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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???

Blood, Fire and Torment March 7, 2008

Posted by ce9999 in Stargate: SG-1.
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I ended up watching three more episodes last night, after “Thor’s Hammer”. They were (in order) “The Torment of Tantalus”, “Bloodlines”, and “Fire and Water.” These are all pretty good episodes.

“Torment of Tantalus” is a sweet and touching story. I was pleasantly surprised to see the young Ernest Littlefield played by none other than Paul McGillion (who goes on to play Dr. Beckett on Atlantis). Actually, both actors who portray Littlefield, him and Keene Curtis, do remarkable jobs—Littlefield ends up being a wonderfully sympathetic and tragic character. This is a good Jackson episode too—his passion and frustration with the discovery and imminent destruction of the ancient book device really help to remind us of what he’s all about as a person. He’s a seeker of knowledge, truth and understanding, and it’s this inner need which will drive him throughout the series, even after his quest for his wife ends.

As the series was originally broadcast, the episode “The Nox” would have appeared before this one. As I was watching last night, I began to think the ordering of the episodes actually is better on the DVDs, but I want to see “The Nox” before deciding for sure. What they’re doing with all these references to ancient and powerful races is presenting pieces in a puzzle, and I’m thinking the order of presentation may make a difference in the overall perception that’s created for the viewer.

“Bloodlines” is notable because of the first appearance in the series of one of my favorite recurring guest characters, Bra’tac, so fabulously portrayed by Tony Amendola. I like this character so much, I typically greet his appearance in an episode with a hearty, “Bra’tac! Dude!” or something similar. ;) It was so fortunate that the writers didn’t kill him off after a few seasons, the way they did with some of the other guest characters—he ended up making at least one appearance in all but one of the show’s ten seasons.

This is also the episode where we begin to realize why Teal’c is so quiet—he’s an introvert! Witness the emotions flooding through him when he discovers his old home, burned to the ground. He says very little, yet it’s obvious the experience is tearing him up inside. This, now, is the beginning of the character who, in my opinion, ends up being the best sci fi alien since Mr. Spock.

Regarding “Fire and Water,” I have a theory about the bizarre fish-faced alien in this episode: He is a Furling. I’m almost certainly wrong, since the technology in his lab bears little resemblance to the Furling technology shown in the sixth season episode “Paradise Lost,” but it seemed like a really cool idea when I thought of it last night. It fits, in a couple of respects—fish-faced-guy possesses very advanced technology, and his race is very old and powerful. Okay, I admit, that’s pretty thin. I guess I’m mostly amused by the idea of a fishlike alien race being referred to as “Furlings,” and frustrated that the mystery of the Furlings was never resolved.

In any case, this is a fairly good episode, not one of my favorites from this season, but interesting enough. The memorial service for Daniel Jackson is quite well done. I also enjoyed the look of the alien’s lab, and the planet itself.

One bit of trivia I want to note down here for future reference: SG-6 makes a very brief appearance in this episode.