Reviews

The End Was All Too Near: 'Stargate Universe: The Complete Final Season'

Without much critical acclaim or ratings, SGU delivered 40 episodes of excellent storytelling.


Stargate Universe: The Complete Final Season

Distributor: MGM
Cast: Robert Carlyle, Louis Ferreira, Brian J. Smith, David Blue, Alaina Huffman, Jamil Walker Smith, Elyse Levesque, Julia Benson, Ming-Na, Peter Kelamis, Patrick Gilmore, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mike Dopud, and Julie McNiven
Network: Syfy
Release date: 2011-05-31
Amazon

Entering its second season, Stargate Universe (SGU) faced an uncertain future after a promising, yet deliberately paced first season. The SyFy network had shifted the young series to Tuesday nights -- directly against the juggernauts of the big networks. Premiering in the fall, it wouldn’t have the luxury of matching up against less popular summer fare.

If the ratings weren’t stellar from the start, there might be a serious risk of cancellation. The previous shows in the franchise, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis (SGA) , lasted ten and five seasons, respectively. But the changing TV environment and an itchy trigger finger from SyFy likely caused sleepless nights for the SGU producers.

Unlike its predecessors, SGU focused less on fast-paced adventure and more on character development, which alienated some of its devoted fans. They posted vitriolic comments on message boards and hoped for the new show’s demise. This approach seemed counter-productive, especially since the franchise’s overall future was depending on SGU.

Admittedly, the first group of episodes was pretty slow, but they also included excellent visual effects and interesting characters. During the opening season, the writers tweaked the format and built an effective formula by the end of the year. The second season promised to improve on this model and expand the universe to greater heights.

Here’s a brief synopsis of what’s happened so far: A group of mismatched military personnel, scientists, and other civilians from Earth are stranded unexpectedly aboard the Destiny, an ancient ship created millions of years earlier. Armed with limited resources, they must discover the mysteries of their new home across the universe before it’s too late. Traveling faster than light and visiting planets through the Stargate, they face strange aliens unlike anything encountered by humans in past explorations. But the biggest threat might come from conflicts within their own ranks as they struggle to find a way back home.

The first season ended with one of those cliffhangers that placed nearly every major character (and some minor ones) in serious jeopardy. The enemy in this case was the Lucian Alliance, a band of human-like aliens who boarded the Destiny, seeking its secrets. During the season finalé, “Incursion”, this conflict escalates into an all-out war between the two forces that leaves many of the characters injured or facing imminent death at the season’s end.

“Intervention” starts the new season right where we left off and delivers more excitement as the battle continues. With one exception, the Lucian Alliance members aren’t exactly evil, which makes the ultimate resolution more complicated. They work under a brutal regime and have a specific goal beyond creating violence and mayhem.

One of the major discoveries aboard Destiny occurs during the second episode “Aftermath”. Doctor Rush (Robert Carlyle) unlocks the ship’s master code and locates the bridge that operates navigation and other key systems. Before this point, the crew had a very limited ability to control Destiny and alter its course. Although this is an excellent find, Rush’s choice to keep the bridge a secret from everyone has major ramifications further into the season.

This episode also includes the stunning death of a supporting character that wis indirectly caused by Rush withholding the truth. This moment plays a key role in the downward emotional spiral of Colonel Young (Louis Ferreira). He’s lost all confidence in his abilities to lead the group and starts drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Young’s struggles come to the forefront down the road in “Trial and Error”, where he’s tested repeatedly in a frustrating scenario that might destroy the entire ship.

Unlike its predecessors, SGU takes its time and builds long-term story lines that might not pay off until much later. Don’t get me wrong. I love both SG-1 and SGA and still enjoy those episodes years later. However, they used a more episodic style that differed from the serialized narratives of this series. A good example is Chloe’s (Elyse Levesque) ongoing arc, which goes back to the middle of the first season. Alien villains experiment on her, which causes both physical and mental changes over the long run. In “Pathogen”, Rush makes a daring attempt to excise the growing alien influence over her body, but it’s not successful. Nearing the mid-season finalé, Chloe is losing control over her mind and may slip away from them forever.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of this story line, which nearly grinds the pace to a halt every time it becomes a major part of the episode. Levesque gives it her best shot, but the progression happens so slowly that seeing characters talk about her changes becomes tiresome. The writers struggled to find the right place for Chloe in the early episodes, so giving her a more important role is refreshing. However, the downside of dragging her evolution on for so long is that it becomes tedious. I was ready to scream “She’s dangerous! Get rid of her!” at the screen well before the arc was resolved. The big moments are exciting, but it takes us way too long to move the story forward.

Adding new characters from the Lucian Alliance also gave the writers a chance to develop romances between the arrivals and regular crew members. Both examples are very well-done and involve strong performances from the recurring actors. Varro (Mike Dopud) helped the gang’s attempts to take over Destiny, but he played a key role in saving Young and the entire group of Earthlings. While slowly becoming part of the group, he develops the touching beginnings of a romance with T.J. (Alaina Huffman). Dopud made a guest appearance on SGA as a different character, and he fits well in this world.

The other figure is the attractive Ginn (Julie McNiven), a red-haired scientist who makes a connection with Eli (David Blue). Their romance is short-lived, but it offers a much-needed connection for Eli, who spent the first season pining for Chloe. Unfortunately, Ginn is also involved in one of the season’s most troubling scenes at the end of “The Greater Good”. Although they’ve created strong female characters, I’ve found that the Stargate writers tend to revert too much into the “woman in jeopardy” scenario. They pretty much throw every female character through the ringer this year and deal out murder, blindness, threats towards a baby, and other brutal events. It’s not like the guys are off the hook, especially Young and Rush, but certain moments do approach uneasy territory.

On the other hand, these actions from the end of “The Greater Good” lead perfectly into the thrilling next episode “Malice”. Since the arrival of the Lucian Alliance, Simeon (Prison Break’s Robert Knepper) was the one guy who refused to cooperate and become part of the crew. After dealing a vicious blow to Ginn and others, he escapes to a desert planet with weapons in tow. With a personal stake in revenge, Rush joins the soldiers Scott (Brian J. Smith) and Greer (Jamil Walker Smith) to pursue Simeon. They’ve been tasked with capturing him alive because he has key information that could save Earth.

But Rush definitely has other ideas. This cat-and-mouse story from Writer/Director Robert C. Cooper feels more like a gritty western than a sci-fi tale. Cooper tends to direct some of the franchise’s most unique episodes, with recent examples being SGU’s “Time” and SGA’s penultimate episode “Vegas”. Both go beyond the expected formula from the series and rank among the best of their seasons.

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8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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