Stargate Universe

| October 5, 2009

Though I wouldn’t call it fully re-imagined, the Stargate franchise gets a reboot that owes in no small measure to Battlestar Galactica and Lost in Space, with a little Star Trek Voyager and Stargate Atlantis thrown in for good measure. From the first of these influences, it borrows more complex and darker characterizations – these are clearly people with histories, which I assume will develop through larger story arcs. From the middle two, it borrows the basic premise of finding oneself on a spaceship in an unknown part of the universe with some people you wouldn’t have picked to come with you. And from the third, well, it opens up an (as of yet unfulfilled) opportunity that Stargate Atlantis squandered – just what else could be lurking in this hulking environment we haven’t had time to explore. What it shares with all four is the basic question of survival when we are without our usual resources.
But is it Stargate? Well, despite the big spaceship and the characters’ level of angst being amped up, there are still the trademark flashes of humor, this time the result of a slacker named Eli (David Blue), who is just gee-whiz enough to remind us about what we liked in the original series. And though the Stargates don’t seem particularly crucial to the show’s new premise, the writers try to make use of them and have clearly worked hard to come up with some sort of explanation for them in a region of space supposedly no human or ancient has been to. What’s perhaps more interesting is the way in which the new show uses discoveries and information from the previous iterations of Stargate to allow for surprising plot elements, such as their ability to communicate with Stargate Command.
The three-hour “first episode” (split up over two weeks) definitely has its suspenseful moments, and there are characters that hold promise, but this is clearly not trying to reach the audience base that loves Colonel O’Neill or even Vala. And maybe that’s okay, though I do kind of miss the simple entertainment value of the old SG1. I say that having been a big fan of Battlestar as well as SG1, but this feels like it’s BSG Lite. It’s a daring move, to tinker with a formula that has been successful enough to make Stargate SG1 the longest running show on Syfy. The reboot is to make the show edgier and more youthful, but in these first few hours, the show works best when it’s on familiar ground – exploring alien planets – rather than trying to reach for emotional terrain (such as Chloe telling her mother that her father died sacrificing himself for the others).
This incarnation of the franchise certainly makes the stakes higher by scaling them down (no Ori here, and we’re no longer idly exploring planets for allies but now we’re desperately trying to find food and air scrubbing chemicals) but I’m not sure they’re better. The characters, despite several being played by relatively well-known stars (Robert Carlyle, Lou Diamond Phillips, Ming-Na), are not particularly distinct or vivid, at least yet. But there’s a lot to cover in these first few episodes. The greater potential may be the ways in which this show can juggle and explore the tension among the military, scientists and civilians. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Stargate would move more into the territory of Battlestar Galactica; I mean, both shows have an underlying mythology that exploits, well, our mythology. In some ways, they were two sides of the same coin. But with Stargate Universe, it seems that they may be the same side of the same coin.
What gives me hope for Stargate Universe is that a lot of successful and engaging shows had shaky starts (pick your Star Trek series). So I’ll be there on Friday nights, watching to see what happens.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach a class or two at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Uncharted. But sleep gets in the way. He's edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Transmedia: One Story, Many Media (forthcoming).
Filed in: Film
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