As far as most fans are concerned, Atlantis is where Daniel Jackson belongs. After all, he knows the Ancients arguably better than any other living human, and so you’d think that establishing a colony in one of their cities – in another galaxy, no less – would be right up his alley. He thought so too, and it became something of a running joke that the character has never really had time to explore the city as much as he’d like.
Setting out to rectify that, writer Martin Gero put together a mid-season two-part episode that saw Daniel spending plenty of time unearthing Atlantis’ secrets – and finding more than he bargained for in the process. Gero describes ‘First Contact’ and ‘The Lost Tribe’ as “One of those big swash buckling episodes that we do right,â€ and putting Daniel Jackson into the middle of all that action was just part of the fun.
“It was definitely something that I had wanted to do for quite some time, and was finally afforded the opportunity to do,â€ says Gero of Daniel’s arrival. “My favorite Daniel stories were always the ones where he was on the treasure hunt, with puzzles and figuring out this and that. We hadn’t done that in forever.â€
In fact, penning the two-parter gave the writer a chance to do quite a lot of things he hadn’t yet found the time – or the right story – to do.
“I really wanted to do a heist on the city,â€ he explains, “and I’d had these kind of exo-skeleton bad guys in my head for a couple of years. And all of a sudden, it just felt like everything fell into one episode, all these things that I really wanted to do. There are three stories going on, which, as a writer, is harder to do. But those episodes are always my favourites because they never stop moving.â€
For Gero, it was also an opportunity to put together two characters that he felt could really create sparks on screen. Rodney McKay was no stranger to SG-1 – or to the illustrious reputation of Stargate Command’s premiere civilian operative. And, with McKay’s ego, that was never going to go down well.
“Everyone was kind of thinking that it would be a Daniel/Sheppard episode,â€ the writer says, recalling early discussions about the story with his fellow producers. “But I wanted to see him with McKay. I just knew those two were going to have such amazing chemistry together, and it didn’t take a lot of selling in the room to have Daniel breaking off with McKay.â€
Besides both David Hewlett and Michael Shanks having formidable reputations for being excellent actors, the pair shares something else. Both, when acting, are incredibly fast speakers, and in their own shows specialise in the kind of banter that characterises the Stargate franchise. This was part of the reason that Gero felt they would work so well together on screen – but it also created a challenge when it came to the dialogue scenes.
“I never go in with a plan, really,â€ Gero says of writing these exchanges, “and it’s amazing that I’ve been able to write as many as I have. But I just kind of let those two talk in my head. I don’t do a lot of drafts of the dialogue, it just kind of comes out. But it was just a blast – part of the fun of McKay is that he’s so smart and funny, but he doesn’t have a ton of worthy adversaries. He’s got Sheppard, but that’s really it as far as banter is concerned. So it was great to bring someone in that he could verbally spar with. One concern was that this was a 65 page script. Everyone kept saying, ‘It’s too long, it’s too long.â€ I was like, ‘No, it’s not too long. I have the two fastest talkers in science fiction history!’ There are still scenes in there where I think, ‘Oh god, is anyone going to understand this?’ Not so much in ‘First Contact’, but in ‘The Lost Tribe’. I kept telling them to slow down, and they’re like ‘Right, right’. They’d be slow for their first line, and then it turned into this weird speed competition with them, where they just get faster and faster. And all I could say was, ‘I’m going to have to write more pages – please shut up!’â€ he laughs.
‘First Contact’ and ‘The Lost Tribe’ were also the writer/producer’s first taste of directing Stargate Atlantis. Though Gero is an experienced director – he helmed his own feature film in 2007 – he’d never stepped behind the camera on his own show. His work on the double episode involved directing on the second unit film crew and was, in part, a rehearsal for his full directorial role on late-season episode ‘Brain Storm’.
“The lion’s share of the Daniel and McKay scenes were shot second unit, and so that was just an enormous amount of fun to direct,â€ he explains. “It was a weird situation because I was directing for Andy [Mikita], and I didn’t want to let him down. So I really let him come up with the game plan and we had to collaborate very closely, especially on the scene where we’re cutting back and forth between McKay and Sheppard and they’re both figuring it out at the same time. Those were shot on two different units with two different directors, and I think the fact that that works is a great testament to Andy’s leadership.â€
The biggest surprise of the episode, of course, is the revelation that the thieves are, in fact, a lost tribe of the Asgard. Including them wasn’t actually Gero’s first thought – originally, the aliens inside the suits were going to be a completely new race to the show. However, as discussions in the writers’ room continued, it became apparent that the Asgard race was a resource worth resurrecting.
“I really wanted to have these huge suits, and my idea was always to have these really frail alien creatures inside them,â€ Gero reveals. “And so we kept on going on about what they would look like, and then we realised, well, they’re basically the Asgard. And I said, ‘Is that puppet still around?’ Why go to the trouble of spending $150,000 to build a new puppet when we have this, and it’s actually kind of cool?â€
The writer is prepared for a mixed reaction to the revised idea. “I think some people will really love it, and some will hate it – a lot of people hate it when we bring in SG-1 stuff to Atlantis. But I think it’s a really fun twist. Getting that visual effect right of the Asgard in the suit was the hardest shot this year, and it’s one of my favourite shots. It’s really, really good. You buy it, which is the most important thing.â€
News article courtesy of the official Stargate Website