Lots to find fault with in The Last Man

by Paul William Tenny

Stargate Atlantis aired its fourth season finale on Friday, called The Last Man, and it really was a mixed bag that had an interesting peek into a grim future, but really failed to deliver a knockout punch that the best season yet truly deserved. This bag had enough things in it that most people should have been able to pull out something to enjoy, but it actually felt really very empty to me. Kindred 1&2 felt like the season was going to end in such a way that the finale could figuratively and -- within that fictional universe -- literally explode in practically any direction that could drastically reshape the entire galaxy in which the show takes place. Something so big that it could literally change the entire face of life in the Pegasus Galaxy.

The teaser and tag notwithstanding, the last thing I was ever expecting then, was what amounted to a clip show. You can argue until you're blue in the face that this episode was something more than interstitial goo, meant to take up space and time because of budget overruns, or coming up short with powerful, arc moving stories, or any other excuse if you can imagine, but I'm just not seeing the value on this episode at all -- at least as a season finale.

While really enjoyable, it could have been reworked without a lot of collateral damage to fit almost anywhere in the past seasons timeline. That alone makes it a poor finale -- compared to every previous season finale and premier, this one barely did anything substantive for the entire hour -- but that wasn't the only problem I found within. This is what you might call a "what-if" episode, where right from the very beginning, "everything changes". Only nothing changes, because there's cheat at the very end that resets everything so whatever you saw, it never actually happened.

The phrase deus ex machina comes to mind here. You get to see this terrible future because of a single event that went terribly wrong, and then within the last few minutes, the smallest, blurriest, least explored, least explained, least intriguing, and least important thing happens that gives the characters a second shot at not having a really, really bad life. It's bad enough that this device is a staple of science fiction on television, and hence has become a bit of a sci-fi cliche now, but this has actually been done within the SG universe already.

We've already seen SG-1 get thrown through time by the Stargate once before, and we've already seen (more than once) SG-1 characters get to experience total devastation only to have it all reset at the very last minute due to the smallest, typically inconsequential action. The Last Man feels very much like those two setups from SG-1 were mashed together and reused -- for whatever reason -- and the finale suffered greatly for it.

It was interesting and at times even emotional to see how things went down the road, but whatever I had invested in that was wiped away when the reset came at the end. It just didn't seem like a very good idea for the finale, because nothing was resolved, nothing was really escalated or changed, in fact from the teaser to the tag (or fifth act, whatever you prefer) the arc that really got moving in Kindred Part 1 only inched forward. You could delete act 1-4 and with a little inference and imagination, you'll have missed absolutely nothing at all.

It tends to bother fans when they are so used to being treated with cliffhangers at the end of a season, especially when they work exceptionally well -- First Strike and Adrift\Lifeline were a perfect example of everything working -- so perhaps this is really just sour grapes on my part. I'm perfectly willing to accept that as the case, I'm not beyond being influenced and then feeling cheated purely because I wasn't given what I expected.

That said, this finale just did not work for me *for that purpose*. For an episode in general, I would have complained anyway about the rehashing of a well traveled science fiction cog, and two previous SG-1 episodes at that, but it was otherwise still pretty fun to sit and watch. Seeing Carter meet her end was well played all around, and really quite sad.

I do have an issue to raise, and this is a problem with basically ever SF show ever made, about how certainly things play out when you need them to. For example, when the writers want it to happen, a ships shields can stand tall and be just enough to...lead to whatever action would come next; or they could crumble, fail, and result in the destruction of a ship, leading to...whatever action would come next. We've seen Daedalus class ships take direct hits from Ori ships near the end of SG-1's run, we've seem them in battle against Ancient warships and in those situations where that's just how the story was heading, the ships survived (cept the Russians, but hey, they were expendable.)

Now, out of the blue, because it's convenient, Carter's ship is blown right the hell out of the sky by Wraith cruisers. Now I understand the setup here, four-on-one is not something we've seen on Atlantis before, and certainly even ships with Asgard shields aren't invulnerable, but the point here is that when the writers want them to, the shields can take damn near anything and our guys still save the day. And when they want them to, they can actually fail spectacularly and quickly as well.

