Robert Picardo and Joe Mallozzi discuss command changes on Stargate: Atlantis

The fifth season of "Stargate Atlantis" launches on Sci Fi on July 11 -- with several cast changes, including a shift from starring to recurring status for Amanda Tapping, with actor Robert Picardo taking her place as the mission leader on the series.

Monsters and Critics joined some journalists and spoke with Stargate Atlantis star Robert Picardo and executive producer Joseph Mallozzi about the changes afoot in the Pegasus galaxy.

Iím anticipating this hotly discussed script in the upcoming season, Whispers. Itís got a horror tinge and I was wondering if you could elaborate?

Joseph Mallozzi: Iíve always been a big fan of horror and one of the things that - , one of the great things about Stargate is that we can do such a variety of different types of stories.

I mean, we do our funny episodes. We do our serious episodes, the off world episodes, the  ship based episode. I just realized that weíve never really done a horror episode.

Weíve done monster movies but never really kind of a scare fest. So I pitched stuff to the guys and they really liked the idea.
I spoke to Will Waring, our Director who directed the episode and heís also a big fan of horror movies.

We actually did a little mini horror movie for the episode, Whispers. What we did,  Joe Flannigan and Paul McGillion -- two of our regulars -- joined an all female team on an off world adventure.

I mean, one of the things about TV, episodic television in general is at the end of the day you kind of know that your heroes are going to come out of it in one piece, more or less, unless you happen to be Carson Beckett (and trend A) or  what have you.

Joe Mallozzi, photo credit - April MacIntyre Monsters and Critics

Joe Mallozzi, photo credit - April MacIntyre Monsters and Critics

So I thought I was important to add this all female team for kind of two reasons. One, with Amanda leaving, I thought there was kind of a gender imbalance in the show that I kind of wanted to address by bringing in, or at least introducing some potentially recurring female characters.

And two, have the audience invest in characters that you donít really know whether theyíre going to survive or not. it was just really a fun episode.

I mean, I went by a couple of days ago and Mark Savelo, our VFX Supervisor, he was just showing me some of the temps on the visual effects and gosh I hope itís not one of these episodes that angry parents write the network about.

Hopefully, itíll be an atypical episode and Iím hoping that people will enjoy it - especially fans of the horror genre.

What will be different from previous seasons?

Joseph Mallozzi: Season one was set up and season two was telling. And season three, I think weíre stepping out and exploring more, a sort of a variety of stories.
Throughout those first three seasons, though, we were always I guess securing resources with,  SG-1 - be it a series or the movies and as a result I guess it taught you - because of the time constriction, we werenít able to really sit back and I think plan out the season quite as concisely as we could have which is what we did in season four.

We realized okay, there was an imbalance in some of the stories being told. I mean, there were a lot of McKay stories but one of the things we set out to do in season four that we did in season five as well was give each character a story and then,  a spotlight and really focus on them, and give them a chance to really step up.

We did that once again in season five. And where in season four we wanted to deal with some of  our standing villains.

We kicked off the Wraith/Replicator war. We got rid of the Replicators. We weakened the Wraith and now season five is kind of a step forward in a couple of ways.

One, in a big picture way we are introducing a couple of new races. Weíre suggesting that with the Wraith weakened in the Pegasus Galaxy, there are a number of civilizations that are basically standing up and assuming power.

So in a big picture way thatís what weíre doing. In another big picture way we have a new commander on the Atlantis expedition with Carter leaving.

What we said in season four was with the threats that Atlantis is facing -- especially with regard to Wraith --  the military essentially flexed their muscles and wanted to exert some influence over the Atlantis expedition.

So Carter was appointed as a compromised candidate. In season five, with -- as we said -- the Wraith, back on their heels the (IOA) in turn flexed its muscles and they appoint Richard Woolsey as the new interim leader of the Atlantis expedition.

