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Stargate Atlantis cast reunites to remember just how popular Stargate Atlantis was

‘We walked out and there was like a football field full of people, and I was so hungover that I couldn’t speak’

Photo: MGM Television

It’s been 12 years since Stargate fans travelled to the Pegasus Galaxy with Syfy’s Stargate Atlantis. The spinoff of the network’s Stargate SG-1 (itself a spinoff of of Roland Emmerich’s 1994 film Stargate) introduced a new team of soldiers and military personnel who journeyed through the Stargate to the distant Pegasus Galaxy to an advanced city left abandoned by the Ancients (an early race of advanced humans). There, they met a dangerous new enemy, the Wraith.

At this year’s virtual San Diego Comic-Con, the cast of the show came together for a panel discussion that looked back on the series. Moderated by David Read of YouTube channel the Dial the Gate, the reunion included David Hewlett (scientist Rodney McKay), Torri Higginson (expedition leader Elizabeth Weir), Rachel Luttrell (Athosian leader Teyla Emmagan), Paul McGillion (medic Carson Beckett), Rainbow Sun Francks (Marine Lt. Aiden Ford), David Nykl (scientist Radek Zelenka), and Robert Picardo (IOA oversight representative and expedition leader Richard Woolsey).

Read kicked off the chat by checking in with the actors to see how they’d weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and what they’ve been up to, before looking back on the show that brought them all together: “is that hard to believe that fans are still into [Stargate Atlantis] almost as fervently as when it was airing [17 years ago]?”

Hewlett noted that people don’t say that “hey, you’re on that show,” they say “hey, you’re on that show my parents used to watch!” and Nykl noted that the pandemic has made it harder to connect with fans outside of conventions — everything’s been held on Zoom. He also noted that there’s been some persistent chatter about the Stargate franchise returning after the news that Amazon purchased MGM, which he pointed to as evidence that fandom was thriving. That said, he said that he hadn’t heard anything official about the future of the franchise.

“It is amazing at how it’s survived and thrived,” Higginson broke in. “I think SG-1, which went for [10] years, that did a lot of the cementing of that franchise. To me though, it seems amazing that it’s 17 years — it feels longer to me. It feels like another life ago.”

Read moved on to Picardo, asking him if he knew what he was getting into when he joined another science fiction franchise (he was probably best known for playing EMH in Star Trek: Voyager) late in Stargate SG-1’s run: “was part of you like do I want to be known for science fiction — and only science fiction?”

Picardo noted that it was important to have had a number of roles before getting into science fiction. “Let’s face it — after seven years on Star Trek in my 40s, I was pegged as a science fiction guy. There’s no turning it around after that. You have a dedicated audience that really only knows you from that. So I had no illusions about that.” He noted he was mainly interested in seeing how fandom responded, and explained that he rarely comes across a Star Trek fan who hasn’t seen Stargate, and vice versa. “It certainly goes both ways. For me, the odd part was just playing a character who was introduced and was so unpleasant, and then when they said they wanted to turn me into a leader, I thought, everyone hates me — I have no personality, I’m a coward, no leadership skills, and I’m a douchebag.”

But playing a character that would basically reinvent himself in the later stages of his career was what made it fun for the actor. “To start that job in my middle 50s and have to become a leader at that stage in life was a good analogy for what was happening after the financial meltdown in 2007 where there were a lot of people my age and older who had to go back into the workforce, so I thought it was an interesting time to play a character like that.”

When MGM debuted Atlantis, Stargate SG-1 had already been on the air for five years. “You were the upstarts,” Read posed to Luttrell “you had something to prove, how did it feel to jump into this whole thing, and as an alien?”

Luttrell noted that she jumped into the show unaware of the larger story. She’d seen the original Stargate film and enjoyed it, but didn’t know anything about SG-1. “I came in completely naive,” she said. “I think that was really good, because I didn’t feel the pressure to take on this enterprise and huge fandom. It took me probably until episode 5 before I realized the impact of Stargate and I’m happy about that. Once I did, the pressure did settle in.”

Stargate Atlantis: The gate opens Image: MGM Television

She said that that fandom really came into focus when she attended her first convention with the cast — San Diego Comic-Con. Higginson and Hewett broke in and noted that they’d been given plenty of free liquor by the studio the night before, and endured some intense hangovers the next day. “I thought no one’s going to be at that convention because they’re all mad at us because we were killing SG-1,” Higginson recalled, “and then we walked out and there was like a football field full of people, and I was so hungover that I couldn’t speak.”

“I remember being terrified,” Luttrell said. “I remember sweating so much on stage. It was so overwhelming.”

