Stargate Universe

Bring on the rampant pantslessness, #SGU, and also the gritty, dark, but beautiful effects. @moryan has her take on the premiere, and I have mine on my blog.

The Watcher: Desperate survivors get lost in ‘Stargate Universe’

I’ve now seen five hours of the show and still don’t feel all that invested in the the fate of 1st Lt. Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith). Theoretically, I should — he’s one of the show’s lead characters.

Two characters do stand out (more on that below), but the rest of “Universe” feels like an awkward mishmash of genres and tones. Though I had been cautiously looking forward to another iteration of the “Stargate” franchise, at this point I’m not sure its creators are taking Scott and his fellow survivors anywhere interesting.

This drama, which follows a group of soldiers, scientists and civilians stranded on an alien ship very far from Earth, is supposed to be the “edgier” “Stargate” TV series (that’s Syfy’s word, not mine). It would allegedly be more like “Battlestar Galactica” than “Stargate SG-1,” which, at its best, had an team of exceedingly watchable characters take on any number of alien threats armed with advanced weapons, acerbic humor and a great deal of pluck.

My husband David and I liked the show (AKA #SGU) a lot better than the Chicago Tribune’s TV critic Maureen Ryan ( @moryan ) did. She’s usually right on the money on her likes and dislikes when it comes to science fiction/genre shows, but we’re willing to go along for the ride for quite a bit longer yet. I think that Mo’s criticism is meant in the right way though – she’s interested in shows being as good as they possibly can be, and it’s not doing anyone any good if a premise is just being milked for advertising dollars, rather than going out to the edge and doing something new, creative, and worth watching.

We’re a little more emotionally invested in the show than Mo is, though. We liked it rather a lot, really…

Especially after the bit early on where the Eli character, a fanboy/gamer who introduces himself as “the contest winner,” is reluctant to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Gen. “Jack” O’Neill and a Dr. Nicholas Rush show up at Eli’s house, the morning after he solved a mathematical proof written in an alien language in a video game called “Prometheus.” He asks what will happen if he refuses. “Then we’ll beam you up to our spaceship,” replies O’Neill evenly. Eli shuts the door in their faces. My husband and I laughed, and said “They can do that, you know,” as Eli trudges upstairs and out of sight. “Boooozzzzh!” I said, imitating the sound the Asgard teleporation effect made on previous Stargate shows, and within a half-second, a bright flash of light from upstairs and the familar sound proved me right: they beamed Eli up to the ship so he could sign the NDU from a better informed point of view. We howled with laughter; we loved it and it was clearly comic relief as it was a flashback, after a decidedly grimmer, yet darkly beautiful opening sequence.

As you might expect, they beamed Eli up all right; in front of a great big picture window.

Yeah, lots of SF shows cut to the chase by beaming some reluctant yokel up to the ship; it’s become a kind of signature move. I laughed (or gasped sympathetically) when they did it on Star Trek: Next Generation, and I laughed this time, too.

The basic premise of the show is that there’s a strange Stargate on a distant planet that apparently draws its power directly from the planetary core, and is capable of dialing a unique 9-character address. An entire command team, Project Icarus, has been on the planet for 2 years, working on building a base and getting the stargate working.

Clearly, they think it’s someplace important to go – but wait, there’s more! When they went to Pegasus, sure, there was a lot of Ancient technology to discover and adapt, but there were also a galaxyful of bad-ass, life-force-sucking space vampires.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to go somewhere unimaginably far, far, away and encounter new lifeforms, and new civilizations, and an infinite number of new, immeasurably more bad-ass, bad-ass enemies? Oh, well, sure it would! Let me stuff a few cans of tuna in my go-bag, and where do I sign?

