Background: Science fiction shows on television tend to go through cycles like most other genres. Every few years, there is a boom of new shows before the inevitable changing of tastes takes over and the next shows are either medical, cop, or what have you. One of the longest ongoing science fiction shows is called Stargate SG-1, marking its tenth anniversary this year and about to end its reign as the plug is pulled. The premise is that an ancient civilization built a system of concentric rings on plants to facilitate travel to the stars nearly instantaneously, including our own. The original movie and television series were pretty similar in this regard but the viewer finds out over time that most of the religions on Earth are based on alien races that visited here via the gate system, some markedly less benevolent than others. Over the course of the series, various allies and enemies make their appearance, with a specific team leading the charge into the fray. Well, a spin off series called Stargate Atlantis emerged from season seven of the show; setting up a whole new dynamic with the popular franchise. The premise is that our scientists have found a way to boost the Stargate connection to go even further than usual, to the Pegasus system (typically beyond the reach of the stargates due to massive power requirements) where they are hoping to find more alien technology in order to continue fighting an increasingly dangerous foe (or at least keep the enemy from getting his hands on the stuff). Initially, this means a one way trip with little hope of getting home anytime soon (as documented in the first season review) but a large team of specialists are assembled in order to study whatever is found, sadly awakening yet another dangerous race of aliens; this time called The Wraith.
The Wraith feed on humans by sucking out their life energy much like we associate with the legends of vampires. Most of them are in large ships in a state of suspended animation until the waking process is prematurely initiated by the humans, endangering all life forms in this new quadrant of the galaxy. Needless to say, the morally superior humans now have to figure out a means to stop the Wraith from eating them, stop them from obtaining the technology of the Ancients that built the stargate system (as well as the lost city of Atlantis named in the title), and stop them from learning where Earth is so they don't become the next target on the list of feeding grounds. To be frank, the first season was in great need of fine tuning which is why I appreciated some of the changes made in the sophomore season set being reviewed here today.
Series: Stargate Atlantis: Season Two starts off with the usual bang the original series was known for. Each season tends to end with a massive cliffhanger that needs to be mostly resolved by the end of the hour (nothing like a bit of pressure, eh?). In this case, the Wraith had been alerted to the presence of Atlantis being powered up and the home to the human enemy that was trying to mess with their ages old cycle that called for culling of sentient beings at regular intervals. The threat to their way of life established, the wraith congregate in orbit above the planet to attack after the Dadealus tries to stop them armed with some nukes and a cunning little plot assisted by the Asgards. Like all plans initiated in the first part of an arc, it fails (technically, it succeeded on a small scale before they had to bow out) so a new plan is devised to make the enemy think the humans would not allow the city of Atlantis to fall into enemy hands; blowing it up with a nuke instead.
Well, things don't exactly work out as planned and a secondary thread from the first season involving Lt Ford's wraith infection becomes an ongoing issue too. With one of the lead team gone for the moment, it isn't long before a new cast member joins up in the form of Ronen Dex, a survivor of a wraith attack that was also a test experiment for their sport (in a take off of The Most Dangerous Game, the wraith use the experienced fighter to test their warriors for their worthiness). He is short tempered and doesn't care for the subtlety of civilized life having been on the run from the wraith so long; killing every one of them he could in the process of their hunting him. Armed with knives, guns, and a superior will to live and resourcefulness, he joins female Teyla, the gal that is most traveled in the region that they pick up early on in the first season, Dr. Rodney McKay, the lead scientist of the expedition (whose sense of self preservation is buried in morgue humor), and leader Lt. Colonel John Sheppard; the military leader of the expedition that usually leads the safaris the group needs handled. Led by Dr. Elizabeth Weir, the mission moves from exploration to providing a front line in fighting the wraith and keeping them at bay, all while fighting off other foes that would do them harm.
Personally, I liked the way season two came together better than the opener did. The loss of Ford, who was a token in many senses of the word, was a great idea and the dynamic between Sheppard and McKay was always a treat to watch. The elevation in status of Dr. Beckett, the lead medical man and also a scientist of stature, made a lot of sense too since he and McKay had a lot of chemistry as they bickered back and forth. The usual plot structure was followed with the spin off series as the original; a problem would arise in the first few minutes of the episode, the team would try to figure out a way to solve it, and then things would get worse before the solution magically arrived in the nick of time. Again like the original, the solutions were sometimes stopgap in nature and meant sacrifices or other issues that would need to be addressed but ultimately the time tested formula seems to work well, especially in the longer arcs that allowed for more character development and a bigger bang for the buck.
One of the longer threads of the season was the medical experiment using Ford's condition to "cure" the wraith, ultimately tying into the season closing cliffhanger as a result, but there were some notable guest appearances by other science fiction regulars (including cast members from the original show once the engines of the Dedealus are ramped up to allow for regular, though long, journeys between the two star systems. That allowed for a better means by which the stories could interact with the main show as well as provide for different crew members getting into specific types of situations, greatly expanding the versatility of the show's transportation dynamic. The acting was better and the writing seemed to employ a bit more variations on the theme from the usual plot devices that had been done to death on the original show (though the frequent "Dr. McKay saves the day" genius idea did get too much coverage; it's long been a writer's dilemma when faced with a smart cast member to use them too much; Wesley Crusher anyone?).
