Back in 2001, Disney released a little movie called Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It did pretty well at the box office, though it got mixed reviews and isn’t generally considered to be one of Disney’s better animated films. It, along with Treasure Planet and possibly a couple of movies I still haven’t seen, is part of a select group of films that draws on old stories—not fairy tales—and brings them to life in a highly stylized way.
But wait—that’s the wrong Atlantis, isn’t it? There’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the occurrences of Atlantis in popular culture, and it’s because we are fascinated by it. An ancient city sinks beneath the waves and is never seen again—it may have been pride, misfortune, war, greed, fear, or a whole host of other things that caused the city to be destroyed.
But we won’t accept destruction. Somewhere, we think, it’s waiting for us, waiting to be discovered again. In ancient culture, no one believed in its existence. Today, whether we really believe in it or just kind of wish we did, the city of Atlantis is a key part of who we are and what our world once was.
That’s basically the premise of Stargate: Atlantis.
The theme of the Stargate series has always been finding the things that nobody believed were real. In the 1994 cult classic Stargate, Dr. Daniel Jackson is trying to convince people that the stargate, an object of ancient lore, really exists.
Of course nobody believes him, because what kind of film would it be if everyone believed him right off the top and just threw all the money at him to fund his research? No, he needs to be judged, mocked, humiliated, and ground into the dust before he can discover that he was right all along: the thing he was looking for, lost to civilization since ancient times, exists after all. (Incidentally, the last two sentences also describe the beginning of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I call shenanigans.)
Stargate launched the TV series Stargate SG-1, which was followed a few years later by spinoff series Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe. Each series drew on the themes of exploration and the depth of human determination that Stargate had laid down years before. Atlantis in particular emphasized just how deep our determination goes.
The premise is that the scientists and military folks who run the Stargate program discovered a way to gate to what they believe is the Ancient city of Atlantis, which is in the Pegasus galaxy. An expedition is assembled and sent out, though the massive power requirements to connect and sustain a wormhole in another galaxy are so enormous that it’s a one-way trip. The expedition team successfully gates to Atlantis, which is underwater, ‘cause the Ancients sank it ten thousand years before.
Who are the Ancients, you totally didn’t ask. Also, notice that I said “Ancient” city before, not “ancient”? Yeah, there’s a race called the Ancients, who, in the show’s mythos, seeded life across the universe (which explains why everyone on different planets is still human and speaks English), along with a slew of stargates. Atlantis was their home in the Pegasus galaxy, but a fearsome enemy drove them to Earth, where they lived for a while (I get a little fuzzy at this part of the story, ‘cause I don’t know why they’d go to Earth when it’s in the ass-end of nowhere).
Anyway, shortly after the team arrives in Atlantis, power levels drop and the city begins to flood. Everything seems hopeless, but a failsafe mechanism kicks in and the city rises to the surface of the planet’s ocean. And now the team has loads of time to get into all sorts of scrapes all over the Pegasus gallery, including inadvertently waking up the very same enemy that defeated the Ancients: the Wraith.
The first season (as well as the first episode of season 2, which I’m including because why not) is about the Atlantis team’s struggle against the Wraith. The Wraith feed by sucking a person’s life force out of them through their chest, turning them into a skeletal husk. They view humanity as their own personal herd, which they cull every so often. This is a problem, because in Atlantis’ pilot episode, a captured military officer is tortured and gives away the fact that Earth has never been culled, and thus is the richest feeding ground the Wraith will ever see. So they gather their fleet and head for Atlantis, intending to use the stargate to gate back to Earth.
The Atlantis team holds out for awhile, and they get some reinforcements from Earth (which seemed like a deus ex machina to me, but whatever). Upon realizing that they can’t hold out forever, they convert the city’s shield into a cloak and fake a self-destruct. The Wraith apparently can’t be bothered to toss down a torpedo just to test that theory, and the entire fleet just leaves without any further fuss.
Plot-wise, Stargate Atlantis is very similar to SG-1. It’s a bunch of scientists and military officers traipsing around other worlds, which look suspiciously like Canada, and getting into mischief, which is resolved at the end of every episode. Except wait, no, that’s not true for Atlantis at all. While certain story threads are resolved and never referred to again, there’s an overarching story that exists outside of the dreaded “to be continued” episodes. Each episode has a logical progression to the next (though I think that, out of the three series, Stargate Universe did this the best), and each is somehow relevant to the greater season 1 story arc.
