I recently finished watching the whole two-year, 40-episode run of Stargate Universe (SGU), which aired on TV from 2009-2010. I confess I am having a strange relationship with this setting and story arc. It is haunting me. That is the only word for it.
There is a peculiar flavor to this show, one I don’t think has been captured by any other science fiction I have ever viewed. It manages to engage with its realism and drama regardless of the arguably fantastic setting. (Once you agree to the premise of ancient alien technology, all else follows from that, and that premise is well established both in SGU and in the larger Stargate franchise). It challenges one to actually contemplate the size of the universe, humanity’s inconsequential position in it, and the nature of faith, science, technology and reality.
The show dances on the edge of the un/explainable, even venturing now and then into the mystical, in the sense that an event a character cannot explain remains opaque to viewers as well. Yet this is managed in a way that comes off as luminal rather than simply mystifying. The result is not so much a sense of frustration as a realization that there are some things that are beyond our understanding and just can’t be explained. We the viewers must reconcile ourselves to that reality just as the crew must. And yet such grand questions are explored in an intensely personal manner. SGU is a close-focused microcosm of the ship-voyage crucible, successfully blending wonder, science and the nearly mystical unknown in sincerely moving drama.
Realistic Ship Stories
Ron Moore, creator of the re-envisioned Battlestar Galactica, was for a time the showrunner of Star Trek: Voyager. He once related in a podcast that he was frustrated in his work on that series because they would not let him take Voyager down the gritty and stressful paths he wanted to. He wanted to see what the real impact of long-term, near-endless voyaging would be on human psychology, on a ship in increasingly bad repair, and so on. Star Trek would have none of it; the franchise formula requires tidy ships and optimistic endings. Moore was finally able to realize his vision with the wildly successful BSG, named best TV show of the year by Time Magazine in 2005.
In Stargate Universe we get a revisitation of the long, near-hopeless ship voyage theme, and here, too, the vision is grittily realistic. Aboard the million-year-old Ancient ship Destiny, there is black sludge dripping off air scrubbers, gruel served in a near-foodless mess, and a constant battle to keep decrepit ship systems in working condition.1
Yet “realism” here is also defined within the context of an alien setting where man grapples with the mysteries of unimaginably old alien technology. Here we are reminded by character Eli Wallace of Clarke’s Law: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Against this backdrop an arcane notion such as the ship being able to affect the consciousness of individuals becomes yet one more piece of realism aboard the Destiny.
This is aided by the fact that the more fantastic events and story elements are not introduced cold-turkey but are built up to and made believable by the premise of what has come before. They are ultimately used to explore thematic questions like “what is the nature of reality?” This is well-executed writing craft, taking the viewer on a journey into the realms of possibility along with the Destiny and her crew.
Unlike the other science fiction ship stories, the humans stranded aboard this Ancient vessel have a means of letting their consciousness visit Earth, but this token contact makes their apparently one-way journey all the more heart-wrenching. With about 100 people on-board as crew, the death (or threat to the life) of any one of them has much more heft than in BSG with it tens of thousands, or Voyager with its several hundreds. Things are touch and go for the characters in this series; even though their numbers are small, their chances of survival do not feel guaranteed. The one saving grace of the somewhat cliff-hangerish series finale is that it guarantees the safety and survival of the crew (with possibly one exception) and we can imagine that in some alternate universe the crew of the Destiny is able to continue their voyage successfully.
Some story elements that stood out for me:
The repeated themes of faith, belief, the luminous and the unexplainable – where does one draw the line between them, and how does one judge what is it is real? For that matter, how is “real” even defined?
Story factors that could be seen as “predictable” – such as dealing with initial survival threats regarding air, water and food – are nevertheless creatively handled and don’t feel formulaic. They are also used to set up a lot of basic information about the ship and environment, and lead to more complex issues later.
Themes of self-sacrifice and “working for the good of the whole” are explored in many different ways throughout the series. We see who’s made of the “right stuff”, willing to put the well-being of others before themselves, and sometimes those answers are surprising.
