The story of Stargate Atlantis began several years prior to its 2004 premiere. During its fifth and sixth seasons, Stargate SG-1 barely survived cancellation and concluded with episodes that could work as series finales. Its producers were planning for a possible movie to continue the story and focus on the lost city of Atlantis.
The surprising renewals and continued popularity altered the landscape and opened up a much-different possibility, a spin-off series. Re-tooling the story during SG-1’s seventh season, the stage was set for the popular series to run concurrently with a second show in the Stargate universe. Could the Vancouver production deliver 40 episodes of television each year? If there was any chance for Stargate Atlantis to succeed, it needed to move beyond its predecessor and deliver a brand-new adventure.
Premiering in July 2004 with the two-hour “Rising”, Stargate Atlantis garnered huge ratings and set records for viewership on the Sci-Fi Network (now SyFy – don’t get me started). This episode introduced a new group of characters, several which had originally appeared on SG-1. The actors were mostly unknowns, which effectively dispelled any preconceived notions about the roles. With a $5 million budget, the action-packed debut used impressive effects and revealed intriguing story opportunities for in a new galaxy. However, the follow-up stories introduced creative troubles that would remain through the five-season run.
Season One: Raising the Lost City
Unlike SG-1, this series takes place in the Pegasus Galaxy, located several million light years from Earth. This allows for an entirely new world of storytelling, and that energy makes “Rising” a classic opener. There are some familiar SG-1 faces, including Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Shanks, but the focus shifts to the new cast.
From the start, the standouts are Joe Flanigan as John Sheppard and David Hewlett as Rodney McKay. They both offer the best examples of the tongue-in-cheek approach that made Richard Dean Anderson’s Jack O’Neill so beloved on SG-1. Sheppard is more of a stand-in physically, but Flanigan’s dry wit makes him a unique character. Hewlett is the obvious rising star and can’t help but steal nearly every scene. He brings plenty of energy to the opening episodes, though the focus would shift too much to him in later years.
Another intriguing character is Teyla Emmagan (Rachel Luttrell), a leader of the mainland residents close to Atlantis. Luttrell is a striking figure and is immediately likable, though her character sometimes gets pushed too much to the background. This series is also notable for having a female commander, Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson). She’s a civilian and plays a major role in the events of the opening season. The other major character is Aiden Ford (Rainbow Francks), a lieutenant who serves as Sheppard’s right-hand-man.
Following the huge two-hour premiere, the stories are disappointing and even shift into some predictable sci-fi clichés. The major enemy in the Pegasus Galaxy is the Wraith, who can drain the life from someone with just a touch. They play an interesting role in the early episodes, but we spend too much time with the English-speaking inhabitants of other planets. There are some changes from SG-1, though the weekly model remains pretty similar.
The season begins hitting its stride in the seventh episode, “Poisoning the Well”, which brings humanity to their battle against the Wraith. Great work from Paul McGillion as Dr. Carson Beckett raises the emotional impact. He is recurring at this point but eventually becomes a full-time player. Another stellar entry is “Home”, which depicts an intriguing trip back to the once-inaccessible Earth. But something’s not right at home.
The turning point for this season (and possibly the series) is the mid-season two-parter of “The Storm” and “The Eye”. This exciting tale introduces extreme stakes, incorporates strong visual effects and brings a classic antagonist into the mix. Robert Davi (License to Kill) plays Kolya, a brutal enforcer for the enemy group known as the Genii. Taking over Atlantis with a band of thugs, he places everyone in serious jeopardy. The only hope is Sheppard taking a Die Hard-like approach to save the day. Effectively using the Atlantis setting and showcasing real passion, this represents a new step forward.
Time travel is a part of nearly all episodic sci-fi series, andStargate Atlantis is no exception. One of the strongest late-season entries is “Before I Sleep”, which hearkens back to the team’s arrival in the city. Spotlighting Weir, it provides riveting background and a classic “what if” scenario. The second-half episodes lead well into an all-out showdown with the Wraith in “The Siege”. Most work as stand-alone tales, but they also serve a larger story about the inevitable enemy attack. The chaotic final two episodes spring the show out of SG-1’s shadow and towards a bright future.
Season Two: Not Stranded Anymore
One of the major plot threads during the opening season was the team’s inability to contact Earth. They were forced to fend for themselves against the growing Wraith threat. To avoid a Star Trek: Voyager-like feeling, the producers changed the game for the second season. Getting back to Earth took time, but there was a new outlet for travel, the Daedalus.
You can’t look at the Daedalus spacecraft without noticing the similarities with the Enterprise. It even has a captain’s chair for Colonel Caldwell (Mitch Pileggi) and a pilot at his side. While this ship offers new story opportunities, it also provides an easy outlet for last-minute saves of the crew. On the other hand, Caldwell’s arrival brings some much-needed conflict to Atlantis. His by-the-books military approach contrasts drastically with the civilian Weir and creates an interesting clash of styles. I would have liked to see the writers go further and make Caldwell a stronger antagonist, but Pileggi does his best with limited material.
