In praise of Stargate Atlantis' Rodney McKay

Feature Anastasia Klimchynskaya 10 Jul 2013 - 07:00

Anastasia argues that Stargate Atlantis' Dr Rodney McKay is the ultimate geek hero...

When I first watched Stargate Atlantis, it took me all of two episodes to fall in love with Dr. Rodney Mckay. The reason for the connection, I think, is because McKay’s a geek – and a geek in the way fellow geeks understand it. He’s completely obsessed with his particular field (astrophysics), full of love and dedication for the work that makes his life meaningful, and full of a passion that many, like myself, find so relatable. He spends his free time doing research. He nitpicks Back to the Future for scientific inaccuracies. He’s seen Star Wars and Star Trek and accuses John Sheppard of “Kirking Around.” He’s seen the same shows we have. His geeky references are our geeky references. And, like us, he probably grew up watching all the science fiction shows and then dreaming of the stars in the night sky.

But what makes Rodney’s character special to geeks is that he was able to fulfil those dreams. Raise your hand if you watched Star Trek and Star Wars as a kid and then wanted to go to a galaxy far, far away to join the Rebellion, or to sign up for Starfleet to boldly go where no one has gone before? Well, Rodney McKay does all that. He travels to a galaxy far, far away; he goes where no one has gone before, discovering strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, making discoveries that haven’t been made before. He’s a geek like us, and got to fulfill our dreams.

And yet… he’ s not from a future where humans are smarter and better and kids learn calculus in elementary school. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Trek, but it portrays a utopian future in which humans have evolved to be more than we are now, in which they’re smarter and better and as much as I love them dearly, they’re not us. They’re projections of what humanity could achieve, and as brilliant as that is, it’s a projection, a dream of humanity from a better future. But Rodney? He’s me, he’s us, human, flawed, arrogant, and hailing from our twenty-first century of limited (in relation to the twenty-fourth, at least) means. And he still gets to follow those dreams and be a hero. He’s possibly the geekiest character on a show full of scientists who don’t know how to put aside their job, but that doesn’t make him the punch-line of the joke. Because Stargate Atlantis is a show where knowledge saves the day as often as blowing things up, where mind so often triumphs over matter, and Rodney McKay incarnates that.

Seriously, he quite literally saves people with his brain. Which, I know, is something that also happens on Star Trek, because the Federation believes in asking questions first and shooting as a last resort. But what makes Rodney’s story particularly special is because he isn’t a larger-than-life human with an evolved brain from four centuries in the future. Yet he’s still the one who figures out how to use technology made ten thousand years ago by a race of beings so advanced that they were building FTL ships when humans were barely human. He’s the one who comes up with solutions and implements them on the fly as everything is crashing down around him. He’s the one that makes an ancient city-starship fly through space. He’s a hero because he saves (and admittedly, can also kill) people with his brain.

He also gets the girl. Yes, Stargate does use some amount of his social awkwardness around women for comic relief, but his relationships with women don’t end with comic relief. He’s not pathetically single. He’s not Mr. Universe from Serenity with his lonely love-bot. He’s not the characters from The Big Bang Theory, who can barely talk around women. He’s consistently portrayed on the show as having relationships with smart, interesting women who appreciate him for what he is. Even though he’s not a charming rogue like John Sheppard (at least, I sense that that was the intention with his character), and even if we’re somehow supposed to believe that he’s not as sexy as John Sheppard (ahem… excuse me?), he’s not sadly single. He gets chosen over characters played by the gorgeous Jason Momoa. McKay actually breaks hearts.

To me, that was mind-blowing because it was so rare. When I watch TV, I don’t see that portrayal very often. What I do see, more often than I’d like, is the media capitalizing on a divide between  geeks and non-geeks, between those obsessive, glasses-sporting, comic-reading, sci-fi enthusiasts, and the “cool people.” The example that comes to mind is The Big Bang Theory (and my apologies if you’re a fan; I’m not), because it’s a show the premise of which is to laugh at geeks and geek culture, not with them. The characters’ obsessions are the punch-lines of the jokes. Geeks on the show are socially awkward, obsessed with silly and meaningless topics, and outright laughable. It reinforces the fact that, even if Comic-Con may be larger than ever, even if the The Avengers made unprecedented amounts of money, there’s still a line between liking something and being too obsessed with it, and to be cool, you have to be sure not to cross that line. Rodney McKay undermines all of that. Granted, he’s a character in a science fiction show with a devoted following, but which is hardly ‘mainstream.’ But he’s important because he provides geeks with a shred of hope that we won’t always be the punch-line of the joke.

