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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Stargate Universe’ debuts tonight on SyFy

I’d been a bit leery about the idea of yet another Stargate series, for SG-1 faltered quite badly in its final years, never really recovering from the defeat of its own Big Bad Guys, and Atlantis never really found its footing, making itself content to be a pale imitation of its originator series even though that never made narrative sense. So I approached Stargate Universe with a bit of trepidation: Was there really another series to be wrung out of this universe when there didn’t seem to be enough imagination to sustain one.

But now that I’ve had the opportunity to see tonight’s double-length debut episode and next week’s first regular episode, I can say that I was wrong to be worried, and I’m genuinely psyched for more. The pilot may be the best damn introduction to a series I’ve ever seen, beautifully balancing the necessary presentation of new characters and their situation with actual, tense, exciting drama and action, and all told in a way fresh to the franchise. There’s a clear influence of Battlestar Galactica on this new Stargate, without it ever feeling like an imitation: cameras are handheld and so we’re right in the middle of the action and the emotions (which run high), and the story of the pilot, at least, is told in an exhilaratingly jumbled up fashion that drags out the suspense far longer than you’d expect from a universe that’s already a known quantity to us.

As the pilot opens, a large group of humans is coming through a stargate, but if you’re familiar with the franchise, you know this is nothing like the way it’s supposed to work. It should be a small band of soldiers sauntering out of the event horizon of a black hole to stroll on an alien planet, contemporary Earthish men and women likely so jaded by this extraordinary work that they’re cracking wise out of boredom. And of course, if this is a previously unknown world they’re stepping onto, they will have already sent through a remote-controlled robot exploring to make sure everything’s safe. Instead, here, everyone’s flying fast and hard out of the gate, landing so violently that some are badly injured. They’re mostly not in uniform and so appear to be civilians, and there’s a lot of equipment and baggage getting thrown out of the gate along with the people. Bonus: They have no idea where they are.

You’ve probably already heard that they’re all on an Ancient starship named Destiny, and that they have no way of getting home, at least that they’re aware of as they begin their exploration. If it sounds a bit like Star Trek: Voyager, well, the series will have to avoid the tendency to get Trekish — pretty please will the writers not have their characters discover a holodeck onboard? But as the pilot flashes back to explain who these people are and how they ended up on this ship, it becomes that clear — I’m hoping — this show is going to be as much about as these people as it will be about whatever intergalactic oddities they encounter on their journeys.

I’m suspecting — again, even hoping — that the conflicts and the complications of the voyages of the starship Destiny are going to come from the interpersonal politics of these inadvertent explorers, and not from the Alien of the Week attacking them. Robert Carlyle’s scientist, Dr. Nicholas Rush, attempts to take something like command when the senior military officer among them — Justin Louis’s Everett Young — ends up among the very badly injured; the brilliant Carlyle makes Rush a prickly, arrogant, fascinating son of a bitch, and if he ends up the putative villain of the series, I think I could be very happy indeed, especially if the writing remains as sharp and incisive as it is here (and in next week’s episode, too). I was worried that David Blue’s dorky accidental genius Eli Wallace would be a caricature of The Geek, but even though he ends up with the SG folk in a manner that will have every geek watching green with envy, he seems to be on track to be a real person, not a cartoon.

I’m not gonna tell you anymore, because I got such pleasure out of not knowing what was gonna happen here that I would hate to ruin it for you. But you can rest assured that if, like me, you were afeared for Stargate Universe, don’t be. And don’t miss it.


posted in:
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  • RogerBW

    Lots of people are making the Voyager comparison. Actually it sounds to me (based on advance publicity) a lot more like Space:1999 – we only have a few hours to visit the Planet of the Week before our spaceship carries us on somewhere else.

    Glad to hear that it’s not as bad as the cast photos made it look.

  • There’s a clear influence of Battlestar Galactica on this new Stargate, without it ever feeling like an imitation…

    I hope you’re right. It definitely felt like an imitation in all the previews for the show, to the point where I and numerous others were referring to it as “Battlestar Galactigate.” “Edgy for the sake of edgy” and “shamelessly catering to fans of a different kind of show” came to mind, too.

