Stargate Atlantis' Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett). Photo copyright of the Syfy Channel
Stargate Atlantis‘ swan song fifth season proved to be one heck of a ride for the show’s resident genius, Dr. Rodney McKay. Having been buried alive together with some of his colleagues at the end of season four, he and his teammates were eventually found alive in Search and Rescue. Soon after in The Shrine, McKay contracted a deadly virus that temporarily robbed him of his intellect as well as memories and almost killed him, while in Tracker, the scientist wound up off-world with Ronon and trying to track down a Runner who was hellbent on eluding them. By mid-season, McKay was playing host to Stargate SG-1‘s Dr. Daniel Jackson, who visited Atlantis in the two-part First Contact and The Lost Tribe. McKay was not exactly thrilled with Jackson’s arrival, as his alter ego, actor David Hewlett, explains.
“The dynamic between Daniel [Michael Shanks] and McKay is not a particularly friendly one,” says Hewlett. “He shows up on Atlantis to do some more research, and my character is not happy because McKay then gets stuck taking him around the city while dismissing Daniel’s theories about various things and then ending being horribly wrong on many occasions. The two of them eventually get pulled off to another planet where they meet an armor-clad race, and then get to become a bit of an armor-clad race themselves.
“It was terrific to have Shanks on the show,” continues the actor, ‘and fun, too, as I got to sort of pick his brain because he did this [Stargate] for so long. As for our scenes together, well, we both talk incredibly fast, and I’m not used to lines being picked up so quickly and thrown back at me in such a way, because Michael adds in these cool little character-related things. The guy is amazing. I don’t know how he does it, and not only that, but he gets younger every time I see him. Actually, the whole SG-1 cast is on some kind of reverse aging process, whereas I’m on an advanced aging process. By the time we finish this conversation I’ll have aged 10 years,” he jokes.
Not doing too good in "Search and Rescue." Photo copyright of The Syfy Channel
“As I mentioned, Michael and I ended up in those armor-clad suits for a period of time. All I can say is, I now have a new respect for those people at Comic-Con who dress up as Storm Troopers [from Star Wars]; I don’t know how they stand it because you sweat buckets in an outfit like that. That’s what happened to me in that spacesuit. Of course, Michael glowed and was in a really good mood,” teases Hewlett. “Again, we had a ball. There’s some fantastic back and forth banter when Daniel and McKay get together, if I do say so myself. You’ve got that great sense of McKay being up against someone who’s as smart as he is and knows as much as he does, so there’s a lot of attitude being exchanged.”
At the start of Atlantis‘ fourth year, Rodney McKay thought for sure he was next in line to take over command of Atlantis after the loss of Dr. Elizabeth Weir (Torri Higginson) to the Replicators. His ego took quite a beating when, in fact, Colonel Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) got the job. In the fifth season, he and the rest of the base personnel had to get used to yet another change in leadership when International Oversight Authority (IOA) member Richard Woolsey (Robert Picardo) replaced Carter. In Hewlett’s eyes, his character saw a number of similarities between himself and Woolsey.
“Woolsey is a bureaucrat in the same way that McKay took a professional type of approach to the entire Stargate program,” says the actor. “Woolsey’s background is government, diplomacy, the IOA, etc., whereas McKay’s is very much academic. So in a way, Woolsey has had similar growing pains to those that my character initially had. First of all, he’s learning to like these people on Atlantis, which he never expected. Woolsey is also getting his nose out of books and regulations and into the real world. So it’s neat to watch him go through that, and, again, because McKay has been through it as well, he’s more disdainful of it than, perhaps, others are. I think you tend to jump on people for making the same mistakes as you and having the same weaknesses as you. McKay is like, ‘My God, doesn’t Woolsey realize that you can’t live your life with your nose in books.’ Of course, it’s taken my character five years to figure that out, which is rather amusing.
Rodney McKay, helping to save the universe - again! Photo copyright of the Syfy Channel
“One of the things I really like about Atlantis and Stargate as a whole is that sense of humor. Sci-Fi can be incredibly dry and dark, and what we have here, which really helps, is that underlying sense of humor. There’s almost, not a winking at the camera, but a realistic humorous response to certain situations. I think there was a lot of that on our show, and Robert Picardo was the ideal person to bring that out. For example, our conference room scenes became hilarious because there was so much going on. I mean, Joe Flanigan [Colonel John Sheppard] had his sense of humor, I had my uptight McKay stuff, and Robert added a whole other level to it. As a result, the directors had to occasionally rein us in a bit so that it didn’t turn into an all-out comedy, like Scrubs in Space,” laughs Hewlett. “So it was definitely a pleasure to have Robert around, and he enjoyed himself, too. As new people came onto the show you got a new lease on your performance because you got caught up in their own excitement about the work.”
