[22 July 2009]
Aiming to draw a broader audience, the Sci-Fi Network recently changed their name to “SyFy” and launched programming less focused on space and aliens. Depending on your perspective, this is either a genius move or a classic example of misguided marketing. One of the fall lineup’s cornerstones will be Stargate Universe, a new series designed to modernize the long-running TV franchise.
Marketed as “SGU” and starring Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), it appears to barely resemble the two previous Stargate shows. The promos are mysterious and intriguing, but I watch them with a tinge of guilt. While helping to rebrand the “SyFy” network, this original venture effectively killed its successful predecessor.
Stargate Atlantis entered its fifth season with plenty of hope for an extended future. Originally spinning off from the hugely popular Stargate SG-1, the action-packed show built a devoted niche audience and developed an enjoyable style. However, it struggled to draw the general audiences craved by the network.
No matter how it’s marketed, an adventure show with space aliens in a faraway galaxy has limited appeal. Then the unfortunate news broke; the fifth season of Stargate Atlantis would be its last.
With many series dying in their first month, it seems disingenuous to complain about getting 100 episodes. Yet many fans believed the producers had caved to SciFi’s request for a younger, hipper show. Even the wonderful Battlestar Galactica never grabbed a mass audience. Why couldn’t Stargate Atlantis stick around and maintain its current audience for a few more years?
The DVD and download numbers are off the charts, but live Nielsens remain the focus of TV executives. Plus, Friday night is not generally a haven for huge viewing numbers. These factors all helped to jettison the Wraith, Replicators and others to push less segmented shows.
This fifth season begins in “Search and Rescue” with nearly the entire Atlantis team in serious jeopardy. John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan), Rodney McKay (David Hewlett), Ronan (Jason Momoa) and others are trapped within the ruins of a building destroyed by a deadly trap.
They were attempting to save a very pregnant Teyla (Rachel Luttrell), who was held captive by the vicious enemy Michael (Connor Trineer). This premiere concludes an exciting four-episode arc that showed what the writers can do with a focused approach.
The previous year offered longer plotlines that gave more excitement to the new season. It wasn’t on the Lost scale, but did stretch Stargate Atlantis’ typical format. Unfortunately, this collection reverts to more one-off entries and scales back the ambitions.
This episodic format isn’t my favorite, but there are some great individual stories throughout the set’s 20 episodes. The best example is “The Shrine”, which overcomes a contrived plotline to deliver serious emotions. Written by series creator Brad Wright, the story has McKay slowly reverting to a childlike state due to an alien infection.
My eyes rolled when I saw this description, so it was a huge surprise to be so moved by the result. Unlike the more typical action-packed entries, this episode showcases the characters naturally and gives everyone a chance to shine.
Another intriguing tale is “Remnants”, a clever way to get inside the minds of the heroes. A dying alien entity creates different illusions for each person to save the day. Sheppard is tortured by longtime enemy Koyla (Robert Davi), who he thought was dead, while Richard Woolsey (Robert Picardo) gets a needed push to remain Atlantis’ leader.
Woolsey’s growth throughout the season is remarkable largely due to Picardo’s acting skills. Without making drastic changes, he gains our sympathy for a formerly villainous pencil pusher. Following Amanda Tapping’s Samantha Carter is no small feat, and he takes the reins with grace and humor.
This season continues some ongoing stories, most notably those involving the nasty Michael and cunning Wraith Todd (Christopher Heyerdahl). Both are welcome characters to any episode, but they don’t always provide the best stories.
Todd’s appearances often involve Wraith politics, a topic that lost originality a few years ago. But Heyerdahl (Sanctuary) brings such fun to the guy that’s it hard to complain too much.
Michael’s ultimate confrontation with the Atlantis team occurs in “The Prodigal”, one of the better action episodes. Originally appearing near the end of season two, he’s returned multiple times to wreak serious havoc.
One major change for this season is a serious relationship between two lead characters, McKay and Dr. Keller (Jewel Staite). This choice irritated some fans, who don’t like to mix their sci-fi with romance. On the other side are the “shippers”, who adore seeing their favorites make a connection.
I’m with the shippers on the Keller/McKay combo, which is believable and adds weight to several episodes. Staite (Firefly) is charming as Keller and stays right with Hewlett’s energetic persona. Even oddball episodes like “Brain Storm” are fun because of the romantic angle. That episode has random guest appearances from Bill Nye and Dave Foley and barely mentions the Stargate, but it succeeds because of the likable actors.
During its five-year run, Stargate Atlantis has given us improved visual effects, engaging new characters and some classic sci-fi adventure. Yet it’s never garnered the same love from longtime fans as the original Stargate SG-1. The creative team was mostly the same, and both series have entertaining, talented actors with the casts.
