Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Stargate Universe S1 Ep1,2,3: Air

"Time... to find a way to survive."
-Dr. Nicholas Rush capturing the essence of the new Stargate Universe arm of the franchise-

"We're not supposed to be there sir. These are the wrong people in the wrong place. As a group they're just not qualified."
-Colonel Young to General O'Neill via Ancient communication stones-

Stargate SG-1 (SG-1) (1997-2007) took a military approach propelling its SG teams on missions through the Stargate to alien worlds from the military base that was Cheyenne Mountain.

The writers and creators mixed things up a bit for Stargate Atlantis (SGA) (2004-2009) by discovering the remote Atlantis outpost in the Pegasus Galaxy.  Opting for a mix of martial and civilian officers, essentially cut off from the overall vibe of the SG-1, Earth and the Milky Way, the new look gave SGA the opportunity to breathe fresh, new, different air and discover its own identity.  Yet, Earth was still within reach with a few appropriately coordinated hops, skips and jumps.

With Stargate Universe (SGU) (2009-2011) all bets were off entirely as a group of unexpected participants, a mix of sworn and civilian personnel, were thrust into an entirely remote circumstance.  Men and women escape a cataclysmic event on one planet and land aboard a pre-programmed Ancients vessel dubbed Destiny with no knowledge of Earth's location, where they are or where they are going leaving the group billions of light years from home.  They are alone and they are truly isolated as they leap into the void.

This third go round is truly a game of survival like some moon propelled out of Earth's orbit hurtling into the great unknowns of space.  SGU is a true exploration of space and more importantly human behavior set apart from the lightly comedic adventure of the previous two forays into science fiction for the Stargate franchise. And Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha had at least two edges over SGU.  First, the personnel on Moonbase Alpha understood their immediate surroundings.  For the folks on Destiny, it's all entirely alien.  Second, at the very least, Moonbase Alpha personnel were trained to operate Moonbase Alpha in their respective areas of expertise.  But like Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, the denizens of Destiny are literally hurled into the dark unknown.

From the very first moments of this third iteration of the Stargate franchise, SGU, you know the creators have something extremely different in mind.  Little is said.  It is dark.  There is a sense of chaos.  Like birth, humans are violently thrust through the water-like portal of the Stargate in the pilot episode Air.  Most are disoriented and there appears to be more questions than answers as SGU sets its course and human beings attempt to get their bearings.

In full disclosure, I was initially very hard on SGU.  My expectations and mindset within the franchise were firmly established with SG-1 and the slightly darker, but still often humorous SGASGU was indeed in many respects a radically different beast.  It felt meaner and my delicate sci-fi sensibilities were certainly not ready for it.

The money shot for me occurred in SGU, Season One, the first segment of the three-part Air with a sexual encounter so graphic it was like nothing I had seen prior in the franchise. It was also happening within the first eighteen minutes of the pilot.  This was definitely R-rated Stargate. My guard was immediately put on notice.  Were the creators going for graphic sex and violence over character? Was I no longer a factor as fan of the long-running franchise?  To a degree that moment turned me off. With my young son by my side, I was soured on the new series. My kids often watched SG-1 and SGA with me and still do.  Rather than return to it the next week for the second part I simply walked away. Unfair? Absolutely, but that's in effect what happened. That moment built within me a prejudice against the show. I wish it hadn't happened that way but that's the reaction the segment triggered. Had that scene come later after getting to know the characters I wonder if I would have harbored the same negative predisposition going forward.

After all, for years we were led to believe Samantha Carter and Jack O'Neill remained friends on SG-1 and despite chemistry retained a professional distance physically. At least that's how it was perceived by me.  The idea of a sexual relationship seemed out of the question and any such hope of that connection was merely a shipper's wish or fan's desire.  At least that was the party line in the PG world of SG-1. And I don't care if SG-1 was initially on Showtime for its first five seasons and the series showed a little tit and ass in the early going (the pilot only). There were no females getting pinned against a cemented military wall to take it high and hard.  But here, within the same military command structure, an SGU camera quietly slips into a little supply room to film two members of that same group fucking, to put it simply, and going hard at it. Again, having my son there probably didn't help in my general, knee-jerk response. And believe me that chick (Julia Benson) was hot. I don't know. Can you blame two consenting soldiers?

So, with the passage of time and a fairly rousing vote of confidence for the new series by writer John Kenneth Muir (John Kenneth Muir's Reflections On Cult Movies And Classic TV) I always wondered if I got it wrong. Clearly, the series was not given a fair shake by me. Others certainly gave the show a go and had the right to be disappointed by SGU.  It was an entirely different animal.  And in that it may have been just too different for fans to accept.  Much like the series itself, there was an air of mystery surrounding the early promotion. Perhaps that lack of information had fans building enthusiasm for something with which they had little knowledge.  For others, like me, maybe we just didn't do our homework and research it enough.

