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.