Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stargate: Universe

There’s a new Stargate series on the SyFy Channel (formerly the much less stupid Sci-Fi Channel), titled Stargate: Universe. The premise of this spin-off of a spin-off (of a spin-off?) is that there's a large group of soldiers and scientists at an outpost of those interstellar settlers and leavers-behind of all manner of space junk, the Ancients. The job of the outpost team was to decode a special 9th Chevron on the outpost’s unique Stargate, which, of course, they do (with the help of a nerd from Earth who solved the cryptogram after it was secretly released inside an Online Role-Playing Game. He is literally “beamed up” and transported across the galaxy to the outpost, despite knowing nothing about anything except computer games.).

Naturally, the scientists succeed at opening the special Stargate just in time to be attacked by bad guys. They evacuate the base THROUGH the Stargate and end up on an Ancient’s space ship – an enormous vessel that’s been flying around abandoned for thousands (or hundreds of thousands?) of years and isn’t really working all that well. They’re cut off from Earth and have no choice but to make the ship work for them so they can survive long enough to escape.

If any of this sounds interesting to you at all, but you’re concerned that you’ve already missed the first three episodes, fear not: they’re still available online on Hulu (if you’re in the US, anyway. I’m not sure how it works for international visitors).

I’ve watched all of the episodes so far, and I do think the show has potential. But I worry that the writers are being too clever for their own good. They’re doling out information a little bit at a time, and they’ve clearly gone to lengths to write a story wherein “something” is going on in secret that we don’t know about. For instance, in the opening scene of the first episode, somebody is already on the Ancient’s ship, walking around, turning on the lights, and it appears to be BEFORE any of the Earth-folks come through the Stargate. But since then, we’ve had not the slightest obvious hint about who or what that being was. We’ve also had some odd things happen to the crew when they went to a desert planet in search of baking soda for the ship’s air-scrubbers. But whatever it was was just sort of shrugged off as a hallucination.

I’m a big fan of story arcs. I like shows that engage me right from the beginning and then pull me along, episode to episode, revealing more and more of the story instead of each episode being a self-contained adventure where no permanent growth or change happens to any of the characters. The Stargate series(es) (ha!) have always been what I’d call arc-lite, in that there were recurring characters, devices, places, etc., but it wasn’t as if each season seemed to have an overriding storyline with each episode making up a chapter to each season’s novel. That would be arc-heavy, and something more along the lines of Straczynski’s Babylon 5. I think Stargate: Universe is aiming to be on the heavier side of the story arc concept, but they’re playing too coy about it. The early episodes have had too much hint, not enough payoff, such that they risk losing viewers. Of the first three weeks, the show saw great ratings for the premier, an increase for the second week (that included a bump of 22% in the core demographic of 18-22), and then a 14% dip in week 3, the which suggests that other folks may be turned off a bit by the show’s lack of dramatic oomph so far.

There may also be some concerns about the character of the characters, if you will. The sci-fi/fantasy website io9 posted a roundup of articles and viewer comments complaining that all of the females on the show are either whiny waifs in need of a strong man or else the subject of gratuitous boob-shots (or in one case, both). Likewise, the male characters include a fairly stereotypical wisecracking nerd and an angry black man.

So why a blog post about Stargate: Universe, you might wonder. I dunno. I had to write about something. Also, the show’s got a pretty good pedigree and a ton of existing work to draw upon, as the ancients and their technologies were a huge part of two other shows that ran a combined 15 seasons. It also has some of the same creators and showrunners behind the scenes as worked on the prior two series, and I even noticed that SG-1 regular director (as well as writer, executive producer and creative consultant ) Peter DeLuise directed the third episode – it always struck me that the SG-1 stuff he was involved with was pretty good. So I think there are lots of reasons why Stargate: Universe SHOULD be good. None of those things guarantee that it WILL be good, but I’m willing to give it a shot for a while. Hell, I watched Lost for the whole first season until it pissed me off to the point where I had to drop it, and it was far more obnoxious about teasing me with secret stuff but never explaining anything. With SG:U, I think the writers are just stringing us along a little too far before acknowledging to the audience that something more actually is going on that what we see on the surface. Once they dive into that, assuming it’s not dumb (like the whole Ori arc of SG-1’s final couple of seasons), the level of excitement on the show will hopefully pick up. If it does, you may be glad you tuned in now. Note that the Hulu backlog of episodes is only supposed to be available for about four weeks, so starting tomorrow, the premiere episode will drop off, followed a week later by the second episode, and so forth. Or maybe there’s an extra week before that starts happening, but it’s sometime soon. Anyway, there you have it – Stargate: Universe in all its glory, controversy and occasional lack of sufficient dramatic tension.

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