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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.

——-
[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???

The Nox, Hathor, Cor-Ai March 8, 2008

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Friday night, I continued my SG-1 marathon with three more episodes.

The first of these was “The Nox,” a truly fascinating episode, and one of the best in the entire ten-year run of SG-1. Aside from being brilliant and very enjoyable, it lays some groundwork for a lot of what happens in the remainder of the series. Although the SG-1 team members don’t know it yet, this is their first face-to-face encounter with one of the four ancient races, who will play (to varying degrees) such an important role in their mission in the years to come. It’s also the first indication we have that the U.S. government isn’t entirely satisfied with the performance of the SG-C, a fact which will lead to all sorts of interference, oversight and outright shennanigans by a variety of other people, continuing even to this day on Atlantis. We also begin to get a sense in this episode of just how wily and challenging an opponent Apophis will be, when SG-1’s straightforward and simple plan to capture him ends up with O’Neill, Carter and Jackson all getting killed. If it wasn’t for the extremely sophisticated healing abilities of the Nox, the series would have ended about ten minutes into this episode.

Of course the Nox are the main point of this episode, so let’s talk about them a little. There are four of them shown, and their leader is played by none other than Armin Shimerman, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. Casting him in this episode was a stroke of genius, because the character Anteaus is such a marked contrast to Shimerman’s well-known roles in the other two series, and it’s always a pleasure to see a good actor do something different from what he’s done before. He’s just delightful here, managing to quietly eclipse much of his more well-known work in what must be only fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time.

The other Nox character to play a major role is Nafrayu, the cute little Nox kid, played by Addison Ridge. Observe Carter’s expression when she looks at him, as if she’s never seen anything so adorable in her entire life. Can you blame her? My favorte of the other Nox, though, would have to be Lya, played by Frida Betrani. She’s a sweetie. Pretty, too. :) I am quite infatuated with her, I admit—this is why I’m saying such totally unprofessional things. ;) She is the only one of the Nox ever to appear on the series again, after this episode. I had high hopes that they would play an important role in the series, but only Lya comes back a couple of times, very briefly. This is very disappointing, because the Nox are an uncommon thing: an advanced alien species who actually seem advanced and alien. This makes them extremely interesting.

Apophis also plays a major role in this episode. In fact, is there any other episode in the series where he is “in play” as much as he is here? Not very many of them, that’s for sure. Peter Williams is still starting to get into the Apophis character at this point—later on, he gets better and better at it, until, eventually, the very sight of him makes a person want to scream in frustration. He’s the second best of all the Goa-uld to ever appear in the series, I think, bested only slightly by Cliff Simon’s hilarious, frustrating and brilliant portrayal of Ba’al, much later in the series.

In other matters, I must point out how much I enjoyed the musical score in this episode. I’ve noticed that, in general, the quality of the incidental music this season is pretty high. This is important to me, personally, so I thank the composer(s) for their efforts in these episodes, as well as the people who had the sense to hire decent composers in the first place.

In the realm of trivia, we see SG-5 briefly at the beginning of the episode, and I noticed that all of the Jaffa in Apophis’s personal guard are sporting gold forehead tattoos identical to Teal’c’s. This once again contradicts the idea that only first primes have gold emblems. I suppose it’s realistic to assume that different system lords would have different, um….systems to their Jaffa insignia, since they certainly would not be interested in trying to standardize something as trivial as this. After all, they have much more important concerns, such as how to kill all their rivals, live forever, and achieve domination of the galaxy. :P

I mentioned I watched two other episodes Friday: “Hathor” and “Cor-Ai.”

“Hathor” was better than I had remembered. I believe there are some inconsistencies between what’s presented in this episode and what comes later on, both with respect to the creation of the Jaffa, and to Goa-uld reproduction. It’s been a long time, though, so I will have to wait and see. The most enjoyable thing about this episode to me was Suanne Braun’s portrayal of the “goddess of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll”, Hathor. She’s just plain hot, in a beautiful, sensual, sultry and full-hipped way. I love it. :) It must also be said that Carter and Dr. Fraiser both kick a lot of ass in this episode. Indeed, this episode is all about the girls, since the boys end up spending most of their time in pheromone-induced thrall to Hathor.

