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Stargate | How Atlantis Season 3 Finally Made Waves

Editor’s note

As part of our captivating will they?/won’t they? office romance with SciFiNow (wait, what, you haven’t read the first issue of SciFiNow+ yet?), the world’s number one science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine have opened up their archives to allow us to bring you some classic coverage of our favorite shows. Over ten years ago in SciFiNow issue 5, the team reflected on the recently concluded third season of Stargate Atlantis and wondered what the future might hold. 

We’ve republished it here as a contemporary perspective on the show as it aired and doesn’t necessarily reflect our opinions, but we’d love to know what you think in the comments below.

The Stargate franchise has enjoyed one of the greatest success stories of recent times. Following on from the enjoyable yet underachieving film of 1994, Stargate SG-1 (sort of) resumed the storylines of Colonel Jack O’Neill and Dr. Daniel Jackson, while adding fan favorites such as the former Jaffa Teal’c and Captain Samanta Carter. SG-1 currently holds the honor of being the longest consecutively running science fiction show in the Guinness Book of Records, and while it had its high and low points, it eventually spawned a spin-off series from one of its season finales in 2004.

Stargate Atlantis chronicles the adventures and struggles of a combined military and scientific expedition sent to the titular ancient city, built by the same race who constructed the Stargate network in the (relatively) near Pegasus Galaxy. Through a mistake made by then-Major Sheppard (Joe Flanigan), an ancient nemesis of the Ancients is re-awoken and begins a purge of the galaxy, feeding on humans wherever they are found. Alongside their fight against the Wraith, the Atlantis crew encounter different worlds and new(ish) life forms, such as the Asurans, by starting their own Gate programme modelled on that of the parent series. 

The show is similar to SG-1 in many key aspects. It involves frequent, episodic travel to other worlds, it is primarily military science fiction, and it contains an ensemble cast. However, it differs in several significant ways. Far away from Earth, with the SGC facing its own problems in the form of the Ori, Atlantis is as separate as possible while staying in the same universe. In addition, the show enhanced the role of civilians in its storylines. Instead of them merely being consultants, the non-military population makes frequent and significant contributions to the storyline, a change from Stargate SG-1’s very structured and martial environment.

Sea Change

The final acts of Season 3 saw a number of significant progressions and departures in terms of the characters and the storylines. Coupled with the imminent cast changes, it seems that the mission to the Pegasus Galaxy has something of a bleak future. However, the news currently filtering out about the new season is broadly positive. Most noteworthy is, of course, the news that Amanda Tapping will be joining the Atlantis team, reprising her role as Samantha Carter (now a full-bird colonel) for the spin-off series. According to various reports from trusted sources, she will be taking over as the commander of the project from Elizabeth Weir, whose role will be vastly reduced during the new season. 

Executive producer Joseph Mallozzi later confirmed this in a press conference on the set in Vancouver. “Just from a creative standpoint as well, it offers us sort of a wealth of opportunities,” he said. “She’s so multifaceted. She’s got the science background, so she can take some of the heat off McKay and his gobbledygook. She’s got the military background, so if she needs to head off-world, she can head off-world with the team. She’s also got the leadership background to basically settle in quite nicely as the new commander of the Atlantis expedition.”

Also joining the cast will be Jewel Staite (best known for her portrayal of Kaylee in Firefly) as Dr. Jennifer Keller. Those who have watched the infamous Season 3 episode ‘Sunday’ will understand why. The producers have been effusive in their praise for the actress, with Paul Mullie saying: “Seeing her in the dailies before the editors have got a chance to work with the particular episode, you see that raw footage. You recognise the talent. She’s very talented.” Both actresses have appeared before on the show, with Tapping having brief screen time as Carter, while Staite played the Wraith-girl Ellia in Season 2’s ‘Instinct’.

 Along with the new cast members, the existing characters will also be given stronger story arcs. The most notable example of this is the character of Teyla Emmagan, played by Rachel Luttrell, whose real-life pregnancy was written into the script when she announced it to the crew. Although they were planning a more extensive subplot for the character anyway, Mullie stated on the recent digital press tour in Vancouver that: “We were writing the story when [Luttrell] came in and told us she was pregnant. We were too far down the road to change [the episode], so we decided that ‘Oh well, she doesn’t know she’s pregnant in this story’. It was the story which in the end she finds out.”

It’s also been revealed that Sheppard will come into conflict with Carter during the fourth season as a result of their differing ranks, as Joe Flanigan told SciFi Wire [now Syfy Wire]. “Drama isn’t interesting when people get along. It’s interesting when they buttheads. That’s why people love soap operas. They’re all killing each other or making love to each other or killing each other and making love to each other. When everybody just gets along, it could be a little dull. So we were trying to create some areas where we would have a little friction.”

In an interview with GateWorld executive producer Joseph Mallozzi revealed that along with new members of the team the fourth season of Atlantis will also bring a new race into the plotlines, named the Travelers. “One of the things that Atlantis lacked that [Stargate SG-1] had were technologically advanced races,” he noted in the interview, leading on to describe his new additions. “We created this race called the Travelers. They are nomads, travelling on ships and establishing a civilization. They are very rustic, and have a very cool look.”

Although the words ‘rustic’ and ‘technologically advanced’ might not be considered interchangeable as a rule, information and spoilers do seem to point to an interesting and fresh injection of life into a series which seemed to be feeding off of the success of SG-1, with the Asuran story arcs and similar episode plotlines. 