After the disastrous end to his budding relationship with Katie Brown (Brenda James) in season four’s Quarantine, Dr. McKay was decidedly cautious when it came to further romantic entanglements. Lucky for him, he chose to take another chance at love and, in the fifth season, became involved with Dr. Jennifer Keller (Jewel Staite). They go on their first official date in the season five episode Brain Storm, but, naturally, things do not go quite as planned.
“Prior to this, McKay and Jennifer had had a beer together, but this is the first time they go somewhere as a couple,” says Hewlett. “My character has to attend a presentation with all these famous astrophysicists who are basically his peers and did their doctorates at the same time as he did. Not surprisingly, McKay gets as prickly as he gets. Meanwhile, poor Keller has shown up for some champagne and a couple of little sandwiches, and all hell breaks loose. The experiment that is being shown goes horribly wrong and my character has to save the day. I think it’s a great payoff to a number of things that had already been established on the series, and to top it off, Jewel and I got to do some actual romantic stuff, which was fun.
Trying to put on a brave face. Photo copyright of the Syfy Channel
“We had a great guest-cast in Brain Storm, which included Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was an advisor to God knows how many presidents. Not only is he a genius, but he’s hilarious, too. He and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, who’s in this episode as well, are friends and Bill is just as funny. Their banter was amazing. Nye is an improv master, except you actually learn something when he speaks. so it was like a dream come true for a nerd like me. We also had Dave Foley [Malcolm Tunney], who’s a super-nerd himself. He’s a Sci-Fi fan and knows a lot about this sort of stuff. So it was this amazing combination of some of the world’s smartest people all in the same room. As a result, I didn’t say much. I tended to keep pretty quiet and retiring in-between scenes.”
Besides The Shrine and Brain Storm, another season five Atlantis story that the actor especially enjoyed shooting is Remnants, in which McKay and Dr. Zelenka (David Nykl) discover an alien device that uses an unusual method to communicate with select members of the Atlantis team.
“This is kind of a creepy episode and one that really throws people off,” says Hewlett. “David Nykl and I had a number of scenes together, and it was neat because we were playing a very different type of dynamic between Zelenka and McKay. My big joke was that Robert Picardo’s character got to see this beautiful Australian woman as his vision, while McKay got Zelenka. I was like, ‘Can he [David Nykl] at least wear some nice lip gloss or something else to sexy his character up a bit?’” says the actor with a laugh.
McKay senses something is not quite right here. Photo copyright of the Syfy Channel
“We had fun messing with the usual dynamic of McKay’s and Zelenka’s relationship, and, of course, there was lots of bantering back and forth with the two of them. When in doubt, McKay just talks, as does Hewlett in a lot of cases. It’s that horrible mix between the two, otherwise known as McKaylett.”
While filming season five of Atlantis, the cast and crew were told that the show would, unfortunately, not be returning for a sixth year. In the show’s finale, Enemy at the Gate, our heroes fly the entire city of Atlantis to Earth to help defend the planet against an attack by a rogue Wraith hive ship. While this was the last episode to air, it was not, in fact, the last one to be shot. That distinction goes to Vegas, an alternate universe story involving a series of Wraith killings in the city that never sleeps.
“I’m generally not a fan of alternate reality stories because they can easily feel like a cop-out, but I really wanted Vegas to be our final episode,” notes Hewlett. “We knew that Atlantis was cancelled and I thought it would be a daring and original way to end the series. Of course, they [the producers/writers] would have had to figure out how to get Teyla [Rachel Luttrell] and Ronon [Jason Momoa] into the story. They could have had the role that I wanted – exotic dancer at a casino. That was my first suggestion for McKay, partly just so I could actually go to Las Vegas, but also to showcase my pole dancing talents,” chuckles the actor.
Things were not looking too good for poor Rodney in "The Shrine." Photo copyright of the Syfy Channel
It was way back in season five of Stargate SG-1 that Dr. Rodney McKay first arrived on the scene in the episode 48 Hours. Little did anyone, let alone Hewlett, know that he along with the fans would become better acquainted with the character over the next eight years.
“That was a lot of hair ago on SG-1. I don’t know if I actually lost the hair or if I’ve just expanded so that it looks like I’ve got less hair,” jokes the actor. “It’s weird because McKay seems like a different guy now. I think what happened in Atlantis is that we began to see the cracks in the character’s armor. He came into SG-1, I feel, fully protected. McKay had sort of inch-thick armor around him, which made him incredibly prickly from the very beginning. And it’s not so much that he warmed on Atlantis, but rather he cracked a bit.
“I’ve always said that the neat thing about McKay is that he’s unlike the other characters. You’re learning about them as you go along, whereas with my character it’s as if you’re deconstructing him. We already knew what McKay was like, and later on we got figure out why he’s like that. After five seasons, we’d deconstructed him enough to roughly know what his deep dark secrets are, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a few more,” laughs Hewlett. “So as a character he did evolve. McKay’s own personality finally began to shine though, which was a real joy for me to play.”
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