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Expansion and Contraction: An Advance Review of Syfy's "Stargate Universe"

Confession: I've never watched Stargate SG-1 or Stargate Atlantis, other than a few episodes here or there.

So it wasn't with any real familiarity with the Stargate, er, universe (other than vague reminiscences of the Kurt Russell/James Spader feature film) that I watched the gloomy three-hour series premiere of Stargate Universe, the newest iteration in the fifteen-year-old franchise which seems hell-bent on being as broadly accessible to the mainstream population as possible.

Taking some visual clues from the darker Battlestar Galactica, Stargate Universe tells the story of a disparate band of survivors who are thrust through one of the titular gateways and discover themselves trapped on an ancient spaceship on a course to some distant location among the stars. While searching for a way home (said ship is on a one-way course that can't be changed), they must band together to find a way to survive and create a new home for themselves under some remarkable and unexpected circumstances.

If that sounds a bit like the original logline for ABC's Lost, you'd be correct. There's definitely the sense that the series' creators, Robert Cooper and Brad Wright, were looking to imbue this series with the feeling of Lost in space. There's the group of strangers thrust together, several life-threatening situations (they must quickly find a way to fix the air system aboard the Ancient vessel), and a good deal of death straight off the bat. And, yes, it does recall the situation at the very start of Syfy (or Sci Fi as it was known back then) series Battlestar Galactica. Like BSG, Stargate Universe is a series with a dark color palette and a ship that's filled with shadows and sharp angles.

But the similarities really end there. Battlestar Galactica used the genre to make clear political statements about everything from terrorism, genocide, war crimes, identity, gender, sexuality, and the occupation of Iraq, holding up a dark mirror to our own society and offering some gripping metaphors for the issues we face today. The series also featured some memorably flawed and original characters who were immediately recognizable as more than just stereotypical ciphers.

The same, sadly, can't be said for Stargate Universe. Or at least, its opening installments anyway. For the most part, the survivors of the nebulous attack on the Icarus base who find themselves aboard the spaceship are rather one-dimensional. Even after three hours, it's hard to have any real sense of the characters in terms of anything deeper than: hero, hotshot, or hottie. The third hour, which airs on October 9th, attempts to graft a backstory onto the action for Brian J. Smith's Matthew Scott but the result is a bit of a muddled attempt to introduce religion into the mix as well as offer a seemingly divine solution to their current plight. The rest of the characters don't even have the benefit of this ham-fisted backstory; after three hours, I don't yet even have a grasp of their names or purposes, much less any defining characteristics.

Note that I said "for the most part" earlier. Robert Carlyle turns in a gripping performance as the enigmatic Dr. Nicholas Rush, an expert in all things Ancient who seems to have a shadowy agenda that's vastly different than the rest of the group. He's imperious, cutthroat, and seems to stand apart from the fray while calculating just how expendable each of them is. In a series that's attempting to be gritty, he's the one character that lives up to those efforts, a complex puzzle of a man, haunted by his past and willing to make the unpopular choices that no one else dare make.

Meanwhile, David Blue is perfectly cast as computer geek Eli Wallace, a civilian drafted into this mission after he correctly solves an otherworldly mathematical proof that unlocks the stargate's mythic ninth chevron. As Eli, Blue brings some levity to the situation and is clearly set up as the audience's entry point to the action and the franchise as a whole.

But the duo are the notable exceptions rather than the rule on the series. Not helping matters is some flat dialogue and a bizarre decision on the part of the writers to enable the survivors to communicate with Earth by having some out-of-body experiences that allow them to control people back on Earth via some Ancient technology. It's a bit of an easy way out in my opinion and seems there for the sole purpose of allowing some familiar faces in the Stargate franchise to interact with the survivors and shift some of the action out of space and back to the more relatable planet Earth.

Ultimately, Stargate Universe is gloomy without being truly gritty; rather than being hard-hitting, it looks to eject some of the campy, humor-based tone of its predecessors and instead infuse it with some faux seriousness. Fans of the franchise might just lap this up but for someone who's always been a bit wary of the Stargate franchise, I find myself less than captivated with the initial blast-off into space.

Stargate Universe kicks off on Friday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on Syfy.


Heatherette said…
Thanks for the thoughtful review. I've never been a Stargate fan but my interest was piqued when Robert Carlyle joined the cast. Looks like he's the best thing about the new show!
Tempest said…
I have to admit, I'm a little concerned. The Stargate franchise has always been just a fun space romp -- more along the lines of the original BSG. And that's fine. That's what the franchise is. Not everything needs to be dark, edgy, and twisty. (Sometimes I like kwowing that everything is going to work out at the end of 40 some-odd minutes.) But if you're going to go dark and twisty -- then commit. I don't think the Stargate franchise can commit.
Stargatefan said…
I have to agree with your assessment of the show. I'm a long time fan of the original series, and of course Atlantis. As Tempest said, it was nice to just have an escape that took you away for awhile. This was a horrible attempt by the creators to make another BSG. I thoroughly enjoyed BSG, but this is nothing close to that. I'll give it time and let them develop the show, but it's definitely been a shaky start.
Tonya Ricucci said…
Love the original SG-1. Watched the first couple of seasons of Atlantis but got bored with it. This Universe thing? Horrible, dark, disjointed. I watch SG-1 for the humor and light-handed approach. This I turned off after 45 minutes. To me, the more apt comparison is Star Trek: Voyager which I also hate (rather than Lost which I enjoy) . I like to see people taking action and going on adventures, not flailing about helplessly.

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