In the eighth episode of Stargate: Universe's first season, "Time," the characters discover, on a planet they've never been to before, one of the recording devices used on their ship, Destiny. On it are images of themselves experiencing events that never happened, and eventually being killed by aliens. Eli Wallace (David Blue), a math whiz only recently introduced to the concept of traveling to other planets through the stargate, incredulously asks whether they are looking at images from an alternate universe, but the other characters respond only with derisive silence. It's a moment that neatly sums up the wrongfooting strangeness of the third Stargate series. Alternate universes, after all, were commonplace in the two previous installments in the franchise, Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis. Characters traveled to and from them, whole episodes were set in them, a ship was even constructed to travel between them. Why then do the other scientists and soldiers on Destiny, all of whom are veterans of a decade and a half in which the strange and fantastical have surrounded the stargate and other forms of alien technology that humans have learned how to use, roll their eyes at Eli's suggestion of such a fantastical explanation to this puzzle (especially when the actual solution, time travel, is no less unscientific)?
The answer is the complete shift of tone and focus that Universe executes from its parent series. SG-1 and Atlantis were lighthearted, formulaic space opera, telling adventure stories in a setting where morality was usually a simple matter of black and white--the opponents the characters faced in these series were mind-controlling aliens, false gods, and space vampires, who sought nothing less than galactic domination and sometimes even destruction. Universe, which sees the military and scientific contingents on an offworld research station, plus Eli and Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque), the daughter of a visiting senator, forced to evacuate through the stargate to a decrepit alien spaceship billions of light years away from Earth, moves away from the space opera mode, preferring introspection and gloom to adventure (there have been no exciting space battles, no scenes of badass single combat, in the first season), internal disputes to battles between good and evil. As part of this shift, Universe rejects, subverts, and ignores many of the tropes and formulas that have become synonymous with the Stargate franchise.
On one level, one has to respect Universe's willingness to break with its roots, especially given that so many of the ways in which it achieves this break are deliberate callbacks to some of the most beloved elements in the previous two Stargate series. Unlike both SG-1 and Atlantis, the series features no core team, a group that transcends military/civilian, human/alien divides and becomes as closely-knit as a family, and in fact there is hardly any emphasis in the show on friendship, which was arguably the core relationship type of both SG-1 and Atlantis (for both of these reasons, the series also has no obvious slash couple). The idyllic cooperation between civilian and military groups--the former hardworking and eager to contribute, the latter easygoing and friendly--which smoothed the workings of the Atlantis mission is here replaced with a tense and occasionally violent squabble for supremacy between whiny and demanding scientists and uncomprehending, inflexible soldiers. In SG-1, characters O'Neill and Carter nobly sacrificed their love for the good of the mission, and because to act on their desires would have been against Air Force regulations. In Universe, the forbidden romance is not only consummated, but made seedy. Colonel Young (Luis Ferreira) is married, and old enough to be the father of his paramour, Lieutenant Johansen (Alaina Huffman), who becomes pregnant and resigns her commission as a result of their affair. Atlantis's writers kept telling the audience that the show's resident genius, McKay, was selfish, asocial, monstrously arrogant and deeply unpleasant to be around, but the character that turned up screen (and as portrayed by the charming David Hewlett) was funny, loyal, and often very brave. Universe's genius character, Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) is the person McKay was supposed to be, and compounds those flaws by being secretive and manipulative, and by working constantly towards his own, not entirely sane, agenda. On both SG-1 and Atlantis, the warrior characters were aliens from warrior cultures, and both shows were thus able to use the warrior poet exception to avoid dealing with the unpleasant implications of having characters whose greatest achievement in life was to become fearsome killers. Universe's warrior character, Sergeant Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), is an Earth-born human, and thus not immune to the allure of violence and its corrosive effects on the soul. He is frequently shown threatening and intimidating other soldiers and even civilians, expressing a distasteful joy in violence and killing, and preferring these resorts to more civilized ones.