Compounding its problems, SGU was also unfairly cast in the shadow of successful space drama Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), but it was clear the SGU creators were looking for something a little more mature in its science fiction franchise than they had created to date. They showed flashing glimpses of it in SGA and the creators were likely influenced by Battlestar Galactica's intensity and darkness without desiring to copy it despite critic's claims to the contrary.  Inspiration was indeed part of it. Echoes of that series intense human drama is part of the new series foundation.

Like the survivors of Caprica aboard massive Battlestars or transport ships, humanity scrambled about in the darkness on SGU upon arriving on a massive space ship called Destiny.  People are in need of medical attention. A sense of war is in play complete with static cameras supplanted by the shaky, hand-held documentary style affiliated with Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined Battlestar GalacticaSGU was, in essence, re-imagined Stargate except in this application, by its own creators and their own creative hands. It's an impressive move really.

SGU had its very own Dr. Gaius Baltar of a sort.  Actor Robert Carlyle would play Dr. Nicholas Rush. Through Rush, SGU had defined a character that would be their wild card with motivations and an agenda of a highly ambiguous nature.  Not only were the creators taking their characters and losing them in space, but they had also generated a far more complex, less predictable version of Dr. Zachary Smith of Lost In Space for good measure.  After all, the residents to survive and thrive aboard the Ancients' spaceship were indeed lost in space particularly with relation to Earth coordinates.  But SGU was about to go places Lost In Space could never due to the restrictions of an era.  But SGU was indeed ready, willing and able to go the route, in spirit, of something akin to science fiction classics like Space:1999 (1975-1977) and Lost In Space (1965-1968) yet take it to another level.  The question that remained for me - was SGU a good series?

Alaina Huffman possesses a Barbara Bain-like beauty.

There was indeed an intelligence about the new series. Gone was the humor so firmly stuck with tongue in cheek.  Most of all, there was an almost cinematic quality to a show made for SyFy.  There was nothing Sharknado-like about this enterprise.  And speaking of enterprise, in fact, it had a seriousness infused into its material reminiscent of the best, more substantive material found within the more enterprising entries of the Star Trek franchise.

And I was reminded of other aesthetics from the universe associated with the Alien franchise and even a ghostly quality reminiscent of Paul W. S. Anderson's Event Horizon (1997).

Apart from the cinematic approach to the camera work, a series of flashbacks populate the opening episodes displaying more than a little narrative influence in style from the popular Lost (2004-2010). For me there was a strong echo of Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007; both the series and film even include the Icarus) in mood and aesthetic.  Like that film, SGU is stunning to behold visually.

Based on these notable aspirations, one might wonder if there is anything original at all about SGU. Undeniably, SGU is much more the sum of these parts with its own plan.  It's well established within its own mythology and creates its own identity. The writers clearly reinvent the Stargate world borrowing from a number of pre-existing concepts and ideas, but journey forward in original execution within the Destiny.

Adding to the gravity of SGU are players like Robert Carlyle. He, along with a carefully selected cast (again) amplify the tone of the series as one that is clearly anchored in performance and character complexity never quite aspired to in mood with the previous outings.  There was indeed something more psychologically satisfying about what was happening here with SGU.  Whereby team members once argued on SG-1 yet still generally recognized one another respectfully and cared for one another like family, those bonds are gone.  The monsters and aliens were always out there. Things are different hereSGU takes the approach of monsters both external and internal to the Destiny.  Like more contemporary science fiction including the pall of Battlestar Galactica, the monsters are very much within us too. We are our own worst enemy. The pressure of survival, trust or distrust and discontent are real issues. The inability to trust are all compounding existing problems as Air cuts between past and present.  As a result, viewers are expected to keep up with the creators new narrative structure. This was another curve ball to established viewers with certain preconceived expectations.

