A Look at the Lens: Stargate Atlantis

Stargate is about exploration of the alien, making sense and appreciating old civilisations, and the struggle against false divinity and predatory parasitical alien life in all of its inceptions. Atlantis provides new exploration in an alien galaxy, cutting off and keeping humanity away from the familiar Earth and surrounding it with the alien as well. The ‘get our people home’ is a plot the writers clearly loved, the plot of the movie, often the plot of a fair few episodes. Here, the transition keeps in pace with the series timeline.

As humanity explores, they find more wonder. More enslaved species. And when not staving off extermination, not entirely ignorant, how does humanity continue to help others, and accept their power as a beneficent ‘Fifth Race’? Atlantis moves the meta plot by taking the cast away from one country, even away from the galaxy. And showing the precursor civilisation as a home, like children picking up and learning to use their parents tools and learn from their lessons and mistakes.

Atlantis has the element of “screw you space vampires”. I like that. I said it jokingly aloud at first to someone watching through the series with me, but it’s the theme of a lot of the episodes. And I like it. it’s simpler than the Goa’uld, and enjoyable in an easy way. Simple, visible, enemies easy to hate. The popular appeal of science fiction, improved technology, discovery, employing imagination. Combined with an overarching enemy that is a reinterpretation of an iconic monster.

The vampire elicits fear and primal emotions such as loathing or enjoyment to see it destroyed due to its intimidating and predatory nature. Rather than draining blood as a particular body fluid, and the implied themes of parasitism and infection, draining the life force from another is the culmination. It hits another instinctive fear of aging, adding to the terror and a choice I’m surprised hasn’t been used more regarding vampire media.

The Goa’uld are memorable, disgusting enemies but on a visual level just eyes and voices really. The somewhat amphibian, yellow eyed, fanged visage and watery modulated voices of the Wraith sets off a primal nerve in humanity, they are somewhat like the drowned dead, the alien and as mentioned a vampire all at once, possessed of ancient alien intellect and without the convenient and catastrophic weaknesses iconic monsters tend to possess. The Goa’uld are fewer and harder to fight, symbolic of molestation, a corrupt class using slavery to force stronger figures to fight for them. The Wraith are easier to get at in direct combat from a writing perspective, and the writers were less hesitant to get at them and have many of their leaders killed or a conniving figure destroyed as hordes of them find their ‘food’ woefully underestimated this cycle. In keeping with scale and intent, SG-1 struggled every time to pick off the dozen or so System Lords. Atlantis has swarms, literal ‘hive’ ships of these utterly unrepentant things to blow up like B-movie fodder.

The primary enemies of Stargate have always been narcissistic parasites, manipulating and outright wanting to destroy Earth. This basic rule can then be played with when including charismatic arch-villains, which reward the audience and reflect the protagonists skills and impact by showing a contrasting adaptation. As humanity hurts the parasite, it in turn evolves in the latter seasons and needs to be fought like a wounded monster. Their greatest foes possess the engaging but also disturbing element of humanity, and more the strength and virtue of curiosity (Michael, Baal).

Atlantis carries the best series of progression in the entire franchise, which I will argue is definitely in its favour. I always found it a little disconnecting -though understandable with the budget and formula- how SG-1 always looked the same. The same P-90’s, the human technology and mountain experience a lot of weirdness but never fundamentally upgrade or alter aesthetic in a memorable way besides the art style of the ‘US Military’ ala something like X-COM. In contrast, Atlantis from the start is a city to explore, a new frontier. Then to my surprise they go even further with what the city can do, how the galaxy reacts to their imprint, and an entirely dominated hostile territory is fish something they hide from -the hiding itself a gripping way to keep watching as guns are not the solution- then work with a coalition of interesting human and alien cultures we see more visibly than SG-1.

