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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

stupid ‘Stargate Atlantis’: please stop sucking

I caught up on Stargate Atlantis this weekend — yeah, all of the fourth season so far, all 10 episodes. Used to be, back, in the day, this was appointment viewing for me … if I didn’t actually make a point to be home to watch it live on Friday nights (because that’s what dorks like me do: stay home and watch the Sci Fi Channel on a Friday night), I didn’t let the weekend go by with it unseen. Not that I’ve ever been madly in love with Atlantis, but I’ve been madly in love with Stargate since the beginning (of the series, not the movie *shudder*). And when this came on right after SG-1, it made for a dorky-cool Friday night to watch two new episodes back to back.

But Atlantis has never been as intriguing as SG-1: it’s too heavy on action at the expense of character and, well, philosophy, as cheesy science-fictional as it may have been on the original show. It got easy to give the show a pass without its SG-1 lead-in, and so episodes piled up on my DVR.
And the first half of Season 4 has only confirmed for me that Stargate the franchise is past its peak. I was hoping that the arrival of Samantha Carter (the awesome Amanda Tapping) to command the Atlantis mission, plus that of way-cool Firefly alum Jewel Staite as the city’s new doctor would have given the show a boost. (If they had to kill off Dr. Beckett, at least they gave us a decent replacement.) I thought that perhaps a few of the SG-1 writers might have migrated to Atlantis with the wrapping up of their show — because where SG-1 really shone and where Atlantis has really fallen down has been with the writing. Atlantis’s lackluster scripts never seem to inspire the cast … except one: last season’s episode “Sunday,” which gave the characters room to stretch. That’s what I was hoping for more of this year.

But instead it’s been the same old SF-TV tropes: aliens run amuck so the crew runs around in circles trying to stop them. Bor-ring. The Memento episode, “Tabula Rasa,” started off with a glimmer of hope for something different, but rapidly devolved into the same old “space bug infects the crew” cliché that had been done to death before Stargate ever came to television. Atlantis’s “original” bad guys, the space vampire Wraith, are the dullest SF villains ever: without individual motivations beyond an animalistic need to feed, they’re limited in a dramatic sense. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation eventually figured out that hive creatures like the Borg quickly burn out their storytelling possibilities if you’re not willing to do something adventurous with them. Atlantis’s Season 2 episode “Michael,” in which a Wraith was de-Wraith-ized and all sorts of questions about species bigotry and just what constitutes a war crime were raised, was brilliant, one of the best single episodes of TV science fiction of any series, but all the promise of that episode has long since been squandered. Ditto the Replicators, the Erector Set alien intelligence that SG-1 seemed to have fully explored the ramifications of. Last Friday night’s half-season finale, “This Mortal Coil,” appeared to have given the Replicators some new dramatic life, but it was all a combination retread of two done-to-death stories: “the crew’s stuck in VR” and “the crew’s been duplicated as robots” (which SG-1 already did extremely well).

How much of a dork for science fiction am I? I’ll keep recording Atlantis, and keep watching it, and keep being disappointed. But I’ll keep wishing it better, too.

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  • Mike Brady

    I’m with you – it was a killer lineup to have Atlantis between SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica. I felt like Atlantis really stepped up then too. Now it’s a lot of filler to set up a few brilliant moments. The reintroduction of Replicators was particularly disappointing. Here’s hoping it’s just a slump and they find a way to revitalize it.

  • elyse

    I am a fan of SGA, and SG1, but my number one bugaboo on the show has been the quality of writing. They’ll have some really great eps but then fall down with others, and just not tackle more serious storylines but go with retreads. I keep hoping for better.

  • Stargate SG-1 had it’s cheesy moments, but overall it was an awesome show. Stargate Atlantis on the other hand… Didn’t even bother to finish the second season. Bleck.

  • I think it’s instructive to compare the two series from a design standpoint. To steal a notion, SG-1 has one of the best “storytelling engines” of any TV show:

    http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/01/23/exploring-storytelling-engines-with-john-seavey/

    Atlantis, not so much. Way too many characters and concepts are inherently limited. The Wraith, as noted, are by nature one-dimensional. Not to mention being physically ugly and repulsive – the best villains tend to be people you’d, deep down, at your darkest moments, kind of like to *be*. Who would want to be a Wraith? The Replicators, I thought, should have been left in that “time bubble” back in SG-1. The problem with them is that they’re conceptually too powerful. It’s not hard to imagine them taking over the galaxy; it’s harder to imagine them being *stopped*. And if they are, it kind of has to be via a Magic Plot Device Machine, as more ordinary sorts of destruction shouldn’t matter to them.

