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TV Review: Stargate Universe Rediscovered

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I like my science fiction dark. Not necessarily physically dark, but atmospherically and tonally dark. Dystopias, creaky starships, journeys into the unknown by flawed heroes (or, more probably, antiheroes) never fail to catch my eye, whether in a novel, movie or television series. Problem is, I have to actually be aware of them—and therein, my friends, lies the rub.

I’d never really been a huge fan of the Stargate franchise in its many forms. I saw the movie when it came out in the 1990s, and I liked it, but never watched SG-1 or Stargate Atlantis, preferring the more cerebral The X-Files (when it was still cerebral) and Battlestar Galactica for my TV sci-fi fix. The incarnations of Stargate were a bit too light and comedic for my darker tastes. Yet, the concept of a galaxy-traveling ancient civilization out somewhere in the cosmos has always been an intriguing idea to me.

So I was mildly surprised when I felt drawn into Stargate Universe (SGU for short). I’d heard little good about it from the various Stargate fan communities: “It’s too dark.” “It doesn’t feel like Stargate.” I learned, however, that much of that was due to the fact that this incarnation of Stargate was so different, so much more serious and darker in tone, that it made sense that some Stargate fans would find SGU strange and “off.”

I’d not really discovered the show at all until it was six months off the air. By then, it had aired 40 episodes, pulling in about 2 million viewers each week—apparently not enough to keep a Syfy series on the air (although the numbers dropped as the series went on due to a variety of things). The network cancelled it in May 2011.

There are many things I loved about the Stargate concept even before tuning in to my first SGU episode. There is something compelling about an ancient civilization, predating us by hundreds of thousands of years. The ancients were space mariners, bent on exploring our solar system and way beyond—galaxy by galaxy, star by star.

They explored via stargates, devices able to control wormholes in time and space, and able to transport millions of light years in a moment, stepping through an “event horizon”—a shimmery “puddle” of light. They launched seed ships to place these stargates on planets distant and more distant, which would allow them access to the universe by dialing up a code controlling a series of “chevrons.”

The Holy Grail for modern the modern researchers at Stargate Command had been a ninth, almost mythic, chevron. Where it led, no one really knew, and through a scientific expedition to a planet rich in the element needed to meet the Ninth Chevron’s immense power requirements, a team of scientists, led by Dr. Nicholas Rush (the wonderful Robert Carlyle) worked to crack the code and uncover the mystery—the destination of this mysterious gate.

But as fate would have it (or not, since there is the suggestion in the pilot of a mole in the Icarus Project), just as Rush, with the not-insignificant assistance of a math-genius slacker Eli Wallace (David Blue) cracks the code, Icarus Base comes under attack. The immense onslaught triggers a catastrophic nuclear chain reaction in the planet’s radioactive core, and the few survivors must get out before the planet explodes from beneath them.

Ordered by base commander Col. Everett Young (Louis Ferreira) to dial the chevron back to Earth, Rush instead makes a fateful (and calculated) decision to risk dialing the untested Ninth Chevron. Whether he does it, as he says, to prevent a catastrophic event transmitting through the gate to earth, or simply to grab at the last opportunity he’ll have to complete his research (or both), he decides the fate for the Icarus survivors.

The critically acclaimed science fiction series had me from the first scene, as we observe civilian and military personnel hurtled through a luminescent portal, stunned and dazed, into an empty dark hall. They have as little idea of where they are as we do as viewers.

They are, we learn, aboard an unmanned spaceship designed by an advanced civilization known as the Ancients, creators of a network of such portals—wormholes—linking planets and galaxies to the end of the universe.  Aboard the ship, which we eventually learn is called Destiny, the ill-prepared survivors embark on a journey not of their own making. They soon learn there is no way back home to Earth; Rush has stranded them all—injured and ill-equipped aboard a ship they have no idea how to fly; no clue how it works. Although Rush is an expert at Ancient technology, even he, with his vast knowledge, understands little of this complex and immense ship. And he, among all the survivors, really doesn’t care if they ever get back to Earth. Destiny, he knows, is his destiny.

The crew fights amongst themselves: military vs. scientists and other civilians, trying to establish some sort of workable social-political structure as the ship, navigating on some sort of autopilot program launced millenia ago, travels the stars. The central conflict of the series is between lead scientist Rush and the military commander Young. Along the way, they encounter adversaries both human and alien, and ultimately, they make a discovery that could change the world.

Stargate Universe takes its time in establishing relationships and its small society; nothing is easy, and everyone is on edge for much of the first season. Uneasy alliances form and shatter, and the only communication with Earth is through a clever bit of Ancient technology (and an equally clever plot device) that enables the consciousness of two individuals attached to the “communication stones” to exchange. But even this device causes occasional trouble for the Destiny crew.

