James Helsby

Post Mortem: Stargate Universe

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None of my bitching, none of my yelling, none of my pleading, could save Stargate Universe. Well, now you get the series ending wrap up.

It has been a quick two seasons, but I can hardly believe that the series only lasted for that long. Science Fiction TV shows usually last either 1 or 4+ seasons, for some reason. 4-5 seems to be the normal for series that could be considered Epic in scope. However, Stargate Universe just didn’t make it. The reason why still eludes me.

Let’s rewind to October 2009. I knew that there was a new Stargate series coming out, SyFy had been blasting the air waves trying to promote it. The Stargate franchise was a long established and well received series of films, cartoons, and TV series, that had been running since the original Stargate movie back in 1994.

In 1997, the movie concept was adapted into a television series for Showtime. The series only lasted one season on Showtime’s network, but was picked up by the SciFi Channel, where it had a very long and well received run of 10 seasons total.

In 2004, Stargate Atlantis spun off into another well received series that lasted for 5 seasons. And the animated series Stargate Infinity ran for just a single season in 2002. Essentially, since 1997, there has always been a Stargate series of one sort or another on the air.

In 2009, Stargate Universe continued this trend. And I missed it. That’s right, I didn’t watch the first episode on its initial air date. Luckily, I was able to pick up the following day, and watch the episode end to end (it was a 2 hour premier). That pilot episode garnered around 2.5Million viewers, which is fairly good for SyFy.

I was hooked. The series was set in the Stargate universe, (meta) but honestly required no knowledge of Stargate lore. We were brought into the story, just as Eli was. Eli was a gamer, who mastered a particularly tricky puzzle that was programmed into a game by Dr. Nicholas Rush, lead researcher on the Icarus project. Dr Rush meets with Eli and offers him ‘a job he can’t refuse.’ Eli refuses.

And is brought aboard the USS Hammond, a space ship controlled by Stargate Command. Eli agrees to help, provided that his mother receives the best in health care treatments the military can provide. Eli’s mother is slowly dying from AIDS related sicknesses. As Eli is transported to the Icarus planet, he is debriefed on the lore and science of Stargate. We (the audience) are perfectly exposed to everything we really need to know for the rest of the series.

The goal of the Icarus base, is to use a Stargate to dial the 9th chevron. Think of it like a phone number. Basically, we use 7 digits to call our neighbors. We use 10 to dial out of state. We use 12 to dial to a different country.  10^12 possible phone number combinations. The Stargate is the same way. Instead of a switchboard, more power is added to increase the distance required to dial a far off gate. And the Icarus project uses the Icarus planet to provide enough power to dial the 9th chevron (symbol on the Stargate used as a vector in a plotting equation.)

Well, things backfire when the planet is attacked. The planet core starts to explode, and the only way to save the residents of the Icarus base is to evacuate through the Stargate. But the explosion will perhaps destroy where ever the Stargate dials (Earth) so Dr Rush decides to dial the 9th chevron. The connection is made, and the crew evacuate to safety. So they think.

Most Stargates connect to alien worlds. This Stargate does not. The connection is made not to a planet, but to a ship. A ship several billion light years away, in a distance galaxy. An ailing ship, who has been traveling for eons, alone and abandoned. Destiny.

At first no one wants to be there. No one trusts that Rush did this to save them or Earth.  The ship is operating uncontrolled, and with a mind of its own that no one understands. The only escape they can hope for is to dial back to earth, but Destiny just doesn’t have enough power to do it.

The first season of Stargate Universe revolves around this need to get home. Some are willing to do almost anything to get there, but at first Dr Rush won’t let anyone leave. He secretly has gained limited levels of control of the ship, and to a point only he understands what Destiny’s intentions are at a given moment. Destiny is not as dumb as you might think, it’s fully aware that there is now a crew on board, and that certain reparations need to be made. Destiny begins dropping out of Faster-Than-Light travel close enough to planets that have Stargates for the gates to be used to gather much needed supplies.

