Well, if SG-1 had a gigantic loss in their column in the previous episode, Atlantis came out ahead in this one. I really enjoy “The Tower” because it hits the ground running. It has to; there is a lot going on in this one.
So our heroes find a feudal planet where the villagers are being horribly exploited by their ruling class. Their lord protector, and his bloodline for many generations, can enforce absolute loyalty while also protecting everyone from the Wraith because they live in a giant city-ship, a mostly dormant sister to Atlantis that has been overgrown by the forests; its purpose and history long forgotten. Unlike Atlantis, they’ve got a healthy stock of the drone missiles. They’ve also got a crazy amount of court intrigue as the vulgar, scheming, stupid, and conspiracy-minded royals jockey for the next place in line. The lord protector is played by Jay Brazeau, who had appeared in a couple of SG-1 installments, starting with “Tin Man” back in season one. One of the scheming members of the court is played by Chelan Simmons, who had played Gretchen in a couple of episodes of Wonderfalls the previous season, and whose bare back is shown below as Sheppard continues his drive to be more like Kirk.
Despite the smooching, our son really enjoyed this one as well. It’s a fun story with an unexpected twist and a great resolution. Obviously a little money was saved by simply redressing the main Atlantis set as the interior of the Tower, but our son was glad that they returned to Atlantis at the end. He prefers to see the place without all the candles and tapestries.
See, there’s a reason I’m supposed to get a screenshot right after we watch something together, even if I am lazy and don’t feel like writing anything. We watched “Critical Mass” three days ago, and I said to myself “there’s the pic for the blog post,” and then I forgot what it was. So here’s Jaime Ray Newman in her second, and, annoyingly, last appearance in the series as Lt. Cadman, along with Torri Higginson. We met her in “Duet” earlier in this season. I really would have liked it if they’d have kept her around as they did Kavan Smith’s character; it provides a nicer feel for the program when there are lots and lots of recognizable characters.
That said, MGM honestly did a really good job keeping recurring players around for precisely that reason, including three in this story I’ve never mentioned before. The plot concerns the Trust, that Earthbound conspiracy from SG-1 most recently seen in “Ex Deus Machina”, learning about the potential threats in the Pegasus Galaxy and planting a bomb in Atlantis. So apart from Bill Dow and Beau Bridges from SG-1 getting some screen time, there’s Agent Barrett, the NID guy who’s always discreetly crushing on Carter, and Dr. Novak, the hiccupping engineer on the flying battleship crew, and Cavanaugh, the ponytailed nerd who hates Weir and probably votes Republican while telling everybody he’s a Libertarian.
Actually, Cavanaugh’s kind of interesting because it’s so rare in this series – or really, I think, any action-adventure series with a big chain-of-command structure and a deep bench of recurring players – to have any character who is ostensibly one of the good guys who constantly tries to undermine the person in charge. I mean, you just can’t imagine anybody on the Enterprise writing formal complaints to the Federation ombudsman about Captain Kirk. It’s almost a shame that they made this character such a creepy, one-note stereotype. He’s probably publishing screeds about objectivity in gaming journalism when he’s not sending powerpoints to the SGC about all the times McKay was mean to him.
Favorite moment for our son: the episode is topped and tailed by Zelenka, who I’ve also never mentioned even though he’s in quite a lot of the episodes, leaving and returning from a mission that he did not want. Despite hating children, he had to go on a repair mission to the planet of all the kids back in season one, and they made a coloring book out of his face. He comes back all painted with his hair in woven knots and our boy laughed himself hoarse.
Last night, we watched an Atlantis that felt a lot like a more satisfying rewrite of a six year-old episode of SG-1 called “A Hundred Days”. The end of this one, involving a small community of pilgrims hoping to become Ascended Beings en masse, felt incredibly bogus, but Sheppard doesn’t seem anywhere as resigned or as passive as O’Neill had been in the previous story. McKay even gets to snark about our hero going two for two with Ascended ladies, remembering the events of “Sanctuary” the previous year.
McKay is by far the best thing about this story, even while it’s meant to be focusing on Sheppard spending six months in a region cut off from the rest of its planet by a time dilation field while only a few hours pass for the rest of the universe. Our son really liked how McKay was forced to use a sensible contraption that Sheppard has given a stupid name – MALP on a Stick – and got a big laugh when McKay refers to Ronon and Teyla as “Conan and Xena.” Bizarrely, six years later, Jason Momoa got to play Conan in a movie I don’t know that I ever heard about before now.
