Showing posts with label TV Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TV Review. Show all posts

October 19, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 2 (Episodes 5-8)

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth meet on Luke Cage.

The superhero TV genre has come a long way in the past few years. There once was a time when talking seriously about these shows might seem strange. The success of the Netflix Marvel series (and ABC’s Agent Carter) has opened the door to more than by-the-numbers action. Daredevil went to surprisingly grim places, and Jessica Jones was really a survivor’s tale of abuse and rape. The bar was set ultra-high for Luke Cage, and its start didn’t let us down. However, the second-act challenges of its predecessors are hard to dodge completely. I’m intrigued by the tonal shifts during these episodes, but it feels like the show is still finding its way.

The often-disjointed middle episodes of the 13-episode Marvel seasons build a bridge to the ultimate conflict. This trend continues with episodes five through eight of Luke Cage. Following Pop’s death and the initial battle with Cottonmouth’s gang, our hero must regroup and decide where he stands. On the other side of the aisle, Cottonmouth reckons with his fading status in Harlem. His fall is the key arc of act two. Cage’s efforts weaken his enemy and set him up to fall. Of course, that defeat could signal the rise of a tougher adversary in his stead.

A notable change that we see is the rising darkness in Harlem; both Cottonmouth and Cage face their inner demons. It was fun to hang out at the barbershop and club in the opening episodes, but that charm slips to the background. The plot kicks into gear, which leads to more action. On the other hand, the conflicts follow a more predictable route. It’s a comic-book series, so this switch is expected. Still, the greater intensity doesn’t always lead to gripping drama.

The Tragic (Sort Of) Fall of Cottonmouth

It’s sad to lose Mahershala Ali from this show, but Cottonmouth’s demise is inevitable. Cage proves to Harlem that its crime boss is fallible. The arrest doesn’t finish the job but creates the tense environment that leads to Cottonmouth’s death. The flashbacks to his childhood in episode seven (“Manifest”) predict that the end is near. Events from decades earlier lead directly to the raw emotions that cause the murder. It’s a tragic end for a talented guy that never had a choice.

It’s interesting to see the evolution of Mariah Dillard, who initially appears to be the opposite of Cottonmouth. Alfred Woodard brings range to a character who’s frustrated with it all. Her cousin’s defense of Dillard’s childhood abuser is the final straw. This bloody scene approaches melodrama and is quite jarring for the once-airy show. We’ve moved away from the laid-back early vibes. That killing will haunt Dillard forever, and the darkness inside her will just grow. Her associate Shades is basically the devil on her shoulder that appears to help but really pushes her to greater depths.

Luke Cage has an interesting undercurrent about how social class plays a role in where people land. Crime made Cottonmouth’s family powerful, but it also locked him into a certain life. The club is his way to connect with his dreams of a different path. Dillard is desperate to prove she isn’t a cold and brutal person like Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). Unfortunately, the pressure to be someone different makes Dillard just as bad (if not worse). Her political ambitions rest on the back of Cottonmouth’s crime world. Both are stuck in the life created by Mabel, and neither wants it. Dillard is still alive yet is dead inside after killing her cousin.

Another important subject is race, which is pivotal in understanding how Cottonmouth and Dillard act. They constantly push to prove they’re better than what others think. Her attempts to be reputable draw scoffs from journalists and even her own cousin. Society has trained Cottonmouth that crime is the only way. His giant painting of the Notorious B.I.G. isn’t just because of the music. That larger-than-life artist used his talents to rise up from the streets. Cottonmouth built the club into something grand, and Cage could tear it all down. Selling the club would be like chopping off an arm. Cottonmouth created it against the odds, but that achievement isn’t enough to escape past demons.

Claire Temple in Harlem

Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple also appears in episode five (“Just to Get a Rep”) and plays a larger role than usual. The constant messes in Hell’s Kitchen would be enough to push anyone to leave. The bridge across each Netflix series, Temple has a refreshing outsider’s perspective. Dawson is excellent, though her conversations with Cage about being a hero are too obvious. Their words are right on the nose and loudly proclaim the main themes. Dawson and Colter do their best to express genuine emotions, but there’s only so much they can do.

Thankfully, the writers know that Temple functions best as an active character. Her efforts to save a wounded Scarfe and them Cage himself reveal her mettle. There’s also a possible romance between Temple and Cage, which pushes Misty Knight into the background. She’s busy investigating Cottonmouth’s death and facing internal affairs questions. There’s no time to re-connect with the vigilante. I hope that Temple and Knight have plenty to do in the final episodes.

Luke Cage battles Diamondback in a theater in the episode "Blowin' Up the Spot" on Netflix.

Can You Dig It?

We finally meet the fabled Willis “Diamondback” Stryker at the end of “Manifest”, though it’s a brief scene. He takes center stage in episode eight (“Blowin’ Up the Spot”) with a loud “Can you dig it?” reference to The Warriors. It’s an over-the-top entrance for the season’s Big Bad. Shades has set our expectations high with his reverence of Diamondback, and it’s up to Erik La Ray Harvey (Boardwalk Empire) to sell it. He’s far more imposing than Cottonmouth, but the jury is out on whether the character succeeds. Diamondback pokes holes (literally) in the idea that Cage is invulnerable, and that fact should keep action scenes from getting repetitive. Our hero needs a weakness.

The episode’s final act devolves into a surprisingly ridiculous one-on-one fight inside a lavish theater. Diamondback springs from a campier world and utters awkward lines about his brother receiving more love. A few made me laugh and lessened the dramatic tension. The epic shot of Diamondback looming above Cage in the balcony sells the conflict, though. This guy has arrived to teach Cage a lesson in the grandest way possible. It’s hard to take the threat too seriously, though. Even when Diamondback shoots Cage again in the chest, it’s not that suspenseful. Cage falling into a trash truck is a new low for the character and oddly funny. He’s dying and has a body filled with shrapnel, and now he’s riding around with garbage. The shame!

This battle does energize a show that needed a jolt from its more dour progression. The style is much different from the extended hallway fights on Daredevil. The melodramatic scenes as Cage unites with a long-lost friend who’s actually his brother are also interesting. The tone is shifting more towards camp, but that may be okay. It’s challenging to strike the right balance of weight and fun, however. Dillard has turned into a cold boss, and Knight struggles with the loss of her partner and department pressures. The emotions are heightened while still falling into a “good vs. evil” comics zone. Diamondback’s call-out to The Warriors feels more apt by the end of “Blowin’ Up the Spot”. He’s a villain straight out of Walter Hill’s film.

