Science fiction is an existential metaphor, that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said: “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”
Those words were uttered in an afterward at the end of the 200th episode of Stargate: SG1 by an guest actor in an otherwise comic storyline. For all intents and purposes, it is a throwaway by a non-recurring character, but I still tear up whenever I hear that line because it goes to the core of why I love science fiction. Many of the people involved in that episode, and most of the original series for that matter, are also involved in Stargate Universe, and if the premiere episode is any indication, the spirit of that attitude towards science fiction storytelling is alive and well.
This stage in the Stargate experience, coming after 10 years of the original SG1 series and five of the also excellent Atlantis, is something new. It is a Stargate that couldn’t have been made before the success of the dark and powerful Battlestar Galactica, and I’m sure a lot of the tone of this new show owes much to BSG’s legacy of gritty realism. But in a way, SGU hits even closer to home because its gritty realism is a lot closer to the reality we know.
If you don’t know your Stargate history, the basics are this:
- Millennia ago, an advanced race known as “The Ancients” created a network of stargates – portals through space – linking world all across our galaxy, and into the next.
- The Ancients ascended to become beings of pure intellect, and removed themselves from the material world, leaving behind their technology.
- Later on, a generally nasty race of parasites called the Goa’uld came along and mastered much of the Ancient technology, and started setting themselves up as gods wherever they went. Including stopping by Earth and adopting many of our ancient cultures so as to better rule us.
- We humans kicked them out way back in Egyptian times.
- In the 1920′s, we discovered a buried Stargate.
- In the 1990′s we figured out how to activate it.
- For the next dozen years or so, we explored our galaxy, and the next one over, fighting a whole batch of Goa’uld and other cosmic baddies, slowly gaining really cool technology and secretly using it to protect the planet, and the rest of the universe.
In very, very brief terms, that represents what Stargate: SG1 and Stargate Atlantis gave us: one of the longest-running and most richly-developed science fiction narratives ever created. Producers Brad Wright and Robert Cooper gave us over three hundred hours of programming, and a background of technology and galactic history to surpass pretty much anything else on TV or film. But the one thing you could always depend upon with Stargate was that the heroes – even if they died – would always win out. The Stargate of those two shows was always based on a heroic-epic model of storytelling: if a primary character was put in jeopardy, it would only last an episode or two, and then everything would be okay again (well, maybe it would take a season, like when Daniel Jackson died and ascended to become an Ancient himself for a while). It was the nature of episodic television, and that was okay.
Stargate Universe doesn’t seem to agree with that. Indeed, Wright and Cooper seem determined that SGU take strides beyond what we expect from episodic television.
Never under estimate your audience. They’re usually sensitive, intelligent people, who will respond positively to quality entertainment.
That’s another quote from “200” (it was a very meta episode), and also an idea that shines through in SGU’s premiere. The episode uses a very familiar back-and-forth narrative structure, showing us current events, and and jumping back to what set those events up. Typical television that uses this structure will invariably add screen graphics telling us “Two Days Ago,” or “Now,” because studio executives generally feel that viewers are idiots who can’t follow a non-linear narrative. SGU doesn’t do this. SGU starts in the present, in spectacular fashion as people escaping some kind of danger are flung out of a stargate into a dark room on a dark ship, often landing on top of each other. Then it pops back to show us some of the characters and their stories leading up to the scene, and THERE’S NO HAND-HOLDING! The narrative jumps just happen, and we get them. They make sense, they work, they have dramatic impact, and they make for good entertainment. That’s storytelling, and it’s a good sign that SGU respects its audience – all any good geek really wants. Well, that and some cool tech. Which SGU also has a-plenty.
What’s also very good about the premiere is how small it really is. The span of time that passes is really only hours in the lives of the characters. They are all brought together in one place, something really bad happens, and then they are thrown onto the Destiny, an Ancient ship traveling from galaxy to galaxy on a sort-of automated landlord’s tour of every stargate seeded across billions of lightyears of space. And between the start of the episode and the end, all they really achieve is that a bunch of people die, and they buy themselves about 24 hours to live. But what also happens is some tremendous character work that usually takes a show a season to establish and flesh out.
I don’t have the time to cover every character or actor, but I’ll list two standouts. The first is Robert Carlyle as Dr. Nicholas Rush. Rush is the brains behind the project to unlock the secret of the “ninth chevron” – basically figuring how to call really, really long-distance with a Stargate. He’s obsessed with the project, and knows that unlocking vast galactic mysteries is just past the next corner, which makes him a little unstable, a little untrustworthy, and yet vital to the survival of everyone who ends up on Destiny. Carlyle, best know in the states for The Full Monty, and his turn as a Bond baddie, just owns this role. The subtlety of his reactions and the guarded, damaged passion of his desire to not be hated by those who depend upon his genius for their survival is amazing to watch.
The second is David Blue as Eli Wallace, the “comic relief.” Well, there’s not a ton of comedy to the premiere of SGU (something that may turn some of the SG faithful away), but the Eli character delivers what there is as the everyman representing (in a way) we as viewers. But what’s really awesome is that he’s a true geek – indeed, his situation is one that many a geek has dreamed (or even role-played). In true Last Starfighter style, Eli is recruited to help the Stargate program after he solves a puzzle seeded in a popular videogame released to the public. He is the ideal of the geek thrust into the totally awesome sci-fi situation, and he handles it like we as geeks know we would: he steps up to the plate using his geeky know-how to help. And he takes pictures of everything with his iPhone.
The big question that hangs over all this is whether this is just a re-hash of Star Trek: Voyager, and will it suffer the same fate as Gilligan’s Spaceship: losing itself in alien-of-the-week stories and never daring to live up to its true narrative potential. Time will tell, but from the impressive achievements of the premiere, I’d say no. Stargate Universe has a rich destiny all its own, and is on a course to achieve it.
Stargate Universe premieres October 2nd on Syfy.