“Cor-Ai” is a really good Teal’c episode, and pretty excellent in general. I really enjoy how it deals with questions relating to guilt, innocence, forgiveness, redemption, victim’s rights, the burden of punishment of a criminal, and so on. It’s quite fascinating. Briefly, some background: During the 1990’s, a hot political issue in the U.S. was the question of victim’s rights, namely the belief that the rights of the accused were being accorded too much weight by our legal system, and that this needed to be corrected in favor of victims of crimes. This episode hypothesizes a rather extreme solution to the problem, namely a legal system where the trial itself is controlled by the victim, who is also responsible for determining and carrying out the sentence. On the surface, it seems like a hopelessly barbaric way of doing things (at least it does to me, civil libertarian that I am), but the episode is written intelligently enough so we see that it wouldn’t really be that simple…although I still much prefer the American way of doing things. This episode is what science fiction is all about: using the story in a way that’s not only relevant to the complexities of the real world, but doing so thoughtfully, so that the viewer is actually drawn into thinking about an issue in a new way.

Nutjob commanders, alien hotties, brilliant blue crystalline entities—what’s not to love? March 6, 2008

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The next three episodes in my SG-1 marathon (all watched last night after “The Broca Divide”) were “The First Commandment”, “Brief Candle” and “Cold Lazarus”. This is the order in which they appear on the second DVD in the box set. I’ve noticed on GateWorld’s series index that the order there is different. GateWorld’s listing is ordered by broadcast date—I’m not sure why the DVD episodes are in a different order, but it seems perfectly fine to me. I’m not sure if it would make much difference to watch them in one order or the other.

“The First Commandment” features SG-9 going native (and nuts) when their CO loses his mind and decides he actually is the god the locals believe him to be. This isn’t the most memorable episode, but enjoyable enough. It contrasts with “Emancipation” in being more morally relativistic, instead of casting things in such black-and-white terms: Captain Hanson is obviously a whacko, viewing himself as a god, but at the same time, it’s apparent that he genuinely loves “his” people, in his own twisted, megalomaniacal way. In spite of the fact that a lot of them will be killed because of his madness, there is some element of altruism in his motivation.

Another thing that interested me in this episode was noticing the difference between Carter’s and Jackson’s reactions to the situation of a man getting beaten. Initially it’s Carter who goes against O’Neill’s implicit orders and gets involved, not Jackson, meaning they are both doing the unexpected. Carter’s military background makes her quick willingness to mess up O’Neill’s plan surprising, while Jackson’s opposition to helping out seems to go directly against his idealist tendencies. I’m guessing Jackson’s motivation is simply the fear of getting tied to a stake and left out in the bright sun to die, because it’s hard to imagine the Jackson of season ten hesitating like that. He probably wants to help, but at this early point in the series, he hasn’t yet developed the level of confidence in his own abilities which would allow him to risk injury or death to do so. Carter’s motivation is easier to understand—she just needs to help. In both cases, their actions serve very well to help us see them as more complex people, rather than uninteresting two-dimensional stereotypes. I think it’s this sort of thing which, over time, made viewers really care about this series.

Does SG-9 ever appear again? I’m sure they must be mentioned in passing, but we’ll see. By the way, this is the only time I can recall hearing about an SG team being led by a Captain—in all other cases, it was either Majors or Colonels (and I vaguely recall from my first time watching the series that there were never any Lieutenant Colonels at all, until Carter herself became one).

“Brief Candle” was very enjoyable. I have two favorite things about this episode. One of them is pretty obvious: The gorgeous Bobbie Phillips as Kynthia. What a hottie, and a sweetheart, too :) The character was interesting—one of the other “Chosen” people states her age at “31 days”, which I assume would correspond physiologically to a normal human age of 31 years. However, she plays the character as quite naive and innocent, knowing full well that no matter how much nanotechnology is thrown at someone to age them quickly, she’s not going to develop the maturity of a normal 31-year-old woman in only 31 days. Careful observers may also notice the appearance of crow’s feet around her eyes in the later scenes, by which time she would be much older, physiologically—like a woman in her 40’s.