On the other hand, it's hard not to suspect that it's not a desire to examine the story, characters, and fictional universe they've been building for fifteen seasons and two TV movies that's motivating Universe's writers, but fashion. The show's setting, its appearance--Destiny is dark and gray, space scenes are shot in the by-now overused 'found footage' look, the camera in indoor scenes is often jittery or partially obscured--its emphasis on conflicts between military and civilian authorities, interpersonal strife, and unwholesome relationships, are all so reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica--a series that may have single-handedly killed the televised space opera, the mode to which both previous Stargate series belonged--that one feels that the writers are imitating the cool kids. It also seems disrespectful to the fans to so thoroughly jettison the franchise's direction and tone, as though the writers are passing judgment on their audience for developing a taste for their own product, and such a sense of disrespect is entirely in keeping with the ambivalence towards their own setting and style one sometimes sensed from both SG-1 and Atlantis, an ambivalence that bordered on disdain. The SG-1 episode "200," an hour-long meta-commentary on the Stargate franchise and science fiction TV in general, ends with an Asimov quote which argues that though science fiction may seem trite and childish--may, in fact, use trite and childish tropes, stories, and styles--it is grappling with serious issues, and with the very question of what it means to be human--the writers' way of justifying the mediocrity of their product by claiming to be part of a grand literary tradition. Atlantis's penultimate episode, "Vegas," took place in an alternate universe in which the show's main character, Colonel Shepherd, was a Las Vegas policeman, and crafted a CSI-inflected mystery around his discovery of the existence of aliens. It was the first time the Stargate franchise broke away from its sterile, unimaginative look and consistently likable characters (Stargate characters might commit genocide, but by God they didn't develop gambling addictions), and both writers and director seemed to suffer from some sort of hysterical fit, cramming the episode with one visual device after another--fade to white, body organ cams, grainy shots, slow motion, fast motion, switch to black and white, switch to stills--like a child overdosing on candy.
Both of these episodes, and now Universe, create the definite impression that the Stargate writers have been deliberately crafting their product to be safe and crowdpleasing, and that they were very much aware of its mediocrity. Now that they've been given the chance to cut loose with Universe, they want the same Peabody-winning prestige that Battlestar Galactica achieved. What's missing in all this is any acknowledgment that it's not style or tropes that determine the quality of a work, but how these are used. Space opera is not inherently inferior to, or of lesser quality than, space-set political allegory. A show that features sex scenes and unplanned pregnancies is not inherently better than one that doesn't. Stargate: SG-1 wasn't a trite, childish show because it told space adventure stories, but because it was poorly written, and Universe's gloomy appearance and unpleasant tone are not a guarantee of quality. The question one must ask, when confronted with the Stargate franchise's makeover, is: once you strip away the new tropes, the shift in appearance, the move towards soapy personal stories, is the writing there? Are the Stargate writers hacks, or competent writers who pretended to be hacks in order to make a buck, or hacks who only think they were pretending?
Universe is trying so hard to break with SG-1 and Atlantis that it sometimes seems that its writers should have started from scratch with another fictional universe. As it stands, the show often sits ill with what we know of the franchise and of humanity's exploration of space within it. Universe is essentially retelling the same story that Atlantis started out telling: a joint scientific and military expedition travels through the stargate, which has been reconfigured to dial a point much farther away than it has ever reached before, knowing full well that they may be taking a one-way trip. The twist in Universe is that rather than an orderly, planned expedition, the characters arrive on Destiny by necessity, and much is made of their lack of preparedness and unsuitability to the mission. A lot of character moments in the first season are dedicated to highlighting these deficiencies. People grouse about the poor conditions and insufficient food on the ship, whine about their heavy workload and the impossible demands made on them, pine for their families, and despair of ever seeing home again. All of these reactions are natural and to be expected, but they are allowed to dominate the characters' reaction to their predicament, the show's tone, and its plots (already in the first season there have been two episodes, "Life" and "Pain," whose overarching theme was the difficulty of life on Destiny and the characters' fraying tolerance for it), to a degree that seems incongruous with the Stargate franchise and its established history.
