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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stargate Universe - "Pilot"

Illustration for article titled Stargate Universe - "Pilot"
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Stargate Universe debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on SyFy.

I have an almost boundless appetite for science fiction. If there’s a spaceship or a time machine show or something like that, I’ve probably at least sampled it, and I’ll watch pretty  much any terrible genre film on HBO on demand while working on one of these pieces. It’s probably just how I’m built. I love stories that seem to have limitless possibilities, even if it becomes eminently obvious that their possibilities are just as limited as anything else. And yet, I was never quite able to get into any of the Stargate series. They all had their high points, but something about them just struck me as a little banal and not to my tastes. I could see why people were obsessed with them, but I was more into the dark sci-fi of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. So were most critics, and even though Stargate always pulled bigger ratings than BSG, it’s clear that something about that has affected the show’s creative staff, because Stargate Universe wants so badly to be one of those other shows that it mostly misplaces the goofy fun that defined its ancestors in favor of weird, slow-moving disjointedness.

One of the things that was tripping up the Stargate franchise and keeping it from finding new fans was the fact that the series’ mythos, apparently, had gotten too convoluted by half, forcing anyone who was trying to dive in to do a whole bunch of wading through complicated backstory if they were going to enjoy what aims to be a fairly simple, straightforward sci-fi actioner. Stargate Universe strips all of this away – or tries to – by figuring out a way to both introduce someone who has no idea what’s been going on with the Stargates all these years into the thick of things and by creating a scenario where pretty much all you need to know is that Stargates take you to odd corners of the universe. The series ladles on a bunch more technobabble, but that’s really the sum of what you need to know to understand this series. I don’t know if that’s markedly different from the other two to any great degree (the claims that the mythology was too complicated always struck me as off-base), but the simplification will help new fans, I imagine.

The basic idea of Stargate Universe is the Lost in Space scenario, something that seemingly every TV sci-fi franchise turns to when it’s running out of ideas for its latest spinoff. Our protagonists – a bunch of soldiers, scientists and civilians who are neither – end up, through a bit of alien trickery, stranded on board a very old, very derelict ship that left the Milky Way millennia ago and is now going … somewhere. The ship’s beat up and possesses no obvious ways for our human pals to survive, though it’s conveniently outfitted to help scrub carbon dioxide from the air if they can just fix the scrubbers. And so on. This is, in short, a weird combination of Battlestar Galactica’s dark sense of an uncharted universe with danger at every turn and the “struggling for survival” element Lost quickly abandoned early in its run.

Now, when Lost debuted, some critics groused about how it was too much about its mystical mumbo jumbo and not enough about what it would be like to actually have to survive on a deserted island. And while I liked Lost at the time, I also thought it might be fun to see a show that took the Robinson Crusoe aspect of the series seriously. Now, however, I’m not so sure. Because the bits and pieces of survival turn out to be really, really boring. When, in the pilot, the scientists on staff discuss just how they’re going to fix those carbon dioxide scrubbers and just how much oxygen they have on hand and it keeps them from truly exploring the dank, crumbling spaceship they’ve suddenly landed on (that appears to go on for miles and miles), it sucks all the life out of whatever momentum the series has built up. Maybe it’s more realistic (well, as realistic as a show featuring WORMHOLES can be), but it’s also really pretty boring from a plot perspective.

But the pilot has bigger problems than just this. Seemingly because they do it on Lost, the pilot has a bunch of flashbacks that are tossed together with the main action for no discernible reason whatsoever. The flashbacks don’t serve to advance the story in any real fashion, instead allowing the episode to open on a moment of high drama and then go back to catch up in the most needlessly straightforward manner possible. It’s as though the creators heard that other sci-fi shows used flashbacks and then completely misunderstood the purposes of those flashbacks. Even if the story had a handful of twists, this might be OK, but we pretty much just get back to the point we start the pilot at in every way you could possibly predict.

Not everything about Stargate Universe is irredeemable. The central concepts of the show are pretty cool. Indeed, I quite like the idea of a giant, ages old spaceship on a course no one quite understands that can’t be controlled by its passengers and stops randomly at various intervals as a basis for a television series. It’s a pretty good way to combine space opera with ongoing mystery, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the series ends up becoming a lot better down the line just because the premise works well enough. Sci-fi super-author John Scalzi is listed as a creative consultant on the series, and some of the ideas from his novels worm their way into the first three hours of the show, another plus.

And the cast here is really quite good. Sadly, they haven’t really been given characters so much as broad, military sci-fi types to play, but most of the actors make the most of what they’re given. David Blue is really quite good as the audience surrogate character, a video game nerd who discovers that his favorite game features a secret code planted there by the government to find someone who can help them unlock the ninth marker on the Stargate. Robert Carlyle is surprisingly good as a character that seems ripped off wholesale from Battlestar’s Gaius Baltar, finding a new spin on roughly the same character (right down to the fact that both have an accent that originates in the British Isles). Elyse Levesque is a pretty good find as the smart, cute girl until she over-emotes a bit too much at a critical moment. And the rest of the cast boasts people like Ming Na and Lou Diamond Phillips who do their best with roles where they are given surprisingly little to do.

I would not be surprised if Stargate Universe randomly turned into a pretty fun show somewhere along the way, but in its first three episodes, it’s not there yet. The storytelling is a mess, the cast is underutilized, and the dark aesthetic of the series mostly just seems to be there because someone from on high demanded a darker aesthetic than the series’ ancestors had. Despite the fact that it has these numerous problems, though, tonight’s two hour pilot inexplicably ends on a note that’s going to almost guarantee you tune in next week, even if next week’s episode ultimately disappoints as much as this one. For fans of sci-fi, there’s something deeply buried at the core of Stargate Universe that has appeal, but the series is having a little trouble unearthing it at present.

Grade: C

Stray observations:

  • The third episode is strikingly filmed (and I don’t recognize whatever location they used for filming), and its evocation of a whole planet that’s a wasteland is really pretty cool, but the storyline is … problematic.
  • Any fans of the Stargate franchise care to make a case for your favorite show in comments?