December 23, 2015

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: “Time”

Rush holds up his own skull in the Stargate Universe episode "Time"

There’s been a new resurgence in TV series actually set in space, particularly from SyFy. The Expanse and Childhood’s End premiered this month, and Dark Matter arrived this past summer. The network finally realized that many sci-fi fans respond to shows in this setting, which isn’t a surprise. The success of Stargate SG-1 and its spin-off series made that point very clearly. It feels like the perfect time to take a closer look at Stargate Universe (SGU), the most recent and underrated show in the Stargate franchise. I began this project back in September 2014, and a continuation is long overdue. Let’s start with “Time” — one of SGU’s most inventive episodes.

Stargate’s writers employed time travel within all three series to deliver some of its best episodes. The prime example is SG-1’s“Window of Opportunity”, which employed a Groundhog Day concept to trap O’Neill and Teal’c in a time loop. It worked mostly as comedy, but the resolution introduced great drama through a man trying to change the past. Other time travel episodes pushed team members into alternate realities (“There But For the Grace of God”) the past (“1969”, “Moebius”), and a horrific future (SGA’s “The Last Man”). There is no end of ways to use time travel, but it could be problematic to overdo it. After 15 seasons of SG-1 and SGA, SGU would need a different approach.

“Time” arrived fairly early in SGU’s run but remains a standout episode. Co-creator Robert C. Cooper’s direction created a tale that differed greatly from everything that we’d seen thus far. He also wrote the mind-bending script, which consistently plays with expectations. Cooper typically stayed behind the scenes as the executive producer, but he took chances in the episodes he directed. His past work included the SG-1 finale “Unending” and the unconventional SGA episodes “Sateda” and “Vegas”. Cooper’s work feels more cinematic than the average Stargate episode, and he clearly loves the freedom of SGU’s “fly on the wall” shooting style.

A night vision battle in Stargate Universe's "Time"

Pulling Back the Curtain


What if it’s staying here that’s gonna kill us?” – Greer

Cooper employs a found-footage approach to depict an expedition to a jungle planet by using the Kino remote camera. It maintains the up-close perspective from other episodes but enhances the dramatic tension through the limited viewpoint. The remote camera floats slowly through the air and is smoother than the show’s normal jittery shooting style. An early shot looms above the characters and hints that dangerous enemies lurk nearby. This voyeuristic style doesn’t feel like a gimmick because Eli (David Blue) has regularly used the Kino to document their experiences.

The episode begins with a standard visit to a new planet. The team is much larger than usual, and even Chloe (Elyse Levesque) makes her first trip off the Destiny. The action grows somber with the arrival of a mysterious illness, and that’s just the beginning. They also discover a termite-like mound similar to the nests from the movie Alien. The ominous set-up is straight out of a horror film and sets the stage for attacks from vicious creatures named Squigglers. We’re still in the Stargate world, but there’s a menace that we've rarely seen. When a Squiggler kills Chloe and chews through her body, it reminds us that SGU is much different. Few scenes from SG-1 or SGA can match this one’s pure grisliness.

For nine minutes, Cooper gives the impression that this episode is on the level. The characters we have grown to like (or at least tolerate) for seven episodes are facing a dire calamity. The big reveal of the Destiny crew gathered around a screen punctures those assumptions. Despite the communications stones and other sci-fi elements of previous episodes, there were few dramatic turns on this scale. Your first inclination might be to restart the episode and see if you missed pertinent information. The SGU characters are experiencing an identical bewildering sensation. The people on the video from the first timeline are acting like the same individuals on the Destiny. Are they android duplicates or part of an alternate reality? When there are so many intriguing, yet unanswered, questions for both the characters and the audience, the result is one of the show’s best episodes.

Greer contemplates the situation in SGU's "Time"

Paying Off the Slow Burn


Chloe’s move to throw up after seeing her video-self die is about more than her gut reaction. It confirms that the SGU characters are realistic and have a hard time grasping unbelievable moments. These are not stoic officers from Star Trek: TNG that rarely blink when chaos ensues. Watching herself skewered horrifies Chloe, while Eli is intrigued like a sci-fi geek. Meanwhile, Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle) tries to figure out the puzzle. They all react believably for their personalities, and that says a lot for such a young show. Earlier slow-burn episodes like “Darkness” and “Earth” have paid off now. Those stories took their time, and that creative choice allows this episode to succeed.

What makes “Time” shine is the way the two timelines function concurrently after the big reveal. We actually go back and learn more about what went wrong on the planet during the first timeline. The characters on the ship in the second timeline must adjust their thinking when their own become sick, even some that never visited the planet in the first timeline. It seems complicated on the surface, but Cooper’s script never becomes too confusing. Instead of breaking down over multiple viewings, this story gets deeper. Characters in both timelines reveal secrets and true feelings, but it can be easy to forget they’re still doomed. Only after the final shot do we realize just how far Cooper’s ambitions reach. It isn’t enough to shift our perceptions once; he’s repeatedly changing the game.

It’s no surprise that Eli became the SGU fan favorite; he was designed that way. David Blue is a diehard Stargate fan, and he brings that enthusiasm to his character. Eli has no military background to keep him composed. Unlike Rush, Eli is willing to make real connections. This episode gives us (and the other characters) details about his mother contracting the AIDS virus at work and his father leaving. It’s a sad revelation from Eli in the first timeline, and the actors watching the video wisely underplay it. This crossing of timelines is a clever way to develop the characters indirectly. We receive hints about Rush’s reasons for being on the Destiny; he is not just a curmudgeon. Rush understands what may be needed to stick with the Destiny. He will do anything, even if it involves betraying the others.

