Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stargate Universe S1 Ep9: Life

"Why don't you just tell me how you're doing with life on the ship?"
-Tamara Johansen evaluating the psychological state of crewmates and life aboard the Destiny-

"It's been the worst day since yesterday."
-A Flogging Molly song played non-diegetically or extra-diegetically in the background to great application-

As evidenced in my previous episode close-ups of Stargate Universe (2009-2011), Darkness and Light for example, I have never had more fun with space flight in the Stargate world than I've had experiencing it through the visual realization of space through the story aboard the Destiny.

Wright and Cooper and the creators have genuinely generated some of the most spectacular visuals of a Stargate craft flying through space and time that we've seen to date. The Prometheus and other ships, in previous iterations of the franchise, pale in comparison and the limitations offered to the approach in filming those vessels simply don't hold a candle to the feeling of literally soaring, floating or falling through space that have been crafted for the visuals on SGU for the Destiny.  It's truly magnificent, beautiful stuff.

If I haven't made it clear, and without beating around bushes, I positively love the heck out of Stargate Universe. I can't believe certain elements of Air's first part led me astray and prevented me from giving the series a more respectful showing. SGU is by far and away my favorite of the three Stargate efforts.

Episodes like Stargate Universe, Season One, Episode 9, Life is quite frankly a big reason why. Like Earth, Life takes us back home and draws us further into life experiences aboard the Destiny and into a deeper understanding of this large ensemble cast. It is painstaking in its detail and its storytelling and offers us a rare approach to quality science fiction. This is a slice of life in the void of space. No explosions or silly aliens necessarily required.

If you haven't noticed, everyone is still very much alive following last episode's events. The wayward survivors aboard the Destiny solved the puzzle pieces to the time loop that left their lives hanging in the balance in the excellent Time.

Until Life, Cooper and Wright had a handle on the writing chores for the first eight episodes. Life is the first to be written without credited input from either of the two men as the entry defers to writer Carl Binder who co-penned Water with Wright and Cooper. Life would be the second of seven stories written for SGU. Also, Binder had a significant hand in steering Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009).

Cooper and Wright continue to deliver a series that weaves in an out of the unknown with dramatic slices of life against a dazzling space backdrop. It's nothing short of an amazing stroke of genius by two men clearly in their prime with the franchise and setting the tone for all involved. What a shame SGU wasn't given that opportunity to keep traversing those stars and get by the criticism of fans' heavy hearts.

Life begins with all of things one might expect to see people doing settling in aboard a spaceship for the long haul essentially making the best home of it one could make. Folks are exercising, laughing, fucking.  It's a microcosm of life and Life takes us deeper into that world.

Robert C. Cooper noted that fans wouldn't call it a favorite and that's unfortunate. Those same fans who loved the more adventure-based vibe of Time likely didn't care for the more deliberate pace of the character-building found in Life. It's precisely one of the key elements of the series in its first eight episodes that had me responding so favorably. Life continues that pensive take on space and takes us back into that lived-in world. And as Cooper noted accurately, "We needed an episode that talked about what is life like on this ship. ... what is normal going to be like...? You need to see ... some of the things that were happening in order for these other things to pay off" (SciFiNow #40, p.37). Without the proper character-building Time wouldn't have resonated with as much power as it does. And when Life jumps back into the drama-filled world of its like heading to another family reunion and who doesn't love that kind of drama?

In Life, Colonel Everett Young coordinates psych evaluations through Tamara Johansen.

Meanwhile, Matthew Scott and Camile Wray visit loved ones back on Earth through the communication stones.

Rush discovers new compartments aboard Destiny including an Ancients' chair like the Repository of Knowledge. New discoveries by Rush give new hope to some members of the crew or excitement to those eager for pure scientific discovery like Rush.

Rush finds a planet one year away. There is enough naquadria (an unstable variant isotope) there to power the gate and potentially get everyone home.

