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Joe Mallozzi, Showrunner, on Stargate Atlantis Season Four

Stargate Atlantis season four launches tomorrow night at 10 (9/C) on SCI FI Channel.  This year, Colonel Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) takes command of the base and Jewel Staite (Firefly, Serenity) dons scrubs as the new doctor.  Behind the scenes, executive producers Joe Mallozzi and Paul Mullie take over the showrunning duties for the first time.

Last July, at Comic-Con, I sat down with Joe Mallozzi to discuss the new season and the trajectory of season four.  Here’s the transcript of our chat.

Warning:  spoilers.  Level: minor.   The transcript is broken into three sections.

MM:  This is your first year as showrunner on Atlantis, right?

Joe: Yes, it is.

MM:  Every showrunner brings their own stamp to a show.  I’m wondering -  what would you like to bring to Atlantis.

Joe:  Everything that Atlantis is we owe to Brad [Wright] and Robert [Cooper].  They’re the creators.  They’ve sheparded the show for three years.  Martin Gero has done more episodes than anyone.  Carl Binder is such a good writer.

When Paul [Mullie] and I came in, we looked at the show and thought: we’ve done three seasons.  We got an early pick up.  We don’t have to produce 40 episodes of television.  So we have the time to concentrate on aspects of the show that we never had the opportunity to focus on.  The first couple of seasons really were set up.  The third season things began to gel.

Now, the fourth season we want to look at the different relationships between the characters -  we’ve done the McKay-Sheppard relationship - but character relationships we haven’t explored like McKay-Ronon or McKay-Teyla.  We wanted to look at characters who really haven’t had a chance to shine as much in previous seasons.  Like Teyla, we came up with a terrific dark story line for her that had to be slightly readjusted when we found out she [Rachel Luttrell] was pregnant, but that become an arc in itself. 

By introducing the Sam Carter and Dr. Keller characters, we’ve shaken things up again a bit.  By introducing these characters it also allows us to explore our existing characters in a different way.

McKay has a past relationship w/ Carter so we can discuss that, and also Carter as a new leader w/ a military background.  How is she going to take charge?  Right off the bat there are a couple of scenes w/ her and Sheppard that demonstrate that the relationship is a bit strained.  The same goes w/ Ronon.  We do an episode very early on called "Reunion."  He discovers some fellow Satedans that he assumed were dead in the fall of Sateda.  They assumed he had died as well.  They finally track him down.  Ronon is faced w/ a dilemma.  They are friends he reconnects with.  They form a bond based on his past.  He has to decide if he stays w/ the new family he has formed, or go back to the old family. 

In the same episode, the episode that Carter comes in - and we have a really sweet scene between her and Teal’c where she leaves the SGC [Stargate Command] and says good-bye.  And she’s off to her new home in Atlantis, so essentially it’s a nice contrast between the two.   And there’s one’s point in the episode where Ronon wants to invite his own friends to Atlantis and Carter, putting her own stamp on the leadership position in Atlantis, says but no, there are no unauthorized guests coming to Atlantis.  She and Ronon face off.

It’s been a lot of fun to explore facets of the relationships and characters we haven’t had a chance to sit down and explore in previous seasons, redress the imbalance in terms of type of character stories told.  In the past there has been a lot of emphasis on McKay and we realize that.  We’ve tried to redress that, especially in the first half of the season where each of our characters have a story - Keller, McKay, Ronon, Sheppard, Carter - everyone has story. 

In the back half we start paying off the story arcs we’ve set up.  We have a huge three-part story arc in the middle of the season.  Carson Beckett makes a reappearance in the back-half of season two.  Woolsey is coming back. We’re introducing a new race.  I feel very positive about the season. 

I think it’s the best season we’ve done.  I know the actors would agree.  There’s such a good energy on the set.  You just feel it on set and in the stories themselves.  In previous seasons there have been a handful of episodes and I’ll think:  well, they weren’t all that good.  I have to say, so far in season four, there is not a stinker in the bunch.  It’s very early.  We haven’t seen all the finished episodes but so far we feel really, really positive about what we’ve done.

MM:  It came up a bit in the Atlantis panel and then you were interrupted but you were talking about exploring Sheppard’s backstory.

Joe:  it’s one of things we’ve been well aware of,  that we’ve explored all the other characters but Sheppard, who is essentially the team leader but has had very little back story.  Joe [Flanigan, who plays Sheppard] came in and pitched a story, one of the stories he pitched out this year, that has the team traveling back to earth to deal w/ a situation.  It was a springboard, a kernel of an idea.  And then we started spinning it last week.  And we were thinking… this would be an opportunity to get into Sheppard’s background, something we’ve been talking about for quite awhile. 

