Thursday, April 1, 2010

POP CULTURE: Stargate: Universe is better than you think.

Since Stargate: Universe returns from their half-season hiatus this week, I'm putting off my PAX coverage for another couple of days to get you involved in this show before it's too late. Here's what you need to know: SGU is set on a super space ship tooling around another galaxy. Why and how the team got there isn't so important. What you need to know is that they're refugees on a ship that's kind of broken and that they can communicate with earth via a technological gadget introduced years ago on SG1.

People who don't like the show will tell you it's too much like Lost or Battlestar. They will tell you it doesn't have enough of the goofy charm that made SG1 and Atlantis so much fun. Those people are all correct. However, the show has one important thing that I feel Lost lacks, but which made Battlestar (and now Caprica) work. Internal consistency. Where Lost will reveal an "answer" and either shoehorn something in that sort of makes sense or re-write the whole show's mythology, Stargate's writers are somehow intimately familiar with over 15 years worth of material and they somehow make it all track.
 Since Friday night is the start of SGU season 1.5, there will likely be a fairly comprehensive "previously on SGU" thing to help you get in the game. If they're clever, they may even have an all-day marathon scheduled tomorrow that you can DVR. If you'd rather just step right in, and give the show a chance on my recommendation, that's perfectly acceptable and you may want to stop reading here. I applaud your sense of adventure and trust in my Sherping. If you're already watching and are interested in my thoughts on the show or you're not afraid of spoilers, please continue after the jump for why SGU is better than you think.

Alright, first a couple of criticisms. The show doesn't have an arc-plot style villain. I'm sure this sort of thing will eventually come to pass, but for season 1.0 the show was mostly about establishing the feel and setting, and giving you an idea of who the characters are. This is fine. Try re-watching season one of ST:TNG. It's a little rough around the edges, and that's me being pleasant. For now, the "villain" is pretty much just the constantly impending doom of being stranded in another galaxy on a starship that's falling apart, and doesn't really have all of the necessary equipment for sustaining human life. Another villain seems to be Ren and Stimpy style SPACE MADNESS. This is also fine, as not all of the characters were meant to be in this sort of situation, so it's reasonable that they're not the sorts who are mentally prepared for solitude and a constant fight for survival.

Now that I've given you a whole extra paragraph to bail out, here come the spoilers. You know when you saw Fight Club, and Brad Pitt explains the marks on movie film that show the projectionist when to change reels? This is going to be like that. You're not going to be able to unsee what I'm about to explain, and it's either going to make the whole show better, or blow your damn mind. Possibly both. Prepare yourself.

By episode 1.03, you get the basic idea that the ship has been programmed to help its crew survive. It takes them to a world where they can find materials necessary to repair the ship enough to barely survive. Then this happens again a few times. But it isn't until episode 1.08 that your mind will explode. The crew arrives through the stargate and finds an abandoned Kino (the little floatey recording devices they discovered on the ship) and some human skeletons. BEHOLD, the show's first time travel episode, and the reason you will want to keep watching. Time travel was established a long time ago in the Stargate mythology as something that's possible if solar flares interfere with the wormhole's connection between two gates. This episode is fascinating because it takes three loops to break out of the time travel and save the day. Team 1 goes through the gate, and mostly all die. A couple escape through the gate with a Kino on which they recorded some info about their trip. They escape through the gate thinking they're connected to the ship. They are not. The Kino arrives back on the same planet in the past, at least long enough ago for Team 2 to find their skeletons. Team 2 (the one we're following) arrives, finds the Kino and begins watching it, to search for clues. They see most of their alt-selves die. Finally, they figure it out at the last possible minute, delete the previous message on the Kino, record a new message with concise directions, wait for the time-loop gate connection to occur, throw the Kino through, and all die. Team 3 then comes out of the gate in the present time, sees the Kino, watches the message, and saves both themselves and the ship. This episode is amazing, because for 95% of it, you are convinced that Team 2 are the heroes, and the deaths of secondary characters could still be actually happening.

Now. Here's where I either ruin the show for you, or put it squarely on your MUST SEE list.

After watching this episode, something clicked in my head. Not only is the ship taking them to planets that give them a chance of solving their immediate survival concerns... It is also arranging the circumstances to drastically increase the odds. The ship knows how things will turn out. It puts the crew on a planet where a solar flare from the system's sun will allow them an effectively infinite number of chances to solve this super difficult task.


This is the question you must ask yourself through each episode. Playing this game will radically improve your enjoyment of the show, and open the curtain on the incredibly talented and clever writers who make it happen. SGU may not have goofy fun. But what it does have instead of a lair deep in NORAD, or a spaceship-city in another galaxy is a semi-omniscient starship. Beat that.

@nerdsherpa, your television M.A.L.P. (It's a Stargate thing, nerds. They send them through Stargates to make sure humans can survive on the other side and dial home.)


  1. I've come to the conclusion (especially after the mid-season premiere) that SG-U is a good science fiction show - but not a good Stargate series. The producers have deviated too far from the "fun" aspect that made the show easy to watch and digest.

    The should have just called it Star Trek: Voyager.


  2. I have the 1.5 premiere saved on my DVR, but I haven't squeezed in the time to watch it yet. I feel confident however, that if/when viewer comments continue to trend along the lines of what you just said the show will slowly drift back into the territory we want to see.

    Because I completely agree. Nearly all of science fiction television in America is currently being victimized by the success of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Notable exceptions to this include Warehouse 13 and Eureka, and if you're not watching those, definitely tune in this July.

    I also miss sci fi television based around a small team of characters working together toward a common goal. A cast of dozens who all toxically distrust each other really isn't my bag.