Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stargate: Universe, Season 1

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.

36 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

Wow. I watched part of the first episode of _Universe_--before I'd seen any _SGA_--and was completely turned off by it. It sounds actively painful to watch pretty much all the time, and that's even without franchise expectations or comparisons.

(I am now a little more than halfway through _SGA_ and finding it actively painful about, oh, 33% of the time, or whenever they make moral, ethical, or tactical decisions, which starting in season 2 are pretty much WRONG WRONG WRONG. The characters, and the fact that it's good to cross-stitch while listening to, keep me going.)

Jonathan M said...

Blimey Abigail... I do admire your stamina. I watched three episodes of Universe and then gave up on it. Initially I thought that, much like Lost, they were subverting the form of traditional US network TV by refusing to allow the characters to have proper relationships but then I realised that the show is simply quite thinly written.

Cesare said...

I agree with so many of your points about SG-1 and Atlantis. Space opera doesn't have to be hokey and bad. There were plenty of good episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even some great ones. Deep Space Nine had compelling arcs. A genre is just a setting, a context. Nothing stops a good writer from telling a great story starting from that context. The Dark Knight transformed a pulpy comic book superhero into a critically lauded, monumentally successful film, and it's only the most dramatic example of that increasingly common phenomenon. The excuse of the limitations of genre just doesn't hold water.

The concepts of the Stargate franchise have tons of potential. It's not the space opera genre that throttled it, it's the showrunners' limited perspectives and abilities.

jenfullmoon said...

I was pretty damn unimpressed with Universe (I was watching it for David Blue), then I really liked the "Time" episode for once... and then they left it on a cliffhanger and the next episode had moved on to some other scenario without ever explaining how they got out of the problem! I could not believe they did that. What shoddy storytelling. (That goes for you too, Sanctuary.) Isn't the point of watching a show to watch people get into and then OUT OF situations?! So I turned it off.

Lisa Simpson said...

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.

Exactly! Not a surprise from the hacks that ran SG-1 and Atlantis into the ground. But the first Stargates featured engaging characters, good actors, drama leavened by humor/humor tempered by drama, and a sense of heroism and hope that made them worth tuning in for. Yes, sometimes I wanted to throw my shoe through the screen, but mostly I was willing to paper over the gaping cracks and fanwank the bad, bad, bad plotting/characterization/science because I was hooked on the rest. I have less than zero interest in giving SGU any kind of pass.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kate:

I liked SGA best of the three Stargate shows, though as you say that's mainly because the characters are fun (if, in some cases, criminally underused). It comes up against more political and moral decisions than SG1 does, and you're right that every single time the characters make the wrong choice. Have you gotten to the episode "Michael" yet? That's when you realize that for these people, it's not a choice between evil or stupid, it's both.

Jonathan:

There are a lot of reasons I kept going with the whole first season - inertia, as I say in the post, and once I decided I wanted to write about it I had to finish the season. But mainly it was just trying to figure out what the hell the writers thought they were doing. I really think that this is one of the strangest shows on TV, and that I haven't quite brought that across in this post - the desperate desire to be respectable, coupled with a total lack of understanding of what respectability (and quality) entail, and the writers' unwillingness to challenge themselves (for example when it comes to writing women and people of color) made for something that was as fascinating on the meta level as it was boring on the story level.

Cesare:

All true. And, on the flip side, there's nothing wrong with not writing space opera either. For all my many problems with BSG, the idea of writing space adventure as something mundane and, eventually, un-adventurous, is very appealing. It's all a question of the talent being put to the task.

jenfullmoon:

"Time" ends with Scott sending a second recording device through the stargate and telling the people in the next timeline how to save themselves, so it doesn't bother me that we don't see them actually do this. I'm more bothered by the fact that the episode destroys itself - nothing that happens in it is really part of the show's continuity. Which, when you're talking about one of the more engaging episodes of the season, is a problem.

Lisa Simpson:

I wouldn't want to give SG1 and SGA too much of a pass. They're both better at potential - the fun characters and interesting settings - than in what they do with either of these. I think that one of the main differences between them and SGU as far as fans are concerned is that they leave a lot more room for play and for improvement - in fanfic or just in the imagination - whereas SGU doesn't.