    There are problems in terms of characters and casting, too. The producers are good at knowing what they’ve got, which is good, but leads to having to lean on the wonderful David Hewlett a bit *too* much. On the other hand, there’s nothing all that inherently interesting about Teyla or Ronon… PLUS, they tend to be dramatically interchangeable.

    I’m especially disappointed that they haven’t made better use of Carter yet; so far, most of her episodes might as well have been written for Weir, with just a name change in the script. I haven’t been following the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I’m kinda hoping that’s literally true, and that they’re still burning off some old scripts written for Weir’s character, and that later episodes will give Carter’s awesomeness more of a chance to shine.

    I still like the show, but it’s telling that I haven’t bothered buying any of the Atlantis seasons on DVD, while it never occurred to me NOT to buy every single season of SG-1….

  • amy

    “a few of the SG-1 writers might have migrated to Atlantis with the wrapping up of their show”
    Both shows have always had the SAME writers.

    What makes the shows different, I think, is the characters. SG-1 characters always seemed cartoonish and boring to me. Never liked the show and I kept cringing at it. On the other hand, I love the characters in Atlantis. I find them more real, with their flaws, their weaknesses and strenghts. Give me Atlantis over SG-1 one million times.

  • KimberlyFDR

    I already emailed this to you directly, but I thought I’d publicly post the comments, too.

    I just read your article and was curious about your view of SGA to this point (it’s intriguing how drastically different the views of this series are among viewers). You self-admittedly are a larger fan of SG1 than SGA, so that’s going to influence your view of the show whereas a person who was a larger fan of SGA than SG1 (or those who never watched SG1) would probably look at the show’s arcs quite differently.

    A few quotes from your article before I delve into the other comments.

    “But Atlantis has never been as intriguing as SG-1: it’s too heavy on action at the expense of character and, well, philosophy, as cheesy science-fictional as it may have been on the original show.”

    That’s quite a different viewpoint than I’m used to seeing because one of the praises of SGA has always been how it’s more character-based than SG1. The crew on Atlantis are more apt to be human, screw-up or achieve excellence under pressure, than I’m accustomed to when dealing with SG1. That’s one of the things that drew me into SGA in the first place, the humanness of the characters. Sheppard woke up the Wraith, so every single death at the hands of them are on his shoulders. He carries that burden and the burden of shooting his commanding officer every single day (even comments on the fact in canon). McKay helped the Replicators rewrite their base code so not only is every single death by the Replicators since that reawakening weighed down on him, the death of Elizabeth is directly on his shoulders and he feels it (once again, directly comments on these burdens in canon). Beckett is ultimately responsible for all the destruction that Michael has caused because of the gene manipulation he inflicted upon Michael (and this will also be tied to an upcoming arc, as it has been tied to previous interactions with Michael since the original genetic manipulation). The point is, SGA has always made it a point to show that the choices these characters have made have seemed right in the short-term, but very much wrong in the long-term and the consequences keep affecting them again and again.

    “And the first half of Season 4 has only confirmed for me that Stargate the franchise is past its peak…Atlantis’s lackluster scripts never seem to inspire the cast…”

    That’s sad to hear since I feel like Season Four is extremely better than previous seasons (the SGA writers continually give us a season greater than the last year after year). This season in particular the leaps in character development has been astounding. John’s ultimate fear of Rodney’s death (seen in Doppleganger, confronted in Miller’s Crossing) has been one of the most marked elements of his character. He’s making important, morally-questionable decisions in favor of the ties of team and family that he’s created on Atlantis (bonds he didn’t have prior). And Rodney’s development towards becoming more rounded, more caring has been seen much more this season. Even the small scene in Mortal Coil where he confronts the still-painful loss of Carson and now Elizabeth shows how far he’s come in the past three years. It’s been a great season for character development and I look forward to seeing more.