Their journey provides a unique context for insight into the human condition. Ultimately, how can this small, unprepared group of people manage to survive dire circumstance without losing their humanity or perhaps rise above their individual struggles and conflicts for the benefit of all? Stargate Universe is a compelling commentary on everything from politics to the nature of scientific discovery to religious belief and philosophy.

But what makes the series so good are the characterizations; even Rush, Machiavellian though he may be, is a fully realized character, deep and complex. Robert Carlyle gives a stunning performance, layering Rush with just enough humanity to let us into his soul and soulfulness. Col. Young, the nominal “hero” character is just as deeply flawed, as are all the other characters comprising the main cast. Watch just the first three or four episodes, and if you like dark sci-fi, complex characters with ambiguous motives, a bit of social commentary along the way, I think you’ll want more.

Fortunately, Stargate Universe is very easily available. It’s stream-able on Netflix and Amazon, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray (first season only). The DVDs are worthwhile for the extremely large array of extras: commentaries on every episode, behind the scenes features, and much more.

I will be hosting here on Blogcritics a Stargate Universe “re-watch” beginning October 3 and every Wednesday thereafter. So watch with me and read my episode commentaries, and then add your own thoughts.

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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.
  • Corax

    SGU was averaging at best 1 million viewers a week by the time it ended. It was below 1 million viewers nearly half of the 2nd season. It was not successful at all. The franchise had potential, but because (like you say) it was such a radical departure from the previous SG franchises, and the fact that a few actors really crapped the bed, led to its demise.

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

    Corax, the numbers did descend in Season 2. Part of that was due to the time change as well. I agree that not all the actors were up to a very high standard, but enough of the main cast was certainly adequate, and some were very good (and Carlyle, as always) was brilliant.

    I do think it had to do with the departure from the earlier SG series mainly, however.

  • Styles

    I was extremely sad to see Atlantis canceled for this show. Never really liked the direction it took. And now the francise is dead. Glad you liked it, but it was a dark day for the Stargate verse when the producers went down this road.

  • Sharon

    This was an excellent show, far superior to the rest of the franchise as far as drama is concerned. Sure it wasn’t perfect, nothing is. The fact that Atlantis fans deemed it responsible for their beloved show’s demise is nonsense. The producers wanted to do something more mature and I’m glad for it. The former shows had run their course and it was time for a change. SGU’s cancellation was in a perfect storm of economic recession, change of genre for SyFy, (hence the change from “SciFi”) and the shift to online viewing. The out dated rating system has sent many fine productions to an early grave.

  • Mari

    It is always interesting to read comments/reviews from folks that get to see a show after it is “finished” (intentionally or not!) – I loved this show when it was on, enjoying the complicated characters and the sense of the hugeness of space that it managed to convey. So sad when it was cancelled – I’m looking forward to reading your comments!

  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    Once nuclear fusion is perfected, the space travel described will be much more feasible.

  • Linda

    I was a Stargate fan from the original movie on thru all three TV series. I was also a longtime fan of Mr. Carlyle. When it was announced that Carlyle was a lead on the newest Stargate series I was thrilled down to my toes! In my opinion it proved to be the best of the three series. Stargate for grownups!! It getting cancelled was a terrible blow for excellent dramatic television, science fiction, and loyal fans around the world. I have the DVDs and rewatch them every so often, and after every episode I cannot believe there are only two seasons to watch. At least there are two seasons to watch.

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

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I agree that SGU is Stargate for grownups. I think that’s why I liked it so much (that and Carlyle’s indelible characterization as Rush). I’m such a sucker for Byronic heroes, I had no chance whatsoever of escaping :-)

  • charlene

    I discovered this show recently, and I thought it started getting quite good around mid-season 2. I also have to say that I thought the actors were in general very good (and Carlyle, my entry drug, is always excellent), although as usual for the SG franchise many of them didn’t get all that much to do (Ming-Na was totally wasted until mid-season 2, for example, and one could be forgiven for thinking she was awful). I think the only one I never really warmed to was Jennifer Spence (Park), though it’s true that she was never given much to work with. I did think the writing was quite weak early on, though not any worse than the rest of the SG franchise, really.

    On the other hand, I’d never watched any SG before. Recently I started watching SGA, and now I totally agree with you: yeah, I can see how it would be really hard to go from that to SGU.

  • Sharon

    Yes! Stargate for grownups. Don’t worry about escaping Barbara, you’re in good company.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video/article/tv-review-stargate-universe-rediscovered/ Paul

    I thought the show was best thing on TV when it came out. I too was never interested in any of the Stargate franchise and only suffered through the first movie.

    But this genuinely interested me.

    I think its a sad commentary that most people focus on viewer ship of a show to define if it’s any good?

    To be most popular of all it would have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, IE mediocre quality.

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

    Indeed, Paul. I’m actually pretty picky about what I watch, especially for pleasure. It’s always a delight to find myself completely captivated by a series.

