Tuesday, September 23, 2008

How can an individual episode of a television show be a metaphor for the franchise in it's entirety? That can't be right. I've just watched the sixth episode of the fifth season of Stargate Atlantis, The Shrine, and it blew me away. In it Doctor McKay contracts funky space Alzheimers, slowly losing his mind and intelligence until, in order to give him one more day with his faculties returned before he dies, the team find a source of radiation that, wouldn't you know it, allows them to cure him. Set over about three weeks, the episode is interspersed with clips from a daily video diary that McKay makes to keep track of his degeneration and we see him slowly forgetting more and more, and reacting to his situation in a number of ways, humour, abuse, embaressment, anger and fear.

The reason it seems like a metaphor for Stargate in total is that watching the entire thing has been like watching a dear family member succumbing to senility. All right, so the first season of Stargate wasn't so good, but over the next three or four years it started to specialise in some intelligent and solid script-writing. But then, around about series six, it started changing. One season started with a clear mandate, to save Earth from what was threatening it this time round, the Stargate team had to find an ancient city. They then proceeded not to do this for the rest of the season until the finale, when they suddenly found it and defeated the big bad. Only for him to return at the end of the following season so he could be defeated again. By now the stakes were so high that entire episodes would be spent being completely trashed by the enemy, only to just about survive at the end of the episode, only to do the same the following week. Nabbing a couple of Farscape escapees managed to slow but not stop the rot. And with Atlantis, what admittedly limited promise we had in the early days has now turned into a revolving door of mysterious illness, Wraith and Replicators, an enemy that were good before they were defeated in some fifty different episodes.

But this episode, using standard Stargate Atlantis plot #4, is a little different. It's become something between a truism and a joke that actors play terminally ill or mentally divergent characters to win awards but David Hewlett really does deserve something for his work this week. Dr McKay is something of a limited role, this week Hewlett got the chance to show what he could do and his portrayal of McKay, near the end and reduced to almost nothing, is heartbreaking. Despite the fact that we know that McKay will be fine before the credits roll he commits totally and I don't think anyone who appreciates drama would fail to be moved.

But once the credits roll, we know that it will probably be back to the same old shit next week and that this will probably prove to be a moment of the old genius in a sea of mediocrity. And I'll keep coming back, because even if it doesn't recognise me any more, I feel a duty to the old franchise for the times it did make me happy.

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