And that will be a big change and frankly, itís been a great change. Weíve been big Bob Picardo fans for years and what started off as a couple of episodes in Heroes and through a recurring role which eventually when the opportunity presented itself, there was no hesitation.

We said, if Bob can do it, we would love to have him on the show and Bob was kind enough to make time for us I guess.

Picardo as Woolsey

Picardo as Woolsey

Robert Picardo: This is very interesting for me to listen to as well because I find out all the secret things that the Executive Producer has in store. I was a little worried momentarily when he mentioned - when he made reference to a bit of a gender imbalance.

I thought that by Episode 20 perhaps heíd be given full reign to (pull) the feminine side - at least that heíd be cross-dressing on the base. But Iím happy to hear that thatís not in the planning.

I appreciate that. Iím looking forward to seeing how the dedicated fans of the show accept the new leader who is not nearly as cute as the previous two.

I think they have a tradition of using actors from the other franchise, the name of which I dare not speak, as some casting. Many of my colleagues from the different Star Trek shows have been guest stars.

Joseph Mallozzi: Some fans may argue differently. Sorry.

Robert, are you drawn to Sci-Fi?

Robert Picardo: I think itís a combination of both. Iíve - working on Star Trek for -- there I said it -- for seven years, I really came to appreciate what it was about that kind of storytelling that developed such a loyal fan base - that the regular viewer of science fiction has the interest and the capacity to really imagine the future, to dream of a better one and to kind - and I think even to project themselves into the future in a certain way, that thatís part of their psyche and personal passion.

Thatís why they watch this kind of program. And once I appreciated what it was about the storytelling that made it special and that made the fans so loyal, I really began to enjoy it and I think to flourish in it as an actor.

I really used my own imagination a lot and made a number of suggestions during my tenure on Star Trek. And - but also, I - because the fan base is so loyal, they like seeing an actor that they know from one show take on another role in another of their favorite shows.

So it does work both was. I canít honestly say that I set out at the beginning of my career to spend,  ten years in a jumpsuit. But thatís - it keeps you in the gym regularly as well.

With the first half of season five already on film, what would you say will be the turning point for viewers and ratings while continuing the second half and potentially a sixth season?

Joseph Mallozzi: The turning point?   Itís not so much a turning point but a build from last yearís strong finish.  I donít recall off the top of my head what the numbers were but I know that Last Man -- our season finale -- finished very strongly.

And hopefully thatís something we can continue with the premiere: Search and Rescue  and Iím sure some of you may have seen it along with the few thousand who happened to be cruising You Tube over the weekend or a couple of - last weekend.

And the reaction was overwhelming, positive from what I saw. I think itís awfully indicative of whatís to come this season, a variety of  action, character development,  just hopefully what the fans have grown to love and really desire from the show.

In terms of standout episodes off the top of my head I mean, Iím very happy with the first half. But of course,  one of the big episodes -- sort of like last year -- Be All My sins was a big midseason two-parter - the second part of the midseason two-parter.

In a similar way, the midseason two-parter is going to be very big this year. Itís First Contact and The Lost Tribe. And of course, Daniel Jackson will be dropping in for an appearance and thatís going to be huge for a lot of the SG-1 fans who, , Iím sure have missed him and,  have been asking,  what the hell is taking so long for Daniel to come on over to the Pegasus Galaxy.

Well they get the chance in the midseason two-parter. And, like last yearís Be All My Sins Remembered, itís full of surprises and action, and spectacular visual effects and some really nice character moments, particularly with regard to McKay and Daniel Jackson who are two characters that really havenít had a chance to sort of play off each other.

They play off each other really well. I mean one of the things I said was these two guys -- Hewlett and Shanks -- are the fastest talking actors in Sci-Fi,  bar none.
As a result - Martin Gero wrote both scripts and they were almost like 60-page scripts which a 60-page script is usually long.

I think First Contact was exactly to (top) and Iím not sure what Lost Tribe was - maybe a minute over. So, a lot of rapid fire talk between the two. And, hopefully, itíll be an episode that the fans will love just as much as last yearís midseason two-parter.