Ready for War

Cage finishes this run of episodes in awful shape. The two Judas bullets are destroying him from the inside, and he’s wanted for Cottonmouth’s murder. Even so, I suspect he’ll rebound for a final clash with Diamondback. What’s less certain is how Dillard and Shades will fit into the mix. Her story needs a hook beyond avoiding her family’s shadow. Shades is now running the low-level henchmen; is he going to connect with Diamondback? Theo Rossi is getting more chances to shine as his character’s crime role increases. I’m curious to see where he’s heading.

We have lost some interesting story lines, particularly involving the barbershop. Is Bobby Fish still trying to re-open it? I’d like to see a return to that character because it connects our hero to the community. I also wonder if Knight attacked Temple purposefully to get placed on administrative leave. Her rage seemed real, but the show made sure we knew she was being watched. Knight will likely team up with Cage and take down everyone. Will they rekindle a romance? I’m still excited about this season but have more questions now.

Luke Cage keeps adjusting its tone and has made drastic changes from its opening episodes. On the other hand, it’s effectively used a slow burn to pull Cage back into the fray and remind him that he’s not invincible. Cage is one of many powerful beings out there, and his actions to stop Cottonmouth have caused unfortunate consequences. It’s been up-and-down, but I’m still on board to see how we finish. Diamondback is a gigantic character, so we’re heading for a grand conclusion.

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October 11, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 1 (Episodes 1-4)

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Pop (Frankie Faison) sit outside the barebershop in Luke Cage.

It’s been refreshing to notice the different approaches with each new Netflix Marvel series. Daredevil is a dark action show with brazen stunts and high-flying battles. Jessica Jones looks inward and reveals the emotional demons of a powerful hero. There’s a formula to organizing the seasons, yet each one still feels unique. This trend continues with Luke Cage, which has more room to breathe. It’s fun to hang out in this world and meet the players that populate Cage’s Harlem. The barbershop scenes in the early episodes just show people talking, yet they’re far more engaging than the fights. There are still obstacles for Cage to overcome, but the story doesn’t focus solely on the next encounter.

I’m splitting my review into three parts with each article covering four or five episodes. I’ve read complaints that Luke Cage is too long and drags in its second half. However, I’ve noticed few slow points in the opening four episodes. The relaxed pace gives us a chance to spend time with both the heroes and villains and avoid rushing to the climax. Mike Colter (The Good Wife, The Following) made a strong impression as Cage in seven episodes of Jessica Jones, so there’s little need for much of an intro here. The heavy lifting for Creator Cheo Hadari Coker (who also writes the first two episodes) is introducing the rest of this universe. The Harlem setting feels lived in, and we join the action in the middle of an ongoing story.

Beyond Colter, the standout performers are Alfre Woodward as Mariah Dillard and Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Both have over-the-top moments (especially Ali), but neither goes into D’Onofrio territory. It’s entertaining to watch the characters spar with each other and their enemies. He’s open about being a criminal, while she hides behind a legit enterprise. Mariah is no more ethical than her cousin; she just prefers to keep her distance. Typically more serene on screen in shows like The 4400, Ali shines when Cottonmouth loses control. There’s a glee for the guy who’s usually above the fights to take matters into his own hands. When Cottonmouth pulls out the rocket launcher and goes after Cage, the excitement is all over Ali’s face.

Creating the Atmosphere

Luke Cage begins with a lengthy barbershop scene that may throw off some viewers. It’s needed to set up the pace and environment of this show, however. This sequence also immediately shows Cage’s close relationship with Henry “Pop” Hunter (Frankie Faison, The Wire). After even a few moments, I was already nervous that Pop would die. It’s an easy narrative move to remove the kind father figure and push the reluctant hero to jump back into the field. We don’t tune in to see Cage just wash dishes and sweep floors. The frustrating part is how predictable Pop’s death is for most of the audience. Colter sells Cage’s anger and sadness at losing Pop, but it’s too easy.

With that said, the second episode “Code of the Streets” is also the strongest of the opening four. The premiere creates the mood and allows the action to increase in the second episode and build to the barbershop shooting. Faison takes center stage while trying to help a young guy on the run from Cottonmouth. He brings humanity to the beloved Pop; the barbershop was Switzerland for everyone. Losing that haven will only increase the chaos to come. Cottonmouth is partially responsible for Pop’s death, but it’s also a sad moment from him. Unspoken rules about who’s untouchable don’t always translate to younger henchmen.

In the mostly white Marvel film and TV world, it’s refreshing to have a cast dominated by African-Americans. Actors that usually play supporting roles like Ali, Faison, and Ron Cephas Jones deserve more attention. Simone Missick also stands out as Misty Knight, a determined cop and possible match for Cage. Knight sees through the BS and recognizes something different in the big guy. She investigates on the other side with her partner Rafael Scarfe (a strangely over-the-top Frank Whaley) while Cage battles Cottonmouth on the inside. I’m not a comics expert but know that Knight is a familiar name; she’s unlikely to remain an outsider for too long. The unspoken chemistry between Colter and Missick clicks from their very first scene at the club.

A Battle of Wills

What’s surprising about Luke Cage is my lack of interest in most of the action scenes. It’s fun to watch Cage mow down hordes of guys in “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”, but it gets old quickly. There’s little tension when the bullets have no effect. What makes the fights work is the limited time we spend on them. The nightclub performance scenes are more energetic because they aren’t so familiar. I’d rather see Cage stare down Cottonmouth without throwing a punch than battle endless goons. After the many fights in Daredevil’s second season, the restraint in Luke Cage is a relief. When Cage steps up to the plate, it’s really earned. Of course, there are dangerous consequences to joining the fight.

I like origin stories, particularly on TV series. When done well, they enhance present-day events without making obvious links. The fourth episode “Step in the Arena” mostly succeeds in enriching Cage’s back story. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube), it presents a time when Cage had normal strength and big hair. Charles Murray’s (Sons of Anarchy) script packs a lot of material into a single episode. We learn how Cage gained his powers and fell in love with Reva (Paris a Fitz-Henley). The prison setting and guards are familiar, yet the story largely clicks. It’s no stretch to see Cage (originally Carl Lucas) as a slave rising up to stop the masters. Although he largely fails, that choice creates Luke Cage the hero. There’s even a fun “Sweet Christmas” moment when Cage discovers his powers.

A Promising Start

After four episodes, I’d place Luke Cage alongside Jessica Jones as a contender for the top Marvel show. Daredevil is also great but stumbles a bit in its second season. There is a long way to go here, so it’s too soon to make a definitive statement. With a talented cast and plenty of interesting stories, its potential is sky high. There’s a definite ‘70s vibe, but it still adds modern touches to keep us engaged. It’s a slow burn, but I’m on board for the long haul. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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October 5, 2016

Westworld: “The Original” Review — With Great Potential Comes…

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores and James Marsden as Teddy in Westworld's The Original.

