Recently, scientists proposed that the fabled Atlantis is what we currently call Antarctica, lost not to dark oceans but buried beneath a mountain of ice. They theorized that the continents drifted, Antarctica shifted southward, and its inhabitants fled the freezing conditions. As proof, they pointed to ancient maps of Atlantis that resemble maps of the landmass under the glaciers of Antarctica.
The Sci-Fi Channel’s Stargate Atlantis proposes a different theory, that the lost city is now located in the Pegasus Galaxy, actually a spaceship large enough to accommodate an entire city and capable of floating on water, so it can appear to be an island. According to the series, “several million years ago” Atlantis left Earth, which is why no one found it. Until now.
Stargate Atlantis is the spin-off of the Sci-Fi Channel’s most popular series, Stargate SG-1, which follows four explorers of distant worlds, who travel via an interplanetary portal, the Stargate. Originally intended to replace SG-1, Atlantis was revised when Sci-Fi picked up SG-1 for another season. Fearing that viewers would think of Atlantis as little more than SG-2, producers distinguished between them by making Atlantis so remote that traveling there would offer little opportunity ever to return home. And so, the team that goes to Atlantis is “lost,” following in the footsteps of previous television explorers in Lost in Space, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: Voyager.
The new series begins with a storyline initiated in SG-1‘s last season finale. A crew of scientists is exploring the outpost left behind by Starship Atlantis, buried in the ice of Antarctica. This site was discovered by a team led by Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson), an international diplomat who headed the Stargate program for about half a minute before being promoted to the position of director of the new, top-secret Department of Home World Security.
Weir’s crew discovers a chair that “holds a key” to Atlantis. John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan), a wisecracking Air Force Major, arrives and promptly sits in said chair, which proceeds to serve up a holographic map to Atlantis. Though the trip can only be made once, Weir and company are unfazed, setting out for the lost world with Sheppard in tow (his DNA makes the chair work). They end up in Atlantis’ control room (which resembles a gay techno-disco), and learn that the lost city is deserted and underwater, on a planet about which they know nothing.
Weir sends a team through the Stargate, under the guidance of Colonel Marshall Sumner (guest star Robert Patrick). They stumble across a pre-industrial tribe, the Athosians, and incite an attack by the warrior Wraiths (who look like a cross between Marilyn Manson and the Vampire Lestat). Rounding up the Athosians, Sumner’s team heads back through the Stargate to Atlantis, but not before the colonel and Athosian leader Teyla (Rachel Luttrell) are captured.
Sheppard’s subsequent rescue effort is successful save for two problems. First, he must kill Sumner to save him from the Wraiths’ torture. Second, in his zeal, Sheppard accidentally kills the Wraiths’ Keeper (Andee Frizzell), awakening thousands of dormant Wraiths. An air battle allows Sheppard to show off his ace piloting skills, and ends with the rescue team and Athosians safe on Atlantis, and the Wraiths really pissed off.
One can only hope the series will be more logical than this pilot. The most glaring question has to do with the expedition’s purpose. Weir recruits her team by telling them, “It can only benefit humanity.” But how? If the explorers can’t contact Earth, how will “humanity” reap any benefits from their discoveries? We might also wonder why Weir has this assignment. She has no experience in technology, military tactics, space travel or science. She does have a cabinet level position in the President’s administration. When was the last time a cabinet officer led troops into potentially dangerous situations?
The show raises other logistical difficulties: how did the military build a heated research center in the middle of a glacier without causing the glacier to melt? Why did it take months to figure out how to operate the outpost’s equipment and only a few hours to decipher the starship’s more complicated technology? And why does everyone speak English, especially considering that English wasn’t even spoken on Earth when Atlantis supposedly existed? (I realize this last question applies to most sci-fi media, but it still bothers me.) Certainly, any sci-fi or fantasy text requires some suspension of disbelief. But when characters make irrational decisions or the laws of nature are violated, fans are justified in crying “foul.”
Still, the series has much to offer—creative action sequences and special effects, truly creepy villains, and a likable central character in John Sheppard. It also features three women commanders (Weir, Teyla, and the Keeper), and none of the men questions this. That said, the two surviving women commanders (as the Keeper is killed straight off) seem split in strengths: Weir is the intellectual, Teyla the warrior.
Atlantis also departs from SG-1 in its focus on the problems of warfare and colonization. Without the option of retreat, this crew’s situation appears an allegory for the current state of affairs in Iraq; this, along with the explicit references to the Home World Security Department, introduce a topical dimension not explicit in SG-1. While the Stargate Atlantis pilot had the highest ratings of any show in Sci-Fi’s history, it remains a question whether the dedicated Stargate SG-1 fan base will accept the new series’ shift in direction.