What adjustments will we see with Woolsey?

Robert Picardo: Well,  Woolsey appears briefly at the end of the season opener, Search and Rescue, which is a very exciting, action-oriented episode. He comes in and rather abruptly relieves Carter of command with his characteristic gruffness and lack, I think, of interpersonal skills.

So thatís your first experience of him. In the very next episode, which is called The Seed, he faces the first major crisis at his new command. Itís a very dramatic outing for the character. Itís - thereís not really much humor in that first one.

And he learns the lesson that he canít simply follow the rulebook and do this job. I mean, he - by his own estimation, heís broken protocol about five times in his first crisis.

And that puts him -- at the end of the show -- in a personal crisis because heís always sort of defined himself as someone who knows the rulebook, evaluates others ability to live by it and now in his first series of, , crisis command decisions heís broken his own, his own commitment to protocol and - in order to save a beloved member of the crew.

So he learns and in so doing - and so having that conflict, I think he earns the respect or the beginning respect from Colonel Sheppard because he demonstrates a capacity that he hasnít shown thus far.

The very next episode of Broken Ties, although thereís plenty of adventure in the A story, thereís also kind of a B story of Woolsey getting used to the technology of the base.

Heís the kind of guy who will end a briefing room meeting and tell everybody what to do. And then because they are - heís a little late following everyone out the door, itís because heís collecting his notes.

Then he doesnít know how to get out - he doesnít know how to open the door. I mean, heís running the base but he doesnít know how to use the technology yet and literally canít get out the door.

And there are two or three quite humorous moments, I think, throughout that episode. So that - and what was gratifying for me as the performer is that I shows right off the bat that the character has the gravity in the dramatic situations but they can also use, , his settling in and his own character (foils) to get some, , some comic moments as well.

Joseph Mallozzi: One thing I want to add with regard to those three comic beats - well the last one I donít want to give too much away, but itís a last scene were we find Woolsey in his quarters.

It was actually pitched out by Bob at the beginning of the season and he said  what I think would be great for the character? I would love to do this and we thought about it. I pitched it out in the room. I said,  Bob pitched this and everybody loved it, and we worked it into Broken Ties.

When you watch that moment just keep in mind that that was Bobís idea.

Are you worried at all about the shoes that you have to fill with Amanda being such a loved part of Stargate?

Robert Picardo: Of course. In the same way that when I got my role on Voyager as the artificial intelligence character in that cast, I was concerned that I would be measured against Brent Spinerís character because heíd been the android on the Next Generation and now I was the hologram on Voyager.

But nonetheless, we were going to mime some of the same issues and storylines. And I thought he had done that so successfully and was so popular that I would inevitably be measured against him.

Fortunately in that case, I was defined by the writers and as much as I could by my own work as differently as I could be from him, and it turned out to be a non-issue, I think.

I not only am a fan of Amanda as a character on the show -- I think her work is wonderful -- Iím a huge fan of her personally. She is one of the loveliest people you will ever meet and work with.

So both as an actor and as a character, itís a loaded situation to walk into. Fortunately, the rest of the cast has been very welcoming to me and also Amanda left, of course, for a spectacularly successful reason and that is to star in and produce her own new series for the Sci-Fi Channel.

Although itís daunting to replace such a popular character, I like to think that Iím not replacing her, that sheís moved on.

Thereís always the hope that sheíll come back and make guest appearances on the show and that the, , that the audience will not only enjoy watching me in the role and develop it - to see a character whoís not really cut out to be a leader try to build himself into one.

Joe, I was wondering if you could talk about your favorite memory of Don S. Davis?

Joseph Mallozzi:  Iím sure you guys all heard the heartbreaking news that Don passed away on Sunday and I just heard about it yesterday morning.

