Background: As a long time fan of science fiction, I have often found the written word to be superior to Hollywood attempts to popularize the genre. This is particularly true with television shows since they are generally dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and geared to a mainstream audience (that is less critical on average). Given the limitations of the marketplace, I never expect a whole lot from television shows outside of simplistic fun but I really enjoyed a franchise over the last decade called Stargate, the main show SG-1, finishing up its lengthy run not long ago to be capped with a few direct to video movies as it passed the torch to the ongoing Atlantis. 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, the spin off series 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 I reviewed last year. Here's a slightly spoiler heavy quick review for this week's release of Stargate Atlantis: Season Four, noting that it presumes some familiarity with the franchise as a whole, as well as the previous three seasons you can read about here at DVD Talk.
Series: Stargate Atlantis: Season Four starts off resolving the cliffhanger of season three. The advanced replicators built by the Ancients had been fighting the Wraith in a unique manner, essentially taking a long term view and rapidly eliminating their food supply over direct encounters. Seeing as how that approach didn't sit too well said food supply (all sentient life in the Pegasus Galaxy), the members of the Atlantis team found reason to embrace the insane idea of working with the Wraith to end the replicator threat. The downside to that approach was, of course, that the Wraith were still going to betray the humans at some point in time and would still prove to be a threat. Since replicators can literally regenerate from a single building block (cell), any solution not wiping them out completely merely delays them too, their advance understanding of science handed down from the Ancients that have largely ascended to a higher plane of existence.
The major cast members of the show are 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, female Teyla, the gal that is most traveled in the region that they pick up early on in the first season as a guide to the various races of the region, Dr. Rodney McKay, the lead scientist of the expedition (whose sense of self preservation is buried in morgue humor but one of the sharpest minds of the franchise), 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.
As the season begins, Atlantis is in a bad way, having been forced off its world and into space by a powerful beam weapon deployed by the replicators. The strain on the zero point module (ZPM) used to power the city is too much and the city is adrift in space with a very limited amount of time to find a solution. As is the series standard, that places Rodney in the spotlight to figure something out in record time, resulting in a raid on the least likely of places, the replicator homeworld. Failed attempts to set off a computer virus to deactivate their dangerous tendencies and other interactions (see previous seasons) always led to negative consequences, this initial two parter Adrift and Lifeline being no different. Elizabeth moves from critical condition (having taken a near fatal blast) to a new role as an enhanced member of the team, her "upgrade" causing significant problems and another ongoing problem for future efforts even as she joins the strike team.
The immediate situation resolves itself, as expected, but also ends up with Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) in charge of Atlantis. As the smartest scientific problem solver of the entire franchise to date, her military background is tapped (pun intended) since the expedition is now so embattled in war; the Wraith on one side, the Replicators on the other, and various others willing to exploit the expedition in the wings. Her numerous exploits as a key member of the SG-1 team from the beginning, intellect, and ability to work military magic in terms of positive outcomes made her the perfect choice, though in one of the mid season episodes, The Seer, it is made clear that she was a compromise candidate heavily backed by some and heavily questioned by others. The stage set, the entire season seemed tasked with the theme of the Wraith Vs. Replicator War that was largely the result of the human interference in the first place. By the end of the season, both races are largely dealt with to minimize their threat levels; the replicators given the usual amount of possible return openings and the wraith greatly diminished as a result of their infighting over territory due to the food supply dynamic caused by the replicators.
The season was full of so-called "bottle" episodes too, shows that use stock effects and focus on a character or two in more intimate storylines such as the death of Sheppard's father in Outcast, Teyla and new cast member Dr. Keller (Jewel Straite) in Missing, or McKay and Sheppard acting as bodyguards to a bratty new monarch-to-be in Harmony (a particularly lame episode in my opinion). The back stories of the cast were again the focal point in some lower budget episodes such as Ronan running into some old war buddies in Reunion or Sheppard getting to introduce one of the highlight new groups of the season in Travelers (their return in Be All My Sins Remembered was among the best). The CGI-intensive episodes showed some of the budget issues as well but generally kept the pace moving so fast that fans will have little time to analyze the specifics in favor of the bigger picture matters that looked pretty nice on the small screen.
The other major arc of the season was the mystery of the missing Anthosians, starting off in the appropriately titled Missing, building up in the two parter The Kindred, and then ending the season with The Last Man. Much of that was built on actress Rachel Luttrell's real life pregnancy, the writer's making her character, Teyla, equally pregnant rather than hide it too long (with plenty of protective moments by her fellow teammates along the way). As expected, the villains had the most complex roles and were the most interesting characters of the season, two of the wraith, "Todd" and "Michael" standing out as among the best of the lot. Richard Woolsey (Robert Picardo) became a more commonly occurring character (soon to be even more so in season five) as the anal retentive IOA representative but the attempts to humanize him fell slightly short, his motivations clearer now though softening to the point where he still has untapped potential. Tapping herself was so underutilized that made me wonder if the writers didn't know how to use her while still over exposing McKay as the routine savior of the day, the shame of the matter being how strong a character she has proven to be in the past. The rest of the cast all stayed largely the same and only guest appearances by franchise heavyweights Teal'c (Christopher Judge) in a fun episode Midway (Ronen and Teal'c cut loose on a bunch of wraiths to save the day), and Dr. Beckett (Paul McGillion) in The Kindred adding some value for me as a regular watcher of the show.