Another major change is the departure of Ford, who never really made a huge impact. His replacement is the hulking Ronon Dex (Jason Momoa), who brings a greater physical presence to the team. Introduced in “Runner”, the brutal humanoid alien makes a strong impression. Ford does return during the mid-season two-parter, and I would have liked to see more of his character as a renegade. Instead, the focus shifts to Ronon’s assimilation into life on Atlantis.
Other notable episodes in season two include “Aurora”, which brings Sheppard into a virtual reality world to meet an old band of Ancients. We meet an ongoing enemy in “Michael” and witness some questionable ethics from Atlantis’ scientists. Using an experimental drug, Dr. Beckett actually converts a Wraith into a human called Michael (Connor Trinneer). As the Wraith slowly discovers his true nature, it’s clear this was a terrible idea. A light-hearted counterpoint is “Duet”, which uses the old “mind combo” trick to induce some silly moments. The conscious minds of McKay and Lieutenant Laura Cadman (Jaime Ray Newman) both end up in his head, which can’t be a good thing.
“Allies” ends the season on a major cliffhanger, but it’s definitely the weakest of all the finales. Michael and his fellow Wraith propose a pact with our heroes for a common goal, which represents a stunning change. Although it includes some good episodes, the second season is the most forgettable and represents a transition year into a stronger future. There are too many throwaway episodes that fail to serve a larger story.
Season Three: Replicate This!
This is the year where Stargate Atlantis truly earned its chops as an “action show”. Airing concurrently with SG-1’s final season, the spin-off finally outdid its predecessor and took over the franchise. There are a few clunkers, but the cohesion and energy reaches the next level. Right from the start with No Man’s Land, the stories are more focused. The characters are familiar by now, which allows the writers to push the show in different directions. Of course, they accomplish this feat by retooling an old-school enemy.
Stargate aficionados know the Replicators as spider-like robotic creatures who suck out energy and reproduce at a high-speed rate. In SG-1’s sixth season, they evolved into a human form and became an even more serious enemy. The Pegasus Galaxy Replicators, known as the Asurans, are even more technologically advanced and appear unstoppable. First appearing in “Progeny”, they seem friendly but are quickly revealed as serious villains. The Wraith had weaknesses, but there seems to be little chance against this new menace.
The Replicator battle comes to a head in “The Return”, the excellent mid-season two-parter. Richard Dean Anderson returns as Jack O’Neill and plays a key role, which is a breath of fresh air. His recent appearances had mostly been cameos. This story gives him the chance to play the hero with some deft underwater action. This threat carries throughout the season to the chaotic finale, “First Strike”. Writer Martin Gero’s script recalls the war in Iraq and shows the humans performing some morally shaky feats. Fearing an impending Replicator attack, Atlantis makes a pre-emptive strike on their home world, with disastrous consequences.
One of the series’ most unique and controversial episodes is “Sunday”, which depicts the daily lives of our heroes when they’re not trying to save the galaxy. Another Gero piece, this story hits all the right notes and makes me wish it wasn’t such a rare approach. This episode also marks the death of a beloved major character, which inspired protests from shocked fans. The exit is handled perfectly, though future events make the ultimate tragedy less effective in retrospect.
There are many other third-season episodes that rank among the series’ top tier. “Sateda” explores Ronon’s past while delivering some classic fight sequences. Filmed in a washed-out style in a post-apocalyptic world, it ranks among my favorite episodes. A completely different approach works on “The Real World”, which includes Higginson’s best performance as Weir. It’s a mind-bender that uses standard genre tropes, but she sells it with genuine emotion. The let-downs come from “Irresistible” and “Irresponsible”, two quirky episodes featuring Richard Kind (Mad about You). I’m a fan of his work, but these entries just don’t fit with the rest of the series.
Season Four: Change at Every Corner
Stargate Atlantis‘ fourth season retains the previous year’s momentum and crafts a more epic scope. Amanda Tapping’s Samantha Carter moves over from the cancelled SG-1 to take leadership of Atlantis. It takes her a little while to catch on, but Tapping eventually builds chemistry with the other actors. Jewel Staite (Firefly) also joins the cast as Dr. Keller, the untested new chief medical officer. This group will face some of the toughest challenges yet, including direct conflict with the Replicators. The Wraith might be reeling, but it’s going to take major actions to stave off this advanced menace.
Adrift and Lifeline begin the year and mark the exit of another major character. The action-packed episodes offer stunning moments that play a huge role in the upcoming year. The Atlantis team takes huge risks and even treads into shaky moral territory to battle the Replicators. McKay and the gang are meddling with forces beyond his control, which almost always leads to disaster. In “The Seer”, they even consider an alliance with the Wraith, who aren’t the type to inspire trust. A prophet also foretells the destruction of Atlantis, so the situation appears desperate.
The epic showdown of this season (and possibly the entire series) occurs at mid-season in “Be All My Sins Remember’d”. Pretty much everyone in the Pegasus Galaxy joins together and tries to wipe the Replicators out completely. Along with the high-tech effects, this episode is intriguing because it raises questions of the ethics behind the attempted genocide. The Replicators are conscious beings, so it’s possible a line was crossed. The writers barely touch on this subject amid the mayhem, however, which is mildly disappointing. There’s plenty of excitement, including a surprising last-minute reveal, so the concerns mostly dissipate by the end.
