September 17, 2014

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: "Air"

Stargate Universe episode "Air"

We're not supposed to be there, sir. These are the wrong people, in the wrong place. And as a group, they're just not qualified.” – Colonel Young

We open in the vast reaches of space, with just a glimmer of an object in the distance. As it moves closer, we realize that it’s a massive ship. The camera pans across the gorgeous vessel and tracks inside towards a large room. It reveals the Stargate, a familiar device for most viewers. The gate begins dialing, and we expect the typical humans or humanoid aliens strolling casually through the gate. Instead, a solider falls brutally through the event horizon. He looks around and clearly has no idea where he is. There’s a brief moment of quiet, and then the chaos begins. People start arriving violently into the ship and sustaining injuries. The final arrival barely makes it and flies spectacularly above them all. It’s a crazy introduction to an unknown environment for people totally unprepared for it. As an audience member, we’re right with them in having no idea what’s in store in this place.

The opening scene of "Air" from SGU

One man stands on a balcony and smiles while the mess continues below him. This is Dr. Rush (Robert Caryle), and he’s located a place that he’s been seeking for a long time. The collateral damage is secondary to this discovery. This moment sets the stage for a different type of Stargate series. Beyond the shooting style or set design, it’s the more complicated people that show the change. Rush isn’t evil but has different goals than soldiers like Colonel Young (Louis Ferreira) and Lieutenant Scott (Brian J. Smith). Those guys would do anything to find home, while Rush is content to stay right where he is. The ship is called the Destiny, and it’s a treasure trove of material about the Ancients. The conflict between finding this knowledge and a safe return to Earth will be a key part of the season.

Stargate Universe (SGU) premiered with “Air”, a three-part episode split across two weeks. The first two parts aired on the opening night, with the conclusion arriving on the following week. The DVD release includes them in a single extended version that works best in presenting the material. It’s essentially a feature-length story that packs so much plot and character introduction into just more than two hours. It’s easier to digest with the extra 10 minutes, which aren’t essential but provide more room to breathe (no pun intended). Without the burden of meeting all the characters, the premiere works much better. The first part does include too many shifts in time, which stall the momentum from the past scenes. Opening with the arrival on the Destiny makes sense, but so many leaps feel like overkill.

Richard Dean Anderson as Jack O'Neill in "Air" of Stargate Universe

Highlights for the diehard SG-1 fan include appearances from Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks, and Amanda Tapping. They may be a painful reminder of past glories to others, but I never get tired of seeing the originals on my screen. It’s too bad that Christopher Judge couldn’t join them; I expect Wright and Cooper didn’t feel the Goa’uld fit within this show. Anderson gets fewer chances to have fun as Jack O’Neill, though his dry delivery to Eli (David Blue) at the start is pitch-perfect. We do get a video conference for the shippers between O’Neill and Tapping’s Samantha Carter that’s a nice gesture. Shanks only appears in an instructional video as Daniel Jackson, but it still works to remind us of his presence. Who else would deliver the Cliffs Notes version of Stargate history? Anderson has scenes in all three parts, but he’s most present in the first hour. It’s important to remind us that SGU does exist in the same universe as past shows.

What if we are not supposed to be here?” - Eli Wallace

Our entry point in this story is Eli, and even the cynics loved him. He’s the regular guy who can say “wow, that was cool!” while the soldiers and scientists remain serious. David Blue was a longtime Stargate fan, and he’s perfectly cast as the brilliant audience surrogate. His laid-back demeanor stands out even more on a repeat viewing, and Eli’s a necessity in disrupting the somber tone. They may be about to die, but he’s still going to explore the ship. His discovery of the Kino gives the filmmakers another route for presenting the ship and the characters. These miniature orbs can float through the hallways and allow them to check out planets before going through the Stargate. It functions like the M.A.L.P. on SG-1 but also works like a handheld camera for capturing interviews and other random moments. Eli finds a clever way to use them, which also helps as a story telling device.

