Stargate Universe review (Part 2); "This is not a game."

by Paul William Tenny

Stargate Universe: "This is not a game.""You only think you know what it says on this screen because I embedded a rudimentary version of the Ancient language into the game. This is not a game."

Since I'm not 100% aware of what you know and don't know, anyone averse to spoilers should proceed with caution. You have been warned.

The series premise is simple enough. The Ancients of Stargate mythos built a rather large ship that travels the unknown universe trailing a series of other ships which find habitable planets to put Stargates on. The main series cast, along with a lot of guest stars and extras, get stuck on this ship out of sheer desperation. Unlike with SG-1 and SGA, a lot of these people were not a part of the planned expedition, and hardly anyone actually wants to be stuck where they end up. The level of trust you're used to seeing simply doesn't exist here. Confidence in the abilities of your friends to have your back and get done what needs to be done is inherent to a team, but not being a team, and most certainly not being friends, that dynamic simply isn't the same with this group of people.
If anything, that could be said to be the biggest difference between SGU and the others. A lot of what they say, do, and how the stories play out are a direct result of how these people interact, which is true of any show.

The pilot begins with these people arriving on the Destiny, it then stays with them for a short time, and spends the next 43 minutes or so bouncing back and forth between "now", on the Destiny, and the last few weeks/days that lead up to their arrival. Most of the flashbacks are informative and some are required to understand some preexisting relationships between characters, but not everything is explained. I think the ratio of flashback-to-real time is appropriate and not at all distracting once you get used to it.

It's not like Lost, though, in that most flashbacks explain situation, rather than purely existing to establish character back story. They aren't boring, in other words.

And it doesn't last forever. The further into part 1 you get, the fewer flashbacks you have to deal with, until part 3, when there are only two I think, and they deal specifically with one character's motivation. Those flashbacks and their ramifications, I think, were perhaps the weakest part of the pilot. They were so blunt that you can't help but feel like you were being hit over the head, they were just short of having somebody wad up the script and stuff it into your mouth. Subtlety is in short supply at this point, but it's a small complaint overall.

I have no idea if the entire series will have flashbacks or not, but it should play well either way.

Again, I have to warn you about spoilers. I can't continue without telling you at least something about what happens in Air. I've gotten as far as I can with this SGA/SG-1 vs SGU differences meta-discussion. If you want to go into SGU fresh, you should stop right here.

The Destiny has very serious, long-term problems. Some people grasp the gravity of the situation, but not all of them are on the same page on what to do. If this were SGA, McKay would be allowed to do virtually anything he wanted without question - to the contrary of SGU, he'd naturally and simply be ordered to fix it all and make it snappy. That works if you trust that someone like McKay would do the right thing for the right reason, but what if this were someone that didn't care about you, or seemingly anyone else?

What if they seemed to only be out to save their own butt?

Would you let them do something that might have drastically negative consequences? Would you even leave them alone? Would you pull together for group moral, or constantly watch your back and question motives?

Fixing a broken ship suddenly doesn't seem so simple anymore.

If the characters in this series are more real and true to the life we know and understand, then so is everything else. It always struck me as silly that Atlantis, being thousands of years old, for all practical purposes still functioned reasonably well. This, despite living in our world where a modern computer hard drive wont last five years in most cases, seemed absurd -- Ancient technology or not -- nothing lasts forever.

How far the producers have gone with this concept isn't entirely clear, but in the pilot, you've got serious problems that don't have simple McKay/Carter style solutions. Reroute a little power here, turn a Puddle Jumper's cloak into a shield there, use a little Asgard ingenuity, go on a mission and discover the magical Ancient weapon that will save the day and bam, problem solved!

Well, not so much.

Since this show is character driven, I wouldn't say that every episode will be a the ship-is-broken-again-of-the-week deal, but it's hardly similar to SGA where you're stepping into a 10,000 year old city/ship that looks and functions like it could have been fabricated a couple of years ago.