Shai Greenberg said...

Your thorough and interesting description of the show almost got me to watch it at first, and stopped me from doing so by the end of the post :)

I've watched SG1 and some (~2 seasons) of SGA - In part because of a friend, and mostly out of inertia.
I consider them to be less than mediocre - bad, even. I think they brought nothing new to the table in terms of the space opera genre, and while some episodes were genuinely fun, most suffered from unexciting and inconsistent characterization and plotting.

Had I known that the writers were going for a different tone with SGU, I might have given them the benefit of the doubt in the sense that I wouldn't care if they retconned some stuff in the Stargate universe - the original shows were inconsistent enough as it is, and you could look at it as a "soft reboot", although as you wrote, the attempt to cash in on a preexisting audience is somewhat disturbing.

I'd welcome the different tone not because I think a political allegory or a darker, less sci-fi-ish direction is superior to the space opera, but because these directions haven't been explored in TV and film as much as the space opera. It's like the genre discovered a new range of situations and emotions to play with (and yes - some of them are common in soaps, but that's not necessarily a bad thing), and while Galactica did create landmarks within that range, it by no means explored it all.

I especially enjoyed reading your observation about Lost, and I would add that even if the show isn't as slow (as you state is the case with SGU), few shows can support a large cast of characters. Sci-fi shows have an unfortunate tendency to try anyway, and the results vary from interesting characters that don't get treated properly (such as Lost's Ana Lucia) to characters that should have never made the regular cast in the first place (most of the characters in Heroes).

Kate Nepveu said...

Abigail, my reaction to SGA's "Michael" was, verbatim: "Holy fuck, they really are all war criminals."

So, yeah.

I preserve my affection for the characters by rationalizing all their terrible choices as ones inflicted on them by the plot, though sometimes that gets difficult.

apintrix said...

Dead on for SGU, but I do think you sell SG-1 and SGA a bit short. It's not merely that these were bad shows that didn't aspire above their merits; rather, I would argue, and quite strenuously, that the inherent value of fantastic fiction-- in its pure guise as sheer imaginative frenzy, whether Blake's visionary mythologies or Vernor Vinge's alien creations-- is no lower than that of realism. While SG-1 and SGA were, as you note, never terribly imaginative in what they did with the premise of so-called escapism-- i.e. fantastic non-realism, or what people used to call "romance"-- they did often get its spirit of ecstatic adventure and abandon very right. You're absolutely right that artful, accomplished literary productions, they never were; and sometimes they were truly cringe-inducing, both ethically and aesthetically; but both shows could be, on their best days, genuinely inspired. I wouldn't dismiss them quite so simply as bad-camp-done-well.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Shai:

I agree that there's room to explore the more mundane side of space exploration, and in fact I see a lot of shows trying to do just that - BSG (though this quickly took a back seat to politics), Virtuality, Defying Gravity, the films Moon and Sunshine - but I don't think that many of them have figured out how to do so (Moon probably comes closest). I mind the shift to soap opera stories less for their own right and more because they seem to be a default choice that doesn't always suit the material.

Good point about large casts of characters, which a lot of Lost imitators are fielding with, as you say, mixed results. SGU's cast isn't really that big, but it still manages to underserve all but one or two characters.

apintrix:

I think you're making the same argument made at the end of "200," and giving the writers of SG1 and SGA the same easy out. If I think of shows that demonstrate imaginative frenzy, I think of Farscape or The Middleman, series that managed to be both exhilarating and smart. The Stargates, though both had their moments, were never that imaginative, and never that clever.

Martius Yellow said...

I, at least, was reminded frequently during this season of Voyager. It was also the second (new Trek) spin-off and the creators decided that it was time to move the setting far beyond the established universe. Even though SGU makes a dramatic departure from the tone of the previous spin-offs and Voyager remained true to the Star Trek tone, it seems that both shows are/were unable to escape the inertia of the science fiction storytelling conventions of their day. SGU, as you point out, apes the popular Lost and BSG, while Voyager continued the formula that had worked on TNG and the writers of both shows churned out safe, mediocre episodes in the established mode. Both shows also created interesting characters and situations, but aggravatingly never seemed to take full dramatic advantage of them, preferring instead to tell other shows' stories. I realize water is an important resource for humans attempting space travel (and one that Star Trek too often forgot about) but did they really expect us not to notice that BSG also had an episode about water supply issues also named "Water"? Similarly, Voyager ran into the same types of anomalies the Enterprise did and similar hijinks ensued.

