April 5, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: Faith

The Stargate Universe (SGU) episode "Faith", directed by William Waring

The Destiny is not a comfortable place to live. It may offer incredible views of space, but the accommodations could use some work. People are tired of wearing the same clothes and eating tasteless food. The communications stones can offer glimpses of Earth, but it is another body. The military group might be accustomed to this type of sparse environment, but it still takes its toll. For the scientists and other civilians, they’re ready for something new. That need appears in the form of a beautiful new planet in “Faith” and tempts even several main characters. Will they give up the security of the Destiny for the promise of something greater?

It’s clear that a return to Earth is not forthcoming, and the recent danger from the aliens in “Space” and “Divided” didn’t help. It’s easy to see why T.J. and Chloe would be tempted to join Dr. Caine’s (Tygh Runyan) group on the planet. His faith in their alien saviors is enticing, even if it requires a giant leap. Whether it springs from belief in God or just seeing nature again, the pitch is alluring. The opposition led by Young pitches the “live together, die alone” mantra. They may have issues to overcome on the Destiny, but they’ll solve them as a group. It’s a safer approach on the surface, yet there are extenuating circumstances that may tips the scales.

Young spends much of the episode trying to mend fences after the mutiny. Approaching Rush with hat in hand, he seems committed to a more collaborative style. He’s hardly a pushover, however. His proposal at the end still involves strong arming to ensure his people return. This isn’t the same guy who head butted Rush and left him on the planet, but Young is still enforcing his will. Ensuring the military sticks with him isn’t Young’s real motivation, however. His feelings for T.J. and the importance of Scott make them invaluable. In T.J.’s case, Young doesn’t even have all the information. If he did, his efforts might be even more vigilant to retain her.

T.J.’s Journey

The central figure in this episode is T.J., who finally gets a real chance to shine. The first shot is T.J. waking up to an alarm on board the grim Destiny. Alaina Huffman brings so much heart to T.J. and says plenty with minimal dialogue. The pregnancy story line could easily become a cliché in lesser hands but avoids the narrative trap. Instead, we feel for T.J. and understand why she’d want to stay on the planet. It isn’t the zombie apocalypse, but the Destiny falls well short of being optimal for raising a child. Resources are thin, and there’s always danger around the corner.

Huffman’s real-life pregnancy caused the writers to adjust the story, and it mostly clicks. T.J. is one of the show’s strongest characters, and it’s a relief to see the arc handled well. She doesn’t smile that often, which makes the glimmers of joy even more effective. Sitting next to Chloe on a log, she’s more content than she’s been since they reached the Destiny. T.J. is in her element hiking through the woods and relaxing by a waterfall. The laid-back script from Denis McGrath includes quite a few character moments like that one. Seeing T.J.’s happiness makes her initial decision to stay on the planet feel less abrupt. After a month on the planet, there was little doubt.

The obelisk in the SGU episode of "Faith"

New Discoveries

Despite the slow pace and character-driven story, there are a few mysterious discoveries. The standout is the giant obelisk on the planet, which signifies an advanced civilization. Like Volker and Rush, we’re frustrated to learn so little about this impressive structure. Its presence does give Caine a logical justification that a higher power created the planet. The questions about the planet’s origins are intriguing; something created this Earth-like place way too quickly. It's brave for SGU to test our patience and not reveal more details.

There’s also a strangely brief moment where James uncovers a device on the Destiny that resembles a large robot. Like the city of Atlantis in SGA, this large ship contains plenty of secrets. Even a store room with crates has the chance of providing something new. The lack of more attention on this item shows how the producers are playing the long game. It’s another reason that SGU works better in a binge format. The pieces fit together much easier when there’s less time between each episode. Young’s choice to wait for Rush also connects with the down-to-earth approach. There’s only so much one person can do at once.

Soccer Game in the SGU episode "Faith"

A Break in the Action

The highlight of “Faith” is the music montage that depicts everyday life on the planet and the Destiny. The song “All My Days” by Alexi Murdoch sets the right tone for the joys of the daily routine. A quick shot from a Kino of a soccer game with both military and civilian players says it all. The tension of the recent days wore everyone down, and getting the chance to just be is refreshing. We also see Chloe and Scott reconnecting in a pond, Volker studying the obelisk, and James’ team exploring the Destiny. The last shot of T.J. hiking to the waterfall flows smoothly into the next moment with Chloe. T.J.’s come to terms with the pregnancy and made her choice.

