Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Praise of Stargate Universe

I'm not one to jump to conclusions. I've been enjoying Stargate Universe since the premiere episode, but I wanted to wait until at least a few episodes before crafting a coherent opinion about this brand new series. And I have to say, I am very impressed!

First, some background. I have a interesting history with Stargate (at least I think I do). Like most other normal people, I was a fan of the movie and I had heard about the series, Stargate SG1 and wanted to see it, but did not have Showtime (still don't) and could not watch it. A couple years later, the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, but I still didn't get into it. Only when I heard of a new series, a spinoff of SG1 called Atlantis, that I thought: "Great, here's an opportunity to get into a new series from the start."

But I knew that Atlantis, unlike Universe (I'll get to that later), was heavily dependent on what came before it. Sure, they were going to be focused on a new galaxy, but the whole mythology of Stargate had obviously changed and grown so much since a single two-hour film. So I started watching SG1, from the beginning, on DVD. And I fell in love.

SG1, like Star Trek The Next Generation, will be remembered as one of the best Science Fiction series ever created. It may not have the largest mainstream audience, but it does have the distinction of being the longest running American ScFi show. A lot of people dismiss SG1 as some kind of cheap movie-tie-in (Yes, that is Richard Dean Anderson, better known as McGyver, in the main role. And yes, HE IS AWESOME) but the far-reaching plotlines and incredible humor and action of that series remains a strong ceiling to compare other similar SciFi shows.

So, after watching nine seasons (the next three ran concurrently with Atlantis), the time for Atlantis was finally here and I watched it very excitedly. Unfortunately, something about the series didn't click for me. I didn't particularly like any of the main characters and felt the storylines were so similar to a lot of what SG1 did - and better - that I'd rather just watch SG1. Also, Battlestar Galactica was on at the time and that took a lot of my focus away from other deserving series.

Fast forward to the end of Atlantis (a little prematurely, from what I've read online) and a new, bold direction for the Stargate franchise in SGU. From the first moments of the first episode, I felt a sense of seeing something original unfolding. The way they thrust us into the storyline without any proper backstory and then reveal it Lost-style (through flashbacks) was a clever way to unfold a introductory episode. The focus on characters and their reactions to extreme stress (ala' BSG) was another refreshing facet of this new show.

The premise of SGU is not overflowing with originality. A group of people flee an attack and end up on an ancient vessel traveling through space "several million light years from home." A little Voyager, a little Lost in Space, a little Battlestar Galactica (without the End of Humanity drama, thankfully), and finally a little similarity to Stargate Atlantis. So, all that is working against the show: That feeling of Haven't We Done This Already? But yet, despite all that, SGU feels fresh and new.

And here's why. The characters that have made it onto the ship, Destiny, have no clue what they're doing. Unlike Atlantis (where they had the Ancient city up and running with their fancy laptops within twenty minutes) or Deep Space Nine (where they moved the Space Station in the first episode), these guys have no idea how to control the ship. The early episodes dealt with emergency power, air, and water issues, before any of the characters had a chance to catch their breathe.

Speaking of characters, the show's creators took a page from Galactica and focused on some truly remarkable and troubled characters. The main character, Dr. Nicholas Rush, is a frustrated genius with some real emotional issues and a heartbreaking past (not yet revealed). Other great characters include Col. Young, the reluctant leader, and Lt. Scott, an even-headed marine (or is he in the Air Force?) who has great leadership skills. And then there's the "kids," young twentysomethings who have been the cause of much derision online - people have been joking that SGU is more like Stargate 90210 because of these characters, but nothing can be farther from the truth. Both Eli (comic relief Jew-kid) and Chloe (a politician's daughter with a lot to prove) add a much needed aspect to the Stargate franchise: Something different. After 15 seasons (SG1's 10 and SGA's 4) and countless scientists and soldiers, a new kind of character is a breathe of fresh air.

Those blue stones are another innovative addition to SGU. They're a bit of Ancient tech (just like the ship and the Stargates themselves were created by a long gone civilization called The Ancients) that allows for communication over loooooooonng distances. Using these stones, characters can swap bodies with other people on Earth. This has brought a fascinating new dimension to the classic lost in space storyline. True, they are millions of light years from home, but yet many episodes so far have spent a good amount on Earth. Last week's "Earth" (simply and aptly titled, like every other episode of this series so far) had Eli and Chloe visit a club and get drunk. I was watching it thinking, "Is this really Stargate?" That was a great feeling.

And then there's the sex. Unlike its family-friendly predecessors, SGU is aiming for a darker, more adult, audience so there was been a lot of sex scenes so far. Nothing that would make an HBO viewer think twice, but it's different coming from the Stargate franchise has done in the past. What it has done is given yet another dimension to these vibrant characters.

SGU has received a lukewarm reaction online, from what I've gathered. Many people, like myself, have already fallen for this series, but many others are railing against it in very large numbers. People criticize the pace, the tone, the lack of action, the inclusion of the young characters. I don't see where they're coming from at all. I'm loving this new series and am looking forward to watching closely at how the first season plays out. If it's anything like the smart and deliberate storytelling in the first set of episodes, this is going to be a great ride that will hopefully last a long time.

(Update.) I would be remiss if I did not mention the latest episode of SGU, "Time," aired after finishing this post last week. What a brilliant hour of TV that was! Reminded me of the best time travel episodes from Next Generation, taking what's somewhat of a SciFi cliche and ramping it up to 100. The episode will have its detractors based on the sheer insanity of the plot and the resolution but I thought it was amazingly done from start to finish. That whoooshhh you hear is the sound of this show taking off!

Rush's line before he jumps into the unstable gate: "For a moment there I thought we were in trouble," despite being a quote, is a perfect tagline for this show.

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