Friday, July 31, 2015

Stargate Universe S1 Ep8: Time

"It didn't happen.
It's just a story.
I am curious to find out how it turns out though."
-Everett Young-
"For a moment there I thought we were in trouble."
-Dr. Nicholas Rush quoting the climactic moment from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid-
"I think this is where the series really hits its stride.
... yet we would not have been as engaged had they not cared about the characters and had the introduction of the first seven hours."
-Brad Wright, SciFiNow #40, p.36-
"We've done tons of time-travel stories before this and it was a question of do we do it again and how do we make it different?
... one of the most interesting dynamics was watching them watch themselves."
-Robert C. Cooper, SciFiNow #40, p.36-

My journey into the heart of Stargate Universe's darkness continues here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic. There is indeed a seriousness and weight to this third iteration of the Stargate franchise that is most welcomed.

Like Space:1999 (1975-1977) decades earlier, on Stargate Universe (SGU) (2009-2011), men and women are propelled through space, not on a moon, but by an Ancients' vessel called Destiny of which they know little about. Unable to gate back to Earth, a mix of military and civilian deal with the unknowns of space and the unpredictability of human behavior. The heart of darkness if both within and without. This is a more substantive turn and less the sometimes comic book-styled adventuring of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis.

SGU drives forward with a sense of wonder about the mysteries of space and a sense of gravity about those things with which they don't understand. Together this group is stumbling into the darkness.

Here with Stargate Universe, Season One, Episode 8, Time, it is with time we can only hope that SGU is appreciated as the fine work of science fiction that it was however ephemeral, at just two seasons like Space:1999, that it may have been. SGU ranks on a very short list of the very best in science fiction television.

As we continue, it is worth noting that the success and/or failure of SGU rests largely on the shoulders of creators/executive producers Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. Fan apathy aside, these men singlehandedly crafted and navigated these first eight episodes as writers on the series with special guest writer Martin Gero (Stargate Atlantis) chipping in on Water here and Earth here. Like visionary sci-fi writer Michael J. Straczynski (Babylon 5, Sense8), Cooper and Wright definitively lay out their vision and extend the reach of their imagination over the course of a little over a third of the first season. Time would be the last time we would see either Wright or Cooper after charting their writer's course until Season Two. Cooper also directs Time, the first of three for the series. He would return to direct Human and Malice. But he would return to write three stories for Season Two.

Once again, with Time, the visual team and technical people have a field day presenting SGU with a much different, more sophisticated look than its predecessors. Time is a fascinating technical exercise and viewer experience with Time largely being viewed through Kino-vision.  The drone-like Kino's eye view of the group's survival on a jungle-like planet makes for an involving story with a sometimes documentary-like presentation.

Time puts an interesting spin on the time travel tale as the group retrieves a Kino already on the planet with video footage, filmed by Eli, of the team dying before they've even set foot on the planet. The footage also sees the group fall prey to its second encounter with an alien life form that is indeed Alien-like, small and ferocious. There's indeed a loving homage to the 1979 Ridley Scott classic combined with the action and energy of James Cameron's 1986 film sequel including everything from chest bursters to back-bursters.

What is happening? How could this be? Several of the party are killed in this version of events including Chloe Armstrong. Aliens aren't the only problem as the explorers are stricken with an unknown virulent contagion. Some are comatose and some die. To compound things and make matters worse there is a problem stabilizing the wormhole from the gate to the Destiny. Time is of the essence of course and is a key factor before reaching the next FTL as much as these men and women are displaced in time based upon the Kino footage. The Kino acts as a warning before gating to the fateful planet.

Time really takes the new series into the mysteries of planetary exploration, the third if you count Air Part III here and Water, but this time a large group is impacted by the inhospitable unknown. Additionally, for newcomers and old to the Stargate franchise, SGU keeps us in the dark too. Everything is unexpected. Familiar, even tired and old villains of the past, the Goa'uld and the Wraith, are gone and a thing of the past. SGU is an entirely refreshing, indefatigable entry in the franchise and Wright and Cooper are indeed taking us into wide open uncharted territories. It is a pleasure as a fan of science fiction.

Tamara Johansen advises that all members who retrieved the Kino and came in contact with the off-ship away contingent be quarantined.

The footage reveals some fairly poignant character moments, establishing itself as a real trademark of SGU, surrounding Eli Wallace, Tamara, Ronald Greer and even the Machiavellian Dr. Nicholas Rush.  The scenes are particularly revealing marked with real vulnerability. There is Eli's moving confessional by the bedside of Chloe. Matthew Scott reaches out to put his hand on Eli's shoulder during a difficult Kino viewing. These examples exemplify the kind of humanity that does populate this dramatic sci-fi series. Both good and evil are very much aboard the Destiny. That ambiguity and human imperfection was indeed absent on previous Stargate incarnations. This darker approach led to unfair, but understandable, comparisons to Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica. Like the latter series, there are plenty of genuinely heartfelt really human moments on SGU and sometimes with even greater authenticity.

