Stargate Atlantis is the successful new spin-off series in the Stargate franchise. Volume 1 includes the two-part pilot episode “Rising” alongside two further episodes. Dave Foster reviews the MGM release.
Now into its eighth season Stargate SG-1 has proved to be an incredibly popular television sci-fi franchise, and one that the original creators have now taken in a new direction with Stargate Atlantis. Developed to not only run alongside SG-1 on the television networks, but to occupy the same universe and timeline Atlantis builds upon the technology and mythology of its established sibling and pulls together a new cast of characters who are then thrown into a separate galaxy. This essentially severs the two series, allowing Atlantis to stand firm on its own two feet as this new cast fight a new threat brought forth by the technology of the ancients.
For those unfamiliar with the basic concept these ‘Stargates’ were developed by an ancient race of humans and through numerous combinations act as a series of wormholes linking not only planets but galaxies in a matter of seconds. Through SG-1 it was long established that the very first Stargate on Earth is somewhere in Antarctica, where the lost city of the ancients – Atlantis – was also believed to exist. What was discovered however is a Stargate capable of transporting them to Atlantis, a city which the ancients had taken to the Pegasus galaxy in order to expand human life. With this special Stargate comes a slew of ancient technology which has been unearthed and for operation requires the user to possess a special gene, one that is rare amongst humans today but not completely eradicated. The Stargate Atlantis mission is one consisting of a multinational scientific and military group, lead by a civilian Dr. Elizabeth Weir, to investigate the secrets of Atlantis.
Of the one-hundred plus scientists and a healthy though not dominant military contingent the key players for the series number surprisingly few. Weir, portrayed by Torri Higginson is the diplomatic leader with absolute authority over the mission that, unlike the SG-1 campaign, is not military based. She is not the main character however, that honour falls to Major John Sheppard portrayed by Joe Flanigan, a sharp, witty and above all else down-to-earth guy who heads up the military operations and gets on well with a civilian calling the shots. His second in command and all-round nice guy is the young Lt. Ford, played by Rainbow Sun Francks whose name is as bright and cheery as his character’s personality. Leading up the scientific aspect of the show is Dr. Rodney McKay portrayed by David Hewlett who was a regular on SG-1 for some time, bringing both a familiar face and expertise on the technology to the project. Last but not least is Teyla, leader to the Athosian people Sheppard encounters in the Pegasus galaxy she soon becomes a central figure on Atlantis and is portrayed rather aptly by Rachel Luttrell who brings an exotic tribal feel to the otherworld inhabitants’ leader.
The Atlantis mission is however a one-way trip, and once in the city they are not only there to gather information on the ancients but Weir and her team must begin exploring the Pegasus galaxy in order to locate a suitable power source in order to go back the way they came. Unfortunately they arrive to find the city of Atlantis to be running low on power itself, which combined with their activation of its technology drains resources further leaving them open to attack from a new found threat, the Wraith, a long dormant enemy to the human inhabitants of the Pegasus galaxy whom the intrepid explorers manage to awaken on their first interplanetary excursion. This new found enemy, one that feeds upon humans and led to the demise of the ancients, is now threatening Earth which it sees as a potential feeding ground the likes of which they’ve not happened upon in some 10,000 years. With this new enemy comes a new allegiance however, as the excursion which leads to the interruption of the Wraith’s hibernation also sees Sheppard and his squad meet with the Athosian people, whose homes are soon destroyed leading them to return to Atlantis where their leader, Teyla, becomes an integral part of the mission.
