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Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I'm getting to know the "Stargate" saga MEMENTO-style, having first reviewed season 1.0 of the latest incarnation, "SGU: Stargate Universe", and now getting into the entire five-season run of "Stargate: Atlantis" (itself a spin-off of the original "Stargate SG-1") with MGM/Fox's deluxe new 26-disc DVD collection. While I enjoyed the newer series, I can now understand why most longtime fans prefer the rollicking, fast-paced space opera of ATLANTIS to the dark and dour UNIVERSE. To put it simply, STARGATE ATLANTIS: THE COMPLETE SERIES COLLECTION is just a whole lot of pure pulp sci-fi fun.

The action and adventure of the premiere episode "Rising" are under way almost before we know it, as we're introduced to and familiarized with the characters and premise in highly economical fashion. The Atlantis expedition travels via Stargate from Antarctica base to the Pegasus galaxy, where they inhabit the long-abandoned city of Atlantis itself. Surrounded by an ocean, the former home of the mysterious Ancients serves as a base of exploration via the many Stargates which are situated throughout the galaxy.

Complicating things is a race of loathesome alien creatures known as the Wraith, who once defeated the Ancients through sheer numbers and regard humans as nothing more than sustenance. And now that the Earth people have unwittingly awoken all of the hibernating Wraiths at the same time, that sustenance is suddenly in great demand. Not only does this increase their attacks on human populations in the Pegasus galaxy, but also raises the grave possibility that the Wraith may someday discover the location of Earth and its billions of inhabitants.

The Wraith are definitely one of the show's best features. Terrorizing the galaxy in their huge hive ships, these freaky human-insect hybrids feed on the lifeforce of humans whom they systematically abduct from their home planets during frequent "culling" raids. Like a cross between the Borg and a bunch of albino hair-metal headbangers (even their stun rifles look like futuristic guitars), the ruthless and warlike Wraith are alternately amusing and terrifying, and are hugely effective as an ongoing threat to the survival of Atlantis. Especially awesome are the seldom-seen Wraith queens, who have a "Wicked Witch of the West" kind of quality.

Compared to them, the Genii--a group of militaristic humans intent on both destroying the Wraith and conquering Atlantis so that they themselves can rule the galaxy--are a bit on the mundane side. A race of robots known as Replicators will prove a formidable (and more interesting) threat to humans and Wraith alike beginning in season four, using both nanite technology and Lantean hardware to wreak havoc in the Pegasus galaxy. These common enemies will lead to some interesting alliances between humans and Wraith in later episodes.

Episodes often begin right in the middle of the action and we catch up with what's happening on the fly. My favorites are the ones that take place in Atlantis or on board the Lantean shuttlecraft (dubbed "puddle jumpers") or Aurora-class starcruisers such as the "Daedalus." The planet stories tend to be less enthralling since our heroes usually visit small villages with primitive, superstitious agrarian societies, bringing to mind some of the hokier ST:TOS episodes. A major convention which viewers must accept is the fact that everyone in the galaxy speaks English, although the aliens speak it in a more formal style (they don't use contractions) in order to make them sound different.

With its lean storytelling style, SGA doesn't waste time with all the soap-opera stuff and navel-gazing that SGU's first season tends to get bogged down in. The show rarely even explores the typical romantic entanglements and other interpersonal complications that scriptwriters usually dote upon, concentrating more upon interesting moral dilemmas often brought about by the lack of a non-interference "Prime Directive" as seen in the "Trek" shows. Not to say that there aren't a lot of dramatic character moments, but the writers seldom indulge in bathos. Even the episodes in which major cast members are killed are handled with restraint.

The downside is that there are times in which I wanted to go deeper into the emotional aspects of a particular story, as in the episode entitled "Instinct." This story of a human father raising a female Wraith from childhood could've been a tearjerker on the same level as the ST:TNG episode "The Offspring" but that aspect is barely touched upon.

Torri Higginson is likable and convincing as civilian expedition leader Dr. Elizabeth Weir. She gets several opportunities to shine, especially in an episode such as "The Real World" in which Weir wakes up in a psychiatrict hospital on Earth and is told that her previous two years in Atlantis were only a trauma-induced delusion. She and Joe Flanigan also get to be badass bad guys when warring alien entities take over their bodies in "The Long Goodbye." As Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, Flanigan is well-cast as a laidback military type who is nevertheless a superlative soldier and leader. Sheppard is also a big kid at heart, with a sardonic sense of humor and a fondness for pushing Dr. McKay's buttons.

McKay is perhaps the most intriguing character on the show. As marvelously portrayed by David Hewlett, Dr. Rodney McKay is smug, arrogant, petty, and incredibly conceited; he's also self-conscious, insecure, and lonely. The most brilliant scientist and problem-solver in Atlantis, he's able to spout reams of technobabble like nobody's business as he thinks his way though a crisis. Despite his cowardly reputation and a tendency to complain non-stop, he often displays unexpected courage and compassion when the chips are down. Some episodes (most notably "McKay and Mrs. Miller" and "Miller's Crossing") explore McKay's sibling rivalry with his equally-brilliant sister Jeannie, played by real-life sister Kate Hewlett, and in season five there's the possibility that he may actually get a girlfriend.

As chief medical doctor Carson Beckett, Paul McGillion doesn't get much to do besides act concerned, be charmingly Scottish, and handle his assigned plot points. Only after a surprising major change in his character does Beckett start to get really interesting. In traumatic episodes such as "Sunday" his selfless compassion for his patients adds heft to his character, and he comes off as probably the most maternal character on the show.

