Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stargate Universe S1 Ep10: Justice

"You put ordinary people under enough stress I think you'll find they're capable of just about anything."
-Dr. Nicholas Rush-

"You don't believe in the mission. You resigned your position as SG leader because you didn't want to make the hard decisions - the life and death decisions - and that makes you a liability."
-Dr. Nicholas Rush to Colonel Everett Young-

How far the creative team behind Stargate has come at spinning, weaving and crafting a story. If you recall, Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) was pretty rough around the edges in the early going despite a love for that dynamic quartet of characters. Later, Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) was a relatively slick machine, a formula refined to plot-driven perfection thankfully populated with more beloved characters. With Stargate Universe (SGU) (2009-2011) creators Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper were at the height of their creative powers pushing the boundaries of their brand of harder science fiction and character drama into an entirely unexpected class aboard the solar powered Destiny. SGU is indeed the Cadillac of the franchise. It's a beauty.

Cooper and Wright continue to do the series justice by pushing the boundaries of imagination, theirs and ours, with the appropriately-timed Stargate Universe, Season One, Episode 10, Justice.

I've been completely in awe of the how technically beautiful each installment of SGU has been. It has been masterfuly directed and produced. I keep wondering if they can keep this level of quality up, but they have yet to disappoint.

Justice utilizes the mystery surrounding who murdered resident, tightly wound, pain-in-the-ass Sergeant Spencer, who is found dead in his quarters, as a backdrop to shine light on the overarching question of evil, motive and character. The murder itself is relevant merely in driving the plot and characters and an inherent distrust and uncertainty between them all. It's the actions of the personnel aboard the Destiny and how each individual responds to the crisis that is actually under the microscope here. The creative team behind the entry keep up with the lighting effectiveness, and with Justice there is even a little more natural lighting and it complements the overall sobering tone of the entry. The consequences feel real and the austerity of their situation dictates yet another carefully considered production plan for the accompanying look of its story.

Lt. Matthew Scott has an alibi and thus takes charge of the investigation. All others are suspect. Colonel Everett Young cedes his command in the interim as a result.

A room to room search leads to questions of trust. Feathers are ruffled as integrity is called into question. It's in these moments where those aboard the Destiny are seeded with doubts, each about each other and us about them.

The murder weapon is found hidden in Young's quarters. He believes he's being framed, but requests Eli and Scott to handle everything by the book and above board. It's a testament to his solid character or is it?

As Rush and Young continue to butt heads, Camile Wray continues to be a leadership wild card. There are clearly seeds planted by her IOA superiors during her visit to Earth via communications stones in previous episode Life that call into question her motives.

Wray is something of a pitbull at times and will see the opportunity as one to potentially supplant Young's leadership role. An evidentiary hearing results as she assumes the de facto prosecutorial role against Young in this microcosm of Earth justice.

Justice becomes a variation on the courtroom drama. But like Time, which put its own spin on the classic time-travel yarn, Justice offers its own variation on this oft-implemented theme or convention seen a thousand times in everything from Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) to Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007). The trial story has been in play forever in sci-fi. SGU offers another wonderful variation on a classic idea. It's not so much the trial as it is character perceptions. Innocence and guilt is unimportant. It is the character of our crew on trial here.

One aspect to the proceedings is the perspectives offered by the various players aboard the Destiny and how they perceive Young. Responses aren't always what one might expect based on pre-established alliances, but rather some responses are based solely on perceived truths.

Chloe Armstrong, played by Elyse Levesque, is particularly strong in this episode finally given a chance to shine beyond the role of love doll to Lt. Scott.

Wray's power play succeeds as an agreement is reached to drop charges against Young so that she may take charge aboard the Destiny. As the human resources person she's a bit like the community organizer turned Commander-in-chief. What evidence exists she can be trusted? She works like the consummate politician.

The Machiavellian Rush quickly makes his move asserting control over the science team as his only wish while reporting directly to Wray. The once non-negotiable Ancients Chair option under Young's direction is back on the table.

Soon after the power shifting, Dr. Jeremy Franklin is found in a gruesome scene convulsing and bloody in the Ancients Chair. He is saved but unresponsive. Was Young's counsel of caution correct after all?

Young and Rush meet one another in a verbal exchange interrupted by Wray as all indications are that the triad forms something of a power block. The science team is listening to Rush and the military arm of the crew is loyal to Young. Wray is attempting to forge a third camp and a new wing of power consolidating support by anyone on the fence.