Chloe is struck by an illness in Stargate Universe's "Time"

Selling the Little Moments


“For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble.” – Rush (quoting a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

The emotional content reveals the major difference between SGU and the previous Stargate series. SG-1 and SGA also dealt with complex plots, but none have built their characters in this way. O’Neill’s grief over his dead son surfaced several times, but the tragedy did not have such a large impact on his character like Rush’s sad experience. The loss defines every move that Rush makes. When his defenses start to crumble, he raises the gruff exterior. There’s a great moment for Rush before he risks going through the unstable wormhole knowing he will likely die. He smiles at Eli and even makes a joke, and we see the human behind the facade. Robert Carlyle brings such glee to the scene, and Rush seems happy that his torment is finished.

The frequent pop culture references also fit nicely in this episode, which pulls so much from previous time-travel plots. Eli’s top five desert island movies work because they aren’t all obvious. Hackers and Old School are hardly masterpieces but fit with his character. The Matrix and The Empire Strikes Back are more standard, and the fifth pick is interrupted (for a time) by the Squigglers’ appearance. Eli does return to the subject when his memory’s jogged about Back to the Future. Citing Butch Cassidy brings a humanity to Rush that we rarely see. It doesn’t feel out of place and gives a brief glimpse at humanity that’s been pushed to the background.

These references add lightness to a story filled with death and balance difficult moments for several characters, especially Eli. The confession of his feelings to a dying Chloe (who can’t hear him) during the second timeline is heartbreaking. His comments are refreshing because they aren’t really about unrequited romantic love. Eli still adores her but understands that romance won’t happen. He was thrilled to have a close friend and played it cool until it was too late. What really sells the moment is TJ’s reaction on the edge of the frame. Chloe and James are gone (in this timeline), and it is all too much for her to bear. Alaina Huffman never says a word, but her tearful reaction strikes just the right chord and compounds the emotional impact.

The unfortunate aspect of this sequence is the cliché where a helpless woman dies while the guy stands by her deathbed. The actors totally sell the material, but we have entered outdated territory for a modern series. A recurring comic book trope called “Women in Refrigerators” refers to situations where female characters are killed to impact the story of the male hero. While it doesn’t completely apply here since male characters die too, there is a connection with the way they fall. Chloe and James are felled by the illness and die on the Destiny. Greer, Rush, and Scott are killed while actively fighting the Squigglers or trying to solve the problem. Although SGU is more forward-thinking than its predecessors, it suffers from unfortunate genre clichés at times.

Scott issues a warning through the Stargate in SGU's "Time"

No Easy Way Out


“You don't have much time. Act now, or you are all going to die.” – Scott

“Time” is the type of episode that works for both Stargate fanatics and new viewers. It’s a puzzle that grows more complex with each revelation and keeps us guessing until the end. It’s fun to note the references to previous SG-1 episodes with time travel coming via a solar flare. That technique was the solution in Season Two’s “1969” and played a pivotal role in the Season Four episode “2010”. The latter episode has multiple similarities with this one. The future version of SG-1 sent a note through the Stargate to save mankind, which had the same purpose as what Scott attempted in the second timeline. While this episode lacks SG-1’s epic scale, its events impact the survival of everyone on the Destiny. The connection is fun because the characters don’t address the past directly. Instead, the link provides subtle Easter Eggs for longtime fans.

Shot entirely on a soundstage, the jungle planet does not resemble a typical Vancouver setting. There is a stifling feeling to this environment, and that sense is heightened by the perspective of the Kino. During the first video, Greer plays Saul Williams’ “List of Demands (Reparations)”, and that song builds the tone of impending chaos. This musical choice also connects to Greer’s anger about his past that is explained in future episodes. The chance to escape is nonexistent, and even “timey wimey” exploits fail. It comes down to a daring move from Scott with his back against the wall. Of course, his actions can’t save the characters in the second timeline.

The ending of “Time” hints that the characters will survive in a future timeline, but we don’t see it until the next episode “Life”. Immediately after Scott’s warning into the Kino, the screen goes black and the credits arrive. This brilliant move by Cooper leaves enough mystery to make us wonder. Will there be a second part? The Kino webisode “New Kind of Crazy” clarifies the situation, but it’s never explained on the main show. The Squiggler venom reappears multiple times in the future to provide a nice bit of continuity. Even so, it’s a bold choice to withhold a resolution. It presents a stark contrast to the conclusion of SG-1’s “2010” with General Hammond receiving the note and locking out the dangerous planet. Cooper trusts the audience to connect the dots and imagine what happens next after Scott’s Kino is discovered.

This understanding of their fate raises an interesting question about the “real” versions of the Destiny characters. Should we mourn this group or just focus on the survivors? This recalls a similar dilemma encountered in SGA’s “Before I Sleep”, which showed the failure of the original expedition to Atlantis. This third timeline on SGU has the same characters moving forward in the next episode “Life”, but they only survived because of actions from another time. No one knows the revelation about Eli’s mom, and Rush and Young never bonded over their love of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Would future events occur differently with this knowledge? The subject is intriguing and probably induced sleepless nights for the Destiny’s crew.

Rush sits near the Stargate in SGU's "Time"

A Step Forward


Fans who complained about the slow pace of the early SGU episodes were thrilled by “Time”. It hearkened back to the adventurous sci-fi of past series and remains near the top of many fans’ lists of favorite episodes. The unconventional shooting style and surprise twists keep us on our toes right until the end. It also works as a one-off episode, which is rare for such a serialized production. The next two episodes dig further into the characters and have more in common with “Earth” than this one. The writers kept going further and did not fall back on familiar sci-fi concepts. That approach makes “Time” the exception, but it shows that the creators had a longer view for this epic adventure.

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.

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