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Opinion

‘Stargate: Universe’ – Air

Latest in the Stargate franchise gets a solid start


From the very first scene as we glide through the halls of the Destiny and into the gateroom, you know that “Stargate: Universe” is a much different show from its predecessors.

The newest series from Syfy starts fast, and works hard to continue that pace through the first two episodes, part of a three-episode set called “Air.” Because a three-episode arc is reminiscent of “Battlestar Galactica,” that is yet one more comparison some people can make between the former SciFi Channel signature show and this new series.

But outside of a darker theme overall and more realistic camera angles (including a bit of the documentary feel that made BSG what it was), there are not too many comparisons that can be drawn between these two series. For me, “Universe” stands on its own, and can probably do without the constant comparisons to BSG. So that’s something you won’t find me doing in these reviews.

In any event, as soon as we visit the gateroom, we find an active gate, and the first to pop through is Lt. Matthew Scott, played by the rugged yet youthful Brian J. Smith. A much better opening than we saw in the last spinoff, “Stargate: Atlantis,” which had a cool battle scene timelined to be a part of the parent “Stargate SG-1” series, but dragged on before we finally got to Atlantis.

Not this time, however. We start right away on the Destiny, the audience just as curious to what’s going on as the number of evacuees flying through the puddle. And that’s good. The backstory leading to how we got here should be treated exactly as that, backstory, and something we can see as we move forward with the episode.

I’m not sure if this story order was the product of writers and executive producers Robert Cooper and Brad Wright, or if it was the decision of director Andy Mikita, but either way it works, and provides a solid pacing that is normally absent from many television pilots.

We find ourselves with an interesting cast of characters as well. Not only do you have Scott, who like Lt. Col. John Sheppard (Joe Flanigan) in “Atlantis” is caught in a sudden, unexpected leadership position, but also probably one of the most clever character moves I’ve seen in a long time: Eli Wallace, played by the fun David Blue, who more or less represents all of the geeks, er, fans of shows like this (you know, like me), bringing our overall perspective into this.

Not that Sheppard didn’t provide fangasms here and there … Eli is definitely one of us. Found first playing an online game (which I would’ve been doing if not for watching “Universe” in the first place), he suddenly gets the trip of a lifetime, a la “Galaxy Quest,” and he becomes the character I think many of us can instantly relate to. The first moment he’s on his first alien planet, standing in front of a big-ass gun, Eli does exactly what I would do: Pull out my iPhone and snap a picture.

Eli almost seems like a duh character that is trying to be the new Rodney McKay, but I think it’s Blue that really helps pull this off and make it work. Probably a combination of good acting and being a geek himself, Blue has a chance to really make this role work, and at least in the pilot, he does just that.

Also a part of this interesting cast is Jamil Walker Smith as MSgt. Ronald Greer. We don’t even meet him until after the secret planetary base is under attack, and when we do, we find out he’s in detention. Why? Not quite sure. But it seems to have something to do with the wonderful, beautiful and very talented Ming Na. Well, not really her, but her character, Camille Wray, one of the representatives of the international agency tasked to overlook the stargate program.

I love Greer because he’s a true bad-ass. He’s the kind of person that shoots first and asks questions later, and the kind of warrior that every Stargate series needs since “Atlantis” added Ronon Dex.

And then there’s Dr. Nicholas Rush, played by Robert Carlyle. He, of course, is someone we have to watch closely, especially since we don’t seem to fully have a leadership structure set up. We have to keep watching whether or not he’s a good guy, a bad guy, or simply just so selfish he doesn’t care what happens.

That’s how we meet Rush. When the planetary base is attacked, instead of dialing Earth, Rush instead decides to dial the Destiny — an ancient ship galaxies away designed to place stargates on planets throughout the universe. Of course, they have no idea that’s where the stargate leads, so let’s just say people like Col. Everett Young (Justin Louis) is none too happy.

