Air, water, light: essential elements to our survival as humans. Stargate Universe (SGU) begins in the quiet of a vast empty spaceship gliding through the starlit cosmos. She comes to life slowly as if awoken from a deep sleep, and then, through a shimmering mirror-like portal, bodies hurtle through along with luggage and other portables.
Dust-covered and dazed, they stand, if they can, gazing around to take in their unfamiliar surroundings. The military personnel amongst them try to assess, warily peering around corners, weapons poised, not knowing where they are or what to expect. They are on the vast (and no longer empty) spaceship, stranded, as they will soon learn, with no way of getting home, several billion light years from Earth. They’ve no idea where they are, nor why they are here.
They have traveled, we learn through “the Ninth Chevron” stargate portal, a mythical wormhole address established by the Ancients, an advanced civilization long ago vanished, and leaving behind their sophisticated technology throughout our galaxy, and as we learn in “Air Part 1,” much beyond.
I’ve read many of the reviews written by Stargate fans (and even some critics) comparing SGU to the old ’60s series Lost in Space. There is actually little to compare the two shows. Lost in Space was a light take on Robinson Crusoe wrapped around a heartwarming family drama. The Drs. Robinson, their children and pet robot wandered from planet to planet looking for a way home. Stowaway Dr. Smith was a cowardly but generally harmless curmudgeon (because he was so over-the-top cowardly). SGU is not Lost in Space 2.0. But neither is it Stargate 4.0. It is very much its own series, borrowing a shooting style from gritty dramas like The Shield and Battlestar Galactica, but telling an original story (well, nothing, I suppose is ever completely original).
All space exploration, I suppose, is a bit of vanity, even hubris. Why put so much money and effort into unlocking an ancient, unknowable portal? Why bother? What’s on the other side of it? To put it in classic sci-fi TV terms, “to go where no one has gone before.” It is the nature of exploration, whether by ancient mariners on Earth’s high seas or the Mercury astronauts of the ’50s or Neil Armstrong and his “one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind” moment.
In the alternate (presumably) near-future world in which the Stargate franchise resides, that next small step is unlocking the final, ninth “chevron.” No one knows where it will lead, either physically or metaphorically, but in the interest of exploration, of science, go they must. With the support of a friend in the Senate, Alan Armstrong, aided by his bright, idealistic daughter Chloe, the Stargate Program is about to take this next leap into the unknown.
An extremely rare class of planet is located after two years search; it meets the immense power requirements of the Ninth Chevron dialing sequence. But the power requirements must be calculated with such precision that it presents a nearly impossible mathematical problem for even the brilliant scientist at the head of the project, Dr. Nicholas Rush (the equally brilliant actor, Robert Carlyle). With the problem now embedded into a video game called Prometheus (an idea originating with Chloe Armstrong), Rush hopes that someone will succeed where he has failed. And when MIT dropout, quintessential slacker hacker Eli Wallace (David Blue) solves the problem, Rush engineers his solution into a way to dial the Ninth Chevron.
The solution doesn’t work properly, but rethinking it with Eli’s fresh perspective, they come up with means to dial. But the base soon come under attack. Although the base commander Col. Everett Young (Louis Ferreira) orders them to evacuate via the stargate back to Earth, Rush sees his last chance to attempt the Ninth Chevron quickly fading, and instead overrides Young’s order. He dials the Ninth Chevron.
Dialing Earth would be too risky, he explains to Young. Should the planet’s radioactive core go critical, the entire planet will explode, translate through the wormhole and be “catastrophic” on the other side. He has no explanation for why he’d not chosen, then, to evacuate to any number of other known destinations. We can only assume; he risks them all to grab at what is likely his last chance.
The first episode of Stargate Universe is actually in three parts, nearly two and a half hours long. But by the end of “Air Part 1” we learn who made it through the Stargate and onto the massive Ancient ship. They are not yet a crew; they are soldiers, civilians and scientists thrown together. Some are part of those prepared to go through the Ninth Chevron, many others are not. But none of them are equipped for this mission, not even Dr. Rush, who has spent the past several years of his life preparing for this next step in space exploration.
Now aboard this dark, damaged ship, they are immediately faced with their first life or death challenge. The ship’s ancient life support system is long past it’s designed life; it is barely adequate, and failing fast. If they aren’t able to solve this dilemma, they will all die. As Rush frantically seeks a solution, he works against time, the unfamiliarity of the ship, the distrust of the crew, and the growing trust the crew have in Eli, who, while bright, has nowhere near Rush’s breadth of knowledge about Ancient technology and language.
Although many blame Rush for stranding them, the real blame must be placed upon the Lucian Alliance, a coalition whose desire for the secrets held on the other side of the Ninth Chevron address is an obsession. But how did they know to attack Icarus Base? It is an answer we’ll not have until the of season one.