For example, in the episode “Childhood’s End,” an away team comes across a planet where no one has seen the Wraith in centuries and everyone is under the age of 25—because nothing says “happy birthday to me” like killing yourself when you turn 25. The team discovers that the planet’s villages are guarded by a shield, which can only extend over so much area. The suicides were population control, ensuring that the children would be safe from the Wraith. But the shield is powered by an Ancient device, which can be used to save Atlantis from the oncoming Wraith attack. However, in order to protect the children, they ultimately decide to leave it behind.
While it seems like a cheap way to explore different cultures and different societal issues in the space of a forty-five minute episode, each episode really does have some relevance to the Wraith, to a city unexplored, and to the fact that the team is pretty freaking far from home. So the whole sci-fi trope where they seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly boning where no one has boned before, doesn’t fall as flat as it did for other sci-fi series.
On that note, let’s discuss character. Major John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan) is a god among men, a rakishly haired soldier with a resolve of iron and a face of pure masculinity. Oh, yeah, and he totally makes it with an Ancient chick. He’s actually referred to as Captain Kirk on more than one occasion, so it’s nice that they can appreciate the fact that males in every TV show cannot possibly have a platonic relationship with a woman. But wait! That’s not true, either! Teyla, the leader of the Athosians (a people they befriended in the pilot episode), is a member of Sheppard’s team, and though there are scenes that hint at a strong relationship between the two, there is nothing remotely sexual between them. Which is huge in television these days. Also, he visited every continent on Earth, lost friends in an Apache accident in Afghanistan, and would’ve been in Mensa if he’d ever taken the exam. He also liked to give Wraith prisoners silly names, like Steve and Bob.
Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett) actually appeared in a couple of episodes of SG-1. He’s got a mad crush on Samantha Carter, the female lead from that series, and has an ego the size of a Wraith hive ship. He’s brilliant, socially awkward, devastatingly critical of his science teams, and an icon for nerds everywhere to aspire to. He’s even reasonably attractive (in my opinion), though his personality is off-putting, abrasive, and generally unpleasant. (Although he’s nowhere near as bad as Kavanagh.) He’s allergic to citrus, has a sister named Jeannie, with whom he has a strained and distant relationship, and constantly belittles his partner, Dr. Radek Zelenka (no, not that kind of partner. Although there’s probably fanfiction about it). He’s creative, innovative, and consistently comes up with a plan to save the day.
Dr. Elizabeth Weir (I keep misspelling her name as “Weird”; I wonder if there’s something subconscious there) is the civilian leader of the expedition. She’s quietly forceful and has a dry humour that took awhile for me to like, but I’ve come to see her as the kind of leader that every interstellar expedition ought to have. (NASA, take note.) Elizabeth (Torri Higginson) doesn’t always make the right call, and sometimes she clashes with Sheppard, who sees everything as a military issue. In a lot of ways she reminds me of the previously mentioned Samantha Carter. They both have that understated strength that comes through in hard situations, and they absolutely will not tolerate any of your crap, so don’t even try it.
Teyla Emmagan (Rachel Luttrell) is the leader of the Athosians and one of my favourite characters. And that’s weird to me, because when I first saw the show, I hated the crap out of her. I thought she was overly dramatic, pointlessly repetitive, overly focused on tradition and the ways of her people, and became gradually less ethnic over the course of the series. I was also very curious about the way her hair seemed to grow, because she cut it short at one point and it grew back quickly and also blonde.
But like I said, she’s now one of my favourite characters. Teyla grew up differently than everyone else on Atlantis, always in the shadow of the Wraith. That gave her a strength that nobody, not even Weir or Sheppard, has. Plus she’s a badass with martial arts skills, surprisingly proficient with a firearm, able to tap into the Wraith neural network because she has some Wraith DNA, and stone-cold when it comes to how people deal with the Wraith. Granted, she’s still overdramatic at times, particularly when she’s accessing the neural network, but I can live with that as long as I get to see a good, old-fashioned ass-whupping.
The position of “spunky male sidekick” is filled by Lieutenant Aiden Ford, played by actor Rainbow Sun Francks (for this season, anyway, and also I posit that his parents were probably hippies, because his name is Rainbow). He’s clever and resourceful, though at times he tends to be a little high-strung. Ford sticks to the chain of command, but that doesn’t stop him from seeing Sheppard as a friend. There was a lot of potential for character growth, but then the good people who actually make Stargate Atlantis went and ruined him by making him the season 2 Big Bad (spoilers). I’m not so much a fan of that, because there was nothing in him to suggest that such a transition might have ever been the case, even with Wraith enzyme coursing through his veins (also, thanks to this show, I now hate the word “enzyme.” It’s weird, I know).