In the Stargate universe, the existence of the stargates, of aliens, and of regular interstellar and intergalactic travel, are a closely-held secret known only to relatively tiny number of humans. It stands to reason--and previous Stargate series have held this to be true--that it takes a special person to work in the Stargate program, someone who not only possesses a great deal of skill and intelligence, but the right psychological profile to accept that everything they know about the universe is wrong, to be willing to keep that knowledge secret, and to tolerate the privation and danger that come with venturing further than almost any human being has done. Within the Stargate universe, a story about how "ordinary" people would "realistically" respond to being flung as far away from home as Universe's characters have been doesn't make any sense, because ordinary people shouldn't be working for the Stargate program to begin with. Geniuses, madmen, workaholics, loners, adventurers, explorers--these are the people you'd expect to find working on an alien planet and trying to crack the secrets of a piece of alien technology. These are the people you'd expect to have arrived on Destiny, however unprepared and untrained. For all the hardships of living on the ship, and for all the difficulties involved in surviving on it, you'd expect Universe's characters to be passionate about their work and thrilled by the opportunity to explore the ship and a distant part of the universe. But the only characters who express an enthusiasm for exploration--and that only faintly and infrequently--are Eli and Chloe, the outsiders to the Stargate program, and the only character who seems to feel that learning about Destiny is more important than who's sleeping with whom and who's having an affair is Rush, who is treated as a dangerous lunatic even by the other scientists.
There are ways that Universe could have explained, and even made an important theme out of, its characters' indifference to exploration. The show could have made the point that the Stargate program is overextended, and forced to recruit people who aren't the right stuff. Or that Rush was considered so hard to work for, and his project's success viewed as so unlikely, that only the second and third tier of Stargate employees ended up working on it. Or that the Stargate program has been running for so long that the thrill and sense of danger have gone, and explorers and adventurers have been replaced with 9-to-5 workers who think nothing of the fact that their day job takes place on an alien planet but still expect three square meals a day and no mortal peril. (Each of these explanations, incidentally, could have given the writers something to do with the character of Camille Wray, the HR director for Rush's project, whose appearances and role on the show are so limited that it's hard not to view her main character status and ubiquitous presence in the show's promos as a cynical attempt to cash in on Ming-Na's ER cred.) Alternatively, Universe could have told a story about the difficulties and dangers of exploration. Even Columbus and Magellan, after all, must have had days in which they were exhausted, terrified, and wished they had never left home, and Universe's characters too could have started out with zeal and excitement at the opportunity for exploration they'd been given, only to be smacked in the face by how dangerous their new environment was, and how much tedium and drudgery were involved in just staying alive long enough to explore it. Instead, the show chooses to believe that living in space is so commonplace to its characters that finding themselves on the other side of the universe is cause only for complaint and consternation, never wonder or joy.
It may seem like quibbling to complain that Universe's premise doesn't suit its franchise, and I admit that at least part of my dismay at this mismatch is driven by the feeling that the choice to set the show in the Stargate universe was motivated mainly by the desire to cash in on a preexisting audience. But there's something more sinister, and more unfortunate, happening here than yet another instance of Universe falling in line with Battlestar Galactica, whose characters did live in a setting in which space travel was commonplace (my favorite line from that show is a character telling someone that they signed up to work on a spaceship in order to save enough money to pay for dental school). By making its characters ordinary, office workers and jarheads who just happen to be in space, Universe is participating in the homogenization of genre TV, a subtle but growing shift that sees science fiction subsumed into naturalism, and characters in science fiction stories made ordinary and given ordinary concerns like strained love lives and quarrels with their children. But some people aren't ordinary. Some people are so passionate about their work that they don't want love lives or children to distract them from it. Some people would rather live a short, adventurous life than a long, ordinary one. Science fiction used to be where you'd meet these characters, and it would have been wonderful if Universe tried to ask the question of what it's like to actually be the kind of person whose eyes are permanently fixed on the stars, who longs for adventure, in a world that seems to place a million distractions and impediments on the path to achieving these goals. Instead, we get soap opera and workplace drama in space.
