I am not a big fan of the various Stargate TV shows. I liked the movie — by which I mean the Kurt Russel/James Spader one — but never really dug the television versions. I can’t explain why, and it is not a vehement hatred so don’t flame me, I was just never ‘˜hooked.’The only reason this is significant now is because of how much I absolutely loved Stargate Universe.
I’m going to guess that Stargate Universe is going to appeal to the legions of Stargate fans out there, but before I even watched the pilot my condition for liking the show was that it had to appeal to someone who was completely unaware of the Stargate Universe as defined by SG1, Atlantis, and whatever constituent material that belongs to those worlds. Not because I loathe them so, because I don’t, but because I would be completely lost if they relied on me knowing those histories.
On the other hand, my pre-viewing meditation on what would make a good Stargate show also turned up another requirement. If SyFy were smart they would want Stargate Universe to stand apart from the established mythology, widening their net beyond the viewership of the existing fan base. It would be bold, and probably a bit dangerous, but if SyFy were serious about this they would try to create a vehicle that looped in the hardened core of Stargate fans while simultaneously reaching out to the skeptics, like me. Thankfully, SyFy took that chance.
Stargate Universe is a Stargate for the rest of us. Fans of SG1 and Atlantis will probably tell me differently, but in my mind this Stargate is designed to appeal to television fans who admire a different brand of storytelling. SG1 and Atlantis may be perfectly great action shows, but to some of us they are simply hectic bags of eye-candy. Stargate Universe retains that brand of high-octane fun, but pads it with subtle mysteries, challenging character conflict, and tried and true cliffhanger styled story telling.
Stargate Universe — The Story
I’m reluctant to limit Stargate Universe with high-concept comparisons, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that SGU is a little like LOST in space, and a little like LOST In Space as well.
Before we get into the ‘˜hook’of SGU, let’s talk about the genius way in which it connects with non-fans. If you have never watched an episode of any Stargate series, or even seen the movie, you are in luck — because either has Eli Wallace. Played by David Blue, Eli is SGU’s gateway character. A mid-twenties gamer freak living with mom who cracks a code on an MMO and finds himself drafted into the Stargate program.
The narrative of the SGU pilot is tethered to Eli, and as such we are indoctrinated to the machinations of the Stargate reality with a conciseness befitting any intelligent noob. Eli’s mentor within the ‘˜Icarus’program, Doctor Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) tells Eli everything he needs to know to enter the phase of his grand experiment, and consequently everything we need to know to comfortably enter the world of Stargate. This is not to say that Eli is strictly a utility character, in fact there are no ‘˜utility’characters in Stargate Universe, yet when it comes to breaking in viewers who have no idea what the other series have been about Eli provides a comforting passage into this particular story.
Essentially, Stargate Universe is about this project involving these gates — ancient interdimensional portals left over by some long-vanished race — and an addressing scheme that has never been cracked. It is thought that his code would expand the range of the gates. The math needed to crack the code correlates to Eli’s game wizardry. Eli is plucked from his suburban gaming den and taken away to an alien world to work on the project. Any similarity to ‘The Last Starfighter’is completely lost in the execution, even when Stargate Universe skates close to clichÃ© it seems to rescue itself with a flash of uniqueness.
Once at the Icarus installation, bad guys attack and Rush makes a fatal decision to continue dialing the newly cracked address rather than opening the Stargate to Earth. The result: they are teleported to an ancient spaceship hurtling through space billions of light-years away. It’s a heat of the moment decision, and Rush’s logic is only partially flawed. The argument could be made that any escape is escape, and there is plenty of time to dial Earth from the other side. The result is that the survivors from the Icarus station are now stranded on this alien ship, hurtling through hyperspace as Earth becomes further and further distant.
The first concern is finding a way back to Earth, but the prospects look bleak. Instead, Stargate Universe seems to orient itself more towards a survivalist drama with an underlying set of mysteries involving who designed the ship, and what its purpose is. Shades of Star Trek: Voyager emerge, but are quickly suppressed by the high-drama of SGU’s character interplay, and the eroded look of its decrepit technology.
The SGU-Naut’s are able to contact Earth via thought stones that allow the ‘˜caller’to enter the body of a receiver, taking control of their meat to comingle with Stargate officials back home. The stones can also be used by those on Earth to dial the SGU-nauts. Problem is, there are only five stones at the beginning of the pilot, and two are used so far.
The worst-case scenario of this setup rears its head immediately. With no engineering knowledge of the ship, the survivors are suddenly faced with a dilemma: the atmosphere is escaping through a hole in a room they cannot seal from the outside, and the air-filtration system is degrading rapidly. They will suffocate in hours.
The bickering, politicking, and panic that ensue define the character-scape of Stargate Universe. Rush’s initial decision seems to be the one that will provide the most debate in the near future of the story, but the plot seems driven by choices of action and ambiguity. A constant struggle of choosing which action will serve the whole, whose decisions may be lined with self-service, and plain old acts of faith. This is where Stargate Universe takes flight.
Stargate Universe — The Characters
As anybody knows, even the best concepts can be foiled by bad characters. Stargate Universe features compelling characters played to perfection by a cast that means business. The talent presented here was staggering. To contrast to a recent show, FlashForward managed to present its ensemble in a compelling way that had all of the signs of high-art; Stargate Universe achieves the same effect in a way that is pleasingly organic, fluid, and perhaps more believable.
Regardless of how you breakdown the formula, the Stargate Universe ensemble works. The usual archetypes are present and accounted for: tough and fair leader afflicted by a secret ‘˜condition’Col. Everett Young played by Louis Ferreira. The righteous scientist driven by cruel logic – yet tainted with genuine humanity — Dr. Nicholas Rush, played by Robert Carlyle. The young loner using crisis as a crutch for his limping sense of self, 1st Lt. Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith). The frigid Senator’s daughter Elyse Levesque (Chloe Armstrong), memorializing the sacrifice of her father by channeling his resolve and unyielding demand for checks and balances.
There are more, the bureaucrat Camile Wray (Ming-Na), the mysterious and thuggish Master-Sergeant Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), 1st Lt. Tamara Johansen (Alaina Huffman) the medic whose skills are stretched beyond their limits. In the periphery, Lou Diamond Phillips earth bound Col. David Telford.
By far, the most intriguing characters, so far, are in the tier of Eli, Rush, Ferreira, Scott, Elyse, and Johansen. Eli’s ‘˜everyman’is always a pleasure to watch, serving both as a lovable geek we can all relate with, and a moral gyroscope that always points in the right direction. Carlyle’s Rush has a future on the mantle of memorable TV characters. He is colored with a combination of ambition, skittishness, and duplicity that demands fascination. There is a definite soft and human core to his character, but Rush is also dangerously obsessed with cruel logic.
The Bottom Line
Stargate Universe is fantastic Sci-Fi fun wrapped in a compelling mystery populated by addictive characters whose fates you will willingly become invested in. This television season offers a lot of genre options, SGU is one that you should not pass up. And as someone who passed on SG-1 and Atlantis, I can honestly say that you don’t need to be steeped in Stargate lore to jump on board and have a good time.
Stargate Universe Airs Friday, October 2 @ 9 PM ET/PT