Reviews

'Stargate Universe: SGU 1.5': Look Again, and Much More Is Revealed

Delving into complex issues of faith, redemption, humanity and power within a space opera setting, Stargate Universe demands close attention from the viewer.


Stargate Universe SGU 1.5

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
Network: Syfy
Release Date: 2010-07-27
Amazon

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.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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