Few series have arrived this year with more anticipation than HBO’s Westworld. Loosely adapted from the 1973 film written by Michael Crichton, it strives mightily to become the next must-see drama. HBO has invested serious dollars (reportedly around $100 million) into building another hit. Creators Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy Nolan (Burn Notice) have solid TV experience but are facing massive expectations. Can they build a one-hour drama with real staying power? The premiere episode “The Original” shows great promise, but there are a few warning signs that could signal problems if they aren't rectified.

Before continuing, I should give you the obligatory spoiler warning. I will be discussing the entire episode in the upcoming paragraphs. Still here? Let’s do this!

“The Original” begins on the cold, dead eyes of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). An unseen voice says “bring her back online”, so there’s little mystery on her status as an android host. The Nolans’ script dives right into the Westworld universe and forces us to keep up with them. It’s wise to avoid the big expository speeches (at least for now) and let the story breathe. After the prologue with Dolores, it’s time for gorgeous outdoor vistas and a town straight out of a vintage Hollywood Western. We also meet the upbeat romantic cowboy Teddy (James Marsden), brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton), and the usual outlaws and grimy types populating the streets. It all runs like clockwork, so it’s no surprise when the real architects appear.

The big reveal of the Truman Show-like view above the world comes just 17 minutes into the episode. Given what we already know from the original film and the marketing, it makes little sense to hold the twist back for too long. On a less confident show, this moment would happen at the end of the premiere. The reason it comes now is the importance of the humans (we think) that maintain the park. We spend a lot of time with the overseers and their internal politics, which isn't that exciting. However, this focus does expand the show’s world and allows for a larger mythology behind Westworld’s real purpose. Unfortunately, it also leads to some clunky and obvious dialogue.

Anthony Hopkins is the right choice to play the Hammond-like creator Dr. Robert Ford. He’s now a secondary figure that tinkers with his work and muses about what they’ve done. Hopkins finds the right mix of curious evil and regret. But he also utters lines like “they don’t make anything like they used to” while the corporate honchos take over. We get it. The humans are the real villains, and the hosts just follow their programming. This is hardly new territory, so I hope the writers find more nuance as the show progresses. Having programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) say “they all rebel eventually” is also way too on the nose about the main themes. He could basically just claim that “life finds a way” if we’re going to be that obvious.

The good news is that there is plenty to discover about the mystery. When the host playing Dolores’ father develops a “glitch”, the results are creepily intriguing. This is more than Yul Brynner killing tourists like he’s The Terminator. There’s history in Westworld that should be fun to uncover. The newcomers that patronize the park are secondary and barely register as real characters. It’s all about finding what’s behind the curtain. We do learn that Dolores is the park’s oldest host, and her perceived happiness masks a lot more. Shots of flies landing on the hosts’ faces are all over this episode, so a final scene with Dolores killing one says plenty.

One hesitation that I have with raving too much is the sadistic behavior throughout “The Original”. In particular, Ed Harris’ Man in Black gleefully beats and rapes Dolores early in the episode. The scene largely happens off-screen, but it’s still a lot to endure so early. He also tortures and scalps another host to gain information. Harris is a master at playing this type of grim character and leaves a strong impression. On the other hand, the show aligns a bit too much with the Man in Black. He’s portrayed like a cool loner on a quest for the game's next level. The Nolans must be careful not to condone such vile acts. Dolores may be a host, but she looks like a woman. Given our modern culture, it’s too easy for shows to follow typical gender stereotypes.

Westworld’s killer premise offers many opportunities for interesting stories. A theme park with hundreds of intersecting arcs is fascinating. It’s basically a “choose your own adventure book” that’s come to life. These are not just tailored scenes built for certain customers either. The loops happen even when newcomers decide to avoid them. It’s an evolution from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction; the animatronics there still go through the motions even when no guests are riding the boats. The Man in Black is the equivalent of the guest that sneaks into Disney’s backstage areas. He’s presented as a human, but I have a theory that he’s an earlier model of the hosts looking for a way back to Ford. His pursuit feels too personal to just be from a guy that’s grown overly engaged in Westworld.

The skilled ensemble cast sells the potentially ludicrous material. There’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance from the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott as Old Bill. Wright and Shannon Woodward also bring much-needed grace to the programmers on the front lines. Neither character seems thrilled with serving their corporate overlords, but they’re committed to fixing their products. The centerpiece in “The Original” is Evan Rachel Wood, who has the premiere’s most challenging role. Her drastic shift between glee and cold nothingness isn’t an easy switch, but she nails it. When Dolores experiences terror from The Man in Black and sorrow at Teddy’s death, we feel it right with her.

HBO is banking on Westworld to be its next prestige drama and follow in the footsteps of Game of Thrones. The premiere feels weighty and not always by necessity. It wants so much to be taken seriously but is rather silly when you think about it. There’s a brief moment where the bandit Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) reveals that B-movie energy while robbing the town. We need more of that style. It’s great to tackle serious themes, but sometimes it’s fun just to kick back and start a little mayhem. With the world building mostly completed, it should be easier to include more levity now. Having a piano play Soundgarden's “Black Hole Sun” is goofy, and I like the small touches. They help make the premise click and avoid falling into the trap of being too “important”. With some slight tonal adjustments, Westworld could become a thrilling series.

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August 22, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: Incursion, Parts 1 and 2

The Stargate Universe episode "Incursion"

We’ve reached the end of SGU’s first season, which has evolved from a deliberately paced character study into all-out war. The time we spent understanding the crew in the beginning allows creators Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper room to ramp up the pace now. The two-part finale clicks because we’re on board with the struggle. There’s no easy way out of the fight with the Lucian Alliance on the Destiny. Tricky plans go awry frequently, and not everyone will survive. It’s a classic way to end what’s become a fascinating series. The momentum carries so well from “Subversion” and excels when seen without commercial breaks. The ideal way to absorb “Incursion” is in one fell swoop. The tension barely subsides right up to the ominous final shots.

It’s easy to compare “Incursion” to “The Siege”, the season finale of SGA’s first season. Both involve deadly assaults from outside forces trying to overtake the characters’ homes. The cliffhangers also feel similar in placing so many in jeopardy. There are quite a few differences between the two, however. We can look no further than the episode titles to observe the gap. On SGA, the Wraith invaders attack from the outside with massive external forces. Little hope exists for the Atlantis team, and there’s a fatalistic tone to their struggle. SGU looks inward and sets up a more personal conflict between Young and Kiva. The Alliance members aren’t evil, but Kiva’s team is taking no chances. Once the initial shooting subsides, their fight becomes a battle of mental wills between two committed adversaries.

