Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Maureen Ryan (The Chicago Tribune): On Stargate Universe

"So far the gloomy, underwhelming Universe seems to have ditched many of the elements that the previous Stargate shows had, notably camaraderie and a sense of adventure, without adding much in the way of narrative suspense or complexity."
-Maureen Ryan, The Chicago Tribune-


Here we all are. Writers and critics.

There was Pauline Kael writing a scathing critique of Blade Runner (1982) way back in 1982 and getting it all wrong. As Ridley Scott once said, and I'm paraphrasing, if it wasn't for the film industry she wouldn't have a job. The same holds true for television. And this writer would much prefer to focus on science fiction topics of interest that I enjoy over those disliked.

And just as Blade Runner had its Kael, here Stargate Universe had its own detractor in Maureen Ryan of The Chicago Tribune.



The Chicago Tribune's Roger Ebert was a self-professed fan of science fiction. He had a keen eye for quality sci-fi like Dark City (1998). I'm not so sure Ebert would have agreed with Ryan's assessment of Stargate Universe (SGU) either.

And Ebert was still around when Stargate Universe arrived.

Personally, upon rediscovering the qualities that infuse SGU I believe Ryan couldn't have got it more wrong.

Brad Wright had a notable back and forth with Ryan on her opinion of the series before it really had a chance to take off. Most fans did. We all did. Wright and company were taking it from all sides. This writer missed the boat.



SGU is a dark show but it isn't all doom and gloom. It is also beautiful. It is exquisitely lit and each shot after breathtaking shot of cinematography is often stunning. Lighting and atmosphere also created a unique character in the seed ship herself, Destiny. She is special all on her own.

Were the cartoonish action adventure elements of the original franchise entries, SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, dropped in favor of a more serious, life and death tone? Was SGU as accessible to the mainstream? Yes and No to those questions. And SGU, and fans of the franchise, are all the better for it with a chance to appreciate two seasons of something entirely unique to the mythology. It was a series that required a bit of patience.



Ryan submitted there was little suspense or complexity. It's amazing how viewing experiences can be so markedly different. One could argue SGU has more suspense and complexity in its pinky finger than the previous two franchises combined. I can't help but wonder if she had a change of heart as the series moved along and progressed. SGU, indeed, took some time to acquire its flavor. It did for this writer and to the detriment of fans' support for the show, but the rhythms and beats of the series are something fresh and fantastic.



Sorry Maureen but space exploration had rarely been more fascinating and complicated as it was here for SGU. Each installment left this SGU fan with an overwhelming excitement for each new chapter.


But, again, we're writers. We have opinions. Sometimes we're right and sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes we're neither. It's all relative in the end. But the conversation is surely worth having?

 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Stargate Universe S1 Ep12: Divided

"What did they do to us? ...
Everyone thinks we're safe.
They think that they'll never find us again.
We're not safe are we?"
-Chloe Armstrong-
 
"No."
-Dr. Nicholas Rush-
 
"...two philosophies are clashing and become the dividing line."
-Paul Mullie, Stargate: The Official Magazine #30, September 2009, p.26-




Stargate Universe (2009-2011) may have been rejected by a sizable portion of SG-1 (1997-2007) and Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) fans, but Stargate Universe (SGU) is definitively the most mature, most dramatic and character-driven entry in the franchise. Simply put SGU offers great science fiction which makes it arguably the best of the lot. Each episode puts humanity to the test in space. Not only is every entry a riveting forty-two minutes, but each installment is truly a work of art. The lighting and cinematography of characters and sets is visually stunning with each episode. This only contributes to the great scripts, performances and direction. Rather than a comic book take on adventuring through the stargate, there are is much deeper psychological probing of character in play.




Stargate Universe, Season One, Episode 12, Divided continues the trend of what, at this point, is clearly shaping up to be one of the finest first seasons of science fiction in sci-fi TV history.

Writer/creators Rockne O'Bannon and Kevin Murphy clearly took a page out of the music book penned for both the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) and Cooper and Wright's SGU for their own Defiance (2013-2015). Music unabashedly plays a wonderful role in science fiction and it does so in Divided. Defiance takes the application of pop music to new levels and even greater heights. But the use of scoring and pop music plays an important part of any series.



SGU fused both pop songs with the magnificent compositions of one Joel Goldsmith. Goldsmith was nominated for an Emmy for the previous two incarnations of the Stargate franchise, but has somehow been unconscionably overlooked for his work on SGU. It's something of a crime there was no recognition for his epic, Vangelis-like scoring on SGU. It's not only a travesty that there was no critical recognition for his work here, but, as I've mentioned in other SGU coverage, there has been no official release for any of the music found herein. That's injustice. But, like Defiance, SGU enjoys alternating between pop songs and majestic scoring work. SGU is one of the great soundtracks never to be made available. What a gift to fans and a tribute to Goldsmith it would be to release his music posthumously. Goldsmith passed away in April 2012.