We love science fiction shows because they open new worlds for us. They inspire us, showing us a future that might come to be and giving us hope. And the most inspiring thing about Stargate Atlantis is, frankly, Rodney McKay. He gives us hope, because he’s a geek like us, a flawed, human, relatable character, and a big damn hero to boot. I’m not saying we’ll discover a buried Stargate in Egypt (unless there are even more things the government hasn’t been telling us). We might never go to another galaxy like Rodney. But still, he gives us hope that one day, we, the ones who wanted to enlist in Starfleet, who bought light sabers as kids and tried to use the Force, might be the ones to make new discoveries and open up new paths for exploration. He’s the one who reminds us that the stories that made us dream are not mere illusion, that our passion isn’t a hopeless obsession. Rodney McKay is the reminder that, one day, we might be the ones to make a change and be a hero, all with the power of our brains and our passion. 

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Awesome work there. Have you considered letting David Hewlett know about it?

While McKay may be the most accessible character in the genre, he is still removed from us in a similar way to the Starfleet heroes mentioned, in that he is amazingly, staggeringly, super genius smart. It's difficult to measure just how smart he is since he continually boasts about it (his biggest character flaw in fact) but the results speak for themselves. So while I may (in a fantasy) find myself in Atlantis, I wouldn't have lived past the pilot trying to do McKay's job, let alone rack up the amazing achievements he has. One could argue that Eli Wallace of Stargate Universe is actually a more accessible character, since he spends most of his life pre-show doing what we viewers do: sitting at home watching sci-fi and playing computer games dreaming of the stars. Of course he is also scary smart, but his intelligence (at least at first) is better hidden under his "You are here" shirt, While I have no doubt that there are geeks in the world like McKay (many people with the talent for it have taken up astrophysics and higher mathmatics because of their love of star trek and wars - to such an extent that there have been several papers written by very clever people on the feasibilty of warp drive) most of us are in fact like Eli.

Yes, he gets the girl. But said girl also spends all of her time trying to change everything fundamental about him. Remember Brainstorm? Sit down. Don't talk. Don't try to take credit for everything. Pay more attention to me. You're embarrassing me. Etc. and so on. This is your idea of a relationship? If so, then ouch.

One small tweet towards him should let him know.

Rodney 'Meredith' McKay IS the greatest character on the show, and if those people at MGM 2.0 ever get the fact that Stargate is there second franchise after Bond (they said so them selfs in the past) and they bring back Stargate (and not in the Universe kind of way please) I hope Hewlett is back on bourd. After all he loves Stargate. He even bought as much of the SGU sets as he could to use in his proposed scifi series.

I never saw any Atlantis, but he was brilliant on SG1. I always wondered if he grew to become less of a dick on SGA.

Nope, he was still a dick, but it was done in such a great way that you end up loving him

Would like to nominate the moment when he gives Carson a massive kiss as the best McKay moment of all time. The look on his face when he realises what he has just done is absolutely priceless

He also had a big thing for Carter. which is a feeling I can also share with him!

I liked McKay most of all because he's selfish a lot of the time, and okay with being genuinely afraid. No more than most of us would actually be, but a lot more than the heroic folks on tv usually are - he felt more real.

It's never too late to watch SGA. It's a great series.

It's definitely high on my to-do list!

best McKay episodes were (IMHO) the Tao of Rodney McKay and The Shrine.

Absolutely loved this article.

That is all.

You really should! What's also awesome is to watch the Stargate series in chronological order. This means the following:
- Stargate (The 1994 movie)
- Stargate SG-1 Seasons 1-7
- Stargate SG-1 Season 8 & Stargate Atlantis Season 1 (Begin with SG-1's New Order two-parter, than go back and forth with the two series.)
- Stargate SG-1 Season 9 & Stargate Atlantis Season 2
- Stargate SG-1 Season 10 & Stargate Atlantis Season 3 (Hold back the SGA season finale 'First Strike'.)
- Stargate: The Ark of Truth (and then SGA's 'First Strike'.)
- Stargate Atlantis Season 4 and SGA Season 5 first episode 'Search and Rescue' (you will know why at the end of said episode.)
- Stargate: Continuum
- Stargate Atlantis Season 5
- And if you really want to watch everything: Stargate Universe Seasons 1 and 2.
- Bonus: Stargate: Infinity (animated non-canon spin-off)

Wow, I feel like such a nerd now.