The Destiny is rather like a car that has been rusting away in a junkyard for the better part of the last half century. That it still functions at all is a testament to the technological prowess of the Ancients, but as is true in real life, that only goes so far. The perception that SGU was going to be 90210 in space is strongly misguided at best and this is a big reason why. Different people, different setting, different goals, and certainly different obstacles.

In 90210, people were just kind of living there, doing their thing, and the series chronicled their interactions. None of them were suddenly thrown inconceivably far from their friends and family, stuck in a place that could kill them in minutes.

Air deals with one of these ship-based problems and the entire third part is spent off-ship searching for a solution that will keep them all alive, but not even for a known length of time. I'm pretty sure they never had to do that on 90210, but I could be mistaken.

Despite being three parts long, there isn't a lot of time to introduce everyone properly in the pilot. Ming-Na's character is seen a few times, but generally has little to say or do. That is largely the result of the story, not the series. You have a finite amount of time to set things up in a pilot and even less time to form a coherent story that sets the pace for everything that comes after.

Doing this successfully is a huge accomplishment that shouldn't be taken for granted.

So don't be disappointed if not everyone gets a lot of screen time right away, that'll come eventually. I wanted to see a lot more of Lou Diamond Phillips, but I didn't really get what I wanted either.

The first two parts of Air which you'll see on October 2nd will leave you at a cliff hanger. The third part, which airs the following week, will resolve the pilot but not immediately give you a clue about what will come next. Not entirely, and you'll see what I mean by that when it airs.

Stargate Universe: "We're here. That happened.""We're here. That happened."
The music for Stargate Universe is not quite what you're used to, although it is still composed by Joel Goldsmith, and is still a very moving, high quality score. But that's not all there is to SGU. Like a lot of contemporary dramas - at least at the end of Air - there is a song that plays over a multi-location scene; a montage if you will. While it might have seemed out of place for Atlantis and SG-1, it fits perfectly with Universe. With the song they chose and the moment it plays, it all fits very nicely.

If you're not a fan of that sort of thing, then it probably won't seem any worse than any other show, and like the sex scene, it's certainly not worth boycotting a 1.5 hour pilot over 20-30 seconds of something you don't like. Chances are even if you love this show, there will be a scene or two that amounts to more than 22 seconds that you don't care for anyway. But if you dig it, then you'll really dig it here.

There's nothing I can say to someone who has already made up their mind in the end. I would hope though, that most people are open to trying something new, because contrary to Internet myth, this is still Stargate. Even I said that this isn't your daddy's Stargate a few days ago, but like Ron Moore with BSG, I was overreaching. I was trying to sell the difference a little too hard - to give people realistic expectations of what they were getting - without being fair to the similarities.

And to be perfectly fair to the hundreds of people pouring their lives into creating this show, they've hardly had a chance to even decide what this show will be. The first season hasn't even finished shooting yet. How can fans and critics declare what a show is or isn't, when a very significant part of that show still doesn't even exist yet?

This critic loved SG-1, loved SGA, and even loved the original Dean Devlin film. If Devlin made the sequel that he's been wanting to make for years, I'd go see that, too. But I'm hardly a fanboy. I've been very critical of Atlantis before and I wont hesitate to be critical of Stargate Universe, either.

That said, I really like this show, and I'm pretty sure that given a chance, you'll like it too.

Regardless of personal taste, the visual quality of Air is amazing, and it's a pretty darn good story to boot. As far as these things go, the SGU people on all levels have a lot to be proud of. They've done some amazing work that should be acknowledged even if this show isn't your cup of tea. Hard work pays off, and in SGU, pays off in a spectacular way.

Please give it a chance.

