July 17, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: Pain

Julia Benson as James in the SGU episode "Pain"

Compared to its Stargate predecessors, SGU is a fairly calm series. There are space battles and personal conflicts, but they’re the exception. Even the big moments typically arrive with plenty of build-up. By the time we reached the alien attack in “Space”, it felt earned in the show’s 11th episode. This slow pace didn’t charm some fans despite the convincing way it developed characters. Since we know the crew so well by this point, the stakes feel higher when the danger comes. There aren’t many “red shirts” populating the Destiny alongside a few leads. This depth makes for a more consistent series and doesn’t force the writers to inject constant shocks.

The pre-credits introductions typically are relaxed and don’t drop us into chaos. This approach lets us acclimate to the situation. This trend makes the beginning of “Pain” a notable exception. Despite its reputation for more adult themes, SGU includes limited sex scenes. They stand out compared to SG-1 or SGA but not for TV in general. Even so, it’s surprising to open this episode with blaring music and passionate sex. The song “What Do You Want Me to Do” by The Heavy sets a very different mood. Another shock is seeing Scott and James as the participants, especially given his relationship with Chloe. It’s a loud sequence that makes an impression, particularly with its violent ending.

The trick with this different approach is still connecting it to the show’s normal style. We immediately question the events on screen, particularly when James bludgeons Scott. He also acts surprisingly callous and isn’t the likable guy we know. There’s also the risk of alienating the audience because we’re seeing unreliable information. When Scott shows up alive a bit later, it can’t feel like a cheat. Thankfully, there are hints from the start that something is amiss. Even the music doesn’t match expectations. We’re also seeing this moment from James’ perspective, and she believes that Scott is dead. It may seem awkward but fits with the focus on inner fears.

Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith) in the SGU episode "Pain"

Facing Their Fears

“Pain” is an interesting standalone, but it never quite clicks in moving stories’ forward. It’s mostly just a reminder of the demons that continue to haunt them. It feels more like an SGA episode than a typical SGU entry. A good example is SGA’s “Phantoms”, a season three episode where a Wraith mind manipulator induces hallucinations in Sheppard, McKay, and others. This story employs different scenarios but has a similar approach to characters’ backgrounds. It’s no surprise that each episode was written by Carl Binder, an executive producer on both shows. Despite tonal changes between the series, there are more connections than normal here.

Any doubts about Scott’s fate disappear when others experience their own hallucinations following the credits. Some relate directly to past events like Greer’s suspicions about a mutiny. Others like Volker’s claustrophobia are more standard fears. Most start fairly benign and slowly progress into dangerous zones. The most impact comes from the simple shot of James curled up on her bed traumatized by “murdering” Scott. She sits motionless and can’t even answer her radio. Despite the horrific circumstances, it’s refreshing to see James involved so directly.

The most interesting part of the hallucinations is the variance between them. Scott’s son mostly just walks around and reminds him of what he’s lost at home. On the other hand, Airman Dunning (Darcy Laurie) tears into his arms to remove the snakes that only his mind sees. The visions are quite personal and aren’t just the expected fears. They’re also quite believable and detailed. Rush sees multiple crew members as the aliens that abducted him, and it’s no simple hallucination. Seeing such a confident guy reduced by the experiences deepens his character. This complexity heightens the danger to everyone involved, even bystanders like Wray that aren’t directly affected by the false visions.

Christopher McDonald in the Stargate Universe episode "Pain"

When Forces Collide

The success in “Pain” comes from the way that multiple hallucinations combine in clever ways. Greer captures Wray because he believes she’s conspiring to form a coup. Meanwhile, Rush sees the pair as aliens that he must attack. These visions aren’t entirely confined to their own minds. They may look different, but the physical manifestations are part of reality. This isn’t entirely consistent, though. Scott’s son isn’t actually present, and the false Wray (the maroon shirt version) doesn’t exist in any way. The experiences do grow more intense with each appearance, so it’s possible they mesh with the real world as the entity takes hold. Regardless, it’s a recipe for disaster for the crew.

There’s a different vibe to Chloe’s encounter with her father (Christopher McDonald), who sacrificed himself to save the Destiny in “Air”. She feels guilt about the loss but uses the time to connect with her dad. Despite her knowledge that he’s still dead, Chloe can’t help but savor the opportunity. Despite the presence of Scott and others, Chloe is still lonely. She’s known her new friends for just a short time. The quiet scenes between Chloe and her father provide a sharp contrast with the chaos from Greer and Rush. He only gets challenging when TJ goes to remove the tic from Chloe’s head. She’ll likely have nightmares of watching her dad plead “don’t leave me!” before disappearing once again.