We looked at SG-1‘s big midseason two-parter last weekend, and now it’s time for Atlantis‘s turn. Although… I did not realize when I put our viewing order together that the Sci-Fi Channel made a curious and interesting change to way that they broadcast the two shows after they ran the tenth episode of each. Both shows took a hiatus starting in September 2005, but Atlantis came back with its eleventh episode in November while SG-1 stayed on the bench for an additional six weeks, until January 2006. I’m not going to change the way we’re watching them, and will just continue alternating them. More fun that way.
Anyway, this was Rainbow Sun Francks’ final appearance in the series. Since we last saw him in “Runner”, Lt. Ford put a gang together and has been executing commando raids on the Wraith, killing as many as they can and stealing their enzyme. We chose to pause part two and explain to our son what going cold turkey meant, since the enzyme is insanely addictive, and the baddies aren’t going to let their prisoners have more.
Despite the heavy drugs metaphor and some ugly moments from some of the cast coming down from the stuff, our kid really enjoyed this one. McKay is at his most stubborn and ridiculous, there’s all kinds of fighting, and big space battles. The story ends with the Wraith getting increasingly paranoid and territorial, pitting one Hive against another. Two more Hive ships are destroyed thanks to their work. Ford apparently doesn’t make it out alive, but that’s seven down and fifty-three to go, but who’s counting, other than me?
“Duet” belongs to a long tradition of Stargate episodes where alien tech goes wrong and actors get to stretch a little while they’ve been bodyswapped or deaged or, in this case, had other people’s consciousness dropped in their body like a time-share. Previous SG-1 examples include “Legacy” and “Fragile Balance”. This time, David Hewlett gets to stretch and pretend he’s a mischievous woman who enjoys working out before bed and sleeping nude, then waking up as himself, very embarrassed and very, very sore.
The story’s very funny and has some great moments, not least of which is McKay’s date with a botanist, during which he manages to have two Cyrano wingmen to assist him. We all enjoyed it, but I do think they missed a little opportunity. We could have enjoyed this episode even more if we knew who the other consciousness in McKay’s brain was. This is Jaime Ray Newman’s first appearance as Lt. Laura Caldwell. If we had gotten to know the character first, then David Hewlett’s impersonation would surely have been even funnier. Weirdly, Caldwell only appears in the show just one more time, although she’s featured in quite a few of the companion novels, and gets both a detailed backstory and an eventual promotion to captain.
A big transition episode, “Runner” was mostly filmed on location in a forest that serves as a planet with a badly depleted ozone layer and dangerous solar radiation. This is the last appearance for original cast member Rainbow Sun Francks for a little while. He’ll appear just twice more this season. His place in Atlantis’s military hierarchy is filled by an interesting choice: Kavan Smith as Major Evan Lorne. This is a character we actually met before, briefly, in a nice bit of continuity. He was introduced in the season seven SG-1 story “Enemy Mine” about two years previously.
But the big addition is, of course, future heartthrob Jason Momoa as Ronon Dex, who’ll be a regular cast member through the end of the series. I think that his planet may have been the most technologically advanced in the Pegasus galaxy, meaning that it was the biggest threat to the Wraith. He may be the only survivor. He kind of fills the position on the team that Wolverine does in the X-Men: the fighter who gets results by ignoring orders. Of the two, I kind of like Lorne a little better because anybody who has to deal with Dr. McKay’s mouth has my sympathy, but Ronon is fun, too. A few years later, when I read that Momoa had been cast as Aquaman, I said that was the most interesting thing that has ever happened to Aquaman. I’ve never actually seen Momoa in the role, because I’m still not interested in Aquaman, but I can believe he’s pretty entertaining as the character.
So the new norm on Atlantis is that now they have a power source, they can gate back to Earth immediately, but returning to Atlantis takes 18 days on one of the two flying battleships. Some of the story is told in flashback, where Beau Bridges gets a short scene as General Landry, Garwin Sanford makes a final appearance as the fella Elizabeth left behind, and where Sheppard gets an offscreen promotion to lieutenant colonel. The rest of it is onboard the battleship dealing with a computer virus. You would have thought this was old hat when SG-1 did a computer virus story five years previously, but here we are in 2005 still doing one. It does climax with some space combat that had our kid really excited, so points for that at least.
To be honest, my favorite installments of Stargate are the ones that do something weird and different and occasionally make fun of the proceedings. “Window of Opportunity” and “The Other Guys” of course we’ve seen and loved. “200” and the magnificent final episode we’ll get to down the line. The all-action high-stakes stories are often good, and sometimes very good, but they don’t quite engage me the same way. That said, I certainly appreciate it when the situation gets so absurdly out of control that our heroes end up blowing up a sun.
