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Atlantis: A Question of Character July 29, 2008

Posted by ce9999 in Stargate: Atlantis.
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The other night I watched the latest installment of The David Hewlett Show Stargate: Atlantis, the episode entitled “Broken Ties.” This is the third episode of the new fifth season. I’m glad that these new episodes are being aired now, because with Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica on hiatus, I’d be in a real pickle otherwise. Who knows—I might actually have to go outside, or meet some people or something!

On the other hand, Atlantis has never been a top-tier show for me, especially when compared to these other shows, or even to its parent series, Stargate: SG-1. I don’t think it has (so far) lived up to its potential, for a number of reasons. The main reason has to do with character, and this last episode just happened to bring the issue to the forefront of my mind.

In the episode, the question was raised whether Teyla, after the birth of her baby a couple of episodes previously, would be returning to “the team” [1]. As she hemmed and hawed about this question, I surprised myself by hoping that she would decide not to return, but instead would stay on the Atlantis station in some sort of advisory capacity or something. In other words, while I didn’t want to see Teyla removed entirely from the show, the prospect of integrating a new team member seemed more interesting to me than simply having her carry on as before.

Why? Well, I really do hate to say this, but, over the first four seasons, and even so far this year, she just hasn’t turned out to be a very interesting character. It seems like she hasn’t changed one iota since the very first season, and frankly, I’ve virtually lost interest. This recent development with her partner and her having a baby, it reminds me of Will Riker cooking omlettes for Enterprise crewmates on Star Trek: The Next Generation so many years ago: an obvious attempt to add “dimension” to an otherwise flat character, without taking the apparently forbidden risk of having real character development. It’s more tedious than interesting.

I could say similar things about many of the characters on Atlantis. Take Sheppard, for instance. The most interesting thing that ever happed to him was the one episode where he turned into a bug (“Conversion” in season two). Sure, this was an amusing story, and I imagine the ghost of Franz Kafka got a chuckle or two, but imagine how much better this episode could have played if only we had cared deeply about Sheppard as a person. “Ohmygawd! He’s turning into a bug!!!!! This is horrible!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!!!1!” But no—it was more like, “Ha! He’s turning into a bug. Cool. This should be good. Hey—you got any more potato chips over there?” The writers have continued this pattern throughout the series. Once and a while, Sheppard is put through some sort of ordeal, presumably to give him “depth”, but really they’re just giving us more omlettes.

Carson Beckett is like this too. He’s very likeable guy, but I admit I didn’t feel much regret when he once again left the show at the end of last week’s episode “The Seed”, and I don’t find myself caring very much whether they bring him back.

This flatness of character is a systemic problem with the show. To take the Beckett example a bit farther: His character was originally killed, it was only later that they pulled a Mr. Spock on him and brought him back. So let’s compare his death to Mr. Spock’s death. When Mr. Spock died at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, people cried. Seriously. I had to struggle with every fibre of my being to avoid crying openly in the theater (as a teenager, I would have felt like a complete ass if I cried, even if nobody noticed). When Carson Beckett died, well, I did feel bad. There may have even been a tear. I mean, he really is a nice guy, you know? His dedication to his profession is more than admirable—he’s a genuine hero. However, while his death actually did suck, there wasn’t much to it beyond that. This was not epic tragedy the way Spock’s death was. Another good comparison would be to Daniel Jackson’s death/ascension on SG-1. That really hurt, and the fact that he was supposedly still around as some sort of mystical energy-being was no consolation at all. It would have been the same for any member of the SG-1 team. I loved those guys! They were the best! However, with the possible exception of Rodney McKay, I have never had that depth of feeling for any character on Stargate: Atlantis. I doubt that I am the only one who feels this way. Why is this so? Because the characters just don’t inspire that much feeling.

Replacing Teyla with a new team member might not have helped, of course. The last new person on the show was Dr. Keller, and where has she gone so far, as a character? Almost nowhere. Just as with Sheppard, the most interesting thing to happen to her is getting transformed into a bug. Ooops, I mean a giant tentacled creature. Whatever. (Does it really matter?) This happened in last week’s episode, “The Seed,” and, in fact, that story was even worse for Dr. Keller than Sheppard’s bug-guy transformation, because in “The Seed”, an episode revolving entirely around her, she spends the majority of her screen time unconscious!

