Review: Stargate Universe (Premiering October 2nd)

SGUMy experience with the Stargate franchise is somewhat limited: I’m fairly certain I’ve seen the movie, likely stumbled upon SG-1 at some point, and saw quite a few random episodes of Atlantis while home during holidays. It is a series that, for me, has always failed to keep my interest largely because of the repetitiveness of its procedural construct, especially with Atlantis. While there were some interesting ideas on that show, and even some interesting performances, I found that the universe being constructed wasn’t interesting enough for me to come back week after week for very similar storylines that would either end quickly or, at the most, develop into a 2 or 3 episode arc.

However, like any show of this nature, by the end of its run Stargate Atlantis had built up a large following based on a cast of characters that audiences related with, characters which would prove capable of sustaining repetitive storylines. It is for this reason that the decision to end Atlantis somewhat prematurely, before fans had felt its time was up, seemed particularly strange: yes, Stargate Universe (which debuts tomorrow night at 9pm on Space in Canada and SyFy in the U.S.) offers many of the same procedural elements, albeit with a twist, but because this cast of characters is completely different it means that audience goodwill starts all over again.

The biggest problem with tonight’s two-hour pilot for Stargate Universe is that I felt absolutely no emotional connection to these characters, or this story, and perhaps most importantly nothing the episode accomplishes makes me feel as if this is going to change in the immediate future. I won’t suggest that over time this group of characters couldn’t be engaging, but in the pilot their actions feel contrived and lifeless with a thin back story and an overbearing sense of helplessness which should bring them closer together but actually just operates as a false tension.

Free from the pressure of establishing a whole host of characters and the show’s premise, it is possible that these kinds of issues will be ironed out. However, even then, there is something about this Universe that feels muddled in a way which seems inherent to creative decisions that have the franchise starting over with a direction both too clear and too unclear.

Tonight’s pilot opens with the kind of scene that science fiction thrives on, a group of people coming flying through a Stargate too quickly and resulting in injuries and general chaos. We’re supposed to be asking the same questions as this ragtag crew: where are they, and more importantly how did they get there? The show then follows their efforts to discovery just where they are, how they’re going to survive, and in the end how they might be able to get back home to Earth, all while flashing back to how they got to this point. We learn that Eli Wallace (David Blue) was a role-playing game nerd who was recruited due to his ability to discover the solution to a secret puzzle embedded in the game, and that Lt. Scott (Brian J. Smith) was having some sort of clandestine sexual relationship.

However, none of the backstories really justify the decision to join things in media res. When we do learn why they went through the Stargate to this location, the knowledge of their destination actually damages the uncertainty of that moment. If the pilot had played in chronological order, their apprehension at jumping through the gate would have been our apprehension, and we wouldn’t know any more than they do about what’s about to happen. Instead, the show spends needless time jumping back and forth to fill in gaps, sucking tension and suspense out of the flashbacks while distracting from what’s happening in the present. There’s one “twist” which sheds new light on a character which is helped by the fractured narrative, but every other character feels as if they would have been more engaging if we had never joined things already in progress.

I can understand the impulse, considering that the premise of the show is going to be the situation we see in that opening scene, but it sets a strange tone for the pilot. Rather than creating interesting scenarios that tell us something about the mysterious ship they end up on (which is on an unknown course which can’t be corrected), the show relies on the flashbacks and  a whole host of science fiction clichés for dramatic interest. Most unfortunately, these larger moments (which do feel reductive of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek: Voyager) are surrounded by some rather mundane search party missions that do nothing to convince me that seeing these people search the ship week after week is going to be particularly thrilling.

The pilot ends with a pretty clear premise, one which is predicated on the “survival” element of the show. However, what I’m unclear about is how precisely the show is going to be able to actually make this premise interesting. The writing is quite stiff when I felt it needed to feel more natural, and the show lacks urgency even when the characters are talking about how urgent their situation is. It is possible that the show will become more interesting when they head off to different planets (in the Stargate tradition) and visit different cultures where there is more variety in their surroundings. However, parts of the pilot’s conclusion limit human agency’s role in the series quite substantially, meaning that the show will boil down to character interaction in a way that feels premature for a show that’s starting over from scratch and not yet able to carry that burden. The show insists that the show is designed to reveal the “heroes and villains” amongst the crew, but the pilot doesn’t make that dichotomy clear so I can’t help but note the absence of such intriguing interpersonal dynamics.