The other aspect of this episode that I really enjoyed is how Kynthia’s brief relationship with O’Neill, coupled with his rapid and extreme aging, serves to round out the O’Neill character. There’s a side of him visible here that we don’t get to see very much. What starts out as an almost Captain-Kirk-like tryst between the two of them ends up taking a totally different path, especially as O’Neill ages. I absolutely love the tenderness he shows her in the later scenes.

There are some other things too. One is right at the beginning—the team discovers a young woman in labor, and Daniel Jackson gets stuck delivering the baby. Very amusing. :) Another is Teal’c’s “parting message” to O’Neill, which really touches me: “Colonel…I’ve learned very much from you. Thank you.” This is a nice little bit of foreshadowing of the great character Teal’c will eventually become, although I wonder how much of that the writers had worked out at this point.

Finally, it was getting late, but I really wanted to watch “Cold Lazarus” before I turned in for the night, because I always loved those nifty blue crystalline aliens. :) This is another really good Richard Dean Anderson episode, even though he mostly plays an alien instead of his normal character.

It’s no wonder I got hooked on this show so easily—this whole season is actually pretty excellent. It exhibits very little of the “rough-around-the-edges” quality that so many good series show in their first seasons. Plus, a lot of these episodes prove to be pivotal for the entire series—I just finished watching Season 10 recently, and there were two explicit references to these early episodes, one to O’Neill’s temporary aging experience, and the other to the crystalline aliens. Also, the concept of the Goa’uld using people as lab rats will continue to be important for quite some time. Obviously the writers realized early on that, if they were going to keep the series going for more than a season, it needed to amount to much more than just “four people having random adventures on a bunch of weird planets.” There’s a lot of real meat here in this first season.

This is fun! March 5, 2008

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The SG-1 marathon is going very well—I’m three episodes past the pilot now, and I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying this. Last night, after writing out a draft of the previous entry about the pilot story, I then watched “The Enemy Within” and “Emancipation”.

The first of these is the story where Kawalski, who got infected with a Goa’uld symbiote at the end of the pilot, ends up dead at the end, after wreaking a lot of havoc in the SG-C. This is actually a pretty good ep, even though they never leave the confines of the base. It’s the first good Teal’c episode, too, unlike the couple which follow this, where he is more flat and two-dimensional. In this story, we see a lot of the character that Teal’c becomes later on in the series. This episode is also, by my guess, the last we’ll ever see of SG-2. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that unit in future episodes, but I don’t recall ever seeing them again. My guess is O’Neill had the number retired after Kowalski’s death. But that’s just a guess.

The next ep is the one I typically dread whenever I consider the possibility of watching early SG-1 episodes: “Emancipation.” Yes, it was just about as bad as I had remembered. The political content of the story is way over the top considering when this was first aired (seriously, a story like this would have played better in 1967 than 1997), but beyond that, some of the dialog was like a bad parody of a classic Star Trek episode, and performances by a couple of the supporting cast were fairly painful to watch.

Soon-Tek Oh as Moughal On the other hand, there were some bright spots. One was the performance by guest actor Sooh-Tek Oh, as the elderly tribal chieftain Moughal. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed him in this small but sympathetic role. The main benefit of watching this episode, however, is that it throws down some building blocks for the development of the SG-1 team. Right at the beginning, the dialog gives away the fact that this isn’t their first offworld mission after the pilot episode, that in fact, they seem to have been on at least several missions in the interim since “The Enemy Within.” More important is the way the team reacts to Carter’s plight in this episode. At first they joke about it, and tease her about it, but when things turn ugly and she is abducted, O’Neill wastes not one second in taking action. It’s also the first big Samantha Carter episode, obviously.

Tonight, I started things out with “The Broca Divide.” I won’t say too much about this one other than that I enjoyed it, especially the happy ending. A couple of interesting trivia bits: This was the first SG-3 episode, the first episode with Colonel Makepeace, and most importantly, the first episode with Teryl Rothery as Dr. Frasier!! She saves the day too. :)

Now I’m about to go on to the next episode: “The First Commandment.” I actually don’t remember what this one is about, although I’m sure it’ll come back to me pretty quickly.