[09/10/09 - 12:01 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Stargate Universe" (Syfy)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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(Fridays at 9:00/8:00c starting October 2)

The network's description: "When a secret military research base is attacked, a small group of civilians and military personnel escape through the Stargate to a ship that is locked on course through deep space. "Stargate Universe" follows a band of soldiers, scientists and civilians, who must fend for themselves as they are forced through a Stargate when their hidden base comes under attack. The desperate survivors emerge aboard an ancient ship, which is locked on an unknown path and unable to return to Earth. Faced with meeting the most basic needs of food, water and air, the group must discover the secrets of the ship's Stargate to survive. The danger, adventure and hope they find on board the Destiny will reveal the heroes and villains among them. Edgier and younger in tone, "Stargate Universe" will take the franchise in a dynamic new direction, appealing to longtime "Stargate" fans and first-time viewers alike. The series stars award-winning Scottish actor Robert Carlyle ("Trainspotting," "The Full Monty") as Dr. Nicholas Rush, an acclaimed and respected scientist who will gamble the livelihood of many for the advancement of science itself. The series also stars Ming-Na ("The Joy Luck Club," "ER") as Camile Wray, Lou Diamond Phillips ("La Bamba," "Stand and Deliver") as Lieutenant Telford, as well as David Blue as Eli Wallace, Alaina Huffman as Master Sergeant. Tara Johansen, Louis Ferreira as Col. Everett Young, Jamil Walker Smith as Master Sergeant Ronald Greer and Brian J. Smith as Lt. Matthew Scott."

What did they leave out? "SG-1" alums Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping, Gary Jones, Bill Dow and Michael Shanks all make cameos during the two-hour premiere.

The plot in a nutshell: A Stargate opens on a gigantic spaceship billions of light years from Earth. Out pour the remaining survivors of the Icarus Project, a government-sponsored research effort designed to unlock the secrets of the ninth chevron on the Stargate. Flashbacks then fill us in on who these people are how they got there. For Eli Wallace (David Blue, sure to be a fan-favorite), it was barely 24 hours ago that he was unemployed and playing Prometheus, an online fantasy game, at his mother's house. His life however changes forever when, in pure "The Last Starfighter" fashion, after solving a particular puzzle in Prometheus, General O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) appear on his doorstep. They, and later a video tutorial hosted by Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), explain the unthinkable: the game is actually designed to seek out brilliant minds who can help assist with the Stargate program, a top secret, multi-national task force designed around the use of alien-created rings which allow near-instantaneous space travel between them via a string of symbols.

Eli then has inadvertently helped Dr. Rush with his efforts as part of the Icarus Project to dial a nine-chevron address discovered by the Atlantis expedition. And with that a skeptical-turned-shell-shocked Eli is whisked away to the Icarus base, which is housed on a planet with unique properties that just may give them the power to do just that. There we meet Senator Alan Armstrong (Christopher McDonald) and his overachieving daughter/assistant Chloe (Elyse Levesque) who are there to witness Rush's experiment, along with a host of other civilian and military personnel: Camile Wray (Ming-Na), a fellow bureaucrat; Col. Young (Louis Ferreira), the base's commander; Lt. Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips), who will spearhead the exploration into wherever said address leads; 1st Lt. Johansen (Alaina Huffman), a soon-to-be overwhelmed medic; Lt. Scott (Brian J. Smith), Young's even-keeled second-in-command; and MSgt. Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), a hothead who's temper has landed him in the brig.

Shortly after they resume testing, the base is attacked by a faceless enemy, setting off a chain reaction that will destroy the entire planet. Rather than risk dialing Earth, Dr. Rush opts for one final attempt at completing the nine-chevron connection. Sure enough he, along with another assist by Eli, succeeds and the Icarus team has no choice but to go through. There they find themselves eons from home with limited supplies on a decaying ship - named Destiny - with its own problems, beginning with a failing life support system.

What works: For better or worse, "SGU" doesn't look or feel like any of its predecessors. Between its handheld camerawork, ethereal score and wide array of character archetypes, the franchise hasn't felt this energized in years. And while the above description may sound like a giant info dump, the show's premise quickly boils down to "a group of people trapped on an alien spacecraft trying to survive and get home." Sure there are winks and nods to what's come before (the Lucian Alliance, ascension, etc.), but for the most part we're discovering things through the characters' eyes. To that end the decision to initially frame the show through Eli's experience is genius: he's literally and figuratively the new viewer and comments on things as such, giving a meta voice to both newbies and fans alike.

Equally as impressive is the wide array of personality types, particularly Rush and Greer. I can't recall the "Stargate" franchise ever having regular characters who are so purposely unlikable - the former seems more than willing to put science ahead of human life while the latter is a loose cannon - and not in cute and cuddly ways either. The real surprise however is that both installments provided for review (the two-hour premiere and the subsequent episode) contain a major morality play that pushes our heroes to make huge ethical decisions. In the pilot for instance, it's discovered that in order to keep the ship from venting atmosphere, someone will have to flip a switch that will close off their section, ultimately killing themselves to save everyone else. Meanwhile in the second week, the ship mysteriously gives them 12 hours to locate a particular element that will fix their air troubles on a nearby desert planet - a mission which may call for additional sacrifice in order to cover more ground. And like all great morality plays, these developments expose raw - and sometimes surprising - emotions from the characters. It's just unfortunate then that...

What doesn't: ...the show inevitably decides to sidestep following through on them in the name of having an easy out. In other words, nobody dies because of the decisions of others - the deus ex machina of the plot actually frees them from doing so. Both cases expose the inherent flaw of the show: it's more than willing to walk up to the precipice of truly shaking things up, it's just not willing to make the leap. Said aspect bleeds into other aspects of the show as well. The Destiny crew for instance isn't actually on their own: several just-so-happened-to-make-the-trip alien devices will allow them to trade consciousness with folks back on Earth, meaning everybody they've ever known is still a phone call away.

More troubling however is that the characters don't really seem to solve their problems, they just luck their way into solutions - week two in particular ends in a "whaaa???" fashion that's more than frustrating (for reasons which I won't spoil here). All of the above certainly blunts the overall excitement of the show - for all the refreshing aspects it's just unfortunate to see the franchise fall back on old habits so quickly. That's not to say there's not a lot to like, or look forward to, in this incarnation, it's just it could have been a home run...

The bottom line: ...instead of a stand-up double.

  [september 2009]  


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