Stepping into a ‘Stargate’ universe

Scientists are still debating whether the universe holds an infinite or finite amount of space. Whatever its size, one thing is certain -- it’s filling up with science fiction television programs.

One of the latest vessels is “Stargate Universe,” which returned last week after a brief hiatus to continue its first season on Syfy. That show, of course, is the second spinoff from the mother ship “Stargate SG-1,” the original television series that premiered in 1997 on Showtime.

And that series, which spawned two television movies of its own, was a further spinoff of the 1994 feature film that starred Kurt Russell and James Spader as explorers who stumble upon a “stargate” -- a huge circular object with the power to transport people to different worlds.

For all its many satellites on television and film, the “Stargate” franchise still hasn’t outdone the multi-headed “Star Trek” phenomenon in total mass or cultural impact -- but it’s certainly hard not to take notice. The long-running “Stargate” franchise jogged the memory of actor Robert Carlyle (“Trainspotting” and “The Full Monty”), who plays Dr. Nicholas Rush in “Stargate Universe” when he was considering coming on board.

“It was when things were settling down into the contractual stage where I thought, ‘I’d better look at some of this stuff,’ ” Carlyle said. “I was surprised at how much of ‘SG-1' I had seen. Then I thought, ‘Of course I’ve seen a lot of it -- it’s a massive franchise seen all over the world.’ ”

The franchise’s conceit is built upon the notion that aliens came to the Earth long ago and helped humans in mysterious and critical ways. (How do you think those pyramids were built?) Despite the interstellar back-and-forth through the stargate, it has always been important to the show’s creative teams to keep the series grounded in some earthbound reality.

“By grounding it in the real world, with a military structure we can recognize, the show really is able to take its concept much farther than shows that don’t have that real-world connection,” said Roxanne Conrad, co-editor of “Stepping Through the Stargate: Science, Archaeology and the Military in Stargate SG-1,” a compilation of essays about the program.

In “Stargate Universe,” showrunners Brad Wright and Robert Cooper have taken the franchise in a new direction but one familiar to science fiction fans. In its latest iteration, the Stargate series is set on an alien ship, Destiny, that is traveling to . . . well, that’s the central question. All that is known is that the ship’s passengers were forced aboard after retreating from an attack through a stargate -- and now they are on a ship millions of light years away and are locked on a journey from which they can’t divert.

“Even though we are on a spaceship, we wanted to have a feel and a sense, both visually and in terms of the performances, of realism,” Wright said. “It was, frankly, the way we wanted to challenge ourselves too. It was a way to bring the show more into the present in terms of how television is being made.”

Inevitably, comparisons are drawn between the newer “Stargates” and the most recent " Battlestar Galactica,” which was a huge critical favorite. The “Stargate” storytellers and players are deeply aware of the way “BSG” has influenced science fiction fans and their expectations.

“Everything is compared, everything is recycled on some level,” said Louis Ferreira, who plays Col. Everett Young on “Stargate Universe.” “If you’re going to recycle or compare, why not compare it to the best of, and I think ‘Battlestar Galactica’ represents that.”

Led by Carlyle and Ferreira, the ensemble also includes David Blue, Lou Diamond Phillips, Alaina Huffman, Brian J. Smith, Ming-Na, Jamil Walker Smith and Elyse Levesque.

Some cast members are newcomers to science fiction and had their preconceptions quickly dispelled.

The old “Stargate” “was a little fluffy for me . . . and I was a bit concerned,” Ming- Na said. “This was much more dire, much darker, and the characters were developed slowly to take new fans and old fans through the paces of this very different type of ‘Stargate.’ ”

jevon.phillips@latimes .com