New direction for franchise shows grit and complexity
Stargate Universe (abbreviated SGU) is the third television show in the Stargate franchise, which began in 1994 with the film Stargate. The newest show is somewhat of a departure for the franchise, with a darker tone, a more serial feel, and a relative lack of non-human antagonists. It’s a post-reimagined-Battlestar Galactica SF, but also shows influence from serial dramas like LOST and Star Trek Voyager while finding its own way.The iconic humor of the Stargate franchise is still present, but is often more dry or subdued than in SG1 or Stargate Atlantis.
In SGU, a number of civilians are trapped along with international military personnel on an ancient spaceship billions of light-years from Earth. Stargates exist across the universe, designed as a rapid transportation system across vast distances. Each gate has an address that is ‘dialed’ through a combination of symbols on the gate, known as chevrons.
We join the cast on the Icarus project, a mission to unlock a way to ‘dial’ a stargate address that had never been used by humans before. This attempt requires a huge amount of energy, and so when the base is attacked, the lead scientist on the project, Dr. Nicholas Rush, dials the never-before-reached nine-chevron address and the people of the Icarus mission as well as civilians escape through the stargate. The team is not prepared, and the personnel that cross through are not the intended expedition team.
Upon arriving on the ship called Destiny, the cast discovers that they are billions of light years from Earth, and even worse, they have virtually no control over the ship (navigation, the stargate, even basic systems). Much of the first half of the season involves the cast merely trying to survive – fixing the air filters in the ship, finding drinkable water, and keeping the ship from flying into a sun.
The main characters are a mix of soldiers, civilians, and scientists. Dr. Rush is the head scientist, Col. Young (Justin Louis) the ranking military officer, and Camille Wray (Ming Na) is the ranking official of the International Oversight Committee, a civilian oversight group for stargate-using missions. Stargates and their use are not public knowledge, but an international collective secret held by governments; therefore, the inclusion of personnel such as Eli Wallace (A MIT-dropout gamer geek and math genius) and Chloe Armstrong (aide and daughter of a US Senator) presents fish-out-of-water characters who provide entry perspectives for an audience.
They are thrown into the mission with Lt. Matthew Scott, Lt. Tamara Johnson, Sgt. Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), Drs. Brody and Volker, as well as other soldiers and scientists. Thus, the hierarchy is very muddled. Do the scientists have to follow the Colonel’s orders? Well, he has the guns, but they aren’t actually military personnel. Should they instead all follow Rush, who claims control when Young is injured, or maybe the visiting US Senator? These questions and conflicts flare up and change as people change allegiances and develop relationships.
The soldiers answer to Young, the scientists tend to listen to Rush (even though his methods are extreme and no one really trusts him), and the civilians don’t know exactly where they fit, since they were never supposed to be involved to begin with. There are many struggles over control and leadership between Rush, Young, and Wray, where personal connections become the basis for alliances that in the first half-season leave some people dead, some stranded, and some who abandon the mission entirely.
A major science fictional conceit is a matched set of communication stones which enable people to switch bodies across any distance. The stones allow crew members of the Destiny to switch with people on Earth to report on the mission as well as to visit their friends and family. Since not everyone is cleared to know about the stargates and related issues, some people are allowed to visit, but not to disclose their identities. Adding more complexity, the people who switch with the Destiny crew members frequently cause trouble on the ship, namely Col. Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips) who was supposed to command the Icarus project through the gate, but who was unable to go through with the team during the attack in the pilot.
Tension is well-maintained through a combination of interpersonal drama and cascading issues on the ship, as well as interference from Earth via the communication stones. Character relationships are deftly drawn and complex, with many existing dynamics already established when the series begins and which grow more complex when the cast reaches the Destiny.
SGU‘s standout stars are Robert Carlyle as the brilliant and untrustworthy Dr. Rush and David Blue as Eli Wallance. Rush is a magnificent bastard comparable to Battlestar’s Gaius Baltar, and our lack of interiority into Rush’s motivation only makes him more intriguing.
Blue’s Eli Wallace is the series’ everyman and audience insert character. Eli is swept up in the story after he solves a puzzle built into an online game that was actually the puzzle as how to dial the nine-chevron stargate address. (A puzzle which had stymied Rush for months). Eli is likable, self-effacing but very creative and intuitive. Rush and Eli fight over scientific issues, Rush and Young fight over major decisions, with Wray sometimes mediating and sometimes staking her own
The rest of the ensemble fill out characters that initially register as stereotypes, but round out into intriguing contradictory people. However, Chloe Armstrong (played by Elyse Levisque) is somewhat adrift in the series, her character lacking a strong role on the Destiny – she is instead relegated to being a romantic interest and hinge of a love triangle between Lt. Scott and Eli Wallace. This DVD set only includes the first half of the first season, so we may see more of a defined role for Chloe in the future, as well as an even stronger role for Camille and the other female characters in the ensemble.
One of the most notable aspects of the show aside from the characters is the shooting style, which is very documentarian. It follows the example set by SF shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, with intimate shots designed to look like accidental footage and ‘you are here’ framing. Many scenes were covered by multiple cameras without giving any actors any clue as to which camera would be covering them, and as such, had to perform all throughout a take. This meant that a character without any lines in a scene could end up being shown for a take for their reaction shot.
The story was shot by the multiple, but the specific depiction wasn’t known until it was found in the editing room, as opposed to a very strictly structured and storyboarded series, where each shot was specifically sought and shot. This documentary approach is furthered by the floating cameras (which Eli calls a Kino, after the Kino-Pravda method espoused by Russian filmmakers Dziga Vertov in the 1920s). Eli and others operate the Kinos, which generate ‘found footage’-style shots that give intimacy to many scenes and are essential to “Time”, an episode that appears later in the first half of the season.
The Season 1.0 set includes a great deal of bonus materials, including audio commentary on every one of the episodes from cast and crew (usually Levisque, Blue, and Brian J. Smith, who plays Lt. Scott). The commentaries address acting process, the actor’s take on the characters, and discussion of the cast and crew’s various talents and amusing personalities. Other features include the Kino diaries, which are short scenes shot by the small hovering camera devices discovered on the Destiny. These scenes help fill in character and mood moments that enrich the plot without being essential. There are also making of features and Stargate 101 videos (full versions of the videos seen in the show by Eli) cast interviews which provide more behind-the-scenes information.
SGU may not be as brilliant as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, but it is a promising show driven by compelling characters in an intricate social web and stuck in an impossible situation. It carries on where previous SF shows left off and displays an edgier new feel for the Stargate franchise (a feel which has not been embraced by all Stargate fans, but is appropriate in this reviewer’s eyes, given the content). If you’re a SF fan or enjoy the mystery and character dynamics of a show like LOST, give SGU a try.