Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay, PhD (portrayed by British-born, Canadian actor David Hewlett) is probably the most popular character on Stargate: Atlantis, and one of science fiction’s greatest nerds. McKay is a certified genius, and a peerless expert in his field… but he’s also obnoxious, self-centered, arrogant, conceited, competitive, insecure, condescending and whiny. First appearing as a guest star on Stargate SG-1, the fans were allowed to get to know McKay pretty much at the same rate as the characters; on short acquaintance he was an insufferable know-it-all bastard who was basically there to sexually harass Samantha Carter, belittle her work, and ultimately receive his comeuppance.
On later visits to SG-1, he was fleshed out and humanized; the unlikeable traits were all still there, but we got to know the person behind them a bit better. Finally, he was made part of the Atlantis expedition, and we learned who he really was — a brilliant individual with many flaws, but with a capacity for true greatness. He’s one of those people whose best self only comes out under extreme pressure. Faced with imminent disaster and death, he is able to focus laser-like on solving seemingly impossible problems, and even displays real heroism. Many of Stargate: Atlantis‘ best shows are the ones where McKay takes center stage, here are 10 of the insufferable astrophysics genius’ greatest moments.
10) The Last Man
Season four’s marvelous cliffhanger is only at the bottom of this list because it’s not purely a McKay story; it’s a McKay/Sheppard story, a pairing that has produced some of the most entertaining episodes of the series. A freak accident sends Col. Sheppard 40,000 years into the future, where he finds an aged, holographic McKay on a long-abandoned Atlantis. Rodney created the hologram 40,000 years ago for Sheppard to find so he could explain to him what he needs to do to get back, and to give him vital information that will hopefully prevent Wraith/human-hybrid Michael from conquering the Pegasus galaxy. It’s a dark and powerful episode — the results of Michael’s success are truly disturbing, and David Hewlett really sells McKay’s 25-year quest to find out what happened to Sheppard, and then figure out a way to get him back.
If it had been any other character on the series, season two’s “Duet” would have been a trite and clich?d example of the obligatory “funny” episode. The plot is a slapstick comedy standard: An accident forces McKay to share his body with the mind of a woma, a Marine named Lt. Cadman (played by Jamie Ray Newman). As dictated by the Comedy Gods, a wave of basic cable-level sex jokes ensue, and scenes of McKay’s body totally under Cadman’s control inevitably lead to him kissing a man (his best friend, Dr. Carson Beckett, whom Cadman had a thing for). Somehow, Hewlett and the episode’s writer Martin Gero (who wrote most of the McKay episodes, and considers the character a sort of personal “avatar” on the show) make this all a hell of a lot more entertaining than it sounds. The gender-bending Gollum and Smeagol act is utterly believable, and way funnier than it has any right to be. It probably helps that Newman’s Cadman is immensely likable — it’s a real shame she didn’t become a series regular.
8) First Contact/The Tribe
Season five’s mid-season two-parter is probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a Stargate: Atlantis movie (unless hell freezes over and they pull Extinction out of the mothballs). SG-1‘s Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) visits Atlantis on a quest to find the secret lab of Janus, a brilliant, yet controversial scientist among the Ancients (the advanced race that were the forbearers of humanity and builders of Atlantis and the Stargates). McKay is less than thrilled about being ordered to assist Jackson, as he is scornful of pretty much any branch of science that he himself is not an expert in (he once chided Beckett by declaring medicine to be barely a step above voodoo), not to mention the fact that he’s naturally defensive and hostile around anyone who is nearly as smart as he is. McKay and Jackson’s exchanges are pure joy to watch. They rip on each other like a couple of middle schoolers, and speak fast enough to make an auctioneer’s head spin.
