[12 August 2010]
After delivering 15 seasons of television in the Stargate franchise, creators Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright were looking to go beyond the episodic sci-fi adventure format. Stargate SG-1 had attracted hordes of devoted fans worldwide for ten years, and its spin-off, Stargate Atlantis, had continued the trend with five successful seasons. While remaining in the same universe, Wright and Cooper hoped to deliver a modern series that stressed the character drama along with the special effects and space travel. The result was the creation of Stargate Universe, a divisive series that provides an intriguing new form in storytelling for the long-running franchise.
Known primarily as SGU, the highly anticipated show premiered in October 2009, only nine months after the final episode of Stargate Atlantis aired. That series’ ratings had dropped over the years, but it maintained a large amount of hardcore fans. That group viewed the new creation as a slap in the face from the producers. The changes in tone away from the formula also irritated them and helped to create a serious backlash. Would these former diehards give SGU and its actors a well-deserved chance? Many did not open their minds, and the landscape was rough during the season’s first half.
The first ten episodes introduced the large cast of characters stranded aboard the Destiny, a mysterious ancient spaceship. Focusing largely on their basic needs (air, energy, water), these stories were often slow-moving, which turned off viewers expecting a fast-paced sci-fi adventure. The trademark wisecracks and humor were also barely present in this sometimes-bleak environment. The characters were not the ultimate superheroes of the previous shows, and they even had sex, a big no-no for some genre fans.
There were some missteps in the early episodes, but they contained wonderful emotional depth and a sincere attempt to develop three-dimensional characters. They also provided sublime moments of beauty that would not be possible in a more frenetic series. The actors took some time to settle into their roles, but they grew quickly into believable figures. Well-deserved criticism was levied at the writers for not developing their female characters, so there was definite room for improvement. However, the episodes (packaged on DVD as Season 1.0) set the framework for an exciting second half.
The season’s opening half developed the growing rift between the military leader Colonel Young (Lewis Ferreira) and Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle), who is dedicated to understanding in the Destiny’s secrets. Young’s main purpose is finding a way back to Earth, which brings them into an escalated conflict. The end result was a shocking cliffhanger that would have major ramifications during the second group of episodes. “Space” begins this section and immediately cranks up the action to a new level.
One of the fans’ major complaints during the early stories was the lack of action compared to the previous series. This was an unfair criticism because it only considered this form of storytelling in relation to SG-1 and Atlantis. However, at some point the writers would need to introduce enemies beyond the basic human needs. There were a few mysterious forces earlier, but nothing resembled the aliens revealed in “Space”. Created by the effects team who worked on District 9, these blue, nearly translucent beings start things up with a bang.
Previous Stargate shows mostly depicted military personnel, with a few exceptions like doctors Daniel Jackson and Rodney McKay. The distribution in SGU is more balanced, which creates major tensions between the two groups. This clash grows nastier in “Divided” as the civilians attempt a mutiny over Young’s command. This episode represents a good example of why the slow-burn approach is so valuable. Instead of having this rift appear quickly, it’s been growing slowly since the beginning. Although the resolution seems a bit tidy, the effects will linger for a long time.
In similar fashion to Lost, the stories grow sharper on the second viewing, when the plot is not as essential. Subtle moments of humor and emotion appear that may have been missed during the original viewing. A good example occurs in “Space”, where a throwaway line from Jamil Walker Smith’s Seargeant Greer draws a huge laugh. It also reveals the success of “Faith”, which appeared to drag on the initial viewing. Watching it a second time, the beauty of its low-key approach shines through. When the crew discovers a stunning Earth-like planet, many want to stay there and make a new life. The allure is completely understandable, especially when you consider the bleak conditions aboard the Destiny. The low-key finalé works because it never betrays the characters and doesn’t waste time on false drama.
One of the principal reasons for SGU‘s success is the remarkable work of Robert Carlyle, who brings a level of acting not yet seen in the franchise. Rush is the show’s most intriguing character because his moral compass has been compromised by past trauma. It’s not clear how far he’s willing to go to understand the Destiny’s secrets, but it’s safe to say that the other crew members are not alway his primary concern. Carlyle’s best work occurs in “Human”, which reveals Rush’s past via a compelling flashback device. While reliving his wife’s death, he also strives to solve an important mystery about the ship. Nabbing a veteran film actor like Carlyle was a major score for the Stargate producers, and there appears to be no limit to his abilities.
An interesting multi-episode arc involves four characters being stranded through a chance accident with little hope of making it home. “Lost” involves this search and their attempts to get back, which involve all types of odd planets. However, it’s not the most engaging part of this story. There’s a single scene that ranks among the best of the season. T.J. (Alaina Huffman) has discovered that she’s pregnant from before their arrival on the Destiny, and the father is Young. When she ultimately reveals the stunning news, he responds in a wonderfully mild and heart-warming fashion. While saying little, Ferreira brings such depth to the scene that’s rarely seen on any show. It’s a major surprise for what could have easily been a predictable moment. Huffman also brings the right balance of emotion and doubt to really sell their connection. These types of moments help to combat the less-than-stellar depictions of women in the opening episodes.
