A Spoiler-Filled Review of “Vegas,” the Penultimate Episode of Stargate: Atlantis

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The working title of this format-breaking episode was “CSI: Atlantis,” which is undoubtedly better than the one they ended up using, but which unfortunately gives the game away way too early. They were wise to change it. But just as a Rose by any other name is still as sweet, this ended up being one *hell* of an episode, no matter what they called it.

Fundamentally the Stargate equivalent of a DC “Elseworlds” story, here’s the spoiler-filled gist:

John Shepherd is a Las Vegas detective. He’s not exactly a complete loser, but he’s pretty close to being one, nursing a gambling addiction, a losing streak, a lot of debts, and a go-nowhere career in Law Enforcement. He’s also gay. (I know! I was stunned, too!) He’s investigating the eighth in a series of mysterious deaths in ‘Vegas in the last three months: People who’ve had the very life sucked out of ‘em. Clearly, there’s a Wraith on the loose on Earth! The problem arises in that this iteration of John Shepherd has never been in space, never been to the Pegasus Galaxy, and never encountered an extraterrestrial before. His gut tells him it’s murder, though there’s no clear evidence to specifically tell one way or another. We follow him along as he pursues the case, and closes in on the perp – a wraith using makeup to pass for human.

Then mysterious things start happening – Shepherd’s Medical Examiner is replaced by some mysterious chick he’s never heard of before called “Jennifer Keller.” An FBI spook named “Richard Woolsey” keeps nosing around the fringes of the case. Shepherd crashes a cameo-filled high-stakes poker game (There’s two Sopranos there, and the show’s composer, as well as others) that the Wraith is cleaning everyone out in. A very CSI chase ensues, but the Wraith gets away. Woolsey and his goons show up, and take Shepherd in to custody, where he’s taken to Area 51 and debriefed by a much more mature, assured Dr. Rodney McKay.

He fills Shepherd – and us – in on the backstory, which is really the weakest, most exposition-overfilled part of the story: This is not the normal Stargate universe, but rather a parallel one where things have gone ever-so-slightly different (well, duh!). Todd and the Wraith have somehow found earth, whereupon the Atlantis Team were recalled from Pegasus. A battle was fought in orbit three months ago, a Hive ship was destroyed, Todd captured. The Wraith running around Vegas is trying to build a super-powerful transmitter to let the rest of his gang in the Pegasus Galaxy know where Earth is so they can mount an invasion. Shepherd disappoints McKay, saying he doesn’t really care and doesn’t have anything to add to their investigation. McKay says that his team once opened a doorway to a parallel universe where he knew another version of John Shepherd – one who was heroic, self-sacrificing, and had saved the world (Worlds, really) on numerous occasions – and while you’re not that guy, I’m hoping that his strength of character is inside you. Shepherd just walks away, and quits his job as Detective, taking only his Johnny Cash poster (Same one the normal Shepherd has in his room in Atlantis. Nice touch). While leaving Vegas, suddenly the pieces click together, and he knows where the Wraith is. He calls McKay, and then goes to fight the Wraith himself, slowing him down while Area 51 can call in some A-10s (God, I love these things! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-10_Warthog They have a beautiful ugliness that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Babylon 5) to carpet bomb the site and shut down the transmitter.

Back at Area 51, McKay says that the transmitter opened a breach in the fabric of space and time, so while they were able to stop the signal in *their own* universe, unfortunately the signal did go out in all the other universes. Ergo, all the parallel earths are going to face an invasion of parallel wraiths, thus setting up next week’s season/series finale.

Meanwhile, gutshot and bleeding, John Shepherd dies heroically and alone.

I have some significant caveats: The expositional stuff in the middle of the episode is long and weak, and it’s never really clear what they expected Shepherd to do for them – I mean, why bring him in to the whole thing and tell him everything about everything if he’s essentially useless? Also, Shepherd doesn’t seem to be a very good detective, and when he cracks the case, it’s only after he’s been given a ton of information from Team Atlantis. Furthermore, there would seem to be a big plot hole in that it seems like Alternate Rodney knows some version of Shepherd very well, and is deeply hurt by what a self-destructive looser his own universe’s version of the guy is. So how did Rodney get to know Shepherd from the other universe? How much contact did they have? The implication is that some version of Shepherd and this version of McKay were as friendly as they are in the normal main-sequence Atlantis, but how is this possible? I’m not saying it isn’t, but it’s implying a whole lot of contact between the characters of two different universes that isn’t backed up by anything we, the viewers, have seen. This is handled sloppily, and detracts from the episode. Also, I think they overdid it a tiny bit with the fast motion/slow motion shots and the CSI cinematography. However, those shows are primarily known for “A whole bunch of flash that means nothing,” to paraphrase Chief Clancy Wiggum. That’s par for the course, though, since they were homageing or parodying CSI, they kind of had to do that, and they kind of had to set it in Vegas.

