Stargate: Universe (TV, 2009)

Another piece written for the very final, unpublished issue of Death Ray, which was halfway through production when it was cancelled. A little like the ultimate fate of SG:U, come to think of it.

I never liked Stargate. Not my cup of tea, really, although I acknowledge its immense popularity. I thought this last installment had promise, but I was far from convinced.


Director: Andy Mikita

Writers: Robert C. Cooper, Brad Wright

Starring: Robert Carlyle, Justin Louis, David Blue, Biran J. Smith, Jamil Walker Smith, Alaina Huffman, Elyse Levesque, Ming-Na, Lou Diamond Phillips

 The venerable franchise returns with a third (or fourth, if you count the cartoon) show. All brushed up and looking flash, but can it bring SG into SF’s major brains league?

Stargate has been around for a long, long time. We have to admit we have asked, sometimes, why. It’s never really had the brains of the best Trek, the chutzpah of Lost, the grit of Battlestar, or the charm of Doctor Who, in fact, it’s hard to think of anything it really excels in as a franchise other than persistence. It’s been there for a decade and a half, quietly but always on, the cosmic background radiation of televisual science fiction. It’s SF of a very particular sort, you can’t help but think that when mainstream types talk about SF in a less than positive light, it is the likes of the SG franchise they are talking about. It’s the soap-opera end of SF, the epic fantasy of the airwaves. Our problem with it? It matches the competency of the modern Trek franchises, with whom it overlaps in time, and with which it shares many similarities (the close knit crew, the cosy soap opera character development, the same studio bound alien worlds and limited locations, the same rubbery-faced aliens) but it rarely reached the heights of those series, there is no SG equivalent of, say, ‘Darmok’.

SG’s always struggled with bizarrely unprofessional military personnel, wisecracking geek-types and alien fleamarket depictions of distant worlds. Sure, it’s offered a reliable, weekly dose of SF fun for 14 years, but it’s a low-grade form of entertainment. It’s the McDonalds of SF. You know exactly what you are getting and sometimes you just fancy it, but it’s not really very good for you.

Stargate: Universe is a self-conscious attempt to get away from all that, to deliver a grittier experience more in tune with the SF of modern times (SG is the last gasp of 90s-style ensemble space SF). Out go the family dynamics, the handy alien technology and bumbling nerd explorers, in come desperate situations, unreliable heroes and the Marines (ten-HUT!), filmed in low-light with handcams. Battlestar Galactica is an obvious model here.

The influence of the BSG paradigm lies heavy on the story too: A bunch of Earth types, a mix of military off-world base personnel and visiting civvies, are trapped on an Ancient starship on the other side of the universe by a combination of alien attack and lead character Doctor Rush’s ruthless addiction to science. Icarus base, at which Rush is stationed, is on a world whose unstable radioactive core provides power to an unusual stargate. The team there are trying to unlock a nine-chevron stargate address (the gates have nine chevrons as part of their ‘dialling’ machinery, this is the first time in the franchise they’ve used all of them). With the help of genius drop-out Eli (David Blue), Rush manages to solve the problem, but only at the moment the base is attacked. With the planet about to explode, Rush makes the fateful decision of dialling the mysterious new address rather than going home, stranding them all.

Thus we have a disparate mix of types, all struggling to get along on a derelict craft, suffering various shortages in the process. It’s a concept rooted in the same soil as Lost In Space, Farscape, Star Trek: Voyager and Battlestar Galactica. Not startlingly original, but fertile ground, as at least some of the above have demonstrated.

Character is the show’s strongest asset. The unwilling crew of Destiny are made up of intriguing types, and although there is much questioning of orders from the off (you may argue this is a necessary narrative device so our characters can explain what is occurring to the audience, but BSG managed just fine without it, using it only for genuine dramatic effect) you can buy the military characters as actual soldiers, all with their own issues, naturally.

Chief among the non-grunts is Eli Wallace who, while his SF references are really quite grating, is nowhere near as annoying as he could have been. He provides the audience with an in to the universe, and a necessary counterbalance of humanity to Doctor Rush’s coldly scientific pragmatism. But it is Rush himself (played fantastically by Robert Carlyle), a mix of arrogance, neuroses, brilliance and tenderness, that is the show’s ace in the hole. Anyone who was expecting a Doctor Smith/ Gaius Baltar hybrid (our hands go sheepishly up here)… well, you’re wrong. In truth, only an actor of Carlyle’s quality could bring into one man all the wildly varying characteristics the story requires Rush exhibit, but he pulls it off. Indeed, he’s not the only one strutting his thespian stuff: this is by far the most well-acted SG series yet, the cast, helped by a lack of one-note character, have chops a-plenty.

Other factors to the good are the set design, new fluid shooting style (a few too many ‘peeking down through the rafters’ shots, perhaps), very good FX and locations further afield than British Columbia. With these in its favour, SG: U stands a good chance of doing exactly what producers Brad Wright and Robert Cooper want it to: revitalise the franchise and pull in new fans.

Except, messrs Cooper and Wright fumble the ball somewhat. A brilliant first episode (part one of opening three-part story ‘Air’) drops us right into the action, as Lieutenant Scott (Matthew J. Smith) bursts through a gate onto Destiny, followed by a panicked crowd whose members slam into one another. Flashbacks follow, detailing character background, including a well staged if brief attack on the Icarus base. Exploration of the vessel ensues and key facts are revealed: Destiny was sent out as a ship of exploration, heading across the universe for 100,000s of years until it was far away enough from the Milky Way for its Ancient crew to show up and explore planets via stargates seeded by an earlier ship; the ship has a mind of its own; the ship was attacked at some point; and its original crew never made it onboard.

The tension builds as the life support systems begin to break down. One character sacrifices himself to save the ship’s limited supply of air, sealing a leak. But it all goes a bit rubbish when an away team head off to a desert planet, looking for carboniferous rocks to rebuild the craft’s carbon dioxide scrubbers (there’s a surprising amount of actual science in this; several times while watching ‘Air’ I wrote down some scientific implausibility only for most of them to be neatly explained). It’s great that we’re not in a temperate rainforest, but out there on the dunes nothing much happens, and the plot relies on (possibly) divine hokiness. It’s not bad, you understand, and if it were a mid-season ep you’d feel happy, but this early in the season it smacks of a show that takes its longevity for granted. Judged by the rest of SG, it might well last for years, but we wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Air’s last, thrill-free part loses some of the new viewers the opening duo work so hard to snare.

Did you know?

SG Alumni Amanda Tapping and Richard Dean Anderson appear, while story consulting duties are provided by author John Scalzi.


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