February 16, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: “Space”

A space alien in the Stargate Universe episode "Space"

We’ve reached the point where many longtime fans of the Stargate franchise breathed a huge sigh of relief. Following the discovery of the spaceship in the previous episode “Justice”, it seemed almost certain the Destiny would encounter aliens down the road. Along with facing their first space battle, the crew encounters an entirely new enemy for the franchise. The result is a tense and action-packed episode that expands nicely on the foundation of the first 10 episodes. It’s too bad that fans had to wait four months for the back half of SGU’s first season. Building any viewer momentum was virtually impossible following that gap between episodes.

SGU works so much better in a more condensed viewing because of the story’s serialized nature. It’s also much easier to keep track of the large number of characters. The more deliberate pacing is less of an issue because big moments aren’t needed so quickly. Meeting the first real villains on the show in episode 11 doesn’t feel too late in a binge viewing. Fans didn’t reach this point until eight months after the premiere, however. The writers did leave a hint about the aliens at the end of “Air, Part 3” with the glimpse of a mysterious small ship leaving the Destiny. With such a long break, you could forgive the audience if they forgot about that brief moment.

“Space” is familiar to “Time” in the way that it combines aspects of SG-1 and SGA with the newer approach on SGU. These characters still react in the way you’d expect on this show, though. Beyond a few quips from Eli, they’re taking a serious approach to the situation. When Young inadvertently switches bodies with an alien, he remains the practical, soft-spoken guy we know. Even so, the introduction of the blue enemies is still an awesome moment. It’s a stunning cold open that immediately signifies the next stage of this ongoing story. Instead of just trying to get back to Earth, the characters are now discovering new parts of the universe.

Louis Ferreira as Young and Ming Na as Wray in the SGU episode "Space"

Lingering Effects

Despite the arrival of a new threat, this episode doesn’t forget about Young’s choice to strand Rush on the planet and doom him to almost-certain death in "Justice". The story opens with a shot of Young shaving in front of a mirror and thinking about the fight with Rush. Wray doesn’t believe him about the rockslide, and TJ can sense that he’s struggling. Young walks through the ship like a man carrying a burden that only he can see. Soldiers like Scott and Greer are still behind him, but even a friend like Eli doesn’t feel right about it. Rush’s survival gives Young the chance to make things right, but it raises new challenges from the equally committed adversary.

Wray’s questions about the alien discovery are a testament to how much some characters distrust Young. She’s hardly the only one, either. That moment does exemplify some frustrations with Wray as a character. We’ve just met a cool new alien race, and the writers use her as the skeptic questioning the events. Young’s imagination isn’t that good. This is not a good look for Wray, who’s forced into a role where we’re going to dislike her. Having a civilian foil for Young is important, but Wray’s actions feel less natural than they should. She’s ready to start a mutiny against Young and is driving it more than Rush. Their final conversation sets up the events to come in “Divided”, but it also feels less essential given the immediate threat to the Destiny’s survival.

A simple alien message in the Stargate Universe episode "Space"

SURRENDER

Even after multiple viewings, the arrival of the spaceship is still one of the season’s high points. This moment feels earned because we know these characters and want them to survive. It’s more than just a video game where the stakes don’t feel real. The chilling one-word response of “SURRENDER” works so well and is the point where the dangers reach a new high. It’s a nice touch to have Eli still take a shot at Young about taking out Rush during the battle. His comment reminds us how this group must work together, or they won’t survive. Even James gets a hero moment during the chaos, which is great to see for the underused character. Julia Benson is a convincing actress and deserves more than pining for Scott and others.

What makes these aliens so intriguing is the lack of a real explanation or details about them. They’re clearly hostile but have little interest in explaining their plans. These aren’t the power-hungry Goa’uld like Apophis who enjoy taunting their enemies. Our brief glimpses of them on the ship reveal a workmanlike approach to taking over the Destiny. They use the ships as a distraction to sneak inside and kidnap Chloe. The CGI enemies aren’t just humans with a few odd features and represent a real departure for the franchise. The effects work is great and goes well beyond what you’d expect from a cable series.