There’s a creative risk in spending too much time on set-up in a two-part finale. Let’s call it the Mockingjay, Part 1 syndrome. The first half must feel like a natural beginning and not just unnecessary padding. We need to feel the tension from start to finish. Thankfully, there’s no room for a breather here. The Alliance arrives on the Destiny 13 minutes into part one and doesn’t waste any time. This confident storytelling allows the events to flow naturally and not feel subservient to TV needs. We have enough time to appreciate the gravity of the situation and understand the key players. The enemies can’t be faceless automatons. We’re rooting for our favorite characters to survive, but the stakes only remain with capable opponents.

A Missed Opportunity?

“Incursion” begins with Young killing Telford (and reviving him) to save his friend’s soul. It’s a daring move that ends in success, but it could lose the bigger game. If Young had turned off the communications stones and pulled Rush out, he could have prevented (or at least delayed) the Alliance’s ability to reach the Destiny. On the other hand, that choice would possibly eliminate his only chance to save Telford. It’s a daring move but makes sense given Young’s lack of knowledge about the attack. It’s hard to cut him the same slack with his next major decision. The plan to vent the atmosphere in the gate room is callous but would have stopped the fight. That swift act wouldn’t win Young a humanitarian award, but it would likely save his entire crew.

Circling back to Young’s choice with Telford, his plan was dangerous and could murder his friend. The ramifications of that failure would impact his place as a leader and trusted ally on the Destiny. Young took the risk because he believed that saving his friend was the right move. That doesn’t mean he feels great about it. His cold manner with Scott shows that Young is still dealing with his brutal move. Telford’s first words as a free man warn of the Alliance invasion. It gives Young no chance to recover and immediately shifts to the next crisis. When he sees Telford in the gate room, he flinches and believes he’s saving Rush. It’s a normal human response from a guy who regularly pushes back his emotions. Young is a flawed military commander, but this error comes because his humanity won’t allow him to sacrifice one of his people.

Young’s decision also shows the difference between him and Kiva. She killed her scientist in “Subversion” solely to prove her mettle with Rush. Young is trying to protect his people and is battling on too many fronts. Kiva has a singular mission and won’t flinch when tough choices are necessary. Logic can sway her decisions, however. Telford knows that he can save crew members like T.J. through their value to the mission. Rush understands what’s needed to defeat her because of his experiences as Kiva’s prisoner. When he talks about acceptable losses, it isn’t just to belittle Young. Rush has a valid point about how to defeat such a determined enemy. Young may vehemently claim that he’ll save everyone, but that level of success is impossible.

There’s one more layer to Young’s choice not to vent the atmosphere: it wouldn’t work from a TV perspective. Creatively, it’s a brilliant stroke to create doubts about the leader’s actions. It adds weight to every casualty on their side from this fight. They aren’t Young’s fault directly, but everything ties to his first choice. It’s another way that SGU reminds us that we aren’t watching super heroes. Both sides make mistakes and inadvertently harm people in the process. Kiva executes Rivers (Zak Santiago) without hesitating, but it does not come without a provocation. Introducing more complexities is what makes this episode rise above the typical shootout.

One Last Goodbye

“Incursion” also represents a final hand-off between the original SG-1 characters and the new group. Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping, and Michael Shanks all make their final appearances on SGU. Shanks’ Daniel Jackson only appears on a reprise of the video from “Air” that Eli watched at the start of his journey. It’s cool to see one last scene between Anderson and Tapping as Jack O’Neill and Samantha Carter. It’s only by video screen yet still reminds us of their chemistry. It’s a brief moment but includes a nice touch for long-time fans. Carter lost several F-302s when the Icarus planet exploded, and O’Neill calls her “Sam” when offering condolences. This is a rare informal comment on the job even for such a close pair.

The standout moment comes from O’Neill when he dresses down an uncertain Young. He supports Rush’s point that Young should have vented the atmosphere. O’Neill’s frustrated reaction reminds us that Young is fallible and may lose this fight with the Alliance. Anderson sells the moment by playing it straight and directly questioning Young’s readiness. This kick in the pants is the final scene from an SG-1 character on SGU. The old guard is telling this new crew to stop wallowing and take charge. It’s a call to action for Young and even the show itself. It’s up to this talented group of actors to take the next step and keep pushing the needle.

Chloe in the Stargate Universe episode "Incursion"

Missing in Action

Two of the series’ main characters spend most of the episodes totally separated from the others. Placing Eli and Chloe apart from the action is an interesting way to step away for a moment. She has been shot and their air is limited, so it’s hardly a carefree adventure. Even so, there is a lighter feeling to the interludes with this pair than on the main story. Despite some great work from David Blue, the Scott/Chloe/Eli love triangle didn’t always click. It felt a little too predictable for a show that was trying to dig deeper. Even so, the scenes where Eli and Chloe discuss their friendship are quite moving. Calling a guy with a crush on you an “amazing friend” is typically a backhanded compliment, but Chloe’s eyes say a lot more. Without having to make a big confession, he’s able to let go of the burden and just focus on the task at hand.

From a story perspective, moving Eli and Chloe away serves three purposes. For the plot of part two, it offers another chance to Greer and Scott when they’re trapped outside the ship. Beyond that purpose, the decision ratchets down the constant tension. It’s refreshing to switch back to Eli and Chloe after experiencing the tense Young/Kiva showdown. Looking to season two, this plot also reminds us of the scale of the Destiny. There are so many unexplored areas on the ship for characters to uncover next season. These moments set the stage for a lot more efforts to grasp the Destiny’s mission and its secrets in the upcoming episodes.

TJ in the SGU episode "Incursion"

Stepping Up to the Plate

This episode gives many characters beyond Young, Eli, and Rush the chance to stand out and help the cause. T.J. remains poised after being taken hostage even when Kiva is ready to kill her. She also shows off her improved medical skills while patching up Varro. He may be the enemy but still gets the same type of treatment from T.J. The seeds are set for a future relationship with Varro, but that’s far down the road. Right now, she’s facing a difficult and stressful circumstance while being pregnant. It’s a situation that would cripple most people, but T.J. doesn’t blink. She’s one of the crew’s most important members and proves it consistently during the crisis. Alaina Huffman’s quiet performance as T.J. deserves serious credit for anchoring the show.