My hope with SGU is the same hope I had with Voyager, that the writers will establish their own voice and tone and tell their own stories. But if that doesn't happen, maybe someone will come out of SGU as Ron Moore did from Voyager and create something new and good in the sci-fi TV world, because goodness knows there's not a lot out there now.

apintrix said...

Abigail: I think you're mischaracterizing my argument, which is understandable because it was poorly phrased. (In particular, I did acknowledge above that the writers were never particularly imaginative, certainly less than Farscape.) I'm saying something a bit more complicated:

1) It's true that SG-1 and SGA never rise to high levels of writing on the nuts-and-bolts level. Even a well-done episode "Window of Opportunity" is just Groundhog Day in the SGC. Original they are not; imaginative they are not.

2) However, the writers very successfully, particularly in the earlier seasons, manage to impart to the shows as a whole a sense of joyous adventure.

3) The fact that the show is fun is not testament to something like "living well within its means", or "not trying to bite off more than it can chew." Rather, having a spirit of adventure and even escapism is something that is positive and good in literature.

3a) I am aware that this is a politically complex claim. In the case of SG-1, the joyful spirit of adventure gets used to pave over some serious ambiguities. I haven't seen "200", but I suspect that's similar. However, valuing escapist fun over serious realist engagement can also be liberating, as it was for women novelists of the 18th century whose gothic and amatory fictions subverted a "realism" that was invested in upholding a heavily normative and misogynist conception of what counted as "real".

3c) Does Stargate do that? No, it doesn't. As I say above, it doesn't really DO much with the escapist spirit that it has. However, both shows are good at escapist fiction in the sense that they very reliably and consistently are *fun*.

4) I posit that in order to be fun, a show has to be, on some level, well-written. Fun comes from something having been done well.

5) "Being good at being a fun escapist show" isn't the same as "having low ambition". Rather, to say that "being good at being fun and escapist" is equated with "having low ambition" is to inherently make a value judgment that fun escapist fiction is somehow a lower genre than realism-- less ambitious, less worth-while, etc.

6) That's an argument that many people have made, but I don't think it's a good argument. Realism has its uses. So does anti-realism.

7) The fact that SGA and SG-1 didn't use their escapist powers for good doesn't mean that they weren't good at escapism.

Hopefully this will somewhat clarify my argument! I'm not invested in getting either show off the hook; I'm more invested in troubling the implied equation of "fun" with "trivial" or "unambitious". Fun is great, and we should value it as an accomplishment in fictional forms.

Yinka Wills said...

This?

Is BRILLIANT!

A concise, very accurate critique of Stargate Universe, which makes it easy to understand why many people watch it so they can mock it on forums, blogs and places like TV Without Pity.

As a long time Stargate franchise watcher, I've often thought that the people behind it were good at two things: Casting and concepts. Poor at plot and characterisation, uneven at dialogue. The actors put in a lot to make essentially one and two dimensional characters people the viewer cared about. And succeeded.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to imitate a vastly superior show (BSG) the writers, directors, showrunners and army of exec producers have been exposed. Not only does the emperor have no clothes, but he's...flabby.

They spent all their money persuading Robert Carlysle to play Rush...and then filled many of the leading roles with people who had little talent. And then wrote for them poorly, and directed them badly.
Young is appalling- yet in interviews, its clear the showrunners etc think he's a 'flawed hero'. Its as if they bought a book called 'characterisation 101' and lacked patience to get to the end! Scott is merely a callow youth. Chloe... many, many viewers have commented that they cheered when she 'died' in the episode 'Time', thinking this was maybe some brave step TPTB were taking. Only to feel aghast when it was all shuffled off to different timelines.
By the time later on, that Chloe, Scott and Eli get 'stranded' on a planet whilst the ancient ship Destiny leaves for another galaxy, the response was 'meh' expecting they would be miraculously restored to the crew...her abduction by catfish aliens left me for one going 'whatever'.
Frankly, its the secondary characters- mostly scientist we see in small scenes- who make this latest in the Stargate franchise watchable.

