It is just another day on the job for Stargate Atlantis’ Lt. Colonel John Sheppard. Once again, he and his teammates are risking their lives to save the Pegasus galaxy, or in this case a Wraith hive ship captained by their old archenemy/ally Todd. In real life, actor Joe Flanigan, who plays Sheppard, and the rest of the Atlantis cast and crew are trying to keep cool in unusually warm Vancouver temperatures as they work on the fifth season episode Infection.
“In this story the Wraith become infected with the retrovirus that they stole from our people,” explains Flanigan, during a break in filming. “Sheppard and his guys go to help them and then wind up having to revive Todd from hibernation in order to save themselves because they’re stuck on the hive ship.
“As you can see we’re filming in a giant latex set, which I won’t elaborate on because it wouldn’t be fit for publication,” jokes the actor. “We’re working with Chris Heyerdahl [Todd], who’s always a pleasure to have on-set, and we’re running around trying to save the day. This is one of those medical-experiments-gone-awry-type episodes, but even more importantly a really good team episode, much like The Daedalus Variations, which we did earlier this year. And those are always a lot of fun to do.”
At the very end of Atlantis’ fourth season finale The Last Man, Colonel Sheppard and three of his colleagues were lured into a trap by the human/Wraith hybrid Michael (Connor Trinneer). Detonating explosives in the building they were in, he left them for dead and buried under tons of debris. Fortunately for our heroes, they were found alive and reasonably well in the year five opener Search and Rescue. As season five unfolded, Sheppard was caught up in other life-and-death situations, including one of his own making in Remnants, a story that saw the return of yet another old, and long-dead, enemy, Genii Commander Acastus Kolya (Robert Davi).
“That’s where my character basically gets stuck in his own head, for lack of a better way of putting it, although both he and the viewer doesn’t realize this until the very end,” explains Flanigan. “Dr. McKay [David Hewlett] and Dr. Zelenka [David Nykl] discover a probe at the bottom of the ocean under Atlantis and it creates a phony physical environment inside your head. However, it’s one in which, for Sheppard, you can still feel pain. We had Robert Davi back for this episode and some rather dark things happen in it.
“Remnants is one of those scripts that’s almost always better when you see everything that was shot cut together because there are all sorts of bizarre little storylines going on. I thought it was a clever script and a challenging one to shoot. For example, when Koyla tells Sheppard that he’s just a figment of his imagination, as an actor it’s very difficult to go from, OK, my character is getting the crap beat out of him, to realizing that he’s in no real physical danger. It’s an odd transition and we couldn’t quite figure out how to play it, so I hope that it worked out in the end.”
Among the more physically challenging episodes for Flanigan to work on during the latter half of Atlantis’ fifth season was The Prodigal, in which Michael invades Atlantis with the intention of taking Teyla (Rachel Luttrell) and her child with him and destroying the city. She and Sheppard face off against Michael in a climatic fight atop the Atlantis tower.
“That big fight scene took a great deal of time and energy to shoot, and I love that stuff,” enthuses Flanigan. “Any action-oriented show is always going to be one that I’m not only interested in doing, but also watching. I think adventure and humor is a winning combo every time. You can do spooky and funny stories, too, but the combination of those basic elements is always the right way to go. Sometimes we go in a heavy conceptual direction, you know, like The Daedalus Variations, which was challenging in a different sort of way to do because it was VFX [visual effects] dependent. If the VFX don’t work out it can kill the whole show, and oftentimes they [the producers and director] can’t quite describe to the actor what the VFX is going to be. So you’re trying to react to something that hasn’t even been created yet, and you just pray to God that you’re acting at the right level. Hopefully the threat that they then create using VFX isn’t bigger, or smaller, than you’ve anticipated. It’s kind of a tricky situation to be in.
“So The Prodigal was one of those basic types of stories that you could sink your teeth into,” continues the actor. “It’s a great episode and Connor did a terrific job in it. Bam Bam [stunt coordinator James Bamford] worked on the fight scene for a really long time. However, I then threw him a curveball because they had planned out this big elaborate fight and I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, but my character just isn’t Mr. Jujitsu.’ Sheppard would probably get his ass kicked and barely hold onto his life. He’s a great soldier, but a pretty sloppy fighter compared to Teyla. He tends to improvise, so we had to rearrange the fight a little bit.
