by Taylor Brown
"Looks like we're not getting out of this ..."
After watching the never-ending stream of promos for Stargate Atlantis, I was intrigued about how this new Stargate SG-1 spin-off would turn out. Would the show be worthy of an extra hour of sitting down in front of the TV on Fridays? Would it live up to the Stargate name? After watching the two-part premiere, "Rising," my answer for both of those questions is an emphatic yes!
The most important job of a pilot episode of any new show is to introduce new characters. In "Rising" we're given a little taste of who these people are, but not their entire life history. In a genius move of casting, the producers chose Joe Flanigan (who might one day give Michael Shanks a run for his money as the "Young Lord of the Internet") as Major John Sheppard. Eerily Jack-like in his speech and disregard for the chain of command, plus gifted with the gene of the Ancients, the Sheppard character is a good addition to the show. His greenness to the Stargate program serves as a help to those viewers who haven't been watching SG-1.
Elizabeth Weir (version two, now played by Torri Higginson) grew on me more in "Rising" than in SG-1's premiere, where she struck me as flat and annoying. Fortunately, her personality and determination to be a leader makes her seem less like a two-dimensional character and more like a person in Atlantis. I also took an immediate liking to Dr. Beckett, the good doctor from Scotland, both for his "It could be lunch-related" comment and for his panic over activating the drone. We also learn that Lt. Ford has had prior Stargate experience and that he's a bit of a joker, but unfortunately not much else.
Rodney McKay is back, and while he's still the same McKay we saw in "48 Hours" and "Redemption," he holds his own as a scientist and a member of the team.
Teyla and her people have now come to live in Atlantis and can offer knowledge about the Wraith, but the creatures still remain mysterious. Unfortunately, both Teyla and the other Athosians creep into clichéd alien territory, where everything has a story from "the ancestors" and she can magically "feel" the Wraith, without explanation. But that may change as we learn more about them.
"Rising" has some nice overlap from SG-1, with both Jack and Daniel making important contributions to the new show. Daniel once again figures out the correct way to dial the gate and Jack helps convince Sheppard to go on the expedition. However, Atlantis is not Stargate: The Next Generation. The producers wisely made ties between the two shows, but did not make it a carbon copy of SG-1. They share a universe and a common story about the Ancients, but Atlantis must function entirely on its own. Even in the first episode, it has become something quite different than SG-1. The champagne from General O'Neill will probably be the last thing we'll see from the Milky Way for some time.
The new bad guys of Atlantis are the Wraith. Unlike the Goa'uld, their evil comes from a biological imperative to eat. The Wraith don't enslave humans, but suck the very life out of them with their slimy hands, treating us all as a snack. The female Wraith is creepy because of her foreboding insistence to Colonel Sumner that "all living things must eat." The rest of the Wraith characters or their faceless guards are less impressive. If the Wraith are to succeed in being good antagonists to the Atlantis team -- and simply be scary in general -- they've got to be more than mindless life-suckers.
It was pretty obvious, even without reading spoilers ahead of time, that Colonel Sumner would be killed off in this first episode. He's not compatible with the rest of the team, and seems to be there to introduce Sheppard's aversion to the chain of command. Robert Patrick is a great actor, and I really hoped that I would have felt worse when the Wraith sucked him of his life -- but the character didn't have time to develop into anything more than a classic, two-dimensional military man.
Visually, "Rising" is stunning. From the set design to the direction to the amazing special effects shot of the city lifting out of the ocean, the visual effects and cinematography are consistently impressive. Director Martin Wood starts with off with beautiful wide shots of the helicopter over Antarctica, and finishes with the big fight scene between the puddle jumper and the Wraith darts. The shot of the drones circling towards the Wraith dart and exploding near the space-borne Stargate will absolutely become a classic shot for this series. The lighting was very well done, almost becoming a character itself. Atlantis out of the water is filmed as warm and glowing, while the Wraith planet is blue and cold.
We've come to expect these great visuals from this crew, but I was pleasantly surprised by the writing. Pilot episodes can often be filled with a lot of unnecessary material. While a lot of the dialogue is used for exposition, it's set up well so the audience can learn as much as they can about these characters. The scene between Sheppard and Weir on the balcony not only shows what these characters believe, but how they both operate as leaders. This is a dynamic of which I want to see more. It's also clear from "Rising" that Sheppard will be getting a good number of the one-liners ("Now I'm thinking about a nice turkey sandwich" or "I'm from a galaxy far, far away").
As a pilot episode, "Rising" gives viewers a lot of hope for the series to come. The writing, acting, and direction were all solid and set up a universe ripe for exciting and interesting stories. If the creators of Atlantis can keep the overall quality up to this level, it's going to be a great show.
Rating: * * * *