They're bringing seasoned, GOOD actors from the other Stargate (the suddenly cancelled Atlantis)over for a few eps to shore up this turkey. I shall feel as if I'm like those people who slow down to peep at the results of a car crash, if I watch the inevitable clash of styles...

Anonymous said...

Very well said, indeed! Your critique is completely spot on.

SG1 Fan said...

Haven't read your blog before and more's the pity. This is a brilliant analysis of SGU and the limitations and apparent motivations of the writers. I wouldn't be so hard on SG1 or SGA, but that's only because I loved them, and I'm way too smart to love a badly written show. Ha.for me it boiled down to loving the men on those shows and wanting to watch them do their thing, together, every week. The sad thing is if one of the SGU producers were to read your analysis, he'd simply chalk it up to you being angry SGA was cancelled, like they dismiss all crit. Disdain indeed.

Runciter147 said...

Am I the only one who has no problem rooting for an agent of chaos like Rush?

Reading the comments, I get the feeling that quite a few Stargate fans are in denial about that the franchise is and always was: family entertainment. As in "uncritical, unquestioning, not too deep and always afraid to offend somebody". Even the occasional nudity in the early seasons is only there because Showtime insisted on it, if the writers are to be believed.

SGU is just an update of the formula, that has worked for the previous Stargates for 12 years. But SciFi today is serious to the point of emo, it has characters like on Lost and the looks of Battlestar. So now, that's what Stargate tries to be ... with mixed success.

I agree that Stargate's writers might have been better off staying at the shallow end of the pool. But perhaps it's better they now try to learn to swim at the deep end before said shallow end finally dries up. I'm gonna continue watching SGU for all its faults, because - like its predecessors - it provides me with enough enjoyment to overlook those flaws.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, the "dark, dramatic" feel is rapidly going out of fashion, including on Syfy -- the current trend on cable is for "blue skies" series, primary-colored, bright, sunny, fun shows that feature witty, quirky, *likable* characters who mostly like each other (such as Eureka, Warehouse 13, Haven, White Collar, Psych, Leverage, etc.), with a bit of occasional darkness for contrast. Kind of like what Stargate already had with SGA and SG1. But that's the danger of copying the cool kids -- by the time you get there, everyone else has moved on to something else.

Bademeister said...

Universe's problem is not that none of its characters are really likable. It's true that there is no one to root for. But if you have an ensemble like that, you "just" need good actors, good plots, and a good story arc - think of shows like "The shield" - and you have a great show.

If you have bad actors and unimaginative writers, you're in trouble once you can't cover your tracks with a likable crew, comical O'Neill one-liners or fancy action scenes anymore. Stargate Universe is like an ordinary driver's attempt at competing in the Formula 1. If you try to compete at that level, you end up looking incompetent, as opposed to looking mediocre when you just hit the morning commute. You stand out - and not in a good way.

While I agree with most of your analysis here Abigail, I think you give Galactica far too much credit when you claim that the show single-handedly destroyed the genre of space opera. The push towards grittier, more "realistic" television is not exclusive to the genre of Science fiction or a show like Galactica. You can notice the influence of a post 9/11 society in a lot of television genres (all over the arts, in fact). Think of much has been written about 24's influence on the serialized action / crime / thriller genre. Just recently I've watched the (awful) pilot for the new Hawaii 5-0, and even that show set in a tropical paradise is distinctively harsher than its predecessor from the 70ies. Here we are supposed to root for a main character who tortures criminals and threatens to kill them. We are so used to this behavior from role models of authority (military / police) in television by now, that we don't even blink and notice how abnormal and wrong this really is. Such behavior would have been unacceptable not so long ago, but just as real life Realpolitik has blurred the lines of right and wrong, so has genre television.