All that said, I thought it was a damn good episode. Frankly the on-location stuff was a nice change of pace. The slightly-different versions of people we know was interesting (the less annoying, more assertive married McKay, the FBI version of Woolsey, the clearly insane version of Todd.) Music was used much, much better than it normally is in SG:A, and I was impressed by it. It wasn’t a cosmic-reboot episode like I’d feared it would be. Despite some significant plot-holes, it was a nice Elseworlds story, and the little tag at the end where we find they’ve saved their own earth, but screwed everyone elses was a great little conceit since it makes this episode ‘count’ in a way that that will pay off next week, and presumably in the Atlantis straight-to-video movie next year. It was a really, really good episode, and clearly this’ll be the one they submit for the consideration of various awards for the season.

Which brings us to the gay bits:
To be honest, it was handled very well. Shepherd is *clearly* not gay in the normative Stargate universe. He’s had lots of sexual relationships with women, at least one Ancient, there was some subtle sexual tension between him and the late Dr. Elizabeth Weir, we’ve seen him hitting on women frequently in the show, and his character was married to Kari Wuhrer, for God’s sake: Clearly “the Real” Shepherd likes chicks.

Our first subtle clue is his antagonistic dealings with Dr. Keller and a reporter chick: We’re used to seeing a gentlemanly Shepherd who defers to women and stands when they come in to the room. Seeing him acting slightly misogynistic is a subtly offputting. Later on, an attractive nurse openly hits on him, and he completely blows her off. Later on, when arguing with McKay we’re told that Shepherd got drummed out of the Air Force four years earlier: He was flying a ‘copter in Afghanistan. He violated orders in typical John Shepherd fashion to go and rescue an American medic. Alas, the plan went horribly, horribly wrong, the ‘Copter was shot down, and four Americans were killed in the process, including, evidently, the medic. “You were involved with him, weren’t you?” McKay says, and Shepherd doesn’t deny it, leaving no question about his sexual preference.

I should probably be expected to rail on about this as another propagandistic use of shanghaiing a well-liked SF character to push forward the whole gay liberation theme again (cf: http://www.republibot.com/content/spoonful-sugar-makes-international-hom... ) but in fact, I’m not gonna.’ Although it felt a bit tacked on, and it didn’t really add much to the episode, I don’t think it hurt the episode any either, and it was subtle enough that I think it mostly worked.

I know, I know, you think ‘here we are a week into the whole Republibot thing, and Mr. 3.0 is already selling us out and backpedaling on his outrage at the homosexualization of science fiction,’ but give me a moment here and I’ll explain why I don’t think I am:

Firstly, I’m not *outraged* that the Liberal Hollywood Elite has chosen to use my genre of choice to further the Pervert-American agenda; I’m merely annoyed. This is what they do. Getting mad at Entertainment Leftists for ramming their opinions down our throats is like getting mad at trees for photosynthesizing, or cows for smelling bad. I don’t waste time getting angry at immutable forces of nature.

Secondly: What makes Shepherd such a great character (And he *is* a great character trapped in a mediocre show) is that the guy has been something of a mess from the very beginning. He’s divorced, estranged from his (wealthy) family, he sleeps around a lot but we’ve never seen him in anything like a steady relationship, he’s always volunteering for suicide missions with a bit too much enthusiasm, habitually disobeys orders, and (prior to lucking in to the Atlantis Expedition), it’s very clear his personality problems were sidelining his Air Force career. He’s content to spend a half-decade in the Pegasus Galaxy letting normal life pass him by while everyone else is whining about missing their families and careers.Yet he’s always laid back, informal, calm, and I can’t think of more than two or three examples of him actually raising his voice in anger: he’s very much in charge at all times. Too much in charge. Even his perpetually disheveled hair is *meticulously* disheveled, obviously carefully crafted to give the air of a man who’s just slapping things together when, in fact, he’s usually thinking two or three moves ahead. In the fourth season, he himself mostly confirmed this when he admitted that he’s “Afraid of himself,” and is carefully keeping himself in line. In a fight, even when beaten, he will. Not. Lay. Down. At first, this seemed simply another case of cartoonish stalwart TV-show hero behavior (and it probably was), but as the show has gone on it’s become something more. And most curiously, when things go badly – when he gets captured and beaten or tortured, which happens a lot – he doesn’t complain, doesn’t cry out, he just sits there and takes it. Earlier this season he was being tortured by an old arch-nemesis who said to him, “You can take more punishment than any man I’ve ever seen, John. Why is that?” Later on in that same episode we find out the answer: Shepherd believes he deserves it.