Rush continues to demonstrate his desire to explore the universe, be out there and even potentially discover the answer for Ancient immortality.  There is a bit of the classic New World explorer in Rush as he seeks to free the consciousness perhaps searching for the fabled fountain of youth like Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.

Cooper and Wright continue to mine their character, plumb the depths of each individual's psyche and keep things intelligent and smart within the series as story elements from each episode bleed into the next.

For example, while Young and Scott were seeking water in Water, many of the crew aboard the Destiny were battling the alien life form brought back aboard the ship from Air Part III. Here, it turns out people are growing ill, not from the dangers of the jungle planet, but from the imbibing of water contaminated with a microbial life form found in the ice water extracted from an unknown planet in Water. The writing team continues to examine the reverberating effects of this group's travels into the unknown. Earlier events will inform events to come.

So in Time as people grow sick aboard the Destiny, the others continue to watch footage of the alien horror show found on the Kino.

In the final moments Scott is all that remains with the Destiny set to jump into FTL within an hour. He must warn his future self and the others. This is one of the great time travel tales of science fiction television. It's almost as good as the Spierig Brothers Predestination (2014).

There's a bit of Stargate mythology here too in terms of the understanding of time travel with regard to solar flares and wormhole disruption. Fans of the franchise can certainly appreciate it staying true to such earlier concepts.

SGU delivers an original take to the time travel given all of the alternate reality and time travel tales that have been delivered in sci-fi television not to mention Stargate alone. It's one of the finest sci-fi takes in the franchise.

In an interesting turn of events, it is realized that exposure to the microbes in the water can be counteracted by venom from the alien creature found in Time. The problem is catching one of these lethal little critters alive. Did I mention the time theme? They have just one hour.

Time is a smart, deftly-penned little thriller. Scott brings the story full circle hoping to give all aboard the Destiny a chance to get it right. Time is absolutely one of the more clever time travel tales in the franchise run and it's all thanks to the wisdom, at this point, of Cooper and Wright who are clearly at the top of their game for SGU.

The engagement of SGU feels more dangerous and deeper than the comparably comedic and lighter fare of Stargate SG-1. Additionally, SGU is a wonderfully complex visual experience combining unusual camera work, cinematography and creative worlds never truly experienced in this way previously in the franchise. It's a real cinematic-like TV journey.

So the groundwork is set by these first eight, essentially stunning installments, but from a writing vantage point things would begin to shake-up a bit after Time. Would the clamor and disdain by SG-1 loyalists have an effect on the overall quality found on SGU? Time (ahem) will tell. Despite it's short two season run, don't be distracted by the corporate pull of the plug on SGU. The series remains an experience to behold.

With that it pains me to consider why smart science fiction so often fails. Consider the plethora of comic book films and action movies that populate cinemas and succeed time and again lapped up by seemingly brain dead fans of action. Is it any wonder a series like SGU would have a chance? Today, it seems the patience for an intelligent science fiction series, judging by the numbers, certainly has the decks stacked against it. What a shame. Time is smart science fiction television and unlike the endless drone of nonsense found in summer cinema offers an alternative to the thinking man. It's too bad Time will likely be lost in time for all but a select, discerning few.

Writer: Robert C. Cooper.

Director: Robert C. Cooper.

James Rundle: On Stargate Universe

"Stargate Universe is a unique taste: that much can't be denied.
It's such a radical departure from the previous format of the franchise that, I suspect, Brad Wright is slightly off the mark when he suggests that previous fans have been punishing Universe.
It just isn't for everyone.
For myself, it's the best thing on TV at the moment.
I love its moodiness, its camera work, the stellar quality of its actors and the measured pace.
Yes, it can seem anemic in comparison to the high-octane, gun-running action of SG-1 or Atlantis, but it's managed to create a hell of a lot more definition in its characters, through one season, than those series managed in three times as long."
-James Rundle, SciFiNow #48, p.11-

These are clearly the observations of someone who has actually immersed themselves in the show.

I've become something of an admirer of James Rundle's opinion pieces in SciFiNow. He's the most consistently on target with his sci-fi observations and even has a strong handle on the strengths and weaknesses of a franchise. As much as I enjoyed the previous two incarnations of the franchise Stargate Universe has quickly shaped into the best of the bunch. For me, too, its aesthetic and approach leaves the others in Destiny's dust.