January 4, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: "Life"

Dr. Rush and Colonel Young in Stargate Universe's "Life"

When Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright publicly spoke about Stargate Universe (SGU), their recurring theme was emphasizing the characters more than in the previous series. They aimed to create a drama set in space but less focused on action/adventure stories. Episodes would move slower and mostly avoid the “enemy of the week” formula. “Time” had been more of a standalone entry, and it wasn’t surprising to see it receive praise from Stargate fans (including this one). It maintained the new style yet felt like a throwback. Instead of continuing that trend, the follow-up episode pulled back and concentrated on relationships on board the Destiny and back on Earth.

Arguably SGU’s most deliberately paced episode so far, “Life” drew cries that it betrayed the spirit of the franchise. I don’t share that belief but can understand why the criticism arose. It’s essentially a template for how Cooper and Wright built something new with SGU. Carl Binder’s script includes quite a few long conversations between characters. It’s worth noting that most discussions are not about the discovery of a new Ancient interface device. Despite being a remarkable find, the chair's presence remains secondary to emotional moments for Camile Wray and Matthew Scott on Earth. Their stories drive the episode, and the scenes add much-needed depth to both characters.

What’s tricky about this episode is appreciating the effort while realizing it’s a bit too inert. Arriving right before the mid-season finale, it doesn’t build the momentum towards a gripping finish. The writing believes we’re attached enough to Scott and Wray by this point to enjoy learning more about them. It works because Ming Na and Brian J. Smith are both such likable actors, but the material (especially his story) risks falling into obvious clichés. The danger in slowing down is losing viewers if they’d prefer to stay aboard the Destiny. When you add in Young’s conflict with Telford, that’s quite a lot of content away from the main arc. It’s risky yet will pay dividends further down the road if the audience is willing to stick around.

Chloe relaxes while doing yoga in Stargate Universe's "Life"

Just Another Day on the Destiny


A predominant theme in “Life” is the idea that we’re just seeing one of many challenging days. The music montages that bookend the story present characters doing everyday things like yoga, sketching a picture, and having sex. The use of Flogging Molly’s “The Worst Day Since Yesterday” makes the blatant point that every day is a new hurdle on the Destiny. Each person deals with the stress in a different way. Lisa Park (Jennifer Spence) sleeps around, Sergeant Spencer (Josh Blacker) takes pills, and Scott leads workouts around the ship. They’re all desperate to get home, and the realization has sunk in that perhaps this won’t be a short trip.

An interesting companion piece is SGA’s divisive “Sunday”, which offered a rare glimpse at the crew enjoying a day off. While those scenes were the set up for the death of a major character, they reminded us that even the most daring adventurers needed downtime. That episode was also a different take on the show's formula, which made it feel unique. While “Sunday” was warm and relaxing (until the tragic end), “Life” uses the everyday scenario to depict emotional turmoil. No one is having any fun, particularly Colonel Young. His estrangement from his wife feels even harder because he can only visit her in a different body. On the Destiny, he’s growing increasingly suspicious of Rush’s plans. Young is fighting a battle on two fronts with Telford and Rush, and neither is going well.

This story’s events do set the stage for the fates of two characters in “Justice” next time. Spencer’s unraveling has been hinted at multiple times, and his behavior this week is a new low. It’s obvious that he’s just inches from cracking. Right there with him is Franklin (Mark Burgess), who bears the wrath of Spencer and hates the Destiny. The challenge with this set-up is that we haven’t learned enough to care much about either guy. Franklin’s fate would feel more tragic if he wasn’t presented as such a weak guy. Spencer has also behaved like a jerk since the start. If there was more development with either character, their failings would be more powerful. Instead, they seem like plot devices to build up the conflict between Rush and Young.

Camille Rey sees her girlfriend Sharon in SGU's "Life"

A Reason to Get Home


“Life” does an excellent job showing the motivations for both Wray and Scott to return to Earth. She left behind her longtime girlfriend Sharon (Reiko Aylesworth) and isn’t a military figure accustomed to extended absences. They’ve been together for 12 years, and it only takes a few moments to recognize their strong relationship. The scenes between Sharon and Wray are the episode’s best and warrant the attention on the Earth-bound stories. It’s noteworthy for a male-dominated franchise like Stargate to depict a lesbian relationship so well. Most of the credit should go to Na and Aylesworth, who reveal so much with a simple glance. Home is the only place where Wray lets the bureaucratic façade totally slip, and missing it makes her incomplete.

