Reconsidering Stargate Universe: Subversion

A Goa'uld cargo ship used by the Lucian Alliance in SGU's "Subversion"

If you think of SGU’s first season as a three-act story, the final chapter begins with “Subversion”. The crew of the Destiny spent the opening episodes just trying to survive and learning about the mysterious ship. The middle act was battling the aliens and each other while learning to work better as a team. We finish now with a battle to keep control of the Destiny against an invading force. This episode sets the stage for season two and re-introduces a threat to the crew’s survival. It essentially begins the three-part season finale that concludes with “Incursion”. The Lucian Alliance attack on the Icarus planet set the wheels in motion way back in “Air”. Now they’re preparing to finish the job.

It’s interesting to see the Alliance used as a primary adversary within SGU. They were a challenging foil to the SG-1 team during that show’s later years, but the episodes were inconsistent. It felt like the writers needed human enemies to balance with the powerful (and humorless) Ori. This new version of the Alliance feels more realistic and menacing. They’re brutal when needed but aren’t mustache-twirling villains. Despite their origins on SG-1, they still fit comfortably on SGU. They're a serious team with a singular goal. Their leader Kiva (Rhona Mitra) will torture and kill but isn’t reckless. Completing her mission is all that no matters, and that approach makes her extremely dangerous.

“Subversion” mixes in elements of the spy genre by sending Rush undercover posing as Telford. Rush's efforts on Earth and subsequent torture wouldn’t be out of place on a show like Alias. SG-1 also incorporated a similar feel in Earth-bound episodes, particularly their battles with the rogue NID. Rush’s immediate failure to infiltrate the Alliance gives a different vibe, thankfully. Professionals like Kiva and Varro (Mike Dopud) aren’t one-note characters because they immediately catch Rush’s mistakes. From their point of view, he’s an enemy trying to stop their legitimate plans. It's also an original way to use the communication stones as a storytelling device. Rush can leave the Destiny and take on a dangerous mission, which expands the scope of the series and his character.

Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) in SGU's "Subversion"

The Gang’s All Here

It would be easy to stumble upon a few scenes of this episode and mistakenly think it’s SG-1. Both Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson return for significant roles and directly impact the plot. Some fans prefer to keep the original heroes on the sidelines for SGU, but I don’t mind it. Getting to spend a few moments with Richard Dean Anderson is rarely a bad idea. He serves as a sounding board for Young to discuss the issues with Telford but does get a few clever quips. Giving O’Neill a chance to board the Destiny using the stones is also clever. Daniel’s role is stranger and basically turns him into Dr. Jackson, P.I. It’s less significant than his work in “Human” but mostly works. Daniel’s knowing look about plans to torture Telford is also a nice callback to his ideological battles with O’Neill on SG-1.

Beyond the returning characters, this episode also includes references to the Goa’uld, which are rare on SGU. The Alliance even uses a Goa’uld cargo ship, which sits cloaked on Earth and helps capture Rush. It’s a throwback without overdoing the connections. Bringing back Anderson and Shanks is fan service by isn’t egregious. O’Neill also mentions that Samantha Carter is working with them, but we don’t see her this time. The Goa’uld brainwashing technique also plays a key role in the episode’s main story. It’s tricky to bring in all these elements and not distract us, but there’s enough happening to sidestep those obstacles. A sense of urgency pervades the narrative and leads well into the finale.

Rush (Robert Carlyle) in SGU's "Subversion"

Two Interrogations

The most powerful moments in “Subversion” come from the Young/Telford showdown on board the Destiny. Both actors bring their A game to the battle of wills between two guys that won’t surrender. The writers have done an excellent job adding layers to the animosity between the former pals throughout the season. Telford is an arrogant jerk, but he’s also right pretty often. His points about Young’s unprofessional actions are correct, but they’re a means to an end. The slightly crazed smile on Louis Ferreira’s face is chilling. We get the sense that he’ll do anything to break his friend. He takes an unflattering joy in baiting Telford and then attacking him.

This personal fight contrasts sharply with the unemotional way that Kiva tortures Rush. She inflicts pain with a purpose to discover Rush’s true identity. There’s no joy from her in watching him suffer. When Rush finally caves, Kiva sense an opportunity and takes advantage. Killing her own lead scientist is just another step in getting Rush to fulfill her goals. It’s a shockingly brutal scene that jars the audience as much as Rush. We’ve been trained to expect stalling to work in this situation. Kiva sees through the delays and shows Rush that she means business. This moment reminds us that SGU exists is a different universe (pun intended) and pulls fewer punches.

The Young/Telford scenes are powerful, but there’s some deception happening from the show. We’ve seen Young act unmercifully towards Rush in “Justice”, and his current behavior feels similar. On the other hand, keeping everyone in the dark about his true motives seems too cute. It creates unnecessary dissension once Telford is captured within his quarters. It makes sense to not give away the ultimate plan at the start, but why be secretive later? Wray seems ready to start a mutiny against the military because she lacks the right info. This deception crosses over to the audience, which is the real goal. We aren’t sure how far Young will go, and that makes his behavior more intriguing. Revealing the plans to others destroys the mystery and kills the suspense for us.

Kiva (Rhona Mitra) in SGU's "Subversion"

The Greater Good

“Subversion” also introduces Varro, a friendlier member of Kiva’s team. There’s an interesting shot of him looking concerned in the background while she interrogates Rush. Varro is a candid guy who doesn’t beat around the bush, and his direct approach varies sharply from Young’s. On the other hand, he still believes in the Alliance's mission. Varro’s clarification that he’ll kill Rush if he can’t make the Stargate work isn’t an idle threat. Once again, this scene makes us question if the crew are the heroes in this scenario. Varro will definitely kill Rush if it’s necessary, but there’s no personal animosity there. It’s just part of the job.

There’s a fascinating question hanging over Telford’s ultimate confession: Is he an evil guy or the victim of the brainwashing device? The evidence suggests the latter, but there’s enough doubt to keep it surprising. SG-1 fans will recognize a parallel with the season five episode “Threshold” when Teal’c was brainwashed by Apophis. That result should offer clues at Telford’s ultimate destination. Lou Diamond Phillips is so good at playing a jerk despite being such a likable actor. It’s thrilling to watch him take center stage in this key episode. The way that Telford spits out his words at Young when he loses the facade works so well. His knowledge of what Kiva can do is his trump card.

Colonel Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips) in SGU's "Subversion"

In the final scene, Young seems willing to sacrifice both Telford and Rush in one fell swoop. His stone-faced look while peering into Telford’s quarters is frightening. We’ve been trained to expect a last-minute save during this type of scene. Instead, O’Neill actually signed off on this cruel method. It’s a slight cheat but also a brilliant set-up to keep fans excited about the next week. We’ve been set up to hate Telford and enjoy watching his plans fail. On the other hand, seeing Young beat him up and suffocate him seems extreme. Young has been a capable leader at times, but his single-minded determination can miss the bigger picture. There’s theater in the way he dispatches Telford, and his only goal isn’t the greater good. With the Alliance ready to strike at a moment’s notice, this personal duel is the start of something much worse.

This article is part of the Reconsidering Stargate Universe series, which takes an up-close look at each SGU episode. Catch up with all the entries on this page.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! Just re-watched the final two episodes, so I'm on to the next one!


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