EPISODE REVIEW: Stargate: Universe: “Air, Parts 1 and 2” (Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2)

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We’re all slaves to what’s come before. If you have a new thought, a million people have had it before you, more than likely. Whatever language you speak, odds are it wasn’t your decision to speak that language, it was just dumb luck that you happened to be born in to the country that spoke that language. If you like Rock and not Opera, it probably has more to do with the socioeconomic conditions and time you were born in to, more than a conscious decision on your part. Everything we do is built upon a billion things we didn’t do that came before us.

The reason I mention this is because, in fact, we kind of *like* the tried and true. Certainly businessmen like the tried and true, just look at Detroit: This years model is last years’ model, only with tacky, senseless fleur-de-lis added. Just look at Hollywood: This years’ big hit is last years’ big hit, only with a “II” after the title. Just look at TV shows: Everything is the same, until something breaks the mold, and then everyone is in a mad rush to rip off the new thing, until everything is the same again. Then something else breaks the mold, and, well, there you are. If you’re taking my rambles to mean that the new Stargate: Universe show seems a bit derivative, then, congratulations, you got it in one.

Part of that is that it’s a spinoff series to the original show, which was a spinoff to a crappy movie I never liked in the first place (I have loved the Stargate TV shows, however). Part of it is that it’s a Syfy show, and those always seem a bit…well, a bit lite on the whole ’risk taking’ concept in the latter years of the Bonnie Hammer regime, during which time production on this show began. Part of it the legacy of that damn Ronald D. Moore version of Galactica. Hell, if we want to get technical, there’s aspects of The Starlost, Lost in Space, and Star Trek: Voyager in here as well, but curiously, mostly, it seems oddly derivative of Stargate: Atlantis.

‘Derivative’ isn’t bad, mind you. If it was, then the first western ever filmed would be the last western ever filmed, and there’d only have been one World War II flick ever, and Shakespear would only have written five or six plays. In a lot of ways, the SG franchise has been derivative of Trek from day one, and Trek was, itself, derivative of a zillion older serialized stories of daring do, both on and off planet. Even so, when someone wants something “Groundbreaking and new,“ what they really mean is, “I want that thing that was cool six months ago, but which most people are already sick of.“ What made SG1 so good - and what made the 80s/90s iterations of Star Trek so bad - was that Stargate was solidly dedicated to not sucking, whereas ‘Trek’s only interests were in re-capturing lightning in a bottle (Which they wholly failed to do) and didactically preaching at us about how all the fun things in life (Money, Love, Art, Religion, Politics, War, Gossip, Personal Possessions, History, Culture) are inherently bad. Meh.

Another way Stargate has been traditionally much better than that *other* franchise is that it hasn’t been afraid to screw with it’s format. Where Trek has done the same eight or nine stories in endless permutations with endlessly different casts for something like 700 hours of TV entertainment in the last 40 years, never wanting to vary from the format, Stargate has always been about “Ok, what’s the next cool thing we can do?” They don’t worry about format, or franchise, or fans, they simply try to tell a cool story and trust that audiences will find it.

So it’s a little disconcerting to suddenly find them repeating themselves, but more on that in a bit.

PLAY BY PLAY

200,000 or 300,000 years ago: The Ancients launch probes in to intergalactic space to seek out habitable worlds and plant stargates on them.

100,000 or 200,000 years ago, The Ancients launch “Destiny,” a massive spacecraft with which to explore the universe. They intend to resupply and staff the ship using a long-range stargate on board. Shortly afterwards, the project is abandoned, and no one ever actually visits the ship. It continues to wander through space at FTL velocities on Autopilot.

Some years ago, a 9-address Chevron is discovered, and the SGC wants to find out what it is and where it goes. They invest 1.8 billion dollars and three years in to trying to find a planet that meets their unique energy requirements to set up a research facility to dial that particular Gate Address.

April or May, 2009, Colonel Young is telling his wife (Or girlfriend) that he’s been offered a top secret command, and he’ll be away for a year. She tells him she’s through waiting for him, and he has a seizure.

May 2009: Icarus Base is established to work on the 9th Chevron problem. The planet (Probably also called “Icarus”) has an unusual core which generates the ludicrous amounts of power they need for their experiments. Alas, they’re not getting anywhere because of certain unsolvable mathematical problems, so Chloe Armstrong has the idea of putting the problem in a Massive Multiplayer Online Game, in the hopes that someone will solve it.