After a few so-so episodes (“Harmony”, “Trio”), the season ends with a remarkable four-episode stretch that ranks among the series’ best runs. SG-1 favorite Teal’c (Christopher Judge) returns in “Midway” to help Ronon through his issues. Predictably, a crisis occurs and throws the headstrong duo into a battle with the Wraith. Judge and Momoa bring their A game to this story and deliver one of the year’s top episodes. Next up is the two-part conflict with Michael in “The Kindred”, which includes some major surprises. I have serious qualms with one twist but the overall effect is excellent.
The ultimate gem is “The Last Man”, which propels Sheppard well into an alternate future where virtually nothing remains at Atlantis. As he learns what happened to his friends, we start wondering if these tragic events will actually occur. It’s an intriguing concept and could have really propelled the fifth season into new territory. Unfortunately, this promise remains largely unfulfilled. However, this episode remains one of Stargate Atlantis’ most compelling stories.
Season Five: Broken Ties
Preparing for their fifth season, the Stargate Atlantis creative team had no idea it would the last year. The ratings had dipped but were steady, and the DVD sales remained very high. Although the cancellation was announced pretty early in the season, its direction was set. Fans were angry because this end coincided with the arrival of Stargate Universe, which began last fall. Employing flawed characters and a more realistic approach, the new show left many longtime fans feeling cheated.
The final group of episodes lacks the long-term cohesion of the previous year but still offers some exciting shows. The action-packed premiere, “Search and Rescue”, resolves the cliffhanger way too easily but provides some fun moments. It’s hard to watch it and not think of the wasted possibilities from the alternate timeline. However, since Stargate Atlantis is largely an episodic series, this approach is slightly more understandable.
The most controversial storyline for fans is the serious romance between McKay and Keller. For an inexplicable reason, many sci-fi viewers don’t appreciate long-term relationships with their action. Hewlett and Staite do a great job selling the story, which brings much-needed emotion to the mix. “The Shrine” solidifies their bond with some of the best acting (especially from Hewlett) of the entire series. Stargate Atlantis has a very talented cast across the board, but they don’t always get top-notch material.
Along with the energetic mid-season battles of “First Contact” and “The Lost Tribe”, this season also offers some intriguing one-off stories. “Remnants” takes a possibly conventional tale of alien hallucinations and delivers a surprisingly effective yarn. Stepping outside the box is “Vegas”, another divisive tale from an alternate reality. Presenting a completely different look at our characters, it showcases the rampant possibilities of the Stargate world. It also takes a CSI-like approach and incorporates popular songs to enhance the drama.
Stargate Atlantis’s final episode is “Enemy at the Gate”, which brings the Wraith to Earth for one final showdown. It’s a thrilling concept and includes some high-flying scenes, but this story is way too big for one hour. It’s a shame that such an ambitious concept didn’t receive another time to succeed. I did enjoy the closing scene, which brings the main cast together for one last goodbye.
The Extras: 42 Minutes
I’ve been spoiled by the recent complete set of Farscape, which included two exclusive bonus discs and impressive packaging. This set falls well short in both areas. The extra disc provides the original broadcast versions of “Vegas” and “Enemy at the Gate”, but they barely differ from the DVD airings. The only other features are two short documentaries, which add up to 42 new minutes.
“Mission 100: Atlantis Reaches a Milestone” depicts the final day of shooting and cast tributes after their last scenes. Their emotional speeches are touching and reveal the tight-knit cast and crew. “Stargate Atlantis: A Retrospective” brings major creative players like Brad Wright, Joseph Mallozzi and Martin Gero together to take a look back. The 27-minute feature covers the series’ key moments and gives some interesting material, though most of it is not new. These are enjoyable extras, but it’s not enough to make the set worthwhile to long-time fans.
The individual season discs match their original DVD releases and do offer impressive material, particularly for the early years. There are numerous featurettes and commentaries for a majority of the episodes. Considered individually, these features are exciting, but they’re recycled from old releases.
I must join the chorus deriding the awful packaging, which is designed only to frustrate buyers. Instead of the sturdy packaging of the season DVDs, these discs are housed in flimsy sleeves that almost guarantee scratches. The overall package doesn’t fit on standard DVD shelves is far too big for 20 discs. The recent Farscape complete series set revealed that packaging large groups of discs isn’t rocket science. I’d recommend picking up all the individual seasons before this monster, even if they cost more.
The Future: Extinction for Atlantis?
During its five years, Stargate Atlantis provided entertaining characters, exiting sci-fi adventure and top-notch visual effects. Its abrupt end left many fans wanting more, and MGM announced that a DVD movie called Stargate: Extinction was in the works. Currently, there’s no word if this film will ever be produced. MGM’s financial troubles, combined with a slowdown in DVD sales, might kill the project. This would be a shame. The Atlantis characters deserve a true finale to their five-year story. I’m hoping this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Sheppard, McKay, Teyla and the Pegasus Galaxy.