  • Ella

    It’s always interesting to read comments from people who get to see a show once it’s finished. I know several people who’ve been convinced to try SGU as a result of seeing Robert Carlyle in OuAT. Excellent article Barbara, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    For what it’s worth, I loved SGU and I’d never been interested in the other Stargate shows (both of which I’ve seen since, as a result of watching SGU). And though I know it’s a minority opinion, I think season one was the best: for me it started going downhill during season two. It felt like they were trying to model it more in the vein of the other two shows, even though the differences had been its biggest strength. YMMV.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video/article/tv-review-stargate-universe-rediscovered/ Paul

    I agree with Ella point about season one and two. I was more fascinated with the whole survival in space issue embraced in the first season and felt the show kind of sold out to fan pressure to bring in ‘enemies’ to fight in season two etc.

    I was also interested in the “Ancient Alien hypothesis” pushed by some popular TV Shows. I feel this has immense potential for Syfi plots….wish Prometheus had focused more on that issue than the “Keystone Cops” series of stupid cascading errors etc.

    well thats my syfi rant for today 😉

  • Dubious

    SGU’s success or fail had nothing to do with SG1/SGA fans. If Stargate Universe couldn’t stand on it’s own without SG1/SGA fans then it was not a good enough show to be on air, simple as that.

    That being said, I really do enjoy all things stargate. If I have to put up with some annoying characters (Scott/Chloe) along the way, it would be well worth seeing a stargate again!

    I also completely agree that Robert Carlyle did an incredible job of acting in SGU.

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

    Hi everyone, and Dubious, I’ll appreciate your counterpoint, since I really loved SGU, and it clearly stands on its own, since it’s very little like either of its predecessors. I did not love every character (or every characterization)–some of the characters were annoying, yes, but I find that in every show I’ve loved. The plot is much driven by Rush (and Carlyle is, within the ensemble, the lead of the show), Eli and Young. The ideas that came out of the series (and what they did with it) was interesting and occasionally provocative. So I’m quite excited about this. We’ll begin this week (Wed) with Air Part 1. But I will point out within my commentary about it bits about the extended version

  • Timothy

    SGU reminded me of the days of our lives or general hospital in a rusty old rocket. All this inter/intra personal relationship stuff which is rather far away from geeky scifi. Wasn’t until the last 3-4 episodes when there were more aliens and ray guns it began to get interesting. By then, it was too late. SGU was a nice concept – but ruined by unconvincing soap style drama.

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

    Timothy. I disagree completely. I’m no fan of soap opera, but I do like science fiction that is character-based/character oriented. It’s what I read–and what I watch. There’s plenty of science in the show and even hard science to please me (and pretty much every science geek I know, from physicists to chemists), so it’s all a matter of opinon.

  • Paul

    “SGU reminded me of the days of our lives or general hospital in a rusty old rocket. All this inter/intra personal relationship stuff which is rather far away from geeky scifi. Wasn’t until the last 3-4 episodes when there were more aliens and ray guns it began to get interesting. By then, it was too late. SGU was a nice concept – but ruined by unconvincing soap style drama.”

    LOL ! Having suffered through decades of my wife’s soaps I can say without hesitation that SGU was never a soap and never will be. It’s almost silly to suggest that. Watch SCTV and you will see all that is horrifying about soaps 😉

    BTW don’t remember seeing Rust….. Sludge, battle damage, yes but not rust.

    Again the notion that a TV show is ‘no good’ because it lacks pedestrian fan support; is immature? To be honest and blunt , it’s just ‘not your cup of tea’, much like SG1 & SGA where ‘not my cup of tea’ either.

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

    Totally agree Paul. Very psyched about this. Just rewatched the extended “Air” 1-3 and will be writing my commentary for posting Wed. I will tweet the link and post up on Gateworld, etc. I would appreciate it if you all (if you’d like) would spread the word…

  • Ser Scot

    Barbara,

    Thank you for the article. I loved SGU when it was on the air and still rewatch regularly.

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

    Ser Scot,

    Thanks. Hope you’ll comment regularly as I post my weekly articles.

  • d,stairs

    Well, coming from a fan of all 3 SG series here is hoping you fully enjoy the 2 seasons we got of SGU. Its a sore spot that we did not get more, but there are enough rants about that elsewhere….

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

    Hi d,stairs. Glad you found me. First episode post will go up tomorrow. In honor of SGU’s third anniversary :)

  • Mike G

    I loved all of SG. It was it’s own universe and I miss it dearly. SGU may have started out slow, but it definitely hit its stride. It was poorly advertised, and truncated seasons, unlike the other franchises which ran thru ep to ep, and also was the only series which didn’t air in the summer, on fridays, going up against the fall/spring lineups, and then they were complaining that they weren’t getting the same numbers. The worst thing to happen to Science Fiction was NBC and the SYFY Channel, and they are the reason this show is no longer getting made.