And last night I just stayed up and I wrote up a special blog entry for him, in his memory.   I donít know if thereís a specific memory.  In this business - I mean, Iím sure all you guys know better than anyone that,  people come across great in sort of a public persona but when you actually sit down to meet them face-to-face, a lot of the time theyíre not quite as, I guess, likeable and their on-screen personas.
With Don, he had a bigger heart, was even nicer than the Hammond character that he played, he was one of the first  actors to warmly welcome me to the set way back in season four.

We became friends over the course of my nine years of working on the show, Iíd say that Iíve enjoyed working with a lot of  prime people but in all honesty, there are only three that I would be bold enough to call my friends at this point.

One was Chris Judge. The second is the guy whoís on the conference call with me today, Bob Picardo, and the third was Don.

He was a very easygoing guy and, I guess one of the best memories I have of him is that the occasional (calm) that I attended.

Iíd see kind of the fans approach him with a certain amount of trepidation,  some fans were somewhat reticent to come across as fans and really impose on him.
But I mean, he was always incredibly welcoming and always very charming to the fans. And, whenever fans would approach him, they would approach him as sort of, in a sense that he was -  they were approaching General Hammond.

But once they got know him, they got to know really Don Davis who would be, , a very warm-hearted, incredibly self-deprecating man who sadly will be incredibly missed by not just obviously the fans but any and all - anybody who ever worked with him.

Robert, to what do you attribute the success of the Stargate universe?

Robert Picardo: Well, itís hard for me to separate my feelings from - Iím a guy who came from seven years on the competing franchise so when I look at what Stargate does well in comparison to where Iíve been before, I think Star Trek does some things very well.

Itís very philosophical and cerebral. But its formula is very different from, I think, the success formula that Atlantis does. Atlantis does action adventure extremely well but most importantly, to me, it has this sort of breezy humor, this ability to wink at the genre that Star Trek cannot have.

Star Trek just has to be - has to take itself very seriously. Thatís the mold. And Stargate Atlantis and certainly Stargate SG-1, , I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Richard Dean Anderson was the first Stargate star on television and his characteristic humor.

It has the ability to really let the audience in on the good humor, the joke of the fact that we know weíre going to save the world every week and that, , we can wink at that a little bit and have that kind of fun with it.

So to me, the offhanded humor of the show is what Iím enjoying the most and what I find most exciting having come from sort of a more rigid formula background.

Not to take anything away from my former employer and what it does - what it did well and continues to do well, but I think that that combination of action adventure and humor that, , thatís very much in the - sort of the Indiana Jones style is what I find the most fun.

What is it about the SA series that would make it attractive to someone whoís never seen it, who wants to start picking it up in season five?

Joseph Mallozzi: Well one of the nice things about the show is that the despite the fact that it does have a significant amount of mythology itís not really serialized.

Thereís an overall season to season arc but itís a very easy show to get into just because we do so many standalone episodes like, for instance, Whispers that we were referring to or, last year, Harmony.

Youíll always have a little connection to the past episodes. But itís not really a  serialized show - where basically you really have to have watched the previous seasons or even the previous couple of episodes to know whatís going on.

One of the great things about the show is the variety of the types of stories we tell. serialized versus standalone is one example of that.

In terms of Woolsey, how can leadership evolve out of someone whoís not a leader?

Robert Picardo: Well thatís the fun part. When Joe first called me last November and said how would you like to assume the command, my initial response -- which I donít think I said out loud -- was youíre kidding because I donít - I didnít think of the guy as the leader.

Heís the theorist. Heís the briefing - , heís a briefing room guy and not a real event guy. Heís not the guy whoís used to being in the fray. In fact, we had a certain amount of comic mileage on Atlantis by having him put in dangerous circumstances, and heís not a very heroic guy.

So I think that my initial surprise at the offer turned out - sort of then transformed itself into the most fun part of the challenge. Again, itís -  weíre in a world now were everybody changes careers several times during their lifetime and supposedly our childrenís generation will change them as many as a dozen times throughout their lifetime.

