A Question of Motivation
First off, I want to be clear: this isn't meant as character bashing. It's a question, a fundamental issue with the character that's been bothering me more and more.
Also important to establish right off the bat: I was never a particularly big Carson fan. I didn't dislike him, but he was in no way my favorite. I say this to make it clear that while yes, I was sorry to see him go, I wasn't heartbroken, and his loss didn't bias me against Keller. Just the reverse: when I first heard that Jewel Staite would be replacing him, I was ecstatic. I loved her in Firefly, enjoyed her portrayal of Kaylee-Wraith in "Instinct," and was enthusiastic to see what she would add to the Atlantis assemble. Sadly, while I continue to love the actress, I don't think the writers have delivered in terms of character.
That said, on to the question: What is Keller doing on Atlantis?
This is really a two-fold inquiry: Why did Atlantis/SGC/IOA bring her on board? and What was Keller's own motivation for going there? For all the other major (and many of the minor) characters, we can easily answer at least one of those two questions, and in many cases, both. But Keller?
I've seen several people cite her ordinariness and her lack of confidence as pluses. Something "normal", "believable" amidst a cast of "superheroes." In other shows, I might agree. But what place does "normal" have on Atlantis? As your Head of Medicine? At that young an age? In that prestigious, not to mention dangerous, a place? She better be damn special, better outshine them all. Because that's how you get and retain a position such as that. Atlantis is not a mundane place and neither are the people on it. Is Keller?
People argue that Keller is no worse off-world/in battle/outside of her standard duties, etc. than Carson or early Rodney. And I agree. She's no worse, but she's no better, either. And she *should* be. Why? No double standard, just a fundamental difference: Carson and Rodney both were on Atlantis from the beginning. That first year was different. They didn't even know if there would be other gates in Pegasus, or if they'd ever need to go off-world. Additionally, they were both *vital* to the mission. No one (except perhaps Carter, who couldn't be spared at the time) knew more about Ancient tech than Rodney, and Carson had the gene, the second strongest manifestation of it after John. Plus there was his research on the gene therapy. Weighed against these skills, their lack of experience in the field was moot.
Keller, on the other hand, joined the project late in the game. By the time she came, everyone knew what they were getting into. Medical personnel had been sent off-world multiple times, not to mention there were all the dangers on Atlantis itself. Back in "Intruder", when Carson is picking new staff, he's bemoaning the fact that all these people are more qualified than him, especially noting their physical prowess: "hobbies include judo, horseback riding and base-jumping". Totally reasonable. The SGC is looking to recruit civilians with varied skill sets, beyond their chosen field. People who will do well in *any* situation Pegasus can possibly throw at them. And Pegasus certainly pitches a lot of extreme ones. What are Keller's "extra" skills?
Then there's her age. Being SG, which is notoriously bad about giving characters' ages, we can't know for sure how old she is. In at least one case (David Hewlett) we know the character is meant to be the same age as the actor. If this holds true with Keller/Jewel, that puts her somewhere around twenty-six. *Maybe* they could bump that up to thirty, but even so, that's awfully young to be the head of anything, especially the Head of Medicine at an international, highly elite facility. Keller mentions skipping grades (which one would assume would be true of virtually everyone on Atlantis) but still, head positions are usually based not just on smarts, but *experience*. 'Quarantine' suggests she got her bachelor's at seventeen. Which means she might have gotten her MD by twenty, so she has six years' experience tops, including her internship. Every other position of authority on Atlantis has been filled by people in their mid-thirties or older.
Now, they might overlook Keller's lack of field experience/physical ability, not to mention her youth, if she had something else going for her. Something beyond 'competent doctor'. But so far we have never been given an example of any special skill, nothing that makes her "vital" or "unique" to the project. Yes, she's a good doctor, I'm not denying that. But there are a LOT of good doctors out there. What separates her from the crowd? Why did the SGC single her out? And not just for any position, but a position high in the command structure, later granting her Head Medical Officer of *Atlantis*?
Moving on to the second part of the question: Keller's own motivation.
When we first meet Keller, she's *begging* Elizabeth to find her a replacement, and Elizabeth denies her request. Leaving aside the question of *why* Elizabeth has faith in her , if Keller didn't want to be in charge, didn't feel she could handle it, why did she take the position? One that placed her one step away from being in command? In a place as dangerous and unpredictable as Atlantis, the odds that you're going to have to step up and replace your boss are *high*.
Personal ambition could explain it (like with Kavanagh, who is a much greater coward, but keeps returning regardless because his ego demands it. He believes, however misguided, that he's got the chops). But Keller wants *out* of command, eager to give it away. The very opposite of ambition.
Carson, beyond the needs of his gene, comes because of his research. He states in "Hide and Seek" that the ATA gene therapy couldn't be tested back on Earth, too many regulations. He's come to Pegasus to play mad scientist. But we haven't seen Keller really engage in research, beyond what she did in "Kindred" and "The Seed", which was borne not of personal interest but a desperate need to save Carson and the Athosians, and which was entirely based on Michael's and Carson's previous research.
Doctor Porter, in "Whispers", states she's interested in adventure, exploring, meeting strange new people. Considering Keller's reactions in "Missing" and "Trio", adventure and exploration are the furthest thing from her mind.