Alaina Huffman in SGU's "Air"

Much of the SGU criticism focused on its depiction of women, and there was definitely a boys club behind the scenes. Only three of the 40 episodes had female writers, and there was just one directing credit. The characters are written from a male perspective, but that doesn’t mean they’re one-dimensional. “Air” doesn’t have much time to know the characters, but several stand out from the start. The most interesting is T.J. (Alaina Huffman), who’s forced to take charge because of her medical background. Huffman expands what’s on the page and has a confidence that makes T.J. interesting. Chloe (Elyse Levesque) took a lot of vitriol, but she works as a young character who’s completely out of her element. Fans wanted Samantha Carter and instead received a young woman with little experience for this trip. Elyse Levesque does a good job selling Chloe’s angry reaction to losing her father (Christopher McDonald), and standing up to Robert Carlyle is no easy feat.

There are some characters that don’t feel as strong, however. Julia Benson gets little to do as Vanessa James, and her introduction while having sex with Scott is a surprise. This moment serves a larger purpose than setting up their connection. Wright and Cooper are proclaiming that SGU will rest on a different plane from its predecessors. We aren’t in HBO territory, but the characters won’t be the nearly chaste saints of the past. It’s unfortunate for James that we don’t get more dimensions to her character at this point. We learn more about Scott in part three while he struggles on the desert planet. Those flashbacks are really effective in showing his tragic past. The final hour is the strongest and essentially functions like the show’s first regular episode. The Destiny takes them to a planet with the resources to solve their problem, but finding them won’t be easy. There’s a ticking clock that will be familiar to fans, but we get a real sense that people could die on this mission.

"Air, Part 3" on Stargate Universe

This mission also reveals a different approach to aliens than the humanoid Go’uld or Wraith. The swirling desert sands are a mysterious presence that isn’t explained, and that’s so refreshing. I love Carter and Dr. McKay and their skills at delivering loads of exposition, but it’s okay not to know everything. These sand aliens will play a role in the future, yet their origins remain unclear. They don’t speak English or any language we can understand, and that lack of clarity makes them a lot more intriguing. Another interesting aspect is the mutiny from three crew members, who nearly kill them all. Greer (Jamil Walker Smith) must shoot one of them to keep hope alive, and it’s telling about the obstacles to this journey. Confict within the group is just as dangerous as any external threats. There's also a real sense of scale to this desert planet. The grand shots of the party as dots on a horizon create a believable new world. Their chances of success are slim among the vast sameness.

Stargate Universe invasion during "Air"

In the past dozen years or so, we've sent hundreds of teams through that thing. I think the bottom line is, none of us are qualified.” – Jack O’Neill

SGU has a different style and tone from the previous shows, but I still consider it an essential part of the franchise. It represents a natural progression that offers more creative freedom than the episodic adventures of the past shows. Wright and Cooper are still finding their way with “Air”, but the foundation is set for an excellent sci-fi series. The expanded cast gives them more flexibility to focus in on different characters and avoid the “villain of the week” structure. Having actors like Robert Carlyle, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Ming-Na on board doesn't hurt either. They’re able to bring depth to complicated people that often make the wrong decisions. The obstacles will only keep increasing, and no one is safe in this foreign environment. “Air” closes with a music montage with Alexi Murdoch’s “Breathe” playing while characters do just that. It’s a bit on the nose, but the editing does a nice job closing out the first chapter. The perilous journey’s only getting started, and no one knows where the next jump will take them.

2 comments:

  1. You know, I could have gone the whole episode without seeing anyone from SG-1. Though I can understand there needing to be some sort of handover for those die-hard SG-1 fans.

    Rush was an intriguing character. Just where he stood morally and his relationships with the other characters. Especially with Young and Eli.

    Greer was an interesting one. Initially he just seemed like "the muscle" but they worked on him really well and managed to create a more three dimensional character out of him.

    Reading this has definitely made me want to do a rewatch of the show.

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    1. I can see that about the SG-1 actors; they weren't needed for the story. I do think it was a nice treat for the fans, though many didn't care of course. The Rush/Young relationship was intriguing, especially when it went off the rails.

      I think it took them a while to figure out what to do with Greer, though Jamil Walker Smith did a good job from the start. Glad that I'm inspiring a re-watch!

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