You can read part 1 of this special feature 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.
in Feature, Television


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You know, I was contemplating watching this one, but after reading your review, I don't think I'll bother. It sounds incredibly tedious.
Yes, it appears to require a certain intellectual investment you may not be in a position to make. Better stick with that dancing show.:)
overall this one like SG-1 back in the day might grow on me after some time. i dont want it to be about total despair but i also dont want them celebrating their success by having sex in closets. what made SG-1 and SGA great was having the characters come out of tough situations with a smile on their face, they made it seem profound somehow as though they made a giant leap forward in each episode. they were unrealistic however very fun to watch, like a serial where you get to watch your favorite hero defeat the bad guys while still maintaining his cool.

not to be consumed with frustrations over this new direction for the franchise, i will just think to myself that thanks to SGCs success with bad guys in the past, now there arent any left for our heros to do battle with and thats why SGU deals with different problems. but i have no doubt in my mind the writers will at some point go back to creating villains similar to the ones that plagued the MW and Pegasus galaxy. because these writers like that stuff, or else they would have not done it for all those years. it sounds naive of me but i really believe that. for now though i'll take what i can get and try to fall in love with these new characters.
Oh Capt. Harlock, I couldn't stop laughing at your comment. Trying to pass this show off as intellectually deep and topping it off with a little ad hominem? Trolling gold, sir! Your depth is well suited to this site!
It would have been nicer to read this review without all the pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasewatchtheshow smeared throughout it. The desperation is rather off-putting.
Thanks for the early review, Paul! I'm very much looking forward to watching the premiere of SGU.

Like you said: If it's not your cup of tea, that's fine. But please give it a try before you decide.
yeah Tenny i dont think saying "please watch" will change the minds of those angry fans. you couldve said instead that this is a show no stargate fan should ever miss or something like that, that way it will appear more unbiased. so your plea is not needed because the article should speak for itself. i know the "Please give it a chance" was directed at those angry fans but honestly TPTB dont want em, they represent a small number of the general audience so i wouldve liked the article better if it was catered towards non-fans.

This was the first review I've read of SGU that actually explained WHY this new series did the things it did: more realistic, 'darker', etc.

I appreciated that! The review was spot-on, using LOGIC rather than fan-boy pessimism or over-reaction. I loved SGA too, but I constantly was banging my head on the desk by the OVER USE of HUMOR! I'm sorry, but trapped on a life-sucking enemy ship in prison is NOT a time for humor 98% of the time. At some points during Stargate, it was like the writers were trying to beat eachother out with who could come up with the best 'humor line of the week'.

I loved BSG, but thought it looked at humanity generally so pessimistically that it did go too far.

I have been so incredibly excited about SGU because while SGA was too far in the 'everyone is a hero direction' and BSG was too far in the 'everything sucks' direction that SGU combines the BEST of BOTH worlds! And then throws in an amazing storyline with a great cast! How could anyone that understands what REAL science fiction at least be a little be intrigued by that? Sci-Fi at its finest explores how humanity acts and treats eachother in fantastic situations.

At times there is a humor, but a lot of the time there is also struggle - I want a show that will adequetly portray how people would actually react in some incredible circumstances. Long Live the Stargate Franchise!
Again, the same question, which episode are these screencaps from?

Just wanted to say, about the whole hard drives hardly last five years these days...and it's not realistic to see Atlantis working. Well, go back 20 years ago, and it was nit realistic to see a car last more then 100,000 miles. My car now has almost 200,000 miles and it still chugs along nicely, besides a few kinks here and there. Now put that into prospective -- The Ancients, when they built something, it wasn't for profit or anything like that, it was a eastern way of doing things -- do it right the first time, never have to do it again.

But looking at the Destiny and Atlantis, it's easy to see why one is falling apart and another isn't. Atlantis was hiding all these years under a shield while Destiny was fling in space -- probably been attacked quite a few times -- and assuming it hardly gets breaks, it's no wonder it's falling apart!