It's sacrificing common sense and continuity for the sake of having some specific event happen whether it makes sense, or not. Such things are not limited to SGA, as I previously said, all the later Trek shows were notoriously bad in this regard. As a fan, and as an amateur writer, I've got to say that I understand the need to be flexible, but you can only make up so many wild exceptions before you've bent things just a little too far.

We were lead to believe early on in SGA that the Ancient warships were far superior to the Wraith cruisers, as we learned during one of the three "The Siege" episodes, the Ancient's "could win virtually every battle, but so no way to win the war." Common sense might dictate then that after we see Daedalus class ships whipping some major ass against the Pegasus replicators, that Earth ships would by default be more than a match for Wraith ships.

And yet, that wasn't the case, and that tends to happen quite a bit. Ship A beats ship B, ship C comes in and beats ship A, but is then later owned by ship B. That doesn't really make any sense, but it happens, and you've just got to deal with it. But it's still worth complaining about, because I'd like to hold the standards just a little bit higher than that. In limited combat, we've seen the Odyssey take on three Ori ships in the SG-1 finale, while running and gunning, taking out two in the process. But the Phoenix can't take on four Wraith cruisers, who by all indications shouldn't be any match for that kind of firepower and shielding?

I suppose that's venturing into fanboy territory, but that doesn't make it any less of a sore.

The point here is that when the writers want it to be, the Daedalus ships can hold their own against anything. If the shields get knocked down too far, well then we'll just jump to hyperspace, or fly some fancy manuvers, or launch the fighters, or get some backup, on and on until virtually ever plausible excuse will eventually be used to cover the unlikely scenario that "our heros" will survive virtually every single fight unscathed...

..right up until there's that one time when the established conventional wisdom doesn't suit the story idea, so everything is tossed out the window and the story is told no matter how ridiculous it now seems to be.

I suppose you could, and many people undoubtedly would, argue that what happened in the finale with Carter is perfectly plausible, but only if you take certain things for granted. For instance, the Wraith simply had too many ships, or one of them got a lucky shot which knocked out the Asgard weapons (which has never happened before, not against the Wraith,  the Ori, or the Ancient warships), or the Phoenix wasn't quite as ready for battle as they said it was, on and on. You can seemingly patch just about any plot hole or inconsistency by making stuff up like that, but you shouldn't have to cover up ink blotches like that in the first place.

While things like this don't ruin episodes in my opinion, or make this one less enjoyable, it's still there. I may not be able to see the cut, but I can see the band-aid. I'm not a stupid viewer and playing games with consistency like that feels a little bit insulting. And I'm sure nobody cares that I feel insulted and that's fine, I don't want people to care what I think or feel, but I'm going to register these problems regardless, because I do feel they are real problems that can be avoided.

There were other ways to kill Carter and cause the loss of her ship without inventing this silly scenario where Wraith cruisers are suddenly capable of downing a Daedalus class ship that has (and this is getting silly as well) Asgard shields, Asgard weapons, Asgard transporters, Asgard sensors, and to top it off with a nice cherry, a shiny just-off-the-line Asgard computer core. Kind of makes me wonder if perhaps they went a little too far giving us all the Asgard toys. It would have been nice, at a hell of a lot more acceptable from a common sense point of view, if it had taken more time to duplicate that kind of technology. Consider that humans are basically flying around Asgard ships now.

I remember back to the SG-1 days when all we had were Space Shuttles, and then we had the Prometheus with its ad-hoc hyperdrive bootlegged from an Al'kesh. Asgard shields made it durable, but it was still very much a human creation.

Anyway, the finale of season four was enjoyable, but overall a pretty big disappointment. It didn't basically move the Kindred arc forward at all, it really just wasted time with a bunch of non-existent events that won't ever happen. The promo for The Ark of Truth was actually the high point of the night, I'm sorry to say.

This wasn't a failure strictly speaking, not like maybe Outcast was (I love you guys buy oh god, that was just awful..) but it missed the mark. Compared to the high water mark set by First Strike, and Adrift, The Last Man was a mid-season finale at best.

I hope the S5 premier gets the show back to where it needs to be, where it just was a few short weeks ago, and where it rightfully belongs: moving forward.
in Feature, Television


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