The season closed on another cliffhanger in Allies, built up by the Michael episode using the retrovirus as a biological weapon, and the return of the low tech but highly motivated Genii in Coup D'etat was solid, though the moralistic underpinnings of the drug metaphors in The Lost Boys and The Hive were mixed blessings at best. Not knowing how best to use Lt. Ford as a human sure didn't help using him as a part wraith either, making most of his episodes the weakest of the bunch when looked at closely but for character development, the episodes that focused on individuals like Sheppard in Epiphany or McKay in Grace Under Pressure were superior in many ways; offering insight as to where the creative team wanted them to be at during the season (essentially, while often reverting temporarily, all of the main characters grew by leaps and bounds from their initial roles at the beginning of the first season). I saw many of the episodes when they aired so I ended up watching all of them, with or without the commentaries that graced EVERY SINGLE EPISODE, lending some insights as to what the cast and crew were going for that sometimes slipped past me when originally watching the show as it aired on cable by virtue of the "oh, we had to cut this" or "we wanted to leave this open to interpretation", or "this was implied" type of comments. For me then, the boxed set was clearly worthy of Highly Recommended status as it helped revive some of the magic that was lost in the original show by this point (not just from the lack of the O'Neil character but that was definitely part of it since Ben Browder, as great as he was in Farscape, simply didn't work as well). If you like science fiction television shows, this and Battlestar Galactica are by far the best things on TV these days by a wide margin (on multiple levels too-from the allegories to the straightforward plot structures, though BG is deeper, grittier, and more intriguing).
Picture: Stargate Atlantis: Season Two was presented in the original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color as shot for broadcast on the Sci-Fi cable channel; this season airing between July 2005 to March 2006 (they love those weird seasons on the channel). The twenty episodes were on five discs, each providing a dual layer to accommodate the material as best they could to leave them looking good. The episodes all looked better than they did on my Time Warner cable (which looked pretty good to begin with) and due to the fact that the show is shot on HD video, it translated better than most film projects seem to (for all those gobbledygook reasons the techno-babble heads can tell you about at length). The colors were accurate and if anything, it looked like the budgets were larger in the second season so it looked better all around, especially in the many special effects like large space battles and the like.
Sound: The primary audio track was the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track. It sounded much better than my cable, providing nice separation between the channels and some headspace typically missing in TV shows I get to review. The best use of the channels were during the many action sequences, though a few of them seemed under powered or off in slight ways, but even in some of the dialogue portions where characters were in a large room; you could place them by sound rather than just by looking at the screen (pretty cool since this usually only happens in high end movies). The music built upon the themes of both series nicely, the score providing the kind of suspense and build up needed to make the action all the better. I spot checked the 2.0 channels, the French sounding the weirdest since the voice actors were practically reading it from a script and the subtitles in English and Spanish seemed reasonably accurate to me (my Spanish is largely limited to porn dialogue but I picked up enough to figure it out as being decent).
Extras: First of all, the best extras in terms of adding something for fans would be the 20, that's right, TWENTY, audio commentaries by the cast and crew. I'm still working my way through them all but some of the cast were hilarious and I hope to see more of their comedic talents used in the future. The anecdotes and added descriptions of the parts that were cut or left out for various reasons also added some fun for me as a fan of the show; hinting at places the show's creators have been looking to go (some bits already used in season three and four for example) or working through as part of the larger picture, with some surprises in store once the main series ends later this year. Each of the five discs also had multiple production and photo galleries to offer fans; my own tastes leaning in favor of the production work but the features and Mission Directives provided a lot of laughs and interest too. The Mission Directives (3) allowed directors Peter Deluise, Martin Wood, and Andy Mikita a chance to explain particular episodes in depth. These were accompanied by several featurettes like one focusing on the new character Ronon Dex (perfectly cast by Jason Momoa) to explain his character more fully. The funniest one was a feature on writer Martin Gero trying to be an actor (playing it so deadpan that I was in stitches at how the others treated him) though to be fair, the feature on David Hewlett (Dr. McKay) was exceptionally amusing too. The Paul McGillon (Dr. Beckett) was fun, though slightly different in tone and the stunts feature was about as average as the extras came here.
Final Thoughts: Stargate Atlantis: Season Two could have succumbed to the dreaded sophomore slump that far too many shows fall prey too yet not only did it rise to the occasion, it actually surpassed a number of episodes running concurrently on the main show at the time (and I like them a lot). The third season struck me as another step forward in the saga but one of the benefits of the show on DVD is the lack of commercials and the way you can check a lot more details than if waiting for months on end to see a plot line continue. In general, the also show also provides enough background to establish the majority of what is taking place (the beginning of the episodes usually have a short recap to remind viewers of pertinent details) for newcomers too though you'll soon find yourself wanting to run out and pick up the newly cheaper (MSRP went down) volumes of the main series as well as the first season to fill in all the details.