Love themes are explored in unexpected ways. Personal intimacy is not the focus of the series but it is present. Beside Scott and Chloe, standing in as the token Young Lovers, there is a more mature, troubled love tension between medic TJ and Colonel Young, and a surprisingly poignant lesbian relationship between ship’s civilian leader Camille Wray and her partner Sharon left behind on Earth. Even on BSG with its cast of thousands, gay relationships did not have more than fleeting reference. Here, a main character has recurring interactions with her partner and the stress of their separation becomes emblematic for the stresses other crew members must also be going through. For once we see this played out through a gay lens, and it is a refreshing change of pace. Even two unlikely crew members, Eli and Rush, find and lose love, then find it again in a manner that raises questions about the nature of consciousness, the soul, and what Ancient computer technology is capable of. These are fascinating and novel approaches to all of these story questions.
Performances of Note
Robert Carlyle. This actor first came to my attention as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold in Once Upon a Time, where his nuanced portrayal of deceitful greed and evil made me seek out more of his work. That in turn led me to SGU and his stellar work as secretive Dr Nicholas Rush, the genius who figures out the Destiny and her mission. This Scotsman is perhaps better known for his movie characters in Trainspotting and The Full Monty, but in this television program he brings Rush to life as a brilliant, manipulative man who does not trust others. Because he tells half-truths and uses those around him, he is not trusted in turn. This general dislike and his own harsh edges conceal a sadness at his core that he hides even from himself. Rush is the evil that people have to live with if they want to survive. From this antagonistic start, the character evolves in complex and interesting ways. Carlyle is the linchpin to the Stargate Universe story, and he delivers a masterful performance throughout.
David Blue as über-geek Eli Wallace. Never have I seen such a believable slacker geek-boy become such a plausible unlikely hero. Blue is every under-motivated big-brained guy still living at home with his mom in his mid-20s, playing computer games all day long. Here’s what you can do when you solve a game puzzle and get drafted by a stargate program as a reward; we should all be so lucky. In the end, the survival of the Destiny and her crew come down to Eli’s genius and what problem-solving he can accomplish in a short time. Although this series ends in an “unfinished” story mode, the fact that Eli is at work on the solution suggests that all will be well in the Destiny’s future. Blue does a great job with this role and now I want to see more of his work, too.
Ming-Na as Camille Wray. From obnoxious pushy bureaucrat to a reasonable, even heroic, human being, Camille goes through a subtle but important story arc. She is de facto leader of the civilians on board ship, and is the politically savvy one who sometimes has the surprisingly right answer in a crisis. In an insider homage to Star Trek:TNG and ship counselor Deanna Troi, mission commander Colonel Young (Louis Ferreira) once asks Camille if she is acting as ship’s counselor now. Camille is not usually a shoulder to cry on, but when thorny interactions need sorting out she always has a plan. Maybe not the right plan, but a plan nonetheless. She is also the lesbian character whose love story with her partner Sharon does so much to add depth to the crew of the Destiny.
Alaina Huffman as Tamara “TJ” Johansen. TJ is leaving the service and her duty station as medic when she gets caught up in the evacuation that strands her aboard the Destiny. The character’s storyline depicts both a strong professional and a vulnerable woman dealing with issues of the heart, pregnancy, and a life-threatening illness. This could so easily have become a brittle stereotype (strong-woman-but-frail-in-private). Instead, Huffman’s performance transforms TJ into a well-balanced and sensitive mix of thoroughly capable human dealing with some really tough issues.
Jamil Walker Smith as Master Sergeant Ronald Greer. What a great performance Smith delivers throughout SGU. Greer is sardonic, self-contained, a self-stated man of action who is a salt-of-the-earth, dependable, loyal soldier. Smith brought a surprising sense of gravitas to a role that could easily have been played as merely a two-dimensional sidekick to Colonel Young, and transformed Greer into someone I would like to know in real life.
At the end of the day, I just want more of this series. I will have to somehow reconcile myself to the fact that the Destiny sails on to an unknown fate, and there will not even be a movie to wrap up loose ends and leave us on a more content end-note. Still, I’m glad I watched all this in one big, impactful dose. If you are a fan of good science fiction this is worth checking out, and if you like big questions wrapped up in the thematic issues that a story explores, you won’t be disappointed with this one.
Related Fun Stuff
Webisodes aboard the Destiny, supplemental to the show itself
1. Stargate Universe was created by writer/producers Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. Wright previously produced and wrote The Outer Limits and Highlander: The Series, and was the creator of the Stargate series. Cooper wrote for Stargate and spin-offs since the mid-nineties and was responsible for much of the setting’s backstory, including the notion of the Ancients and their technologies.