    I guess my question is: does it still feel like a Stargate show?

  • Barb

    Have no interest in the show. You’ve had the original show SG1 which is still the best) then the first spinoff (Atlantis which was okay but not on the level that SG1 was). Universe seems to be something totally too out of scope of the Stargate concept in addition to trying to target a younger audience. I’ll skip this one.

  • nyjm

    I’ll have to disagree with Barb, above. The “homebase-as-safe-place,” paradigm had run its course with the Stargate series. You could see it itching at the producers when Atlantis started to get mobile and the best stories of latter-day SG-1 making an effort to remove Cheyenne Mountain from the picture entirely. (Continuum, anyone?) Like the DS-9 before it, Universe takes a needed paradigm shift.

    Nonetheless, SyFy – as depressingly usual – did a poor job of publicizing this show early on. Like MAJ, I was genuinely worried. So, what a relief! I will have popcorn in hand and my butt on the sofa tonight at 9pm.

  • TV Obsessed

    I’m a huge fan of the Stargate franchise having watched all the SG-1 episodes multiple times and every SGA episode. I wanted to like SGU, but it tried too hard to be dark like BSG instead of focusing on story or characters. The 2-hour series premiere was completely unnecessary and could have been cut to an hour thirty or an hour. Full review of the episode.

    http://th3tvobsessed.blogspot.com/2009/10/review-stargate-universe-season-1.html

  • It focused on characters. It’s just that none of the characters were in any way interesting or likable. Ah, well. At least Farscape’s coming out with a 10th anniversary DVD package, soon. :)

  • GRJ

    Enjoyed it very much. It seems they are gearing up to tell a very different kind of story inside the same technological landscape. If they continue as they began — without aliens, without a wiseass hero or a never-wrong genius, and without the opportunity to resolve an episode by slipping out the back door and going home — I’ll be very happy.

    I think it’s a good sign that I’m ambivalent about some of the characters. That we can’t tell yet which roles these people have to play puts us in the same starship as the rest of the evacuees.

  • allochthon

    pretty please will the writers not have their characters discover a holodeck onboard?

    I quite liked the premiere.

    However, with the stones, I think the holodeck scenario is going to be very real, and of course there’s already controversy over some of the plot points leaked (?) about the stones.

  • RogerBW

    Chuck is The Last Starfighter on Moonbase Alpha.

    I agree that a double-length pilot was probably over-long; most of it could have been compressed into say 120% of a single episode, giving the exploration of the planet as the remaining 80% of the second half.

    The time-switches back and forth seemed excessive to me – I know some script-writers like to be clever about narrative order, but at the very least it wouldn’t have hurt to stay in linear time after the initial backstep until we’d got back to the opening scene.

    Overall, felt like a clear attempt to cash in on the grunginess of BSG2003. But I guess I’ll watch next week’s episode. (And I’m looking forward to it more than I am to next week’s FlashForward, after the tedium that was episode 2.)

  • Kenny

    I liked it a lot… The slow fall into the ridiculous that SG1 suffered, followed by the relatively poor offering that was Atlantis, made me worry a bit about what to expect from Stargate Universe.

    I think that what BSG did was remind people that grown-ups can watch science fiction. It was a serious drama that dealt with difficult issues… the CGI was beautiful, but the show never relied on it, and the humour was appropriate to the context.

    I think that SGU has learned lessons from BSG certainly, but can that ever be a bad thing??

    I’m actually thrilled about something else. Dr Rush, played by the fantastic Robert Carlye, appears to be a Scot. In the preview for next week’s episode, he clearly states that his father worked in the shipyards in Glasgow.

    There’s been a sad tradition of Scottish actors playing English or Irish characters (often without changing their accent… I’m thinking of Sean Connery here)
    I can only imagine that this might be because we Scots have a bit of a lower profile over in the States than those other two. (I’ve never even heard of a Welsh character in a US series…)
    It’s nice to think that Rush is Scottish because the producers trusted the audience to recognise Carlye’s accent, and… well ‘just because’.

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