“Air Part 1” introduces us to several the main players:
Dr. Nicholas Rush: In the first episode, we see many sides of Icarus Project’s complex lead scientist. He is important, but not well liked. He’s a bit of a sycophant, eager to please a politician, Senator Armstrong, whose committee oversees the project. It is clear that Rush has been unsuccessful in dialing the Ninth Chevron, and the senator’s patience may be wearing thin with both Rush and the project.
But dig a little deeper, and we see Rush feeling overshadowed by the much younger, less ambitious newcomer Eli Wallace (David Blue), a 20-something who’s thrown away an education at a world class university, able solve a problem he’d been unable to conquer. Observing Eli feted at a dinner on the base, Rush retreats to his quarters, despondent. We wonder how he became so isolated from the rest of the base leadership. Hesitantly retrieving a photograph from his beside table, he weeps. Who is the woman in the photo and why is Rush so upset?
But then we see him in the ship, climbing to a mezzanine above the chaos as the evacuation continues. A satisfied grin appears as he realizes his victory; he has conquered the Ninth Chevron and captured his Holy Grail. How can he be so callous in the face of all the injured and dead both back at Icarus and below him on the ship’s deck?
But we also see him as a serious scientist and a tireless worker. As intense as Eli is easy-going, and as different as Young is a “regular guy,” it is clear why he is not well liked, and why he seems so apart from the rest of the crew.
But we also get a glimpse of Rush’s introspectiveness in “Air Part 1” as we observe him staring almost wistfully out the observation deck glass contemplating the cosmos, awe-struck. There is by what he sees before him, deep within his own thoughts.
Col. Everett Young: The series’ main conflict is between Young and Rush, and in “Air Part 1” we begin to see its origins. Although Rush is the lead scientist, Young is the base commander. Young is clearly no fan of Dr. Rush, overruling him when he wants Eli to continue working the problem after it’s unsuccessful on the first attempt to dial the Ninth Chevron. He is furious Rush when he dials The Ninth Chevron address, and not the address to Earth, and it is clear Young has no trust in the scientist. But when the base commander comes hurtling through the stargate, he is badly injured.
Eli Wallace: An MIT dropout, Eli spends his days living at home and playing computer games. When he seems to beat a particularly nasty level, he is instead, sent back to the beginning. Believing it’s been a waste of his wastrel time, Eli is surprised when he’s visited by a General O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and Dr. Nicholas Rush. He’s won, they tell him, “somewhat of a prize.” Transported aboard a spaceship headed towards Icarus, Eli finds himself in a place he’s always longed to be.
Math Boy, as he calls himself, has solved the Ninth Chevron problem that has plagued Dr. Rush for months. Generally, a nice kid, Eli has an arrogant streak, however that might get him into trouble some day. Aboard the ship, he believes he knows more than Rush, and because he’s more likable than the scientist, he’s more easily trusted. Eli may indeed be even more of a genius than the project’s lead scientist, but he doesn’t have either Rush’s breadth of understanding, nor his experience. And that might get him (and the rest of the crew) into trouble.
Lt. Tamara Johansen (Alaina Huffman): We don’t learn much about medic “TJ” in “Air Part 1” other than the fact that she was about to separate from the military. The death of the base physician makes TJ the only medical professional on the ship. Her immediate concern is the badly injured Col. Young.
Lt. Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith): Placed in an impossible situation, the young lieutenant is place in charge of the disoriented and terrified group of survivors aboard the ship. Wanting only to the right thing and “get these people home” after their trauma, he is in over his head. But he rises to the occasion, needing to get a feel immediately for who and what he can trust. Should he trust Rush or Eli? Can he control the volatile Sergent Greer (Jamil Walker Smith)? Will he be able to assert enough authority to step into Young’s shoes, even for a short time, against the presence of those who outrank him: Senator Armstrong, Camille Ray (Ming-Na), and Dr. Rush?
Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque): Young, smart Harvard graduate Chloe is aide to her father, a California senator. It was her idea to embed the Ninth Chevron problem into a video game in the hopes of identifying young geniuses who might otherwise go unnoticed. We see her tenacity in play when her father is trapped on the base, refusing to evacuate until she knows he’s safe.
“Air Part 1” hooked me immediately. The opening shot of the ship, taking us through her dark corridors as she slowly comes to life is stunning. Joel Goldsmiths’ music with its lonely whine is evocative, as is the rest of the soundtrack with its blend of original, contemporary, and classical selections. I was immediately immediately drawn in by the already fully-realized Dr. Rush. I didn’t like him for much of the first episode, but I was intrigued by him and by Carlyle’s performance which ranged from twitchy intensity to serene contemplation.
I’ve seen the extended version of “Air,” which edits together all three parts and includes extended scenes. And if you have the opportunity to do so, I’d strongly suggest it. What did you think of “Air Part 1?” If you’re new to SGU, is it enough to keep you going? And if you’re a veteran, what are your thoughts equipped as you are with 20/20 hindsight?
I will post “Air Part 2” next Wednesday. In the meantime, I’d love to know your thoughts!