Scott asks Eli to investigate the kinos (the roving camera balls) for any information on the framing of Young. With multiple camps forming and a general lack of leadership from the divisive Wray, things are starting to get bumpy aboard the Destiny. With Wray in charge the Destiny gets an administrative adjustment. The politics and how far some are willing to go for power are on full display in Justice. Justice asks us---is there any?

Deleted footage, backed up from the kino by Eli, reveals the hidden truth surrounding Spencer's death. As a result Wray is contrite and apologetic to Young essentially relinquishing command back to the Colonel and rightfully so for her missteps and ill-backed persecution.

So for the second half of Justice the location shifts from courtroom to planet as Destiny drops temporarily from FTL mode.

Adding to the already electric cinematic look of SGU, an away team discovers another alien world ripe for exploration with just the right lighting for yet another striking new look for the series. It is perhaps reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica, Season One, Episode 5, You Can't Go Home Again, one of the many great installments from that aforementioned series first season.

The away team discovers a crashed alien ship, an eerie homage reminiscent of Alien (1979) sans the face huggers and slime-filled budding pods. Rush and Young arrive on the planet and join the team in their discovery.

With time running out before the Destiny re-engages FTL Young sends the group back to the gate. Remaining behind is Rush and Young with Rush eager to analyze the alien craft, clearly not of Ancients origin. Young calls out Rush confronting him in the compelling final minutes of Justice.

I won't give away details but the blood that boils between these two men is represented by this exchange. "Are we done?," says Young. "We'll never be done," replies Rush.

You really have to experience the unsettling, unnerving final minutes of Justice to comprehend it. All of the episodes build to this confrontation as much as each episode is a building block to analyzing each character. Just when you think there is Justice, vindication or redemption sometimes the tables turn in favor of the heart of darkness. The evil that men can do. People are pushed and pushed and some turn to their dark side making some ferociously questionable decisions even unraveling all of the good will viewers had toward a given character.

Is it the poor decision of a man pushed too far? We all have a breaking point. Young exemplified evidence of that breaking point against Telford in Life. Here, Young and Rush come to blows. But how does a good man fight the nefarious actions of men that move to do you harm? How do you fight that fight? Evil forces a call to respond. But perceived rights and wrongs aboard SGU's Destiny are indeed murky at best. The lack of clarity so often black and white on Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis are even more unsettling and uncomfortable here.

Is Young beyond reproach? Are the actions of Rush selfish? Justice speaks to the complex nature of the human beings. We are far more than the simplicity of a single bad action or a single good decision. We are the culmination of many moments and many events. There are indeed many sides and much depth to us all.

Thus there are many morally ambiguous moments in play throughout the adept Justice. The Destiny jumps into FTL as Young jumps through the gate---alone.

In the final minute Eli is asked to delete the footage of Spencer's death from his hard drive though he thumb drives a back up of the information. There is a moment when Eli looks straight into Young's eyes as if peering through a window to the soul. Eli knows something occurred  between Young and Rush upon Young's return. Perhaps it is the light and goodness of Eli's innocence, a good man, that allows him to see the corruption in others, because he does often see it clearly. Eli is left to wonder if there is indeed justice. He's often been on the losing end of the moral high ground, but Eli has a way of penetrating the politics and the spin to still see the uncorrupted, unfiltered truth.

As for the morally questionable Rush, he looks to the space above and the thought of oblivion. If only Dr. Zachary Smith had been given a similar fate or treated as a more significant threat in Lost In Space (1965-1968) all those years ago. Oh the pain.

Justice witnesses the team discover a potential alien threat, but rather than fighting monsters on other worlds or adventure in alien battles, the monsters are within this group, the demons are just underneath the surface of ourselves and we are instead fighting one another.

Justice suggests not only is it difficult to hear one scream in space, but also find justice even among so few.

SGU is by far and away the most serious in the long-running franchise. Every inch of its creative focus is on this quality show. Perhaps the fact not a single toy, action figure, ship or doll was ever licensed, produced or procured offers some degree of truth to the maturity of its handsome undertaking.

These first ten episodes of SGU at the mid-season marker are proof that some of the finest explorations in science fiction continue to be made. Hands down Stargate Universe, though underappreciated and misunderstood, was easily the best of the franchise and one of the best sci-fi efforts of the new century. What an ephemeral, but satisfying trip.

Justice. Writer: Alan McCullough. Director: Will Waring.

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