CSI Pegasus Galaxy

"Vegas" is listed by Episode Ninja as the 11th worst episode of Stargate Atlantis with a rating of 7.29? Yes that's right, the worst, not the best.

This isn't just a quirk of the ratings system either: Reddit user /r/Waylain got a lot of agreement for calling it the worst episode. The IMdB page for "Vegas" is higher at 8.2/10 but that still puts it lower than the next and final episode "Enemy at the Gates" and several other Season 5 episodes.

It seems very shocking that the episode is rated so low seeing how it's one of the most entertaining and enjoyable episodes. I think part of it is that the fans of the show don't like things that are narratively different: "The Real World" (where Torri Higginson's Doctor Weir has the requisite Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style "in a mental hospital where the real world tells you that the fantastic TV show the character is in is a delusion) is the 4th worst episode according to the popular ranking site.

This is somewhat all shocking. "The Real World" isn't the greatest episode SGA ever did, but it's certainly in the top half of their episodes rather than the bottom 20th. It has Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off for crying out loud! Again, it's a different type of story than most of the other episodes and therefore is shunned. This is the only way to explain the low rating.

For those who don't know, Stargate Atlantis is in general a sci-fi show about humans who travel to the lost "continent" of Atlantis (actually a large city that can become a spaceship) which is actually sitting on an ocean in the "far-off" Pegasus Galaxy (which is actually a member of our Local Group and is only a dwarf galaxy but close enough). The ancient civilization who created Atlantis also created a network of wormholes between planets (entered through the eponymous Stargates) within Galaxies and therefore our human heroes travel the Pegasus galaxy having adventures. An evil group called the Wraith who inhabit Pegasus Galaxy and consume humans are the primary antagonist (who 10,000 years ago defeated the Stargate builders and chased them back to our galaxy).

That's the setting for most of the series. "Vegas" takes a different track: inspired by CSI, it opens on Earth where the main character from Stargate Atlantis (Joe Flanigan's John Sheppard) is investigating a crime scene in the deserts outside of Sin City. In most episodes Flanigan's character is an Air Force officer working in Atlantis, in this episode set in an alternate reality he's a lackadaisical detective disillusioned with the world. The victim appears to have been killed in the same way that the Wraith kill their victims: "feeding" off of them by sucking life energy out of the human's chest with a mouth-like appendage on the hand. The general populace in the main series are never told about aliens and this is true in this alternate universe as well: none of the cops can figure out what happened. The style is very CSI-ish: Flanigan is wearing sunglasses just like Caruso always wore, and as the cops look at the scene and describe the evidence we flashback to quick cuts of the actual crime being committed. The regular TV theme is cut short as well.

We start seeing regular Stargate Atlantis characters almost immediately: Jewel Staite's Dr. Jennifer Keller appears as the coroner at the start of the first act. Most of the SGA actors appear (Rachel Luttrell and Jason Momoa are credited by SAG rules but never appear), though in the alternate timeline we're never sure who's involved where at their first appearance). We watch the next victim sick in his hotel room having to confront his noisy neighbour who turns out to be our Wraith killer. Woolsey (Robert Picardo) shows up as an FBI agent basically just for "hey lookie" moments, and as Sheppard investigates the hotel victim we see the Wraith rocking out to Marilyn Manson as he applies heavy makeup to just look like a weird goth guy and hits the town. Is it the music that upsets people? They cut from "Beautiful People" to Rolling Stones, admittedly the music montages don't feel sci-fi but that's sort of the point. Sheppard tails Goth-Wraith through some in-casino B-roll and joins the same high-stakes poker game run by very stereotypical mob tough guys.