Conversely, she's been given several reasons to stay back on earth. Besides her seeming lack of love for danger/adventure/physical exertion, all things she should have expected to face on Atlantis, she mentions her father back in "Missing". She's "all he's got left." Why take a position as far from home as you can *ever*, in any realm of the imagination, get? One in which the odds of coming back from aren't so hot. You'd need some pretty hefty motivation to overcome that. We've never gotten even a hint.
She first tells Elizabeth she hopes the IOA will make a quick decision, she'd like to go back to being "a regular doctor." You can *never* be a regular doctor as the head of medicine on Atlantis. Circumstances won't allow it. What made her want to stay after the grand FUBAR that was "Adrift"/"Lifeline"? What made her want to go in the first place? She's certainly not military, she wasn't assigned there. Atlantis, canonically, has a very rigorous application process. Why struggle through it when you can be a regular doctor in the comfort and safety of your own galaxy?
The reason these questions matter so much to me, besides the obvious fan-urge of "I need to know," is that a character's goals, their motivations and passions, are how I form emotional attachments to them and thus to the show.
Teyla leaves her people for her people. She feels Atlantis is her people's best hope of salvation. She will do *anything* for them, and when she loses them? You can empathize, fully support her drive to find them, cheer when she's reunited, because they are her passion, her focus.
Ronon will keep fighting until "every Wraith in the galaxy is dead". When he's forced to work with them, when they get the better of him, you wince for him, you understand his anger and frustration, and you cheer when he turns the situation back around, kicks some Wraith ass, because you *know* how damn satisfied it's making him.
Rodney's passion, his life, his reason d'etre, is his science, his intelligence, his hope of a Nobel. Every brilliant break-through, every discovery, you know he's a bit closer to that goal. And when it fails him, when his smarts betray him (Trinity), it *hurts*, and the audience sighs/whimpers/writes copious amounts of tag fic.
John never really wanted to come to Atlantis in the first place, had to be talked into it, in face of resentment from his CEO. But he overcame that, made a home there, a family, people he will do *anything* for. His team, his 'family' is John's motivation. And every time he goes batshit crazy determined to help/save them, we cheer (or squee) over his loyalty, his dedication, his ability to protect what he loves.
Their traits, their passions and goals are defined and focused. A clear path for the characters to walk on, for the writers to build upon, for the fans to latch onto. What is Keller's drive, what is her character's destination? What are her obstacles and pitfalls along the way?
Her ambitions are murky and her flaws? Superfluous. Her lack of confidence, which comes and goes, could make for a character arc, except she never has to overcome it.
Professionally, she's told over and over she's doing a great job and never once has she had to face consequences for her fuck-ups. Using the nanites on Elizabeth was originally her idea, but Rodney takes all the heat for it. It's ironic that the decision Elizabeth so loathed started with the person she had such faith in, an irony that's never once touched upon. In "The Shrine", *Keller* blames herself for missing what happened to Rodney, and as his doctor, she's right. It's her fault she didn't diagnose it sooner. But no one else accuses her. On the contrary, they reassure her. Every other character on the show has had their actions questioned, doubted. Argued against. Forced to prove they're correct, or give in in the face of irrefutable fact. Most of them have had their jobs directly on the line, the IOA demanding justification.
In "The Shrine", there's disagreement, but they never outright state they think Keller's wrong, that she won't cure him. They imply it, considering their one want is the chance to say goodbye, meaning they've given up on her finding a cure, but they don't accuse her directly. When tensions run high, the characters often turn the professional personal. "Hot Zone" (John and Elizabeth), "Trinity" (John and Rodney, Teyla and Ronon), "Adrift" (John and Rodney). They get angry with each other. But in "The Shrine", no one gets angry at Keller for refusing them, just frustrated at the situation. Jeannie is the only one who can resist the Keller-love enough to directly point out her failing, that she's no closer to a solution.
Which brings us to her social "flaws". She tells Ronon it's "the story of my life", never fitting in. But she's been accepted into the inner circle of Atlantis faster and closer than any other character except Jeannie (and she's Rodney's family.) By "Doppelganger", only her third ep, Keller's already eating lunch all chummily with the team, in a way that we never saw even Carson or Elizabeth doing, let alone Zelenka, Lorne, Heightmeyer, etc. Ronon, who hasn't felt ready to be with anyone in nine years, starts expressing interest. Teyla's ready to open up to her about her personal life. Keller's feeling comfortable enough to tease Rodney about his hypochondria by "Tabula Rasa". Her interaction with Carson in "Kindred II" suggests a fairly close relationship with him before he died. She doesn't have to struggle with being accepted; they all love her and welcome her into the group immediately.
Comparatively, Sam, who already had personal connections with Rodney, never gets that close. It takes until "Kindred" for her to feel comfortable enough to invite Teyla to address her by her first name.
So much of Keller, her strengths and her weaknesses, her confidence and her competence, her social awkwardness and familiarity with the main cast, vary wildly from episode to episode. I believe most of this stems from the lack of direction. She has no clear problem to overcome, no obvious goal to strive for, no dream to fulfill, no passion to indulge in. Every writer, in every individual script, has to answer that question anew, instead of having it clearly before them. Here her purpose is as love interest, there it’s being a doctor. Here it suits the plot for her to be meek, there flirtatious is the key. It makes for screenwriter schizophrenia to the extreme, the cure for which, at least in part, would have been to answer, at the character's conception: What is she *doing* here, and why does she stay?