There’s a narrative risk in taking such a slow-burn approach in this episode. After the fireworks of the past two episodes, viewers might want to keep the momentum rolling. It’s a talk-heavy episode, and some conversations like the Eli/Wray chats might feel unnecessary. On the other hand, it’s these small moments that keep us on board with the characters. We saw them fighting and barely surviving for several episodes. It’s good to dial back and re-connect with their humanity. Rush and Wray especially return to less-hostile waters in this story. They may not love the direction of leadership, but they aren’t working to undermine Young.

Louis Ferreira as Colonel Young in SGU's "Faith"

Young’s Risky Proposal

Despite the low-key tone, there are high stakes in the climax of “Faith”. Three main characters have committed to stay on the planet and leave the Destiny for good. Young’s efforts to retrieve Scott and T.J. make sense from a practical standpoint. Scott is a trusted officer who people trust in both the civilian and military ranks. T.J. provides crucial medical support on a ship with little expertise in that area. Like I mentioned earlier, that isn’t the main reason Young risks his life to reach them. He’s trying to keep his friends safe and doesn’t want to lose them (especially T.J.). Young did reject the idea to round them up by force, but he wasn't really taking the high road either.

Young’s pitch to the group seems helpful on the surface. He’ll give Caine’s group a shuttle to help them survive on the planet. The catch is giving up people like Scott and T.J. that could be even more valuable. I’ve barely mentioned Chloe because we don’t get a clear sense of her ultimate motivation. She quietly changes her mind after the others fold. It’s tricky because Young might even believe he’s doing a good thing for the people who stay on the planet. He isn’t trying to be a dictator, yet he leaves T.J. and Scott with little choice.

Faith or a Delusion?

The big question hanging over the conclusion is whether Caine’s belief was accurate. Would his faith lead to the promised land or set up their destruction? His idea that the planet was “created for us” is quite arrogant despite the beauty on the planet. Even so, it’s hard to be too rough on Caine for believing in a higher power. There’s plenty of evidence that something advanced built this world. Young’s statement that he can’t begin to answer whether the planet was a lifeline makes sense. He knows what the Destiny is and can make due in that environment. The planet has too many question marks for a military guy charged with keeping people safe.

The final shots are quite somber and bring a sad conclusion to T.J.’s hopeful story. She stands alone on the ship and has lost the joy we saw in her eyes on the planet. This moment contrasts sharply with Young’s rare smile while enjoying the feast in the mess hall. He’s feeling victorious and doesn’t realize what T.J. may have lost due to his actions. Staying on the Destiny was probably the right move, but the way they returned wasn’t a free choice. It may take a long time for T.J. to recover her brief serenity, and more challenges are coming on the horizon.

This article is part of the Reconsidering Stargate Universe series, which takes a up-close look at each SGU episode. Catch up with all the entries on this page.

April 2, 2016

Blind Spot Series: The Great Dictator

Rarely has a film included a finale so powerful that it makes the rest of the story fade away. When Charlie Chaplin turns to the camera and makes a plea to humanity in The Great Dictator, it lifts the story to another level. He breaks the fourth wall and blatantly expresses the film’s mission statement to remove any doubts. Costumed to mimic Hitler, Chaplin warns of the “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts”. After two hours of satirizing the military, Chaplin emotionally brings it all together for us. The film's jokes provide cheap laughs for a moment, but they only click if there’s more beneath the surface.

Beginning with the phrase “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be emperor”, Chaplin delivers a long monologue that’s a tricky proposition. If he doesn’t convince the audience, this moment could derail the movie. The somber look on Chaplin's face eliminates any doubts. Watching The Great Dictator more than 65 years after its release, it’s easy to dismiss the turmoil in the world at that point. Particularly in Europe, the threat from Hitler was real. It’s hardly just a historical document, however. This line feels particularly apt given today’s divisive climate: “Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.” This message still connects now, and Chaplin sells his conviction.

I’ve started on the final scene because I wasn’t that engaged by much of this film. When Chaplin directly satirizes Hitler with Hynkel (Dictator of Tomania), his ridiculous take is effective. It’s such an over-the-top character that he seems more convincing as a cruel dictator. He’s the kind of guy who declares war on anyone just to avoid boredom. There’s no logic to his madness, and he tries to wipe out entire groups because he can. Hynkel is clever satire, but there’s a lot of other material that feels like filler. The running time is more than two hours, and you definitely feel the length. It’s such a personal project for Chaplin, and I suspect he tried to make sure all his ideas made the final cut.

