Friday, February 7, 2014

Science Fiction Non-Fiction: Kenneth Brown (Stargate Universe)

"It's time for another round of "Name That Show!" The category? Sci-fi dramas. Ninety seconds on the clock... and here we go. This steely SyFy series represents a game-changing milestone in a long-established franchise. In it, a massive spaceship is home to a band of human survivors who narrowly escape a devastating planetary attack. Its armed forces personnel are at constant odds with other members of the crew, and a precarious struggle for dominance soon develops. On one side, a stalwart military man who places honor and loyalty above all else; opposing his authority, a once-mild-mannered woman reluctantly thrust into a position of power when she's determined to be the highest ranking official left standing. Between them? A callous, arrogant, self-interested doctor clinging to his own shady agenda. The conflicts the crew is forced to deal with? Constant clashes between the ship's soldiers and scientists, emerging opportunists, waning morale, fading hope, the loss of vital resources, mysterious deaths, and a crippling fear that their journey might not bring them to Earth. The tone? Dark and bleak. The visuals? Gritty, minimalist, and draped in shadow. Alright, contestants... name that show! If you said Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D. Moore's groundbreaking 2004 reinvention of an aging pop culture relic... you're correct! However, if you said Stargate Universe, Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper's 2009 offshoot of Wright's staggering ten-season-strong Stargate SG-1... erm, you're also correct."
-Kenneth Brown,

Brown is an excellent writer at and he makes an effective argument for the similarities between Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Universe.  Framed in this way it's hard to deny his suggestion that SGU is nothing more than "derivative." Without question that aforementioned description tends to shadow both series in overarching generalities where it appears SGU has cloned BSG. Reading that assessment would hardly warm any discerning viewer to SGU, particularly if they didn't care for BSG.

To level that comparison is an unfair oversimplification when the substance of these two distinct universes tastes very different as a viewing experience with easily as many contrasts.

For starters, SGU isn't dealing with Cylons. The two series are both working in already pre-defined universes with BSG re-imagining the 1978 classic and SGU working within the rules of the Stargate mythology, and the endless sea of gates.

Are there questions of trust in both series? Sure. That's hardly a new idea.  The root of that distrust creates a very different impression between characters.

BSG was rooted in the idea of extremist transplants living amongst us in a post-911 world and the fact that they might actually kill you. Characters are on hyper-guard.  SGU's distrust is rooted in fear of the unknown. People are not on the run, but actually trying to survive and understand one another and their surroundings.  With SGU it's the frustration and helplessness of not knowing how to operate an alien craft and find a way home that affects judgment and behavior towards one another countered by one man with an insatiable appetite for exploration. Remember, the survivors on SGU are comprised of a sizable number of untrained and untested personnel beyond the usual civilian and military experts hardly trained for such a scenario.

Brown's humorous take more than suggests an overlap of inspiration from BSG. Given the proximity of SGU's release, it's easy to understand why and more than a little influence in tone or camera style may be leveled.

Does Dr. Nicholas Rush work as a version of Dr. Gaius Baltar? Certainly, but BSG is hardly a first when it comes to distrusting doctors. Rush could just as easily be a more complex variation on Dr. Zachary Smith (Lost in Space).

Stargate has also been co-mingling military and civilian dispatches long before Moore's story arrived. BSG executed many things brilliantly coupled with the political winds of the day, but to place it on a mantle as some kind of progenitor or antecedent would be false.

In other words, as director John Carpenter said in SciFiNow #33, "Show me a filmmaker that hasn't been influenced by Night Of The Living Dead."  There has been plenty to inspire SGU drawn from science fiction and those predecessors certainly predating BSG. Both series are more than one-dimensional owing plenty to that which has come before.

Are both series dark and bleak? Battlestar is truly the bleakest of the bunch. Babylon 5 and other series have offered their own share of dark along the way. But the media has its darlings, in politics and television, and, today, the darker the better in some eyes.

To be honest, and clear, I'm not sure dark or bleak are the correct adjectives to describe SGU.  It's certainly more grounded, realistic and thus more serious given the potential consequences surrounding the human struggle, but it's not dark and bleak in the strictest sense often associated with BSG. I mean to say that it doesn't feel pessimistic or nihilistic like BSG sometimes felt. There is a much more human thread in SGU thanks to the separation in approach from the comic book adventure touches of the previous two incarnations.

As Robert Cooper noted in SciFiNow #33, the approach to dramatic movement was as much inspired by shows like Firefly and The Shield as it was BSG.  The hand held camera approach, of which many attribute to inspiration from BSG, was an application that intrigued them for their own universe dating back to a number of other programs.  In fact, SGU's director of photography on Air actually shot the "documentary style" for The Shield. So creating "that sense of realism" is not new to BSG. The fact both shows implement it and are set in space created something of a protective backlash against SGU.

I don't discount Brown's above opinion. It's a good one and he's has an excellent critical eye. He knows how to make a convincing case and an argument can be made for the similarities. But SGU is not BSG and not by a long shot. They work, flow and function very differently as the sum of those comparative parts given the different variables working against them.

As much as BSG and SGU share common ground, the now cancelled SGU series feels remarkably different thanks to their respective mythological foundations.  The origin of these stories also informs how they reveal themselves along the way and those beginnings are unique and thus so are these respective serials.  The only way to fully understand is to experience both series for yourselves.  They are both worthy of your time, but SGU is no clone and while it may pay homage to a long legacy of science fiction film and television, or share a camera aesthetic with the likes of BSG, it is very much its own story.

One thing is clear, like my experience with BSG (most of the time), I am fully immersed in every detail and hanging on every minute of Stargate Universe, but the experience indeed feels very different from the former.


Dan Heaton said...

I'm a huge fan of both SG-1 and Atlantis, and I was skeptical of SGU when it premiered. It did feel like they were really trying to copy off BSG in a lot of ways.

That said, I've grown to really like SGU and think it became something really special by the end of its run. Robert Carlyle was something to see, and all the characters got a lot more interesting further into the show. It's too bad that it didn't get a 3rd season. I think they were ready to take the next step into the upper tier at that point.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Dan- tks for writing.

As you know, big fan of them all too Dan.

And it's easy to see an aesthetic similarity between the two series. But as far being lost, one could go back to Star Trek: Voyager and further when it comes to mining unknowns.

I can't say with complete confidence having only viewed the first portion of the first season, but based on these first 7 episodes, I am convinced SGU was special and it's fast becoming my favorite of the three.

I agree that a third season might have seen the series really spread its wings and start to win back the skeptics, much like you and I. Cheers.