Sloppy execution cripples what ought to have been an extremely promising possibility for franchise reinvention in "Stargate Universe." The new Syfy series, premiering on Friday (Oct. 2), finds masterminds Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper determined to deliver the grittiest, darkest, most realistic "Stargate" to date, a worthy ambition except for when the result is also this dull and lugubrious.
Full disclosure: Except for passing seconds here and there, the last "Stargate" I watched with any seriousness had James Spader, Kurt Russell and the chick from "The Crying Game." It was a movie I kinda dug, but I never really required an expansion for that work. But with MGM and Syfy so enthusiastic about "Stargate Universe" and so insistent that this was a "Stargate" that was intended to welcome fresh eyes, I decided to give it a shot. After all, a similar experiment served me well on "Torchwood: Children of Earth," which stands as one of my favorite TV experiences of the year, despite no interest at in "Torchwood" mythology.
And "Stargate Universe" is loaded with actors I respect, including Robert Carlyle, Louis Ferreira, Ming-Na and Lou Diamond Phillips. What? You don't respect Lou? After "Stand and Deliver," "La Bamba," "Wolf Lake" and his week in the jungle with Spencer, the man deserves your admiration and he certainly served three television hours of my time.
There's a very real chance that "Stargate Universe" will play totally differently for fans of the franchise and also that a certain subset of science fiction fans will embrace its bleak perspective. I can only share my side...
After the break...
In the third hour of "Stargate Universe," Ferreira utters a line that I think was meant as the series mantra: "These are the wrong people in the wrong place."
The series focuses on a motley group of soldiers, scientists, politicians and civilians who are foced to go through a Stargate when a not-so-hidden base comes under attack.
Don't know what a Stargate is? Don't know anything about any of this stuff? Fortunately, "Stargate Universe" offers David Blue's Eli, a dorky gamer who unlocks a hidden puzzle in a role-playing game, only to discover that the puzzle was inserted in the game by Dr. Nicholas Rush (Carlyle), looking for somebody capable of solving the ninth whatever on the Stargate. Eli is there for all of the uninitiated viewers, even sitting through an orientation video. Thanks, Eli!
Anyway, these civilians burst through the Stargate and find themselves on the Destiny, an ancient vessel thousands of light years from Earth and on a quest to who-knows-where. Not only is the Destiny basically lost (as far as they're concerned), but it's also short on supplies and its life support systems are failing.
Creators Cooper and Wright make a botch of things structurally right from the beginning, which features the dirty, frightened people popping through the Stargate, sometimes violently, into the Destiny. The point of the series, at least as I could figure it, is in the mystery of each and every one of these characters. They have names and job titles, but the experience on the Destiny is meant as their proving ground, it's the thing that determines the leaders and the followers, the heroes and the villains.
It's "Lost" in space, only the "Stargate Universe" writers aren't clever enough to unspool character mysteries in the way "Lost" was able to. Almost immediately after the characters are on the ground disoriented, we flash back and their path to the Destiny is badly over-explained and the characters are expositionally introduced.
You know what I wanted? I wanted to see the characters on the Destiny trying to figure out where they are and what they're doing there and who they are. Instead, that's mostly saved for the second hour and the characters are explained before they're mysteries and then we're expected to let them go back to being mysteries. There are new mysteries introduced, but the whole storytelling mechanism is amateurish.
I guess I understand why the flashbacks were necessary. The attack that forces their departure is the only action scene in the first three hours, the only moment you could foreground as being "fun" or "exciting," as opposed to "brooding" and "tense." Pushing it up in the story at least captures viewers' attention, though pushing it later would have prevented tedium from setting in.
Oh and tedium most certainly sets in. The "SGU" premiere is two hours of dirty, unrecognizable people bitching about being lost and confused and uncomfortable. In space. It subscribes to a very popular sci fi trope that says that there's no reason why space ships should be these shiny, bright, pristine vessels. They'd more plausibly be grungy and cramped and the perfect setting for all manner of intrigue.
The best cinematic representation of this is the first hour of "Alien," where the characters operate only in poorly lit spaces complaining about how they want to go home and wondering if they're going to get the bonus payouts they deserve. Is it exhilarating? No, but with Ridley Scott's direction and a tight script, the characters are clearly delineated and the environment is suffocating. Until all hell breaks loose.
The speed with which all hell is breaking loose on "Stargate Universe" is mighty slow. The premiere builds to an act of heroism, which seems like it ought to come from an unexpected source, but the script does such a poor job of positioning the players that it isn't nearly as powerful as it ought to be.
That means that it's the end of the third hour where we begin to learn what the Stargate can do and where it can sent our characters. We're led to believe that through some process of frequent leaping, the characters will eventually find the supplies they need to survive and maybe they'll get the false hope that they're getting closer to getting home. Instead, the characters spend the second episode on a desert planet sampling sand and having flashbacks.
And for some viewers, this will be enough. Actually, for some viewers, this will be nirvana. There are plenty of fans of minimalist science fiction, who will be able to pretend that the lack of plot is a sign of near existential ennui. I happen to think you can weave a survival narrative in with a little more drama without resorting to blasting spaceships and strange alien visitors, but that's a happy medium "Stargate Universe" has yet to find.
With only limited time to develop a huge ensemble, the performances in "Stargate Universe," something which ought to be a draw, are a mixed bag. Phillips and Ming-Na have barely been utilized at all. And most of the supporting performances are just SyFy supporting standard (i.e. a little wooden and sporting Canadian accents), though Brian J. Smith at least has enough to do in the first three hours that I could recognize him going forward.
Blue comes in from a totally different show. He's playing his character's nerdiness and uncertainty broadly enough that he would be a comic foil if he didn't have to keep explaining his jokes to the people around him. Without him, "Stargate Universe" would be unbearably dour, so even if I wouldn't say he's giving a great comedic performance, he's a welcome relief whenever he's around.
As for Carlyle, he's the anchor of a better series entirely. He's interesting, commanding and passionate despite a character who motivations have yet to really be explained.
[Carlyle is really laying the foundation for his role as Groundskeeper Willie in the live-action "Simpsons" movie I'm casting in my head. I'm going a bit indie, so I've got Dylan Baker as Seymour Skinner, Frances McDormand as Edna Krabappel, Alan Dale as SuperNintendo Chalmers and Elle Fanning as Lisa. Offers are out to John Carroll Lynch for Homer and Patricia Clarkson as Marge, while Jason Segel is expected to make a cameo as Otto. But that's a totally different post that just intruded. Apologies.]
Just because I wasn't enthralled by the first two episodes of "Stargate Universe" doesn't mean that the premise isn't one that remains laden with promise. I just hope this isn't the wrong show in the wrong place (with the wrong people behind the scenes).
The two-hour premiere of "Stargate Universe" airs on Friday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. on Syfy.