It still boggles the mind that such a rich and resilient universe has spawned from a single, meagerly-successful summer blockbuster. Bear in mind, that's not a complaint; Roland Emmerich's original Stargate film strikes a satisfying blend of hefty military-driven science-fiction action, charismatic characters, (Egyptian) primitive flair and just-cheeky-enough humor to keep the energy alight, something that the handful of spin-off television series have repurposed successfully through the subsequent galaxy-hopping that's transpired through ancient transporter gates. Stargate: Atlantis marks the first of the universe's divergences without Colonel Jack O'Neil and Daniel Jackson as primary characters, though, and while it takes the series and its characters a little time to really get their footing, show creators Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper eventually filter all the things that hallmark Syfy's exhilarating franchise into a unique, eye-catching new environment with a bevy of fresh -- and some familiar -- faces.
At least you'll get to see O'Neil and Jackson (their TV iterations) early on in Atlantis, which first choppers over to Antarctica (circa SG-1's seventh-season finale) onto an icy outpost / dig site. There, the location of the lost city of Atlantis -- yes, that Atlantis, also a home to the same Ancients / Lanteans who created the Stargate travel technology -- unearths after some dizzying research and digging by a crackpot team of doctors, scientists, and military personnel, spearheaded by Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson). After they punch in the codes and leap into the at-hand Stargate portal, following a bit of confusion involving ancient genetics and the ability to launch missiles from a specific chair at the outpost, her team zips through the fabric of time and space into the submerged, technologically-advanced grottos and compartments of the city, which becomes their base of operations for exploration of the Pegasus Galaxy.
Leading the military wing of the expedition, a common fixture in the Stargate universe, is Lt. Colonel John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan), a charismatic fighter pilot who carries the barrage of a turbulent record-marring history in Afghanistan. He assembles an exploratory team -- which includes brainiac scientist Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett), who's hilariously both arrogant and spastic to a fault, as well as Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion), a even-keeled Scottish-accented physician -- to search the outlying planets for civilization and, more importantly, for energy sources to power the Atlantis base. That concern grows once the scientists start to tinker with the technology and discover that it can't operate fully without adequate generation from ZPM energy masses; their search becomes even more immediate once they discover a physical threat while visiting the outlying planet of Athos: the Wraith, a cogent pack of vampiric humanoids with regenerating bodies and abnormal strength. It's on Athos, though, that Dr. Weir's team also earns a pack of tribal allies, notably Teyla (Rachel Luttrell), a spiritually-charged warrior who quickly folds into the search party.
Immediacy, in fact, becomes the chief driver behind Stargate: Atlantis ... nearly every single episode of it. Never short on stakes, the series pivots on those sweaty fraction-of-a-second moments near the end of each forty-minute stretch -- and, oftentimes, long before that -- where it's a do-or-die scramble against the clock to stabilize the power-wobbly city of Atlantis or rescue several party members from impending doom, and they more often than not rely on that particular variety of technological jargon that ignores logical explanation. Never mind that Dr. McKay sports near-faultless knowledge of other-worldly technology, which can be legitimized, in a way, by his experience established in Stargate: SG-1. Overlook that the desperate Atlantis crew seems to have a gullible streak about a mile wide, especially when interacting with the sneaky, military-heavy Genii people on a neighboring planet. And turn a shoulder to the frequency of nail-biter, literally to-the-very-last-second show-stoppers, which occur far more frequently than they really should. If you just sit back and enjoy the ride, somewhat unthinkingly, it offers plenty of fun.
Showing only modest influence from the likes of O'Neil, Jackson, and precious Stargate crew members, Stargate: Atlantis pivots on the clearly-defined characters that navigate through these predicaments, and it suavely exploits -- and little by little defies -- the characters' archetypes. John Sheppard embodies the do-gooder, sarcastic rogue soldier to a fault, sporting a vein of recklessness that benefits missions far more than it hinders, while Dr. McKay's unsurpassed intellect and ego are reliably humorous instead of egregiously annoying (only feeling that way on a handful of obvious occasions). More importantly, Atlantis keeps tabs on how to gracefully reshape and incorporate characters to benefit the show's flow. At first, I wasn't crazy about Dr. Weir's stilted and tedious leadership, but she slowly develops into a sturdy, strong-willed character. You're also left thinking that something's missing with the main crew, a primal, tribal force to counterbalance the scientists and military bluntness, which is where Ronon comes in; played by brawny Jason Momoa, recognizable from Game of Thrones and Conan the Barbarian, he's a dreadlocked blade-wielding warrior whose people have been annihilated by the Wraith, which adds some animosity behind his desire for revenge once he enters the picture.