Let’s discuss the characters, and then I will discuss what was right, and what was wrong with the series.

Main Characters:

Nicholas Rush

(The Nemesis) Half the time he is also the hero. Somehow, he either never wants the credit or seeks it all. I think that Rush was always looking for something deeper, some meaning. I am not talking about his search for Destiny’s mission, I mean something in his life. His drive and desire comes from this search for something more than what is. Personally, I think that he has never been able to get over his wife’s death, and has been trying to either find a meaning in his life with out her, or a way to get back to her.

But because the series is over, we will never know.

Everett Young

(The Father)  The one who always seems to know what to do, or if not, what is necessary. He is convincing and strangely calm. There are moments in the series where you finally are able to see inside of his boundaries, and all that’s left is sadness. Whether it be that he is depressed because of his actions with his wife, his killing of a fellow officer, the loss of his unborn child, the situation that they are all stuck in with Destiny; all that is inside is sadness. He puts up a good cover for it, but he too is seeking meaning in his life, and hopes that perhaps destiny has lead him to Destiny.

But because the series is over, we will never know.

Matthew Scott

(The Priest) Lt. Scott, is the religious element of the show. Scott was raised by a priest and always sought a life of religion. However, at one point in his life he gave into to his temptations and got a young girl pregnant. Where this would be the point for many to man up, or learn, or do something, Scott ran away and joined the military. Since then, he also has been seeking meaning in his life (see a running theme here?). Scott eventually found meaning, in the love of Chloe Armstrong. He is strong enough, but his caring and compassion seem to be at odds with his position and responsibilities. He seems to be more inclined to try and talk through a situation than to fire a shot. More than anyone else, Scott seems to be running away from something.

But because the series is over, we will never know.

Chloe Armstrong

(The Daughter) of the US Senator, who was responsible for getting the Icarus project up and running (which was the means by which the team ended up on the Destiny); Chloe is a rather synthetic character. She doesn’t have any special skills that brought her to Destiny, she was only on Icarus because she was accompanying her father (as his aid.) Chloe didn’t bring anything to the crew, until she was abducted by Aliens and given vast intelligence. Perhaps the most non-sensical character development made during the course of the mission. She never learned, but was given. And she too seeks to find meaning in Destiny, essentially trying to find enough meaning to justify her father’s self sacrifice saving the rest of the crew in the intial episode. Chloe eventually finds love in Matt, but during the majority of the second season she is used as a plot device to help garner more information or tension within the show.

Eli Wallace

(The Son) Bright eyes, and curiosity. Eli is a genius in his own right, the series if nothing else, is about a boy becoming a man. Not so much in the sexy-sexy way, but what does it take for a child to stand up and be who he needs to be when the situation warrants. And while Col. Young is the father, Rush is the mentor. And Rush has always recognized Eli’s potential, and found it threatening. Rush will never admit it, but he knows that Eli is potentially smarter than himself, but Eli has no confidence and no commitment. Eli would rather risk the ship and all the crew to save one life who is in jeopardy. His compassion is potentially his down fall. But when the time is right, and this final episode was it, Eli finally grows a pair and steps up. He always thought of himself as a boy, but now will he think of himself as a man?

Because the series is over, we will never know.

Tamara Johansen

(The mother) She doesn’t want to be, but there is more than just biology and genetics at play. TJ is the ships medic, who has nothing but the most basic training in the practice. Her military career was over, and she effectively resigned her commission just before the Icarus incident sent them all over to the Destiny. The Chief medical officer was killed in the scrap that lead to the exodus, and when Col. Young was severely injured in the pilot episode, TJ needed to act as the care giver to everyone. At the time (debatable) unbeknownst to her, she was also pregnant with Col Young’s child. She did a pretty good job hiding it for a while, but when it became necessary to discussion the mater, her maternal instincts went into over drive and for a while, the entire show was about TJ and the unborn baby. But TJ was traumatically injured and the baby presumably didn’t survive. Presumably, because at one point TJ was ‘magically’ transported across the galaxy to a planet that the Destiny stopped at, where she found crew members who had elected to stay behind, raising her child as their own. TJ is constantly looking for confidence, half the time a shy and repressed character, she never really raises her voice. She is as much counselor as she is surgeon, but she is seeking more. Perhaps to find that sense of fulfilment that her child was bringing to her.