Lou Diamond Phillips also gets the chance to shine as Telford, who’s been a one-dimensional jerk for most of the season. Once he starts working behind the scenes to stop the Alliance, it’s easy to see why Telford was worth saving. Phillips brings such humanity to a guy trying to make up for his horrible behavior. The fact that Young trusts his old friend after everything shows the solid guy he was before the brainwashing. Telford’s quick thinking saves T.J. while keeping him believable to Kiva. She’s no dummy, so the fact that Telford avoids getting caught for a while shows his mettle. This invasion is also a clever way to get Telford physically on the Destiny. The series is better with Phillips taking a more prominent role.

“Incursion” also spotlights the underrated work of Ming-Na as Camile Wray. The writers haven’t always known what to do with her; they’re more comfortable with military characters. This conflict gives Wray a chance to stand out and negotiate with Kiva. She remains brave when exchanging prisoners in part two. We also see an evolution in Wray’s relationship with Young. He surprisingly agrees with her position on negotiations and gives a nice gesture in sending the flak jacket. There’s warmth in that scene when Scott communicates the message, and that connection has been missing for much of the season. Wray should have more chances to stand out in the second season.

Telford and Kiva in Stargate Universe's "Incursion"

Cliffhangers Everywhere!

In typical Stargate fashion, the first season ends with multiple cliffhangers that place quite a few characters in jeopardy. Let’s do a quick rundown of the different plot threads left hanging:

1. Young and the military are rounded up and about to be executed.
2. Scott and Greer are stuck out in space with a binary pulsar on the way. They’re running desperately for a separate entrance on the other side of the ship.
3. Eli is racing to meet Scott and Greer inside the Destiny and open the door for them.
4. Chloe has been shot and closes her eyes, which hints that she may be dead.
5. Kiva catches Telford subverting their plans, and they shoot each other. Both are in critical condition yet seem to be alive, but their prognosis is unknown.
6. A shootout erupts in the medical bay, and T.J. is shot in the stomach by a stray bullet. Her life and the life of her unborn child hang in the balance.

Beyond these specific moments, there’s also the larger question of whether anyone on the Destiny will survive the battle with the Alliance. They’ve lost most of their leverage, and Kiva's injury has enraged the remaining enemies. We also don’t know if the Destiny will escape the binary pulsar. Rush and the other scientists still need to fix the FTL, and the Alliance has captured them. These cliffhangers are good because they don’t cheat the fans with a shocking twist. We’re just taking a break in the midst of a tense showdown. It was hard to wait three months for the next episode. Even so, it generates excitement for the next season.

The Final Look of Despair

It’s fitting that “Incursion” concludes with a shot of Young’s hopeless face. He looks up to the sky and prepares to meet his fate. All of the questions about Young’s decisions that I addressed earlier are surely going through his head at this awful moment. The close-up view of utter defeat is a feeling that we haven’t seen from Young. He’s had doubts but has never been so despondent about what’s coming. SGU frequently reminds us that even the best intentions can lead to failure. Young is human and could have acted differently, but it’s easy to say that in hindsight. He can only hope that a last-minute save is on the horizon. Knowing how things work in genre TV, the audience realizes there’s always a chance. That glimmer of hope is missing from Young’s face, though. He’s ready to meet his maker in a matter of seconds.

This article is the final part of Season One 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.

August 15, 2016

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.

August 6, 2016

Continuum: Evil Corporations, Righteous Terrorists, and Timey-Wimey Fun

Rachel Nichols as Kiera Cameron in Continuum

In the futuristic world of Continuum, lost governments hand the keys to corporate overloads. They create amazing technology but develop an inhumane system of control by any means necessary. Looking at our divisive modern world, imagining this scenario isn’t a big stretch. I don’t expect the police force to wear skin-tight suits with super powers, but their focus on corporate interests is easy to accept. This Canadian series aired in the U.S. on SyFy from 2012-2015 with minimal fanfare, but its vision of our dangerous path hits home. By the time we reach the final episodes, the villainous terrorists have become true heroes. They aren’t corrupted by power and have retained a precise focus on ensuring that Big Brother loses the war.

What makes this show click is the way it combines political issues with sci-fi thrills inside a tight procedural. Many familiar faces from the Vancouver acting scene also show up and join the fun. It’s like a Stargate franchise reunion almost every week! Continuum was created by Simon Barry, a lesser-known British filmmaker currently producing the Van Helsing TV series. Despite its genre structure, this show feels different and becomes quite unpredictable. The last two seasons in particular are a remarkable change from the more episodic beginnings. The sci-fi concepts aren’t just the set-up for a normal cop show. Barry grows more confident with each passing season and builds an intriguing world that could have thrived for much longer.

Roger Cross and Lex Doig as Liber8 in Continuum

The story centers on Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols), a detective in 2077 tasked with tracking down violent terrorists. Known as Liber8, the eight criminals are set for a public execution with Kiera in attendance. Their unique form of escape is a time travel device that ships the gang back to 2012, along with Kiera. Liber8 plans to change the future and prevent The Company from taking control. They have no concerns about how many die in the process, however. Kiera has two main goals: stop Liber8 and get back to her family in 2077. She partners up with Detective Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster) at the Vancouver PD to stop the terrorists. It’s hardly a “good vs. evil” situation, and Kiera begins to learn that perhaps she’s chosen the wrong side.

Kiera’s main ally is Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen), a young tech genius who will ultimately create the bleak future. The friendly guy is quite different from the hardened old man (William B. Davis, The X Files’ CSM) of 2077. For a long time, he’s the only person not in Liber8 that knows Kiera’s true origins. Alec faces down the idea that his future is set in stone. His step-brother Julian (Richard Harmon) has a similar issue with his own dangerous role to come as the notorious rebel “Theseus”. Can the future be changed? This question dominates the early seasons, particularly when Liber8 starts operating. Their leader Edouard Kagame (Tony Amendola, Bra’tac from Stargate SG-1) fully believes in their mission and the sacrifices. What’s interesting is how much the emphasis shifts during the course of the four seasons.

Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) stars in Continuum

Season 1: Setting the Game Board

Synopsis: Kiera lands in 2012, joins the Vancouver PD, and battles Liber8.
Best Episode: 1.10, “End Times”
Worst Episode: 1.7, “The Politics of Time”

It’s tricky to build an ambitious sci-fi series, particularly one with two time periods. The premiere must introduce both the dystopian world of 2077 and the present-day setting in 2012. There also are quite a few characters beyond Kiera and Alec. Continuum reveals the major players early but doesn’t overdo the exposition. Casting the right actors eases the burden. Roger Cross (24, Dark Matter) is born to play a hulking baddie like Travis. We also recognize character types like Carlos’ kind-hearted cop and Liber8’s amoral tech genius Lucas Ingram (Omari Newton). Lexa Doig is another familiar face to sci-fi fans through her work on Andromeda and SG-1. Her role as the smart and committed revolutionary Sonya Valentine is an easy sell.