Stargate: Atlantis also knows -- in self-aware fashion -- how to use its outrageous high-stakes combustion of tech-heavy chatter and military explosiveness to create rip-roaring weekly adventures, similarly in tempo to classic and next-generation episodes of Star Trek. It leans heavily towards the fiction aspect of science-fiction when the writers exert their creativity, which is tolerabel at first but, admittedly, grows more ludicrous as it advances through the seasons, in narrative-defining ways that won't be revealed here. You'll see the full consciousness of one person trapped within the mind of one of the primary characters (on more than one occasion), David Cronenberg-esque transformations of humans into Wraith (and, eventually, vice versa), and a person's body preserved for 10,000 years whose later reanimated to reveal the details of her past life. What's exciting about these elements is that the series, more often than not, revisits them later on for additional narrative thrusts, instead of cramming them into episodes on a transitory lark.
Atlantis handles itself best, however, when it keeps these elements to a minimum and relies on diplomatic tension on neighboring planets. The consistent threat of the human-consuming Wraith maintains a dangerous atmosphere upon most of the planets that that the crew visits, where the people either mention their presence openly or refer to them as some kind of a mythical being. As expected, the locations that the survey crews travels to are an eclectic bunch that render varying degrees of primitive or quaint ways of life; some thrive on herbal medicines and bows-'n-arrows for defense, with archaic practices like suicidal rituals occasionally complicating the story, and others more technologically- and sociologically-advanced, such as the Genii and a particular group of Victorian-esque aristocrats. Some of the alien planets' ways of life seem purposefully severe for the sake of complicating the situation for Atlantis' explorers, but they're mostly handled with a straight face and a shrewd eye for momentum that masks any questionable pangs about their validity.
While executed with steady-handed production design, Emmy-nominated visual effects and music, and a fine thrust of suspense that's consistently engaging within the span of the episodes, Atlantis isn't as addictive as if could be out of the starting gate. It takes a season or so of weathering overblown action and some overstepped humor to really hone its strengths, which, as with many successful series, it eventually does; some of its catching energy comes from recurring plot elements that give it continuity, both to the original Stargate universe and to the series itself, while it also comes from spreading out its strengths -- smart and upbeat wittiness, a devil-may-care attitude, and an eclectic variety of people -- a bit more cohesively across the episodes. The series also manages to sneak in an homage or two and some palpable influence into the mix, from the Matrix Revolutions-like climax to the end of the first season to the consistent Star Trek (Beckett and Sheppard constantly mirror Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk), Star Wars, and other franchise nods. What was hamstringed at first slowly relaxes into an invigorating, natural-feeling mix, and the quality mostly continues through the series' conclusive backswing, even as Atlantis descends into a narrative paradigm shift late in the game.
Ultimately, Stargate: Atlantis is a heck of a lot of fun -- in measured doses. It's not a solemn scramble from an interplanetary threat like Battlestar Galactica, though it tosses the crew in a handful of complex political and ethical situations that challenge in a faintly familiar way, and it's not insulting to the viewer's intelligence when it zips through the connecting-of-dots of the ancient technology's capabilities (usually by either Sheppard, Teyla, or one of the other less-tech-savvy crewmen requiring a more reasonable explanation). Its surface-level indulgences become the reasons to keep returning to Syfy's spin-off; from watching McKay wig out under pressure and Sheppard gun-slinging while chomping down an energy bar to Ronon stoically making short work of the enemies that cross his path, hopping inside the Puddle-Jumper cruising ship and transporting to the expanses of the Pegasus galaxy keeps up the energy in a fashion reminiscent of its influences. While rough around the edges, sporadically a little inane, and somewhat hard-and-fast with its components, it's all worth stomaching for the sheer enjoyment that it gets right.
Click each link below for DVDTalk's extensive coverage of Stargate: Atlantis, season by season:
Season One, Season Two, Season Three, Season Four, Season Five -- Complete Series DVD
You needn't worry about any funky foldout packaging with this Stargate: Atlantis: Complete Series Blu-ray set, which houses all twenty (20) discs in simple, ergonomic tray cases with promotional artwork adorning the outside. The backs of each case contain a point-by-point description of the contents of each disc, coming together into a streamlined, highly-satisfying no-frills presentation. A flimsy cardboard slip box houses the typical blue cases, with Seasons One & Two in one, Seasons Three & Four in another, and Season Five in its own four-disc slim offering.
