"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.
"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.
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.