Music can often be found in science fiction as a soundtrack to emphasize mood and atmosphere or as Joe Tangari once penned for the book Back To Frank Black: A Return To Chris Carter's Millennium (2012) in the essay The Evil Earworm: Popular Music In Millennium "influence mood and audience expectations." SGU much prefers soundtrack applications over diegetic application. The latter was a popular implantation in Millennium. Diegetic music is music that "emanates clearly from some onscreen source" (p.217) rather than simply playing in the background. Defiance was a big proponent of both. But as far as soundtrack utilization SGU has applied beautifully with Alexi Murdoch's Breathe for Air as well as Murdoch's All My Days for the upcoming Faith and Divided as well.



Divided opens up with a rousing rock number and what amounts to a dream sequence for Chloe Armstrong. The song is You Don't Know by Brand New from a recording called The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me (2006), an appropriate title given the aforementioned remarks by Paul Mullie regarding the struggle within and without for characters on the series. The production's title coincidentally (?) captured the divided nature in play here in SGU as various camps are formed.

Divided is considered the second part of a two-parter. It segue ways from Ep11, Space, by delving into the aftermath of the Armstrong and Dr. Nicholas Rush alien abductions. This is indeed an interrupted journey for the ancients' vessel called Destiny.

Most refreshing about SGU is its handling of conventions. The crew of the Destiny's first humanoid alien encounter results in communication unintelligible to the human ear. Imagine? The confrontation with the aliens is entirely alien and it should be foreign to us. Armstrong and Rush were abducted. They were stuck in dunk tanks and clearly probed by alien tech. Once Rush and Armstrong escape is it over? According to Divided, there is indeed a residual effect. Something has happened to Rush and Armstrong.



A wall of music plays as Armstrong walks through the Destiny amidst a nightmare, experiences visions of her mother and relives her first close encounter.

SGU presents the contact, this essentially first contact, as a frightening event, a nightmarish experience tantamount to events depicted in Robert Lieberman's Fire In The Sky (1993), a film that still resonates as one of the quintessential alien abduction films. This variation on a theme of genuine alien abduction is something that taps into a primal fear in humans that simply did not exist on Stargate SG-1. There are no tongue-in-cheek jokes as the military handle their battle with the aliens. This is a serious and horrifying event for everyone involved. As frightened as civilians were in Space at the sight of the arriving aliens, SGU taps into the idea that aliens are not our friends. The fear of losing control to another force or other is one of those deep, penetrating horrors that defines us. Divided does a splendid job visually and stylistically handling this theme.



As Armstrong and Rush convene in the mess hall unable to sleep, the two share their nightmares. The two understand one another linked by an incomprehensible event. They have survived something with which no one aboard the Destiny can speak to. The two underscore that fear of contact by their troubled exchange. "What did they do to us?" asks Armstrong of Rush. The scene underscores that those aboard the Destiny are "not safe" and essentially do not have control of their destinies in the unknown of space. Their existence is fragile and what lies ahead is a mystery.

So this entire subtext of alien abduction that taps into decades of fear from The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) to The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016) all happens in just the first few minutes of Divided.

Information and discoveries from each entry bleed into the next continuing to inform each new episode and the characters' journey.



For the remainder of Divided, the theme is just that, a crew divided. As much as the subtext of the alien encounter penetrates Chloe and Rush to their very cores, it also informs and has a reverberating effect on a crew that has been gradually forging two sides. Seeds were planted earlier for subversion but here in Divided a stand is taken. Things are coming very much to a head and mutiny is in the air aboard seed ship Destiny.

SGU and Divided, in particular, does a wonderful job of exploring the power struggle. Instead of a collapsed civilization or a post-apocalypse where a power vacuum is created, violence ensues and ultimately a new order or leadership takes hold, these struggles are explored here in the expanse of space and aboard a great vessel, but a small one relatively-speaking. The universe of the characters is shrunk and the intimacy of the ship forces personal communications. Good and bad outcomes are resulting in that struggle.



SGU exemplifies how even a civilized people cut off from civilization and left alone in the vacuum of space can become a fragile, unstable order of its own. Alliances are formed, violence ensues and an effort to re-establish a new hierarchy occurs in this new microcosm. Order from chaos. There are winners and losers. Ultimately SGU explores the elixir of who holds power and control even within the tiny universe that is the Destiny.

But like Chloe held hostage by aliens, muffled by equipment in a tank of water, in space no one can hear that scream.

Divided employs an incredible use of sound and music throughout to further amplify the tension and struggle. Grim beats highlight a sense of impending dread as moves are made in the shadows. Operatives are working in a clandestine fashion while the other side is completely unaware. The use of sound and music is nothing short of perfection in the entry to create a truly unique atmosphere.



This quality approach assures a top flight science fiction production that delivers something with an enduring power to reside next to the greats like the partnership of Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott and Vangelis to name just one. For decades the use of sound effects and composition have fortified a soundtrack that is not only married with remarkable precision to a classic film, but stands on its own as a science fiction classic in the soundtrack arena. Joel Goldsmith partnered with the Stargate franchise, but it is his work here on SGU that positively shines, a masterstroke of his God-given talents. The series offers a simply breathtaking audio visual experience and Divided is an example of SGU's many attributes.