But “The Siege” is absolutely as good as adventure television ever gets. This is a story where everything in season one builds effortlessly into the ugly situation that our heroes are in. There are natural callbacks to several previous episodes as they look for some way out of this. Three Wraith “hive ships” are on the way; they have no defense, no way to power the shield, and no way to evacuate. They get a reprieve at the beginning of part two and the situation gets worse. They get another reprieve at the beginning of part three and the situation gets worse still. Even watched over three nights, it’s still exhausting. It’s really great. I genuinely can’t imagine anybody working through the highs and lows of season one grumbling that this wasn’t a satisfying conclusion. And the kid was in heaven. He said all the occasional “fluffy” episodes were just fine because they did something huge and “not fluffy” as this.
Most interestingly, it establishes that Atlantis is going to forge a different path than SG-1 has done up to this point and seriously mess with the status quo and the cast every year. There will be times I’ll be really disappointed with this, but this story sees Rainbow Sun Francks leave the cast as his character becomes a rogue agent, and another recurring character, Peter Grodin, who’d been in half the episodes, killed off. Three new characters will join the cast for year two, and we meet the first of them, Colonel Steven Caldwell, in part three. He’s played by Mitch Pileggi, who had been rolling his eyes dealing with Mulder and Scully’s latest shenanigans on The X Files for many years.
So year one ends with Atlantis no longer lost, the shield ready to be raised, the Wraith lost a good chunk of their fleet, and a new way back and forth to Earth. I can’t help but slightly regret that it went this way; it felt a little more desperate when the expedition was completely cut off, but there are still many more great stories to come. But first we’ll check in on how SG-1 weathered its great big change to its status quo and cast…
“The Gift” is the prologue to the big three-parter, and I think it’s interesting from a production standpoint. Visual effects and new sets are kept to a bare minimum, there are just a couple of new speaking parts other than the recurring players, and the most exciting thing that happens for most of the installment is that Teyla has a recurring nightmare where she becomes a Wraith. Rachel Luttrell gets to be made up all ugly and gross for two incredibly short jump-scare shots. Lots of facts are added to the lore, and it’s a pleasant enough hour, but it also feels like it is marking time until the main event. We’ll get to that in a week and a half.
I haven’t praised Paul McGillion nearly enough in these pages. Dr. Carson Beckett, cynical, practical, and occasionally disbelieving, is always hilarious, but he had us rolling with laughter this time. Like episode 15, this episode is beefed up by repurposed footage from previous installments, but neither of them is a clip show in the traditional sense. It’s better than 90% new material, as the Atlantis team makes videos to send home, along with all their mission reports and intel, in a 1.3 second data burst. They do not have enough power to generate a wormhole that would last long enough for a human to gate back to Earth, but they can just manage this.
Even though it’s a very risky drain on their resources, three Wraith hive ships are just two weeks away. Short a miracle, or a heck of a lot happening in the big three-parter coming up, this is their only shot to warn Earth, but there’s room in the data packet for personal video messages. Dr. Beckett wants to use his time to talk to his mother about keeping up with her prescriptions for toenail fungus, and he gets stage fright. Hilariously – slash – creepily, there’s even one ponytailed scientist nerd who wants to use his video time to make formal complaints to the SGC about the woman running things. Bet if he makes it home, he’ll whine online about The Last Jedi.
In episode 15, they decided to work around the rest of the cast’s busier schedules and give Torri Higginson a little more to do, which is fine by me, because I’m all in favor of Torri Higginson having lots more to do than the producers usually gave her. Unfortunately, “Before I Sleep” takes a promising idea and plays the story that a mysterious woman has to tell them as another Atlantis episode, with dramatic peaks and valleys, and the meat of what she had to say presented as the climax.
Weirdly, that “meat” fuels just a single episode, when it seems like it had story opportunities for several. “Before I Sleep” ends with the expedition getting gate addresses for five planets where the rare power sources they need might be found. Four of them don’t seem to ever be mentioned again; this one attracts the attention of their enemies the Genii, who send Robert Davi’s villain character, last seen in the midseason two-parter, to take another shot at Sheppard.
Honestly, though, as entertaining as Davi and Flanigan’s sparring is, the real fun this time is watching Dr. McKay out of his depth. Last time I wrote about this series, McKay was disapproving and mocking of Sheppard acting like Captain Kirk and romancing attractive aliens. This time, an attractive alien starts dropping hints to McKay, and the poor guy is so clueless that his friends have to point it out to him.