The opening scenes during World War I are well-done and satirize the weapons of war. Moments like a bomb following a soldier in a circle work because they’re so over the top. The barber (also played by Chaplin) is completely over his head in war and feels similar to his famous Little Tramp character. I should note that this is a full sound film, which can be jarring if you’re used to Chaplin’s silent work. It isn’t a huge adjustment after a short time, and there are some familiar gags. The scene with a group of men eating pudding is a highlight that would fit in his classic films. Each guy doesn’t want to find a coin in the pudding, which would set them up for a hero’s death. The look on Chaplin’s face when he bites into the coin is just perfect.

I hate to dismiss the middle section of the movie, which does include fun moments like the pudding sequence and a food fight with the Mussolini surrogate Napolini (Jack Oakie). Having already seen (and loved) City Lights, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and others, it’s hard not to compare The Great Dictator to those films. It’s a daring project that deserves all the acclaim, and I’m glad to have finally caught up with it. I might prefer the others on the whole, but that’s more about personal preference. It was Chaplin’s most successful commercial film and is still watched regularly today. The mayhem and direct satire doesn’t feel dated, and that says a lot in 2016.

This is the third entry in the 2016 Blindspot Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd

March 3, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: “Divided”

Young and Greer don space suits in SGU's "Divided".

For its first 10 episodes, SGU focused more on building its characters than quickly pushing the story forward. New developments occurred on the Destiny, but they arrived with a slower pace than many fans expected. A dramatic shift happened with “Space”, which introduced new enemies and built on the rift between the civilians and the military. In a certain way, it almost packed too much into a single episode. By the end, Rush was already back on the Destiny after being stranded by Young in “Justice”. Chloe was captured and then quickly saved, though her time on the ship will make quite an impact in the future. The forward movement is even more significant in “Divided”, which concludes the two-part conflict with the aliens.

What makes this story click is the way it combines that battle with an attempted coup led by Wray and Rush. In fact, a majority of this episode only hints at the aliens’ return. Chloe and Rush are having nightmares about their experiences, but we don’t have all the information. He knows there’s a tracking device inside his chest that will bring danger to the Destiny. Robert Carlyle brilliantly underplays the fear that’s driving Rush to pursue the mutiny. Unlike Wray, he doesn’t care about larger issues of civilian versus military authority. Rush needs control so he can prevent Young from sacrificing him to save the others. Young was willing to fire on the alien ship with Rush and Chloe on board in the last conflict. He’d likely do the same again.

“Divided” has similarities to the Battlestar Galactica season four episodes “The Oath” and “Blood on the Scales”, which also included a mutiny attempt. There’s a quite a difference in the shows’ approaches, however. Both sides on SGU aren’t looking to harm the others unless it’s absolutely necessary. If Young wanted an excuse to take out Rush, this would be a perfect one. Instead, he doesn’t punish the civilians after the coup is thwarted. The rift on BSG is much greater and leads to deaths and serious injuries. Zarek and Gaeta are playing for larger stakes and willing to do anything to succeed. They end up facing the firing squad, but the ramifications of their actions remain. It’s a brutal way to show how far the characters have fallen.

Wray’s attempts on SGU feel more naïve and don’t recognize her opponents’ abilities. Young is a trained military commander, so it’s only a matter of time before he regains control. What makes this coup more than a total failure is the way it brings simmering issues out into the open. The scientists and other civilians aren’t used to taking orders from the military about every move. It also puts characters like Chloe on a different side than you might expect. They’re essentially building a new society on the Destiny, and there’s no single approach that will work for everyone. The writers are on Young’s side, but we can understand Wray’s point of view.

Chloe (Elyse Levesque) has a nightmare in SGU's "Divided"

Lingering Effects

The episode begins with Chloe experiencing a lucid nightmare reliving her experiences with the aliens. It’s quite a creepy scene and says plenty about her mental state following the abduction. The Brand New song “You Won’t Know” plays during the dream and syncs well to the powerful start. The highlight is Chloe looking through a door and seeing herself being captured by the aliens. The convincing look of terror on Elyse Levesque’s face totally sells the moment. The others can’t understand what Chloe and Rush went through on that ship. She’ll never be the same and isn’t the innocent who once seemed unfit for the challenges they face.

