In praise of Stargate Atlantis’ Rodney McKay

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.

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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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