Monday, May 23, 2011

Stargate is dead. Long live Stargate!

The last episode of Stargate Universe season 2, also the final episode of the series, aired a couple weeks ago, and while I had no great love for the show, I was not pleased by its demise.

This is mostly because I thought it still might have been possible to turn the show around, and because when it went, it took with it any chance of new movies or another series for the foreseeable future.

Stargate as a whole constitutes a mythos that rivals that of Star Trek in its breadth and detail. Universe, however, deliberately eschewed the majority of the elements which made its predecessors, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, so successful, and paid the price for it. In our current economic situation, it may have been a franchise killer in so doing.

Universe started hemorrhaging viewers early on, and just never recovered. This is directly the fault of the show runners and writers. With Stargate Universe they wanted a darker, grimmer stargate, more edgy, story driven instead of episodic, a character drama with a cast of flawed characters who, “weren’t supposed to be here”.

The problem with this approach is that ultimately, it’s not the writers who decide what is and is not “Stargate”, or any other show for that matter, it’s the fans. If this show had been launched without any connection to Stargate, it might have survived longer. Maybe even grown its own fan base. Making it a part of the Stargate story, however, brings with it preexisting expectations about what a Stargate show will be like. Universe did not deliver on these expectations, but brought an entirely different theme and feel that the majority of fan-voters felt were just not Stargatey enough.

I’m one of those who weren’t very pleased with the show. I think it was a showcase for just about everything that’s wrong with contemporary Science Fiction. Still I watched most of the episodes because I wanted it to get better, I wanted the writers to have a chance to recover from their hubris and listen to what the fans and ratings were telling them, and it was the only Stargate in town after all, sorta.

There were things I liked about the show very much. Ironically, the things I really liked about the show only magnified the contrast with the things I really didn’t like.

I really liked the Destiny, the Ancient starship the show was built around. The shape of the ship was based on a gate chevron, greatly elongated. The show was shot with such dim lighting that it’s hard to actually see the details of the model, and that’s a shame. I lightened the image of the Destiny here by 50% just so I could actually see the ship itself.
Now you can see the stepped levels of the hull, and the proto-Egypto-Ancient styling of the swooped command Ziggurat which supports the bridge. It’s an elegant design that conveys a sense of ancientness by its form. I actually felt bad for Destiny, a ship that awesome being trapped in a show that bad.

I liked the effects in general, especially the gauzy corona which envelopes the ship when Destiny employs its Faster-than-Light drive but remains in real space, rather than diving into hyperspace.

I also like the first generation stargate on board the Destiny. The entire ring of the gate spins in its base rather than having an inner track with locking chevrons like the SG-1 era gates. I think it looks a bit Deco/Art Modern. Much cooler than the lite-bright gates of the Pegasus galaxy in Stargate Atlantis.

I liked the back-story as well. Some uncertain millions of years ago, the Ancients built and launched Destiny to investigate a message or signal that they had discovered embedded in the cosmic background radiation which permeates the universe. A message apparently sent from very near to the beginning of time. A fleet of autonomous gate seeding ships preceded Destiny, manufacturing and placing stargates on appropriate worlds from galaxy to galaxy across the universe so that as Destiny followed, the Ancient crew could investigate and resupply.

That is a huge, romantic, classic science fiction notion. It’s the sort of theme that drives the great works of science fiction, the quest to discover the great unknown, the desire to know the universe. It’s also the kind of thing that you just don’t often encounter in modern sci-fi writing.

I really like the Ancients, or rather; I really like the original SG-1 era conception of the Ancients as the first technologically/spiritually advanced human race. The super advanced lost race is another theme of classic and pulp science fiction that later was mostly discarded by writers in favor of the ancient aliens idea.
I find the super aliens thing a little boring. It’s too easy to attribute to them whatever a writer needs without any real consideration. The idea that there have been multiple evolutions of humanity on earth pulls at my imagination much more.

Consider the changes humanity has experienced in the paltry few thousands of years we have recorded history for today. What might the Ancients have considered, attempted and experienced in millions of years? What insights might civilizations that cover eons have arrived at? Tackling the big questions of life, the universe, and everything is what Science Fiction was born to do.
That, and saving space-babes from bug-eyed monsters with a ray gun.
The best sci-fi does both at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Ancients became less interesting later in the series, and with Atlantis. The writers made them just another super alien race from another galaxy with the whole Ori story line in the last two, regrettable seasons of SG-1. And Stargate Atlantis managed to make them more and more mundane and less magnificent with every appearance and reference.

Exploding tumor device anyone?

What I didn’t like about Universe.

I hate the cinematography. I loathe reality-tv shaky camera with a white hot fire. Pan left, pan right, zoom in, zoom out, focus, unfocus, refocus, half screen, this irritates the crap out of me. The steady-cam was invented for a reason folks. Camera gimmicks are there to distract you from the fact that there is no writing going on.

The inevitable musical montage scene. This is another gimmick to fill in for a lack of good writing or dialogue. I like a good music video as much as the next guy, but in a tv show there has to be a good reason for it. You just can’t do it every single episode and not look like you’re phoning it in. Also, using the pop music of the day rather than an appropriate instrumental severely dates the show.

