Review: Stargate Universe – Living Up to the Name!

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"Air" Episode 103 -- David Blue as Eli Wallace, Brian J. Smith as Lt. Matthew Scott -- Syfy Photo: Gregory Peters
“Air” Episode 103 — David Blue as Eli Wallace, Brian J. Smith as Lt. Matthew Scott — Syfy Photo: Gregory Peters

Thanks to MGM, Syfy, and all the Powers That Be for granting Wormhole Riders a Stargate Universe Press Kit, I am able to consider myself one of the few who have gotten a good look at Stargate Universe. In part 2 of our 3-review series, I play the role of the big Stargate fan who had reservations about Universe.
I admit, I was a little skeptical going in. I had no doubts that whatever the production team did, it was going to be their best. I believe they truly do have the power to turn anything they touch to gold. Their creativity and ingenuity, not to mention their dedication to and determination, seem boundless. They have inspired me time and time again, and have nothing but the highest regard for them and the deepest faith in their decisions.

This is not to say that I would not leave the franchise if I felt that Universe did not live up to the name. I do have standards, and while I am a huge Stargate fan, I am a picky Stargate fan. I was and still am a Stargate SG-1 fan to the core. That’s where it all began for me. When Stargate Atlantis came out, I watched it but mostly because of the crossover potential it provided for both cast members and storylines. As the two series became closer, I was all the more happy I’d followed along. I enjoyed it, but it took time for me to learn to appreciate the show for its own merits.  When SG-1 was cancelled but Stargate Atlantis continued, it became my solace. Yet all the while, it could never really leave SG-1’s shadow, in my eyes.

I have been feeling some trepidation over Universe. It was not so much how things were going to be done that worried me as what they were going to do. I worried that it wasn’t going to be Stargate anymore. The concepts that we have heard of to date sound so foreign to what we are used to as Stargate fans that I know it has many feeling nervous. I want it to succeed, and I want it to be true to the spirit of franchise. Having seen it now, I want to try and straighten out few things out if I can.

While at conventions talking with fans about Universe, I have heard many terms and phrases thrown about. The most memorable are, “It’s BattleGate!”, and “It’s going to be like a reality show! I don’t like reality TV!” These impressions have been given to fans because they have heard it said time and time again that Universe is darker and it is more character based on many levels than Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis ever were. Frankly these ideas have been overly emphasized. Many fans have come to associate these ideas with Battlestar Galactica (hence “BattleGate”), and reality television shows like Survivor. I’m here to tell you, fans, this not to be believed based solely on what you have heard. Yes, it is darker both artistically and literally. Yes, it is more character driven, but not to the extremes that fans are thinking.
Universe is definitely a departure from the previous Stargate series . . . and yet not. All the roots, the elements that make Stargate what it is and all the reasons that we love it, are there. I am neither a fan of Battlestar Galactica nor reality TV. Battlestar has always been much too dark and morbid for my tastes, and reality TV does not have what it takes to make me feel invested in the characters.  Universe is not too dark. Small rays of hope come from surprising sources, touchingly beautiful in their simplicity. The characters are astounding in their complexity, and if you can’t identify with their individual traits and histories, you will still identify with their reactions to their plight on a profound level.

I have also heard fans say, “It sounds like StarTrek: Voyager.” As a fan of Voyager, I can tell you that, while there are similar aspects in the plots, Universe is a whole new monster in so many ways. Yes, they are far from home and have a long path back. Yes, they didn’t intend for this to happen. The differences lie in the fact that they are not in control of the Destiny. Creature comforts are at a minimum, supplies are almost non-existent, and their surroundings are crumbing around them. They don’t know how half of it works, and they certainly can’t just turn the Destiny around. Also, internal turmoil – both within themselves and amongst each other – is going to be key in this crew’s story. I know that I can say with absolute conviction that Universe is going to surpass Voyager in complexity, creativity, and variety so fast that Voyageur will be left millions of light-years behind.

