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Stargate | Atlantis Proved Humanity Could Be Better

Stargate Atlantis began in 2004, seven years and 154 episodes after we started SG-1’s adventures. The storyworld had been established, the canon was set. Atlantis not only became a reward for loyal fans, but it allowed the series to bring in a new audience by continuing the story without detracting from what came before in Stargate SG-1.  

Having a predefined rule book didn’t hinder Atlantis’s creativity. In fact, it gave the new series the freedom to jump straight in. Within the first feature-length episode, we understood the Expedition’s mission, the values of the team members, the threats we faced and began exploring the galaxy. We didn’t need episodes establishing the lore, just some less than subtle reminders, I’m looking at you, ‘Thirty-Eight Minutes’ (S1, Ep4). 

SG-1 was a groundbreaking series that brought us role models and heroes. The series introduced a transportation device that took us to new worlds each week. It sparked our imagination on how the world could have evolved had we been ruled by gods from Egypt, Ancient Greece or dynasties from China. But no matter how amazing each of these stories was, they were always bound within our rules on Earth… and mostly by rules of the United States government. 

[See also: Stargate – How To Master the Clip Show by Clint Worthington]

From day one, Stargate Atlantis launched with a technologically advanced city far greater than anything on Earth or the Milky Way Galaxy. By the end of the first season, it had the support of vast battleships infused with Goa’uld and Asgard technology. Most importantly, it was an international expedition, led by a civilian leader, and with the goal to uncover the mysteries of the Ancients’ technology, history and culture. 

Suddenly Stargate Command wasn’t just the American military fighting back the tide of an evil alien threat and holding other countries at arm’s length, this mission was international: Americans, Canadians, Germans, Czech, English, Chinese…it didn’t matter where you were from, it only mattered where you wanted to go. Watching from England, this somehow made the world feel much more obtainable. 

Fighting Back and Looking Forward

Stargate SG-1’s pilot (‘Children of the Gods’ -S1, Ep1) opens with Apophis storming the base and capturing Airman Carol Weterings as part of his search for an acceptable host for his queen, Amaunet. We were under attack from the first moment. From then on our mission was clear, the US government was forced to launch a new organization, Stargate Command, and send its newly formed SG teams straight into action. From their first mission through the gate onwards, the objective was to find technologies and allies to aid in the new threat of intergalactic war. 

Apophis emerges from the previously dormant stargate in the pilot, ‘Children of the Gods’ – S1, Ep1. | MGM, 1997.

Although SG-1 would also have missions to discover new technologies and learn from new cultures, it always carried the pressure to stop the Goa’uld invasion, and later the threat of even more deadly aliens. This burden was so heavy, at times it turned the honorable team of SG-1 into angry and spiteful aggressors, after huge personal losses they suffered during their missions. They lost sons, fathers, boyfriends and even each other. 

Adding to the pressure of alien threats and lost soldiers, ‘Politics’ (S1, Ep21) revealed Stargate Command cost the government $7 billion to run during its first year. Although many SG-1 missions helped the SGC learn about new cultures and liberate slaves from oppressive rulers, each mission they didn’t bring back advanced weapons only increased the tension in appeasing Washington. 

In contrast, the Atlantis Expedition was launched with the purpose of pursuing knowledge and curiosity. Their mission was to explore Atlantean technology, learn more about the Gate Builders and expand our knowledge of the universe. Unlike the SGC, this was not a US government or military project, it was a knowledge-seeking international expedition. The Atlantis crew was humanity’s next major step towards bridging conflict and disagreement for a greater good. This meant for the first time, the military’s mission was to support the Stargate program rather than run it. 

It’s ironic it took a mission into a foreign galaxy to unite us all as one common people: Humans from Earth. We were the new kids on the Pegasus block; nobody had ever heard of Stargate Command; there was no baggage of previous conflicts and wrongdoings; our position in this galaxy was completely fresh. 

This gave the Atlantis team the ability to truly explore our human potential and not be defined by our country of origin or the history which came before us. 

No more telling the Russians they couldn’t have what we’d already agreed to give them. No more hiding research from the Chinese or British governments. Atlantis was about science and discovery, for everyone. Similar to how Star Trek showed us a brave new world, but in the future, Atlantis did it today. 

As a result, Stargate Atlantis missions often centred around finding allies, trading goods and discovering medicine. Rarely was it a high priority to find weapons of mass destruction to fight in a war, it was about powering the city’s shields for defence. Even with their lofty peaceful ambitions, Stargate Atlantis was not immune to attack. Led by the brilliant leadership of Elizabeth Weir, they always looked for peaceful solutions first, before any aggressive response, even at the displeasure of the IOA. 