Criticisms have inevitably been drawn from the drastic cast changes that are taking place, with some arguing that the cast was just beginning to hit their stride, as if the wheels of the show had been spinning for a while and finally gained some traction. To then remove key figures from the plot and the cast would certainly cancel out a lot of the hard work and camaraderie that has built up over the years. While this is a valid argument, members of the cast themselves are less pessimistic, particularly David Hewlett (Rodney McKay): “It was great for me, because that’s effectively how I started, with SG-1 and Amanda. Those scenes were really what I think brought me into this whole sort of franchise. So it’s fantastic to have her back, both personally and as a character. McKay has such a great sort of repartee with the Carter character. So, really, it has definitely changed the feel… And there’s more tension as well, which is nice, too – just the interaction with the characters.”

Making a Splash

With new characters and new plotlines, Season 4 certainly looks to be another favorite for fans, once we grow to accept the new characters (Cameron Mitchell and Jonas Quinn anyone?). However, it will only be building on the strengths of Season 3, arguably when the show changed from a shadow of SG-1 to a must-see series in its own right. While the stories were fractured or pale imitations before, there were many moments that really stood out as quality drama and science fiction in recent months. The most obvious among these, of course, is ‘Sunday’. 

The heartfelt and gripping performances in this episode are hard to forget, particularly the new dimension of humanity it added to the Mckay character. While character departure is always sad, the actors and actresses connected particularly well with their material. It’s not on a par with SG-1′s ‘Heroes Part Two’ (S7, Ep17), Angel’s ‘A Hole In The World’ (S5, Ep15) or Buffy’s ‘The Body’ (S5, Ep16), but it certainly ranks very highly in a series that is starting to really come into its own.

 Other episodes, such as ‘Progeny’ (S3, Ep5) and ‘McKay and Mrs Miller’ (S3, Ep8) highlighted this advance into more gripping drama, but something was certainly missing with the thinly veiled Abyss clone ‘Submerged’ (S3, Ep18) and the slightly dodgy ‘Misbegotten’ (S3, Ep7). Despite a few innocuous turkeys, however, it’s obvious that the characterization and the plots have come a long way since the mostly poor first season.

There is a prevalent feeling, unfortunately, that Atlantis has yet to do anything particularly original. The return of the Replicators, relabelled the Asurans, was widely hailed as a success, but the concept in itself originated from SG-1. Likewise, several episodes such as the pilot ‘The Rising’, ‘The Defiant One, The Intruder’, ‘The Hive’, ‘Epiphany’ and ‘Grace Under Pressure’ are all either overtly or subtly derived from SG-1 storylines. Although some plotlines are bound to be similar, and Atlantis often does give a nod to the inspirations behind them, it is this continual reliance on material from the other show that holds it back from becoming as wildly popular as SG-1 was. 

Season 4, although it is enhancing this tie by bringing Amanda Tapping into the Atlantis fold, is an opportunity for the show to truly separate itself in many ways. While the Wraith are a somewhat decent enemy, the show has a virtually untapped resource of potential for storylines, being in a completely separate galaxy. It has so far failed to deliver on its premise to an extent, with no real leaps in imagination taken with regards to the make-up of the environment. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were watching an episode of SG-1 from another team’s point of view at times. Season 3 is something of a promise to us – a glimpse into the kind of engaging science fiction that can take place in a series which, up until recently, has failed to make any significant waves in the sea of public opinion. 

Hopefully, the addition of Tapping and Staite, both of whom have a pedigree in science fiction already, will push the show beyond the intangible line which separates it from the recognition that it could potentially deserve. One way in which the producers seem to be doing this is in terms of the overall story arc, as Mallozzi says: “Again, not to give too much away, but early in Season 4, the big galaxy picture takes a sudden unexpected shift. Again, I can’t say too much about it, but the threat level is constantly changing: it goes one way, goes another way. Something to look forward to.”

Shore Party

A highlight of the season will also be the inevitable drama that occurs between the military and civilian presences in Atlantis. The addition of Carter is significant not only due to the link between SGA and SG-1, but also because for the first time, the expedition will be under the command of a military officer rather than a civilian scientist. Atlantis started out initially as a very civilian operation, with the soldiers there as security and off-world specialists necessary to the venture. 

However, the show has taken a decidedly more aggressive and martial edge with the introduction of new and more dangerous threats, leading to these debates over the nature of the project that will hopefully begin to come to a head in Season 4. While inevitable comparisons will be drawn over this prediction with the second season of Galactica, it is something that the creative minds behind the show are also aware of, as Paul Mullie states. “Is it civilian or is it military, because to me, that’s part of the show. That debate. That argument. And it has been over the first three seasons. Weir and Sheppard have had to deal with that issue with the IQA and things like that. Bringing Amanda in, I think, makes that complex world even more interesting, basically.”

In an environment like modern televised science fiction, certain shows do become noticed and favoured over others. Galactica, Lost, SG-1 and Trek are among these, but the first is ending this coming season, Lost has a definite finishing point now and SG-1 has aired its final episode already. To us at SciFiNow, it’s shows such as Atlantis – which are beginning to hit a certain maturity that comes to a series at this stage – that will be carrying the torch into the future. SGA certainly has a long way to go before it can be considered a flagship show of the genre – that is without question – however, the signs from Season 3 are promising. With a greater focus on characterisation, new and original storylines and the addition of veteran science fiction actresses to the cast, it seems that Atlantis isn’t destined to sink but only to rise.

James Rundle and Stuart Claw

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