So to see a guy in,  in middle life or, or even a little behind middle life going - this is - , I now have to put aside everything Iíve done thus far and done successfully thus far, and try to reinvent myself.

Itís an interesting challenge and a fun one, both as an actor and a character. So Iím really having a ball. And itís exactly because heís an unexpected choice for this job, and thatís what I think is going to - , that the viewers hopefully will respond to as I have.

Did you like Woolsey?

Robert Picardo: No, when I first met him - when I first made my convention appearance - his personal appearances that of course, all the science fiction actors make, after two or three appearances as Woolsey and the - this character - I would be asked questions about working on Stargate and theyíd say I really like your character.

I would say youíre kidding because he was - I thought of him as kind of a jerk early on. But again, his very second appearance which I think was called Inauguration, you saw that even though he rubbed people the wrong way and was seen as someone who came in only to find out whoíd screwed up and as I said, assign blame - that at least he was driven by a personal passion that was quite positive and ethical.

He really believed in the importance of civilian oversight of a secret military operation so that it wasnít - so that a rogue element did not come in and take it over, and would no longer serve the interest of, , of the public.
So that the audience responded, I think, right away to the fact that Woolsey meant well even though he - , even though he annoyed people.

And in subsequent appearances, the writers fleshed him out, gave him some foibles and made him,  I think gave him his own kind of weird charm so that I think that journey hopefully will - is continuing right now in season five.

So I think that it was a bold thing for the producers to do, to pick a guy like this who did not - , doesnít seem to be necessarily the first choice for a leader, but to have him try to make himself into one, I think, is the really interesting and creative choice.

Is Woolsey going to be loosening up as this character arc and be less by the book as the season goes on?

Joseph Mallozzi: Well I mean, you kind of answered that question with regard to Episode 2 where - I mean, he comes in and heís essentially appointed because he is a by the book guy and someone who the IOA feels they can trust to follow protocol.

And in his very first, crisis situation in Episode 2 called The Seed, he throws the playbook out the window and quickly realizes that in the Pegasus Galaxy, you canít just follow protocol in order to save lives and really make the right decision.

You really have to react as a situation dictates. You just kind of  play it by ear and itís like a little mini crisis for Woolsey at the episodeís end where he realizes he - rather than following protocol, he went against protocol.

And even though the situation worked out,  thatís not the point because I mean, that he was not sent to the Pegasus Galaxy to just kind of play the cowboy.

And then over the course of the ensuing episodes, the lesson becomes even more obvious,  when Roman goes missing. And then itíll eventually culminate in an episode call Remnants - Episode 16 -- weíre not yet up to 15 now Ė where over the course of most of the season, I mean, he did come in as an interim leader.

Over the course of the scenes they begin to just kind of accept his as a new commander of the base. But then come Episode 15, heís suddenly up for review and the IOA is not exactly pleased with his performance because he was sent in to, just in a sense, be a pit bull but he wasnít following procedure and his job is at stake.
I kind of liken it to that first - the second episode that Bob referred to, Inauguration, where he played Kinseyís pit bull and Kinsey sicked him on SG-1.

And he was more than happy to do his job so long as he thought he was doing the right thing. And then near the end of the episode, he realized,  my gosh, I mean, Iím not doing the right thing.

And rather than just  play along with Kinsey, he actually goes to see the President and comes clean with him. And that was our first step towards, I guess, rehabilitating the character and making him a character that ultimately the audience could sympathize with and grow to like. You can argue back and forth whether heís leadership material, but I think, over the course of season five youíll come to realize that he is leadership material even though maybe he doesnít realize it himself.

Talk about Woolseyís relationships with the other Atlantis characters this year and is there one character youíre especially enjoying seeing Woolsey interact with in season five so far?

Robert Picardo: Thatís what really makes the character interesting to the loyal viewer is how the new guys fits in and reacts uniquely with each of the other principle characters.

