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Stargate Universe Revisited – “Air Part 2″

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“The greater good” is a recurrent theme throughout Stargate Universe‘s two-season run.  In the episode “Air Part 2″ the core series theme comes into play really for the first time.

 “Air Part 2″ finds the survivors of Icarus Base beginning to explore the ship they must now call home. Realizing that their air supply is beginning to go due to a weakness in the shield protecting the ship’s damaged hull, they must plug that leak before the air runs out. And they don’t have much time.

They discover a significant leak in the hull of one of the ship’s two shuttles. But there is an additional problem. Closing the door would solve the problem, but the breach cannot be isolated and closed off except from within the shuttle itself. The door can only be secured by someone willing to remain inside the craft, essentially committing suicide. Once locked inside, no egress back into the ship is possible. If it’s not done, all of them will all perish very quickly as the breathable atmosphere escapes into space. 

The Icarus survivors are barely a crew at this point. Leaderless and still stunned, there is an immediate vaccum at the top. With Col. Young (Louis Ferreira) still badly injured, and his appointed leader Lt. Scott (Brian J. Smith) not very experienced and thrown suddenly into an impossible situation, Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle), claims control, stating that he has been appointed leader of the de facto crew by Stargate Command back on Earth.

Having used the communication stones, a neat bit of Ancient technology that allows the consciousness of two people to be swapped, Rush has indeed been back on Earth, meeting with Gen. O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson). Although this meeting is not shown in the broadcast episode; we do see at least part of it in the extended version of “Air,” available on the Blu-ray release of season one. But even in that version, we do not see O’Neill do anything of the kind. And when Rush attempts to assert his supposed authority, no one accepts it (and who would, given his role in creating their predicament in the first place, not to mention the way in which he addresses them as a group?) The other civilian leader aboard, Camille Ray (Ming-Na) refuses to recognize Rush’s authority, but doesn’t claim it for herself either.

But there are more immediate concerns than politics as Rush endeavors to learn as much about the ship and how it operates as fast as he can, and teams of civilians and military explore the ship for whatever might be of use. Although nobody trusts Rush, and our hacker-slacker Eli Wallace (David Blue) is beginning to gain the trust of everyone, it is Rush who has the knowledge to put it all together and find a solution to their common dilemma. But can they trust him? It’s almost beside the point, since their survival depends him. As Scott says, for now they need him.

The immediate concern is identifying a way to close shuttle door, necessary to isolate the leak. But who would volunteer for this suicide mission? And how can anyone order another human being to death for the greater good? But someone must go, and someone must give the order.

Here’s where the difference in style, personality, and leadership begin to come into high relief between nominal hero Col. Young, nominal villain Nicholas Rush. Dr. Rush is a pragmatist; objective, perhaps Machiavellian, he is not only willing to sacrifice a life for the greater good of the crew but begins to compile a list of those he would consider as candidates: those perhaps less valuable to their survival. Sacrifice of someone whose skills might allow them to survive either in the short or long term makes no sense to him. On the other hand, Col. Young is only willing to sacrifice himself, noting that he is injured, and furthermore he could not ask anyone to make such a sacrifice. Rush points out that “politicians order soldiers to sacrifice themselves every day for the greater good.” How is this different? Who is right? By sacrificing himself (or Rush offering to sacrifice himself), Young would deprive the survivors of their leader. Is that the right thing to do, either?

The point is made moot when Chloe’s (Elyse Lévesque) father, Sen. Alan Armstrong, dying of internal injuries, disappears from his cabin. He knows he’s dying, and makes a decision for himself, knowing, I would suspect, that no one would have suggested it to the powerful man. Even Rush says he would not have chosen him. Despite the understanding that Armstrong is not long for this world whether or not they survive this crisis.

Armstrong’s decision is sensible and the right thing to do for the greater good. It is consistent with the little we know about the senator, a man dedicated to seeing the Icarus Project succeed. Despite Chloe’s pleading, her father is undeterred and sacrifices himself “so they might survive another day.” 

The episode begins to let us in to each of the characters that will form the core of the series narrative. We begin to see their fears, their passions, their strengths, and weaknesses. 

