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?
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.
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.
Perhaps if I was doing a deeper dive into Stargate, I’d note the writers and directors more carefully than I do here, but unlike some of the other programs we’ve watched, I haven’t pored over production details and minutiae and didn’t feel like doing the work. But I did notice that this episode was written by Alan Brennert, who contributed one of my favorite Twilight Zone installments in the 1980s, “A Message From Charity”. It is unfortunately the only Stargate contribution from this fine writer, which I think is a shame. It’s a good story, very intelligent, and very knowing about the genre.
The kid pretended that he didn’t like this one much – there was smooching and he was denied a probably-expensive special effects shot that he was hoping to see – but he’s fibbing. He enjoyed this one in part because the script very overtly references Captain Kirk’s parade of space girlfriends, and it’s all very funny. It’s already been established that McKay knew all the right sci-fi stuff inside and out before he started working with wormholes, and now that Sheppard has brought an alien “ambassador” back to Atlantis and gets to spend an evening showing her some of this Earth thing we call kissing, he blows his top. Men in the early 21st Century shouldn’t be doing all those displays of machismo. “That’s very 1967 of you,” he sneers.
When we looked at a little Trek last year, I didn’t pick many examples of Kirk wooing the alien ladies – “What are Little Girls Made Of?”, in which he smooches a robot into having emotions, was one – the stereotype is somehow nevertheless known to him. Did Kirk ever tie tongues with that green girl from the end credits? Probably.
Okay, so a screencap of a briefly-seen hallucination of something that might have some big teeth is probably one of the more… let’s say eccentric choices I’ve made for a screencap for this blog. I guess that means the jerk who keeps pilfering my images for his classic TV blog will give this one a miss. But I picked it because, for the first time in a long time, something onscreen really got under our son’s skin, briefly, and gave him enough of a fright to send him hiding under a blanket. His much-loved security blanket stays in bed these days, but we have cozy and comfy light bamboo-fiber blankets on the couch, and one of these hallucinations was all he needed to hide his head from the others.
Anyway, I wonder whether “Hot Zone” was originally intended to immediately follow the two-parter “The Storm” and “The Eye”, because it deals with a damage assessment of the flooding. In one of the “suburbs,” a search party finds a previously unknown bio-lab and they let something out. The strange infection kills its victims in precisely the same time and in precisely the same way. In the way of these things, somebody refuses to shelter in place and insists on returning to the “city” so he can infect everybody. How prescient of the writers.
I don’t talk about the acting on Atlantis nearly enough. More precisely, I don’t talk about how good David Hewlett is. Faced with his imminent death, he gives a hell of a good farewell scene, perfectly balancing the character’s sadness that he didn’t accomplish all that he wanted with his hilarious, petulant selfishness. Everybody else in the series is really good as well, but I think everybody’s at their best when they are playing off Hewlett, especially Rainbow Sun Francks, who knows just how to poke holes in him.
Funny sort of synchronicity with today’s viewing. I pointed out that this morning, we saw Martians killed off by Earth bacteria, and this evening, we watched people from Earth get killed off by alien bacteria. I often call our boy “Baby Drax” because he can be so literal. He corrected me. “This wasn’t bacteria, Dad, it was nanobots!” Not the same at all, no…
There’s a very cute bit of misdirection in this very fun episode of Atlantis. The heroes encounter these little light bugs who seem harmless enough, and later on, the chips are down and they’re in serious trouble with a Wraith who’s been hiding on this planet, hibernating and feeding on his own crew when their supplies ran out. The light bugs show up again, and suddenly they don’t just look like a resolution to the problem, they reminded us all of some very similar light bugs from back in SG-1‘s fourth season. Surely it wasn’t just us. Everybody was expecting these dots to turn into super-aggressive mosquitos and sting him to death, right? They don’t – there’s a much more explosive end in store for this jerk – but as our son put it, “I was expecting them to turn into a swarm of piranhas!”
When we met the Genii in episode eight, I was saying how I ended the episode hoping somebody would give Colm Meaney’s character a good knuckle sandwich. Compare to the Trust over in SG-1, who are just a bunch of faceless nobodies, really. Meaney will appear again next season, but this is the last appearance for Erin Chambers’ character, who will be referenced a few times in the future.
But we get a great new villain this time out. Robert Davi, a good actor who’d played heavies and mob bosses all through the eighties and nineties before taking a lead role as a hero in NBC’s Profiler for four years, is actually quite perfectly cast as Commander Kolya, who leads a Genii strike force to seize Atlantis while it is badly short-staffed. A massive hurricane, which seems to form every twenty-ish years, is bearing down on the city. Once upon a time, its citizens would just power up the shields, but they don’t have power for the shields anymore, so they evacuate.
Most of this is an incredibly entertaining cat-and-mouse game and it includes a terrific moment that our son loved: Sheppard interrupts the Genii’s plan to call in reinforcements with a very clever trick. It’s the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to make a baddie want a second shot at you. Kolya will return a few more times. You can’t keep a good archenemy down. In fact, you shouldn’t try.
Unfortunately, the “you think you’ve gone home but you really haven’t” trope is one of those that fantasy and SF TV just can’t resist, so this one is a big ball of nothing. We saw this before on one of my least favorite Farscape episodes, although strangely I’m also reminded that the terrible nineties Land of the Lost did it and it was better than their average. Or maybe I just liked seeing the tyrannosaur in a suburb.
Anyway, the kid saw through this immediately because Don S. Davis is back in a guest role and General Hammond is in charge of the SGC. Garwin Sanford also gets to return as an imaginary version of Weir’s fiancé. There are Monty Python and Outer Limits references, and Sheppard’s deliberately over-the-top bachelor pad has a giant poster of Johnny Cash on the wall. Unfortunately this story gives away far too many clues that something’s wrong even if you hadn’t tuned in to the SG-1 that aired one hour before this and saw that General O’Neill is in charge of the SGC.