It turns out the Wraith in this reality have psychic powers they don't in the main TV show reality and Goth-Wraith cleans up in the poker game. Sheppard seems to intuit that he's always going to lose, which causes a confrontation ending with Goth-Wraith beating up everybody in the room as Sheppard chases him through the streets. Witnessing Goth-Wraith's superhuman abilities that allow the creature to evade capture leads Sheppard to search Goth-Wraith's hotel room, finding the latest victim and various other future clues. This is where the CSI aspects of the episode mostly fall off: Woolsey returns to turn this more sci-fi: Sheppard is taken to Area 51 where we see Rodney Mackay (David Hewlett) who fills him on on the science fiction world and also the backstory of this John Sheppard (not quite as fortunate as his "real" counterpart). Stargate Atlantis has done a few parallel world episodes before, and while it's not clear it appears this MacKay met an alternate reality John Sheppard from a parallel reality closer to the "normal" one than this one, but still not the same one from the main series.

Between MacKay and Goth-Wraith's flashbacks, we learn that a Wraith invasion of Earth was recently thwarted and Goth-Wraith appears to be one of two survivors, the other being the Wraith "Todd" (Christopher Heyerdahl) who has several appearances in the series. This one uses his psychic power to talk about the thoughts of Goth-Wraith couched as seeing the future though we don't know it at the time. Instead MacKay explains that Goth-Wraith is building some sort of alien device for an unknown purpose: it's exposing him to high doses of radiation which is why he keeps feeding on human victims and therefore regenerate his health. Sheppard overhears Mackay and fellow scientist Zelenka (David Nykl) debate possibilities of the device's purpose: MacKay insists it's going to be an intergalactic distress beacon that would require a lot of power. Regardless they need to find Goth-Wraith before he enacts whatever he's planning, and MacKay lets Sheppard go after giving him an "alternate you was awesome I met him" pep-talk that usually happens in these episodes. The Star Trek Enterprise episode "In a Mirror, Darkly" did much the same thing: the alternate universe versions of our heroes get told how awesome the folks we're used to seeing every week age.

Back in Vegas Sheppard rolls up his iconic Johnny Cash poster and quits his job, for...some reason. And then the Man in Black himself plays. Remember that I said the music was maybe one of the things that upset people? That seems to be the case here even though what we get is undeniably awesome: Cash's cover of Neil Diamond's second best song "Solitary Man" plays as Sheppard drives across the desert thinking about all of the disparate clues he saw within the episode. Getting his silent epiphany he does the mid-highway spinout and returns to track down Goth-Wraith.

Back at Area 51 the rest of the cast are trying to track Goth-Wraith down (with the requisite Robert Picardo Star Trek joke) only for Sheppard to report success: Goth-Wraith is in his airstream about to tap directly into the powerlines feeding from the Hoover Dam towards Vegas. They dispatch the legendary A-10 Warthogs to take care of the airstream. In the meantime though Sheppard and the Wraith engage in a gunbattle which buys the planes time at the cost of Sheppard's life. The distress beacon activates but is destroyed before it can do much damage...all that happens is a small wormhole is opened and the distress signal is sent into an alternate reality (to this alternate reality). The day is saved.

Well for this reality. A certain alternate reality fans of the TV show are familiar with kind of gets screwed.

So what makes the episode great? It's got a real sense of fun. Not the campy wink-wink fun of episodes like the Stargate SG1 100th and 200th episodes, rather a more pastiche of another series. I don't even watch CSI but getting a different kind of story and the actors playing slightly twerked versions of the ones we already know is always enjoyable. There's great actors (the mob bosses were all Sopranos veterans) and great action and it ends with Sheppard slowly dying to Johnny Cash knowing he's done well by the universe that previously had been screwing him over. Again much like "In a Mirror, Darkly" a lot of the fun is from the writers and producers being able to do a "kill off major characters" plot due to the alternate universe conceit, which is why both episodes stand out from what can be stifling in-universe continuity issues for "main" episodes. Still, I've probably watched "Vegas" more often than any other Stargate Atlantis episode and the pulpy nature of the story is a huge contributing factor.

Stay tuned for our next Stargate Atlantis coverage where we review a truly terrible episode...okay, probably not likely. It would be the one with the Pegasus Tribunal right? Or maybe the one with the lame Ghostbusters 2016 style all-female team shoved down our throats because Nicole de Boer is hot.