But, because the series is over, we will never know.

Ronald Greer

(The Solider) At first, Greer was the strength and courage for the show. You didn’t mess with him, because he would kill you without thinking twice. Greer was actually in court martial for assaulting Col Telford back at Icarus base. But don’t let that fool you. Greer is perhaps the single best character in the series. You can always count on his to do not only what is right, but what is necessary. And when the series starts to end, you find that Greer has found this other element of himself that we have never seen before. Fear. And it is an excellent portrayal of that state. Greer is strong, but we know that he has his weaknesses. We find out that he is claustrophobic, and that he was abused as a child. We also find out that he fears death, and was brought face to face with it and has since been less willing to take a life without warrant. Greer brings a much needed masculinity to the show. He remains a physical character, where as the rest of the crew are cerebral. When given the option to leave, he chooses to stay. Perhaps to look after the rest of the crew, perhaps to seek out the answer to some internal question. It doesn’t matter. When Greer is on screen, you know that things are about to get real…

Camile Wray

(The Moral Compass) Camile was the base’s HR director. Why an HR director is needed half-way across the universe, I will never know. Perhaps it was to add some more femininity to the crew, or perhaps even to add a little bit of sexual tension. Camile is a lesbian, and in the first part of the series, they made a big point of that fact. But like any good character development, it became much less important as the series went on. Yes, she was a lesbian, but she was committed to a relationship with her partner back home. They were happy together, despite the problems that they faced. Where the bulk of the other characters in the series all seemed to be bringing their own broken family drama into the mix, Camile probably had the best home relationship of anyone. Camile at one point tried to take over the ship, thinking that a civilian leadership structure would work better than a military structure. But when a fight was necessary, the civilians didn’t have the guts. Camile understood that, and stopped trying to overthrow the system. The story about civilian vs military because something of almost no importance by the end of the first season. But Camile is trying to bring something to the crew that no one else is, humanity. No one else (with the exception of Eli) is as committed to maintaining the dream of home as Camile.

Stargate Universe presents itself as a show that is as much about the ship, as it is about the characters. During the first season, the main premise is for the crew to discover everything that they can about the ship, in order to stay alive. During the second season, the ship was less of a mystery, and instead the reason why the ship was on its mission was the main focus. You see, Dr Rush discovers in the second season that there is some sort of a message from God hidden in the background radiation of the universe, and that is what Destiny is trying to discover out there.

How did Stargate Universe work well? It presented a great story, without needing to trudge up more of the historical baggage that came with it. It was clean and crisp, both visually and thematically. In the first few episodes they strongly used music to help express the emotion that they wanted to audience to feel, and this worked exceptionally well. As the season went on, they stopped incorporating music into the series for what ever reason, and things really did start to dry out.

The characters were deep in concept, but in truth very shallow. They had these hidden meanings, which I identified above, but you could almost always guess who was going to do what in any given episode. You knew that Greer would step up and kick some ass. You knew that Eli would doubt himself, but use his amazing brain to save the day. You always knew that Rush would do something completely self centered. Perhaps you knew a little too much, and so we took it for granted. When a character stops presenting you with surprises, you stop being surprised. I know that is a very ‘duh’ statement, but in the case of SGU it was always there. Dr Rush being the prime culprit. You were more shocked when he did something that was altruistic, than when he did something that was to gain himself some specific piece of knowledge. When you come to find out that Dr Rush had some alterior motive the entire time, you are not shocked.

