Still boldly going...
The unmistakeable sound of computer-generated space battle kicks off the second season of Stargate Atlantis. Action picks up exactly where fans left off six months earlier, in the midst of an apocalyptic battle. The opponent, as is the case for most of the 20-episode season, is the Wraith, a half-human, half insect race of super villains who feed on full-humans by piercing their skin with talons and slowly sucking them dry. The target is the watery city of Atlantis, a fortress civilization built by the Ancients, then sunk and abandoned for humans to one day find.
The characters number a half dozen or so – cocky Major John Sheppard, exotically gorgeous girl ninja (and alien) Teyla, brilliant scientist, hypochondriac and nudge Rodney McKay, Scottish-accented Dr. Beckett, and worry-creased Dr. Weir – all broadly but skillfully drawn. It’s like you’ve stepped into a Marvel Comic mid-episode. The pace of action, the rapid-fire science speak exposition, the vast and complicated show mythology will make sense later. For now, it’s a dog fight in space, maybe not as spectacular as the later Star Wars iterations, but better than anything ever filmed on Star Trek. Pitchooo! Pitchoo! Pass the popcorn.
Stargate Atlantis, launched in 2004, was a spin-off of an earlier TV show, Showtime’s Stargate SG-1, which was, itself, inspired by the 1994 movie Stargate. The producers of the earlier show – Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper – started plotting the new series when their first series looked like it would be cancelled. They moved the location of the legendary city of Atlantis to the Pegasus Gallery, where its inhabitants’ main mission was to fight the Wraith and prevent them from finding out where Earth was. The show was launched with a new cast of mostly unknown actors.
In season one, a crew led by Dr. Weir discovered Atlantis, ally themselves with the Athosians (Teyla’s race), and make enemies of the Wraith. The city is under siege when we join the second season, with hundreds of wraith ships approaching, and as in most of the succeeding efforts, escaping intact requires some quick thinking (that’s McKay’s job), near foolhardy courage (Sheppard), telepathic insight (Teyla), a few bandaids and stitches (Beckett) and a lot of worried consultation (Weir).
The sets are very reminiscent of Star Trek, both the old and new versions, with a circular deck, consoles of present day Dell flat screen computers, and a beaming technology that is familiar enough to have you looking for Scottie. (There is a Scottish-accented character, as well as a techie with a slavic accent just like Chekov.) The writers and the cast both seem humorously aware of the show’s borrowings. At one point, while trying to restart an ancient ship trapped under an active, about-to-blow volcano, McKay pauses to think of a name for the ship. Sheppard rolls his eyes and states, “Whatever you do, don’t call it Enterprise.” And later, when Sheppard is trapped in a dart (small ship) on autopilot getting sucked into the Wraith’s hive ship, he jokingly asked “Ar-too” to stop the auto pilot. There’s no purpose to either of these cracks except to amuse the cast and writers – and to let viewers know the “derivative” is not a term that’s particularly going to bother them.
Yet the show is genuinely enjoyable for a number of reasons. First, the characters. The people on Stargate Atlantis are not subtly drawn, but they are consistent and memorable. You know very early on that McKay will be good for a laugh, that Weir will sign off on whatever hare-brained scheme is “our only chance” this time, and that Teyla’s belly button will be visible at all times, regardless of how high she’s leaping or how hard she’s karate chopping. There’s an ease and comfortableness between the characters, too, and, in some cases, a submerged erotic tension. It’s not hard to sense that Dr. Weir has got a bit of a thing for Sheppard or that new he-man character Ronon Dex and ultra-buff Teyla appreciate one another’s, er, fitness. But beyond that, there are a whole range of subtle relationships, signs that these characters know each other well. Sheppard understands that the other way to get flaky Rodney McKay to stop dithering is to threaten him. McKay, supremely uncomfortable in his own body, has an uneasy admiration for the warriors on his team.
There are a couple of new characters in the second season who give the show additional depth and conflict. In the episode “The Runner”, the team encounters Ronon Dex, a humanoid captured by the Wraith, then released as a “runner” to be hunted down. By the time they find him, Dex has been running for seven years. He’s asocial, massively muscled, absurdly well-armed and, naturally, a perfect addition to the team. Played by Jason Momoa, a Herculaean figure in dreadlocks, he becomes sort of an x-factor in the series, always changing the sequence of events. He is a loose cannon, prone to fits of rage, wary of other people, but ultimately loyal and supportive of the team he joins. He more or less replaces the Season One character Aiden Ford, who is attacked by a Wraith in the first episode, is injected with the Wraith’s enzyme, and is never really the same again. Lt. Ford appears in several of the ensuing episodes, leading a pack of “Lost Boy” defectors in a two-episode series, but he’s no longer a regular character.