See, it's two different situations and both, in the world of Stargate at least, is somewhat possible. Good review btw ;-).
Well I'm a veteran of the original movie, SG-1 and Atlantis. I'm also a fan of Battlestar Galactica, but I found much of BSG too dark and too depressing. Well, I loved every minute of the Universe pilot (Air parts 1 and 2) - and no way was it too dark or depressing. Yes, it is a desperate situation they've been thrown in to....and no, they don't seem to have a too-good-to-be-true genius like Rodney McKay there to save the day. This all makes it more believable in my book. I think it is exactly what the franchise needed. Star Trek killed itself going over the same old ground and I would have been very dismayed if Wright & Cooper had done a Berman & Braga and brought out another series along the lines of SG-1 and Atlantis. Yes, Universe more than tips its hat in the direction of BSG, but when it is a show worthy of this level of flattery, as BSG was, then in my book it is no bad thing. Especially when it seems that Wright & Cooper also knew that BSG was too dark and seem intent on not making the same mistake. They have struck the balance that was needed between what we're already used to and the good parts of BSG. I can't wait for part 3.

If you think the ability of this production team will suddenly lose its ability to write for characters that make you care about them, then I think you'll be in for a shock. It may take longer for some, but I already have an emotional interest in the fortunes of more than a few of the characters of 'Universe' - particularly Eli, Chloe and Everett (I liked these guys almost instantly). I'm also transfixed by Rush, who is already living up to the promise of being a character you will love and hate in equal measure. Robert Carlyle is one amazing actor and we 'Gaters' should consider ourselves lucky he's on board. Give it time, folks, this is going to get rather damn good.

Oh, and if there are a few Bible belt American moms not letting their kids watch because of a 22 second sex scene, I couldn't care less. Sex is a part of life, to ignore it is stupid beyond belief. Besides, the sex scene in the pilot was used to make it look real, not as a gimmick, and they did it without gratuitous nudity. Well done.
SGU debut was good, I like the characters, I love the setting, the music and the camera play is very nice.

It's much better then expected and whatever SGU took from other great sci-fi, works well. I think this show has a lot of potential and I truly believe that in less then a few episodes from now, we'll be hooked and begging for more.

I watched SGU yesterday. To be honest I'm a little confused as to what you mean by three parts. The first episode was a double episode, no? Are these parts one and two rolled into one? I didn't know there was a third part, or that it was released yet.

Anyway, so far I like what I see with SGU. I enjoyed Battlestar (although it did get a LITTLE too depressing after a while) and I'm enjoying SGU more that I've been enjoying Atlantis and SG-1 lately.
This is the reason that the rest of the world think that the americans are stupid. They have something good but they decide to throw everyhing away and start over.

I've seen the pilot for SGU and its seems that the writers and the rest of the crew are on crack.

How could you compare the actors from SG1 and SGA with those who play in SGU. Fuck! A chubby scientist and an old guy who argue half of the episode for the oportunity to push a button, an ugly chick...god damn americans you're fucking stupid red necks who take it all.

what could you ask from people who canceled Firefly and many other great tv series.

SGU sucks ass
Your review is interesting, because although it tries to sound like you are making a balanced review, you never actually say anything bad about SGU. The closest you come is some vague "this might not be your cup of tea" statements, which hardly qualify as critiques. You also assume that the pilot will be an accurate reflection of the entire series. I liked the pilot. But then again I also liked Voyager better in the pilot; hated the series it became. It's a short memory that forgets that Voyager was also promoted as a more dark, bleak look at the Star Trek universe. The parallels are there.

You're feeding us a fanboy line, cloaked in a different tone. Like a fanboy, you're all too eager to assume that this will be exactly what it has been promoted as, based on only the pilot episode. A media critic ought to actually exercise some critical thinking and analysis.

Also there seems to be an inability to draw analogies... sure this isn't exactly 90210. That show didn't go to other worlds. That much is obvious, and stating that there can be no similarities just because the most literal among them doesn't exist, is poor argumentation.

Could this be 90210/Melrose Place-in-Space? Possibly. That's one outcome of the whole "character driven drama" angle they're playing at, with the same set of characters crammed in the same tin can every week. I don't see how you could NOT see the possible similarities.

(let me add that I hope they do not try to overly sensationalize or sex-up Stargate, often when this is attempted, they end up creating whiny immature characters that are always having sex with each other-which is actually less realistic... see Torchwood)
I watched SG1 and SGA to the end. While I certainly disagreed with how campy the writers and directors made those shows at times, they were often fun to watch.