A show usually features Earth, earth civil war, and perhaps two or three main cultures without focusing on many others. It’s not something like Battletech, you have Federation/Klingon/Antagonist Faction in Star Trek typically, OPA/Martians/Belters in The Expanse, usually a rule of three at most with very rough outlines of other species and cultures.

Atlantis places spread out, not massively in-depth but present factions that make you feel sentient ‘humanity’ is a lot of remnants spaced out, growing again in parallel with the theme of seeding and discovery (both humanity, sentient life and the Wraith all expanding, with the intent to avoid being culled and for technology and life to prosper). There is on-screen something I think only video games and novels have shown in story, a large number of space factions acting in coalitions, areas of territory being allied and explored to the point beyond threat or ally to the protagonists, but as communities independent themselves.

It makes the teams impact more show rather than tell and increases audience interest in the worldbuilding with the impression that dozens of worlds and billions of people are ‘waking up’ metaphorically and exploring the galaxy through innovative and covert means such as the Genii. The different roles and nature of the characters is a nice balance between military and civilian as well, or the rather stoic soldierly SG-1 cast and the leaps of logic that have SGU characters try and kill one another and straining suspension of disbelief.

The mixture of military, civilian, and alien allows looseness in the performances, a bit of quite good humour rather than select comedy episodes. There’s the sarcasm we’re used to from O’Neil, but McKay joins in with Shepherd in the witty repertoire, often spoken in genuine anger as part of his arrogant but aware attitude when freely admitting he’s overwhelmed. The cast get to show quite a bit of range and a lot of well-meant jibing rather than the passive aggressive spats present in Universe, which came with the popularisation of tenser, bitter dynamics reflecting supposed realism.

There’s a sense of genuine sequel and successor in Atlantis, it’s not trying to be the DS9 of Stargate, but a fresh IP with a balanced mix of exploratory, tense and high spirited. It is not the first series in a way that suits it, the setting isn’t USAF and kept to the clear real-world procedures and expectations while the characters and audience come to terms with the nuances of the titular device, but the stargate being part of a wider technological network and a means to explore an entirely different galaxy, more of a socio-political series contemplating Ancient and Wraith experiments than the high-concept ideas the military experiments witch in plots like ’48 Hours’ and ‘Solitudes’.

I find Weir refreshingly threatening, without using the worn-out mention of gender to justify or nullify it somehow. She’s just the commander. Not a military officer, but hard in the sense of command. Knowing Shepard is the military arm of the complex, she has authority over him and an advisor in military matters she’s not trained for, but notably makes decisive decisions in the way you would see a leader or manager take them. There is no panic you would see in a poor leader or a need to belittle subordinates, but the reality of a person who like every other member of the cast at some point rises to the occasion and acts swiftly to solve problems and threats.

Often that includes destroying a hostile alien or critical system failure, and every time Higginston puts a steel into it without it seeming hammy or lukewarm. A signifier of good art, and a reminder that we have become less tolerant and enlightened than we were a couple of decades ago. I do find it a bit of a shame that things devolved and did not improve from Torri Higginston’s performance of an effective and unique civilian commander, as heroes and heroines in modern television have become much more authoritarian, aggressive, morally dubious, self-righteous and yet emotionally childish.

Jason Momoa’s best acting. I like the guy, but honestly I don’t think he’s given much opportunity to act. He’s big and imposing, with a bit of wit. That’s 90% of his appearances. Ronan has more of a story, a thawing arc with the cast. A warrior without being a repeat of Teal’c’s arc as one of the warrior caste, a revolutionary chainbreaker and stoic for his cause. Different arc, different personality.