"I didn't create the situation that forced us here." So like this new series that was not clearly defined by design, characters like Rush were far from one-dimensional archetypes. Looking at Rush alone, there is a lot going on there. He expresses real emotion over a photo of his loved one and he tearfully misses her. When another character witnesses the death of her father, Rush appears to genuinely empathize with her pain and suffering over her loss. He appears to understands tragedy with authenticity.  Yet, in the next moment, his actions appear ambiguous, maybe selfish, maybe not. The writers definitively wanted to generate grey parameters.  Did Rush manufacture events to land themselves aboard the Ancients' ship - the find of a lifetime?  "I didn't create the situation that forced us here. There was no other way."  Or was there? Is that true? Much of the show will rest partly on the anchor that is Rush.  "This ship could be the most important discovery mankind has made since the Stargate itself."  He continues, "As human beings, all of them are invaluable. ... I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure no one gave their life in vain. No one. Please give me a chance."  There is a lot of depth to those words since we are uncertain of the motivations of Rush. What is his agenda? Like the reality of all human beings, there are certainly many dimensions to his character and others aboard the Destiny. One wonders if one day we won't look back on Air's very opening moment with Rush looking down from on high at the humans birthing through the Stargate. In that moment he presents a soft knowing smile. If only Dr. Smith could have been this difficult to read. But like even bad people we know, Rush isn't pure evil.  Like the expert cinematography applied to this new series, Cooper and Wright are indeed working in grays with SGU.  A seasoned actor like Carlyle wouldn't have taken the role without the opportunity to walk that fine line that was indeed expertly crafted for SGU as discovered in Air through the entirety of its three parts. It's worth noting the cast is uniformly excellent from Brian J. Smith as Christian soldier Matthew Scott to David Blue as technophile Eli Wallace.

In fact, about the only link to the old series is an attack by the Goa'uld to send the series off into its own original direction along with appearances by Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping and Michael Shanks merely to satiate old fans and lure in the fan faithful.  But otherwise, this is a newborn baby.

So under attack at an off world base, Icarus, and with Rush dialing the Ancients' ninth Chevron on the Stargate, the survivors launch their way into the dark abyss landing themselves aboard an Ancients vessel billions of light years from Earth.  To make matters worse, they have no way out and a failing life support system to boot of essentially alien origin. Only Rush and computer geek slash gamer Eli Wallace offer any hope of managing the technical end of things a la Dr. Rodney McKay and Dr. Radek Zalenka of SGA.

Air, Part 2 and Part 3 introduce some nifty new sci-fi components in the discovery of a flying camera ball dubbed a Kino. It's a great device for new camera work and new fish eye lenses, not that SGA didn't try some of these things. But discovery was definitely the operative word for this crew of unexpected adventurers.

We are also introduced to some clever new concepts of body/mind transference utilizing communication stones.  Most of all the approach is more sophisticated than in the previous two franchise arms.  Much of the approach is visual offering narrative power through visual suggestion and foregoing unnecessary exposition.  There is a mood to the series that was never harnessed to this degree for the exposition heavy originals.  The use of color, shadow and light, in particular, is striking throughout.

The pilot is gorgeously shot by director Andy Mikita too, particularly the desert locale of Air, Part 3, shot in the White Sands Desert of New Mexico. No trees---can you imagine? The creators have and it's positively cinematic. And beyond the cinematography of the outing, the third installment of the series brought certain aspects of this new endeavor into focus.  Some critics complained the team expedition spent far too long wandering a desert planet. The fact of the matter is this is where the show succeeds in allowing the characters the time to quietly reveal themselves by pushing themselves in extraordinary circumstances. The series was watching characters test their mettle and self-discover.

Rather than be open to this new approach for SGU I realize now it was me. I was projecting a two-dimensional expectation on characters that were far more complex than I could have ever anticipated.  Characters moved beyond the archetypes of SG-1 and SGA to something beyond mere representations of good and evil.  These were flawed characters seeking small victories in what would be desperate days. Rising to the occasion was the order of the day. Those victories would not be assured or necessarily what they seemed.

With Firefly (2002), I just plain missed it.  With SGU, I realized it was both my lack of patience coupled with a false perception that exacerbated a lack of interest.  SGU wasn't like the other two series, but based on the full extent of Air, it was damn good. For additional understanding of mindset, look no further than my coverage on Stargate Atlantis, Rising to understand the pre-established mind set of a generation of viewers. Sadly, this expectation spoiled an opportunity to witness what could have been a truly extraordinary new science fiction series - a kind of new Space:1999.  These people weren't making jokes for pure levity's sake, but out of discomfort, nervousness and a general lack of information to break what feels like authentic tensions. This was indeed a much harder version of Stargate and it saddens me to know that I didn't dial this gate when I had the opportunity. If I only understood the ninth Chevron a little better.