    I can understand why viewers who watched SG1 for 10 years may see similarities between it and SGA’s scripts, but since the two do exist within the same universe and share elements, there’s bound to be crossover. Faulting the show for that crossover seems unfair. I praise SGA for striking out and coming into its own very early on as not another SG1. I enjoy SGA much more than I ever have SG1. I want my characters to have flaws, to make questionable decisions and have to pay the consequences when they don’t work out. I want to see the element of humanness in my characters and SGA delivers.

  • i don’t see how anyone can think that the characters of SG1 didn’t have flaws… they screwed up about a thousand times… fought each other, had different agendas and different outlooks and at least the Goa’uld (sp?) were individuals and had their own flaws and differences. the Tok’ra were not 100% on the side of the humans and sometimes they were right not to be…

    the major and important difference between the characters of SG1 and Atlantis is the characters of SG1 had subtlety and conflict and the characters of SGA are just cardboard cutouts. has there *ever* been a more boring character than Elizabeth Weir? jeez! shepherd? he may as well have “hero” tattooed across his forehead (or at least on his name tag). rodney, carson beckett and the rumanian (polish) scientist were the only characters that really had some sort of gravitas.

    how bored am i with SGA? (and how absolutely furious that hey killed off beckett?) i used to watch that SciFi lineup with MaryAnn every friday night — and i don’t even care that she watched all of SGA without me.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t feel whatever flaws the SGA characters have: major stuff happens to them, and they seem to totally forget it by the next episode. I don’t feel that anyone has the weight of anything on their shoulders.

  • Patrick

    I sympathize. Your feelings match exactly mine when Voyager and Enterprise (and to a lesser extent Deep Space Nine) came on the scene.

    To a devout Trek fan who loves TOS and TNG, it was a heavy souring on one’s devotion to the franchise as a whole.

  • Ryan

    Admittedly I don’t like either SG-1 or SGA much because frankly neither holds up well against ‘heavier’ sci-fi shows like Farscape, or BSG, or Babylon 5, or even DS9 which had darker plot arcs and created new worlds to explore, instead of dropping a group of human grunts onto different earth-like worlds populated by…generally more humans.

    Sorry, got caught up in a rant, my point is…except for a few times during later seasons, I don’t remember any SG-1 characters carrying any heavy burdens between episodes either…originally that show was extremely episodic in nature. (1 story/episode = planet of the week)

    I think where SGA falls apart is two-fold; they couldn’t make either Taela or Ronin work as the alien on the team–because neither of them have a real purpose being there. (Teal’C wanted to free his brethren, and integrated naturally) and also they have removed any possibility of Earth being put in jeopardy when they moved the whole deal out into the Pegasus galaxy…which means none of the antagonists are all that interesting. (And many are retreads)

    They need to develop a real nemesis for the crew, focus more on getting the characters OUT OF THE CITY and jettison some of the weaker cast members…weir was a good start…Taela and the annoying colonel who is Sheppard’s second in command would be nice additions.

    The show is totally fixable, just like SG-1 improved tremendously in it’s later years. Of course, they could also just drop Ben Browder and Claudia Black on set with Amanda Tapping…I think those two improve any Stargate offering by about 1000%.

  • David C

    For some reason, Atlantis is often bad at seizing obvious opportunities.

    For example, during the last episode, Ronon and Shepard go back to Earth. Ronon’s never been there before, I believe (or at least never past the confines of the SGC.) He’s probably never been on a world as populated and prosperous as Earth, and hasn’t experienced the culture first-hand and full-force.

    The plot even *explicitly* establishes Ronon and Shepard with nothing to do for hours… yet they don’t do *anything* with this! Not even one little “Ronon reacts to Earth” scene. Oh, there’s one bit that barely qualifies as a bit (“Ronon has to wear Business Casual”), but that ain’t much….

  • MaryAnn

    they couldn’t make either Taela or Ronin work as the alien on the team–because neither of them have a real purpose being there. (Teal’C wanted to free his brethren, and integrated naturally)

    Taela and Ronan don’t work as aliens either because there’s nothing alien about them. It’s always infuriated me that SGA’s human cultures were so far less alien than SG1’s human cultures — the humans in the Pegasus galaxy are even more removed from Earth, timewise, but they’re less alien than those in our own galaxy, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

    One of the cool things about SG1 is that most of the “aliens” were human: it was just their *cultures* that were alien.

