Stargate week: I shot the leg.

by Paul William Tenny

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It was supposed to be the key to taking down Anubis, but when we found it, it was sitting at the bottom of an ocean. There's never enough power to do anything really cool most of the time, probably because the warranty ran out like 10,000 years ago. Puddle jumpers, ZPMs, killer viruses, angry aliens that want to have you for breakfast -- literally -- and a revolving door command structure.

As we come closer to the end of Atlantis than we are to its beginning, I wonder if it fulfilled or even exceeded its potential, or if it missed the mark. I begin with the first season.
Stargate Atlantis hasn't lived up to the reputation of its predecessor, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been a satisfying journey. The show definitely has its charms, too, but there are things that I do dearly miss. Where are the Tolans, the Asgard, Nox, Ori, or Goa'uld of the Atlantis world? Don't you miss those wildly varying races that were always getting in the way, holding us back, or pushing us forward? I feel like, looking back, that the variety of races and people in the SG-1 universe is what made it so entertaining, and Atlantis lacks that. So many of the people in SGA are primitive, useless snack items, that at times it seems like the "ancient" stories are the only ones worth telling.

Doesn't it feel constrained and empty somewhat?

It's not huge and not damning or anything like that, and things may be picking up in the coming season and from the looks of it there are some pretty great things in store for us, but overall, I think SGA merely held its ground instead of really seizing the opportunity. There are more than enough positive things to say about this show however, and I'm not shy about telling people that if there is any show out there that I'd write for if I had the opportunity, I'd chose SGA without any hesitation. I know the difference between cable shows and a drama on one of the big four, at least as well as a person can without actually being on one of them that is, so understand that I'm not crazy when I say that yes, I'd pass on House, and even Heroes..well maybe not Heroes, but House I would even tough it's an Emmy magnet and a career maker if I've ever seen one.

I'd do that because while those shows have their own thing going on, neither of them and really nothing else on TV has defined an entire galaxy before, much less two of them, and I really think that's a dream come true for a writer. If this richly defined galaxy isn't big enough for you, just make up another one. How can you not be dying to be a part of that? I am.

It's a sweet sandbox they've got there and I'd be thrilled to play in it. My criticism is just that, criticism. It's not a bored anti-fanboy who spends all day writing about shows he doesn't like or watch -- I love the show and watch it regularly. So I'm going to be honest about what I've seen and I'll try to be fair, but no guarantees. If you're looking for a Hitchhikers guide to Stargate Atlantis, this is the wrong place. This a wanna-be writer and fan of the show breaking it down, piece by piece, ... well because I've got blank pages to fill and lets face it, I'm pretty bored.

Since this took longer to write than I'd have hoped, my loss is your gain. This piece was supposed to cover the first four seasons but instead will only cover the first season, with three more of these coming this week. Yay, more work!

It's easy to say the fourth season of this show was its best, and in part I would actually agree. First Strike (S3 finale) and Adrift (S4 premier) were easily the best pairing the series has ever done, and frankly it's not even a close contest. That said, the first season I think is still a very worthy challenger and in fact some of my favorite episodes of the series came very early on.

The two-part premier wasn't anything special or notable with the exception of what kind of "rules" they gave us to work with that were promptly thrown to the wind. I remember quite distinctly seeing a severed Wraith hand still twitching on a table and some of the characters commenting on the species' regenerative capabilities and how incredibly hard killing was going to be. Except it turns out a few seconds of sustained fire from a P-90 will down a Wraith just about as well it will a Jaffa, or anyone for that matter. I liked the idea of a species that was physically resilient to gunfire in the same way that Jaffa were supposed to be but never really were.

I do think that the series would have been more interesting if they had played that out, but since they didn't, we move on.

The third and second episode of the season, "Hide and Seek" along with "38 Minutes" were critical in establishing the initial tone of the series and giving us proper respect for how dangerous and unpredictable the environment was going to be. A child playing accidentally sets loose a noncorporeal, hungry, floating black blob. Just as interesting in my mind, and certainly one of the most amusing scenes of the entire series (you know the one I'm talking about, involving McKay being shoved off a balcony and a priceless "I shot him (grin on face) the leg") both served the exact same purpose and yet were presented in entirely different ways.

The message was clear: this place is dangerous.

Hungry floating blobs notwithstanding, even something as simple and good as a personal defensive shield could quite easily kill you if you don't know what you're messing with. A week later, when "38 Minutes" aired, and as if we needed reminding at this point, it happened all over again.