In crucial moments during the story the writers and actors expertly play out the ongoing scenario of trust and distrust between a number of key players. The viewer isn't certain of intent. Back and forth the tension is played between Rush and Colonel Everett Young as the lives of Young and Lt. Matthew Scott hang in the balance inside an undocked secondary craft just minutes away from an FTL by Destiny. The result would likely vaporize the craft and all aboard. It is a gripping bit of television.




The conflict between Young (the military arm) and Rush (the civilian arm) echoes the kind of interpersonal conflict that lit up the screen for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica between William Adama (the military wing) and President Laura Roslin (the civilian representative). This push and pull is a component that made for stirring dramatic conflict on Battlestar Galactica. An equally engaging experience is developed here for SGU.

As a result lines are drawn, or divided. Without a complete play by play---you can find that at Gateworld---an all out mutiny is happening. The civilians have essentially taken over systems in another section of the ship. But the transfer of controls was broken allowing life support to be retained by the military as they strategically plan to reclaim control of Destiny. Fearful that Eli, still with the military contingent, could present an issue, he is worked for an exchange of food and water and returned to the civilians.



Meanwhile, Young and his unit have other plans. Earlier the aliens had penetrated the hull in the section Rush has commandeered. Young and Greer must make it to that hole to reclaim authority.

The reason Divided is thematically linked to the events of Space here is that the aliens have returned. Not only is their human on human violence, but the aliens are back to make matters worse. With Young preparing to enter from the outside, he spots the alien vessels and knows he must return inside Destiny before the shields are activated or death will result. Young and Greer reach the breached hole point with not a second to spare. Once again humanity is faced with not only alien adversaries but each other, the monsters within ourselves.

The aliens have tracked Destiny through an implanted tracking mechanism surgically inserted into the heart of Dr. Rush. Talk about a sci-fi cluster---dramatically---in a good way.

The aliens are pounding a shielded Destiny while Greer allows entry to Scott and the others for the final confrontation.



The writers through Divided take on the struggle of military versus civilian leadership. Which is the better option? The provocative theme is one that was explored to some extent in Stargate Atlantis (SGA) and explored well, as well as Battlestar Galactica, but here on SGU it is taken to new levels of internal struggle.

With the Destiny escaping, the tracking device removed from the chest of Rush and with sides drawn despite the quelling of the insurrection or the suppression of the incursion there is plenty of anticipation for what's to come for our wayward space castaways. Everyone is still forced to live aboard a ship---together. The pressure cooker that was the gripping Divided sets the stage for what's next in the fractured relationship aboard the Destiny already a previously delicate trust. SGU continues to be a fascinating examination of man and space and the test of man pushed to the limits. How much damage can we sustain psychologically to move past division? It is indeed something we all struggle with personally in this life as we age.



It occurs to this writer concluding the viewing of the excellent two-parter of Space and Divided, the stargate itself really isn't a factor in selling this new iteration of the franchise. Its absence certainly played a subtle part in the rejection of SGU.

Certainly we've seen the stargate in a number of episodes like Time, Air and Water, but it really is utilized to minimum effect unlike SG-1 and SGA. With those series there was nothing minimal about reliance on the gate. That thing swirled and swooshed and whoosed its way on the small screen like nobody's business. The stargate was a major character in those series, but with SGU it is more a visual link than an active integral component of each story.



As Ben Browder noted in Stargate The Official Magazine, "The gate---that's the enduring image. That's the thread that runs through it all" (Stargate The Official Magazine #30, Oct 2009, p.62). And here that very gate from which the series took its name is more of a visual cue and I think that speaks volumes to those really seeking out that magical wormhole for escapism and adventure on par with SG-1 or SGA. SGU simply defied those expectations. And in retrospect this writer is grateful for it.

And, oh the sweet irony again, as a result those fans were divided. At the time of SGU's announcement, it was also announced SGA would be cancelled. There was an immediate, palpable anger and, in a sense, a built-in hostility very early on toward SGU. Instead of airing two series simultaneously, as the franchise generously provided for SG-1 and SGA, it was determined that SGA would suffer by cancellation for SGU's arrival. Perhaps a conscious effort was made to sever the new series visual style from the previous two incarnations. Whatever the reason, financial too, there was a lot of damage done in that moment. The optics could have been handled much better in the hopes of assuaging a clearly vehement fan base.




SGU has proven in twelve episodes it is intent on being a very different animal. It is an entirely different thing and this clearly created a significant disconnect with original fans many of whom were quite vocal and urging a course correction for more action in the series, one this writer hopes SGU's writers would not heed. While I loved that wormhole magic and all of the world hopping of the previous series, SGU is a much more serious, intimate, claustrophobic space story. It's unfortunate longtime fans spent too much time comparing SGU to its wormhole-heavy predecessors. It was a real loss to lose SGU as a science fiction.

Divided is brilliantly filled with equal parts dramatic tension and action and the production design, lighting, cinematography and effects work are simply flawless. It's unfortunate opinion was unjustly divided on this series.

Writer: Joseph Mallozzi/ Paul Mullie. Director: Felix Enriquez Alcala.