One irreplaceable part of SG-1 was Richard Dean Anderson, whose presence could not be recreated. It’s no coincidence that its quality slipped in the final two seasons after he departed.
Another factor is the feelings of similarity generated by Atlantis to its predecessor. Even when you’re trying to deliver original entertainment, it’s hard to escape such a daunting shadow. When the stories begin to tread over the same territory, there’s a problem. Finally, the supporting trio of Tapping, Michael Shanks and Christopher Judge in Stargate SG-1 displayed a rare chemistry that’s hard to match.
One of the highlights of this season is the return of Shanks’ Daniel Jackson for the big mid-season two-parter, “First Contact” and “The Shrine”. The underrated actor brings his best work and has a fun connection with David Hewlett, his companion for most scenes.
The one negative is the return of an old Stargate SG-1 standby for the major enemy. While the explanation for their role makes sense, it does slightly bring down an excellent pair of stories.
Since the series’ cancellation was announced so early, the producers had plenty of time to deliver a classic finale. But avoiding an ongoing story arc stalled any exciting build-up to the story’s end. The penultimate episode ,“Vegas”, actually takes place in an alternate dimension with different versions of the main characters.
Standing alone, this inventive tale is one of the most exciting parts of the season. Written and directed by Robert C. Cooper, it pays homage to CSI with its plot and style. I hate that series with all my heart but still loved “Vegas”. It’s a risky move this late in Atlantis’ run and divided fans, which is always good to see. Employing popular music and some odd cameos from Sopranos actors, it goes well beyond the formula and delivers great entertainment.
There’s no doubt about it; the finale “Enemy of the Gate” should have run two hours. Rarely has so much plot been packed into a 42-minute structure. New technologies appear without any mention in previous episodes and work perfectly. We had to see a direct Wraith attack on Earth, and that happens here. But the resolution is so quick that it’s hard to savor the grand scale.
Split into a longer production, it could have delivered a killer conclusion. Even the DVD’s extended version, which adds a few minutes, does little to change this fact. Unlike some fans, I didn’t hate the last few scenes, which generated a few goose bumps, and a possible major death is handled effectively. The overall atmosphere just feels rushed and gives us a very good, but not great finish.
A consistent positive with each Stargate Atlantis DVD set has been the extras, which offer an effective mix of episode commentaries and behind-the-scenes footage. The season four collection included fewer featurettes with shorter running times, and that trend continues here. Not counting the commentaries, the extra material is a bit over two hours, which isn’t a bad amount. It just falls well short of some of the show’s earlier releases.
The four “Mission Directive” pieces each run 11-12 minutes and spotlight the production of a specific episdoe. They give solid insights into the creative process, but rarely move beyond the expected material. Fun moments do appear, like seeing a bunch of Wraith actors holding umbrellas during “Tracker”, but those are infrequent.
Long-time Stargate crew members like Andy Mikita, Martin Gero and William Waring lead the features well. Gero’s usually the best contributor with his light, informative demeanor. We also have interview segments with Michael Shanks and Joe Flanigan, but those are way too short. Each lasts about five minutes and gives the actors room to say little.
The best inclusions are “Stargate Atlantis Goes to Vegas” and a nice group of deleted scenes. The first is a 20-minute documentary that moves beyond the usual formula and provides better details. Robert C. Cooper leads this one, which keeps us engaged until the end. Split into two sections, the deleted scenes show about 15-minutes of extra footage from seven episodes.
The highlight is the moments involving the excised Captain Vega, who might have been an interesting character. We also see Bill Nye doing his thing and a longer version of the big Ronan/Tyre fight from Reunion.
This set includes 16 episode commentaries, with discussions missing for “Ghost in the Machine”, “The Shrine”, “Infection” and “Identity”. Every year they skip one classic episode, and I can’t figure out why. This season’s candidate is “The Shrine”, which deserves extra material a lot more than most of the others.
The main actors were all over these discussions in the first two Atlantis releases, but those days are long gone. The only exception here is Jason Momoa appearing for “Reunion”. Devoted fans and people thrilled by technical details will probably love these conversations, but it might be a bit much for more casual viewers. It’s still great this large volume, but more star power would make them required listening.
When Stargate Atlantis’ cancellation was announced, the stories mentioned that a two-hour DVD movie would be released in 2009. Production on this feature has not begun, which raises major questions about its future. I still expect it to happen, but wonder if the momentum’s been lost because of the delay.
Even if we never see another Stargate Atlantis story, the cast and crew should still be proud of the accomplishment. I would have liked to see more creative risks and longer arcs, but still enjoyed the energetic show right to the end.