All right. I have to tell you, Dr. Carson Beckett (yes, I know everyone is a doctor, but he’s a real doctor, so it’s okay) is my absolute, hands-down favourite character in Stargate Atlantis, and quite possibly in any series ever. He’s a Scottish doctor with a round face, a thick accent, and a bit of facial stubble when he’s been up late. Beckett (Paul McGillion) loves his mum and “misses her terribly,” puts the best interests of the expedition ahead of his own (as proven in season 3, and now I’m getting upset just thinking about it), and is the sort of person you always want to have around, whether for a laugh, a problem, or a pelvic exam (yes, I went there).
That’s pretty much it for the major season 1 characters. Some are excellent, some less so, and there’s a solid supporting cast, although it bothers me a bit that we’re constantly introduced to characters we’ve never seen before and who bite the dust later that episode. Very “red-shirt” of them.
The major antagonists of the show are the Wraith, who, as I mentioned, like to suck out your life through your chest. They look like slimy cats with dreadlocks, and they spend an awful lot of time hissing, rather than actually, y’know, killing people. So they’re not nearly as terrifying as they’re made out to be, and their ships have what is probably the most ridiculous design I’ve ever seen, simply because functionality would likely be sh*t.
The secondary antagonists are the Genii, who are much more interesting, actually. They appeared to be no more than simple farming folk, but it turned out that they had a giant underground complex where they were making nuclear weapons. After an unpleasant encounter, an invasion of Atlantis, and the introduction of Kolya (who is the Khan to Sheppard’s Kirk), the Genii are firmly cemented as enemies of the Atlantis expedition.
Another enemy is hinted at in the episode “Hot Zone.” An Ancient nanovirus is accidentally released into the city, resulting in widespread panic and several deaths. After wiping it out with an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), they discover that the virus wasn’t made by the Ancients; they were only studying it. The virus is brutally efficient and perfect in every way, and serves as a warning that something dark is coming. Which it does. It’s the Replicators (spoilers again).
A lot of the issues in this show arise from the fact that, as I said before, the Atlantis expedition is very far from home. The only moral and legal authority is Dr. Weir, and law enforcement is handled by the military. I guess it’s interesting to see how we react when placed in a situation where the normal laws we’re bound to no longer apply. They interrogate Wraith prisoners, put their lives and the lives of others at risk, engage in mercy killings, assist in creating biological and nuclear weapons to combat the Wraith… at one point the Geneva convention is mentioned and completely ridden over, because, as is pointed out, Geneva’s pretty damn far away. Weir even threatens to maroon an uncooperative team member (of course it’s Kavanagh) on another world if he doesn’t stop complaining and do his job. Which is a fair point, because Kavanagh, but marooning someone on another planet doesn’t exactly come over well in a mission report.
Earlier I mentioned that Atlantis is representative of who we are and what our world once was. I think it’s also symbolic of what’s important to us. In Atlantis, they sometimes get caught up in the mythos of it all, in the significance of what it meant to the Ancients, rather than seeing it for what it really was: a city that sank beneath the waves. Not a reason to justify any moral action you deem fit for its preservation.
But it’s that struggle between cultural preservation and retaining the compassion, integrity, and determination that make us human that makes this show so damn compelling, and that’s why I’m now starting this show again for the fourth or fifth time.
Also, Dr. Beckett.
Final Grade: B+
- I love that Sheppard gets naming privileges. “Gateship 1” is a ridiculous name for a puddlejumper, and it takes all the drama out of Wraith naming conventions. I like Steve. Steve is a good name for a Wraith.
- Okay, wait, the whole Ancient thing actually doesn’t explain why everyone in the universe speaks English. Seriously, what’s the deal with that???
- Any time Elizabeth mentions Simon, I want to punch her in the face. I don’t like Simon. I don’t like that she dwells on him. HOW DARE YOU BE HAPPY.
- Dr. Heightmeyer always seemed like some kind of spy to me. She’s way too smooth and understanding and blonde to be trustworthy.
- Paul McGillion was in Star Trek. When I saw him, I died. That is all.