It’s also interesting to note that the visions aren’t connected to a larger enemy. They aren’t a distraction from plans to take over the ship. Instead, the tics bring fears to life that spring directly from each person’s mind. Greer’s father appears in the climax, but he’s simply one more way to encourage Greer to act. It’s a chilling moment that reminds us of the enemies lurking within Greer’s mind. He’s determined to maintain control and not fall victim to anyone’s plans. Greer’s childhood trauma has shaped him into an effective soldier. But he’s more vulnerable than most to suspicions on his comrades. It’s a perfect storm that nearly leads to Wray’s end.

Robert Carlyle as Rush in the Stargate Universe episode "Pain"

The Cracks Remain

I’ve noticed in recent episodes that the crew has finally grown more united. Trust has grown among the team, and even former enemies like Rush and Young are working together. “Pain” reminds that there’s still more to do. It doesn’t take much for Greer to suspect that Wray and Rush are conspiring again. The truce between the military and the civilians is just a starting point. They avoid disaster this time, but the signs of dissension remain. It’s one of the show’s lesser episodes, but this story provides an intriguing look at the fears that are everywhere.

The closing montage includes the song “Agony” by Eels as we see the trauma impacting the group. James is still sad about Scott and the awful experience, and no one else is alright. Volker can’t sleep, Rush is struggling, and Chloe is reliving the loss of her dad. Greer and Wray have both lost any trust for the other. Young believes their luck is about to change, but a strong enemy lurks on the horizon. “Pain” questions whether this group is ready to battle the invaders to come. The tests will grow even fiercer, and everyone will need to re-connect or risk losing everything.

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.

July 5, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: Sabotage

Kathleen Munroe as Amanda Perry in SGU's "Sabotage"

We’ve reached the point of the season where so many intersecting story lines are coming together. There’s a risk of piling exposition on top of exposition without keeping the audience engaged. Thankfully, the SGU writers find interesting ways to build on past work. “Sabotage” resolves the “Lost” main plot, introduces a new character, and circles back to a nearly forgotten supporting character. When you add in pursuing aliens and a climactic space attack, it’s hard to miss. Life keeps getting harder on the Destiny, but characters are now willing to step up to ensure their survival. They’ve become a more cohesive group, and each new success brings them closer together. The sharp division between Young and Rush feels like a thing of the past.

“Sabotage” functions best as a look at how characters are growing stronger. Wray’s choice to switch bodies with the quadriplegic Amanda Perry (Kathleen Munroe) is quite brave. Rush lets his outer defenses break down while spending time with Perry. Franklin (Mark Burgess) also sacrifices his body for the sake of everyone on board. The growing challenges remove the pettiness and help people show their value. And these obstacles are just a set-up for greater issues on the horizon. Enemies are lurking everywhere, and the Destiny is a valuable prize.

Colonel Young in the SGU episode "Sabotage"

Coming Together

The team environment is evident in the opening sequence as Young gives a speech about the fates of Scott, Chloe, and Eli. We begin with Young shaving in the mirror and feeling the weight of the world. A striking over-the-shoulder shot follows him from his quarters to the gate room for the announcement. A glance at the crowd shows committed faces with no doubt about their leader. It’s a sharp contrast from only four episodes ago in “Divided” when the civilians mutinied. When Rush calls him with news about falling short of the next galaxy, they discuss the problem together. Neither fully trusts the other, but they’ve developed a solid working relationship because of the conflicts.

This cohesion also shows in the work from Brody and Volker, who disagree but have a say. SGU is still different from SG-1 and SGA, but the characters are becoming a team in that vein. They’re working to solve problems under difficult circumstances within new territory. There’s no instruction book for the Destiny, particularly when it crosses large galaxies. Even with all his knowledge, Rush needs help from Perry. James can’t go through with being a quadriplegic, so Wray steps up to fill the gap. This crew will only survive if they work together, and it definitely saves them in this case.

The mid-episode music sequence does a good job illustrating mundane life on the ship. Julian Plenti’s “Only if You Run” strikes the right tone as people just live. Greer gets his head shaved, Brody creates a new alcoholic concoction, James feeds Franklin, and Scott and Chloe lay silently in bed. The shot of crew members running while the title lyrics play is way too on the nose, but it doesn’t kill the moment. This montage reminds us of how much downtime occurs when space battles, explosions, and other challenges aren’t happening. We rarely saw these moments in earlier Stargate shows, and they’re commonplace in this lived-in environment.