Rush disarms us, and Eli, in the aftermath of Armstrong’s suicide mission. We can see the exhaustion in Dr. Rush’s eyes, and in his body language. He seems however not to care about what he’s just witnessed – the death of a crew member, someone he knew apparently well. Not unexpected for what we believe we know about the calculating scientist. Eli is deeply affect by the Senator’s death, horrified that Rush simply continues working as if nothing significant has just happened in the their midst. “Don’t you even care?” Eli asks Dr. Rush, furious with him.

Rush answers him, clear that he’s barely holding it together himself, between the stress (and I suspect his own private feelings about the senator’s action), fatigue, and the need to concentrate on the multiple system problems on the ship. “I’m trying to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can,” he tells Eli defensively, but clearly upset that Eli doesn’t understand. 

He tells Eli that he’s learned the name of the ship. “Destiny,” he says, explaining almost reverently what he understands of The Ancients, the civilization whose technology built the ship. A chastened Eli apologizes for lashing out at Rush, having not understood the enormous responsibility resting on the scientist’s shoulders. 

We get a sense from this brief scene that despite what we may think of Dr. Rush at this point: scheming, secretive, manipulative man with his own agenda – the villain of the piece, there is something far more complex about him. That is not to say that we — or the crew of the Destiny —  should trust him.

Although they manage the breach enough to stop the loss of breathable air, they have another problem. The scrubbers, which remove Carbon Dioxide from the ship’s atmosphere, have long since passed their shelf life. If they are not able to find something to replace the sequestration material in the scrubbers, they will all be asphyxiated.

Coincidentally, the ship slows to sub-light speed, dropping out of “FTL” (faster than light). The ship, believes Dr. Rush, understands that its new passengers are having difficulty breathing. It knows what is needed, and has brought them to a planet, reachable through the stargate, that has the materials needed to fix the problem. We begin to understand as does Rush, Destiny is more than simply a spaceship. 

For the transitional episode of a three-part story, “Air Part 2″ packs in a lot of information. The series’ core conflict between Col. Young and Dr. Rush begins to emerge when Young decides to try and dial the Stargate back to Earth. It is a futile action, according to Rush, and will needlessly waste the ship’s slim power reserves. When Rush discovers the dial out, he is furious. How dare Col. Young do something so foolish without consulting him, he screams.

But would Rush have actually have actually been honest had he been consulted? Neither Young nor we have any idea at this point. Rush is where he wants to be. This is his “destiny,” and he’s not keen on going anywhere, even back home. For him, this is the “opportunity of a lifetime” for himself and all of them. Young argues the opposite: they are all the wrong people for the mission and have no business on the ship. They must get home, or at least try, if only for the sake of morale, something Rush derides as foolishness. Who is right? Do Young have an obligation to try? Or is the risk too great? 

I hope you’re enjoying this new series on Stargate Universe. Let me know your thoughts, whether you’re watching for the first time or the 15th. Next up: “Air Part 3.”

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Outtie

    Somehow I never saw Rush as the ‘villain of the piece’, just more of an internal person who tended to keep his thoughts, plans and emotions hidden from public view. As for his famous pragmatism – he was basically right about most things, he just tended to forget that other people aren’t him.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    I also don’t think of Rush as the villain (personally, I see Telford as ultimately the villain, since it was likely his intelligence that led to the original attack by the Lucian Alliance). And that’s the reason I call him the “nominal’ villain–the person who, on the face of it, is to blame for their predicament, is untrustworthy, etc…

    Yes, he’s right about a lot of things–nearly everything. But he does have his own agenda that excludes the consideration of others on the ship.

    Rush is by far and away my favorite character.

  • Paul

    I liked the conflict between military and civilian. Rush is right if this is a scientific exploration, that he should have ultimate decision. But if this is a warship, the military have to control it.

    I never saw Rush character as the problem. He clearly was the one to follow. I saw everyone else as the problem.

    If I was to be critical, I would say many characters had no business being on the top secret Icarus base or Destiny. They struck me as neither scientist nor military.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Wray was the IOA representative, and Chloe, her dad and Eli were just visitors to the base, but other than that, I think all the civilians were science personnel or engineers of one kind or another.

  • Paul

    Perhaps but they didn’t act like any scientist or military I’ve seen.

  • Outtie

    I was pretty firmly in the ‘civilians should be running the ship’ camp for most of the shows run. Towards the end they were finally coming together with all the groups working together rather than at opposing purposes.

    Personally I’d have been Team Rush all the way. Young was hardly worth listening to until about ‘Twin Destinies’.

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