  • Mark

    Well the character of Rodney is really getting tiresome.Always complaining and acting angry and annoyed. This guy never seems to be happy. And the storyline on the shows are weak and uninteresting. I can no longer watch this series.

  • Ryan

    When you realize that Sci-Fi could have had a lineup that went:

    SG-1
    Farscape
    BSG
    Invisible Man

    you really have to wonder what the people over there are thinking. I mean, that wouldn’t be HBO, but it would have been about as good as any cable network could have put up…and without a Law and Order series to boot.

    But no…it’s

    ****ing Ghost Hunters
    Eureka
    SGA

    I cry bitter tears.

  • MaryAnn

    *Ghost Hunters* is shit. *Eureka* is cute, and a nice respite from all the serious (or wannabe serious) SF.

    The thing that rankles me about Sci Fi at the moment: ECW. About which I wonder: WTF?

  • Ryan

    Yeah, the ECW thing is very disturbing. And not just because it’s ECW…but because it makes me wonder if the Sci-Fi channel is trying to slide away from Sci-Fi programming.

  • clueless?

    i don’t really understand why people are so divided about this.
    1. they are both really great shows with solid writing and a strong cast
    2. the stories interweave seamlessly MANY times through BOTH series.
    3. They stuck to the same basic formula with atlantis thet they used with SG-1

    it is funny that, when given 2 options, people tend to divide absolutely. especially when both options are just as good as the other AND we don’t only have to choose one!

    like the classic original song vs. cover song.
    people fight over which version is better even if they are BOTH really good!

    personally, i really like Atlantis better at the moment. SG-1 got a little hokey near the end of it and i like that as soon as this began to happen, they provided a more stable alternative.
    the first season of atlantis to me, felt like watching the old episodes of sg-1. to the point, easy to follow, and not… um… farscapey…

    the killing blow for me when it comes to SG-1 is replacing o’neil…
    if atlantis replaces sheppard with some 2-bit scifi actor from a series long gone, i will shit a brick then attack the producers

  • MaryAnn

    it is funny that, when given 2 options, people tend to divide absolutely. especially when both options are just as good as the other

    It’s funny how some people assume other people agree with them about everything. Ie, not everyone thinks one show is as good as the other.

    They stuck to the same basic formula with atlantis thet they used with SG-1

    True. And it’s it weird how one show seemed to gel and work and the other one still hasn’t been able to replicate that magic.

  • boz

    Stargate Atlantis sucks because they are using a jet plane storytelling engine in new york traffic (without flying). Seriously you are in another galaxy and all we see are:
    a) pseudo-christian middle age civ.
    b) industrial / postindustrial britain/US civ.
    c) people live in huts.

    at least SG-1 has decency to use egyptian, bablyonian, roman mitologies.

  • Tommy

    SG-1 sucks because MacGyver is in it and I cannot forget that he is not MacGyver for some reason. And its USA vs the universe, like the rest of the world doesnt exist. That is very annoying. Cheesy comments and nonrealistic behavior. USA military bullying other planet civilizations. It sucks.

    One of the cool things about SG1 is that most of the “aliens” were human: it was just their *cultures* that were alien.

    Why is that good? It sucks that all aliens are human. I hate that in both Stargate and Startrek, all versions. A little diffrent bonestructure in the forehead makes them aliens. Its so lame!
    Humanoid aliens are boring.

    Stargate Atlantis could be great, but its not because:

    1. All the worlds and aliens look the same.
    2. Its a one man show. Rodney always fix everything, everyone else is kind of useless unless they have to hit or shot the even more useless enemies.
    3. The Wraith are overpowered to easy, they suck.
    The scariest thing they do is say “Im going to feed on you”, but never do it. The faceless ones are even more useless.
    4. Taelas “I can control Wraith Queen” thing is just weird and her character feels out of place.

    The plot even *explicitly* establishes Ronon and Shepard with nothing to do for hours… yet they don’t do *anything* with this! Not even one little “Ronon reacts to Earth” scene. Oh, there’s one bit that barely qualifies as a bit (“Ronon has to wear Business Casual”), but that ain’t much….