[See also: Stargate – Why Elizabeth Weir is the Heart of Atlantis by Catherine Kelly]

Even in their ongoing battle with the Wraith, the Atlantis team still entered into various encounters with non-aggressive ways to stop the Wraith’s need to feed. They attempt to create a retrovirus to cure the Wraith and work with Wraith scientist ‘Todd’ to find alternative solutions rather than invent new ways to kill them. 

The message of peace rang loudest in Season 3’s finale ‘First Strike’ (S3, Ep20). Despite facing a Replicator invasion of Earth, Elizabeth strongly opposed a tactical assault. Staying true to the mission and her own beliefs, she pushed for diplomacy even during this dark time. Unfortunately, her advice was ignored as Earth’s military moved forward with the attack which began the chain of events that ultimately lead to her death. The opposing positions of the Atlantis team’s peace above all vs SGC’s strike first mentality underscores the fundamental difference between the two. 

Change of Heart

SGC helped each SG-1 team member heal from past wounds. For Catherine and Daniel, discovering travel through the Stargate was vindication from a lifetime of doubters. For Teal’c, the SGC helped him free his people from slavery. For Sam, Stargate Command not only helped save her father’s life and more importantly repair their relationship. And for Jack, the SGC helped him discover a fresh start and renewed purpose as he found a family he thought he’d lost. Each member came into Stargate Command flawed but came out richer and fuller. 

True, some Stargate Atlantis team members had holes in their own lives, but the chance to join the Atlantis Expedition was more about expanding oneself into the unknown. In many ways, we can relate this to those who have chosen to join the Mars mission. They know they can contribute to the world if they stay here, but they can change the world by sacrificing their comforts and explore the wider universe for the betterment of humanity.

When we look at Season 1’s ‘Letters From Pegasus’ (S1, Ep17) we see this attitude reflected in many of the expedition’s videos to their families. With the Wraith attack imminent, Atlantis team members are encouraged to film goodbye notes for the loved ones they left behind. As we hear the notes from each of them, we grow to understand what these people gave up for the betterment of humanity. Elizabeth gave up a chance of love with Simon, Ford left his grandparents who raised him and Beckett left his ‘pure as the driven snow’ mother at home. It’s worth remembering none of these people had a guarantee they’d ever return home, and some of them didn’t. 

No matter the short-term sacrifice, the opportunity to travel to Atlantis gave each individual a hugely important role with life-changing experiences they couldn’t receive anywhere else. In ‘The Last Man’ (S4, Ep20), alternative future Dr. Keller fell terminally ill from traces of the Hoffan Drug from her time in Atlantis. Rodney, now her partner, works tirelessly to find a solution, to go back, change time and save her but Jennifer refuses to let Rodney change the timeline:

“The year I spent in Atlantis, I – I saw more things than people even dream about in their lifetime. I don’t have any regrets.” 

Jennifer Keller, ‘The Last Man’ – S4, Ep20.

Rodney McKay is an exceptional example of how the Atlantis Expedition could lead to the transformation of a person when faced with the possibility of greatness. We meet Rodney years before the premiere of Atlantis, where he’s an arrogant individual who rudely challenges Sam at every scientific turn. Skip forward to Rodney in Atlantis, and over time we see his character develop into that of a hero. During Season 1’s episode ‘The Defiant One’ (S1, Ep12), Rodney is left to tend to Brendan, who’d just been fed upon by a Wraith. Knowing Sheppard would be outmatched fighting a Wraith single-handedly, we see the first glimpse of Rodney’s heroic transformation. 

Gall: You wanna get out there and help him, don’t you?
McKay: What? Me go up against a Wraith? Are you kidding?
Gall: You do. I can tell. You’ve changed. You really wanna get out there.
McKay: Shut up!
Gall: Don’t get me wrong. I’m impressed. You want in the fight. The Rodney McKay I knew would never …

‘The Defiant One’ – S1, Ep12.

[See also: Rodney McKay – The Tao of an Unlikely Hero by Michael Simpson.]

Everyone Comes to Atlantis

The city of Atlantis wasn’t only a place for humans of Earth, it became a place of self-discovery and a home for humans from the Pegasus galaxy. 

For allies like the Ethosians, the ‘ancestral city’ was the stuff of legend. After yet another brutal Wraith culling and at their lowest point, they followed Sheppard and his team back to Atlantis and all the Ethosians could feel was hope, hope for a future provided by this ancient city of promise. 