7) The Game
Not only is season four’s “The Game” one of the best McKay episodes, it is also one of the flat-out nerdiest episodes of Stargate: Atlantis ever made. Another McKay/Sheppard story, the doc and the colonel find some Mysterious Ancient Devices? (more about these later) in a room in Atlantis they mistakenly believe to be a game room. These devices are consoles and data screens with which one can create virtual societies, much like games such as Sim City, Civilization, and the old play-by-mail game Balance of Power, just to name a few. McKay and Sheppard have been playing this “game” on their off time for weeks, building medieval civilizations, and squabbling over mining rights, territory claims, fair trade practices, and McKay’s “cheating” (he gave his medieval villagers airships, explosives, velocipedes, and rudimentary steam power). Of course, it turns out this is no game room — the consoles are connected to satellites which transmit their orders down to a planet where the leaders of these nations read and obey them, believing this info to be the literal Word of God. McKay’s country looks like his ego exploded all over the landscape; their flag is the Canadian flag with his face instead of a maple leaf, pictures of him aung in every home…even the women all wore the blonde bob-cut McKay likes so much on Samantha Carter, including his country’s leader, Nola (Laura Harris of Dead Like Me). Of course, once they realize real people are involved, they stop the game and visit the planet to set these two countries — who were on the verge of war due to McKay and Sheppard’s supremely geeky arguments — straight.
Season two’s “Trinity” (named after the code name for the first test of a nuclear device in 1945) is an important episode as it establishes two things: 1) McKay isn’t always right, and 2) when McKay is wrong, very bad things can happen if he doesn’t just swallow his pride and accept it. The team finds yet another Mysterious Ancient Device? — a generator that hypothetically can draw unlimited energy from subspace. Trouble is, even the Ancients couldn’t get it right, and abandoned the project. Of course, McKay thinks he’d solved their problem, and refuses to give up on making the device work, even after being ordered to do so. He winds up destroying an entire solar system (thankfully an uninhabited one), a fact his teammates are all too happy to remind him of at a moment’s notice.
5) The Tao of Rodney
Hey, it’s another Mysterious Ancient Device?! If Stargate: Atlantis has taught us anything, it’s that 1) someone will always mess with a Mysterious Ancient Device? before its function, purpose, and/or proper operation are fully understood (“someone” usually being McKay) and 2) consequences of using a “Mysterious Ancient Device?” are usually unspeakably horrific in one manner or another. Seriously, it’s a wonder they didn’t all blow themselves up long before they became Wraith Chow. Anyhoo, season three’s “The Tao of Rodney” has McKay getting zapped by an Ancient “Ascensio-matic” ray, a device designed to help mortals along the road to Ascension. It basically evolves you, granting abilities like super senses, super-intelligence, telekinesis, telepathy, and healing powers. It sounds great… except once this is done, you have to ascend very quickly, or you die. This episode is more than a little reminiscent of the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Nth Degree,” in which something similar happened to Barclay. However, it’s entertaining enough that one can easily forgive the lack of originality.
4) McKay and Mrs. Miller
Remember how I said McKay is defensive and combative around people who approach his intellectual level? Well, imagine what he must be like around someone who is actually smarter than him. Enter McKay’s little sister, Jeannie Miller (played by David Hewlett’s real-life sister, the lovely Kate Hewlett). The two of them haven’t spoken in four years, due largely to her retirement from the world of science to marry an English major and become a homemaker. It’s from her that we learn McKay’s real name… Meredith. Stargate Command contacts Jeannie when she, seemingly out of nowhere, composes a series of equations that would eventually lead to the building of a space-time matter bridge that could connect alternate universes. She’s sent to Atlantis to work on the project with her estranged brother. Things are complicated further when the matter bridge sends an alternate McKay to this reality, and, by the Laws of Alternate Universes, since it’s not an evil, goateed McKay, it’s an absurdly perfect McKay (if you’re a Red Dwarf fan, think of Ace Rimmer). “Rod” McKay, as this one is known, is everything our McKay isn’t, and his arrival naturally causes him a great deal of distress as McKay’s sure his friends will prefer this “new and improved” McKay. In the end, Rod is able to return to his own reality, McKay patches things up with his sister, and the team admits that as amiable as Rod was, they prefer the Dr. McKay they know. Ronon didn’t trust his overly pleasant demeanor, and Teyla was annoyed by his correcting her on matters of Athosian history. It’s a nice message: If people truly like you, they like you warts and all.