There’s one more concept that I had forgotten about. Fans say, “The cast is younger. Oh, they’re aiming for a younger demographic. What does that make the rest of us? Chop liver?” I forgot about this notion because it didn’t even occur to me as I watched the show. Now granted, I’m not a part of the 45+ demographic. Yet my tastes in entertainment have never been guided by what was aimed at my age group. Most of the shows my peers watched growing up I wouldn’t touch with a fifty foot pole. They thought I was crazy because of what I watched because they were definitely geared for a worldlier age group, but at least my favorite shows were relatively intelligent. Yes, several of the cast members are young, but their characters are still discerning, capable adults. I have yet to see one instance of your stereotypical teenage behavior or angst. These characters are inexperienced, but in this situation you don’t have to be young to be scared.

normal_cast_season1_23
Left to Right: Brian J. Smith, Elyse Levesque, David Blue, Alaina Huffman, Jamil Walker Smith
And just for the record:
David Blue (Eli Wallace) is 30

Alaina Huffman (First Lt. Tamara Johansen) is 29

Brian J. Smith (First Lt. Matthew Scott) is 28

Jamil Walker Smith (Master Sergeant Ronald Greer) is 27

Elyse Levesque (Chloe Armstrong) is the youngest at 23

To give you a comparison, Michael Shanks (Daniel Jackson) was only 27 when Season 1 of Stargate SG-1 aired. Rainbow Sun Franks (Aiden Ford) was only 25 when Stargate Atlantis launched, and Jason Momoa (Ronan Dex) was 28 when he joined the cast. Having cast members in their 20’s is not such a big change for Stargate, and I think it’s safe for me to say these guys played very popular roles. Keep in mind too that the actor’s age might be different from their character’s given age. According to “1969”, Daniel Jackson is actually five years older than Michael!

So do not judge Universe based on what you have heard. These before mentioned notions have been blown to such proportions that at every discussion of Universe they become the elephant in the room. Please, watch the show and make your own judgment.

Universe displays such a vast range of characters, there’s someone for everyone to identify with. While the descriptions of these characters that have been released may seem cliché, there is an obvious sense in the first hours that there is way more to these characters than meets the eye. What will grab your attention and help you to identify is their reactions to their situation. The emotions are so raw, so unfettered, that I found it hard not to feel it too and sympathize. It reaches a level that Stargate fans are not accustomed to seeing. We are used to seeing characters who get into difficult situations while knowing the risks. They signed up for it. They fight back their emotions because it is what they are expected, even trained, to do. The survivors in Universe didn’t choose this. They are unprepared, untried, and untrained, and most of them have no reason to hide their fear behind a façade of controlled calm. They see what their reality has become, and they react to it the same way most of us at home would. That’s were science fiction and reality meet.

Have you ever read a book and become so engrossed by the injustices that you see the characters are perpetrating, that you read the book because you are angry at those characters? You read because you want to see if they get what they deserve in the end? I have done that, and those emotions – the way that I would get mad about the terrible things people would do – fueled many an A graded essay. There are characters in Universe that are already having this effect on me, but I am trying to reserve judgment. One of the things that is made abundantly apparent in these first episodes is the fear and uncertainty that these characters feel, and the tension between them as they try to get past placing blame. Because of the violence of their emotions as they come to grips with what has happened, characters that act like real jerks in the first hours may turn out to be likeable later. I’m just going to keep telling myself that.

Stargate Universe Photos courtesy SyFy - NBC Universal and MGM Studios
It was interesting to notice that there is an established dynamic between many of these characters before the adventure really begins. The military members are on a better first-name basis with each other than we are accustomed to, though they appear to only resort to first names in private conversation. This suggests a close-nit military group, and it will be interesting to watch them try to interact with the civilian survivors they find themselves trapped with. As we have seen before, having civilians follow orders tends not to go over very well.

Speaking of civilians, I had a feeling from the trailers that Eli Wallace, played by David Blue, was going to be high in the rankings as far as my favorite character. I was right. If you like the character who just can’t resist saying what they are thinking (and it’s probably what you were just thinking too), says all the rest with his body language, and will try to bring levity to the direst of situations with a bad joke, Eli is your man. He is your classic comic relief, whether he needs to be or not. And just wait until you see his reaction to the Stargate!

First Lieutenant Tamara Johansen, played by Alaina Huffman, also struck a chord with me. Among her colleges she appears to be someone they trust without reservation, a good quality for a doctor indeed. “TJ”, as they call her, deals with the terrifying situation she is placed in without losing focus, though all the while claiming to be just a field medic. In this way and in one particular moment in which she immediately earned my respect, I swear she was channeling Dr. Janet Frasier. I loved it.

The rest of the crew is a little harder to gauge at this point. Everyone seems to have had a reason, an agenda, that is largely unexplained as of yet. As I said, there is way more than meets the eye. We may know what their purpose was before – whether they were just there for the tour or for the long haul – but their role now will have to be entirely different. How well they adjust to what their new functions will have to be in this makeshift crew is something I will watch with interest.

