Stargate Universe

The newest iteration of the Stargate franchise is out. I’ve seen the first four episodes, and the most important thing I can say is: so far, no space vampires.

The Problems with Stargate Atlantis

The pity about Stargate Atlantis was that despite having a stronger cast, better production design, and better special effects technology that the original series, it was crippled by the lack of a really good crucible. The Wraith and Ancient Replicators were certainly as dangerous as anything the SG-1 folk had to deal with, but they were basically “ugly”. The Wraith were essentially identical to Buffy’s vampires in spaceships and — worst of all — they were vampires, while the Ancient Replicators were a lame copy of the much creepier SG-1 Replicators and for some unknown reason looked like dorks. (There is of course the great SF tradition of alien civilizations all dressing alike, but the Ancient Replicators took this one step further and apparently dressed exactly the same way for tens of thousands of years.)

It follows that most of the best bits of Stargate Atlantis simply didn’t involve the major bad guys, because the major bad guys were dorks. The most interesting bad guys — the Genii (I had to look that up, yay Wikipedia) — were humans slightly less technically and morally advanced than us. But essentially, the show was a good cast, production design, and basic setup searching for a good story. If only the Ori had been in Pegasus galaxy. (Somewhat ironically, the Ori were the best thing to happen to SG-1 in about four seasons — but as perhaps the most overtly anti-Christian thing I’ve ever seen on US TV outside of Southpark, they may have proved SG-1’s undoing.)

Why SG-1 Rocked

I avoided SG-1 for years after it came out because (a) I’m a snob, (b) I didn’t much care for the movie Stargate, (c) I despised the idea of adapting movies to TV series, and — mostly — (d) I associated Richard Dean Andersen with MacGyver. It was with great surprise that, when I moved to the US and started being deluged with SG-1 reruns on cable TV that I realized SG-1 was — without doubt — the best SF series (all taken with all) ever made — at the time. Sure there had been far more ambitious shows (Babylon-5), zanier shows (Farscape), and shows with far greater flashes of genius (Dr. Who, Blake’s 7), but all of these had been deeply flawed in terms of acting, production value, consistency, and casting. Star Trek and its follow-ups were basically garbage with the occasional glint of gold — and the best episodes were usually those that essentially spat in the eye of the setting.

SG-1’s superiority to earlier SF shows rested in very simple virtues, which can be summed up as “it’s a lot like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with aliens and interplanetary travel”. (Indeed, taken as science fiction, Buffy would give SG-1 a run for its money.) The beauty of Buffy was that it was fundamentally well put together (good writing and acting), didn’t take itself too seriously, picked a fairly simple and limited premise — largely grounded in the real world — and stuck to it, and tried to be internally consistent. SG-1 is exactly the same — if you can drop your anti-MacGyver prejudice, Richard Dean Andersen is actually a very entertaining actor and the show was generally well-cast, the writers are good and know how to make fun of themselves and “hang hats” on glaring plot problems, it’s not set in the future so they don’t need to introduce a complex speculative setting (or, like Star Trek, fail to), and they wouldn’t introduce a new ultimate weapon in episode 10, and then forget they had it in episode 11.

And for our next trick…

Stargate Universe is an odd beast in that it is set just after the other two series (one spanning ten seasons and three movies) and neither ever forgot a single thing, so the universe starts out mind-bogglingly rich and complex by any standards. The “team” (something of a haphazard collection of refugees) starts equipped with a key plot item from SG-1 (which, mysteriously, did not get used by the Atlantis folks) allowing them to remain in contact with Earth even while not being able to return (or open a connection of any kind). The way this item is employed is — from the beginning — ingenious and subtle in a way that you would only expect of a concept that was truly well-worn in any other show. I can’t speak as someone who hasn’t seen every episode of the other shows so I don’t know how opaque SGU will be for the newcomer — but then perhaps this isn’t something we need to worry about in a world of DVD box sets and Hulu.

It’s clear that the SGU writers set out to create a much grittier and more human series than its predecessors.  The influence of BSG (by which I mean the Battlestar Galactica remake) are everywhere — from “documentary style SFX” to actual sexual and political tension. (Atlantis was grittier than SG-1 in its way, but never really achieved gravitas because the arc plots and major enemies were so lame.) SGU’s huge ensemble cast is comprises a scientist who makes Rodney McCay seem like a social butterfly (while not coming across as a caricature), a diverse group of military and civilians, and an unemployed college — sorry MIT — dropout who [minor spoiler alert!] solved a puzzle posed in an MMORPG that turns out to have been an alien code no-one in SGC could figure out who was thus recruited by Jack O’Neill (all the original — living — SG-1 alumni appear in the pilot) [end minor spoiler]. The last character could easily be the show’s Wesley Crusher but instead gives the writers a chance to inject some much-needed lightness into the dialog and provides a foil for exposition.

One thing SGU has not lacked for thus far is crucibles. Let’s just say that the way the series has kicked off is what the writers of Star Trek: Voyager or the execrable Defying Gravity might have dreamed of doing if they had the talent to even dream of doing it.  It’s also nice to see pretty decent science dominating the plot of each episode (as with Buffy you need to accept there are certain extra Laws of Nature and everything else works as expected — pretty much the definition of solid SF). The first four episodes have been generally excellent, which is to say that the [spoiler!] “weirdly omniscient alien whirlwind” [end spoiler] episode sucked less than it sounds, and the other three were actually excellent. It’s nice to see SciFi Syfy (WTF?) actually making a science fiction series again (no, Eureka does not count) — in fact our TiVo is actually missing shows because there’s so much good stuff — and Pysch — on Friday nights again.

So, if you liked BSG or SG-1, you’ll probably like SGU. If you liked them both, you’ll definitely like it. At least episodes 1, 2, and 4.

P.S. All of The Dresden Files is viewable on Hulu and it’s one of those great series cancelled after one season.