Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stargate Universe - Season One in Review

By Paul Steven Brown

Before the series premier of ‘Stargate Universe’ in October of last year, I had only watched one episode of a Stargate series. Out of curiosity, I watched the first episode of ‘Stargate SG-1’ on Hulu. It picked up from the feature film that I saw many years ago in the theater, but I wasn’t really impressed. There were some interesting concepts, but the basic plot and the acting left a lot to be desired. The reason that I never took a hard look at this show or its first spin-off, ‘Stargate Atlantis’ was due to timing. ‘SG-1’ premiered while I was in college and it was on Showtime. When I finally was able actually devote some time to regular television watching; it was already in its sixth season. Also, I held some resentment towards the show since it went on for ten seasons and had spin-offs, while my beloved ‘Farscape’ was cancelled after four. To add insult to injury, ‘Farscape’ stars Ben Browder and Claudia Black became members of the ‘Stargate SG-1’ cast.

Still, I was curious about ‘Stargate Universe’. Conceptually, it looked like it was going to be a darker, grittier show. I’ve always enjoyed Robert Carlyle as an actor and he was attached to the project. Also, I was just curious to see if this show would be new viewer friendly. Would it engage me as someone that knows next to nothing about the rest of the franchise?

While the two hour premiere did feature some appearances by characters from the other shows, which is a typical way of passing the torch, ‘SGU’ quickly set up its distinct core concept by the end of the first hour. Basically, a group of about fifty to one hundred people, military and civilian, head through a stargate during an alien attack and end up on a very old, very large spaceship called Destiny. Due to the mechanics of the stargate, they cannot use it to get back to Earth, so they are stuck and have to figure out how to use the ship to survive. They can communicate with Earth via some alien communication stones that allow a user to mentally switch places with another person on the other side. The military faction on Destiny is led by Col. Everett Young (Louis Ferriera), while the civilians and scientists are led by government liaison Camile Wray (Ming-Na) and Dr. Nicolas Rush (Carlyle). Needless to say, they don’t always get along.

Early on, you could tell that the creators of ‘SGU’ were taking most of their cues from the recently departed ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Almost every character in the regular cast has some sort of flaw. Young cheated on his wife not too long ago with a woman under his command. Rush is egotistical and willing to do just about anything to advance his research. Young’s right hand man Lt. Scott got a girl pregnant when he was younger, and can’t seem to not full in bed with a few of the female cast members. Sgt. Greer has a history of disciplinary problems. Lt. Johansen is carrying Young’s child. Eli is a genius but a bit of a slacker. Chloe is dealing with her senator father’s death. Wray is caught between doing what is best for the civilians and answering to her government bosses.

There’s a great deal more violence and sex than I would expect from a Stargate show. This is in keeping with the creators attempts at making this an edgier show. Unfortunately, there are a few attempts to still cater to the horny fanboy demographic. Chloe wears a ridiculously tight tank top. Lt. James, who is extremely buxom, is often seen in just a tight t-shirt, and seems to be perpetually cold. Johansen was running around in a tank top until the plot required her to become pregnant.

The acting for the most part has been pretty solid. Ferreira, Carlyle, and Ming-Na do an excellent job expressing the complexities of their characters and their respective burdens. Alaina Huffman (Johansen) and Jamil Walker Smith (Greer) are also quite good when they are given to material play beyond their characters’ default emotions (Johansen’s coldness around Young; Greer’s hot-headed and scary vibe). Some of the supporting players have done a great job of getting themselves noticed which has probably translated in more screen time, particularly Peter Kelamis (Mr. Brody), Jennifer Spence (Dr. Park), and Patrick Gilmore (Dr. Volker). I would trade out some of the regular leads for more screen time on these three members of the science team.

Where ‘Stargate Universe’ makes for some engaging sci-fi television is when the episodes concentrate on the perils befalling those stranded on Destiny without any help from those back on Earth. This is usually due to some misfortune that befalls an away team on a supply run on an alien planet, parts of the ship doing weird things, or an encounter with alien forces bent on taking the ship for themselves. The crew has to think on their feet and try to make this sophisticated ship work for them, even if they’ve only scratched the surface on how to interface with it.

The episodes that lose me are the ones that involve the uses of the communication stones. First off, I get icked-out at the idea of people willing switching bodies and then running off to have sex with a loved one. Their minds are in someone else’s body. Do these military officers sign a consent form? These types of episodes were more prevalent during the first half of season one and they felt like a bad attempt at doing some sort of version of ‘Lost’. Were we to become more sympathetic or supposed to learn something important about these characters when they traveled back home via other person’s bodies? This part of the show was really dull.

Luckily, the stones weren’t used as much during the second half of the season. When they were used, some new ideas of aliens highjacking the signals and causing sabotage on the Destiny came into play, which was actually intriguing. For the most part though, the second half centered on what the mental and emotional stress the situation was having on those stuck on the ship. However, the stones came back to play in a major way during the run up to the season finale.

The third to last episode of the season almost caused me to stop watching ‘Stargate Universe’ altogether. It involved a using the stones to infiltrate an alien army back on Earth. “Subversion” also contained appearances by characters from the ‘SG-1’ and relied heavily on pre-existing political underpinnings that had never come into play on ‘SGU’ until this episode. It seemed to depend too heavily on the show’s heritage and not what had happened on ‘SGU’ itself. I had no idea who or what the Lucian Alliance was nor did I feel compelled to care.

Luckily, the next two episodes course corrected extremely well. The “Incursion” two-parter that closed out the season set up some exciting events on Destiny and made for a really enticing cliffhanger. “Subversion” was an apparent necessary evil to get Kiva (Rhona Mitra) and her band of Lucian fighters aboard the ship so there could be one hell of a stand off between them and Young’s forces.

The last fifteen minutes of the season were an exercise in building up tension for the cliffhanger. There was a great deal of piece movement and it was easy to tell what was going to left undone to be resolved next season, but it didn’t lessen the excitement. I’m sure Eli will be able to get Scott and Greer back inside the ship before the radiation burns them up. I doubt Chloe will die from her gunshot wound. Someone will intervene before the Lucians execute the entire military contingent aboard the ship. However, the editing and direction really did amp up the drama rather well.

With Destiny being such a vastly huge ship, it will be interesting to see if there continues to be a Lucian presence on her. I don’t see Kiva living past the next season’s premiere; Mitra is starring in the new ABC summer series ‘The Gates’, so I would think that her time may be limited. That may depend on how successful her new show is. There was a bit of development involving one of her lieutenants, so I can see him having an active role on the show.

‘Stargate Universe’ isn’t really breaking any new ground. We’ve seen the “lost in space with no way of getting home” concept on a number of shows. The civilian vs. military played heavily on ‘BSG’. However, ‘SGU’ succeeds is when the creators focus on these concepts and how they play within the pre-established Stargate franchise framework without relying too much on the stories of the two series that came before it. Hopefully, next season there will be less Earth and more “how do we get out of this situation without any help” material.

Has this show made me interested enough to check out ‘Stargate SG-1’ and ‘Stargate Atlantis’? Not really. I think I will just enjoy ‘Stargate Universe’ as its own separate entity. It works better that way.

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