Aquaman, Khal Drogo, the Conan reboot and Duncan Idaho blend together for me. You can’t say the same of Ronan, at first a character that would have fitted into the plot of Predators and comes to Atlantis as a warrior and then a soldier. There’s a lot more bonding in his old comrades and new ones, due to Atlantis again having the advantage of its varied cast. The Earth military bears similarities to his own, but the man is more of a warrior, mercenary and brutal, but most importantly adapting over time. I don’t think Momoa undergoes character development anywhere else I’ve seen him, certainly not what we see here. Here you see a take on the alien warrior that’s quite refreshing, similar to us rather than a spartan figure using advanced technology, and a blunt outlook played for humour that joins in with others, and not being accompanied by stupidity. It’s just a bit more human which helps it stand out, just as the commander talks like a person rather than being an archetypical admiral or general and the scientific staff being involved in danger and not keeping a haughty social isolation throughout.

The initial impression of the cast doesn’t do justice to good ensemble coverage and character definition. The doctors are not just doctors, no archetypes of the Lancer, the Heart, even McKay thankfully quickly stops being the lecherous arse he is in SG-1 and often makes a very good pairing with Shepard, their humour and pathos does not come from brains vs brawn but often a race towards expediency and success through their different skills, Shepard’s confident military ability and McKay’s arrogant scientific genius. I find there’s less of the cynicism or outright venom that makes the latter-made Stargate Universe a little difficult to watch at times, that show succeeded in conflict at the expense of really feeling like a cohesive ‘team’ at all, rather than self-destructive personalities doomed to failure (in a meta sense as well, the series sadly cut short).

As an aside I will point out David Hewlett’s acting skills caught me completely off-guard in Season 5’s ‘The Shrine’, an homage to Flowers for Algernon which I found incredibly upsetting and touching due to his delivery, the entire cast performs shockingly well, but especially Hewlett. Never afraid to look animated, foolish, or petty, as the series goes on the writing and direction got a lot of milage and nuance from the character allowed to be a jerk or react in a more human way, which ironically makes him one of the highlights of the show rather than the offputting jackass he was in SG-1. If there is one episode you should try to see how you feel about the show besides the pilot, give this one a try.

Atlantis comes relatively late for a show of its kind, not entirely original to comparable shows like comparable shows like Voyager and others in the 1990s-2000s era. But I would rather this series personally, a good take on well-trodden ground beats a tepid and half-hearted try at something new.

There are points of comparison to Star Trek: Voyager especially, especially in stakes that I find may merit more writing upon if someone has not done already. For example, while less famous, I would argue Elizabeth Weir is a better commander to watch than Cathryn Janeway, purely based upon performance, continuity of their principles, and consequences of their leadership. If I’m not mistaken, some of the writing staff for Voyager such as Kathryn Powers wrote for Stargate, so in a sense I wonder if a few concepts and characters were written as spiritual successors or ideas the writers always wanted to try. After all, there does seem to be a comfortable sharing with other science fictions shows as we see stars like Robert Picardo, Connor Trinneer and Jewel Staite from Firefly appear in Atlantis.

You have a double take seeing them for the first time and may make a few jokes watching with others, but I’ll say without spoilers that all three actors were given good screen time, character development, and in the case of Mr Trinneer frankly more respect from the writing staff. These may not be their iconic roles, but they are very distinct and hold up as well as anything else they portrayed. Straightforward enemies, exploration and discovery with a puzzle of the episode and a bit of humour. It won’t blow your mind away, but the 2004-2009 series has a lot of sanding around the edges, I never experienced any truly awful episodes or mood whiplash you get from other shows of its time, or moments of political author tract pulling you out of the puzzle and mystery plots.

I began writing this piece as a reconsideration of a show I’d avoided, and it transformed into a recommendation for the comfortable thing it is, a now older kind of show where humour, horror and technology are put together, but has aged well by the merit of actually showing a lot of the galaxy it explores. There is no ‘great mystery we can never solve’ or ‘humans are the real bastards’ plots, in fact no politics at all I can think of. I was glad to give it a try after a lot of years and find that you could do a lot worse if the realm of good Canadian-American sci-fi shows appeals to you. this show has the most exotic setting of the Stargate shows, and I will admit will probably have the widest spread appeal compared to enjoyable but more niche series’ that came before and after.

Until next time,

J.W.H Hobbs

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