A frequently used plot device in the first half was the communication stones, which allowed the stranded passengers a chance to visit Earth. Swapping bodies with people on our planet, they can see loved ones and engage in all types of activity. Although they provided for some inventive story lines, the stones played too large a role. In these ten episodes, however, they’re used less regularly but are more effective. In “Sabotage”, the stones allow a paralyzed scientist to join the Destiny to help with power issues. The downside is that Camille Wray (Ming-Na) spends a long time trapped in that doctor’s body. Ming-Na does excellent work in conveying the excitement of seeing her loved one while facing the difficulties of her predicament. Wray hasn’t always been the most likable figure, but she reveals her strength by volunteering for this tough assignment. She’s also the first lesbian character on Stargate, and her relationship with her long-term girlfriend is handled surprisingly well.
The main criticisms of SGU came from Atlantis fans who felt betrayed by the producers for this much-different incarnation. It’s interesting to see a few similarities creeping into this series near the end of the season. “Pain” actually feels more like an Atlantis episode, with a strange alien entity creating hallucinations for some crew members. The style is more intense here, but the episodic feeling resonates with the style of the previous show. The plot is pretty standard sci-fi fare; however, there are several memorable scenes. The opening sequence includes a sex scene and murder that are even surprising for this modern series. Julia Benson does an excellent job as Lieutenant James faces her personal demons. The story’s best moment involves Chloe (Elyse Levesque) imagining the return of her dead father (Christopher McDonald). It’s a touching scene and differs greatly from the fears and guilt displayed by the other affected characters.
The final two seasons of SG-1 included a lame enemy called the Lucian Alliance that appeared in filler stories. They were largely toothless villains with few memorable traits. It was surprising to see them return in the new show’s premiere episode as a main enemy. They return in “Subversion” and are actually a pretty nasty opposing force. Lead by the leather-clad, all-business Kiva (Rhona Mitra), they aim to take over the Destiny by any means necessary. This story also brings back Lou Diamond Phillips as Colonel Telford, who opposes Colonel Young back on Earth. In a daring move, Young and Rush try to nab Telford as a traitor and will do anything to find the truth.
In typical Stargate fashion, the season finalé needs a nasty cliffhanger that finds our heroes facing almost-certain death. The two-part closer “Incursion” fails to disappoint and places nearly everyone in serious jeopardy. Characters are shot, stranded in space, and facing imminent execution. With blood flowing down his face, Young gives a classic “we’re so screwed” expression as he prepares for the inevitable end. Glancing to the heavens, his eyes reveal the huge weight of trying to save his people.
“Incursion” depicts the conflict between the Destiny crew and the Lucian Alliance, who board the ship and attempt to take over. While there are action-packed moments, most of the two episodes involve a “cat and mouse” battle of wits between Young and Kiva. It also includes fine character moments that lead perfectly into the second season. Eli (David Blue) and Chloe are stranded on an isolated section of the Destiny, and her injury makes a return difficult. They’ve developed a strong connection throughout the year, and the discussion about their feelings is handled well. Blue provides much of the show’s comic relief, but he also can bring serious weight to a dramatic moment. The civilian Eli has a genuine everyman quality that makes him one of my favorite characters.
Nearly all of the main and supporting characters get the chance to shine during the finalé. There is great work from Lou Diamond Phillips, who hopefully will get the chance to return next season. The actors all bring their best work to this conflict, which makes the uncertainty over their plight more engaging. It also helps that the Lucian team are not completely evil and have an understandable goal. This makes them a more intriguing enemy than the standard over-the-top aliens.
Splitting the first season into two DVD releases is definitely a money grab, but there still are strong extras provided across the three discs. There are commentaries for all ten episodes that include both the lead actors and important crew members. The cast tracks are lighter and energetic, but they lack the technical information given by the directors and other background participants. A good example is the “Human” commentary, which gives Cooper the chance to talk about the unique episode. It’s also refreshing to see actors like Ferreira, Levesque, Huffman, and others participating in mutliple episodes.
The other main extras appear in the “Destiny SML” section 15 short featurettes spread across the three discs. They last over an hour and offer behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews. The best pieces are interviews with Cooper and Wright conducted by actors like Huffman and Blue. The creators directly address fan criticism, which is always interesting to see. We also follow a day in the life of the silly Ferreira, who’s very different from the somber Young. Most of these pieces are just a few minutes, but they give some excellent material. The discs also include eight “Kino Video Diaries” giving background scenes of characters interacting and giving insights about the events from some episodes. They run about 20 minutes total and are a fun bonus for fans.
SGU experienced some major growing pains during its first year, but it’s also one of the most intriguing sci-fi series to come along in a long time. Multiple viewings only increase the feeling that the writers have only scratched the surface of the potential for this show. Even characters that appear dull at the start become engaging as the story moves forward. Delving into complex issues of faith, redemption, humanity and power within a space opera setting, it demands close attention from the viewer. Wright and Cooper deserve major credit for taking a tremendous chance and delivering a challenging, gripping product.