What makes the ordinariness of the Universe characters' interests even more frustrating is that it is only one aspect of the show's disappointing character work, which is as inspired by Lost as the rest of the series is inspired by Battlestar Galactica. One of the most toxic--and, sadly, enduring--consequences of Lost's success was that it taught writers to aim for the moment of revelation, not only when plotting but when writing characters. In its early seasons, Lost's character arcs were all pointed backwards. What mattered about the characters were the mysteries of their past--what was Kate's crime? How did Locke lost the use of his legs?--which the writers drew out long past the point of reason. The result of this fascination with the past was not only that, in the present, the characters stagnated, but that they failed to develop relationships with other characters. The audience learned about the characters through their flashbacks, but they never talked to one another long enough, or at great enough depth, to learn about each other. Universe is written very much in this vein. The show employs an almost frightening array of devices--flashbacks, video diaries, dreams, hallucinations, visits to Earth (using a body-swapping device) that isolate one character from the rest of the cast--in order to tell us about the characters' past in isolation, but features almost no instances in which they get to know one another. And if Lost's flashback were, sometimes, good stories in their own right, Universe tends to use them, and other devices of their type, as infodumps, inelegant recitations of information with very little in the way of plot or form. "Time" takes the series's "tell, don't show" approach to character development to almost metafictional extremes. The recording the characters find, which ends with their deaths, also shows them having the kind of conversations that don't occur throughout the rest of the season--Johansen tells Eli about her family, Eli and Rush discuss their attitudes towards death. But in the timeline in which the episode's events occur, these conversations never happened, and the characters watch them at a remove. At the episode's end, this timeline too is erased, and two recording devices are left on the planet for the characters in the next timeline to discover--to observe, but not experience. Conversation--the kind of conversation that sheds light on characters, builds relationships, and conveys real meaning--is in fact almost entirely absent from Universe. What we get instead are shallow and dull exchanges of information, filled with meaningful silences, which put me in mind of the kind of inexperienced prose that's made up mostly of short, declarative sentences and lots of paragraph breaks--the work of a writer who knows that silence has power, but hasn't figured out that it's what limns and shapes the moments of silence that gives them that power.
So, Universe's characters rarely talk to one another, and when they do it's rarely to say anything of importance or develop relationships, and as a result fully half the cast seems to serve no function on the show. Eli and Lieutenant Scott (Brian J. Smith) were established in the premiere as, respectively, an amiable underachiever capable of rising to the occasion when properly motivated, and a sweet, unaffected do-gooder struggling with heavy responsibilities, and they have not budged from these definitions all season. Johansen gets a lot of screen time in her capacity as a medic, but if she weren't pregnant she would have no emotional presence at all. Worst of all is Chloe, who is on screen almost every episode despite the fact that she seems to have no thematic or narrative function besides being a love interest (she's Scott's girlfriend and Eli is in love with her) and being traumatized (to date, her father has died, she's been kidnapped by aliens, and in the season finale she is shot). It's understandable that given these ordeals and her lack of preparedness for them Chloe would retreat into childish passivity, but her persistence in this state throughout the season, and the other characters' tolerance of it, make no sense. You'd expect a person from Chloe's privileged background to be either a spoiled princess or a Rory Gilmore-ish overachiever. At the very least, you'd expect someone who was the daughter of a US senator, a Harvard graduate, and an employee in the senate, to have a bit of polish. But Chloe is instead a vaguely Midwestern, carefully inoffensive, childish blank, whose helplessness and passivity the otherwise fractious and intolerant crew treat with a nearly inhuman degree of consideration and patience, never expecting that she extend herself or learn new skills, which she indeed doesn't feel compelled to do.
You might think that I'm expecting a bit too much from what is only a single, twenty hour season--was there really time to depict the characters' curdled ambitions of exploring the universe, and force Eli and Scott to lose their innocence, and confront Greer with the dark underbelly of his violent temper, and make Chloe grow up, and give Wray a main character's share in the show's plotlines? The answer is yes, there was time for all of this and more. Universe is slow and slack, and diverts very little energy to telling interesting, exciting stories. In the first half of the season, episodes revolved around the characters scrambling to get hold of something necessary for their survival--water, a chemical for the air filters, power for the ship's engines. These are not inherently dramatic premises--the writers were clearly not going to kill the entire cast three episodes into the show--and very little work was done to make them into compelling stories. In a particularly odious example, the characters spend an entire hour believing that the ship is going to fly into a star, glumly and solemnly contemplating their upcoming deaths, only to discover that this is how the ship recharges its batteries. Later episodes tell more complicated stories, but still pay too little attention to plotting and pacing, with more than enough dead space in which the writers could have built up characters and relationships, had they so chosen--the musical montages, which seem to turn up at least once an episode, would probably have yielded 20 or 30 minutes of usable screen time over the course of the season. The two-part season finale repeatedly cuts away from the action of the ship's invasion by aliens to follow Chloe and Eli, who have run away from the battle, as they wander around the ship, and an earlier two-part story, "Human"/"Lost", could have made an excellent one hour episode if both hours were not intercut with overlong, not particularly well done flashbacks to Rush and Greer's painful pasts.
