Though it is the third series in the franchise, Stargate Universe (SGU) requires no base knowledge of the series; it's Stargate for those who didn't watch the theatrical film, any of the 10 seasons of Stargate SG1 or any of the five seasons of Stargate Atlantis. Characters from the older series may appear on occasion, but they are not the focal point, and those unfamiliar with SGU's antecedents won't be worse off for not recognizing the characters as "the legendary so-and-so."
The basic premise of the series, despite the show being a science fiction endeavor, is really quite simple – through no fault of their own, a motley group of individuals finds themselves stranded and doing their best to get home. Their surroundings are odd and sometimes unintelligible, and as they attempt to get home they must also establish the basic workings of a society. That same summary could be used to discuss any number of books, films, and television shows and works well as a basis for SGU – the fears and concerns of the characters are ones we can all understand, ones that many of us have felt to a greater or lesser degree over the course of our own lives.
It is the facts of the situation, not the premise, where the science fiction lies (as with most good science fiction). The scientists, military men, politicians, and others end up so far away from home because they were on a different planet trying to use this thing called a "Stargate" and ended up getting attacked by other aliens. They stepped through the Stargate and found themselves on an alien ship, the Destiny, somewhere else in the universe. The ship was built by a race of folks known as the Ancients and has been wandering the galaxy following a pre-programmed route for an incredibly extended period of time. Oh yes, and the humans who find themselves on board Destiny can neither access the entirety of the ship nor really control it.
The first part of season one, the part now available on DVD, follows the now crew of Destiny as they learn about their surroundings, attempt to find a way back home, and provide for their basic needs (stuff like food, water, and air). It is a setup that works very well in the short term, but at the same time makes one wonder exactly where the series will head down the line. It is great to watch the crew find their footings and learn how to perform the basic things they need to do to survive, but the show can't stay at that point for long because while the life-sustaining basics are important, they tend to not be televisual drama-sustaining. Where exactly the show will go once they move on from the basics is somewhat more up in the air, but as of this moment it certainly feels very Star Trek: Voyager, a series which revolved around a ship making the long journey home. It will certainly be different having the idea played out in the Stargate universe instead of the Star Trek one, but it is still – on the face of it – an awfully similar notion.
Outside of the question of technology and background, one of the most obvious ways this series is different from Voyager is in its characters, and not just because no one here is wearing a Starfleet uniform. The most interesting of the characters at this point is Eli Wallace (David Blue). He is the fish-out-of-water at the center of the story and is said fish even before the folks find themselves on Destiny. He even gets to watch a little Stargate primer which will help those who do want some basic knowledge of the world the show takes place in. Wallace is a goofy, nerdy, young scientist, someone totally unprepared to have stepped out of his mother's basement much less be aboard a starship wandering about through the galaxy. Blue, who was great in a recurring role on Ugly Betty, again shows here just how compelling – how watchable – an actor he can be.
While Blue gets many of the lighter moments, there are certainly heavier moments that take place as well, and the rest of the cast, led by Robert Carlyle, is certainly up to it. Carlyle plays Nicholas Rush, the mad scientist with a past. Carlyle identifies himself on the DVDs as not having been a massive fan of science fiction prior to taking this role, but rather a fan of drama. Rush, with his secretive motivations, and the show with its unquestionably dark feel, is certainly dramatic.