Atlantis gets off to an assured if not exactly breathtaking start with the feature length two-part opening episode Rising in which some hefty exposition (ahem, see above!) is joined by a character defining storyline where lives are lost and bonds are formed. Everything you could ask for and more was no doubt the premise behind this premiere episode and though it falls short with a needlessly linear approach in which the mission to Atlantis is prepped, the team is introduced and the journey to Pegasus is embarked upon the action soon picks up in the second half giving rise to situations which really draw the characters out of their predefined shells. Weir goes from the female leader over thinking her decisions and seeking approval to a somewhat motherly figure that looks over her city and its inhabitants’ well being, making the right decision and ensuring a rescue mission is carried out. Sheppard is setup as the maverick army major with a record for disobeying direct orders, leading to his peers in the military questioning his loyalty before he goes on to adopt the commanding role of military leader and everyman by the episodes end. Ford, Teyla, McKay and the good Doctor Carson (a prominent secondary character) are formally introduced and basic relationships setup. Ford is the eager young Lieutenant more open to Sheppard’s approach to the military rule, Teyla the leader of the Athosian people and link between them and the humans, strong and resourceful there is also a hint of romantic entanglement between her and Sheppard from pretty much the moment they lay eyes upon one another. McKay and Carson are the most stereotyped of the characters, hardly surprising given both are men of science. McKay is the technical wizard and expert on the ancients, Carson a medical doctor, both are shown to be men who ramble and cower but also equally viable of being heroes in their own right. These major players and several lesser roles are all setup with relative ease over the course of ninety minutes, while guest stars are expertly used to both aid the transition between SG-1 and Atlantis and to help define the more complex character of Sheppard, with Robert Patrick appearing as his rather apathetic commanding officer.
The second episode (third by the official count), Hide and Seek, paves the way forward as we move on to situation-of-the-week fare. A staple of television series across genres these episodes allow gentle character progression and little to no reference to the overriding threat or goal of a series while the protagonists tackle an unrelated incident. In this episode one of the Athosian children goes missing, having activated one of the many unknown technical devices in Atlantis the boy is found with ease but not before letting an energy sucking entity loose upon the city. Giving us further insight to the ritualistic village sensibilities of the Athosian people and more humorously, the cowardice of McKay this episode also furthers the potential available to the series writers, with an untapped wealth of technical devices to be written in and mastered by the human settlers in the ancient city. Watching the men at work in this episode proves to be a lot of fun; Sheppard is given some great dialogue culling from movie classics but in tune with his character, using horror movie plotlines as the basis for tales of terror he delivers to the Athosian children. Similarly McKay is developing into a character everyone can enjoy, bursting over with the technical rambling sensibilities of Marshall from Alias only keeping them in check just enough for him to be a more integral member of the team. In this episode his comic sidelines spill over slightly into the physical realm, as an ancient personal shield device he discovers makes him a human punching bag, leaving him and Sheppard to return to a childlike state as they test out the shield’s capabilities. In turn the necessity of the female leaders is somewhat confusing, as the characters of Weir and Teyla are reduced to delivering the occasional commanding line when in reality Sheppard and to a lesser extent McKay are the key figures, making the decisions, solving the problems and taking part in the action. This is an understandable break in the chain of command but the lines reserved for both female leads are so weak it can be embarrassing, severing the strength of each determined in the opening episode.
Fortunately the final episode of this volume, 38 Minutes, gives the character of Weir and Torri Higginson a chance to develop into the leader she needs to be. When a reconnaissance mission goes wrong Major Sheppard is left incapacitated with an alien leech stuck to his neck, while a rookie pilots him, Teyla, McKay and Ford home in the affectionately named Puddlejumper spacecraft. Damage is taken however and they find themselves stuck mid-way when traversing the Stargate, leaving them with 38 minutes in which to find a solution from the rear of the craft to manually retract the offending engines which caused the tight squeeze, and stop the craft from being severed in two when the gate closes leaving them to face the empty vacuum of space. It’s a difficult situation, one that Sheppard has little say in while McKay doesn’t take well to staring death in the face, leaving it to Weir back at Atlantis to take command and ensure everything is done on both ends to bring them home safely. With the help of who can only be described as a major asshole on her team of specialists, Weir not only gets the opportunity to state her authority on Atlantis, but reassures the audience we have someone who – though not exactly an away mission kinda gal – is working to bring the team home as opposed to saving her own ass. This allows for some tense confrontations on Atlantis, while the situation inside the Puddlejumper is dire leading to heightened emotions which coupled with a relatively real-time approach to the direction makes this an absorbing episode and one that also manages to make greater use of the diverse number of people found within Atlantis.