Once we get on the Destiny, it’s a race to survive from the start. The ship hasn’t been occupied in tens of thousands of years, and despite the fact that it looks pretty good after such neglect, there are systems that really need some work. And when we say some systems, what we really mean is life support.

The efforts allow us to explore the Destiny with the crew a bit, and comes with some sacrifices as well, especially when Sen. Alan Armstrong (Christopher McDonald), knowing he’s going to die anyway, sacrifices himself to buy Rush and Eli some more time to get life support up and running. It not only creates a very emotional scene for Elyse Levesque, who plays Armstrong’s daughter Chloe, but it also allows us to keep Col. Young, who after seeing the pilot of “Atlantis” just a few years back, made me think he had a target on his back the whole episode, especially when he was critically injured in the beginning.

We leave the stranded newest Destiny crew with no way to get back to Earth, and a need to find some needed material to help fix the life support system, creating a cliffhanger that was fine for me (since I already had the next episode in hand and was able to watch it), but sucks for everyone not so lucky to get screeners in the mail, who have to wait until Friday to see how it concludes.

What Worked

As I said before, the pacing of this episode was awesome. I won’t say that this made the pilot the most amazing pilot I’ve ever seen (that’s an honor that still belongs to both “Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost”), but was definitely far better than the pilot for “Atlantis,” and just really worked. Although a friend of mine who watched the episode was a little lost on all the time-jumping, it was still a great way to keep the main story moving while flashing back to backstory.

I mean seriously, it works for “Lost,” why can’t it work for a Stargate series?

In my review, I talked about “Universe” being more like a “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and less like a “Battlestar Galactica.” I should’ve explained that better, since I need to stop assuming that everyone knows why I like what I like, and what my comparisons mean (damn you all for not being mind readers!).

I love both “Battlestar” and “Deep Space Nine,” but I doubt I will ever find a show the rest of my life that I will be able to treat at the same level as “Battlestar.” I hope I do, because that was some amazing television. But “Deep Space Nine” is not terribly far behind.

Why I think it might be more of a “Deep Space Nine” is because this isn’t your father’s Stargate, which I guess would make you pretty young if only your dad watched the previous incarnations in this franchise since the whole Stargate universe is only 15 years old. But you know what I mean.

There isn’t the same level of fun and humor in “Universe” as there has been in “SG-1” and “Atlantis.” You can count this as good or bad, but I count it as good. Not that I had anything against “SG-1” or even “Atlantis.” The first series was a great series, even if it went two seasons longer than it should. And while “Atlantis” had a great concept and a good couple of first years, it burned out way too quickly.

“Universe” is either going to be loved or hated by Stargate fans, just as DS9 has been for Star Trek fans. Even today, some 10 years after that show ended (can you believe it’s been 10 years now since DS9 has gone off the air?), I still run into people who either love “Deep Space Nine,” or would love to push it out the airlock. I know, I ran into some after my preview of “Universe” making this comparison in the first place.

What Didn’t Work

Using an ensemble cast is hard to pull off, and I think the pilot for “Universe” discovered that rather quickly. We didn’t see nearly enough of characters like Camille Wray and 1st Lt. Tamara Johansen (Alaina Kalanj). Yeah, I know that there will be plenty of other episodes to give them more airtime, but in an episode like, you know, the pilot, it would be nice to kind of get a better feel of who they are (and the fact that their characters exist) early on.

And I say this jumping the gun a little bit. I can tell you that in part 3 of “Air” that broadcasts Friday, we see even less of Wray and Johansen.

Please, “Universe” writers, correct this travesty soon. I’m excited to see Ming-Na and Kalanj show us what they’ve got, and I don’t want to wait until the mid-season finale.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

“Stargate: Universe” stars Robert Carlyle, Brian J. Smith, David Blue, Jamil Walker Smith, Justin Louis, Elyse Levesque, Ming-Na, Alaina Kalanj and Lou Diamond Phillips.

“Air, Part 1” and “Air, Part 2” were written by Robert C. Cooper and Brad Wright, and was directed by Andy Mikita.

“Stargate: Universe” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy.

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