Scott, Chloe, and Eli return to the Destiny in "Sabotage"

A Strange Return

The episode title implies nefarious intent with the sabotage, but it’s actually just bad luck. James’ inability to handle being paralyzed gives the aliens a chance to control her. It shows just how precarious the situation is aboard the Destiny. Even a minor slip-up could lead to the end. It’s a little frustrating to see the writers again have James fall short, but she handles it well after the fact. The interesting part is how the explosion inadvertently saves Scott, Chloe, and Eli. After trying mightily to reach the Destiny and failing, they succeed through random chance. The blast also offers a chance because it removes the FTL drive’s weakest link. Everything feels strangely convenient, but it only works if the characters take advantage of the opportunities.

I have mixed feelings about how the writers save the lost trio. It doesn’t seem earned and is a loophole to escape the narrative box. On the other hand, it shows how much the crew is at the mercy of other factors. They’re learning more about the Destiny each day, but they still aren’t equipped to survive. Unlike the superheroes of past series, this lack of skills helps us connect with these characters. Eli is brilliant but still figuring out what to do. Their return does give us a touching moment where Eli gives Rush back his glasses. The silent exchange says a lot about the respect between them. They’re becoming friends and are no longer a random collection of strangers with no emotional bond.

Rush and Perry see Wray's reflection on SGU

Nick and Mandy

The story’s emotional center is Perry, who gets the first chance to move freely since she was nine. She joins the Destiny to help fix the FTL but can’t help but enjoy this rare experience. Amanda describes it “like a dream come true” despite their tough situation. Another factor is the chance to spend time with Rush (Nick to her), who is a crush from her past. He’s also quite fond of her, and the informal way he calls her Mandy says plenty. They’re a great match in a lot of ways, though his mourning of his wife and her physical state make it trickier. Kathleen Munroe does an excellent job in showing both her excitement and uncertainty about their connection.

A key scene highlights both Perry’s interest and the added complications of the communications stones. If they have sex, she’s doing so in Wray’s body. This happened previously with Young and Telford in “Earth”, but it’s still murky territory. Rush’s hesitation is partially for that fact but also due to reliving his wife’s illness in “Human”. Robert Carlyle again adds so much with limited dialogue. We can totally sympathize with a guy who needs love but still can’t move forward after his wife’s death. Nick and Mandy could work as a couple, but the stones add some major complications.

I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding Perry’s character until recently. Watching the episode without that knowledge, there’s little that seems too problematic. Munroe’s wide-eyed approach to the character reminds us of just how magical these moments are for Perry. The communications stones create an interesting discussion about ownership of our physical selves. When Wray uses the stones to switch with Perry, does she allow for sex? The same questions would apply when she returned home to her girlfriend Sharon (Reiko Aylesworth) in “Life”. There’s no simple answer, but the questions are handled with respect throughout this episode.

Franklin in SGU's "Sabotage"

The Ultimate Sacrifice

A recurring theme in “Sabotage” is how far each character will go to save their friends. Young is ready to sit in the chair before Franklin intercedes, and that move would likely fry his brain. Wray becomes a quadriplegic to bring Perry on board. Sharon stops her life on Earth to care for Wray despite her appearance as Perry. TJ convinces Young to keep her involved despite her pregnancy. They’re building a community on the Destiny, and everyone is contributing to ensure their survival.

Most importantly, Franklin accepts his fate and returns to the device that destroyed him. His choice to sit in the chair in “Justice” was presented like an act of cowardice from a weak man. This story reframes that moment is a precursor to this brave sacrifice. What makes the scene click is the mystery behind Franklin’s disappearance. There’s little idea of what happened in the ice-cold room. It’s another reminder that a lot more exists on the Destiny that what we’ve seen thus far. More discoveries are coming, and not all will be friendly encounters.

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.

June 20, 2016

Rating Amazon's Six New Kids Pilots

Amazon's new pilot season is back with eight shows

It’s pilot season again for Amazon Studios, and the focus this time is kids’ shows. Of the eight potential series released on June 17, six of them are geared towards children. They also veer towards younger ages with the majority of the pilots. I’ll cover the two adult shows later this week, but today it’s all about the kids. I’ve watched all of the new shows for you along with my kids. It’s interesting to note that five of the six primarily use animation. We’re in different territory than past Amazon shows like Just Add Magic or Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.