The families that all the main characters came from where “broken.” Young, separated from his wife mid season. Chloe’s father died in the first episode, and her mother is an alcoholic. Eli’s father is none existent, and his mother has AIDS. Scott was a orphan, and raised by a priest. Greer’s father was abusive. Rush’s wife died from cancer. Only Camile has a normal home life, something that she looks forward to returning to. That aspect of the show became a little old and tiresome. It gave the main character motivation to stay on the ship, when most others would leave. However, it would have felt better to have at least a few of them be missed by someone. Or to actually miss someone themselves.

SGU fell into a trap, of it’s own brilliant design. The initial subject was all to good. The ship, out of control, hurtling through space, and people stuck on it without being able to do anything. Well, the premise becomes a little too repetitive after a short amount of time, and sure enough by the end of the winter break in the second season, the ship was under the crews control. It suddenly became as story about the crew, and the ship became an afterthought. So they needed something else to act as a driving force, and they chose discovery. Rush found a message, or a structure inside of the cosmic background radiation. The new mission was to find out more, and essentially the crew no longer cared about going home.

All throughout, other cliche plots come in, are used, and then discarded. Try to get home. Run out of some crucial material. Alien invasion. Intelligent Space Ticks. Introspective. Magical stones that let you go back to earth. Alien invasion. Try to get home. Run out of some crucial material. Intelligent space bears. Introspective. Repeat.

There were only a few episodes that really broke away from the rest, and usually those themes were carried for a little too long. The series quickly became long in the tooth. And when the ratings dropped from 2.5M to .8M, SyFy called it. I suspect it was because the show was too expensive, rather than the viewer ratings reason they site. One of their other big budget original programming shows, Sanctuary, actually has even less viewers. But was recently renewed for an additional season.

Sanctuary heavily uses CGI backdrops, where SGU had physical sets. SGU felt much more real however. But in the end, the biggest downfall for SGU was just how it felt. In the end, it became more Star Trek than Stargate. A travel show, set amoung the stars. Monsters and aliens posing some sort of challenge to be overcome.  The last 5 episodes only seldom used the gates at all, infact it became a point that the aliens in the series could track the Destiny by its use of the gates.

What is the point of a Stargate series, that doesn’t even use the Stargates? Not much. If they can control the ship, how come it still feels like a runaway train? Why bring Chloe into the mix when she adds nothing to the story? SGU was fantastic, but this later half of the second season really did start to dwindle. It’s a good thing that it all ended on a cliff hanger.

The final episode of the series, has the entire crew being frozen in Cryogenic sleep. Sleeping out 3 years of their lives, while they travel between galaxies. But the one last remaining pod was non functional. (Ironic that they have enough pods for EXACTLY the number of crew members on board, with out a single one to spare. Good thing Riley didn’t survive, huh?)

Eli chooses to man up. Finally recognizing that only he can stay awake to either figure out how to fix the last remaining pod, find a way to stay alive for the 3 years without risking the rest of the ship, or…. to kill himself. A great way to treat the Eli character, but the cryo sleep is also a great way to put the series to sleep. Essentially, the series could be picked up some time in the future, and just about anything could be explained. Eli lives, or Eli dies. Any one of the crew could die or live. They could be healed, they could be changed. They could gain magical powers. jsut about anything is possible.

And I hope that I get so see it. SGU might have started to go down hill towards the end, but the beginning was awesome. Maybe a few years will give them a chance to come up with some new idea’s and give the series a new life. Maybe 3 years from now SyFy will turn into Spike2 and pick the show back up. Maybe Showtime will show interest in getting it back. Maybe a made-for-cable movie will be done. We don’t know. But for now, it’s Stargate Universe’ destiny to sleep.

Thank you Stargate Universe, for giving me a good SciFi show that I could sit and enjoy with my family. I hope that I see you again, soon. And screw you SyFy for ending something that could have been great.

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