3) Brain Storm
“The Game” was certainly one of Stargate: Atlantis‘ nerdiest episodes, but season five’s “Brain Storm” was without a doubt the nerdiest. I mean, it would be enough that it’s an Earth-based show about McKay returning to the cutthroat, publish-or-perish world of physics — a world that had written McKay off as a crazy recluse since he’s spent most of his career working on top secret projects in facilities that don’t officially exist (Atlantis, Area 51) — but “Brain Storm” boasts a nerd dream-team of guest stars. Fellow Canadian Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall, Newsradio) plays Malcolm Tunney, McKay’s wealthy, less gifted but more worldly college rival, the Edison to McKay’s Tesla. Marshall Bell, best known to nerd-dom as Kuato’s “brother” in Total Recall, plays Tunney’s financier Kramer. And Bill Nye — yes, as in “The Science Guy” — and the great Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson appear as themselves. Watching Nye and Tyson needle McKay at a presentation held by Tunney over his perceived reclusiveness is nothing short of surreal (McKay fires back by referencing the reclassification of Pluto: “Way to make the little kids cry, Neil! That make you feel like a big man?”). This episode is noteworthy also for being McKay and Dr. Keller’s first “real” date. I’m sure nerds across the world gave a cheer when the “love triangle” is resolved and Keller (Jewel Staite, folks! Jewel Staite!) chooses McKay over Ronon. The episode ends with the two of them getting it on in the back of a private jet. It’s nice to know that Kaylee finally got herself some action.
2) Grace Under Pressure
McKay suffers a concussion after an accident leaves him trapped in a submerged Puddle Jumper (fa small, shuttle-like spacecraft made to travel through Stargates). To maintain his sanity while he awaits rescue, his mind creates an image of his dream girl. Col. Samantha Carter (the fact that she would become his boss in season four is proof of the existence of karma). Fantasy-Carter manages to keep McKay from succumbing to despair as the Jumper fills with frigid water, and it’s a testament to McKay’s character that she doesn’t simply appear as a mindless sex object. McKay reveals how much he truly respects her, despite his less than gallant treatment of her in the past… although he does have Fantasy-Carter take her top off near the end.
1) The Shrine
McKay contracts the Pegasus galaxy’s version of Alzheimer’s, which causes him to rapidly lose his memory and intellect, a terrifying prospect for an individual who puts so much stock in his mental acumen. There’s a lot for an actor to sink his teeth into in this script, and Hewlett really conveys McKay’s terror, frustration, anger, misery… and later his childlike confusion. Surprisingly, it’s Ronon of all people who saves the day when he convinces the team to take McKay to a shrine known in the Pegasus galaxy to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of this condition, usually long enough for the afflicted to say good bye to his loved ones, and then die with dignity. However, matters are complicated by the unfortunate fact that the shrine is on a Wraith-controlled planet, making getting there a difficult proposition.
Turns out this shrine is a… wait for it… Mysterious Ancient Device?, a power source of some form that emits radiation that causes the parasite which causes the condition to retract. This allows Keller to perform emergency surgery (in a cave, no less) to remove it.
This is actually the second time McKay faced imminent death and said his goodbyes to his teammates (“The Tao of Rodney” being the first). Granted, in both cases there was no real fear that he’d actually die (I mean he’s Rodney effing McKay! Like they could have done the show without him!), however, “The Shrine” does have a greater amount of dramatic tension to it, and watching McKay’s mind slip away is harrowing in a way that you rarely find on a show like this.