Nykl noted that actors typically aren’t prepared for that sort of fan reception. “You have to sort of develop a third person,” he said. “It’s like your private self, then your character that you play on TV, and a hybrid version of you on stage before 700 people. It was really daunting.”

From there, Read brought out some questions from his viewers: the first out of the gate was “What was part of your character that you loved?”

Luttrell said that she loved all aspects of her character — I loved that they managed to craft a character that was a strong, independent, intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate — a multi-tiered, multi-leveled human being.”

Nykl noted — after some ribbing from his fellow cast members — that his character was created to ensure that Hewlett’s character didn’t have all of the scientific monologues, “they wanted a Mutt and Jeff routine.”

“[Our characters] were good at banter,” Hewett noted. “They loved their banter. I loved the scenes whenever you got a couple of characters bantering back and forth. That was the appeal to Game of Thrones for me — apparently they made the shows too short and so they had to go back and figure it out. They just knew that you could have some fun with that.”

“And characters,” Nykl pointed out. “You can go high concept in space and wormholes and all that, but when you get behind the characters and start knowing their stories, that’s what brings you to it.”

“They’re all relatable too,” McGillion added. “Everyone can relate to certain characters, like with the fighting characters like [Aiden] Ford, and Teyla, and then Jason [Momoa] when he was on the show, that aspect of it, and then like both Davids, people could find a character that they related to, and I think that’s why people were really drawn towards it.”

“I was always fond of Ford’s relationship with Shepard,” Read noted. “There was a mentor-mentee quality there, even in that single scene in the beginning of season 5 where he’s dreaming of Tayla and Ford smashes into his mind and said ‘hey, I’m over here, you didn’t rescue me, you failed, you’re not as perfect as you might think.’”

Robert Picardo on Stargate Atlantis holding a suit up in front of a mirror Photo: MGM Television

Francks recalled that it was fun to return — the writers wrote him in for a quick scene, and he was happy to take the paycheck. “But let’s not overlook Ford’s relationship with Paul and Rachel,” he added. “Those moments were really special to me. We laughed so much.” Luttrell noted that they almost couldn’t be near each other because they would make themselves laugh so much.

The puddle jumper scenes were particularly fun for the group. McGillion recalled that they’d often be told to react to something like an asteroid coming at them. “We were like, ‘How big is it?’ Someone would jump like two feet, and Joe [Flanigan] would like move over a little bit.”

“‘That was so BORING!’” Nykl said, imitating the common feedback. “‘Do that again but this time with more talent!’”

“That’s one of the standard problems when you get your first job in science fiction, relating to the off-screen visual effect that you’ll never see.” Picardo said. “ The first time that happened to me on Star Trek was when I was supposed to be battling … some monster on the holodeck, and I was like ‘what does it look like?’ The visual effects guy kind of said ‘Kind of like a giant pile of glowing linguine.’

“It’s like everyone doesn’t want to look stupid by going [mimed wide-mouthed surprise],” he continued, “but it looks equally stupid if there’s this ridiculous terrifying thing and you sort of go eh.”

“It is this journey of trust that you have to have,” Higginson noted, “and that’s why the second season is so much easier, because you watch it and you’re like, ‘OK, those guys are doing some good stuff,’ and I can come at it without this pride and ego getting in the way.”

Read asked the panelists what memories stood out after all this time. Hewlett recalled all of the time they spent running in and out of puddle jumpers trying to get a seat, or who would get to cross their arms in a scene on the control deck.

“Don’t forget the tables on the control room — whenever there was an evacuation, there was that frickin’ thing that stuck out the side of it that would get you right in the lower…”

“I’m amazed I had a child!” Hewlett said. “What I loved about it is that the cast had a sense of humor about it. They all took it seriously enough to do the job well, but at the same time, we’d just, we laughed. Of all the stuff I remembered was the belly laughs where you couldn’t stop.”

The most exciting thing that’s come out in recent years, Hewlett said, is the forthcoming Stargate RPG game, which he’s been playing. Through the Dial the Gate channel, Hewlett, Francks, Alexis Cruz (Skaara on SG-1), Simon Bailly (Ka’lel on SG-1), David Blue (Eli Wallace on Stargate Universe), and Julie McNiven (Ginn on Stargate Universe) played together for a charity event last year. “I had no preconceived notion of what it was,” Francks said, “I’d never played D&D but had always wanted to, and when we did it, I had the time of my life.”

Closing out, Nykl asked what the rumors were about the franchise returning now that MGM had been picked up by Amazon. Read explained that there’s a series that’s been in development, but there hasn’t been any word on its status. “I can’t imagine, having, certainly, having me in it,” Hewlett said, “but it just seems crazy not to have — it’s such an iconic franchise. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t relaunch it in some way shape or form.”