I didn’t realize how much I missed watching Stargate until I’d watched the first five minutes of “Rising,” the Stargate Atlantis pilot.
“Rising” opens in Antarctica on the Ancient base found by Jack O’Neill and SG-1 in “Lost City.” Stargate Command has financed an expedition to Atlantis for which the team is frantically preparing. Team Leader of the Atlantis expedition is Dr. Elizabeth Weir, a civilian played by Torri Higginson. They’re getting their affairs in order, trying to determine how much energy they’re going to need to open a wormhole to the Pegasus galaxy, where the Ancients moved their city, Atlantis, hundreds of thousands of years ago. SG-1 veterans Daniel Jackson and Jack O’Neill are there to see the expedition off, lending it that special Stargate feel, but not before General O’Neill’s hapless pilot, Major John Sheppard (the yummy Joe Flanigan), is sucked into the expedition as well. It’s a mission that all two hundred team members know might be a one way trip. Once they reach Atlantis, the fun begins. First they have to save the city — submerged underwater for the past 10,000 years — from imploding under the sudden energy needs caused by the arrival of the Earth team, and in the process, awaken a deadly enemy Hell-bent on sucking the life out of every last human in the galaxy. After the pilot, the show retains some of the Stargate SG-1 formula (travel to new planets via Stargate, get into trouble, come home, etc.) but also deviates from that formula quite a bit, and that’s where Atlantis really starts to shine.
There are many, many good things about the first season of Stargate Atlantis. For starters, it’s completely addicting. For a variety of reasons, the episodes watch quickly and never lag. This is a result not only of practiced writing (Atlantis‘s writers had been honing their skills on SG-1 for eight years at this point and had mostly worked out all the kinks), but charming characters (and actors), humor, and good special effects (for TV) as well. After the events of the pilot, Major Sheppard becomes de facto military leader in the city, while Weir retains command. Together, they are in charge of the fate of Atlantis. Sheppard is a bit of a wild card. He says what he thinks, he’s charming and funny, and he’s also a bit of a bad ass. (He’s also the kind of guy who gives dumb human names to scary, nameless bad guys. Names like “Bob” and “Steve,” because everybody knows naming things takes their power away.) Higginson does a credible job portraying Weir’s struggles as well: fighting for respect among a team of scientists and military personnel, all while defending Atlantis against the inevitable attacks coming its way. Her character at first comes off a little useless as she’s mostly left at home to give commands, but come mid-season the writers began finding ways to more effectively utilize her character. In particular, the episode “Before I Sleep,” in which she gets to play both a young and old version of herself, is just mesmerizing.
Aside from the two leads, the show is mostly made up of a truly entertaining ensemble cast that work well together. The standouts are Rodney McKay (the hilarious David Hewlett), the genius, asshole scientist who you would probably hate in real life, but watching him on TV is just fabulous, and Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion), an adorable medical doctor with a thick Scottish brogue and the heart of a giant teddy bear. Dr. Zalenka (David Nykl), another team scientist, also plays a larger more complex part in the latter half of the season as the yin to McKay’s asshole yang. Other good things: the set design is gorgeous, the sense of adventure is always present (this is ATLANTIS), the utilization of mythology and science together, and hte overall stability of the fictional universe they inhabit. And of course there’s the bad guys. I always found the Goa’uld — the main antagonists in SG-1 for its first eight seasons — slightly ridiculous and not at all terrifying. Maybe it was their stupid outfits or the way their minions died so easily, but they never inspired a single thrill of terror in me, not even a little. The Ori — bad guys in the last two seasons of the show — were much different. They were scary and religious and their minions were even scarier. But I have to say, I think Atlantis’s baddies — The Wraith — beat them both.
