The latest entry in the Stargate franchise, Stargate Universe, premiered last night and unfortunately for it, mostly it has to be described in sentences starting with ‘not.’
It’s not as bad, for instance, as a lot of people had worried, having heard about the intention for a younger cast, which had us all fearing they were going to go ahead and make something they previously joked about. I, for one, spent many a month calling it Battlestargate: Voyager: 90210, mostly because I enjoyed the name too much to let it slide until just now.
As a joke title, I must now concede that it is not accurate to the actual product, at least the 90210 part. As for the rest… well, it does feel a lot like Battlestar. A lot. The look of the ship, the music, the overall vibe does feel a lot like it’s trying to be Battlestar. Perhaps they’ve simply been influenced a lot by it, and one can’t exactly blame them, but, well…
It’s not Battlestar. It’s not as good. It’s not as gripping as the mini-series and, in fact, isn’t especially gripping at all: of the PCR writers who watch Stargate, I’m so far the only one to have watched through without stopping.
It’s not Lost, either, which seems an odd comparison to make until you look at the structures of the pilots. Stargate Universe begins quietly, mysteriously, with the empty Destiny sailing through the void. A brief tour of the halls ends at the Stargate, which begins spinning. A single man comes through, seeming a little, well… lost. And then more, and the scene devolves into chaos as a mass evacuation comes through. We don’t know what they’re running from, we don’t know who they are, it’s just a shambles.
The problem is it’s not shambles is about the most you can call it. The flaw might be in the directing – I suspect there’s lines in the scripts about the general frantic chaos of the situation – but mostly it’s just people milling about and one or two people being injured, but there’s no urgency to it. No one gets sucked into a jet engine, the medic isn’t having to perform emergency triage so much as poke the two plot important injured characters and essentially bemoan not being Jack Shepherd, which is a terrible fate for anyone to face.
From there, the pilot splits between showing them try to figure out their circumstances and flashing back to how they got there. Lost probably isn’t the first one to structure a pilot so, but when one even goes so far as to end with someone asking, “Where the hell are we?” comparisons are inevitable. And in a comparison to one of the best pilots of all time (OF ALL TIME!), SGU inevitably suffers.
For one thing, once we start revisiting how they got there, certain elements stop making sense. When we see the other side of the evactuation, there’s no reason presented for people to be tripping over each other on the other side, and there’s certainly no reason for boxes of equipment to be flying through the gate as if thrown or falling. A character is thrown through the gate by an explosion, but the explosion itself does not translate through, the possibility of which was given as the reason not to dial Earth. This second part, however, could be that the reasoning was spurious, tying into the motivations of one particular character. Which brings us to our next point:
It’s not all bad. If you can sit through it – not the easiest task as after the early sequence, there’s not much urgency, for all that they’re running out of air – the character work is fairly strong. Characters are not neatly summed up for our convenience, as so often happens in pilots; we know them only in the sense of where they were when we first encountered them, and what they do since. In the case of Robert Carlyle’s Dr Nicholas Rush, one wonders at first why they got such a talent to play what first appears to be your average work-obsessed scientist with a dead woman in his past, but as the episode progresses it becomes apparent. He’s a very ambiguous character, and it takes an actor of Carlyle’s character to really sell it, so that we never quite know when to believe him or not. There are, several times, implications that this is where he’s wanted to get all along, that his agenda is devoted to finding out the secrets of the Destiny and not to the people aboard it, and certainly not to getting them home. But at the same time, he does seem to care, just in that abstract scientist kind of way.
David Blue’s Eli Wallace, on the other hand, is much more straight forward; he’s the genius nerd who solved the problem Rush couldn’t, and has ended up over his head because of it; he’s the fresh window into the world of Stargate. He’s adorable, if occasionally feeling like he’s out of place, as if Chuck Bartowski had somehow wandered into Galactica’s CIC. They only have the odd scene together, but it does seem as if he might also have the required good buddy chemistry with Brian J. Smith’s Matthew Scott. Scott looks unfortunately like he could be one of the Young SG1 mentioned earlier, but it turns out to work in his favour; he plays his inexperience admirably, stepping up to the plate while clearly not knowing, entirely, what to do when he’s there. It evens leads to one of the larger surprises, for me, of the episode, not relating specifically to his actions but to the fate of his superior, Everett Young, who is injured early on.
(As an aside, as a fun game, play ‘Who do they remind you of?’ Blue, of course, looks vaguely like Jonah Hill. Elyse Levesque looks like someone combined the DNA of Summer Glau and Anna Popplewell. The girl Scott has sex with – also worth noting, people have sex on screen in this new Stargate, and it’s a little unsettling – looks like Dexter’s sister. Robert Carlyle looks like that guy from the Full Monty but can’t be, what would he be doing in a show like this? It all just adds to the feeling that what we’re watching is more a Frankenstein’s monster constructed of the sewn-together parts of other shows that its own entity.)
So, all in all, it’s not bad. It’s not fantastic, either. If there’s one more major criticism, it’s that in places it doesn’t feel entirely like Stargate; as mentioned, it’s as if it’s trying so hard to emulate several other shows, at once, and leaves no room for it’s origins, aside from cameos by Richard Dean Anderson (once again managing to be funnier with a single ‘yup’ than others can do with carefully constructed one-liners), Amanda Tapping and Michael Shanks as an orientation video.
The way the episode ends, however, does feel like Stargate, for reasons that will be very obvious once you’ve seen it; it’s the ending, in fact, that gives me hope that once Stargate Universe finds it’s footing and manages to find a balance between being a Stargate series and wanting to be Battlestar, it might be worth something on it’s own merits.
It has to come up with episodes people don’t switch off halfway through first, though.