The other new character is Colonel Caldwell, played by X Files vet Mitch Pileggi, the commander of the Starship Daedelus, which protects and assists Atlantis. Colonel Caldwell has a wary, not-quite-adversarial relationship with Atlantis Commander Elizabeth Weir. He tries, early on, to have Major Sheppard replaced as Atlantis main military operative and fails – and his interests are not always exactly the same of the Atlantis crew. Yet there is a certain warmth and admiration between him and the main team and both groups save each other from time to time.
That the characters are good (good by sci-fi series standards, that is) is one reason to like Stargate Atlantis. The story lines are also thought-provoking and interesting. Many of them focus on the varied implications of a race like the Wraith, poised to annihilate any human civilization they come into contact with. Some of the episodes describe accomodations various worlds have made with the Wraith. On one planet, a penal colony has been located on the same island as the Stargate which provides communications between worlds. If the Wraith come, the theory goes, at least they will eat the murderers first. In another, a man adopts a Wraith girl and seeks to turn her human through medicine, a foreshadowing of the “retrovirus” arc that will dominate the second half of the season.
There are all kinds of links between this terrible enemy and the crew of Atlantis. Teyla has Wraith DNA and can hear their thoughts. Lt. Ford is turned super-human by an extra-large dose of Wraith enzyme. Dr. Beckett is working on a retrovirus that will remove Wraith DNA and leave only the human. Rodney McKay is fascinated by Wraith technology. The Wraith are at the center of nearly every episode – except for a lighter one where McKay’s body is briefly inhabited by two consciousnesses – and we are as fascinated, as watchers, as the characters are.
Make no mistake, the Wraith are wonderful villains. Pale-skinned, skull-like, with rotting teeth and vocoder-altered voices, they are a living embodiment of death and evil. In the penultimate episode the Wraith make a pact (a sham pact, as it turns out) to leave Atlantis alone if they will give up the retrovirus, the substance which turns Wraith into humans. The Wraiths insist on a test, using the virus on one of their own people. The Wraith queen demands to see the test subject, who is strapped to a gurney. She leans over him, pauses dramatically, and plunges her talon into him. It’s a stunning moment – he’d been one of her own people just a few hours before – this scene may be one of the scariest in the entire series.
You have to think about villains carefully, because if they work, they tap into whatever it is that frightens us most. Villains in the original ‘60s Star Trek, for example, were clearly modeled on the Russians with their heavy accents and facial hair; you could make an alliance with them but you couldn’t trust them. So what does it mean when an early 2000s villain is someone who wants to eat you, and not just you but everyone on your planet? Someone who is so different from you that you almost have no other point of contact besides the hunter / prey connection. It’s a metaphor, surely, for the unfocused, desperate anxiety of modern days – perhaps not exactly about terrorism, global warming, and a limited energy source—but certainly the perpetual fear of anhiliation by some means.
And yet, the most effective episodes in this second season of Stargate are the ones where we see that the Wraith is not quite as foreign as we thought. The “Instinct” episode, with its desperately unhappy wraith girl struggling against her own nature and hunger, is moving, but not because she is so foreign: rather, because she is so familiar. And “Michael”, the episode in which a Wraith is unknowingly tranformed into a human, is a very sharp exploration of nature versus nurture issues. (Teyla is willing to welcome the ex-Wraith / now-human as a friend. Ronon refuses to shake his hand.)
I found that the series grew on me, episode-by-episode. What seemed wooden and cartoonish in the early episodes – the Trekkie sets, the pseudo science, the way that Teyla speaks perfect English without ever using a single contraction – fades away, as you get caught up in the story. You want to know what happens next, not just out of curiosity but because you’ve gotten attached to the characters.
The series is indeed engrossing, but the bonus features on this DVD less so. There are ad hoc commentaries by the cast and other crew members for every episode, but unless you really want to hear a bunch of actors goofing off with each other, there’s not much of interest there. The featurettes on characters are a little better. A portrait of Ronon Dex, for instance, has lots of kick-boxing footage spliced together with interview footage of Jason Momoa, who seems much more laid-back in person than his rather tense character. Similar segments on Rodney McKay and Dr. Beckett reprise some of the best moments of each character, but don’t add much that you didn’t already see in the show.
The director’s segments are more rewarding, with series directors talking about the particular difficulties of each episode. For instance, “Instinct” required elaborate inside sets, with a laboratory for the father character to do his experiments and some living space, but also outside shots of the forest. The inside sets were all at the studio in Vancouver, the outside ones miles away at Lynn Valley Canyon. When scenes demanded that characters run from inside the cave into the forest, lighting had to be matched exactly.
But for the most part, the exposition – whether about specific characters, director’s challenges, or how the stunts were performed – takes away from the magic. The best way to experience this five DVD set is by going straight through the episodes, in order (though not necessarily all in one sitting, with some 900 minutes of action). Stories, characters, villains, action…that’s all you need. Bonus materials bringing it all down to Earth are simply superfluous.