At this stage it’s probably worth pointing out that I’ve never seen Stargate SG-1, so you’ll get no comparisons here. Instead I can offer newcomers to the Stargate universe potentially interested in Atlantis a vote of confidence, as you really need not know anything about SG-1 or even the 1994 movie for that matter to get into Atlantis. This is very much a standalone series, one that eases those unfamiliar with the universe gently into the proceedings, while the established mythology and technology is present and accounted for with plenty of room to develop beyond the breadth of the existing Stargate universe. The scope of the series really is quite impressive, from the sheer size of the Atlantis set and the technology available to the characters ranging from shield devices, spacecraft and whatever else the writers feel necessary to the primary goals of the mission. There is much to play with as the characters go about establishing a base of operation and sourcing the appropriate power resources to reopen the gate back home, and with the civilian contingent a new found diplomatic goal of harbouring the Athosian people who were driven away from their homes by the awakened Wraith, who also posing a threat to Earth become another of the primary goals for the writers to work towards. This gives the show endless possibilities with episodes open to focus on one or the other, or both of the primary objectives while developing characters and introducing new elements as and when they are required. This is what science fiction is all about, exploring the unknown and Atlantis – as one of the creators says in the extras – is one of the greatest myths given new life here every week (or volume for the DVD viewers like us).
Though highly promising as a concept at this stage in the series I would have serious reservations at claiming it to be a success, with the actors still getting a feel for their roles and the writers still getting a feel for their actors, working out who fits in where best and what the overall balance is for screen time. A prime example at this early stage is the relative insignificance of Weir in episode two, and the inability to find a role for Teyla between caretaker of the Athosian people and delegate to the humans. Rachel Luttrell certainly gives a strong performance but at this stage her character has not been given any real depth beyond that of a spiritual leader, one that must heed the calls of some rather embarrassing characters such as Halling, an Athosian whose love for his children results in lines such as “The only truth in this world is my love for you” to which the child actor visibly barfs through a facial expression. Elsewhere it could be said the secondary cast have been given little to do, but at only a few episodes in that’s also slightly unfair as the key players are ripe for development instead. As a whole Atlantis exudes as many flaws as it does successes, but makes for entertaining science fiction viewing with plenty of agreeable characters.
I rarely comment on the more common aspects of DVD releases, that of menu design and chapter stops for example but on TV releases there are some basic rules that I like to see adhered to. First and foremost is the ‘Play All’ option, which alongside an episode select feature is present and accounted for. Secondly in terms of chapter stops I believe they should be timed around the ‘previously on’ and title sequences, allowing the viewer to skip over these segments at will. Unfortunately this aspect of the disc falls short, with the chapter stops being more random; splitting each episode in four meaning you’ll have to manually forward sequences you would otherwise see twenty plus times a season.
The dual-layer disc is coded for Regions 2 and 4.
Picture and Sound
Presented in 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen Atlantis is a genuine treat on DVD, with a transfer that sparkles looking every bit as good as a modern series should with source materials that are in pristine condition and a transfer that shows no compression errors that I could detect. The audio options are equally impressive, with an English 5.1 mix that takes advantage of the full surround stage to put you right in the middle of the action, from the Stargate activation and jump sequences to land and space battles this is a series that puts the 5.1 to real use fully warranting its inclusion.
A German Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also present, with subtitles on the episodes available in English, German and Finnish. Extras are subtitled in English and German only.
Sadly there is not much to be found on the disc, with only two video-based featurettes joined by a Production and Photo Gallery and WWW internet promotional ad. The featurettes comprise of a set tour (11mins approx) hosted by two over-active directors who make numerous attempts at humour but fail to both amuse and show us anything of real worth. This is a genuine shame, as the show has quite an impressive set and with the right hosts a featurette like this could prove to have been an interesting viewing experience. The other featurette, Preview to Atlantis (23mins approx) was created to promote the series yet manages to surpass usual EPK expectations by providing us with a thorough background to the creation and links between SG-1 and this spin-off. Replete with interviews from the creators and some of the key cast who contributed literally days after signing on it offers some frank insights to the enthusiasm toward the project and gives those not familiar with SG-1 – like myself – a chance to see what concepts were carried across.
You will also find trailers for SG-1 and Atlantis, though unfortunately these are only available by force as you wait for the menu screen to appear. They can be skipped over with the chapter forward button, but like all pre-menu trailers shouldn’t really be there in the first place.
For someone unfamiliar with the SG-1 series Stargate Atlantis came as a pleasant surprise. Filled with likeable characters and plenty of scope for development the series is backed up by a solid cast and impressive technical design complimenting the mixture of action and morality tales suggesting this could be a series to watch out for in the future.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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