One of the things we know from “Letters from Pegasus” - he has no connection back on earth and no one he felt strongly enough to send a message to [back to earth].   We also know he’s divorced.  What’s gong on there?  Does he have family, is he estranged from family?   The story line we’re working on with him has him going back for a funeral.  And we’re thinking maybe someone will go with him - maybe Ronin or McKay will go back with him.  He’ll reconnect w/ his family.  We’ll be dealing with the big sci fi angle that will drive the story because all of our stories, obviously, have that angle.  But it will also give us an opportunity to explore Sheppard’s character.  What’s going on w/ his family?  Why are they estranged?  We’ve come up w/ an atypical story for the character which is going to be a lot of fun.

We’re still very early on.  We’re still kicking around some ideas.  Hopefully, we’ll start spinning it on Monday.  This week we hope we will have broken the last three stories -  this one, and the season finale which Paul pitched out.  And we have a blank spot.  It really depends on the budget, too.

MM:  In the past you were sharing resources w/ SG-1.  The Stargate SG-1set is still there, right?  Is the stress now off a little?

Joe:  It’s kind of a good news/bad news situation.  There were definite positives w/ the two projects.  If SG1 was building a cave set, it was something that wouldn’t have to come out of our budget, that we could use in our episodes down the line.  The SGC [Stargate Command] sets are still up so we’re still using them.  What happens after season four, I don’t know.  Hopefully, there will be more [Stargate SG-1] movies. I personally think there probably will be more movies so the SGC sets will probably stay up.

In terms of pressure, it’s really more the pressure of not having to produce 40 episodes of television.  It’s amazing when we first came on the show, and producing 20 episodes, it was very tiring, everyone was very tired.  And then the spin-off got picked up and we thought “40 episodes! How the hell are we going to do this!!??”  But we adjusted and we did it.  And now that we’re doing 20,  [laughing] I said to Paul, we’re so spoiled!  I can’t believe – as showrunners it’s still very tiring producing 20 episodes but it’s nowhere near as tiring as producing 40 episodes.  It’s almost like a holiday!” 

MM:  what time do you get up in the morning?

Joe:  In all honesty, the show is such a well oiled machine that we don’t have to be on set [that early]…I’ll wake up at six and do my workout..and get in about nine.  Or, if it’s one of my episodes, I’ll get in earlier.

MM:  Are you directing? 

Joe: oh god no!  I leave the directing to the professionals.  Martin, Will and Andy do such an incredible job.  [laughing] I make a deal with them:  they don’t write and I don’t direct.

MM:  Will Atlantis go back to the old system where it airs in Jan. and then in the summer?

Joe:  From what I heard, it will premiere in late September.  From what I understand, there’s not going to be a traditional lay off - maybe a couple of weeks off – but then we’re back in January.  SCI FI will have the world premiere of the series so fans in the U.S. will not be downloading because it’s premiered in Canada and the U.K. beforehand.  SCI FI channel will have world premier in September and they will continue to air original episodes for the first time ever through January.

MM:  So, Atlantis will essentially follow the traditional network schedule?

Joe:  Yes, it’s going to be veeerry interesting.  Because we’re going to be up against the big shows.

MM:  What was the most difficult, toughest episode to film this year?

Joe:  Rachel’s [Rachel Luttrell who plays Teyla] pregnancy threw us a bit for a loop.  The physicality - we had to stunt her more and write around it.  Jason [Momoa who plays Ronon] became a father last week, so that was a big deal.  He had to leave.  We had to switch off the schedule, had to suddenly shoot a day without Ronon and switch it. The actors were great about it. They all woke up and even though they weren’t prepared but they all came in and did it.  Things like that..

MM:  when you started on SG1 – it was season four, right? – did you ever expect to end up where you are?

Joe:  Never, never!  Every year we thought it would the last season [for SG-1].  Every season, we always assumed it would the last season…until season ten and we felt very good that we would get an eleventh season pick-up.  And then we didn’t.

MM:  You started out as a writer.  Your first script was "Scorched Earth,"…

Joe:  Yes - Brad and Robert really gave us the opportunities to grow as producers.  The door was open as long as we proved ourselves, they were always willing to give us opportunities.  We’ve done a good job but if it hadn’t been for their support we wouldn’t be here.