A semi-sullen Scott and Wray return from their trips and their bittersweet visitations. Scott learns he has retained some of Telford's memories from his connection to him via the stones.  He glimpses a scene between Colonel David Telford, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, and Young's wife on Earth.

Scott also returns following the discovery that he has an eight year old boy named Matthew. He shares the information with Chloe which impacts their previously cozy dynamic a little. It does indeed alter their new found equation.

Young is enraged to learn Telford has been seeding some kind of relationship with his wife back on Earth and he himself pays a visit.

Using the physical bodies of others as a vessel is an interesting concept especially when it comes to sexual encounters or physical altercations. The communication stones allow for this kind of transference and the sense of longing and the distance of space understandably results in folks becoming rather amorous.

Eli continues to investigate discovered information at Young's direction in secrecy learning Rush has lied. Eli knows the alleged planet that could potentially save them one year away is simply false and non-existent.

Young confronts Rush who saves face suggesting he was boosting morale and offering hope. Young has forbid anyone from sitting in the chair until more is learned for fear it could kill someone just as it nearly killed Jack O'Neill in Stargate SG-1Lost City. This offers a nice homage and good bit of mythology-connecting between series.

Rush and Young buck heads. Rush is more than happy to sacrifice anyone, but himself, for the greater good.

As SGU cruises along about the only character I've yet to find a real soft spot for would be the gorgeous but prickly Camile Wray played by Ming-Na, a representative for the International Oversight Authority (IOA). In a sense she is a bridge between the civilian and the military arm aboard Destiny and as such are never quite sure which way she leans. Though, finally, here, she has an incredibly touching moment alone on the Destiny. For once her mask reveals vulnerability and a tenderness. Wray's strong presence will likely continue to walk that fine line of tough and vulnerable rather delicately. Her character is quite complex and likely the most complex outside of Rush on the show.

So Life delves into character effortlessly as ever as we get to further know these people aboard the DestinyLife's character studies, like those in Earth, are indeed bold within the expectations of sci-fi and resonated strongly with those who loved this series. Stargate Universe takes time to deliver on tenderness. That's a rare quality in science fiction television and one reserved and often associated with the best. It handles human tenderness better than most dramas. Relationships feel real and rather moving instead of contrived. Equally fascinating, to me, is the exploration and discoveries, not only of character, but of the Destiny herself. Flying through space and aboard this Ancients' vessel are just as many mysteries that leave the viewer excited with the dynamic of those intermingling within her.

One of the aspects that resonates here in SGU in the way the so-called darker shows might not is the sense of hope that permeates the ship in small ways. For all of the heart ache and personal set backs and dark drama that is delivered in spades for SGU there is always those small victories like the tiny sprout that begins to grow in hydroponics lab for Dr. Jeremy Franklin played by Mark Burgess (who appeared in Stargate Atlantis, Season Five, Episode 19, Vegas written and directed by Cooper). This is a visual exclamation for the episode. Life itself is born! These delicious little moments offer up some joy amidst the darkness of space and the chess game between humanity of a thing called life.

"Today is the worst day since yesterday." Life is indeed tight and tense aboard the Destiny, but by implementing its usual standard of high quality cinematography, Life is also beautiful.

Sadly, the truth is, it was episodes like Life in the early going for SGU that shaped and colored fan opinion of the series accustomed to the formula of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. The tone and mood of SGU was so radically different. Ultimately it was the approach like the one envisioned for Life that essentially helped establish the fate of SGU holding it to just two seasons. But the fact is Life is a well-paced, finely crafted, character-driven, rather than simply plot-driven narrative. These are character stories in a science fiction universe.

You will note with the extreme close-ups in SGU, a real effort is made to probe the emotional depth of its characters. Sometimes the quietest moments with little to no dialogue reveal so much through sheer physicality of facial expression and emotion. The camera and the effort here captures that raw intimacy with the real beauty of an artist's touch. Space never looked this gorgeous. But for all its ups and downs on SGU, life is still beautiful and, well, that's Life.

Writer: Carl Binder. Director: Alex Chapple.

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