The Wraith are an accident of evolution set in motion when the Ancients began seeding the Pegasus galaxy with human life. Descended from insects (mixed with human DNA) which feed off of life force itself, the Wraith have no ideological aim or need for power, they simply need to eat. This makes them terrifying not only because of their appearance (ghostly pale green and blue skin, long white hair, gruesome fingernails, and diamond-like teeth) but because they can’t be bargained with. They don’t care if what they’re doing is wrong and couldn’t change it if they wanted. They need to eat, they’re going to eat. What’s more, in “Rising,” the Atlantis team wakes up the hoards of Wraith who have been slumbering for thousands of years due to a food shortage in Pegasus (the Wraith periodically “cull” every world in the galaxy and then return to hibernation while humans flourish, providing more food), but learn of the existence of Earth and The Milky Way, chock full of humans an other sources of food. The Wraith all wake up at once, determined to get there. These are the bad guys on Atlantis, and honestly, they pretty much terrify me. I think it’s the hair.
Don’t get me wrong, Stargate Atlantis is far from perfect. Along with the pitfalls that comes with any show in its freshman season, Atlantis does have some things that need working on. For instance, some of the characterizations and acting is pretty weak. On the first world the Atlantis team visits they find a people called the Athosians, and their leader, Teyla Emmagon (Rachel Luttrell). I can tell from the writing that Teyla is supposed to be this serene, motherly bad-ass, but especially in the first half of the season, Luttrell handles the character rather poorly. She isn’t very relatable in her stoicism (as compared to Teal’c, her “counterpart” in SG-1, who as played by Christopher Judge and despite his alien being, radiated charisma), and she has all of two facial expressions in her arsenal. Her articulations are either stony or whiny. She lightens up slightly as the season progresses, but she is still a big weak spot in an otherwise great cast. The problem might also lie with the character, but we’ll never know if another actress might have handled her differently. I hope she and the writers get a handle on the problem, soon, because there’s another four seasons of her in my very near future. The last remaining main cast member is Rainbow Sun Francks, a charming actor who plays the naive young, and jubilant Lieutenant Aiden Ford. There isn’t really much to say about Ford. I think the writers and producers envisioned something for the character that just didn’t pan out; he’s just kind of backgroundy throughout the entire season.
Other stuff. This season’s other, more minor antagonists, the Genii, were just incredibly annoying, although their presence did inspire one of the best episodes of the season. It’s hard to create guest characters that don’t come off as shallow, and the Genii often fall into the “annoying” category, but the impulse behind their creation is a strong one, if the writers can manage to make them less annoying and more believable. As I mentioned earlier, Atlantis’s weakest episodes are the “planet stories” as they’re too derivitave of SG-1. Stories on Atlantis work best when they’re focused on the strangeness of this mythical city and the worlds that surround it, not meeting random villagers who more often than not are backwards and kind of retarded (like the planet where no one was over 24 because they believed sacrificing themselves would keep the Wraith away). In future seasons, I’d also like to see more of the city itself. I know that the producers are under a strict budget, but what’s the use of having all that city if you’re not going to use it? At times, the main set that is used just feels a little too small for its epic setting.
- “Rising” (the team discovers Atlantis and saves it from a watery death),
- “The Storm/The Eye” (an enormous hurricane threatens to destroy the city, which is built on a watery planet, meanwhile the team has to defend the city from terrorists — basically, it’s Die Hard),
- “The Defiant One” (Sheppard and McKay go up against a very old Wraith on a desert planet),
- “Before I Sleep” (the team finds a 10,000 year old Weir hibernating in a stasis chamber),
- and “Letters from Pegasus” (the team finds a way to send home a message to Earth, believing that Atlantis will soon be destroyed by the Wraith).
- “Childhood’s End” (the team finds the young planet),
- “Underground” (the team meets the Genii, idiot people who pretend to be farmers but are building nukes in secret),
- and “Sanctuary” (the team visits a planet where a lone Ancient has been banished, but who refuses to help the Atlanteans except for having sex with Sheppard, because that’s totally cool because he’s Captain Kirk).
The season ends with the Wraith laying siege to Atlantis, not really any hope for survival in their future. There isn’t really a central metaphor governing the series — at least one isn’t apparent to me as of yet — and I love that they are seeking an identity/tone that is much different than SG-1. The Wraith are scary bad guys worthy of years of battle and the discovery of Atlantis’s delicious secrets could conceivably take years and years. Overall, what I see in this show is potential. I hope that in the four seasons I have yet to see, it doesn’t get squandered.