BSG is not even the first show that aimed for a dire, dystopian realism - look at shows like Space: above and beyond and you'll see that it has been tried before (and with more success than BSG, in terms of quality at least, if not commercially).

The last space operas aside from Stargate that I can remember were Firefly and Farscape, and both were cancelled before Galactica aired. If there is a franchise that could be credited with destroying the space opera genre, I'd attribute this award to Rick Berman and the mess he created with Voyager and Enterprise.

Star Trek was the flagship of this genre with the biggest and most devoted fanbase - and they tanked it with these two shows, even though they had a budget and control over the production that most show runners can only dream about. I have to assume that other network executives noticed the commercial and critical failure of these space opera and exploration shows.

I can't remember one show that would fit in this genre and came out after Enterprises' cancellation in 2005. There were at least half a dozen of these shows just a decade ago - Star Trek, Stargate, Farscape, B5, Andromeda - now the only show with even a hint of exploration and adventure that I can think of is indeed Stargate Universe, a show that fails on these levels and on many others.

I can only hope that the age of pseudo-realistic shaky cam television will eventually come to an end. In times like these, people could use a little hope and fun. And if they can't have that, they at least deserve *good* drama.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. SG-1 *wasn't* actually trite or childish until the regime currently working on SGU took over ... they are the ones who turned everything into a joke, and then expected people to want to tune into something "dramatic and edgy".

Erm.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Martius Yellow:

The significant similarity between Voyager and SGU is the fact that both shows begin with two groups forced to band together in order to survive in their new, remote location. I never watched Voyager regularly, but I understand that it was a common complaint of fans that the Starfleet and Maquis characters integrated too quickly and too easily, while SGU takes the opposite approach of keeping the soldiers and scientists apart until the end of the first season. I would have liked a story that was somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

apintrix:

"Being good at being a fun escapist show" isn't the same as "having low ambition".

OK, I see what you're saying now. I'll have to think about this some more, but my gut instinct is to agree with you. For example, I've just written about the pilot for the new Hawaii Five-0, which is nothing if not escapist fun but clearly has had a lot of work put into it in order to achieve that effect. However, just because the desire to create escapist fun isn't synonymous with low ambition doesn't mean the two can't coexist. I don't think, for example, that SG1 or SGA ever achieved the kind of exciting, overwhelming fun of the Hawaii Five-0 pilot. They both had their moments - which is to say moments within episodes, not whole episodes or stories - but I never got the sense that their writers were working very hard, even when what they were trying to create was frothy and silly.

Yinka Wills:

I actually thought the stranding of Chloe, Eli, Scott and Greer in the second half of the seasons was the best use of all four characters. It was a story I was actually interested in, and cause for character interaction. I was disappointed when all four characters were restored to Destiny so quickly - I think I would have enjoyed a show in which the four of them tramped around a distant galaxy, trying to survive and get back to the ship, a lot more than I enjoyed SGU.

Runciter147:

Am I the only one who has no problem rooting for an agent of chaos like Rush?

Heh. Seriously, though, as I say Rush is the only successful character on the show and one of the things it does well is make it clear how bad a leader he would be if left to his own devices, precisely because he's so sure that he can manipulate everyone. Rush needs someone around to reign him in and take care of boring administrative issues, which would be more obvious if Wray and Young were not so unsuited to these roles.

Anon. 1:

the current trend on cable is for "blue skies" series, primary-colored, bright, sunny, fun shows that feature witty, quirky, *likable* characters who mostly like each other

I think that there are two trends working against each other, and both require strong writing to work. Shows like Psych and Leverage need sharp plots and careful character work to make up for their effervescence - which is why so many examples of this type (Warehouse 13, Haven, White Collar) fall flat, and why it's so easy for these shows to collapse into themselves (as Leverage has started to do) once the writing goes off. Meanwhile, writing deeply flawed, morally compromised characters requires a sure hand (and an understanding of the fine line between morally compromised and morally abhorrent) to keep them from descending into melodrama, which not even Battlestar Galactica managed to do for very long. I agree that SG1 and SGA are more in line with shows like Eureka, but they were never very good at the kind of sharp writing that the new generation of lighthearted shows demands. Whatever the fashion, it seems to have left the Stargate universe behind.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Bademeister:

You're right that BSG was itself a manifestation of a trend towards dark, political television that crossed all genres (though as the anonymous commenter above notes there's been a corresponding trend towards lighthearted television in the last few years), but it was the standard bearer for that trend in science fiction, and its success and critical reception mean that it will continue to define space-set science fiction for a while now. So I think that blaming it for the death of the space opera is accurate, though I believe that, as with all fashions, the pendulum will sooner or later swing back.