Why? We don’t know. Clearly, though, there’s some self-loathing going on there that’s inherent to the character, and always has been, and his laid-back guise is clearly just a guise. Clearly there’s something in his past that he feels really really really bad about. They’ve never said, nor hinted what it is, and I don’t expect we’ll ever know.

So knowing all that, the idea that Shepherd might be a self-hating closeted homosexual mostly worked. I think it was well done in that regard. It didn’t really track with his character arc as we’ve seen it, but it was at least a believable track that might explain some of his behavior we’ve seen elsewhere. The intended (And pointless) propagandistic purpose of this is that John saves the world (sort of) and dies a hero, and it doesn’t matter weather he likes chicks or dudes or both or goats, he’s a hero. Yawn. Though that’s the intended message, it gets a bit muddled: the Gay John is somewhat misogynistic – are we supposed to believe that’s acceptable in gay people? He’s a compulsive gambler – is that acceptable in gay people? He’s a looser and self destructive – are these enviable qualities in gay folk? His noble sacrifice at the end only works because the non-gay John we’ve known for five years has frequently subtly tried to kill himself a zillion times anyway, clearly over guilt over whatever the hell is going on in his mind/past. Thus when the Gay John sacrifices himself, it’s not really redemption or even heroism per se, it’s just another aspect of both version of Shepherd’s well-known deathwish. And if we’re to accept Gay John’s death as noble and heroic, irrespective of his sexual preference then we have to accept his other behavior as good independent of his preference. We can’t do that, since it’s clearly antisocial, sexist, and destructive.

So as I say, that’s kind of muddy, and it did feel tacked on, but it’s almost-inspired just the same because rather than be a story of a handsome Arrow-Shirt looking kind of guy who saves the world and just happens to be gay (As the producers intended), it ends up being a story about a deeply flawed character who can’t hack life, can’t accept himself for what he is, and decides rather incidentally to justify his long-desired suicide by trying to save the world in the process. And that’s a more compelling story, and it mostly works, even though it’s not the story the producers intended to tell, or perhaps are even conscious they told.

Of course this presents problems for the mainstream Stargate version of John Shepard – the character is very clearly not gay, and it doesn’t make sense that he would have turned gay and vaguely gynophobic if he got passed over for the Atlantis expedition. The Helicopter incident clearly isn’t the thing in ‘our’ John’s past that he’s upset about, since it happened to Gay John a year after Not-Gay-John left earth in the mainline universe. The point of departure between the two characters must have been earlier than that. And this, too, doesn’t work out the way the producers probably intended, since it would seem to argue that homosexuality is a choice, and not an inherent thing. I mean, both Johns have the same genes, the same upbringing, why is one gay and not the other? So again, this was sloppily done, unless the producers intend us to believe that Shepherd has been having the occasional bisexual thought over the years, and simply have given us no clue about it until now.

In fact, that might even be the case, and if so it would explain a lot of John’s messed up behavior over the years. If so, that’s a damn clever move, frankly, but even this doesn’t end up where they wanted it to: If John is ever-so-slightly gay, he’s clearly not out-and-proud about it, he’s clearly fighting against his nature, and it is this internal struggle that makes him heroic. If, in fact, he’s a pervert. Which I really don’t think he is. I think it was just a sloppy attempt by the producers to jump on the gay-liberation bandwagon.

And that’s a shame, because had this episode been done in the 80s or 90s, I would have said it was freakin’ brilliant. It is one of the very few gay-lib ‘message’ episodes I’ve seen that actually works, mainly because they don’t portray him as something normal and out-and-proud and at-ease with himself. Alas, being buried in this after-Ellen world, one of the more compelling and nuanced (Albeit sloppy and not-well-thought-out) portrayals of a gay character gets lost in a sea of “Me-Too”ism.

Oh well.

[Edit: I forgot to mention, we also get our second Walter sighting of the season!]