Most people who read this blog know I’ve become a huge Stargate fanboy over the past few months, having run through the first third of SG-1 with my dad and Atlantis’ first season solo. So when SyFy announced Stargate Universe would be premiering this fall and “reinventing the wheel,” as their advertisements noted, I became curious. I was a little wary, but not much. Reinventing a series which has run a collective 15 seasons isn’t necessarily fixin’ what ain’t broke.
I avoided spoilers where I could, but watched a few behind-the-scenes clips here and there. I learned a little about what was being planned, but most of what I knew consisted of that the show would be purposefully darker and more industrial than previous incarnations.
When October 2 finally rolled around, my dad and I waited patiently for the premiere to air. We even watched the second episode of FlashForward—which was much better than the LOST-wannabe pilot. But when SGU finally aired, we were ready to be blown away.
And we were.
It turns out that Stargate Universe can be seen as an amalgam of many SF franchises that came before it. Within SGU, exists Star Trek: Voyager’s premise—an ill-equipped starcraft is stranded lightyears from Earth with no discernable way back. Throw in a smidgeon of Battlestar Galactica’s industrial, gritty atmosphere and high production quality along with the tried-and-true Stargate wit and humor, and what audiences get is a phenomenally crafted world with what look to be relatively engaging characters. They even took a plot device directly from The Last Starfighter! (and if you can’t figure out what that is, I’m not telling you.)
If the pilot is any indication, Stargate Universe will take just what it needs from the earlier franchises from which it obviously draws on as influences and expand on them enough to make its own, unique mark on SF television.
I’m not saying the pilot was perfect, though. Far from it. It was, however, one of the best pilot episodes I’ve seen in a very long time.
Things I Didn’t Like:
There are too many annoying and/or forgettable characters. The senator and his obnoxious “I wish I were Summer Glau” daughter, for instance, make me want to scream when they’re on camera. I never felt the emotional resonance the characters should have imparted because I cannot see the senator as a good guy; he will always and forever be Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore to me. The rest of the crew–except for Eli and Dr. Rush–are fairly generic and easily forgettable. I can’t even remember anyone else’s name. I’m sure that will change as the series moves into a few more episodes and the ensemble gels, but as for now, if any one of them were to die in the next episode, I would have a hard time caring. Of course, any ensemble show will be like that, so it’s hard to really take this as a negative.
Even in the scarce pre-SGU material I ingested, I found out that one of the main drawing points of the series (to existing Stargate fans, at least) was the 9th Chevron and its function on the Stargate itself. For those non-Stargate fans reading this, there are 39 symbols which can be programmed into the gate as an address–7 symbols to travel within one’s own galaxy, 8 symbols makes a gate to another galaxy, and through all 15 collective seasons of Stargate, nothing has mentioned as to what happens if 9 were dialed together, or if that were even possible. Until now.
My gripe: the 9th Chevron reveal was way too early. Yeah, I get that the entire premise of the show hinges on the problem that the 9th presents being mentioned and solved in the first quarter of the show, but for non-Stargate fans, and those of us who haven’t made it all the way through SG-1 or Atlantis, the whole concept presents a big ole “say what?” factor. I would not personally have a problem with the way it transpired if it weren’t made a big deal by the producers during even the limited promo material I was privy to. Luckily, I’m the kind of guy who reads as much as I can about series I’ve not finished yet so I can get a better grasp on the mythology, so I was prepared going in knowing how big a mystery the 9th Chevron has been. For a series that was conceived as a stand-alone reboot, the launching point of the narrative is too unclear for the SG uninitiated. And for it to be such a big mystery in the rest of the SG mythos, it was over and done with way too soon. Maybe it will be addressed again later (and hopefully at length).
Things I Did Like:
Those two very minor gripes (and likely soon-to-be-remedied gripes, at that) aside, I thought the show shined. There are already pop-culture references I giggle at (Kenos—tee hee!), and I expect more are on the way. That kind of self-awareness always makes me happy.
The special effects are spiffy; I am just glad to finally see a Stargate series with effects that make the universe look more dangerous than hokey. Even the Goa’uld motherships and gliders were impressive, and with those designs, that’s a feat in and of itself.
I love how Eli’s character was chosen for the SGU team because he was good at puzzle solving in an MMO (actual gameplay from the failed MMO Stargate Worlds). Sure, it’s straight out of The Last Starfighter, but it’s appropriate and really gives the target demographic a connection with one of the protagonists. After watching SG-1 and Atlantis and having the ubergeeks being ripped and handsome, it’s refreshing to see someone who actually looks like he might have dropped out of MIT instead of GQ.
And then there were the SG-1 cameos, which I had feared. Even though I read early on they would be minor, I expected the known team to overshadow the ensemble the new series had to establish. As much as I love SG-1, I’m not watching SGU to see those guys. I want the new guys and gals, and I thought that the creators would have to try to suck in old viewers by making Jack, Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c integral to the plot.
Boy, was I wrong; the team might have a collected 4 minutes of actual screen time in Stargate Universe. Daniel Jackson was only visible as a recording, giving Eli tutorials on how the gate system works. Jack O’Neill had a slightly larger role, being the military presence who actually recruited Eli, but past that, he was only seen a time or two in cuts to the SGC. Carter piloted the ship that protected the SGU team from Goa’uld attack so they could solve the 9th Chevron puzzle and gate offworld before it exploded. Teal’c was not in the pilot, which makes me wonder if he dies at some point in the direct-to-DVD movies that continue SG-1’s story.
And from Battlestar Galactica, we have the ship—Destiny, in this case (clichéd name alert!)—quickly becoming a character in her own right. Only this time instead of nostalgia and character built throughout the series, viewers get to see an ship with her own automated itinerary from the get-go. Gone are the days when Stargate narratives are about finding gate addresses, deciphering symbols, and sending probes to see if the atmosphere or planetary geography will kill the team. No, in SGU, the ship drops out of FTL, opens a gate automatically, and starts a timer. It is presumed that at the end of the timer, the gate closes and the ship jumps back into its preprogrammed course, whether the crew returned or not. Expect to see struggling with this plot device to become regular; instead of “SG-12 has missed their check-in” or “SG-5 isn’t due back for three days,” we’ll get to see “But, Destiny, I’m eating dinner and you have to stop now?” or “The gate has been activated…what? But I’m asleep!” It’s an interesting twist, and I’m sure the writers will be far more creative than I can be…I hope.
All in all, I’m very impressed with Stargate Universe. It was exactly what I wanted from a new Stargate series, even when I haven’t worked my way through all the existing franchise. It’s nice to know that I won’t have to shell out loads of cash on DVDs or waste space on my DVR to keep up with SGU.
For the first time, I’m getting in on the ground level of the Stargate franchise, and I’m excited about that. Not just in the fanboy way, either. I’m excited because it was legitimately good TV, and these days, that’s harder to find than I’m comfortable with (Daisy of Love, anyone? Sigh). SGU secured a very high priority spot on my DVR with its premiere.