As a season finale, ‘The Last Man’ was Stargate Atlantis’ most thrilling yet. Exploring a bleak future for our heroes, it pitted McKay and Sheppard against the immensity of Time itself in an attempt to set matters straight. And even managing that may not be enough!
Director Martin Wood, charged with bringing the episode to the screen, was himself bowled over by the concept.
“When I first picked it up I thought, ‘Oh, this is a Sheppard story,’â€ he recalls. “Then as I read on I went, ‘No, it’s not, it’s a Sheppard and McKay story. There’s a lot of McKay in this.’ And then as I kept reading I thought, ‘This is really cool because it looks on the face of it to be one story – it looks like it’s about this last man, but it’s actually about the two last men.’ The fact that one of them is a hologram notwithstanding, it’s about two of our heroes. I really thought it was interesting because it wasn’t immediately obvious that our team was in jeopardy. One person was in jeopardy and then a second person – but then you realize that the team has gone.â€
Seeing the slow destruction of the team is really very poignant – a classic Stargate-style look at an unhappy future as it pertains to the characters we have followed for so long. Much of the episode’s action comes from the telling of those ends, in scenes that flash back over a number of years. The scope of ‘The Last Man’ could have been daunting, but veteran director Wood took it all in his stride.
“It was actually a very straightforward episode to shoot, which is good because at the end of the year everyone is always tired. In the past what we have done is juxtaposed the second to last and the last show just because the second to last tends to be a big show. But in this case we didn’t, we just said, no, it’s fine, we can do it in a normal shoot.â€
Atlantis itself obviously looked very different 40,000 years into the future. In fact, as the original script had it, it would have looked even more altered.
“In the original script Sheppard came out of the gate and looked at a frozen planet,â€ the director explains. “I had just finished looking at a cut of [the Stargate SG-1 movie] ‘Continuum’, the day I read ‘The Last Man’.â€ It’s no secret that ‘Continuum’ features a lot of action taking place in Antarctica, and for Wood, the similarities were a little too obvious right off the page. “I said, ‘This might be a little too close to the bone.’ Brad [Wright] agreed and so did Paul [Mullie], and they all said, ‘Okay, let’s not make it a frozen planet then.’â€
Wood admits that had the script gone ahead as originally planned, it’s very likely that the fans would not even have noticed a similarity.
“Honestly, the audience wouldn’t see it like that, because they have six months between the time that they watched ‘The Last Man’ and the time that Stargate Continuum comes out, and one’s SG-1 and one’s Atlantis. But for me, who had just switched over,â€ he laughs, “Yikes! It was too close.â€
In the event, changing the planet’s evolution from hot to cold made for some very interesting sets and colour palates that viewers had not seen on the show before. As empty as the day the Atlantis expedition first arrived, Sheppard walks through halls that have seen centuries of change and eventually, decay.
“We stripped out everything that we had put in,â€ says Wood of the set. “We made it feel as if the humans had moved out. There was some talk at one point about, ‘Should we put some other stuff in that’s obviously some other race that was here?’ But everybody would be looking for the Furlings,â€ he laughs, speaking of the mysterious super-race contemporary to the Ancients that viewers have so far only ever seen in ‘200.’ “I actually said – shall we put some Furling stuff in here, just to make it look like another race had been in here after the humans left? I got a little, ‘No, we’re not going to confuse anybody like that.’ So I just stripped it all out. The other thing was the lighting – there was a lot of sunlight and a lot of heat.â€
One of the most spectacular scenes of the episode involves Sheppard battling his way through a fierce sandstorm. Viewers may be surprised to hear that this was actually shot as a physical stunt rather than as a visual effect.
“A huge amount of it is practical,â€ Wood confirms. “We didn’t think we could do it – we actually said, ‘We can’t do this practically.’ Then Wray Douglas (Special Effects Supervisor) came up to us and said, ‘You know what? I actually have a way to do this.’ So BamBam (Stunt Coordinator James Bamford) and I went down and stood under the set in the big wind machine they had. BamBam and I did this once before, in The Storm and The Eye,â€ the director explains, recalling another stunt involving torrents of water that was shot for season one. “We went to test it ourselves, because I’m not going to put an actor into this if I haven’t already done it myself. It bolsters your argument! If they say, ‘No way, I can’t do that’, you can say ‘Well, I did it’. I’m always willing to do that stuff!â€
Sandstorms are one of the most inhospitable environments a human being can brave. The sand whipped up into gusts traveling many kilometers an hour, cuts through clothing and damages the skin. So recreating that on the Bridge Studios set was a risky proposition.
“BamBam and I went down and they turned the wind machine on,â€ Wood continues, “and Wray started to throw cornmeal into the fan, and it pelted us. You could kind of feel it but it wasn’t so bad, so I said, ‘Okay, throw some more’. So he threw a whole bucket into it so that BamBam and I were completely pelted by it. But it didn’t hurt the way that sand would sting. So we said, ‘All right, here’s how we’re going to do it, then.’ We stacked up the fans. There was one shooting past the cameras and then there was one shooting at the actors so the close up camera would be on him. I had three cameras running; there was one on the actor’s face the whole time. The door opens up and then BamBam comes out. BamBam did it about six times and then Joe [Flanigan] walked in and said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ He put his kerchief round his face, put his glasses on, and did it four times. So you see a lot of Joe doing the walk for Sheppard.â€
Though he enjoyed every aspect of the episode, one part that really sticks in the director’s mind is a scene that ended up being only a tiny part of the whole.
“I really enjoyed the scenes with Kate Hewlett – with Jeanie and McKay, even though it’s just a tiny little piece,â€ Wood explains. “We actually had a quantum mathematician with us while we were shooting McKay in his apartment. Kate was there, and it was a much longer scene I shot, because I said, ‘You’re not going to come here and shoot just two minutes! I want to see an actual scene.’ They played out a whole scene, it was great. And I used about 14 seconds of it!â€
Never mind… another deleted scene for the season four DVD release, perhaps?