August, 2009: “TJ”’s hitch is up, and she’s supposed to head back to earth for Medical School, but she stays on Icarus.

October, 2009: Eli Wallace, a 20-something fat unemployed slacker genius/washout living with his mom, solves the puzzle. General Jack O’Neil and Dr. Nicholas Rush show up at his doorstep, and more or less shanghai him in to the SGC and the Icarus Project. They take him to Icarus on the USS George Hammond, and brief him on the problem. En rout, he meets up with Senator Armstrong (California) and Chloe Armstrong, his daughter. The fist attempt to get the gate working doesn’t work, so Eli and Rush get to work on it, with Eli breaking for dinner while the senator speechifies. Fortunately, the Lucian Alliance attacks at just that moment, interrupting the oratory.

Icarus launches fighters, as does the Hammond, still in orbit, but they’re getting dusted. Stray hits cause the core of this wonky planet to go wonkier, and the planet is going to blow. Colonel Young orders his people to evacuate the base, but Rush is concerned that the planet’s destruction could translate through an open wormhole and destroy earth. At just that moment, he suddenly figures out how to dial the 9th chevron (Thanks to Eli), and they evacuate through that. The Hammond takes Telford’s squadron aboard, and beam up everyone they can find on the surface, then fly away. The exploding planet takes out the three Lucian ships.

Back on earth, they quickly realize that there’s 80+ people who are MIA from Icarus. Of course they’re on the Destiny, the ancient ship of the Ancients, which is falling apart, and badly damaged besides. They have only the supplies they brought with them, the ship is leaking air, life support simply isn’t working, and they have only the clothes on their backs, and some random supplies they shoved through the stargate at the last minute. Colonel Young is down for the count for most of the episode, and Lieutenant Scott is de facto leader. Meanwhile, Dr. Rush uses the Ancient Communication Stones to talk to earth, and claims that General O’Neil put him in charge, but we don’t know that for sure. His leadership isn’t accepted without challenge. The senator, meanwhile, is in a bad way, and realizes he’s dying, though no one wants to say it. In our tacked-on puzzle-box dilemma for this episode, they found a leak that they need only close a door to fix, thereby giving them another day or two of life, but the door can only be closed from the outside, the bad side, the close-this-door-and-you’re-dead side. The senator gives up his life to save the others - mostly his daughter - and shortly thereafter, the ship stops and dials a local stargate. A somewhat-recovered Colonel Young sends a team through to look for supplies.

THE END

OBSERVATIONS

When Stargate: Atlantis premiered six years ago, I said that it combined “The worst qualities of Star Trek: Voyager and DS:9, without any of the good qualities of either.” The gag there being that to my mind, there are no good qualities to either of those shows. Of course SGA eventually became a damn good show, though it never quite found its groove, and it suffered from suit-interference. Though I grew to like it, I for one always felt that it never quite lived up to its creator/producer’s hopes. I can’t quite explain it, but you know when you’re watching a show that vaguely disappoints the people who make it, and though I liked SGA, it did always have that intangible air of failure about it. Thus it’s curious to me that this pilot is so much like a Ronald D. Moore re-imagining of the Stargate: Atlantis pilot. Oh, sure, it’s better, more exciting, follows a bit more logically, and is somewhat more believable, but it’s still quite obviously cut from the same cloth: Ya’ got your hugejongo Ancient Spaceship in inconveniently Wayfarawayland, you’ve got what amounts to a one-way trip to said spaceship. Once they get there, our protagonists discover that the place is in really bad shape, falling apart, and that all of them will die in short order unless a puzzle box question is solved. You’ve got your young socially awkward genius, you’ve got the seasoned vet military boss who is out of commission almost instantly, leaving an untried young buck in command, you’ve got a cameo from General O’Neil, you’ve got very difficult communications with home, you’ve got a civilian leader that no one is too sure about, it is, frankly, too close for comfort.