Anon. 2:

SG-1 *wasn't* actually trite or childish until the regime currently working on SGU took over

I can't recall exactly when I started watching SG1 regularly. Sometime in the third or fourth season, I think, which may have been after the move from Showtime. I remember hearing that the show was more gritty in its early seasons, and I've seen some episodes that support this, but that still means that for most of its run, and for all of Atlantis's, Stargate was trite and childish.

Anonymous said...

"Shows like Psych and Leverage need sharp plots and careful character work to make up for their effervescence"

Why is effervescence something that needs to be made up for?

I'd agree that writing light and breezy takes effort, as much as writing drama, if not more. It's just an odd phrase you used there. I wonder if I'm misunderstanding you.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment.

I loved SG-1, yes it was up and down and sometimes it was bad, but most of the time it was fine and occasionally it was excellent (Heroes anyone). I think the fact that I loved the characters so very dearly was part of my enjoyment and I strongly disagree with you that it was trite and meaningless.

SGA failed to engage me. It was more of the same but without the characters I loved and I gave up after the first season. I don't think it was bad, it just didn't work for me.

SGU failed for me because I just didn't care! It was dark, dreary and boring... And for all those people who bang on about the brilliance of BSG, what was a 'must watch' became dark and relentless dreary and sombre. I gave up and didn't even watch the last season.

Funnily enough, 'trite, childish and silly' SG-1 never made me feel so damn bored and drained that I ever gave up on it.

So what so I deduce from that... for a show to maintain an audience it needs to give us characters we care about and who actually care about each other. Write plots that make sense, inject some humour, engage us and made us care... we'll carry on watching.

Anonymous said...

Abigail,

My point was more that it only became trite and/or childish (as deemed by the writer of htis article) when the boobs running the franchise to this day took over, not how long it was so.

We'll never know what it could have been had no talent ass clowns been hired. ;)

RunCiter147 said...

"Heh. Seriously, though, as I say Rush is the only successful character on the show and one of the things it does well is make it clear how bad a leader he would be if left to his own devices, precisely because he's so sure that he can manipulate everyone. Rush needs someone around to reign him in and take care of boring administrative issues, which would be more obvious if Wray and Young were not so unsuited to these roles."

Well put. In any case, the characterization is a major weakness of the show (despite beeing its professed focus), which is a shame because I think the characters aren't set-up badly at all. I would love to know more about Greer, James, Brody, Volker and Park, but the writers seem unable to deliver.

Extending my thoughts from the first posting, I think the root of SGU's problems lies in its creators having written family entertainment for 15 TV seasons. Universe apparently wants to come across as gritty but still seems undecided whether it actually wants to be gritty or merely look gritty. The writers appear to have as much trouble getting into the new tone and focus of Universe as those fans of the franchise who have become haters of the new show.

Anonymous said...

Dear Abigail,

I seem to come by posts very late, but I still hope you will comment on what I've written here.

I started looking at SGU after its 2nd season began airing, mainly due to dismissing this show as a Battlestar copy. My impression is different to that of many posters here, in that the episode "Air" grabbed my attention with its attempt to weave the Stargate mythos into a more realistic, serial storyline.

Col Young came across as an amiable commander of an important, but insulated science project, that had, along with the other scientists and staff, their routine upended and forced by Rush onto Destiny. Through the first season, hints are dropped that Col. Young is burnt out, or at least slowing down, and while I agree that he made mistakes (punching Telford out of jealousy, abandoning Rush on an alien planet, failing to vent the gate room during the Lucian attack), it's not unreasonable to think that people lose control,even temporarily, under multiple, extreme stresses.

