‘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.

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