Stargate Universe brings a fresh look to a relatively young television genre: dark sci-fi. Battlestar Galactica went there but overreached, being a little too dark for a lot of people -- this writer included to a degree -- but SGU seems to have found the sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
Pain borne of great loss and sacrifice, confusion, fear, questioning who the people around you really are when it matters most, and finally achieving that moment we can all identify with just after the storm, when you're supremely grateful that everything is finally going to be okay, if only for a little while.
That is Stargate Universe in a nutshell, and this is my review.
As I understood it, Ron Moore once said that Star Trek: Voyager never really took itself seriously. The characters weren't true to their situation and the situation wasn't honest to the viewers. I think he was right, but he went a little bit too far in the other direction when re-imagining BSG, placing too much emphasis on the gritty reality while seeming to forget the amazing capacity of people not to be overcome and then consumed by it.
In that respect, SGU gets something right that's difficult to do well. Real people, even people we like, eventually do things or say things we disagree with. Happens all the time. On television it can make some characters hard to identify with, especially on a series where there are no hero archetypes. And with SGU, there really aren't any. There aren't characters that automatically try to do the "right thing" because in their world, not so unlike our own, it's not that obvious what the "right thing" is.
In previous franchise series, there were always points of disagreement on what to do in any given situation, but they were usually resolved with a short and convincing speech. If the decision turned out to be a bad one, there were rarely any lasting repercussions for that person (just as rare were decisions that turned out badly to begin with.) Part of that was due to those shows being episodic+ (meaning each episode was self contained, but did contribute to a large ongoing story without relying on it entirely). Part of it was just having somewhat cliched characters that hardly ever screwed up.
Remember when McKay destroyed an entire solar system after Sheppard staked his credibility on that not happening? Did anyone stop trusting him after that? Did he lose any responsibilities, were there any real repercussions beyond those we saw at the end of the episode in exposition?
If characters don't screw up, you're cheating yourself of the opportunity to document their redemption. In his book The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, J. Michael Straczynski discussed how important redemption is to good drama. If you can do redemption well, he wrote, you'll work forever.
And Stargate fans ought to keenly aware of how important that concept is. Teal'c in SG-1, and G'Kar in Babylon 5, are two characters that are much loved by fans precisely because of who they were, and who they would eventually become.
But you can't experience that journey if your characters don't make mistakes and have flaws to begin with. With respect to people who seem to shy away from this kind of storytelling, you're missing out. Universe is a hugely fertile ground overflowing with people in desperate need of redemption. Some may find it, others probably wont.
Not every story has a happy ending and that's not always a bad thing, either.
"That was extremely unsatisfying." Before I begin trying to explain what you're going to see, without ruining it for you, I want to address a couple of issues that cropped up from my "first impression" post. Some people have decided that my first impression was a literal interpretation that supported and vindicated their worst fears, and they will not watch SGU because of it. I'd like to think that anyone who would make up their mind about a TV show - or a book, movie, game, or fantastic new salad recipe - before having seen it, is not going to be open to having their mind changed by me or anyone else.
So no harm, no foul, right?
But it doesn't feel that way, so please allow me to clarify two things.
First impressions are important but hardly ever give you the full picture. The things that resonate with you the most are what you tend to remember the strongest. I'm a drama wonk, and there's a lot in this show that resonates with me on that wavelength, so that's what I remembered the strongest, and so that's what made it into my first post. But contrary to what I said earlier this week, there actually are some funny moments in the SGU pilot. Not as many as you might like, and maybe not as many as you might see later on, but that actually tracks because of the rather serious events happening in this pilot.
As one master of drama wrote a few years ago, there's not a lot of comedy to be found in drug addiction or drunk driving. I'm sure you understand what he meant and how it applies to this pilot.
That said, I laughed far more on my second viewing than I did the first time.. I figured something like that would happen, which is why I wanted to watch "Air" again before writing this review. You always miss stuff no matter how closely you pay attention. In fact, sometimes you what you miss is a direct result of that. If you look at a painting closely enough, you can see actually see the texture of the canvas beneath the paint, which is informative and perhaps interesting to some, but you can't see the beauty and the meaning until you stand back and look at the whole thing from a distance.
The funny comes when you're just along for the ride, and in defense of myself, I wasn't juts along for the ride. I'm in this game to review TV shows like this so I can't just sit back and enjoy it the first time.
David Blue has several funny moments throughout most of the pilot and I suspect that this will continue into the regular season. He's a wonderfully talented actor with a very keen understanding of how mannerisms can take acting to a whole new level. While it's true that SGU is darker than previous series, it's not accurate to say - as I did based on my first impression - that the humor is simply gone.
It's just that going on a first impression, you may very well overlook it the way that I did. Maybe not, since everybody is different. I'm not walking back my original statement and no, I haven't been influenced by SyFy, MGM, or anyone else. They did bring the funny, I promise.
Anyone "fearing the worst" should be pleasantly surprised. Although they aren't quite up to his level - that's not an insult, hardly anyone is, truthfully -- Joss Whedon is one of the masters of mixing drama, humor, and in recent times, science fiction. Firefly is the best example of hitting the right balance between all three with a running start to boot. SGU is a little less funny and a lot darker than Firefly, but no where near what BSG did. I'd call it closer to Firefly than BSG when it comes to content, and that's a huge compliment.
It plays well for what it is, it really does.
And for the second issue, yes, there is a sex scene in Air. It takes place in a storage closet and lasts approximately 22 seconds. You can't see anything and it's not all that big of a deal. It's the only scene like it in the entire hour-and-a-half pilot, and in context, it makes far more sense to acknowledge reality than it does to hide it. In my mind, not showing young adults doing their thing is like refusing to show a toilet or bathroom in a sci-fi show.
Everybody does it, it's time to grow up a little bit here.
Update - Supposedly Apple is going to make parts 1 & 2 of "Air" available for free on iTunes at this link, but the link won't work until sometime on the morning of October 3rd. Info from this tweet, that's all I know.