I think the show does have some potential to grow, as the direction is competent if unspectacular and I do think the cast is quite solid. Robert Carlyle’s Dr. Rush is more unlikable than I had imagined, given only a simple and throwaway bit of sympathy to justify his bullish behaviour, but Carlyle is a strong actor who could handle better material in future episodes. Similarly, I think that Blue’s Wallace is a decent avatar (to use the video game term) for the audience to experience this world through, but the pilot has him acclimatized too quickly and makes him too comfortable with the suddenness of the surroundings. Lou Diamond Phillips is briefly glimpsed early on, and Ming Na appears in a largely undeveloped role, so it’s not as if the cast is lacking in talent.

But right now it doesn’t seem like a show that is using them to their full potential. I’m pretty sure I’ll run into the show on occasion, and there could be a point down the road where the fate of these soldiers, civilians and scientists really captures me. But, in pilot form, what potential there is feels misused, and some structural choices keep even its emotional beats from hitting in a way that would turn me into a fan. How it will play for Stargate fans, of course, is unknown to me, but I feel that even fan goodwill won’t be able to hide that this pilot feels like a misstep that hampers the show’s ability to launch with much momentum.

Cultural Observations

  • Like any show filming in Vancouver, there’s some Canadian content in the show’s cast: Elyse Levesque (who does well playing the underdeveloped Chloe Armstrong), Alaina Huffman (who plays the ship’s medic-turned-doctor Tamara Johansen), and Justin Louis (who plays Colonel Young, and who I last saw in HBO’s Emmy-winning Grey Gardens).
  • Interesting that Lou Diamond Phillips is listed as a guest star in the pilot, and yet his character is considered part of the series. I don’t know if this is a marketing decision or not, as the circumstances of his appearance make me question how he’s going to be reworked into the plot.
  • One element of the show that seems particularly strange, for me at least, is a particular piece of technology. There’s a decision not to show us just how a particular advice work that’s done to make us suspicious, but when it’s something a bit bizarre (and a bit too cheap for the series, in some ways) I felt like we needed more of a demonstration in order to really understand it.
  • Fans of Stargate have a few cameos to look out for, which I realized were cameos simply based on how the show handled them as opposed to really knowing the actors involved.
  • Meanwhile, fans of Happy Gilmore will enjoy the appearance of Shooter McGavin, Christopher McDonald.
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3 Comments

Filed under Stargate Universe

3 responses to “Review: Stargate Universe (Premiering October 2nd)

  1. Pingback: TV, eh? » Stargate Universe review

  2. Chris

    Okay first off, you know me and you know that I love SG-1. I hated Atlantis, and I hope that Universe will be good. I just hope they don’t fall into a predictable trap of being some kind of Star trek, voyager or any other typical “we are in a space ship” TV show.
    Here’s to hope!

  3. Sandy McCollum

    I was very disappointed by the first episode of SGU. First – the producers tried to “rope in” SG-1 and SG Atlantis fans by including O’Neill, Carter and Daniel in very brief cameos, which I found insulting as they did nothing but make me wonder how much the producers had to pay them in order to get them to participate. Second – there were so many characters involved and the episode was so disjointed (switching back and forth between the past and present), that I found it extremely difficult to follow. I don’t want to have to watch a show three of four times in order to be able to understand and appreciate it! Third – in these dark and uncertain economic times I have enough problems of my own – I certainly don’t want to spend the limited free time I have watching those of others on the small screen! I want to be uplifted and encouraged by heroic people such as those from SG-1 and SG Atlantis who “do the right thing”, defeat the “bad guys” and save the world for another day! Fourth – I don’t know who did the casting for the original SG-1 series, but they did an excellent job – there was instant chemistry between the five main characters, in particular between O’Neill and Carter. The show survived Daniel’s temporary departure, but started to go downhill and lose followers when O’Neill and Hammond were replaced. A lot of the show’s appeal was centered around these characters and when they left, their replacements were unsatisfactory. I saw no characters in SGU’s pilot last night who have the presence/appeal/charisma to carry the show. In fact, I found all of the characters to be quite unlikeable….. Out of loyalty to the SG franchise I probably will try watching the second episode to see if it gets any better, but I’m not holding out much hope.

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