MM:  You just appeared on the Weather Channel, didn’t you?

Joe:  In fact I was!!   Ross Hull who’s an actor worked on a show we did called Student Bodies.  We wrote a third of the 65-episode run.  It’s a teen sitcom.  And he’s working with Weather Channel.  And he said "we’re always looking for weather related stories to do and I’d like to a story about how weather effects production.”  I missed it.  Was it any good? 

[bit o’ trivia – Hull also appeared in an episode of Atlantis titled "Suspicion."]

MM:  I don’t know.  I was surfing the net, looking for interesting stuff and I stumbled upon someone’s Live Journal and they said, “I saw Joe Mallozzi…” so apparently a lot of people in Canada saw it….

Joe: [grinning]   Maybe someone will post it on youtube.  That’s where I usually find my interviews.

MM:  Yeah – Youtube is primary source material now.  So in terms of any other SG-1 cast members, will we be seeing any more on Atlantis?

Joe:  Teal’c for sure…he does a cameo in "Reunion."   We wanted to do a good-bye scene for Carter and I asked  Chris Judge and he was so good about it.   A lot of the fans always wondered, who would win in a fight -  Ronon or Teal’C?  That’s a very interesting question.  We came up with a story idea where the two warriors face off, and what would it be like if the two of them got together and then had to face a threat together.  We pitched out the story idea and everyone liked it.  And we approached Chris and he’s always game.  It’s a great, great story.  It’s called "Midway."  Carl Binder is writing it.  That will be in the back half of season. 

I’d love to get Daniel [played by Michael Shanks] on Atlantis.  Of any character, it would make more sense for him to come to Atlantis.  I was thinking maybe some sort of Ancient related story.  We do have that slot open.  There’s a possibility he could figure in the season finale.  Preferably though it would be more of an episode where he would drive the action.  But really, it depends on budget just because we’re nearing the end of the season and we have to see how much we have to play w/.  If it’s not possible this season, then next season definitely, we definitely have to do a Daniel comes to Atlantis story - at least one episode.

MM:  Have you had any indications from SCI FI about a season five?

Joe:  They’re playing their cards pretty close to the vest.  The back half of season three was disheartening.  The ratings suffered.  In all fairness, SCI FI, network, cable ratings all suffered [last April] across the board.  There’s a correlation in drop of viewership and increased use of DVR, and I read if you factored in up to a full week of viewing we would recoup the audience lost.  It seems they’re slow to adjust to the technology and incorporate those audiences into ratings.  SCI FI is the most DVR’d channel.  They’re sci fi fans, they’re tech savvy.  And the back half of season three – something I brought up -  by the time it aired on SCI FI, it had premiered in Canada, the U.K., and on the Internet.  All the spoilers were out.  How much that affected the ratings, I don’t know.

Also, in the back of my mind – something that I’m worried about - we don’t have the SG1 lead in any more.  

MM:  What about Richard Dean Anderson.  Any chance we might see him on Atlantis?

Joe:  He’ll do the movies.  As w/ every story line or possible guest star, we say it’s possible.  Who knows but the reality is: Rick is an expensive, expensive actor.   I’m not saying never but….[laughing] we could blow up a lot a stuff for what we would pay him to make an appearance on the show…blow up a lot of ships.

MM:  I had a chat w/ Amanda [Tapping] about her new role.  It’s a different responsibility for Carter – she’s a military person, accustomed to military command.  When I first talked to Brad Wright about Atlantis, he talked about how he imagined the person running the facility as civilian.  Is Carter stepping into a civilian role?

Joe.  No, she’s still military. One of things I point out when people say, “it’s not an international mission anymore, it’s a military mission” -  it’s still an international mission.  The scientists remain, it’s a diverse mix of individuals that make up the mission.  The reality is as soon as they faced the threat of the Wraiths - after "No Man’s Land" when the Wraith threatened earth, it became obvious that the military would have to have more of a presence. The question I would ask is not so much why is the military becoming involved, but what took them so long?

I think Carter is a perfect candidate. She has experience w/ Replicators, the leadership abilities, science background and military background.  She’s the compromise candidate.  She has the connections.  Jack can give her a recommendation from Washington, Woolsey can give her an IOA recommendation.  If there’s any candidate who is the perfect person to take over Atlantis, it would be her.  And she does!

MM:  And she looks great too.

Joe:  She does look great!  With her new look and her long hair.

MM:  Let her keep her long hair,  Joe.

Joe:  Yes, I will.