    I agree.
    SGA could be great if they include more of that and also make the worlds feel more interesting instead of concentrating on Rodney doing some magical computer hacking all the fucking time. Also, the Wraith dont give a powerfull or scary impression now. They turned them to humanlike after all the alliances and cooperations. I only watched to half of season 4 yet so that might change though.

    After ranting like that I must say that its something about SGA that I like, because I keep watching it.
    Im not sure what keeps me watching though. :)

  • Ryan

    SGA has significantly improved in the second half of season 4, I must admit. Finally Tala(sp) and Ronin have something to do, they’ve added some layers to Jewel Staite’s character, and they finally figured out that the Atlantis administrator needs to be an ADMINISTRATOR and replaced Tapping with Picardo. (Which I thought would be a terrible move, but I was wrong…and now watching Tapping in Sanctuary I’m starting to think her acting talent on SG-1 was a strange mirage)

  • MaryAnn

    Ugh, *Atlantis* keeps sucking more with each episode. They’re retreading plots from *SG-1.*

    If by “layers to Jewel Staite’s character” you mean “getting her kidnapped constantly,” then yeah, sure.

  • Ryan

    I know Tae’la was kidnapped by Michael…trying to remember when Staite’s character was ever kidnapped?

    I’m not exactly sure how they’re retreading plots from SG-1…but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. Heck, SG-1 was retreading plots from SG-1 by the end of season 4.

  • Fithian

    Elizabeth Weir killed it for me. Not sure if it was the actress or the way she played the (almost feminazi) character…probably both, but she seemed to go way overboard with the “Me strong woman! me boss of man! you do as I say!”
    Amanda Tapping nailed that in the first episode and never needed to keep reminding us she was a tough, independent (likeable!) woman. We got it and we loved her.

  • I didn’t like Weir either, but “feminazi”? Seriously?

  • Fithian

    OK, a bit of an overstatement.
    She never missed an opportunity to lecture on who’s the boss, that’s all.

  • If the show had been better written, it would have been a great opportunity to explore how women often simply cannot win as bosses, precisely for some of the reasons you complain about. (I doubt you’d care if a man reminded his employees that he’s the boss… which he probably wouldn’t have to do, because he’d be accorded more respect than a woman in the same position.)

  • Fithian

    I think your statement was true in the 80’s, not anymore. I’ve worked with male and female bosses. My bosses for the last 9 years have all been women; Line Managers, Manager and Heads of Department, all women.
    The best boss I’ve ever had was a woman.
    None of them had to keep reminding us they were the boss. And this is in a role that is traditionally a Male dominated environment – Logistics.
    I doubt a woman running an off world facility would have to keep reminding her employees she was the boss in this day and age.

  • You would be wrong about that. Try talking to some women working today. Or check out this just-published article:

    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119239/transgender-people-can-explain-why-women-dont-advance-work

  • Graham Barnes

    BSG was a disappointment for me, no where as goos as the original.

  • Sarah

    I hate to say this as I was such a Stargate Atlantis fan and I am a huge sci fii fan, but Atlantis sucks now and I’ve given up because of the ridiculous story lines, too many boring ‘alternative universe’ episodes and enemies that are supposed to be so hard to kill yet now drop like flies!!!! Add on top of this all the actors from other sci-fi series that no longer air popping up just ruins it….. Now we at the moment a virtual reality doctor from TNG running Atlantis!!!! People die and silly story lines bring them back to life …. I would rather have a series that had one complete story line and an ending than this now continued [‘what story can we think of next’ ……… I loved this when it first came out with finding Atlantis and then the wraith were awesome and sent shivers up my spine, but slowly and surely Atlantis has gotten cheesy. ……. I used to enjoy Mckay but it is ridiculous how in every episode he comes up with impossible solutions to impossible odds and achieves things the Ancients could not with all their knowledge ….I looked forward to every episode but now I don’t bother….It is hard to know whether I’m watching Stargate Atlantis or SG1 !!!!! … Zero point modules are rare as hens teeth and impossible to find and suddenly the storyline changes and miraculously more are found when needed!!! For me now it is ruined I sorry to say …..

  • Redwood

    Atlantis is aboslutley shite compared to SG1 – too many annoying characters an also the whole setting is just stupid.

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