And as inspired as this approach to the Stargate world is on a cinematic level by all involved, the score is equally so.  The late Joel Goldsmith (1957-2012) who scored the revelatory sounds of the previous two series delivers some of his majestic, Vangelis-inspired best yet for SGU. It's truly inspired with a touch of the old Firefly a la Greg Edmonson coupled with the sweep of Blade Runner.  It's haunting, understated, sweeping and other-worldly.  Goldsmith stakes a different flag to signal a very different sound for this gate. Rather than the often rousing, stately pomp and circumstance vibe of the previous excursions into adventure, the approach here is far more elegiac and stirring. There are massive synthetic waves that sweep stunningly across the ear to evoke a sense of majesty when the Destiny appears.  It is a truly awesome work. His score is an exquisite accompaniment to the endeavor, effort and overall vibe of the series.  To those saddened by the series demise, it is just as disheartening to see the music has not found a home on CD or download and it unavailable legally to date.  What an awful shame.

And as far as ship designs, the Destiny itself is something to behold in the long legacy of great space-faring vessels.  It's sure to promise a character of its own not unlike other classic ships.  John Kenneth Muir noted the majesty of the craft hearkening back to a "rich cinematic" history as envisioned in the likes of Star Wars (1977) Star Destroyer or the Nostromo from Alien (1979).  All of this true.

In fact, to breathe additional air into the argument for SGU, after writing my own assessment of Air, it's notable that Muir also cited a sense of familiarity about SGU that likened it to many of the aforementioned series (Firefly, Space:1999) I've noted here as well.  It's hard not to notice.

Adding to the conversation, Muir states, "Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula."  He notes the series fore goes the need to rely on excessive techno babble often associated with Star Trek.  Well, to be honest, it could be a crutch on SGA and SG-1 as well. David Hewlett and Amanda Tapping were experts at reciting long passages of technical exposition.  As Muir notes, excessive use of this approach offers a "cumulative effect" creating a "negative statement about humanity."  Our heroes appeared almost super heroic able to escape any situation not through "resourcefulness or ingenuity" but rather great tech.  The survivors on SGU avoid those pitfalls in Air. The franchise was always about teams entering through the Stargate to discover new technology to use, but they were always well-equipped. With SGU, they are essentially cut off from the military industrial complex and the characters are resorting to survival measures.

By comparison, Muir recognizes that the Star Trek franchise too can feel "rote" after a time, because "the sense of danger is missing." SGA and SG-1 have sometimes suffered that criticism.  As I noted earlier, jeopardy is very much in play with SGU keeping things fresh.

Muir writes positively on SGU's ability to "intertwine" space travel and human inspiration.  He enjoyed the subtext rather than "actual text" or excessive dialogue "spelling out" the scene.

To further illustrate the point regarding technical speak and excess dialogue, take these two passages from SGA, S3, Ep14, The Tao Of Rodney. One of the beauties of that series was the sheer force of the performances. And let's not take anything away from Hewlett's gifts for commanding the screen.  But behold the kind of dialogue Hewlett's Rodney McKay had to recite in just a few moments of an episode.  You might have new found respect for Hewlett.

"Look, the universe may seem mystical to those without understanding when in truth anything and everything can be quantified. Look, all the hocus pocus stuff is just a way of getting the brain into the proper electro-chemical state to allow the final physical evolution, at which point the matter that makes up this body will turn into pure energy. Look, what mere mortals would refer to as the mystery of ascension is actually just a scientific process -- it’s just protons and electrons. Protons and electrons."

He continues, "Now, based on what I’ve extrapolated from the Ancient research, I have been able to set measurable parameters for achieving the proper mental state. Once I reach ninety six percent synaptic connection, as measured by this device all I need to do is maintain an E.E.G. frequency of zero point one to zero point nine Hertz and presto. I arise to a higher plane of existence."

And finally later, "Yeah, it just came to me. I was, I was, I was floating in this, this big black emptiness and then the answer just came out of nowhere. Look, the device was designed to manipulate your D.N.A. It couldn’t reverse the evolutionary advancement process because everyone’s D.N.A. was different. It makes certain changes that causes the D.N.A. to evolve in ways specific to your own unique physiology." It sounds exhausting. Now this doesn't happen all the time, but it's not uncommon. Thankfully McKay has Samantha Carter and Radek Zelenka to talk to.

And for those who saw SGU as a wannabe version of Battlestar Galactica Muir correctly notes that the latter "had no curiosity about the universe itself." at least not directly or specifically. SGU would indeed explore the surroundings even stop and gaze at the beauties of the cosmos.  Air, Part 3, Darkness and Light were all proof of that.

There is indeed great mystery surrounding the series, its characters and where it is going.  Muir writes succinctly, "The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine.  The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny."  With the epic Air, SGU establishes its plan to invest in both mining the mysteries of human nature and space exploration.

So, based on Air, if SGU continued on its pre-designed uncharted trajectory as envisioned and essentially mapped, then I would be more than pleased with this new incarnation of the franchise. So sorry I missed the memo.

