Stargate Universe -- An early look
by Mike Moody, posted Sep 29th 2009 2:02PM
When word broke that the Stargate franchise was moving into darker territory with Stargate Universe, fan reaction ranged from cautiously optimistic to downright angry. The anger mostly came from fans who felt jilted by Syfy's sudden cancellation of the veteran show Stargate Atlantis (it didn't help that Syfy announced the new series in a press release shortly after announcing the cancellation of Atlantis). To some, it seemed like the fan favorite (Atlantis) had to die so the edgy new experiment (Universe) could live.
Universe –- a fine, scrappy show packed with great actors – might now be facing an uphill battle with some of its target audience members. Stargate fans unwilling to give the show a chance should know one thing: The franchise's spirit of adventure remains intact in the first three episodes of Universe. It is different and darker than Stargate: SG-1 and Atlantis – even blatantly dreary at times – but it's still Stargate.
The series stars David Blue as Eli Wallace, a pajama pants-wearing slacker genius who, by accident, unlocks the latest missing key to Stargate travel. As portrayed by Blue, Eli is a sardonic but loveable manchild who reacts with fanboy delight at the sight of the Stargate. Thankfully, the character is a lot less clichéd and grating than he sounds (and he's not just Rodney McKay minus fifteen years).
Eli ditches his basement-dwelling lifestyle to join Stargate Command and Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who are trying to unlock the Stargate's ninth chevron, which will allow man to boldly go ... you get the idea. Things go horribly wrong when Eli, Rush and a team of military personnel and civilians are trapped on an Ancient ship, the Destiny, with no way to return home. The ship, which is almost falling apart, is programmed to keep jumping to new worlds on the far end of the universe.
The two-hour premiere, "Air," is a fine start full of mystery, suspense and humor, but it's far from superb. After a jolting first few minutes, things start to drag as the story unfolds in a non-linear narrative, a device relatively new to the franchise. The Universe producers have listed Lost, and Battlestar Galactica as influences, and the ghosts of those shows live on here. The characters' lives unfold in flashback, just like Lost, and the Destiny is all aged metal and narrow grey corridors, not unlike the Galactica.
Universe is shot mostly with handheld cameras to give it a documentary quality that sets it apart from the stagey look of SG-1 and Atlantis. Thankfully, the show's downbeat and realistic tone and its themes of survival and isolation match the set and filmmaking style. Also new to the franchise is an emphasis on character drama and relationships. Luckily, the producers have assembled an great team of actors to flesh out the large cast of characters.
Carlyle is excellent as Rush (no surprise there.) The veteran indie film actor turns in a sly, twisty performance as the show's seemingly duplicitous mad scientist. Rush's obsession with traveling to the ninth chevron address is what gets everyone in trouble. From then on, he operates on an island of arrogance and self-serving ideas, putting him in direct conflict with everyone else aboard the Destiny.
The supporting cast members – including Elyse Levesque, Justin Louis, Ming-Na, and Brian J. Smith – add depth to their sometimes thinly drawn roles. Smith is a standout as Matthew Scott, a younger and less romanticized version of Atlantis' John Sheppard. (Lou Diamond Phillips' Colonel Telford only shows up for a few minutes in the premiere and is given a little more screen time in episode three.)
Stargate Universe might signal a bold leap in a new direction for the Stargate franchise, but it's nothing most TV addicts – especially sci-fi fans -- haven't seen before. Still, the show promises adventure and character drama all wrapped up in a big, geeky-friendly package. What's not to love about that?
Stargate Universe premieres Friday at 9 PM on Syfy.