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.

4 comments:

  1. I think the moment Young orders another mission at the end is one of my favourite moments on SGU(never mind tv). It was the way even Rush is deflated, but the fella correctly defined as 'the wrong man to lead', but Young tries to carry on as if no trauma has occurred. To me he is as interesting as Bill Adama of 'Battlestar Galactica'.

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    1. I've found Young to be a fascinating character during this re-watch. There's a lot more lurking beneath the surface than what I saw in earlier viewings. He seems like a dour military guy, but that's far too simple. He keeps trying to press forward, even at his lowest points.

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