[15 August 2011]
This fall television season will mark the first time in 14 years that a Stargate franchise series is not on the air. Stargate Universe (SGU) was cancelled after two seasons, and Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis (SGA) ran for ten and five seasons, respectively.
While part of me will miss having a Stargate show on the air, it’s hard to complain when we have such an amazing number of episodes on DVD. Fans have been spoiled by the consistency in quality and output that’s been rolling along in this series since 1997. I’ve enjoyed all three series for different reasons, and it will be refreshing to revisit them on DVD in the upcoming years. Thankfully, MGM has gone one step further and released the entire series of SGA on Blu-ray. Its finalé aired in January 2009, so it was enjoyable to take another look at this action series more than two years later.
SGA premiered in July 2004 with the two-hour pilot of “Rising”, and achieved record ratings for the SyFy Network (known as Sci-Fi at that time). Its parent show, SG-1, was at the height of its popularity at the time, so those fans migrated to the show and brought along a few friends. For its first three seasons, SGA ran alongside SG-1, but that show was cancelled in 2007.
The ratings were steady for the next two seasons while airing solo. However, the television landscape had changed dramatically with the rise of classic sci-fi dramas like Battlestar Galactica and Lost. SyFy was ready for a different type of show that might attract a cross-over audience, so they brought down the axe.
Looking at the structure of SGA’s seasons, they rest in the middle between the episodic adventure series of the ‘90s and the modern serials of today. Creators Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper took some periodic chances. but typically stuck with the SG-1 format. A small group of adventurers journeys through the Stargate and encounters alien races that often look like humans. This time, the home base is the lost city of Atlantis, not Earth like the original series. This is the primary difference between the two shows and creates new story opportunities beyond the formula.
While exploring new planets, the heroes are also finding out more about Atlantis and having strange encounters in that location. I would have liked to see a greater mystery about the city beyond the early episodes, but those examples weren’t as frequent in the later seasons. Wright and Cooper would again follow this template and go even further in SGU with the mysteries surrounding the Destiny spacecraft.
It’s pretty much impossible to describe five seasons of stories in this brief review, so I’m going to focus instead on some of my favorite elements of SGA. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re familiar with the show’s basic format. If not, then I suggest you rent/stream/borrow/buy the first season and give it a shot. The primary reason many fans love this series is the characters, who are likable, heroic, and just plain entertaining in the best cases. Two of the best examples are John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan) and Rodney McKay (David Hewlett), who make even the dullest stories entertaining.
When Joe Flanigan first appears in “Rising”, his tongue-in-cheek approach feels a bit too similar to Richard Dean Anderson’s Jack O’Neill, who led the SG-1 team. They ride together on a chopper towards Antarctica, and it’s clear they share a similar dry sense of humor. It took me a little while to warm up to Flanigan, but he really makes the character his own as the season progresses.
A good example is found in the “Home” episode, which appears to give the leads a chance to return to Earth. In typical sci-fi fashion, all is not as it seems, and the characters discover holes in the presented reality. Sheppard arrives at his old apartment just in time for a big party, but there are some unlikely visitors. Flanigan perfectly underplays this moment with a wry grin as he quickly puts the pieces together. He consistently underplays Sheppard’s intelligence, which makes his moments of brilliance even more effective.
The standout performer from SGA is definitely the highly entertaining David Hewlett as McKay. He began as a fairly one-note villain on SG-1, but the producers recognized talent beyond those performances. The McKay in the spin-off remains cranky and arrogant, but he’s softened to become a more likable character. He shines in both silly episodes like “Duet” (McKay’s consciousness is shared with a female officer) and more serious tales like “The Shrine” (McKay slowly reverts to a child-like state), and both are classic performances.
The latter episode in particular stands out as one of the show’s great episodes. Hewlett shines when the fast-talking McKay’s forced to save the day with a ridiculous stab in the dark. His comic timing is perfect, and he deftly avoids becoming a one-note sideshow by playing the drama very well at the same time. While the writers have a tough time with certain characters (more on that below), they obviously love writing for McKay, who becomes the centerpiece of many stories.