It was wonderful to be able to see some familiar faces. We saw the most of Richard Dean Anderson, and according to the recent news it looks like he will be seen again late in the season. Jack O’Neill hasn’t changed a bit, and it was great to see him in BDUs once again. Amanda Tapping was back to being a blond to reprise her role as Sam Carter. Sam seemed surprisingly at home in command of the George Hammond, Earth’s newest Daedalus class ship. Michael Shanks’s appearance as Daniel Jackson was brief, but oh so sweet. Three words, ladies: black leather jacket!

Of course one must not forget Gary Jones and Bill Dow! Walter Harriman, as Gary has described, was indeed dressed in camouflage. Don’t ask Gary about it. He’ll tell you it’s for blending in with the filing cabinets! Dr. Bill Lee’s role in the plot was unexpected, even to him! Let’s just say I think he had a rude awakening, and later probably thought it was just a dream.

The series has been provided with the perfect tool for allowing us to see our old friends. As fans will see, it provides the opportunity for the writers to have endless and completely plausible visits from the Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis casts. In fact, we already know that Michael Shanks will return for two future episodes, though not necessarily by the same means in both occasions.

normal_cast_season1_22

Then there is our other old friend with a new twist. To be perfectly honest, the new Stargate looks amazing, but it has me completely confused. The Destiny is very old, so does this mean this gate design predates the Pegasus or Milky Way gates? Or both? If you’ve seen the symbols on it, it no doubt has occurred to you that those are not constellations. These details are exactly the type of thing that I always loved about Stargate. There is sure to be a whole history behind it that will unfold to have greater ramifications than anyone will expect. What these symbols are – three episodes in – is yet to be explained. This comes as no surprise however. How things work is not so much a concern so long as they actually do work. You can bet that eventually the puzzle of the Destiny’s gate will be addressed – pun intended!

It was evident that no expense was spared in the filming of these first episodes.  The graphics are sharper and more believable than ever. The main sets are everything you have come to expect from this production team after seeing Stargate Atlantis. When on location, there were shots taken that could only have been captured by flying overhead, which I’m sure does not come cheap. I am not worried about this quality dropping off later. As we have seen, the production team finds ways of keeping things on an even keel. If you aren’t actively looking for it, you can’t even tell that one episode was produced on a smaller budget than another.

The cinematography is something that really has to be seen. Description cannot do it justice. As someone who has soaked up all that I can regarding filming techniques from Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, I can clearly see the difference in the approach they are taking with Universe. Think of your television screen as a wall between you and the characters you are watching. Now try to imagine it being gone. It’s not easy, is it? That’s because it is so rarely done, but yet this is exactly what they have accomplished. The camera is placed in positions we have never seen before, taking angles and panning in atypical ways. It lurks in corners, looks though narrow spaces, and hides behind random objects. It sees the world more as a human being would, rather than as a piece of machinery would, providing you with a sense of being included in the goings on. If you are familiar with hit series Firefly, you may recognize the methods because that is where Brad Wright and Robert Cooper drew their inspiration.

The sound track is something else to behold. As a musician and a fan who recognizes what music brings to the tone of the video it accompanies, I believe that Joel Goldsmith has really outdone himself this time. Joel composed a hauntingly beautiful piece featuring a violin. It is similar in style to Sanctuary’s main theme, which is also Joel’s work. It is used to great effect in the less action-driven scenes. At the same time, there are also pieces that feature more modern, electric instruments than we are accustomed to hearing on Stargate, but the effect is . . . it’s so amazing it is indescribable. Joel, if you were to market the soundtrack, I’d be first in line! Sanctuary too!

When I get down to it, I think this one instance just might say it all. I feel no shame in saying that when I first witnessed a group of the Destiny’s new crew members go through the Stargate, I sat here and grinned like an idiot. It felt so good to see that again, and more than that, it felt right. It felt like I was home again after a long trip full of homesickness. The happiness that settled over me was still rivaled by my concern for what was going to happen, but it was in no way diminished. I’m not usually that easy to please, but when that old feeling rushed back, I just knew.

I think that every Stargate fan will find it possible to feel that same sense of coming home from Stargate Universe. You only need to be willing to give it a chance. Watch the first three hours with an open mind. Rejoice in what is familiar and allow yourself to be drawn in by what is new. I think you will see the potential is just as endless as it has ever been before.
Stargate has always fulfilled my every expectation, and though I was skeptical, Stargate Universe continues to do so spectacularly. There is literally so much going on that there is something to appeal to every type of fan, and to viewers who have never been Stargate fans before. I was completely blown away. My heart was literally pounding for over two hours. It’s been a while since a show has pulled me in that deeply, but I’m not surprised. This is Stargate, after all.

Alyssa

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