On the other hand, Scott’s discovery that he’s a father is less effective. It feels too generic, particularly with the boy’s mom working as a dancer. These scenes are a sharp contrast against the understated moments with Wray and Sharon. Despite a convincing performance from Smith, the beats are extremely familiar. Even Scott’s cell-phone move to try and support her doesn’t ring true. Despite our interest in his character, it’s tricky to care too much for the fate of other strangers we’ve just met. Creating stakes for Scott at home makes sense; I just wish there was more nuance to these scenes.

The ancient interface device chair in Stargate Universe's "Life"

A Familiar Sight


It’s intriguing to note just how little time is spent on the ancient chair, which could change the game. Even the characters seem more concerned with their own issues. Young wants to fight Telford and has TJ doing psych evaluations of everyone. The chair represents more of a problem than a potential solution for Young. It’s all about his issues with Rush, and the danger of using it outweighs the benefits. His reluctance makes sense, especially given his role as the military leader. He’s responsible for everyone, while Rush views the device as an opportunity for scientific discovery. It’s a tool to heighten the personal conflict more than an exciting way to reveal the Destiny’s mysteries.

Their argument does include some fun callbacks to O’Neill’s experiences with the Ancient repository of knowledge in SG-1's “The Fifth Race” and “Lost City”. Young uses the history to support the dangers of that info, while Rush believes the potential reward is worth the risk. What’s interesting is the connection that’s not mentioned between this find and the Ancient control chair used primarily in SGA. This tool might be able to control everything. We’ll soon discover that the dangers are very real, but Young barely wants to consider an alternative. It’s possibly short-sighted, but the show keeps the situation ambiguous for both the characters and the audience.

T.J. gives everyone psych evaluations in Stargate Universe's "Life"

Building the Foundation


“Life” feels similar to “Earth” in the way it shows the difficulty for the characters to stay connected with home. Wray and Sharon enjoy their time together, but it’s impossible to forget that they’re separated by a massive physical distance. Sharon puts up a strong face, but she breaks down immediately once Wray has left. It’s a heartbreaking shot that says plenty about the rift between Earth and the Destiny. TJ’s evaluations reveal that each person is coping differently, but they’re all struggling. Rush is an exception because his mission doesn’t involve going home.

These conversations with TJ include clever touches like Park’s claim that she “reads” to deal with stress. Chloe speaks about the comfort from Scott, but the sad look on TJ’s face stands out in that moment. Young won’t connect with her, so she’s a loner forced to hear everyone’s problems. The most intriguing session is with Greer, who opens up about his abuse from his dad but then shuts down. Jamil Walker Smith embodies this character so well, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Despite the slow pace and divided attention, there’s enough happening to keep “Life” afloat. The psych evaluations are an obvious way to dig into the characters, but it still works. It’s a challenge to keep us engaged with such a large cast, but there are enough standouts to make up for the others. It’s the season’s least effective episode thus far, but the bar is high. The intensity ratchets up very soon, so it doesn’t hurt to step back for a week. The show is still finding its footing, but Wright and Cooper are laying the groundwork for the excitement to come.

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.

4 comments:

  1. It's taken me so long to get around to reading this, sorry Dan!

    Think the one thing all of the TV shows in the Stargate universe struggled with was portraying Earth life. The writers and directors really couldn't put together the genuine and real lives of the military and people involved with the Stargate project. Until Universe, and a few of the characters. Totally agree with you about Camille and Sharon's relationship - it's refreshing to see something like that in a TV show that's so male dominated and hardcore sci-fi at times.

    I wish they had done more with Jamil Walker Smith - his character really starts to come into his own and one of the most underrated actors on the show. Shame he hasn't appeared in anything notable since. More time with Greer, less time with Scott would have made me very happy.

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    1. No problem, Jaina! I took a super-long break between writing about previous SGU episodes and the last two. I'm hoping to keep a better pace this time, though it may be a few weeks before I can dig into "Justice" and "Space".

      It's definitely true that the Stargate writers never felt that comfortable showing the home lives of their characters. This was especially the case on SG-1. With SGU, they sometimes fell prey to obvious plots with characters like Scott and Chloe. They tried a lot harder and it worked at times, but it still felt a little forced.

      I totally agree with Jamil Walker Smith! I've really noticed just how good he is as Greer in this re-watch as I've been writing about it. He just owns the screen and creates a really believable character. It surprises me that he hasn't done much since, at least from what I can tell. I found that the show sometimes felt that the audience cared more about a few characters than we really did. I think Brian J. Smith is very good as Scott, but he wasn't always as interesting as the show thought he was. Same for Chloe too.

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  2. It is a pity that Jamil has had very little work since SGU..

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    1. I know! It would be great to see him get another major role in a series or movie.

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