Rachel Luttrell plays Teyla, an Athosian woman who joins the team after her people are transplanted to the Atlantis planet for safety from the Wraiths. (Thank goodness we don't see much of them after that, because they are a boring bunch.) Teyla's a buff-but-beautiful warrior babe who can be a kindhearted pacifist one minute while kicking major butt the next. She also acts as a liason between the Earthlings and many indigenous (and often boring) races with whom the Athosians have traded over the years.

Joining the cast in the season two episode "Runner" is Jason Momoa as Ronon, a tall, dark, and hostile Wraith-fighter who spent years being hunted by the creatures after his home planet was wiped out. Momoa, who will be playing Conan the Barbarian in the upcoming movie, is well-suited to the role of the taciturn loner with an anger management problem. Ronan replaces Rainbow Sun Francks' "Lt. Aiden Ford" character whom the writers correctly decided would be more interesting in a highly-altered recurring role. Other big changes in the main cast take place later in the series, but for the benefit of first-time viewers I won't reveal them here.

"Star Trek: Voyager" and "SG-1" regular Robert Picardo joins the cast late in the series as Richard Woolsey, a pusillanimous bureaucrat who considers himself a more suitable leader for the Atlantis expedition. Also crossing over from "SG-1" are Amanda Tapping as Colonel Samantha Carter, Richard Dean Anderson as General Jack O'Neill, and Beau Bridges. Jewel Staite co-stars as Dr. Jennifer Keller in seasons four and five, and Mitch Pileggi of "The X-Files" fame is a strong recurring presence as Daedalus commander Colonel Caldwell.

Guest-starring in various episodes throughout the series are T2's Robert Patrick, "Trek" alumnus Colm Meaney, David Ogden Stiers, Danny "Machete" Trejo, Jill Wagner, Mark Dacascos, Michael Beach, Dave Foley, Bill Nye the science guy, and HELL RIDE's Leonor Varela. Robert Davi makes several cool appearances as a ruthless Genii officer with a personal grudge against Sheppard, and Richard Kind shows up in two wonderfully comical episodes as Lucius, a con man who turns himself into a beloved hero in the eyes of his fellow villagers. Best of all is Connor Trinneer of "Star Trek: Enterprise" as Michael, a Wraith who is temporarily transformed into a human before reverting back to his former self. In several later episodes, Michael will become a huge threat to humans and Wraith alike as he plots his ultimate revenge against both.

SGA contains elements of shows such as "Star Trek" (especially DS9) and "Battlestar Galactica", with a dash of Irwin Allen. Dr. Beckett often harkens back to ST:TOS' Dr. McCoy with his initial reluctance to go through the Stargate and with familiar-sounding lines such as "I'm a bloody medical doctor, not a magician!" and "I'm a doctor, not a bloody fighter pilot!" After Sheppard spends the night with a gorgeous female Ancient in "Sanctuary", Dr. McKay exclaims, "Oh my god, he IS Captain Kirk!" In another episode, he jokes about a large parasitic bug being a "cling-on." Sheppard quotes STAR TREK IV as they leave their cloaked puddle jumper in "The Defiant One": "All right, let's remember where we parked."

Sly references to other films and TV shows abound. The opening sequence of "Instinct" is an obvious homage to AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON's ominous pub scene. "Duet", in which Dr. McKay and a disembodied female fight for control of his body, mimics the Steve Martin-Lily Tomlin flick ALL OF ME. Sheppard's slow metamorphosis into a human-insect hybrid in "Conversion" recalls Cronenberg's THE FLY, while "The Lost Boys" seems partially inspired by INDEPENDENCE DAY. BACK TO THE FUTURE is also invoked on occasion, as are THE MATRIX, STARSHIP TROOPERS, and the ALIEN series. And of course, there are numerous joking references to STAR WARS.

One of the show's major assets is the excellence of the SPFX. The CGI is more than satisfactory--in fact, it's better than in a lot of theatrical films I've seen and certainly superior for a TV show. Season one ends with a spectacular no-holds-barred Wraith attack on Atlantis ("The Siege" parts 1 & 2) that's pure, unadulterated sci-fi awesomeness. Season two's finale is another thrilling sequence that features a furious space battle between Wraith hive ships and Aurora-class battle cruisers, and subsequent season-enders are similarly intense. The eye-candy effects are wonderfully impressive, with various things blowing up real good all over the place.

All 100 episodes in this 26-disc DVD set from MGM and 20th-Century Fox are in 1.78:1 widescreen with English 5.1 and French Dolby surround (seasons 1-4) and English 5.1, Spanish and French Dolby surround (season five). Subtitles are in English along with (according to season) French, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and each episode is closed-captioned.

Special features on each disc include photo galleries, cast and crew commentaries for almost every episode, and a variety of featurettes too numerous to list but which cover every aspect of the show--actors, characters, crew, SPFX, production design, makeup, behind-the-scenes, interviews--in loving detail. Disc 26 contains even more extras. The sleek packaging consists of a large oblong box with a pull-out tray containing each season in its own folder. The only drawback is that taking the discs safely in and out of their little pocket slots requires some dexterity.

Younger viewers will have grown up with this sort of dazzling stuff on television, but for me, lavishly-mounted sci-fi entertainment of this caliber used to be available only on the big screen. So getting to watch the entire run of a TV series as fantastic as STARGATE: ATLANTIS via this awesome DVD collection is the perfect way to indulge my sweet tooth for spectacular shoot 'em up sci-fi. It's like a big, juicy slice of space-opera heaven.

Buy it at

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