Since the previous series, Atlantis, was based in a different galaxy and required 8-character addresses to get back to the Milky Way galaxy, the idea is that calling a 9-digit number is super-duper extra special. So all of a sudden, after years of work, some gamer kid solves the power calculation problem that was inserted into a video game, and he’s taken on a space ship to go to this planet and actually aid in getting it working. But it doesn’t work, exactly, during the test, and then the planet is attacked by some leftover bad guys from the previous series and the kid and the scientist desperately try to solve the power calculation so they can dial the gate and evacuate everyone from the planet, which is being bombarded. And they do, but the scientist thinks the gate is too powerful to dial Earth, something I actually doubt; I think he was desperate to go to the 9-character address for reasons of his own, and could actually have gotten them all safely to some destination other than Earth. He happens to bring some communications technology with him through to the other side, and soon enough claims to have talked to O’Neill and to have been put in charge.

Meanwhile, Eli finds some floaty ball things left over from that time Luke was first learning to use the light sabre (no wait, wrong universe) and starts video blogging. In the meantime, a pretty girl is nice to him, and he solves a couple more problems and is picked for the official first exploration team because he’s already made a habit of pulling their asses out of the fire, according to the injured commander. He’s a schlub, but he gets a wardrobe upgrade and no longer has to beg for pants. His life is unexpectedly better than you’d think for a kid who’s lost in space with a bunch of strangers on a starship that’s about to fall to bits at the speed of light.

Okay, that’s a lot of wish-fulfillment wankery to get through, but the Eli character is clearly a fan surrogate, and he’s actually pretty funny and not without a certain ursine charm. Yet wouldn’t it have made just as much sense to just use his solution and go on with the Icarus project in secret? The whole reason they didn’t, is so there’s a character whose function is to look around him in awe and wonder. Also, he’s the “fixer” dude who taught himself to read or decode the alien language, sort of, as a part of the process of solving the in-game puzzle.

Other characters, as Maureen Ryan mentions, are various kinds of functionaries. Rush is enigmatic and obviously not telling everything he knows or suspects, and he’s not very trustworthy if you ask me (and he seems to be grieving for lost love when he’s not creepily ordering people around). The military types are a mixed bag; the commander is injured and possibly an epileptic, his next in command is your obligatory Hot Guy In Uniform literally caught with his pants down (though he’s only a lieutenant, so he’s young enough to clearly wish his commander weren’t half-dead). There’s a crazy sergeant (mentioned by Ryan in her review) who’s either a psychopath, or a rebel. There’s a couple of cooks who’ll probably turn out to have some other useful skills, there’s a Senator’s daughter (obviously potential love interest), there’s a medic who tried desperately to save a dying doctor so she wouldn’t be the only one with medical training…

Sure, it’s contrived. Sure, it’s derivative. But one of the problems I had when Stargate: Atlantis first premiered was that they get to Atlantis, and it’s this pristine, brand new wonderland that’s been sitting on the bottom of an ocean for millennia. There were lots of cool toys, and they all worked, although they had the annoying problem with lack of power. I wasn’t invested in all the new people then, but I was put off by all the shiny. And now, I miss McKay and Sheppard and everyone else. This is a much more random group of people, with a lot more potential for conflict and interesting character development, so I’m quite willing to suspend disbelief even as I’m aware that it’s yet another “deus ex machinae” kind of show (those Ancients were pretty clever to seed the Universe with gates on habitable worlds, etc. etc.).

With the ship in Stargate: Universe, they’ve got an old “bucket” that still mostly works, but it’s been damaged over the years. I’m pretty sure that there’s plenty they don’t know about what it’s for and what it’s mission really is; I’m betting that it was always designed to carry groups of Ring-building colonizers to more and more distant planets, but also designed to travel empty between galaxies. We were kicking around the idea of whether the ship will have a personality, with the likelihood of it possessing an artificial intelligence pretty much a foregone conclusion. I’m hoping they go more for a Moya-like self-awareness (although the ship is clearly not an organism) rather than a non-substantiaL humanoid (as in Andromeda).

David’s sort of hoping there’s no Pilot. I’m pretty much hoping there’s no hologram.

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