I’ve set up a simple rating for each pilot with three options: Binge It, Watch It, or Skip It. None of these pilots were bad; it mostly came down to personal preference. That’s also why I picked the middle option for half of the shows. Kids’ experiences will be different, especially based on their ages and sophistication. It’s also hard to predict how the shows would function as a full series. All episodes but one run about 11 or 12 minutes, so they might not work in a season. Regardless, it was cool to see the types of shows that Amazon considers worth previewing.

Toasty Tales is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Toasty Tales

This mix of animated characters and miniature backgrounds is playful and energetic. Created by Thomas Borowski (Like, Share Die) and Caroline Foley (Rick and Morty), it follows Waffle (Kath Soucie) and her friends Pants (Tom Kenny) and Burger (Michael Croner). They take an epic journey to find the missing ingredient for delicious pancakes.

Toasty Tales is pretty manic for adults but has its moments. It’s hard not to like characters that care so much about pancakes. Plus, any show that ends with a pancake vortex and a monster retrieving its lunchbox can’t lose. This was also my seven-year-old daughter’s favorite show of the six. Verdict: Watch It

JazzDuck is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

JazzDuck

Filled with all types of musical instruments, JazzDuck is designed to charm younger kids. An unseen narrator (Sullivan Jones) talks to the title character as he visits the Big City. After losing his best friend Ball, JazzDuck (Ross Hughes) and his pals search for it to complete the band. The music is the real draw, though it’s on the simpler side. The drum-playing sloth is a nice touch, and there are clever touches. For toddlers interested in music and animals, this show hits the right notes. It’s just a little too thin to really stand out for me. Verdict: Skip It

Little Big Awesome is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Little Big Awesome

Easily the oddest show of the group, Little Big Awesome is a blast of colors and silliness. Director Sung Jin Ahn mixes animation, puppetry, and actual kittens in a surprising combo. When you have a real cat wearing an eye patch and using animated lips, it’s bound to be ridiculous. The story involves Gluko (Fred Tatasciore) and Lennon (James Arnold Taylor) taking an adventure, but it means little.

This is the type of show that adults might watch after a night on the town. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for kids. The creativity is everywhere and even includes a Queen-like musical number. This is a cult favorite waiting to happen. Verdict: Binge It

Morris and the Cow is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Morris and the Cow

It’s hard for me to dislike a show with a talking cow. Morris (Jermaine Fowler) and his cow Florence (Riki Lindhome) visit the rodeo to win a contest and meet their hero Jimmy Ray Royce (Thomas Lennon). Bernard Derriman has directed nine episodes of Bob’s Burgers, and the animation feels very similar. It’s more of a narrative show than the others and might draw some adults. There’s no assault on the senses. When you add in humble clowns and a sad talking bull, it’s a fun mix.

Co-creator Andreas Trolf also created the Nickolodeon show Sanjay and Craig, which includes a young boy and a talking snake. I’m sensing a pattern. This was my seven-year-old daughter’s least favorite pilot, which signals that it might click more with older kids. Verdict: Watch It

The Curious Kitty & Friends is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

The Curious Kitty & Friends

This stop-motion show depicts the curious cat Komaneko (Rebecca Bloom) as she explores the world with her movie camera. I like this animation style and think it serves kids’ shows well. This one is definitely geared towards the younger set. The friendly Yeti (Dee Bradley Baker) is cute with its grunts and other sounds. Making Komaneko a filmmaker also provides a cool touch. Produced in Japan, The Curious Kitty & Friends moves slower but is sweet for preschoolers. Verdict: Watch It

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters is one of six new Amazon pilots for kids

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters

The only live-action series in this crop, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters is a modern remake of a 1973 series. Johnny (Solomon Stewart) and Scotty (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) discover a friendly sea monster trapped on the beach. Don’t let the title fool you; this is definitely a show for kids. The creatures are hardly scary and resemble puppets you might see in the ‘70s. The acting from the kids is also on the blander side, even when you consider the genre.

David Arquette provides support as Captain Barnabas, a true believer in sea monsters. This guy is a bit unhinged, which fits Arquette perfectly. It’s really hard to focus on anything but the silly Sigmund, but that is kind of the point. Very little is played straight in this oddball production. It's the only pilot that falls into the half-hour format. You can definitely feel the length. Verdict: Skip It

Anyone can watch all of these pilots on Amazon through this page. After viewing them, you should fill out a survey to help choose which shows become full series.