Shaky cam and Maroon 5 are going to be the mullet and saxophones albatross around this shows neck a few years down the road.

What I disliked the most, however, was the characters themselves. As with the regurgitated Battlestar Galactica, I was unsympathetic to their plight because they were all such terrible people.

Science fiction is escapism and there is nothing wrong with that. The thing we are attempting to escape, or ascend from is the mundane world with its unending stream of small, mean problems. All the crap we have to deal with on a daily basis. Science fiction allows us to consider the greater possibilities, to dream of the awesome.

Stargate Universe, with the exception of Nicholas Rush, was completely populated by just the sort of petty, small, unimaginative people that I want to escape from in science fiction. You can have a few such characters, in fact they are needed to contrast and compare with the protagonists, but when every character is one of, “the wrong people”, I just can’t care what happens to the feckless disfunctionistas.

Now Rush wasn’t a likeable character or a cookie cutter good person or standard issue sci-fi hero either, but he was complex, subtle, and had motivations that were above and beyond the run of the mill. Rush was the only character who displayed awe at the ancient purpose of the Destiny. The only character who grasped the greater meaning of Destiny’s mission. He wasn’t quite amoral, and certainly not the “evil scientist”, but obviously gave greater weight to understanding than to the needs of the rest of humanity.

However, because there was no other characters in the cast remotely as complex or interesting as Rush, or anyone with principles to balance Rush’s all consuming craving for knowledge at any cost, there wasn’t any tension or direction to the show. There was no counterweight character of sufficient gravitas to balance Rush. When he, or Destiny itself weren’t on the screen, watching the rest of the cast interact was like sitting in a Wallmart and observing the dysfunction pass by.

I don’t want these people in my science fiction. I have to deal with them every day in real life.

By contrast, the cosmic grandeur of the Destiny, and the quest of the Ancients to understand the meaning of the signal from the beginning of time made the characters of Stargate Universe seem all that much more petty and small and unworthy to be on that ship.

In the final episode, the crew has to go into stasis to conserve power while the Destiny crosses the void between galaxies in order to avoid an enemy they cannot out fight. Kid slacker genius Eli volunteers to be the odd man out and stay awake to pilot Destiny and try and fix the last stasis tube for himself.

There is a last musical montage, which actually works well since it’s a simple piano piece and not whiny alt-rock, and a final shot with Eli standing on the observation deck watching space fly by as Destiny shifts into its faster than light drive.
Destiny vanishes into the distant void of extra galactic space with its crew frozen in time.

I thought this was the best possible ending for the show, all things considered. The idea of that ancient vessel continuing its journey of millions of years in silence towards an unknown destiny, with its crew in unchanging sleep, possibly for thousands of years to come, is perfectly in sync with the classic science fiction of mighty ideas I love. The greater Stargate mythos is itself in stasis for the foreseeable future and I’m alright with that.

The possibilities are again endless.


BlUsKrEEm said...

My wife calls SGU "the Sad Show." I really wanted to like the show. I'm a fan of more hard scifi, and it looked like that was what SGU was trying for, but it just got too sad. There was a tragedy every week it seemed. Before we ever got a chance to care about a character they were disabled, depressed, and / or dead. the constant dark mood of the show was even harder to enjoy given, as you pointed out, none of the characters were really likeable.

it was far from the only flaw in the show (The Keno and stone gimmicks were irritating from the get go,) but it was the glaring flaw that made it so difficult to watch. I wanted to like SGU, but it felt like Emo-Universe rather then the Hard Scifi I had thought it was promising.

Timeshadows said...

I've so much to say on this topic, I'll likely have to write a post about it...

I've been watching SPACE: 1999 lately, and it occurred to me that Moonbase Alpha and Destiny were very similar story and actual vehicles, constantly bringing their respective crews/citizens into new adventures.
--The writers decision to have 'edgier' characters in this version (SGU) did not help the choo-choo-train ride. Although, after not liking him for most of the show, Young kinda grew on my by the end, only once he'd been broken and started really pounding the hootch.

Rush was about the only redeeming character, but I was always aware of a subtext with his decisions that bothered me: Lots of folks have to die for progress tobe made; more so on our little lifeboat of planet earth.
--Moonbase Alpha's crew dealt with tragedy after tragedy and alien disguise and betrayal, with the same premise above clearly in focus, but the sense of Hope was never lost. With SGU, it never really seemed present at all.

I enjoyed the SGA characters much better, and there were plenty of character-study episodes (esp. Rodney's seasonal feature episode: a la The Shrine, etc.), and the strong female characters in SGA were far, far better than the 'wrong people' angle of SGU. Todd (Tot = Dead) was my favourite of the SGA characters. The best dialogue, too.

I'll stick with S: 1999, and occasionally pop in the fifth season SGA DVD. :D

Dr Rotwang said...

Can't -- agree -- any -- HARDER!

Brutorz Bill said...

I so tried to like this show, so very much wanted to but...

Hradek said...

This was the only Stargate show after the movie itself that I could stand. I view almost all of the characters in SGA and SG1 as bland and annoying. The SGU characters at least didn't get in the way of the sci-fi elements I, and seemingly you from your post, enjoyed.