Pilot Review: Stargate Universe

Since Stargate Universe (SGU) was announced months and months ago as the successor to Stargate Atlantis I’ve been cautiously following the news and buzz about it. The creators say they want to make a Stargate that’s edgier and darker, one that learns from shows like Battlestar Galactica. They got off to a really good start with some impressive casting. I was surprised a Canadian sci-fi show could attract talent such as Robert Carlyle (surely most famous for Hamish Macbeth, but I guess also Trainspotting) and Ming-Na (ER). Most of the rest of the cast weren’t big names, but through interviews and blogs seemed to at bring the enthusiasm and energy I would expect of a Stargate cast.

The information that started coming out about the plot didn’t really grab me though. A slightly random group of people unexpectedly find themselves evacuated onto an Ancient ship cruising between galaxies. They must find some way to work together and maybe find a way home. So this is Stargate Voyager then? Also, Atlantis was supposed to be about a group of explorers trapped far from home, but they bottled out of that idea after a couple of seasons seemingly once they realised that surely by now the expedition would be out of ammo and batteries.

The trailers looked good, feeling a bit more grown up than the usual Stargate, even the music was used rock music instead of orchestral pieces and set a completely different tone. The trailer left me feeling excited and interested, but the two part pilot (technically it’s a three parter, but they only aired the first two parts together) left me feeling pretty unenthused and disappointed. It’s not that the show is bad at all, it’s thoroughly ‘ok’ and ‘acceptable’ and ‘serviceable’, none of these words indicating much in the way of powerful emotional response.

The large cast works pretty well together and there’s certainly plenty of material for relationships and conflict amongst the dozen or so characters that were featured. Robert Carlyle is impressively disconcerting, an extremely complex character on first appearance with dubious motivations. Some of the younger members of the group also do great jobs with characters completely out of their zones of experience, contrasting with the nonchalant attitudes of SG1 and Atlantis of “Oh yeah, just travelling to another planet, back for tea”.

The concept is also fine, it’s pretty basic but it gets the job done. It’s not original and it’s a bit contrived and rushed, but it’s perfectly acceptable. There’s a mechanism introduced for how the planet of the week can be introduced and again, it’s perfectly serviceable if maybe a little too easy as a plot device.

A whole bundle of stuff can be described in the same way – basic but functional, missing opportunities is to shine. I had hoped the musical style of the trailer might be continued, setting a different tone and style from the other Stargates, but it goes back to plain old orchestral stuff. The direction was utterly unremarkable except for a slightly tedious device to allow a kind of first person perspective in places (you’ll know it when you see it). I was a bit disappointed with the extraordinarily minimal grey set design, but again it makes sense. Most of what we see in the pilot is just dusty and grey utilitarian corridors, maybe once they get the lights working some character will appear.

I actually watched this pilot twice through before writing this and what grabbed me the second time was that the opening few minutes were really great. The characters arrive at speed through the Stargate, into an empty, dusty room; they had no idea where they were and the audience has no idea who they are. It’s brutal and interesting. But then they immediately backtrack into a flashback and there’s an immediate loss of adrenalin and this pattern continues through the episode. Like the worst episodes of Lost someone in the present would say something slightly cryptic, look meaningfully into the distance and ZING to flashback that immediately explains what they were thinking. What happened to the good old days where in order to understand a character’s back story the writers had to subtly interweave it with present day narrative and the audience had to pay attention?

Often when I watch things a second time I’ll spot flaws and irritations that I didn’t notice the first time, sadly with SGU I didn’t have to wait for the second viewing to have found plenty of frustrations. This pilot and concept has been in development a long time. I really don’t expect to watch this wanting to ask questions like “Why didn’t they just..?” or “what happened to the…?” every five minutes. The whole pilot was packed full of ridiculous dramatisations and writing tricks. By the fifth time someone was summoned away from their assigned task with “You need to come here and look at this” I was desperately wanting someone to just respond with “Kinda busy saving our lives, how about you provide me with a decent sit-rep and I’ll decide if it’s worth my time?” It’s sloppy, lazy writing and it happened over and over again.

The thing is, it’s all perfectly OK. Stargate has always been about good characters and fun adventures. SGU certainly has the former and the potential for the latter. It’s *not* Battlestar Galactica, and I really don’t want it to be. I watched Battlestar because it was absolutely superb, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it and was glad (in a satisfied and exhausted way) when it closed after five seasons. I watched 15 seasons of SG1 and Atlantis because I enjoyed them, not because I thought it was amazing. If Stargate Universe tries to be good, but not necessarily enjoyable, I think it’s going to end up being mediocre and dull and fall on its arse.

Links: Official site at MGM, imdb, TV.com
TV Squad review, CliqueClack review

Stargate Universe is on at 8pm, this Tuesday (6th) on Sky1 (repeated on Wednesday on Sky2)

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