Part of it is the age old need for stories to take the more dramatic route, rather than a realistic one (an irony given the attempt at dramatic realism): for example, had Young vented the gate room decisively there would be no "Incursion" storyline to speak of, not to mention if the Icarus staff had overpowered Rush and dialed an alternate site instead of Destiny - no Stargate Universe series - a good or bad thing depending on taste.

Other thoughts ...

The best character episodes for me were "Human" where we see Rush explore the memory of his wife's terminal illness, and see his motive for wanting Destiny's secrets, and "Sabotage" where we see the perspective of a person with quadriplegia find the freedom to express love in a way they never could, and with Rush, whose alienation to the crew contrasted sharply with his tenderness for Amanda.

...

BSG captured my attention with its "shock and awe" style of storytelling, but I don't think it could have sustained the adrenaline of "33" over 10 seasons - the word I'd use to describe BSG is "Intense" and that has a short fuse. For SGA, the word I'd use is "avalanche" - a classic example is that of the trilogy "First Strike, Adrift, Lifeline" where one crisis led to another, then another and the combination of music and action were a heck of a lot of fun. The opening credits and musical score of Atlantis is one of my favorites.

...

Reservations about SGU:

*not using more ethnic blind casting (i.e. why Telford instead of a Spanish surname and use of Spanish by Lou Diamond, why Greer instead of an ethnic African name). Also the cliche that Greer is from a poor, dysfunctional African American family - I could see this as a problem if I were of African descent. But then again, all the main writers are American/Canadian men of European descent, so writing for other other ethnic groups is a challenge. In Greer's case, despite the cliche, I like his depiction of how he can be a tough sergeant, but vulnerable/protective towards Eli and his girlfriend, Dr.Park in regards to Rush, etc.

...

The episodes of SGU that fixed my attention the most were "Light" due to the stunning visuals of flying into a star to scoop up hydrogen - "powered by the stars themselves" is perhaps my favorite line and fires the imagination. "Space" where the aliens encountered are truely alien, and the creative use of the Ancient stones to switch bodies with an alien, I thought was ingenious.

...

Stargate really excels at its production - from music, realistic special effects, to plot and pacing, and my hat is off to a creative team that has honed its story-telling skills over 13 years.

Regards,

Dean,
British Columbia, Canada

Anonymous said...

My apologies, on further research Lou
Diamond Phillips was born in the Philipines and benefits from many ancestral lines, Spanish being a small part. Hoping to comment on a multicultural cast, I suppose it helps to know the heritage of the actor, who I assumed was Spanish, :).

Dean

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, I'm afraid our differences of opinion about this show are irreconcilable, Dean. I thought "Human" was the very worst episode of the first season, perfectly demonstrating the show's creative bankruptcy. It's a lazy, self-indulgent hour that tells us nothing about Rush that hadn't already been more clearly, more elegantly, and more affectingly expressed in a couple of minute-long scenes in the series pilot (and is thus an affront to Robert Carlyle's fine work as Rush, which is the only reason the character works at all). It's the furthest the show sinks into Lost-style, "divide and infodump" character work, and so obviously self-congratulatory ("listen! Classical music! That makes it art!") that it was all I could do to keep watching. Which is a shame as the planet-side plot is the best in the season, and if that story had been combined with the next week's (also stretched with flashbacks to Greer's past, which are less redundant than Rush's but still outstay their welcome) a single kickass hour could have been made - without stiffing any of the characters.

Anonymous said...

Dear Abigail,

I want to thank-you for your comments, but am not sure I understand them. I never got the sense Brad Wright and Co. were trying to break new ground creatively for tv as a whole, just for Stargate, and I think they've succeeded. So if by "creative bankruptcy", you mean borrowing heavily from other acclaimed shows such as BSG, Lost or Grey's Anatomy (the musical montage scenes), then yeah, I can see that.