The first season draws us into the story because we’re interested in the characters. It includes the best work from Stephen Lobo as the self-centered Matthew Kellog, a reluctant member of Liber8. His performance grows hammier with each successive season, but he’s quite sympathetic at the start. What separates this show from similar genre fare is the way it gives distinct personalities to each criminal. It takes longer to connect with Jasmine Garza (Luvia Petersen), but her single-minded style is a great contrast with thinkers like Sonya and Kagame. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the characters, but I’ll cover more as we go along. Supporting players drift into and out of the story, and I’m trying to avoid spoiling too many details.

The episodes typically begin in the future with new information. These scenes work better when they don’t include too many visual effects. The set design is good, but there are limits with a TV budget. It’s quickly clear that Kiera’s employers in 2077 were hardly saints. Barry doesn’t let her make that realization quickly, though. She spends the first season working to stop Liber8 as “The Protector”. There’s an internal conflict, however. Kiera knows that Liber8 is her best chance of getting home. She believes in the law but isn’t ready to come clean to Carlos about her past. Alec is her one source of relief, and their bond grows quickly. The chemistry between Nichols and Knudsen makes it easy for us to root for them. He spends this season on the farm as her support with tech and growing acclimated to this world. There’s also a “fish out of water” aspect to Kiera’s daily life that adds some levity. Real life is quite different in our primitive society.

There are some random detours in the first season, but that’s common for a show that’s finding its legs. “The Politics of Time” takes an awkward detour and has Carlos investigated for murder. There’s little doubt he’s an innocent man, and the story feels like a distraction from the main plot. The slower development feels natural and sets the stage for excitement down the road. The 10 episodes really start clicking in the final third, particularly when revelations appear about the leap back in time. There’s definitely more than meets the eye, and the clever world building isn’t predictable. It’s fun to spend time with these characters, even the violent criminals from Liber8. We aren’t always on board with Kiera’s goals and understand the suspicions of an investigator like Gardiner (Nicholas Lea, The X Files’ Alex Krycek). Those gray areas will only expand down the road, which makes it easy to stay on board for more.

Erik Knudsen and Stephen Lobo in Continuum

Season 2: Freelancers, Love, and Chaos

Synopsis: New friends and foes emerge, Alec finds love, and all hell breaks loose. 
Best Episode: 2.12, “Second Last”
Worst Episode: 2.3, “Second Thoughts”

Continuum’s first season did the heavy lifting and introduced the major players. It was only 10 episodes, however. This universe continues to expand in the next group of 13 episodes. The first season covered Kiera, Alec, and Carlos versus Liber8, but it’s more complicated now. There’s dissension at the VPD, and Kiera is the prime target of a committed Gardiner and his boss. Meanwhile, Liber8 has split into factions led by Sonya and Travis. Kellog is out solely for himself, and the mysterious Mr. Escher (Hugh Dillon) lurks in the background. It’s great to watch Barry and the writers expand the show into new territory. Kiera still wants to go home, but she’s more entrenched in the present-day world. There are a few hiccups along the way, but there’s more depth to the relationships across the board.

Themes of corruption and rising corporate power also take center stage. When a private company essentially buys the police department, it’s a familiar conflict to our reality. What makes it click is the lack of a black-and-white scenario. Inspector Dillon (Brian Markinson) played by the rules and lost his job, so he’s ready to enforce his will as the chief. His actions make sense despite the potentially disastrous consequences. The same is true of Gardiner, whose suspicions about Kiera aren’t totally wrong. He’s drawing false conclusions, but his intuition notices the right signs. Kiera is deceiving them and Carlos, and the VPD is not always her main concern. When they start working together, Kiera and Gardiner prove to be kindred spirits with a similar dogged pursuit of their prey. Nicolas Lea is definitely the right guy to play this determined force.

This season also introduces the Freelancers, a powerful group with an unclear mission. They’re a determined force willing to kill if necessary to achieve their goals. It’s refreshing to not learn too much about them right away. That’s also true about Escher and Jason (Ian Tracey), a time traveler who first appeared in the season one finale. We share the confusion from Kiera and Alec about what’s really happening. On the other hand, it’s a relief to have Carlos develop as a real ally for Kiera. It’s similar to the situation on Alias with SD-6. At some point, watching the hero dupe her close friends loses steam. Victor Webster is the show’s moral center as Carlos, so keeping him on the sidelines of the main fight didn’t make sense.

Another development is the arrival of Emily (Magda Apanowicz), who falls for Alec. Her mysterious past and hidden connections to Escher complicate the situation, though. She functions as a plot device to drive the season’s climax, but the relationship also works. Alec’s decision in the end makes sense and wonderfully sets up the next chapter. It’s refreshing to have a new emotional connection on a show that is often plot-driven. Kiera is struggling with an internal conflict and still carries a torch for her family. She’s also falling apart under the stress. “Second Opinion” cleverly introduces a threat from within — a program that will erase her memories if Kiera doesn’t regain her composure. These battles set the stage for the changes that will come to Kiera’s perspective next season. Reaching the future won’t be so critical…at least for a time.

The second season improves on the first but still has a few low points. The appearance of a new drug called flash in “Second Thoughts” feels out of a lesser show. While it connects directly to Kiera’s future, the dangerous drug is a little too silly. Another weird moment has Lucas hallucinating in “Second Guess”. His mind is cracking and seems connected to time travel. What’s troubling is how the issues are barely referenced again in upcoming episodes. He seems back to normal and able to function as part of the team. Regardless, these are minor glitches in a stellar season. Following an excellent final two hours, we’re all set for a whole new game.

Two versions of Alec (Erik Knudsen) in Continuum

Season 3: Saving the Future

Synopsis: Alec shatters the timeline, Kiera chooses sides, and the entire landscape changes. 
Best Episode: 3.11, “3 Minutes to Midnight”
Worst Episode: 3.4, “A Minute Changes Everything”

If you’ve read this far, I suspect you’re okay with some minor spoilers. It’s nearly impossible to discuss this season without describing the basic premise. Continuum embraces the timey-wimey side of its premise and just goes for it. The result is a huge upgrade and a pretty remarkable 13 episodes. Following the stunning events of the season two cliffhanger, Kiera and Alec end up in a separate timeline with other versions of themselves in play. They’re the only people aware of the recent events and have been changed by the result. Their presence also has a huge impact on the other characters, particularly the other Alec. The immediate stakes are so much higher now, and the Freelancers remain a serious threat. The future has changed, but is that a good thing?