Off the top of my head, when Woolsey arrives, in a way heís kind of - not intentionally, but in a way heís coldest to Rachelís - to Teylaís character -- Rachel Luttrellís character -- because her husband - the father of her child is basically being kept in a refugee camp and heís quite insensitive to that, I think, personally and choosing, , security over looking, , really with an open heart at her specific situation.

And whatís interesting is that her character is the first one to reach out to him and really be kind to him even though he is, perhaps, least sensitive to her which says something about her character.

But also, I think, that that disarms him all the more, that she makes the first real gesture toward him. In the episode that we have already talked about -- The Seed -- at the end of that, I think he takes a major step in the relationship with Joe Flanniganís Colonel Sheppard by admitting to him tat he doesnít know if heís the right guy to run the base because heís already broken his own rules so many times.

But Joe basically says thatís the only way to do it here and kind of gives him a pat on the shoulder and says,  youíre learning and perhaps youíre going to do better than we all thought - is the intimation of that moment.

Thereís been no particular kind of breakthrough moment, I think, with David Hewlittís character, Dr. McKay. I am a huge fan of Davidís and he cracks me up all the time on the set.

In fact, itís very rare that I work with an actor where Iím afraid Iím going to, , Iím going to break out laughing during a take. But he is as close as I get to making me lose it.

He is an extraordinarily funny guy, not only in the show but with these wonderful characterizations that he sort of breaks into in between takes.  I donít think Iíve had necessarily a single pivotal moment with his character that leaps to mind.

I donít remember the number of it. Joe Mallozzi will have to help me out with it. But I think itís Ghost in the Machine where Woolsey has to basically play his first poker hand.

When the chips are down and the danger is very high, he calls the bluff of the enemy and heís clearly - weíve never seen Woolsey be that kind of controlled and confident before.

And I think that that moment, kind of catches Dr. McKayís attention as boy, this guy has something that we didnít expect him to have. And who else? Jason - whatís fun about relating to Jason as a character is because Ronon is set up as the man of few words and, , pure action.

Ronon, Jason Momoa

Ronon, Jason Momoa

Heís a natural contrast to Woolsey who is set up as a guy who canít stop talking and is not very experienced in the real situations. So Iím looking forward to, , to - in fact, in one of the - I think the first show after the break, I have some very amusing scenes with Ronon where Iím trying to get him to file reports the way heís supposed to and he hates to do that.

He obviously hates to write. He doesnít even want to dictate the reports, . So I think that there are unique relationships developing between Woolsey and all the other principle characters that I think have a lot of room there for future growth.

Joe, what has been the toughest episode so far for you to write this season, would you say?

Joseph Mallozzi: Right now, the one Iím working on now, Remnants...which really is three different stories. I mean, thereís a story involving Sheppard on the mainland. Thereís a story involving Woolsey and a potential love interest, in the midst of this probationary review that heís undergoing that clearly is not - looks like itís not going to go very well.

And then thereís a third story involving McKay and Zelenka that kind of explores a bit of their friendship or  some would say non-existent friendship. But I mean, thereís still that mutual respect between the two.

When the - and it involves them discovering a device at the bottom of the ocean, just maybe a couple of hundred miles, , way from the city.  Itís a script that jumps kind of back and forth between the three stories.

As things progress, they inevitably come together and you realize that the three seemingly unrelated stories are in fact connected in a very big way.

There are a couple of instances that- particularly with regard to Sheppard, I donít want to give too much away.
Because I donít even know whatís going to make it to screen. But itís very dark with regard to the Sheppard story and there are a couple of instances that a couple of the writers, my fellow writers, balked at but a couple of other writers loved as well.

And I thought were very important to keep in the script that  Iíll be interested to see what the network says when they read the script.  Of all the scripts I think this one in particular has been particularly challenging.  Weíll see what the network has to say and what the rewrite will look like.

Further Reading on M&C

Amanda Tapping Biography - - Amanda Tapping Movies -