As for "Human" being "lazy, self-indulgent": if by lazy you mean borrowing style elements from other films (i.e. documentary film look), perhaps. But I tend to judge the piece based on how I connect with it personally (emotionally), and reliving his wife's death to solve the key to Destiny's command codes had a certain tenderness and irony to it. I could really see Dr. Rush running away from dealing with his grief, and both Daniel and his wife served as his conscience during the process. Put another way, Rush has run away, with his obsession for Destiny's secrets, but in order to learn those secrets, he has to face the painful memory he is running from, and be reminded of the hurt he causes. I like how this segued into his wife appearing (as an ascended being via Franklin?)
in his mind during the Season 2.0 bridge scenes.

Regards,

Dean

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I call "Human" lazy because instead of developing Rush's character through dialogue and actions, the writers develop him by having him, essentially, stand up in front of an audience and explain his history and hang-ups. In the pilot episode, there's a scene in which Rush arrives in the mess hall and sees the rest of the cast having a cheerful, convivial dinner, before being handed a take-away tray, unasked for, by the cook. He goes back to his room, takes out a picture of his wife, and bursts into tears. That basically tells us everything we needed to know about Rush - that he's a workaholic, that he has alienated his coworkers, that he's a little bit conflicted about those choices, that he feels deep grief about his wife's death, and that that death is probably the reason he's so closed off. There was no need for a whole flashback episode to repeat these points, much less one in which Rush simply explains himself to figments of his imagination (or is explained to himself by those same figments).

I call the episode self-indulgent because of all the stylistic tricks the writers threw at the screen - the classical music, the out of focus or obscured shots, the grainy footage, the non-linear plotting. It's pretty clear that they had no firm hold on any of these devices and were just using them out of the mistaken conviction that they would confer respectability simply by their existence.

And I call the episode derivative of Lost because, like Lost's character building, it is aimed at the audience. None of the other characters find out something new about Rush, and no relationships are developed as a result of his experiences in it. It's a black hole whose sole purpose was to convince the writers that they were creating drama rather than science fiction.

Cesare said...

I stopped back to see if you had any response to Universe's cancellation. I don't see a reaction on your blog. But your comment dissecting the "Human" episode is great!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't really have strong feelings about Universe's cancellation except that it isn't a surprise. The production gambled that they'd win a new audience to compensate for the one their retooling of the franchise would cost them and they lost that gamble, and I might actually feel sorry for them - for trying something different instead of playing it safe, and falling on their faces with it - if the actual product were not so unimpressive, and if their off-screen antics were not so disrespectful. In the short run the cancellation probably means that we're even further off from seeing new space-set TV SF, at least from American producers, but otherwise it, like the show itself, is just a blip in the annals of the genre.

Anonymous said...

I gave it a few days, then watched the episode "Human" again and wanted to offer the following thoughts:

*The classical music was a violen piece, and his wife was a violen teacher, so it was her music,
and not carelessly chosen.
*Seeing Rush's memories of his wife helps us understand their relationship better, and introduces us to a new character, who will visit Rush in 'spirit' form in the next season.

On a side note, the Kino Diaries are a smart way to do an "interview" episode without indulging in doing one, and also performs a lot of character work that would feel out of place in a scifi action/drama. Brody, for example, is asked by Eli what him most painful memory is, and Brody responds by saying he was struck by lightning(!) and then Eli says no, I ment emotional pain, to which Brody responds that he is a happy guy and the life of party (which by his personality he's anything but). The Kino diary scenes with Sgt Riley are especially touching, knowing what happens to him next season.

Regards,

Dean
British Columbia, Canada

Anonymous said...

Spell check is a must - I meant violin! :)

Regards, Dean

Anonymous said...

i was just looking for a rant against SGU after watching episodes 8 and 9. Ep8's attempt to make a double or possibly triple time redundant course of action work out was compelling until they just copped out and ended the episode. And then broke the continuity in episode 9! If you are going to drop a cliffhanger on your viewer, don't fast forward 2 weeks and not expect a frustrated audience. Regardless of that - these are all great characters and a decently suspenseful storyline.

Anonymous said...

A well done autopsy on SGU and you did a good job articulating its flaws.
As for the flaws in previous SG shows, well yes you are correct, but those shows did keep me entertained enough to ignore them and keep watching the characters I like watching. It's a simple formula: People explore and stuff happens. SGU tried to break away and failed.

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