This show may be the most un-StargateStargate series, but that may be why it’s so good.
The other shows in the franchise, Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis straddle the line between what I tend to think of as exploratory and military Science Fiction. The crews of both series set out to explore the universe, but at the same time they spent a great deal of time fighting alien threats. The drama tended towards more outside conflicts, making them action-oriented, which is pretty typical for successful SF television franchises.
Stargate Universe, on the other hand, takes just about everything that made SG-1 and Atlantis so successful and reverses them. Instead of a highly-trained military unit chosen for a specific task, the cast of Universe are there completely by accident. As the opening credits remind us, “These are the wrong people in the wrong place”—scientists, civilian contractors, and military personnel all forced together on a dilapidated Ancient ship they appropriately, or ironically, dub “Destiny.” And instead of being on a set mission, their goal is simply to survive and somehow find a way home to Earth.
This makes the type of conflict in this show dramatically different than the previous series. Most of the drama comes from the interactions within this hodgepodge group of people who desperately want to go home. Tensions arise between the scientists and the military, the civilians and the military, the civilians and the—well, you get the point. Power struggles occur almost constantly and are only put aside when more pressing issues, such as fixing the life support system or finding a planet with potable water, arise. As a result, there are practically no traditional action scenes in this series, and that may not sit well with fans of the franchise.
But the changes don’t stop there. This show looks and feels different from any other Stargate. The other series utilized traditional camera techniques, but Universe uses a style more akin to reality television: the camera shakes and moves around, characters come in and out of focus, and we see zoom shots, almost as if we’re standing with these people, holding a camera up to our eye. Supposedly this style helps the audience feel more connected to the events, i.e. makes it more real. I’m not sure if I entirely buy that theory, but I also grew up watching television and movies that were shot in such as a way as to make the camera invisible—the idea being that if the filmmakers made the camera movement invisible we, the audience, would forget that we’re watching a movie. I find I still prefer that style of film-making, but I have to say that, except for the pilot, Universe puts it to good use.
Universe seems to be a part of the recent trend in Science Fiction to add more “Realism” to the genre. Realism in this sense meaning the literary term devoted to sociologically “realistic” depictions of people in the arts. In “Realistic” fiction, characters are taken from everyday life, and weren’t the superheroic men and women of Romantic fiction. Recently we’ve seen this trend play out in the movie Moon, where Sam Rockwell’s character is your basic everyman, blue-collar worker despite the fact that he works on the moon, or in the doomed ABC series Defying Gravity, which, despite the fact that they were extraordinary because they were astronauts, the characters were still depicted as real people with the same everyday problems as us ordinary non-astronaut folk.
Probably the best example of this would be to compare Robert Carlyle’s character Dr. Nicholas Rush, and SG-1‘s Dr. Daniel Jackson (played by Michael Shanks). Jackson’s character is kind, compassionate, and highly moral and ethical. I don’t think I’m spoiling this for anyone when I mention that he’s such a good and intelligent character that he ascended into a higher plane of being.
Rush, on the other hand, is not kind, compassionate, or particularly moral or ethical (you learn this pretty quickly, so I feel like I’m not giving anything way here). What he knows and what he cares about are debatable as are the lengths he’ll go to get what he wants. He’s a much more realistic character because of his moral ambiguity, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. I just mean that he conforms to the standards of that literary term better than Dr. Jackson. Rush will never ascend unless he finds some way to cheat the process.
The differences between Rush and Jackson are pretty indicative of the differences between this series and the rest of the Stargate franchise, and I, for one, like it. There comes in a moment in television shows and in franchises when you get the feeling that the people involved want to try something different. They’ve done just about all they can with traditional storytelling methods and want to play around a bit. The Star Trek franchise has done this several times, producing new shows that are significantly different from the original, and Doctor Who has done this as well, with stories like “Blink” where The Doctor plays a decidedly minor role. I enjoy these moments because they show real creativity, and typically when franchises reach this point they are strong enough to handle some experimentation. Stargate Universe has this same feeling of play and creativity, and I have to say that I’m hooked.
Each episode is presented in 1.78:1 Widescreen with the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. There is also a Spanish language track in Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as English and French subtitles for the hearing impaired. The episodes look great, but there were times when the sound would jump in level and I would have to scramble for the remote to turn it down. It’s not a huge gripe, but I dislike when I have to constantly fiddle with the volume because of issues like that. Otherwise the video and audio are good.
Destiny SML [Star Map and Log] – The SML extra feature is spread out over both disks and is a series of interviews with the cast and crew along with some behind the scenes information about the technical aspects of the show. There were some good interviews here, and nice little additions like “Stargate 101: Presented by Dr. Daniel Jackson,” but there is a lot of stuff to go through here, so grab a drink or something because you’ll be sitting for a while.
Audio Commentary by Cast and Crew – Although I don’t care for audio commentaries, I will say that it is impressive that each episode has a commentary track. It’s nothing that I would sit through if I were just watching this for fun, but commentary fans should find a lot to like here.
Kino Video Diaries – For those that don’t know, the Kino is a spherical, hovering camera that the character Eli uses to scout the area around the various stargates they use, and to create his documentary about the Destiny. These video diaries are little moments that his Kinos capture, such as trying to spy on one of the women in the shower. It’s actually rather funny and is probably my favorite extra on this set.
Stargate Universe is definitely a new direction for the franchise, and while I can’t deny that I miss Jack O’Neill, this is a highly entertaining, highly dramatic show that I really rather enjoyed. There may be Stargate purists out there that don’t like this change, but I find it refreshing when a franchise decides to play around with its format and try something different, provided that they’re not just doing it for the sake of playing around. This show does not. SG-U has a different story to tell, requiring a different way to tell it, and I find that story and its characters quite compelling. Recommended.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios presents Stargate Universe 1.0. Starring: Robert Carlyle, Justin Louis, Brian J. Smith, Elyse Levesque, David Blue, Alaina Huffman, Jamil Walker Smith, Lou Diamond Philips, and Ming-Na. Running time: 436 Minutes. Rating: G. Released on DVD: February 9, 2010. Available at Amazon.com