Young’s return to the alien ship is quite an effective sequence, particularly when he discovers Rush alive. Young can’t explain what he’s doing and looks like the enemy, while Rush understands something isn’t right with this alien. This moment also represents an excellent use of the communication stones as a storytelling device. The other crew members see Young’s body with the alien inside, and we also observe this moment from the alien’s viewpoint. When Young puts on the mind-reading device, the overload of multiple brains connected at once leads to a crazy scene. Young screams in agony while Rush prepares to kill the alien with his bare hands. Meanwhile, Eli is dealing with “bad and more bad” during the space battle on Young’s return.

Chloe is about to be captured in the SGU episode "Space"

Personal Stakes

“Space” really clicks because of the questions lurking beneath the surface during the action. When Young orders Eli to fire on the ship, is he trying to kill Rush? He did help to save Rush by freeing him from the tank, but there’s ambiguity to this choice. It’s unlikely that Young would sacrifice Chloe to protect himself, but doubt lingers about his intentions. The final conversation between Young and Rush is still uneasy, but there appears to be more respect on both sides. Rush admits that he forced Young’s hand, while Young regrets leaving him on the planet. They’ll try to work together “for the sake of the crew”, but the distrust remains on both sides.

I’ve yet to mention Chloe’s involvement, which is partially due to her role as the damsel in distress. This capture will eventually take the character in a more interesting direction, but she’s still a passive observer of most of the action. Chloe does get a rock star moment when she drops out of the ship to a stunned Greer and Scott. She lands gracefully in contrast to Rush comically falling in a heap. What’s problematic is the way she’s rescued from the aliens. Young arrives via the stones and frees Rush, who then notices Chloe and frees her. Scott and Greer are also working to save her. There’s nothing wrong with putting any character in jeopardy, but the resolution still places Chloe’s safety in the hands of the guys on the Destiny.

Jamil Walker Smith as Greer in the Stargate Universe episode "Space"

Just the Beginning

Director Andy Mikita returned to shoot his first episode since the pilot “Air”, and it’s no coincidence that both were nominated for an Emmy for visual effects. He’s a veteran Stargate director who knows how to present an action scene, especially in space. His past work includes SG-1’s “Heroes” and “New Order” plus SGA’s “Be All My Sins Remember’d” and its finale “Enemy at the Gate”. Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Savela’s team also deserves credit for building aliens that fit within this down-to-earth setting but are still striking beings.

The episode concludes with a music montage with Rob Thomas’ “Dark Comes the Night” playing in the background. Such lyrics as “you will not be alone” are a bit on the nose, but this sequence includes some great moments. The shot of Greer smiling while looking at an unseen photo is heart-warming because he rarely shows a softer side. TJ’s silent walk through the infirmary also connects due to her satisfaction in keeping everyone alive. It’s these quiet interludes that make “Space” about more than the action. There are quite a few cool moments, and they’re heightened by our personal feelings about the characters. With more turmoil and danger coming in the next installment, they won’t get much time enjoy the silence.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Man do i feel a panning to wanting to do an immediate rewatch of the show..

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    1. I can definitely understand that feeling. It really gets rolling at this point.

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  2. I love SGU and just started to watch the first episodes.. Again.

    Thanks for this article, it can be read very well.

    I enjoy to read current contributions to SGU!

    Greetings

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    1. Thanks! Glad to hear that you're going back and watching SGU again. I've seen it quite a few times, but it feels quite new as I'm writing about it this time.

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  3. Have often found the use of song at the end of some of the SGU episodes to be a little jarring. It just didn't fit or, like you say with Space - too on the nose. Still it's a change from previous SG franchise shows.

    Also what I found different was how SGU deals with consequences of previous episodes. You really feel that every action in the SGU world will have a reaction - and we're still dealing with Young's decision.

    I wasn't sure about the aliens when I first saw them. I was actually slightly disappointed that SGU had gone to the ol' alien as villains thing a little too early. I was enjoying the character heavy episodes. Still, guess the aliens had to come into play at some point.

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    1. I feel like they were trying a bit too hard to match some other shows at the time with the song montage at the end. They worked well at times but sometimes were too obvious.

      The aliens worked really well for me because they still were mysterious. If they'd spoken English or looked too much like humans, it would have failed. I've also been watching these slowly, so it felt like the right time in episode 11 to bring in an alien threat. Still, I can see how it made seem less character-driven.

      I totally agree about the ways that past events hang over the characters for a long time. You can see it in reaction shots and facial expressions that often last just a moment. What isn't said is quite powerful on SGU, especially with a quieter guy like Young.

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