The menu designs use a backdrop of a stargate with a nifty grid-looking toggle at the lower portion of the screen, where you can access the episode listing and extras. In the "Episodes" function, there's a little bit of an ergonomic hiccup, though it's not one at the fault of programming (only generated by human error); at the menu, which reads "Play All, Play Episide, Play Episode with Commentary", the user can scroll through the episodes available on each disc, yet there's an inclination to automatically click on the button that says "Play All" without nudging down to the "Play Episode" option. Again, it's something that'll be on the user's shoulders, but it's an awkward design choice.
Video and Audio:
Each Blu-ray disc contains five episodes of Stargate: Atlantis, amounting to a little over three and a half (3.5) hours of footage crammed onto MGM's presentations of the high-definition broadcasts. That point considered, the collection of 1080p AVC treatments delivers a hearty visual punch that keeps a keen eye on fine detail, color saturation, and contrast, while showing negligible compression issues due to the overflowing digital content (occasionally hitting 30mbps, but on average hovering around 20-25). Slick cinematography captures healthy shimmers against clothing and the Wraith's skin, dense textures both around Atlantis and in the exterior shots of the outlying planets, as well as properly-balanced skin tones and facial textures in an assortment of close-ups. MGM's HD transfers scale between satisfyingly robust to impressively crisp, making sure to preserve detail in shadowy sequences and the range of motion either in standard viewing mode or at 24fps. You'll see some aliasing in the earlier visual effects and heavier noise that appears inherent with the actual source, but otherwise everything here looks exceedingly good.
Equally dynamic and satisfying, the assortment of DTS-HD Master Audio tracks also stay true to the sci-fi series' boisterous roots, preserving the robustness of explosions and the aggressive crescendos and decrescendos of the vigorous scoring. Surround elements frequently travel to the rears, from gunfire and blasts to the sweeping of ships during dogfights, while the more forceful elements from the front channels telegraph a furious punch that makes modest but satisfying use of the lower-frequency channel. Verbal clarity remains consistent audible, if a bit suppressed at times, though you'll hear some slight pitch issues when the Wraith start talking, though that's likely on the recording side of things instead of a fault on the Blu-ray tech side. Most everything, however, streams through properly-balanced and intense to the ears, with a few punchy effects that'll generate some excitement in high-definition. Unfortunately, though there's a menu available to toggle audio and subtitles, only the English DTS-HD Master Audio track and English SDH subs accompany this release.
Fans of Stargate: Atlantis will have no shortage of content to explore, though said fans have likely already mined through the collection of supplements available here, as it's all repurposed from the DVDs already available. While the packaging exclaims that there's over fifty (50) hours of bonus features on the discs, a true figure, most of that comes in the assortment of Cast/Crew Commentaries scattered across the seasons -- which are on well over half the episodes. The Mission Directives pieces take fairly in-depth glimpses at production, story, and characters elements with producer Robert C. Cooper, usually segmented into specific episodes for their content and lasting at around fifteen (15) minutes per installment. Also included are the Set Tours, Deleted Scenes, Profile On segments with the actors who portray the show's characters, and many other assorted video materials that dissect stunts, visual effects, and other character/episode-based discussions (ones that would spoil some of the surprises if discussed too much here).
For more in-depth analysis of the features, please refer to DVDTalk's extensive coverage of the supplements: Season One, Season Two, Season Three, Season Four, and Season Five.
Fans of brisk, action-based science-fiction and of the Stargate universe in itself will have a good time with Stargate: Atlantis, Syfy's post-SG-1 spin-off. It discovers a new, macabre threat in life-sucking Wraiths, drops the adventure in a cleverly-designed location that taps into the universe's roots, and follows the episodic framework of navigating planets in search of diplomacy and action with a clear eye for what the series does right: has a load of fun. More energetic than stimulating on an intellectual level, it'll satisfy within the familiar Stargate framework by utilizing fresh faces and cleverly-written scenarios. MGM's Blu-ray collection of the entire series delivers the series with suitably solid audiovisual merits and a wealth of recycled special features, including tons of commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, and other worthwhile goodies to explore. Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site