I know full well that Jewel Staite can do more than what is being asked of her, too. Her completely delightful portrayal of Kaylee on Firefly was a highlight of that series—she stood out even though she had to compete with eight other well developed characters, and even though there were only fourteen episodes finished before the series was axed. But the character she’s playing on Atlantis doesn’t stand out much at all. I have to admit, if I wasn’t such a Jewel Staite fan, I doubt Dr. Keller would have made any impression on me. I actually had to look up her name for this article because I couldn’t remember it, in spite of the fact that she’s been on the series for a whole season already.

However, I do have a couple of reasons to maintain hope. The first is that Dr. Keller is still fairly new. Even though she’s been around a whole season, and even though her most significant moment during that time was her metamorphosis into a giant seaweed monster, it is still possible that some evolution could happen. She doesn’t yet have four seasons of inertia holding her back like some of the other cast. The writers might go with idea of hooking her up with Dr. McKay, for instance. Anything involving Rodney McKay is probably a good idea, so that is a ray of hope. I also know that, if there’s any shred of interest to be found in the Dr. Keller character at all, Jewel Staite will find it, if only the writers and directors give her the chance. She’s also got star billing now, her face right up there in the main titles with all the others. Can this be an omen of things to come? I hope so.

I’m being pretty so critical of this show, but the truth is that I really do enjoy it. I wouldn’t bother with all of this if I didn’t care. But, to lighten this up a bit, I’ll finish with a new development which I think is quite promising: Robert Picardo’s addition to the cast.

Those faithful Trekkers who, like myself, suffered through the first couple of seasons of Star Trek: Voyager will probably recall Picardo’s portrayal of The Doctor as one of the bright spots of that dreadfully dull early period in Voyager history. It’s for this reason, and for his previous appearances on the Stargate shows, that I was very happy to see him included as one of the regular cast on Atlantis, even if it meant losing Samantha Carter.

(I know a lot of people are not happy about Carter leaving. However, as much as I like Carter, I’m not inclined to agree that her leaving the show is necessarily a bad thing. That, however, is a whole other topic, one which perhaps deserves a post of its own someday.)

Like Carter, Richard Woolsey comes with some predefined developmental background, although not nearly as much as Carter did. Woolsey was one of the more enjoyable antagonist guest characters on SG-1. He first appeared as a butt-clenching bureaucrat sent to sabotage the entire Stargate program through procedural means. It didn’t work, not because he failed in his mission but because he changed his mind about the program. That right there was the beginning his evolution into someone interesting, and a sign that he wasn’t going to be a one-dimensional villian like Senator Kinsey or Apophis. A one-dimensional villian can be entertaining, sure, but given a choice, I’ll take a fully fleshed out antagonist just about every time (Peter Williams’ excellent portrayal of Apophis notwithstanding).

Woolsey has some qualities similar to General Hammond, who also came to SG-1 in a somewhat antagonistic capacity (although Hammond was obviously never intended to be a real antagonist). Like Hammond, Woolsey can be swayed through reason, and will even occassionally break the rules for the greater good. He also has a hard-nosed side, so he can make the tough calls when he needs to. On SG-1, he abandoned his prejudices about the Stargate program, and ended up becoming a firm believer in it and the members of the SG-1 team (just as Hammond learned to trust the intelligence and integrity of Daniel Jackson, who he was pretty skeptical of at first). That sort of attitude change isn’t just gratifying, it’s interesting. Furthermore, unlike Carter, who’s a character of action, thriving on movement and mission, Woolsey is entirely a thinker, a decider, a manager. Where Carter would carry out a mission, Woolsey would produce a mission statement. He’s the kind of guy who could be your boss at that cushy desk job you want so much (and you’d be lucky to have someone as fair-minded as him, too). Perhaps most promisingly, although Woolsey does have very strong desk-jockey tendencies, it’s already obvious that in order to be effective as the leader of the Atlantis team, he’s going to have to grow beyond that, to acquire a bit of that movement and mission quality that Carter possesses.