One gets the feeling that SGU is the SGA that Brad Wright and Bob Cooper wanted, but didn’t get. That’s all well and good, but there’s something slightly disconcerting about seeing them recycle their own ideas this soon, particularly when most of the newer ideas seem to be culled from the RDM Galactica and (Shudder) Voyager. Oh yeah, and how they discovered Eli was straight out of "The Last Starfighter."

Dr. Rush tells Eli that they’re headed to “A planet 21 light years away.” He never names the star for the same reason they’ve never told us how big the Daedalus Class ships are - because this isn’t Star Trek, and they’re not about to get mired down in that kind of minutiae. (Hooray!) That said, “21 LY” is a pretty specific number. There’s only sixteen stars in that range, and twelve of ‘em are red giant stars, so obviously those are out. Two of ‘em are Dwarf stars, and obviously Icarus wasn’t orbiting one of them. The remaining two stars are a K-class star (Bonner Durchmusterung +56deg2966) and a G-class star (Xi Bootis). Icarus didn’t look to be a garden spot, and the sunlight - while pretty close to our own - still felt a bit off, so I’m betting it’s not a “Prime real estate” star like Xi Bootes. Therefore, Icarus orbited Bonner Durchmusterung +56deg2966. Ain’t science swell?

It’s never addressed as to why people are literally thrown from the stargate on the Destiny, though my hunch is that the Destiny gate isn’t able to absorb all the difference in kinetic energy between there and the Icarus gate. Put this another way: Let’s say you step through a teleported on the north pole, and exit at the equator: The equator is traveling more than a thousand miles per hour faster than the poles are, so you’d go flying out of the thing at, say, 1000 mph and slam in to a telephone pole and die, presumably with a very silly look on your face. Presumably, the stargates absorb this extra velocity somehow, but there’s probably limits, and it would seem like the Icarus/Destiny transfer exceeded them.

Why did the Destiny gate shoot red sparklers after it shut down?

Nice to see the Lucian alliance again. They haven’t shown up or been name checked since the 10th season of SG1. Not a major foe, but still, a nice bit of continuity. So why the hell were they attacking the planet? What did they hope to gain?

Lots of cameos in this episode: Colonel O’Neil, Colonel Carter (As commander of the Hammond), Walter, Dr. Lee, Daniel Jackson. Teal’c was conspicuously absent, and where the hell is General Landry? Seriously, we haven’t seen him since “Continuum,” and we haven’t seen him in the main-sequence SG universe since…uhm…season four of SGA, I think, though he’s been name checked a few times. Seriously, guys, why not use the character? I was a bit disconcerted that there were no SGA cameos, frankly, since all those characters are on earth now, it would be easy to fit them in.

Colonel Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips) character confuses me. He’s the Icarus fighter squadron commander. He was evacuated on the Hammond, and hence isn’t on the Destiny, so why bother to have a name actor in that part? And if he’s just in the first episode, then why not have Colonel Shepherd in that role? And since the show lists him as being in the cast, how is he going to continue on? In lostbacks? Please tell me it isn’t lostbacks….
Well of course it’s gonna’ be lostbacks. We got two in this episode, not counting the entire present/past/present/past structure of the story as a whole. Clearly they’re going to continue this. Also, we’ve been promised guest appearances from established SG characters, but there’s no logical way to get ‘em out to Gilligan’s Spaceship, so clearly they’re going to be in lostbacks. And/or “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” bits, a’la Mr. Barkley and that damn Counselor Troi on Voyager. Added to which, part of the Stargate Franchise’s appeal has been it’s right here, right now quality. Part of the reason Atlantis never quite fully caught on was that there was no way to practically have them going to bed in Colorado every night. Lostbacks would be a good way around this problem.

So what shows are we ripping off here? Stargate: Atlantis (Which, no matter how you slice it, is just weird), Voyager,Lost, and of course Galactica.

I liked Dr. Rush, I liked that he’s keeping secrets, and that he’s got an agenda of some sort he’s not letting anyone in on, but it’s hard not to see some of Gaius Baltar in his dulcet tones and longish, unruly hair. It’s hard not to see a bit of Adama and/or Tigh in Colonel Young. It’s hard not to see a bit of The Chief and Sharon in Scott and his enlisted girlfriend’s illicit affair. It’s hard not to see some of Galactica in their small numbers, limited weaponry (Only 21 guns), ammo, supplies, and clothing options. It’s hard not to look at this story and see a hundred stories I’ve seen before.