Ronon, believed to be the last of his people, was taken by the Wraith, abused and tortured, and ultimately implanted with a chip so he could be used as a toy in intergalactic hunting games. Always on the run and paranoid at all times, Ronon was alive, but he had no life. When Sheppard and his team discovered him, he was at the point of going feral. 

Over time, the great city of Atlantis and the people who live there begin to show him trust, love and friendship. They make great discoveries together. They forgive him for any of his faults. They welcome him in as one of his own. Ronon becomes a changed man, owing his life to the city of Atlantis and those who call it home. 

I just wanted to thank you … Thanks for letting me stay here a couple of years ago … because I don’t know if I would still be, um … Thank you, Doctor Weir.

Ronon Dex, ‘Adrift’ – S4, Ep1.

Even as a native to the Pegasus Galaxy, we see how important Atlantis truly is when we meet Ethosian leader Teyla Emmagen. She begins the series with the huge duty as the leader of her people; however, she soon realizes that although her responsibilities with her people are great,  her ultimate influence could be greater by leaving her position and joining Atlantis. Even though Teyla is not from Earth, she makes the same great sacrifice of leaving her life behind in order to further ‘humanity’. 

“No! I sometimes still second-guess my decision. But then I remember that I can do more here to help my people and the rest of the humans in this galaxy than I ever could on my homeworld.”

Teyla Emmagen, ‘Reunion’ – S4, Ep3.

It is true, in many ways Stargate Atlantis is fundamentally different from Stargate: SG-1. The Atlantis Expedition was about peace, diplomacy and expanding humanity to new galaxies. However, even with these differences, Atlantis is in no way at odds with its predecessor. In many ways, Atlantis is like a child to SG-1. It found a way to honor the original without taking anything from it. It managed to add to the original series’ story and create huge fan-favourite episodes like ‘Pegasus Project’ (S10, Ep3) and integrate existing role models like Sam Carter as base leader. 

[See also: Sam Carter: A Father’s Battle, A Daughter’s War by James Hoare]

Without the effort, sacrifice and sometimes shades of grey from SG-1, the Atlantis Expedition would never have come to be. It was because of the brave victories and sacrifices of SG-1 the Pegasus crew would be able to launch in peace. SG-1 spearheaded many initiatives that would lead to the international team. 

The root of the Atlantis moral code is likely down to the foundations built by Daniel Jackson. Always believing in being better, Daniel always fought for SG-1 to do the right thing, even if it was the hard thing. True, the government often came down hard on General Hammond, often citing their missions as failures, but it was Daniel who always reminded the team of their great discoveries of new people and cultures. 

We learn that the greatest discoveries didn’t come when we searched for technology, but it was when the teams went out to form new allies. The Tok’ra helped teach us how to use Goa’uld technologies, the Tollan showed us our technological potential as a species and the Asgard gave us eon’s worth of knowledge. 

How Far We’ve Come

As noted, it cost the US government over $7 billion to run the SGC each year, and that before adding the cost of the Prometheus and Daedalus, increasing the budget by another $6 billion. At the risk of sounding like Senator Kinsey, if we take a step back and looked at it objectively, what exactly was the return of the military’s $80 billion investment and the lives of countless military personnel? 

The answer became simple: Atlantis. 

It’s a city where even the elevator is more technologically advanced than most of what Stargate Command had brought back to Earth, and now it’s ours. The biggest of these advancements came through the discovery of multiple Zero Point Modules. Though discovered originally in SG-1, Atlantis was SGC’s platform to find countless more. Beyond even their usefulness at home, Atlantis explored the science that made them possible and dedicated themselves to find more to help defend against Earth’s enemies in two galaxies. When Atlantis had three ZPMs left to them after ‘The Return – Part 1’ and ‘… Part 2’ (S3, Ep10-11), their first thought is to give one to Earth and another to the Odyssey to assist in the battle against the Ori. Atlantis’s offer may seem an obvious choice, but remember, it was only a few years before in Stargate: SG-1 that the US government refused to even share paperwork with foreign allies. 

Beyond the technology discovered in the Pegasus Galaxy, the team gained more insight into the process of ascension, And through increased knowledge of the Ancients, we are able to see them as more than just mythical superbeings, but relatable and flawed human figures. Bringing the Ancients to a realistic level and learning from their mistakes, the Atlantis team quickly realized their diverse international perspectives, the pursuit of new allies and trust in each other would not only help them reach their full potential but also take the last major step for humanity’s push towards fulfilling the promise of taking the mantle of the Fifth Race. 

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