It all sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Everything is set up just so: We’ve got a moderately developed and fairly interesting character in a position where he’ll have to develop some more if he wants to succeed at his job. The question now is, will the writers take this ball and run with it? We can only wait and see. So far, Picardo himself seems to be making the most of the opportunity he’s been given. Witness the little moment in this most recent episode where Woolsey couldn’t figure out how to get the conference room doors open. It wasn’t just played as a matter of technical ineptitude, but also as an element of his larger struggle to earn the respect of the team. He’s frustrated that the team doesn’t yet respect him to the degree that he would like, but he’s not simply throwing his authority around to gain that respect. He genuinely wants Sheppard and the others to respect him, and he wants to earn that respect fairly. He wants to deserve it, without compromising his authority, and this goal is important to him. Using the door-opening problem to illustrate this was a welcome detail, and a sign (I hope) that he will end up being more than just a cardboard cutout character. Yes, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what happens with Woolsey.

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[1] By the way, why doesn’t “the team” have a name? SG-1 had a name. Shouldn’t Sheppard’s team have a name too? Or at least an official designation of some kind???

Children of the Gods March 4, 2008

Posted by ce9999 in Stargate: SG-1.
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Okay, done with “Children of the Gods”, the pilot episode of SG-1.

There were some things I wanted to mention. I decided to skip the Stargate movie, because I never really liked it all that much. What’s more important to me are the SG-1 characters, as portrayed by the series actors (even though I’m a raving fan of James Spader). A long time ago, my dad remarked that one of the primary strengths of the original Star Trek series was the relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and I think he was absolutely correct. Those three characters just clicked really well, and that went a long way towards making the series fun, interesting, and most importantly not stilted or phony in feeling. It made a person want to be there with them, on the Enterprise.

When I first started watching SG-1, it didn’t take me very long to realize that here was another show like that, only with four people instead of three. This is one of the main reasons I wanted to watch the whole thing over again, in order to see that interplay develop.

I also want to note of some other things here. For one, this pilot is just plain good. I had forgotten that, or perhaps not appreciated it as much during previous viewings.

Other interesting things fit more in the category of trivia. For instance, one of the serpent guards that comes through the stargate with Apophis’ party at the beginning, the one who is later shown dead on a gurney, is sporting a gold forehead emblem identical to the one Teal’c wears. According to what would later be said, this would make him a “first prime.” I guess that hadn’t been thought of at this point, however.

  1. When Apophis, Teal’c and the others come through the gate, the “puddle” disappears behind them, and then, after the shootout, somehow it’s back again, allowing them to effect their escape. How did it get back? I suspect that’s just a mistake–writers can’t have every detail worked out right from the beginning.
  2. The frostiness that the teams suffer from while going through the gate–I made a point of watching, and they only suffer from it while going from the gate at the SG-C to a remote destination. Coming back, they are fine, other than the problem of being rudely thrust through the gate so they stumble. I’ll have to remember to watch, but I suspect these problems are due to minor issues with the SG-C’s computer system not being perfectly in tune with the stargate.
  3. Members of SG-2 are shown in this movie, and play an important supporting role. I can’t remember offhand if SG-2 ever makes another appearance at any point in the series, other than Kawalski playing a major role in the episode immediately following this. (Actually, I might want to keep track of which SG teams appear in which episodes–it could be interesting, along with my Jaffa tattoo-cataloging project).
  4. General Hammond sets up nine SG teams in this initial movie. That answers a question I’ve had for a long time–I couldn’t remember and thought it was 12, except 12 seemed too high.
  5. The SG-1 and SG-2 insignia are different here than they are in the main part of the series. Briefly, the SG-1 insignia features a black “1” superimposed on the chevron in the center of the insignia. Later on (beginning in the very next episode, actually), they start moving over to the final design, where the “1” is the silver color of the rest of the pattern. As for SG-2, in this pilot, their insignia is similar to that of SG-1, namely a black “2” superimposed on a chevron in the center. I’ll have to watch carefully to see how this changes, because in later episodes, SG-1 is the only team to feature a number and a chevron in the center of the design. All the others just have the number of the team.

Finally, I’d like to raise my proverbial hat to the persons responsible for the musical score in this pilot–again, I hadn’t noticed in previous viewings, but listening to it again, the score in this is second-to-none compared to scores throughout the entire series.

That’s all for now. I have tea brewing, and after that’s done, I’ll be on to the first “real” episode, “The Enemy Within”. If I remember right, this is the one where Kawalsky kicks the bucket.