SG-U has a lot more potential, and the darker tones make it far more interesting IMO. Hopefully they don't succumb to camp the way Star Trek and the other Stargate series did. The threads of distrust sown throughout the ranks in SG-U could prove to be interesting, and I hope they don't go to waste. I just saw ep4, "Darkness", and it seems they're manging to improve the momentum, so I'm hopeful.

I just have to say, that it still bugs me how these otherwise "brilliant" scientists miss so many obvious solutions to their problems. Just as an example, even assuming Dr. Rush is the only real expert on Ancient technology, which is unlikely given the entire project was about Ancient tech, the communication stones means they can get experts that are still back on Earth to help him whenever needed. And why send people to search a desert when they could send out keenos? Like most sci-fi, the obvious solutions are simply missed in order to build drama and suspense, but frankly, there are better ways to achieve it.

It also kinda bugs me that writers always feel the need to invent "brilliant" characters that simply mock supposedly "lesser men". This conflict is not how science and engineering is done in reality, and most people in these fields are brilliant and co-operate with one another to achieve more together than they could alone.

But the acting is pretty good, the dialog is respectable, and I'm enjoying the ride so far.
Creative writing 101. You can't have guest characters regularly solving all the problems for the main cast.

I don't think that's relevant. There are plenty of problems that need solving, and as you mentioned before, this is more a character-driven story. Furthermore, these helpers have their own research, their own lives, so they obviously wouldn't be there 24/7, but they certainly would be there at the beginning to help them overcome the initial hurdles.

How often do people out here in the real world immediately realize and successfully execute the simple solution to the complex problem?

These characters aren't just anyone, these are some of the best minds we have, because they're in the Stargate program. Believing they're this naive is asking a bit much.

The real problem in sci-fi is the unrealistically intelligent supergeek that solves every problem in the fourth act in brilliant bursts of inspiration that in reality look great on paper, but never pan out.

I agree. The Carter/McKay mythos is the bane of Stargate IMO, and I really hope they don't go down that route in SGU. My original point was merely that there are more than enough realistic ways to create drama and obstacles for characters to overcome without making them look stupid.

Like that scientist that went nuts at JPL a few years ago, took hostages on the campus and shot some people before shooting himself?

I'm sorry, but what the hell does that have to do with anything I said?

And how often to real groups of brilliant scientists find themselves trying to figure out how to work with technology that may be over 1,000,000 years beyond them, while also stuck in another galaxy with mortal threats coming from every direction?

Canon has established that these scientists already have experience with newer Ancient tech, so this older Ancient tech isn't more sophisticated than what they've already encountered.

I have a hard time believing that real scientists would be such good sports under those fictional circumstances, which is entirely the point.

You're right, they wouldn't be good sports, but they would work together to survive anyway, and that's entirely my point: there are enough ways to create drama without making the characters stupid, and falling into the same old SG cliches, like the supergenius who saves the day.
SGU just plain sucks so far! With Stargate SG1 and Atlantis, Jack O'neil and Rodney McKay had super humor, and all of the characters were insightful and amusing. The banter between the characters was funny. Universe is boring, the characters are boring and the writing is boring!!! Common guys, you can do better than this! I'd much rather watch Sanctuary or Warehouse 13! The humor and character interactions are great in these 2 shows - They GOT what made Stargate popular in the first place! Thanks Amanda!

Screw aligning with Battlestar Galactica - never ever liked it! What's the point in calling this show Stargate Universe? All thats been done is a recreation of Battlestar Gallactica feel with Star Trek Voyager premise and Stargate toys. This new show is missing all of the playfulness that Stargate SG1 and Atlantis had. I LOVED Stargate and bought the whole series on dvd. I will watch the first season of Universe, but if it stays the way it is, forget it - There are good scifi shows on tv and this is just a major let down for a huge Stargate fan! I'd rather watch reruns of SG1 and Star Trek! Hell, I'd rather watch McGyver! Try bringing in the Deluise boys! I'm sure they had a hand in the humor of the original Stargates. Maybe they caould fix this one!

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