Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stargate: Universe (A Reaction)


Picture this: a mixed group of military and civilian personnel (including a senior politician from back home) brought together for a highly ceremonial occasion leap into the unknown depths of space to escape a devastating, planet-destroying surprise attack from orbit. They subsequently find themselves aboard a clunker of a spaceship, engaged in a desperate struggle to survive in which they are dependent on a British-accented scientist of doubtful reliability (who appears to be getting a message from Beyond); the civilians argue over control of the group with the military officers (one of which happens to be played by a three-named actor who was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit award for his performance in 1988's Stand and Deliver); said people also fight over whether to focus on getting home or cope with the situation at hand; and a crisis arises in which someone must be sacrificed to seal off part of the ship and thereby save the rest-all at the start of a trip which will hopefully get them to Earth.

It sounds astonishingly like the early hours of Battlestar Galactica (even before one gets to the pseudo-documentary style used for much of the camera work, or the heavy reliance on flashback, throughout the series), but it's pretty much what happened in the pilot of Stargate: Universe, which aired on the Sc-Fi (excuse me, SyFy) Channel this Friday, and is being aired again on it right now.

That there were similarities is hardly a surprise. When I first read about the show my first thought was of Star Trek: Voyager (and there is something of it here), but from the start the commercials hinted at this other direction, with their dark, tense, flashy look and feel (indeed, sitting at this computer with the TV on I'd hear someone shout "This ship is falling apart!" and expect to see Edward James Olmos's Commander Bill Adama, and then be surprised to find Lou Diamond Phillips's Colonel David Telford on the screen instead), and later, the promise of a good many baggage-heavy characters people will find it hard to like. (There is also somewhat more sex than previous entries in the Stargate franchise featured.) Even the acronym continuously flashed-SGU, just one letter away from being BSG-seemed to be exploiting a vague association with Galactica.

Still, that the new show went this far in following BSG's lead in the development of its premise and style (which show is being reinvented again?) did surprise me, and it makes me wonder: does this mean that BSG is now the template for future television space opera (at least, in the live-action North American market)?

I should make it clear that I didn't dislike this pilot (though I was surprised that we didn't find out anything about characters, locations, plot elements likely to figure in later episodes outside the little group of lost humans at the story's center), and expect to keep tuning in, at least for a while. However, given that BSG was a triumph of style (and cheap button-pushing) over substance (a point I'm not going to belabor here, having talked about it at length in the past), I don't think that bodes particularly well for the genre's vitality in the coming years, and this makes me wonder about the longer-term viability of even this series, which is in danger of just ending up BSG "Lite."

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