An intriguing part of this sequence is the robotic way that Chloe strolls through the ship. It foretells the transformation that’s coming, especially in season two. After she wakes, Chloe’s walk to meet Rush in the mess hall closely matches the dream. Her nightmares are more than post-traumatic stress after a horrific experience. Chloe is already different, and her subconscious mind is providing hints about that change. She’s also now linked to Rush, which will impact the mutiny. Her boyfriend may be in the military, but that doesn’t mean Chloe will just follow her friends without question.

Rush also has a new approach, but he seems less confident following his capture. The conflict with Young has made him less brash. Rush also appears hesitant about the mutiny despite his need to gain control and beef up the shields. Part of him recognizes that the coup won’t work, and it’s more of a stalling tactic to avoid the aliens. Rush still goes through with taking over the ship, but he isn’t the same guy who yelled “we’ll never be done!” at Young while spitting out blood. He’s more pragmatic and isn’t sure about the best way to navigate the Destiny following his brawl with Young. He can’t just be the loner who’s working for his own ends.

TJ (Alaina Huffman) encounters a mutiny in the SGU episode "Divided"

A True Ensemble

Another thrilling part of this episode is having so many characters directly involved. It’s difficult to fit the large cast into most episodes, but it feels natural this time given the high stakes. Volker and Brodie are becoming quite a dynamic duo, and their failed efforts to escape TJ in hydroponics add a lighter touch. Alaina Huffman also gets a chance to do more than care for injured patients as TJ. The biting and determined way she clarifies the situation for the unprepared civilians is perfect. They’ve turned the conflict into war, and that’s the soldiers’ turf. There’s also a fun moment for Greer after he knocks out a few guards. He went easy on them.

Eli’s role as a civilian who trusts the military puts him right in the middle of the conflict. He believes in Young despite suspecting that he stranded Rush on purpose. There’s also an interesting moment where Eli believes (perhaps accurately) that Chloe distracted him to help Rush. His romantic feelings aside, their friendship has been one of the stronger bonds on the ship. Eli also has an interesting relationship with Rush, who admires his intelligence. They can work together well, but their perspectives on what’s right are quite different. For example, Eli knows that Young and Greer need more time to get back on the ship before he escalates the shields. He’s forced into stalling to make sure they survive (and can end the coup). He still believes that Young deserves to lead and doesn’t want to grab control.

What rings true about the split is the uncertainty from both sides on how far they’ll go. The military could shut down life support, but the civilians have the food and water. Scott’s comment that “we still have to live with these people” clarifies the stakes in play. He believes that Young should be their leader, but that doesn’t mean they should be ruthless. Hanging over his statement is the knowledge that Chloe is on the other side. Their relationship has been idyllic so far, but cracks are starting to appear as circumstances grow more challenging.

One stunning moment underscores the ambiguity in Young’s feelings towards the mutiny. When he points a gun at Rush, the look in his eyes says that Young is ready to kill him. Shooting Rush would save the Destiny from the attacking aliens but forever divide the group. Louis Ferreira’s intense presence leads us to believe that Young could do anything, and there’s a simmering anger behind his calm demeanor. However, Young’s already facing serious guilt about leaving Rush on the planet. His recognition that even Rush is worth saving shows his evolution. He’s flawed and makes mistakes, but he still seems most equipped to face the enemies to come.

Louis Ferreira as Young in the SGU episode "Divided"

Escaping the Chaos

There’s so much happening with the power struggle that it’s easy to forget the excitement in the final act. In a nice callback to SG-1’s “Lockdown”, Dr. Brightman (Alisen Down) joins the ship through the communication stones to operate on Rush. Her surprise at being part of an alien attack (and Scott’s amazing laid-back explanation) adds much-needed brevity to the tension. There’s also a subtle callback to the venom from “Time” being used as an anesthetic. If performing surgery while being shelled wasn’t enough, losing the connection raises the stakes. This moment gives TJ and Chloe the chance to step up and save the day.

The well-executed climax again reveals the importance of the early slow-burn approach. We understand Eli, Scott, and the other characters, so their actions feel natural when threats emerge. When Young tells Wray that he’s “open to suggestions”, it’s true but doesn’t mean the road ahead is easy. To soldiers like Greer, the coup has proven why they need military control. Wray may feel like she’s won a victory by getting Young to admit he shouldn’t have left Rush. However, she’s also made sure that few will trust her or Rush anytime in the near future.