But again, derivative isn’t bad. It’s just a starting point. If they tell Voyager stories, then let’s wish the show a speedy death, but if they’ve got some legitimate reason for starting from this point, then more power to ‘em. And I’m going to say that after 12 years of great-and-good shows, they’ve earned some faith from me. I will trust that they’re leading me somewhere good, because in the past they have.

To their credit, they didn't completely overload us on dysfunction the way Galactica did when it started.

One definite improvement was in the more laid-back storytelling. The big problem of Atlantis was it’s frequently frantic nature, attempting to cram 60 minutes of plot in to 45 minutes of air time, and playing unexpected and fun (But definitely distracting) games with the narrative. This show, playing things a bit slower and a bit rawer, had a resonance that SGA almost always lacked, and which SG1 generally did. The pathos, when it comes, doesn’t quite play right - we don’t know these people well enough to give much of a damn - but it is more of a tense situation than we’re used to seeing, and it doesn’t resolve itself happy-go-lucky by the end.

General O’Neil has picked up a third star, and a second chin. I kid, I kid because I love, he’s not fat by any stretch, but he is looking kind of jowly. His performances weren’t particularly inspired this time out, either, they felt a bit phoned in. Loved the Jackson cameo. Is the Hammond Carter’s new permanent gig? Just out of curiosity, what’s up with SG1? Is it still around? Is Cam still in charge? We’ll probably never know, but I hear tell that there’s an O’neil-centric third SG1 DVD movie in the works. I do hope he’s trimmed down a bit by then, and maybe we’ll find out more info at that time.

Man, was that an unusually graphic love scene for a show of this sort, or what? It caught me by surprise.

The uniforms they’re wearing confuse me. In SG1, the cast members were USAF personnel, and they wore the standard Air Force uniforms of the period. The SGA mission had uniforms for civilian personnel, and the USAF members generally wore night-mission BDUs. The uniforms they’re wearing here are in no way Air Force uniforms, and I can’t quite figure out what the reason is for ‘em. If the SGC were a more combined command - like the Delta Force or the GI Joe Team - then maybe I could see it, but everyone we meet in this episode appears to be air force, so why the special duds? Is there a secret space force or something? Is the SGC becoming more of it’s own entity? Or is it just because the wore high-collared uniforms on Galactica, and so this show has to borrow that from them, in addition to their tumbledown set design and bad lighting ethics?

There’s a major, and sloppy continuity error in the episode, by the way: In one of the flashbacks, we see TJ and Ming Na discussing her going back to earth, and Ming Na says “Has Colonel O’Neil been told about this?” Of course he ain’t no “Colonel,” babydoll, he’s a Lieutenant General. Odd that something like that would slip through, isn’t it?

I cringed when they referred to “Away teams.” How about you? That, too, might be a script gaffe. Generally they’re called “SG Teams” in this franchise.

How cool is Sgt. Greer’s voice? Man, he’s so cool! I could sit and listen to him all day. I’m also quite fond of Rush’s Scots accent.

UNANSERED QUESTIONS

- Why didn’t the Ancients ever use the Destiny?
- Why is there an apparently-permanent IOA representative on Icarus base?
- Who’s the woman in Dr. Rush’s photo? In what way is she related to his secret agenda?
- Did Dr. Rush really use the stones to talk to General O’Neil?
- If not, why did he lie about it? What’s he really up to?
- What’s wrong with Colonel Young? Why the seizures? Is he dying? Is he suicidal?
- Since they’ve only been on Icarus for six months, how much ‘common history’ could the characters have to drive the lostbacks?
- Who attacked the Destiny, and why?
- What did Sgt. Greer do to be put in detention? Why does Young obviously have some regard for Greer, despite his obvious temper issues?
- Why did JJ stay on the base, rather than go home when her hitch was up?

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS SHOW?

In general, Conservatives really like the Stargate shows, given their high regard for the military, as depicted in the show. Some extremely religious folks take issue with the ancient astronauts theme and the existence of aliens theme, but let’s face it, if that kind of stuff bugs you, you’re not going to be watching SF in the first place, you’re going to be home reading Nancy Drew mysteries. So I’m going to say “Yeah,” Conservatives will like the show.

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