Since launching in 1997, the Stargate franchise has seen 15 seasons of television and two DVD movies, becoming at one point the longest running science-fiction show in US history. I have to admit, I was a fan. The writing wasn’t always the best, and the deus ex machina solutions in later seasons were a little grating, and re-using the same medieval village set almost every week got pretty frustrating. But it was fun.
Towards the end of the second spinoff, Stargate Atlantis, the franchise seemed to have lost its way slightly. Things became a little too easy, the writing became a little too lazy, and I began watching more out of a sense of loyalty than out of excitement for a new episode.
Atlantis was cancelled last year, and in a very poorly timed move, Stargate Universe was announced shortly afterwards. To a lot of unhappy fans, angry over the loss of SGA, the touting of SGU as the shiny new toy was a kick in the teeth. Not to me, however. The promised change in aesthetic, story direction and character development all sounded like positive changes that would reinvigorate an increasingly formulaic franchise, just as the Abrams Star Trek movie did this summer.
So, on Saturday, I sat down to watch the first two hours of the three hour series premiere…
For those not up to speed on the premise of the show, here’s a quick recap; in order to flee from an attack on their base, a team of modern-day scientists, soldiers and civilians on another planet use the stargate to escape to an unknown location which turns out to be a dilapidated spaceship, launched hundreds of thousands of years ago and now billions of light years from home. To make matters worse they’re completely unprepared, out of their depth, and there’s no possible hope of ever going home.
On the surface, sci-fi fans can probably assume that both Star Trek: Voyager and Battlestar Galactica have influenced the plot of SGU, but I’m not sure those comparisons are anything more than superficial. If anything, the opening episode of SGU can be more closely compared to the pilot of its predecessor, Stargate Atlantis; in both cases a team from Earth arrive on a damaged Ancient ship, far from home, and are cut off from contact with Earth. I almost got the feeling, watching SGU, that this was the producers attempt to re-do SGA in a more dramatic tone and correct their previous mistakes. After all, SGA was built on the premise of being isolated from Earth, only to re-establish physical contact at the end of the first season. I hope things won’t be so easy for SGU.
As well as the darker plot, SGU is also literally darker, taking a cue from Battlestar Galactica in terms of its cinematography; colours are muted, sets are dimly lit (and a welcome return to the older style of Ancient architecture) and the camera has the now familiar shaking that any BSG or Firefly viewer will be accustomed to. There’s a shift in the tone of the show also, with a heavier emphasis on this being Stargate-for-grown-ups; a sex scene early in the show, whilst not particularly explicit, is certainly far raunchier than anything we saw on SG-1 or SGA.
The casting and characters are a relatively adventurous move for the Stargate franchise, on which I have mixed feelings. The clear standout in the cast is Robert Carlyle as Nicholas Rush, the scientist responsible for their predicament. Carlyle’s performance was great, giving Rush a wonderfully unknowable quality. Is he evil? No. Is he ruthless? Certainly. Is he ultimately a guy who’s willing to do whatever it takes to further his scientific knowledge, even at the cost of others? Probably.
It’s a bold move to place such a character in the cast of a Stargate show; our previous heroes have been just that. Heroic. They may be cowardly, or angry, or stubborn at times but they’ll always overcome that by the end of the episode and rise up to save the day. My impression of Rush, and indeed of a few of the other characters, is that they may well prove to be unlikeable. Which is fantastic; I’ve never understood TV viewers who complain that they don’t like a character. Unlikeable characters are great for TV, in order to provide the contrast and conflict with the more likeable characters.
Falling on the bitchier end of that spectrum will be, I suspect, Camille Wray (played by Ming-na.) While she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the pilot, other than as another individual trying to vie for power, I’ve got a feeling she could be an interesting character.
Brian J. Smith, who plays Lt. Scott was a far better actor than I had unfairly presumed he would be and Alaina Huffman was solid in her role as medic Tamara Johansen. I’m not so sure about Greer, played by Jamil Walker Smith. Apart from the character coming off as something of a cliched “angry black man” I thought his performance was, to be blunt, weird. The low growling mumble, the odd facial expressions, the general twitchy oddness of him was distracting every time he was on screen. I’m hoping that they’ll reveal the character does have some mental issues, just so that they can justify his portrayal so far!
The weakest point of the cast for me, however, is David Blue. It pains me to say it, as he was quite charming and likeable in his guest stint on Ugly Betty, but there’s something irritating about Blue’s character Eli Wallace. Maybe it’s just the lazy nerd angle being overplayed a little too much in the pilot. At times he seems to behave utterly unrealistically for someone thrown into such a desperate situation, and I can only hope that they’ll tone down the character somewhat; at the moment he stands out rather too much from the rest of the characters.
The pace of these first two episodes were fairly slow, but I enjoyed the structure; opening the show with the Icarus Base survivors being flung through the gate onto the Destiny and gradually telling the story of how they arrived, through flashbacks, was another stylistic change for the franchise that worked well. Yet another deviation was the absense of an obvious enemy in the pilot; the initial episodes of SG-1 and SGA introduced the Goa’uld and the Wraith, both of which went on to become defining elements of those shows. Unless SGU introduces some evil snakes/space vampires (or *gasp* – evil vampire snakes!) in Air Pt. 3 I think we can trust the word of the producers when they say that there isn’t going to be a single, long-term alien enemy.
Without wanting to sound like I’m spouting therapy-speak, the enemy in SGU is the human race. They’re petty, and jealous, and scared. They’ve got 23 guns, a tiny amount of food, and a limited supply of batteries for their equipment. They’re bound to begin clashing with one another, which could in fact lead to SGU being the strongest Stargate show. Just as BSG was once described as a military drama that just happens to be set in space, could SGU be seen as a character/relationship drama that simply uses the setting of a spaceship on the other side of the universe as a means to tell interesting, human stories? Hopefully. On the other hand this is Stargate, so there are bound to be aliens, weird technologies and a bit of humour as well.
SGU could turn out to be a great show. At the moment it’s just good. In time it could develop into something very interesting, or it could fall back into the same old Stargate reliance on deus ex machina and witty banter. I’ll certainly be along for the ride to see which way it goes.