THE Sci Fi Channel canceled “Stargate Atlantis” this month, less than halfway through its fifth season. And indeed, the episodes have been disappointing so far, with no new plot twists to enhance the show’s wormhole-jumping science fiction mythology. The big cast change -- adding “Star Trek: Voyager’s” Robert Picardo as the city’s new administrator -- hit with all the power of a phaser set on Blah.
But science fiction fans are loyal, even when our heroes are treading water -- the box office receipts for “Revenge of the Sith” prove that -- and the next batch of episodes in what is now “Atlantis’ ” final season do get better. Much better. In fact, the midseason two-part finale (airing at the end of September), features a very smart (very big) surprise.
I will miss “Atlantis,” mostly because of the Stargate -- one of pop culture’s great gimmicks -- which each week shows us life’s endless possibilities and the hope for a better existence. Possibilities are what make science fiction so addictive.
This doughnut-shaped device is capable of creating a stable wormhole -- a fold in space that allows near-instantaneous travel between planets. Forget warp drive. Just dial up an address, and off you go; phone home and you’re back in time for dinner. How cool is that?
“Atlantis” is the spinoff of “Stargate SG-1,” and posits that an additional point of reference enables gate travel between galaxies. The Pegasus galaxy, to be specific, where international scientists, doctors and military personnel explore new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations. Home base is the technologically advanced city of Atlantis, created and built by the Ancients, a race of near-supreme humans who built the Stargate system 10,000 years ago.
On the Sci Fi Channel, the series sits between the self-importance of “Battlestar Galactica” and the goofiness of “Eureka” -- the channel’s biggest hits -- but “Atlantis” feels most like the American older brother of the current “Doctor Who.”
It may not be as smart or as noble as “Star Trek,” but the “Stargate” franchise doesn’t take itself as seriously. And the ideas “Atlantis” specifically puts forth about present-day Earth and our travel into the void make it more important.
Because humanity may not be ready for its place among the stars, “Atlantis” says. This is the same smart idea that drove the pilot for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (but which was rarely mentioned again). On “Atlantis,” the people of Earth -- newcomers to a galaxy they do not fully understand -- are looked at as arrogant interlopers, and most of the show’s long-term plot lines began with problems they created.
The Atlantis expedition hadn’t even finished unpacking when it inadvertently revived the Wraith, a race of hibernating energy vampires dressed by Dita Von Teese hosting a galactic “What Not to Wear.” Michael -- a singular Wraith villain -- is a victim of human genetic testing, as they tried to “cure” the mutation that created his people. Now rejected as a freak, Michael has morphed into Pegasus’ version of Dr. Mengele, and his biological experiments threaten Wraith and human alike.
Michael is played by Connor Trinneer, from “Star Trek: Enterprise,” and “Atlantis” has cast heavily from other sci-fi series. In addition to Picardo and Trinneer, Jewel Staite (“Firefly”) is Atlantis’ head doctor, spouting medical techo-babble as well as any doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy” (but without the sparkly pager). Mitch Pileggi of “The X-Files” has a recurring role, as well.
The “Stargate” franchise is the longest-running science fiction series on American television, and both “SG-1" and “Atlantis” are better than the MGM movie. Other series -- from “The Starlost” to “Otherworld” to “Sliders” -- have used doorways to other worlds, but none quite as successfully.
Simply put, “Stargate Atlantis” is the best comic book television we have; not as well written as “Heroes,” but with more swashbuckling fun -- and with the American can-do attitude of a space-faring “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (an artifact that could possibly be found in the Pegasus Galaxy).
The new episodes of “Atlantis” continue to air until the end of 2008, with a finale set for the series’ 100th episode. The show will live on in syndication, and in original DVD movies (as “SG-1" has done successfully). A new “Stargate” series, “Stargate Universe,” with new characters, has been announced, and is set to premiere sometime in 2009.
In that new series, the cast is trapped on a ship at the edge of the galaxy, with no way to get back to Earth. That sounds a lot like “Star Trek: Voyager” -- the least popular of all the “Star Trek” spin-offs -- which spent seven seasons replaying the tragic notion that the crew was lost in space, unable to reach home. But sci-fi fans know how that turned out. Just ask Robert Picardo.