The one place where Universe's writers do seem to be directing their energies towards both character and story is Young and Rush's struggle for supremacy and control over Destiny. The second half of the first season begins with an abortive civilian coup, and the following episodes deal with its aftermath, with lingering tensions between Young and Rush, and with their tentative efforts towards cooperation. Overall, this is the season's most successful story, mainly because it concentrates on Rush, who is both the series's best character and best actor (not, I suspect, a coincidence). It is undermined, however, by Rush's counterparts in this story, Young and Wray. Wray's position, both before the move to Destiny and after it, is never made clear. Sometimes she's referred to as the civilian authority, and sometimes as the HR director. If she was in charge it's unclear whether her purview was only the civilians or whether Young also answered to her--at different points in the season both behave as though either might be true. When Rush makes his move against Young, he sometimes seems to be taking orders from her and sometimes to be giving them. During the coup, Young interacts only with Rush, but after it he acknowledges Wray as his opponent. Whether Wray is trying to regain her old position or carve out a new one, however, it's clear that she's unfit for either--she's indecisive, passive, whiny, and has no command presence.
Young, meanwhile, is a controlling martinet with a short and dangerous fuse--twice over the course of the season he responds to challenges to his authority with either the threat of murder or an actual attempt. It's actually quite a successful portrait of an unpleasant, unlikable man, but just why this person is in the Stargate program, much less in the US Air Force, becomes less and less clear as the season draws on. Young doesn't like civilians and doesn't know how to deal with and motivate them, so why was he placed in charge of a base where his job was to secure and facilitate their work? And why is he a full colonel when he's such a bad soldier? Young is shown finding out about Rush and Wray's planned coup at the end of episode 11, "Space," but in the next episode, "Divided," he has neither confronted the two, nor taken steps to prevent or curtail their efforts. When the ship is invaded in the season finale, Young has a plan in place that will kill all the invaders as soon as they step foot on Destiny, but he holds off on it in order to save two lives--leading to a lecture from O'Neill about the responsibilities of command that would have shamed a green lieutenant. Later on he fails to hold the ship against the invaders despite the fact that he has the home court advantage, control of the ship's systems, and better trained personnel. The choice between the three characters in this struggle, therefore, is a choice between Young, who is bad at his job, Wray, who is bad at either her job or the job she wants, and Rush, who is good at both his job (science) and his vocation (making trouble) but is also an agent of chaos. There's no one to root for, and though ideally we'd root for cooperation, this is clearly not that sort of show. The three characters only cooperate when an outside threat appears in the form of the invaders, but this is simply to extend the same game, and to introduce another, equally incompetent, player in the form of the invaders' leader, Kiva, who boards Destiny despite knowing that her spy on the ship has been discovered (and ignores the overwhelming evidence that he has turned on her) and that Young, were he not an idiot himself, could kill her as soon as she set foot aboard it.
So, Stargate: Universe has an unconvincing premise, underdeveloped characters, bad dialogue, slack plotting, and a central conflict that is intriguing but driven mostly by the incompetence of its participants. And this is not even to mention the typically shoddy treatment of female and non-white characters. In other words, for all the sex scenes and dim lighting and loud arguments, this is still Stargate--still mediocre, unimaginative, desperately imitating smarter and more innovative series. I kept watching SG-1 and Atlantis despite all these flaws because their modest ambitions suited the level of talent driving them--they were never great TV, but they were occasionally entertaining and that, coupled with inertia, was enough to keep me coming back. Universe aims higher, but the same talent is at the helm and it's not up to the task, and I find myself with no reason to keep watching--after all, for all its aping of Battlestar Galactica, Universe isn't as culturally important, and now that it's moved to the fall there's plenty of other stuff to watch instead (for instance, Caprica, which is by no means perfect but still a million times smarter and more interesting than Universe). Ambition is always laudable, but ambition without talent to support it usually just leads to heartbreak. Stargate's writers might have been better off staying at the shallow end of the pool.