What makes this season click is how wonderfully unpredictable it becomes. The premiere “Minute by Minute” clarifies what the Freelancers do and sends Kiera on a new journey. This timeline’s fate hangs in the balance, and she has few allies. Carlos believed her story last season, but he struggles to stay on board this time. Her Alec just wants to escape with Emily, and the Freelancers have more pressing concerns. Only Liber8 understands what she’s experiencing, and that’s hard for Kiera to swallow. A new arrival from the future (Ryan Robbins) might provide hope, but he can’t remember his identity. How can she trust a guy who doesn’t know himself? Robbins is a familiar face to fans of Sanctuary and other sci-fi shows. His presence as an outsider and similar story make it easier for Kiera to trust him, but that may be unwise.

The evils from within the VPD and corporations only expand this season. What’s interesting is that Liber8 is still killing innocent people, but they seem more sympathetic now. Their goals feel nobler than corporate gains from Kellog and other Alec. A guy like Travis will do anything to stop his future and destroy anyone in his way, but there’s a reason. The scenes from 2077 clearly show why Travis, Garza, and the others believe their efforts make sense. “Waning Minute” spends a full episode in 2076 and helps explain the motivations for Sonya and Kagame. They fully believe in their cause and will destroy others for a better future. They may enjoy inflicting pain, but the horrors of their time created the monster. Kiera also lived in that world, and seeing the same corruption here crystallizes her struggle. It’s time to step up and fight against the evil forces, even if one of them is a distorted version of her friend Alec.

Remembering the events of “Waning Minute” is the last straw for Kiera, and the result is thrilling. We’ve spent a few seasons with the characters on opposite sides, yet the combo feels so right. When Kiera reveals the truth about their efforts to Liber8 in “3 Minutes to Midnight”, it’s one of the show’s best moments. Roger Cross spends much of the series bashing heads, but the look on his face is pitch-perfect when Kiera drops the bomb. Changing time is definitely possible, but it may lead to even worse results. Watching Liber8 regroup and build a super team with Kiera, the good Alec, and even Julian is something to see. It feels earned because of the slow-burn approach through the first three seasons. Stepping up to stop evil Alec leads to quite a satisfying conclusion, despite the new enemies on the horizon.

Super soldiers from 2039 invade in Continuum

Season 4: Protecting the Present

Synopsis: Super soldiers bring a new threat, allies are lost, and the final battle erupts. 
Best Episode: 4.6, “Final Hour”
Worst Episode: 4.2, “Rush Hour”

After the excitement of season three, it’s a little disappointing to only have six episodes to conclude this story. I suspect the alternative was cancellation, so I’ll take this final miniseries any day. It does bring a forward momentum to this season that would be missing with a normal slate of episodes. Characters fall by the wayside quickly, and there is little filler. The final two hours are intense, particularly a Terminator-style invasion of the VPD in the penultimate episode. It’s an interesting way to close out what’s become a really effective series. The enemies are new, but the progression feels natural from the conflicts of past seasons.

This season’s premise involves the arrival of super soldiers sent back from 2039 by their leader Kellog. He’s apparently become less self-centered, though his motivations are still murky. The villains work with the present-day Kellog to prepare the way for their master. Kiera, Alec, Carlos, and Liber8 recognize the danger and work together to stop this threat. Complicating the situation is the presence of Brad, the mysterious time traveler who arrived last season. These soldiers are his former allies, but Kiera still trusts him. The justified skepticism from Carlos builds a surprising personal rift between them. She had a brief romance with Brad, but that shouldn’t justify sacrificing this world because of that belief.

It’s a challenge to discuss this final season without describing the ultimate revelations. A big one involves The Traveler (Vladimir Ruzich), a powerful being connected to the Freelancers. He sets up a meeting between Alec and his older self that clarifies a major question. What are The Traveler’s motivations? Does he want to preserve the timeline or make it better? That’s a pressing question that hangs over this season. The plot centers on stopping the super soldiers, but there’s more in play. Kiera is still trying to get back to her son, which feels crazy after everything that’s happened. This is her life now, if she’s willing to accept it.

Although it falls a little short of the stunning third season, the closing miniseries still packs a punch. The stakes feel necessarily high without becoming outlandish. There’s still a personal stake for Kiera with every move she makes. She’s built a surrogate family in our time and would feel like an outsider even if she could reach 2077. Giving up the chance to see her son may be the only way to save the future. We’ve moved well beyond a solid police procedural by this point. The closing moments are both touching and heartbreaking, and the final scene justifies experiencing this tale from start to finish.

Kiera Cameron and her son Sam in Continuum

The Trouble with Kiera

Now that I’ve covered the four seasons, it’s time to tackle a challenge from some viewers. Rachel Nichols does great work as Kiera, well beyond anything I saw her do on Alias way back in 2006. Kiera wants to get back to her time but doesn’t throw away her connections in the present day. The issue comes with how long it takes her to realize protecting her future is wrong. We observe plenty of moments from 2077 that should have created doubts for Kiera about The Company. She eventually realizes her error and aligns with Liber8, but it’s a slow process. What makes this less of a problem is how the show addresses her indecision. Characters discuss it directly and are stunned that she won’t take the necessary steps to stop corporate control.

The other surprise is her insistence on getting home after realizing it’s a bad future. By the final episodes, she shouldn’t be working to travel forward in time. Alec and Carlos are real friends, and she functions well here. The key factor is reuniting with her son, and that connection does make sense. What’s strange is how little we see of her husband; he shows up in the future periodically, but Kiera rarely talks about him. We see hints that their relationship wasn’t amazing, but it’s still a gray area. This isn’t Nichols’ fault, though. She sells Kiera’s indecision as part of her personality, which makes sense given everything she’s encountered. The tough choices might essentially destroy her son, and that isn’t an easy decision.

Curtis in the SyFy series Continuum

A Binge-Worthy Series

I started watching Continuum on Netflix a few months ago because of its connections to other sci-fi series. There are so many familiar faces from many of my favorite shows, particularly the Stargate world. I’ve yet to even mention SGU’s Jennifer Spence, who appears regularly as Betty for most of the series. There are also known people behind the scenes, particularly William Waring and Amanda Tapping working as directors. Those names got me started, but I was immediately hooked by the premise and the characters. It’s a show that really benefits from watching it all over a short period of time. Characters drift into and out of the story across multiple seasons. It’s pretty easy to follow and only gets easier through streaming.

I’m amazed that Continuum isn’t more well-known among genre fans. It should be an easy sell, particularly with so many Vancouver actors involved. The production values are solid, and the episodes move swiftly. There’s a benefit to having only 42 episodes. With a few exceptions in the early days, the show doesn’t veer into standard plots. It remains thrilling right to the end and leaves you wanting more. If you’re looking for a new sci-fi show to dive into, you can do a lot worse than Continuum. Stick around for a little while and you’ll be hooked right to the end.