Going to save this for future reference and do all of this in order one day!

Dude, thank you SO much, that's perfect! I actually got lost with all of SG in Season 8 when SGA came in, and my whole SG experience got derailed. So, I've saved this list as a doc and I'm going to do an epic project to re-watch everything in order. I've got SG1 on DVD complete, this is the final motivation I need to get Atlantis and Universe too! Thanks again. :)

Yes, but aside from Keller, he also dates Katie Brown, who, I get the sense, actually was legitimately in love with him, partly because he was really smart. There was also that woman in the episode "The Brotherhodd," who, I think, really liked McKay, again, because he was intelligent. I was never a fan of Keller myself (though my memories of Brainstorm are fuzzy) and their relationship seemed to me to be very...bland. But I do still think that, though they didn't end up writing the relationship very well, they at least tried to pair up McKay with somebody smart, somebody who didn't think he was terribly uninteresting because he was a geek.

agreed. (also, as far as same sex kisses go on TV and on sci fi shows, I really love how it wasn't played as that huge of a deal).

I think The Tao of Rodney was the episode in which I realized that McKay was basically me (with about twenty extra IQ points). I think that was seriously the best episode on the show.

Well put together. I had to manually sync the episodes by air date when I watched them, having something like this would have made it a lot easier!

One of the things I liked most about this show was how the "cool folks" were shooting and blowing things up ... to give McKay time to save their backsides. They knew their own skills were necessary (and cool), but they also knew who would really save them in the end and they did everything they could to give him time to do it. That's real life when you're working with professionals.

I HATED Rodney. One of the reasons I stopped watching Atlantis was because I hated McKay so badly. I found him a self-absorbed know-it-all. His geeky references did not detract (in my opinion) from my sheer, overwhelming urge to beat him to death with his own arm. I hated the episodes he was in in SG-1, and almost never watched Atlantis when I found out he was a main character. He may have been a geek, but he was the kind of geek that ppl hate. The kind that gives geeks a bad rep for being complete a-holes.

Wow, seeing everyting above (and below of course) I didn't expect this amount of appriciation. Glad to be of service, people.

Also, for those who are into Star Trek, google "thestartrekchronologyproject". Click on the blogspot site and there you will find a fun pdf which puts the whole of Star Trek into one chronologically (by stardate that is) correct line.

Neurotic I'm doing that right now! I'm in the middle of season 7 at the moment. And if you want it, SGA is on bluray, and SG-1 seasons 8-10 are in 720p HD on iTunes. Universe's first season I believe is also on bluray, season 2 however for some reason is only in HD on iTunes.

Agree wholeheartedly but I'd prefer to forget that awful fake romance with Keller. She couldn't accept him for his wonderful uniqueness and idiosyncracies, the traits that made him Rodney McKay, something his team and friends were able to do. By the way, my dog is called Rodney. He is the strangest yet most loveable dog I've ever known so what else could I call him.

He does get annoying if you watch a few episodes in a row.

I like She is the best leader SGA.(compare with other person when she gone) I think if the SGA is not cut off at 5th. may be return to a leader SGA again same as Dr.Jackson adsend and desend again. Although the last final went to a space, but in the replicator mode I think it save her life to return a human again in one day.

Haha, I don't have a dog so my lizard is named Rodney.

I, however, liked the Keller/McKay romance. It somehow 'worked' in my mind.

Rodney is my favourite character in SGA, hands down. How?? He's such an annoying, egotistical jerk, but somehow his character sucks you in and you ultimately end up liking him, in spite of his many, many flaws. I think it's partly because you know it's all a front. He tries to pretend that he doesn't care about other people's feelings or livelihood, but ultimately in the end, you see that he really does. He acts like a coward, but he actually ends up doing a lot of really brave things.

He was also more interesting because he was the most developed main character. He changed the most throughout the series.

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