The cast also includes several impressive roles for women, particularly Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson) and Teyla (Rachel Luttrell), an alien from the planet where Atlantis resides. Both play a major role in the early seasons and have signature episodes where they shine. Weir leads the expedition as a civilian, and this different perspective puts her at odds with straight-laced military guys like Caldwell (Mitch Pileggi). Season three’s “The Real World” sends her into another alternate reality and gives Higginson the chance to display some fine acting. Unfortunately, this type of change is too infrequent, and her character was replaced after three seasons.
Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) was brought in from SG-1 to take over after that show’s cancellation. One benefit of Weir’s exit is some wonderfully tense stories early in the fourth season because of her damaged state. It’s just too bad she wasn’t able to remain even with Tapping joining the cast. Weir was not one of my favorite characters, but Higginson does her best with the limited material.
SGA’s first season gave Rachel Luttrell excellent opportunities to make Teyla a believable and interesting character. Playing the Teal’c role from SG-1 as the alien with knowledge of the culture, she deftly sidestepped clichés and performed well. A good example is “The Gift”, which reveals more about Teyla’s connection to the Wraith. It comes right before the action-packed two-part season finalé “The Siege” and remains interesting while setting up the impending Wraith attack.
During the second season, the show added Ronin (Jason Momoa), another alien playing a similar role in the plots. While exploring his back story, we spend less time with Teyla at the center. Momoa was a strong addition to the cast, so it’s not his fault. The all-male writing staff gives it a shot, but Luttrell didn’t always get the best opportunities for a while. This issue was partially rectified in the fourth season when she became pregnant. They wrote this into Teyla’s arc in an interesting way to match nicely with the ongoing stories. Near the end of the season, the two-part episode “The Kindred” brings Teyla to the forefront to confront the long-time enemy Michael (Connor Trineer).
Looking at the major arcs of each year, the most interesting season is the fourth, which includes many of the show’s classic episodes. The first half follows the conflict with the human-form Replicators, who seem to be an unstoppable enemy. The opening episodes “Adrift” and “Lifeline” offer a remarkable opening that includes some real jeopardy. The Replicator storyline culminates with “Be All My Sins Remember’d”, which many fans rank among the best. I wouldn’t call it my favorite because it’s so effects-driven, but it still delivers an impressive space fight.
Although many consider the final season as the weakest, I’d pick the second for that title. It includes some of the worst entries like “The Tower” and “The Long Goodbye” and has the weakest ongoing arc. This was a transitional year where the Wraith remained the lone enemy but lacked the menace of the opening season. Standout episodes like “Runner” and “Michael” were the exception, and even the mid-season two-parter for fairly silly.
Thankfully, the third season rectified many problems with the inconsistent previous collection. By then we have better arcs and more focus on character development. “Sateda” gives Jason Momoa the chance to show off his fighting skills while developing his back story. Richard Dean Anderson guests in “The Return” and gets the rare chance to take on a starring role in an action-packed tale. It recalls the best years of SG-1 and includes some exciting risky stunts from the middle-aged actor.
The other grand achievement is “Sunday”, which divided the fans by killing off a beloved character. Along with that shocker, it also employs an intriguing premise of showing what the gang does away from the action.
The Blu-ray release doesn’t include any new extra features beyond the complete series DVD release, but it’s still an excellent set. There are an astounding 88 commentaries that will keep devoted fans busy for hours. They vary widely between technical discussions with the crew and laid-back conversations with the main cast. Each season also includes many featurettes, photo and production design galleries, and even a few deleted scenes, though they only appear on one season.
The type of fans who will buy this Blu-ray release will likely have already seen the extras, and the documentaries remain in their full-frame format. However, it’s still great to a higher-quality version of this series. I’m hoping that strong sales will lead MGM to green-light an SG-1 Blu-ray set.
SGA might seem a bit dated because of rapid advances in CGI during the past few years. The episodic adventure series lives on with shows like Warehouse 13, but sci-fi set in another galaxy remains a tough sell. Regardless, the five seasons of this show provide action-packed entertainment on a consistent basis. The likable actors sell even the silliest premises and make the dialogue work nearly every time.
I’m hoping for a DVD movie to conclude the story, but this prospect seems unlikely, given the current state of MGM and the franchise. I expect that a few years down the road, Stargate will return in some fashion. For now, I’m happy to have this strong collection of episodes in the best possible format.