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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.

July 5, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: Sabotage

Kathleen Munroe as Amanda Perry in SGU's "Sabotage"

We’ve reached the point of the season where so many intersecting story lines are coming together. There’s a risk of piling exposition on top of exposition without keeping the audience engaged. Thankfully, the SGU writers find interesting ways to build on past work. “Sabotage” resolves the “Lost” main plot, introduces a new character, and circles back to a nearly forgotten supporting character. When you add in pursuing aliens and a climactic space attack, it’s hard to miss. Life keeps getting harder on the Destiny, but characters are now willing to step up to ensure their survival. They’ve become a more cohesive group, and each new success brings them closer together. The sharp division between Young and Rush feels like a thing of the past.

“Sabotage” functions best as a look at how characters are growing stronger. Wray’s choice to switch bodies with the quadriplegic Amanda Perry (Kathleen Munroe) is quite brave. Rush lets his outer defenses break down while spending time with Perry. Franklin (Mark Burgess) also sacrifices his body for the sake of everyone on board. The growing challenges remove the pettiness and help people show their value. And these obstacles are just a set-up for greater issues on the horizon. Enemies are lurking everywhere, and the Destiny is a valuable prize.

Colonel Young in the SGU episode "Sabotage"

Coming Together

The team environment is evident in the opening sequence as Young gives a speech about the fates of Scott, Chloe, and Eli. We begin with Young shaving in the mirror and feeling the weight of the world. A striking over-the-shoulder shot follows him from his quarters to the gate room for the announcement. A glance at the crowd shows committed faces with no doubt about their leader. It’s a sharp contrast from only four episodes ago in “Divided” when the civilians mutinied. When Rush calls him with news about falling short of the next galaxy, they discuss the problem together. Neither fully trusts the other, but they’ve developed a solid working relationship because of the conflicts.

This cohesion also shows in the work from Brody and Volker, who disagree but have a say. SGU is still different from SG-1 and SGA, but the characters are becoming a team in that vein. They’re working to solve problems under difficult circumstances within new territory. There’s no instruction book for the Destiny, particularly when it crosses large galaxies. Even with all his knowledge, Rush needs help from Perry. James can’t go through with being a quadriplegic, so Wray steps up to fill the gap. This crew will only survive if they work together, and it definitely saves them in this case.

The mid-episode music sequence does a good job illustrating mundane life on the ship. Julian Plenti’s “Only if You Run” strikes the right tone as people just live. Greer gets his head shaved, Brody creates a new alcoholic concoction, James feeds Franklin, and Scott and Chloe lay silently in bed. The shot of crew members running while the title lyrics play is way too on the nose, but it doesn’t kill the moment. This montage reminds us of how much downtime occurs when space battles, explosions, and other challenges aren’t happening. We rarely saw these moments in earlier Stargate shows, and they’re commonplace in this lived-in environment.

Scott, Chloe, and Eli return to the Destiny in "Sabotage"

A Strange Return

The episode title implies nefarious intent with the sabotage, but it’s actually just bad luck. James’ inability to handle being paralyzed gives the aliens a chance to control her. It shows just how precarious the situation is aboard the Destiny. Even a minor slip-up could lead to the end. It’s a little frustrating to see the writers again have James fall short, but she handles it well after the fact. The interesting part is how the explosion inadvertently saves Scott, Chloe, and Eli. After trying mightily to reach the Destiny and failing, they succeed through random chance. The blast also offers a chance because it removes the FTL drive’s weakest link. Everything feels strangely convenient, but it only works if the characters take advantage of the opportunities.

I have mixed feelings about how the writers save the lost trio. It doesn’t seem earned and is a loophole to escape the narrative box. On the other hand, it shows how much the crew is at the mercy of other factors. They’re learning more about the Destiny each day, but they still aren’t equipped to survive. Unlike the superheroes of past series, this lack of skills helps us connect with these characters. Eli is brilliant but still figuring out what to do. Their return does give us a touching moment where Eli gives Rush back his glasses. The silent exchange says a lot about the respect between them. They’re becoming friends and are no longer a random collection of strangers with no emotional bond.

Rush and Perry see Wray's reflection on SGU

Nick and Mandy

The story’s emotional center is Perry, who gets the first chance to move freely since she was nine. She joins the Destiny to help fix the FTL but can’t help but enjoy this rare experience. Amanda describes it “like a dream come true” despite their tough situation. Another factor is the chance to spend time with Rush (Nick to her), who is a crush from her past. He’s also quite fond of her, and the informal way he calls her Mandy says plenty. They’re a great match in a lot of ways, though his mourning of his wife and her physical state make it trickier. Kathleen Munroe does an excellent job in showing both her excitement and uncertainty about their connection.

A key scene highlights both Perry’s interest and the added complications of the communications stones. If they have sex, she’s doing so in Wray’s body. This happened previously with Young and Telford in “Earth”, but it’s still murky territory. Rush’s hesitation is partially for that fact but also due to reliving his wife’s illness in “Human”. Robert Carlyle again adds so much with limited dialogue. We can totally sympathize with a guy who needs love but still can’t move forward after his wife’s death. Nick and Mandy could work as a couple, but the stones add some major complications.

I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding Perry’s character until recently. Watching the episode without that knowledge, there’s little that seems too problematic. Munroe’s wide-eyed approach to the character reminds us of just how magical these moments are for Perry. The communications stones create an interesting discussion about ownership of our physical selves. When Wray uses the stones to switch with Perry, does she allow for sex? The same questions would apply when she returned home to her girlfriend Sharon (Reiko Aylesworth) in “Life”. There’s no simple answer, but the questions are handled with respect throughout this episode.

Franklin in SGU's "Sabotage"

The Ultimate Sacrifice

A recurring theme in “Sabotage” is how far each character will go to save their friends. Young is ready to sit in the chair before Franklin intercedes, and that move would likely fry his brain. Wray becomes a quadriplegic to bring Perry on board. Sharon stops her life on Earth to care for Wray despite her appearance as Perry. TJ convinces Young to keep her involved despite her pregnancy. They’re building a community on the Destiny, and everyone is contributing to ensure their survival.

Most importantly, Franklin accepts his fate and returns to the device that destroyed him. His choice to sit in the chair in “Justice” was presented like an act of cowardice from a weak man. This story reframes that moment is a precursor to this brave sacrifice. What makes the scene click is the mystery behind Franklin’s disappearance. There’s little idea of what happened in the ice-cold room. It’s another reminder that a lot more exists on the Destiny that what we’ve seen thus far. More discoveries are coming, and not all will be friendly encounters.

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.