A jumper gets physically stuck in an active space gate, and the team has 38 minutes to get it unstuck before the gate shuts down cutting the ship in half and exposing everyone inside of it to hard space. It actually sounds like one of those ideas you pitch when you need to come in under budget -- I'm not saying that was the case here at all -- so you craft a story that takes place entirely on existing sets with as few effects as possible and no extras, so that it'll be very cheap and to shoot and can be completed quickly. In the end it actually works out great though. It serves its purpose to remind us and the characters that something as simple as driving home can be as dangerous as anything you can possibly imagine, simply because you're a kid playing with adult toys, while still telling a decently compelling story.

Despite being structured differently, both of these episodes were well paced, suspenseful, and actually quite inspirational to the imagination. Who wouldn't take the opportunity to start living in and exploring a city-sized space ship built by a civilization millions of years more advanced than your own? How could that not inspire your imagination and a sense of wonder, turning you into a little kid at heart?

That feeling is what sold me on Stargate Atlantis to begin with, and yet that's not something they're really doing anymore, at least not lately. Atlantis grew up and in a way fell back on drama and suspense as a method of storytelling and did away with the wonder and awe, which is a little bit sad because I think you can have both at the same time and still have a show worth watching.


The mid-season finale, "The Storm", was executed well on every level possible. Those last few minutes were visually pleasing, well written, well acted, and well scored. This was the kind of suspense and drama that I think we're seeing a lot more of these days and it was a great addition to the early episodes that focused more on the characters learning about their environment and, now, the other people living in it with them. Right after the break, "The Defiant One" was like "38 Minutes" in that it was physically confined and not terribly deep when it comes to story, but still very pleasing and I think it actually one-uped 38 by introducing the satellite defense platform that would later come to prominence in the season finale, giving us significant bit of historical texture to go along with all the pretty people and cool technology.

We learned early on about who the Wraith were and that the Ancients had fought a long hard war and eventually left after finding themselves on the losing end, but there's a huge difference between being told about it and getting a taste of it. Finding a 10,000-year-old orbital defense platform and an enemy ship from that era with an actual living enemy almost gives us a physical sensation that makes it real without having to resort to flashbacks. It's like running your hand across the surface of a wooden desk and feeling the names that people gouged into its surface several decades ago. Seeing those names is one thing, but feeling them is another, and that's what Defiant One gave us.

Looking back, I can see a lot of stories from the first season followed a similar theme of being careful in a new environment and still getting burned anyway. In Hot Zone, several team members are infected with a virus while exploring a section of the city that had been previously flooded. The city seals itself to quarantine the infected areas and the good guys win the day..eventually..but it still drove the point home. It's like a cave man with no understanding of written or spoken language walking into a CDC vault or a nuclear laboratory and pressing random buttons just to see what happens. A good explanation for why things like this stopped happening is that the team "found their footing" and learned how to live in their new environment without constantly putting their lives in danger, which is understandable and even expected to a degree, but not fully. Things like that should still be happening and at a greater frequency than they do currently.

In short, the later instances of accidentally blowing up an entire solar system were great -- in fact that episode was wonderful in showing us how trust is very much a fluid concept -- are cool but no where near enough. It's not believable that modern humans would "find their footing" that much while playing with technology millions of years beyond them.

Nearer the end of the first season, "Letters from Pegasus" stands above the rest in that it finally broke out of its Stargate mold, and to a degree, even its science fiction constraints, allowing the characters to tell their own story of living in trying circumstances. If I had to rank them, Letters would get my vote for best episode of the first season. It's a very powerful device to take your characters and let them speak about their lives, and I imagine exceptionally difficult to achieve since you're really talking about moving from writing fiction to simulating life itself, but when it works, it really works.

I'd like to see more time spent developing stories like that.

As for the finale, there's not much to say. The Wraith laid siege to Atlantis which allowed for some specular special effects and some damned fine scoring to go along with it. The scene when the city was darkened and the first Wraith attack began was one of the coolest things I've ever experienced in sci-fi. Nothing in the first three or four seasons of SG-1 raised the stakes this high, and the great thing is that they pulled it off and while shooting for even more later on. In fact, that three-parter set a high bar for finales that wouldn't be matched for nearly another three years.

This post is part of a week-long series on Stargate Atlantis. All posts can be found here.
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