climactic battle and fight a war? It was exactly as I feared it had become.Daniel was so written off to the side that he was this peripheral thing that flipped off the edge. It wasn't the way that it was done, so much as introducing a replacement character in the same episode which I thought was just poor form. It didn't help either him or myself. You can't flesh out his character in an emotionally-packed episode that Daniel was dying. It was bad timing and it could easily have been done in the next episode or another once the dust had settled. It took time away from the one-off story as well. I can't say strongly agree with the choices that were made, but it wasn't my choice."

The announcement that Shanks was leaving the show came as a surprise to the fans, but many of the shows US-based fans have not yet seen the episodes (the remaining Season Five episodes look set to be broadcast there in the summer). They were unprepared for the news which filtered through the on-line communities about the nature of Daniel's semi-demise. He admits that the show's following in Europe is bigger than in the US, if no less passionate.

"I know it's a lot more popular here than where I come from. It's a known entity but we have so much product in the United States that Stargate often gets lost in the mix. There are a lot of different shows out there and with syndication it's very east to get stuck in a 11:00pm or 2:00am timeslot somewhere. I was walking around London recently and I began to realise I was being noticed occasionally. It's strange. When people look at you, you wonder what the reason is. Is he looking at me? Is he checking out my girlfriend? Is it because they recognise her (Lexa Doig, from Andromeda). Do I act like a celebrity here or shall I be a knob? It kinda goes with the territory. It's more intense here than Canada and the United States."

Looking back to when the series began, did Shanks or any of the main acting ensemble have any idea that the show would prove as popular as it subsequently became?

"I didn't at all. I had just finished my second year at Stratford, Ontario Theatre Festival and I wanted to do a television show for a couple of years. Lo and behold, Stargate SG-1 came along and I auditioned for it. They had a forty-four episode (two season) guarantee and I thought 'Perfect'. Even if a second year was miserable beyond belief, I'd be learning along the way. Most of the movies-turned-TV-series have a half-life of about fifteen minutes. With shows like Buffy, Highlander and Stargate there seems to have been a bit more success, but I generally expected it to die a horrible death somewhere along the line. I was surprised it continued to grow. It was a matter of attrition. 'Watch me, because I'm not going away!'."

In the original cinema movie, the two central roles were taken by Kurt Russell as Jack O'Neil (one 'l') and James Spader as Daniel Jackson. Did Shanks try to emulate Spader's version of the role, or simply bring a new perspective to the character?

"I think the character of Jack O'Neill was so different from the film that they wanted some sort of continuity for the character of Daniel Jackson. The conscious decision I made was to associate some of Daniel's/Spader's characteristics for the audition and they liked it. We started there and I wanted to make it my own over time. I wasn't a huge fan of the original movie, though. I liked the first half, but didn't really like the second half. The series had some of the same elements, but we went south with some of the others.and we succeeded and failed at that."

Shanks also acknowledges that the show often made good use of it budget. When an episode that didn't require huge pyrotechnics was being filmed, the budget could be reduced and more money allowed for the bigger battle sequence or SFX in other episodes. The ensemble cast were often strong enough to carry an episode themselves.

"I think the benefit of having a good group of actors. They could say we don't have the budget to blow up something big this week so let's rely and throw some onus on the actors," he admits. "That worked to their benefit.the actors could carry the ball and still make the show a quality one. I think that's a credit to the executive producers of the show. Even if something is late on the table, a week before we film it and everyone looks at it and goes 'Oh My God you can't be serious'.then everyone brings their game up to that level. We all know it's not going away. People will brainstorm and do it the best we can. Worst case, we're only slightly embarrassed by it, rather the way it as originally (laughs). We all have that integrity and we were all allowed a certain amount of input. The executive producers allow a little more input. They aren't dictatorial about it, they do consider stuff and gain that trust."

Nor was there any lack of action for the cast. Though professional stunt-people and choreographers were often on hand, Shanks admits he was willing to get more involved with the rough and tumble when allowed. Did he have to be fitter than people give him credit for?

"It's hard to say. I've always been quite athletic in my life, so when it comes down to it I think you are used as much as you allow yourself to be in that department," he explains. "If you want to do your own rolling and diving you could - as long as it wasn't too dangerous - but if you were able you could be diving out of the way and running through 'gun-fire' then you were welcome to do so and it helped."

If the action is impressive, then many fans like the humour of the show as well. Often infusing moments of high drama with a degree of flippancy, the acting team seemed to be having genuine fun. Michael agrees that the nature of the main cast's friendship made the job easier.

"I think it was about as much a fun experience as I've ever had. There was always time for a good chuckle. Some days it felt like way too much work and others it felt like not work at all. It depended on the mood or the difficulty of the material, but generally the days were kept as light as possible. We didn't allow ourselves to be bogged down by the drama. It was as good an environment as you're going to see in a situation like that."

And so to the future. Daniel Jackson may have ascended to a higher plane of existence but Michael Shanks has his feet firmly placed on the ground. Stargate SG-1 will continue for at least one more season. The oft-proposed feature film version based on the series version continues to be a possibility. That's not to mention Stargate: Atlantis, another TV spin-off. Given the events in "Meridian" and his recent experiences, Shanks is moving on but holds doubts that Daniel Jackson will be coming back (at least as a regular character).

"I think that any corporation that was interested in a franchise evolving out of the series should probably have been more reverent to components that got them this far. I think that if their attitude at the end of Season Five is any reflection of (what they think is) the characters' overall importance to the overall franchise.then I can't necessarily see the character being part of Season Six or any proposed feature film.unless there's a specific part for him in it, a value to the character and whether we can come to terms on what that is. In March I'm doing a film in India called 'Children of the Monsoon', it's about a model from LA who goes out and faces the grim reality of life there. After that, it's pilot season in Los Angeles, so I'm leaving my options open and exploring the world that I've been absent from the last five years. It'll be a relief to be back there. If Stargate SG-1 is going on for another year in Vancouver, I'm not going to be in THAT city! It'll be good to be back in the mix and see if there's life outside the series itself. I'm heading off with all guns blazing."

Asking him, finally, to say what his favourite/worst moments on Stargate SG-1 were.he pauses and thinks carefully.

"The best moment was probably the day we first shot on the set. Amanda (Tapping), Chris (Judge) and I went for a tour. We stood up above the Stargate and went 'Wow!'. That's when you think the future is full of glorious things to come. The worst moments were probably the last few days of bring there, feeling the souring of a lot of things and the sadness and a bit of nostalgia. I'll still be keeping in touch with a lot of people there though. I've made a lot of good friends."

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