My impressions of the season were obviously mixed, especially now that SG-1 series was over. Were the show to completely lose Teyla at this point, kill off her entire race, and never hear from them again; I'd be happier. The possibility that her character is better written is possible but the whole storyline behind her missing tribe only added to the weakness of what she was allowed to do so it's not like anyone seems to care about her on the production staff. Carter needs to be given room to grow too or moved back to Earth since she was another victim of the male-centric nature of the show. It will be old news to most of you reading this but the changes for season five will take care of some concerns while raising others. My opinion of the show is that there should be fewer filler episodes or at least make better attempts at using small scale stories if the budgets for the CGI intensive are going to be few and far between. For Stargate Atlantis: Season Four though, as a fan I still felt in warranted a rating of Recommended given the wealth of extras, including so many commentaries that shed light, albeit a lot of "read between the lines" light, by those involved.
Picture: Stargate Atlantis: Season Four 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 September 2007 to March 2008. The twenty episodes were on five discs, each providing a dual layer to accommodate the material as best they could in the MPEG-2 codec; heavily compressed and looking weaker than previous outings. The episodes all looked about the same as they did on my Time Warner cable (which looked pretty good but not as solid as last year's season) but I'm sure it will look better in blu-ray. The colors were accurate but there were a number of compression artifacts, the bitrate lower than expected most of the time, some blockage noted on darker scenes as well as significant grain in play way too often. It might be that the more material I watch in high definition, the tougher I rate this aspect of any new release but there is no doubt in my mind that the production spent less "on screen" this season or at least less in properly mastering it.
Sound: The only audio track was the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track using a 48 kHz sampling rate and 448 Kbps bitrate. It sounded better than my cable, providing nice separation between the channels and some headspace typically missing in older 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. There were subtitles in English, Spanish and French for those that care.
Extras: As expected, there were a wealth of commentaries, a number of which I have listened to completely. If you prefer commentaries by the directors, producers, and writers, you will like them a lot even though they had an overwhelming tendency to be the biggest cheerleaders for the show rather than offer balanced comments regarding where they fell short, what they wanted to do but couldn't afford, or otherwise show some bigger picture looks at the series. They did manage to explain some of the reasons why the show was taken in various ways but their quality varied greatly (and Amanda Tapping was almost as active in them as she was in her role as the expedition leader). The photogalleries were okay and the features generally well done too, adding some value beyond the mixed quality of the season.
The first disc had a special called Mission Directive: Doppelganger with Robert C. Cooper (looking closely at the dynamics of the episode), a short feature called A New Leader: Amanda Tapping joins Atlantis, and two photogalleries (one of drawings for the show and the other with an extensive number of shots both in front and behind the cameras). The second disc had a special called The Doctor is In: The Return of Paul McGillion (a nice short that left things open), more photogalleries, and a 7:07 minute long Blooper Reel (introduced by Martin Gero and Josepf Mallozzi. The third disc had another episode specific feature for This Mortal Coil by Will Waring (the director, as is usual for these features), and some more photogalleries. The fourth disc had Martin Wood give a look at the Quarantine episode in the Mission Directive series too, another with Andy Mikita on Outcast (this was especially interesting by the way), a more generalized Making of Trio, and more photogalleries. The fifth disc had a longer A Look Back at Season 4 featurette that was pretty decent; better than most of the season looks of the past, as it combined some of the background material with the things they were shooting for more flawlessly. There were also 21:20 minutes of deleted scenes (some good ones too) and photogalleries. Lastly, the back of the double disc thin pak holds had some basic episode information and all were contained in a cardboard box that provided some technical data.
Final Thoughts: Stargate Atlantis: Season Four kept the franchise alive and offered up more of the same stuff as augmented by the two movies released this year (the second coming out soon, my review forthcoming) and for those that like the characters as written, you will find this a selection of episodes mixed in quality but continuing the series for (hopefully) better days. The wraith were greatly weakened by the end and the replicator threat stopped for the moment, a disease of known origin sweeping across the galaxy wiping out many races becoming the new mass threat of the show. The need for new blood in the writing department was evident and while the basics were generally covered well enough, the show was not even close to the best the franchise has had to offer in the past. Loyalists aside, it will not be a good place to jump in for the uninitiated so watch the previous seasons before picking this up if you don't want to be missing out on much of the story.