SGU clearly belongs within the Stargate universe in generic terms as it plays very much within the same rules and mythology, but it's easy to understand why fans were generally split or confused by it.  Calling it something else would have been disingenuous. Sadly, I just never paid enough mind to any discussion of the tonal differences and maybe I should have.

SGU soars without the trademark irreverent humor that often bounced along good-naturedly in both SG-1 and SGA despite their variations. SGA was certainly a bridge to SGU, albeit the series had more in common with its predecessor. This SGU creature has a lean, mean streak to it.  There is a desperation in the air and a sense of uncertainty and most of all a legitimate sense of jeopardy.  The SG-1 team knew it was going back home through that gate.  The SGA group knew they were established on a home base far from home but not entirely severed.  The SGU group hurtles through the void with no answers. And for those willing to invest their time in this new series, the question beckons, what is that destiny?  There is plenty to lure the science fiction fan here. I never slandered the series or viewed it with the same scorn some held for it, but privately I was disinterested.  I'm afraid I got it wrong.

SGU takes a more dramatic, tender, darker and more human approach to men and women lost in space with no way home. The creators, with Air, were indeed breathing new life into an established, arguably stagnant formula.  The murky character motivations and the many questions regarding the Destiny's flight and the ability of these humans to survive makes for an engaging and energized experience.  The creators deliver an atmosphere of potential doom and desperation allowing the characters to respond naturally. If only it had been given a little more life support along the way.  At just two seasons in length, SGU sounds an awful lot like another science fiction adventure that hurtled through space without a lifeline to Earth cut short from the promise of something greater. Air is a thrilling nail biter of a conundrum for the travelers of the Destiny.  SGU's journey story and survival story resonates. It's like a high grade production of stories we experienced long ago on an entry like Space:1999's The Last Sunset.

Upon closer inspection following recent viewings of both SG-1 and SGA, it's easy to understand why the writers moved the needle so far away from the previous two creations.  They were indeed maturing the dream of the Stargate franchise. They were hungry creatively too. They were also making a concerted effort, not just at a harder science fiction approach, but to avoid the repetition of formula for a third time.  Can you blame them?

Air not only reinvents a franchise, but it's beautiful as much as it is dark and filled with mystery. The occupants aboard the Destiny are stretching into the vast expanse of space on the pre-programmed vessel, but are struggling to assert themselves within the mystery. Where that destiny takes them, and essentially us, is the journey effectively told in this new approach to Stargate. SGU deserves justice through a reassessment and one day that will come.

Air: B+/A.
Writer: Robert C. Cooper/ Brad Wright.
Director: Andy Mikita.

Additional note: I was so thoroughly mesmerized by the three-part opener, Air, I viewed it twice.  It's the kind of series that allows you to see new things on multiple viewings too.  The reason for the second viewing was to enjoy the extended cut of Air on Blu-Ray.  There were two added scenes that were notable.  One scene featured Richard Dean Anderson and Robert Carlyle.  The other sequence was between Carlyle and David Blue. Additionally, this thoughtful, thrilling and even heart-breaking series is simply beautiful on Blu-Ray.  Season Two is available on DVD only.

CO2 scrubbers (before and after) have been mentioned in the past including the Puddle Jumpers notable in Stargate Atlantis, Season Two, Episode 14, Grace Under Pressure.

Season One Cast:  This group of actors is far more impressive than initially met the eye.  Carlyle, of course, along with Blue and the Smith boys are universally excellent.


Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle)
Everett Young (Louis Ferreira)
Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith)
Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque)
Eli Wallace (David Blue)
Tamara Johansen (Alaina Huffman)
Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith)
Camile Wray (Ming-Na Wen)
Colonel David Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips)
Vanessa James (Julia Benson)


John Kenneth Muir said...

Hello SFF,

It was a pleasure to read your review of this early chapter (or chapters...) of SGU.

I always felt that the series got a bad rap because, simply, it was different from what came before it, and that it deserved a chance as its own variation on a theme.

I was sad to see the series end, and your review has made me want to start a re-watch. My wife and I loved watching SGU together. But as you rightly point out, it is not an appropriate viewing experience for children.

Thank you as well for referring to my review of the series. I remember at the time I wrote it that a second season was in the offing, and hopefully a long run. But it was not to be.

This truly could have been the Space:1999 for a new generation, I think...I hope new viewers will read your retrospective and try it out.

warmest regards,

SFF said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed this John.

Based on the first half of Season One alone, what a loss.

It's another heartbreaker seeing this series dispatched prematurely.

Infinitely rewatchable too.
All the best to you.