Review: The First Three Hours Of ‘Stargate Universe’

The opening three part premiere of Stargate Universe feels less like a weekly TV series and much more like the beginning of a twenty part long form story. Everything about the show just seems bigger and more expansive, even though most scenes are small and intimate. In another seeming contradiction, from the opening shots this show seems nothing like the previous Stargate shows, yet it is firmly entrenched within the greater Stargate mythos and relies on previously mentioned mythology almost as much as Stargate Atlantis did. The premise isn’t overly new; a group of people are stranded on a starship far from home with little hope of ever returning. However, the devil is in the details and, in some cases, the characters in this gripping drama. Stargate Universe falls somewhere between Star Trek: Voyager‘s business-as-usual optimism and Battlestar Galactica‘s ever increasing post-apocalyptic grimness. Thanks to the latter show, not to mention Firefly, science-fiction television series have grown past the enthusiastic, gorgeous starship crew experiencing a new alien (yet jarringly familiar) race each week to engaging and serialized human dramas that just happen to be in a quasi-futuristic setting. SGU shows exactly how that works in the Stargate universe in a very compelling way.

Stargate Universe has one of the finest ensemble casts I’ve seen in a long time. When someone of the caliber of Robert Carlyle is cast in a lead role there is always the concern that they will overshadow the others (John Noble through most of Fringe‘s first season is an excellent example of that). Here all worries are quickly dispelled as every actor that shares a scene with Carlyle easily holds their own and that amazing acting continues when he is absent. Hell, even the background characters that have one or two lines really give their all. It is very apparent that the cast are on equal footing in their performances and they make each and every scene a joy to watch. As the show unfolds it is clear that there is more to each character than what we see on the surface and I look forward to learning more about them.

Robert Carlyle’s Dr. Nicholas Rush is one of the people that you probably wouldn’t be able to relate to in real life. The fact that he never really seems to fit in with the group at large or any of the other characters individually also makes you want to know what makes him tick. There are some hints here and there that he has known a great personal tragedy, but there are times you never know if he is doing things for the greater good or to satisfy his own insatiable curiosity. He may be the only one that can figure out how to get them all home, but his actions make you wonder if he’s even interested in that. My favorite scene with Rush is one in which a character emotionally and quietly implores Rush to find a way to get them home and his reaction, looking into the other character’s eyes and simply asking “What makes you think I won’t try?” is just an amazing moment.

Of course, being the comic book/sci-fi/computer nerd that I am, David Blue’s Eli Wallace is the uber-geek I can only aspire to be. He, like Rush, gets swept up in the excitement of being on a starship, but events conspire to starkly remind him of just how dire their situation is. It is very interesting that Wallace bonds not with the like-minded doctor, but instead with Brian J. Smith’s Lt. Matthew Scott. It’s probably not all that surprising considering that both men are around the same age and new not only to the idea of the Stargate program, but also to the whole idea of spaceships and alien worlds. They quickly become like brothers in a way. Scott, while being a junior officer, quickly steps up into a leadership role once they are all aboard Destiny, the Ancient’s ship our cast gets marooned on. Being in charge is not something Lt. Scott is overly comfortable with, so it’s fortunate for him that Col. Everett Young (Justin Louis), gravely injured during their arrival, recovers enough to take command again.

During the attack that lead to the evacuation to the Destiny Col. Young released Master Sergeant Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith) from the brig to help fight. It is unknown why Greer was locked up, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a hot-headed Marine that may also be slightly erratic. The attack also caused the death of the senior medical officer leaving Lt. Tamara (T.J.) Johansen (Alaina Huffman) the most medically experienced person amongst the unwilling Destiny crew. She handles her increased responsibility well, but not entirely willingly. Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque) is the daughter of Senator Armstrong (Guest-star Christopher McDonald) and the first to know personal tragedy due to the new situation. The fact that she gets to beat up Dr. Rush and nearly out-acts Carlyle in that scene should let you know that both character and actress are not to be taken lightly. Rounding out the regular cast are Ming-Na as IOA accountant Camille Wray and Lou Diamond Phillips as Col. David Telford, an experienced officer and excellent F-302 pilot. We don’t get a lot of information on these last two initially and they are almost in the background for most of the premiere, but expect them to get a lot of the spotlight as the series progresses. They still get some great screen time and that only leaves you with wanting to know more.

This wouldn’t be a true Stargate series if we didn’t see some familiar faces from the past. We get to see three-fourths of the original SG-1, General Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson), Col. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) and Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), with Daniel’s cameo possibly the most humorous. There are three other quick appearances that will make long-time fans smile and the big bad that destroys the Icarus Base that our main characters must flee is a group that carries over from Stargate SG-1. Getting snippets of where our old favorites are now only makes the wait for a new SG-1 movie all the more agonizing. I won’t tell you everyone’s status quo as it is more rewarding to see for yourself. Suffice to say, there are a couple of moments that will make you smile.

The episodes I saw comprise the three-part opening entitled “Air” and were written by Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright and directed by Andy Mikita. Both the writers and the director are veterans of the previous two series in the franchise, but much like the actors, really give their all and make it all appear shiny and new. These three gentlemen know how to tell a story and present not only perhaps the finest three Stargate episodes ever, but some of the best dramatic television. The story is crisp and perfectly paced with dialogue that snaps and, where appropriate, is emotionally intense. They eschew cliches, except when they possibly self-deprecatingly point them out and really give the sense of propelling a known franchise to a whole new level. Mikita makes masterful use of the expansive starship set and is as expert with dark spaces and shadows as he is with light. There isn’t anytime where what you’re seeing looks or feels like anything you’ve seen before. Adding to all of this is Joel Goldsmith’s wonderful, and sometimes haunting, score that accents every scene it’s used in and also manages to sound refreshingly new.

As if you couldn’t tell, I love this show. This is a very strong and exciting debut and if the following seventeen hours build upon the high quality presented here then we are all in for one hell of a season. Stargate Universe would be the series I see as the spiritual successor to Battlestar Galactica except that I see it surpassing the previous Syfy magnum opus in that it is not cruel or unnecessarily grim. On all levels I would say that this is the finest three hours that Syfy has produced to date and considering that includes the likes of Farscape, Eureka, the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, Sanctuary and the previous two Stargate series, take that as you will. However, I recommend this series to not only Stargate and science-fiction fans, but to everyone who loves well executed drama. I’ve been purposely vague about the details of these first three episodes as I really think it’s better served if you see it all for yourself the first time. This show deserves not only you watching it, but you doing so with no expectations and no advanced story details. Having said that, ten minutes in and you’ll be hooked.

Stargate Universe premieres Friday, October 2nd at 9:00PM on Syfy.

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