“Carl Binder [Atlantis executive producer and writer of The Prodigal] and I agreed that the point of this fight was to show how painful it was. I wanted to convey pain, disorganization and fear, whereas the fight originally conveyed an almost Crouching Tiger-type quality. That was cool, but it wasn’t my character. I felt bad for poor Bam Bam, who had worked so hard on the fight, and then I came along and kind of changed the whole thing. I was like, Michael needs to hit Sheppard and he falls to the floor. Maybe then he grabs Michael’s leg and bites it or whatever. Michael is clearly a better fighter and Sheppard has to do whatever he can to make it work out in his favor. So we were able to make some changes and I think it worked out better for us. It’s the difference between watching Bruce Lee and Harrison Ford. The characters they play get into these difficult fights, but one is a martial artist and the other is someone who improvises and just hopes he gets out of the situation alive. It’s an important character distinction, especially for someone like Sheppard, who has a team full of Jujitsu experts, Dr. McKay not being one of them,” jokes Flanigan.
It took some convincing on the part of General Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) to change the mind of the-then doubtful Major Sheppard that he would be an asset to the Atlantis expedition. Since arriving in the Pegasus galaxy, Sheppard has never hesitated to put his life on the line to save his teammates as well as strangers. What does Flanigan feel has been the motivation for his character to commit such a brave and unselfish act over and over again?
“Well, first and foremost, you have a deepening of your ties; that alone will keep you doing what it is you want to do,” says the actor. “Then there’s the added element – which I don’t believe we’ve emphasized enough but I think we will in upcoming episodes – and it’s the fact that Sheppard enjoys himself. These are all adventures and he wants to be on adventures.
“Sometimes it’s such a life and death thing for our characters that you don’t get a chance to see them enjoying the adventure. It’s almost as if they’re always fighting for their lives, but Sheppard does enjoy it. It’s like a wild ride for him. Also, he doesn’t have his personal life together, so this has been a replacement for what would otherwise be a normal, healthy functioning life on Earth, which is non-existent for him. Sheppard doesn’t know anything else. As long as he keeps getting Budweiser in space he’ll stay up there,” chuckles the actor.
Apparently the heroic gene exists not only in the John Sheppard we know and love, but also in those who exist in alternate realities. Viewers saw that in the aforementioned The Daedalus Variations and then again in Atlantis’ penultimate fifth season story Vegas, where Detective John Sheppard pursues a Wraith (Neil Jackson) who is hiding on Earth.
“That’s the script that I’ve been the most excited about all year,” says Flanigan with a smile. “You not only learn a lot more about Sheppard, but also I think what’s important about this particular episode is that it sets up the fact that we all live in these parallel realities, and there are infinite and different Sheppard characters throughout these alternate universes. I’m really happy, for one, to go to Las Vegas, where they have free drinks and I can play blackjack, and, two, to get to play a totally different character. On top of both those points, I enjoy Earth-based stories and Vegas is a really interesting and well-written script that can hold its own.”
With Detective Sheppard’s help, Stargate Command is able to deal once and for all with the Wraith agent on Earth. However, before they can do that, he manages to transmit his location to his people. The repercussions of that are felt back in our universe when a rogue Wraith intends to attack Earth with a powerful new hive ship in the Atlantis fifth season finale Enemy at the Gate. This episode was a landmark for the program in that it was the show’s 100th episode.
“That’s quite an achievement in this day and age,” notes Flanigan. “I’m extremely proud of that, and I’m also proud of the fact that I haven’t completely fallen apart physically as well as mentally from all the work and travel back and forth. Seriously, it’s a very impressive thing and something that everyone involved with the show should be proud of.”
Enemy at the Gate turned out to be both Atlantis’ fifth season finale and, to the surprise of many, the program’s finale. While the TV adventure is over for our heroes, it will hopefully carry on in made-for DVD movies. After five years of walking in Sheppard’s military boots, Flanigan has grown comfortable in the role and always had fun playing the character.
“That wasn’t actually hard to do,” he says. “As an actor, you just have to judge each situation your character is put in and commit to that. It’s not like you have to have some calculated long-term view of how to keep it [your character] fresh and fun. That’s really the writers’ responsibility for the most part, but each situation is a little different and requires a slightly different type of reaction.
“It’s very easy to slip into the Sheppard character and see what his perception would be of the particular environment he’s in. You think, ‘OK, what are the things that he’d find amusing, serious, scary, or whatever,’ and then just act accordingly. Surprisingly, that’s not a difficult thing to do. Again, keeping him fresh from a character development standpoint is a little out of my control, but, you know, after all this time the people out there still seem to see Sheppard as someone who’s fun and interesting. That makes me feel good about what I’m doing.”
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