Our intention here is to provide you with a largely spoiler-free review of “Air,” the 3-hour premiere of Stargate Universe. To us, that means no major plot turns or reveals (beyond the widely publicized premise of the series). But there are some “broad strokes” about the story in this review. If you would rather watch the episodes cold, we suggest skipping this review until you have seen the show.
After 12 years and 15 produced seasons of television amounting to 314 episodes and two DVD movies, the Stargate franchise turns a major corner with the premiere of its third series, Stargate Universe. The first two hours of “Air” debut tonight (9/8c on Syfy in the U.S., 9e on SPACE in Canada) and Part 3 follows next week.
Just what is that “corner?” In every respect SGU is just what we hoped for: mature storytelling for a twenty-first century audience, an audience that tends to prefer dramatic character moments to shoot-’em-up action, and long-term story arcs to episodic vignettes. This is, of course, not to say that everyone’s tastes are the same or to speak ill of the two Stargate shows that went before it — shows that were excellent in their own right, for the type of shows they wanted to be.
SGU is not the same type of show. That means that some viewers just won’t be interested (as a recent GateWorld poll shows). And that’s OK. But those who do give the series a chance are sure to be rewarded with stories of heroism and duplicity, adventure and quiet introspection — stories that make us cheer, disquiet our consciences, and leave us gaping in disbelief.
Yes, Universe is a new Stargate. But in a couple of unexpected ways, it is more Stargate than anything that has come before it. It is human. We treasured scenes in the later years of SG-1 when it was the whole team chillin’ at Jack’s house. We were warmed with Sheppard and Rodney sharing a six pack on an Atlantis pier. And then, when the time came, there were victories for the people we got to know. “Air” does exactly this and more, and it does it from episode one.
Stargate Universe is not a “perfect” show yet (what series is by the end of its pilot?), but it is exactly what we were hoping the next incarnation of Stargate could be and will be.
“Air” is cleanly divided into three acts of a single story, which brings our characters onto an Ancient ship called Destiny and begins to weave together the threads of their relationships with one another. The first act centers on the forced evacuation of a base full of military personnel, scientists and civilians through the Stargate. The second act turns to the question of how these people are going to survive on the derelict ship, with both a dwindling supply of oxygen and a question of leadership. And in the third act, the crew sends a team to a newly-discovered planet on a mission to save all their lives.
If you’ve been watching the trailers and promos for SGU, looking at the photos and perhaps speculating a bit with us over at the forum, you probably know what to expect out of the first hour. The new characters are introduced in interesting ways, leaving you liking some of them right off the bat. The plot itself proceeds in a somewhat predictable way (again, the promotions engine has already told us a lot), but the characters are so dynamic that we found we didn’t really mind. The circumstances which get these people onto the Destiny have a few fun connections to Stargate‘s established mythology, rewarding long-time viewers without leaving newbies behind — but this episode of television is more about the people.
The second hour of “Air” is unlike anything that this franchise has produced, and illustrates the ways in which this show is different. The plot is incredibly simple, yet compelling to those of us who take things like breathing for granted. Here the story slows way down, building to an ethical dilemma that is most fascinating in the variety of ways that different characters respond to it.
Taken together, “Air” Parts 1 and 2 are a fine set-up for the show and an illustration of how SGU is about people, more than technology, alien planets, or the plot of the week. Neither of these episodes, however, represents what we think is going to be a typical hour of the show. For that, you’ll need to hold out for the end of the story and come back for “Air, Part 3” on October 9.
In the final hour of what is really an extended pilot, the human refugees must send a team to an alien planet to find what they need to keep breathing. It’s a trip through the Stargate to a vast, desert world in a galaxy where no human being has ever set foot. In so many ways, this is what Stargate is all about — and has always been about. But SGU gives the classic “trip through the gate” formula a new twist (or three): Instead of exploring a planet, meeting a village of humans, and finding (or causing) a crisis, here the characters are on a continual mission of survival. Air. Water. Food. Like plane crash survivors in the wilderness, they need to stay alive long enough to find a way home. And there aren’t any medieval villages to go to for aid.
We found this final chapter of the premiere to be the best — the most compelling, the most visually unique, and the most satisfying. By this point the characters are beginning to feel familiar. The alien vista provided by filming in White Sands, New Mexico is stunning, harkening back to the deserts of Abydos in the “Stargate” feature film. And yes, the producers’ promise that any alien life we encounter will be very alien pays off early.
Just watching this show, you get the feeling that it is expensive. The visual effects in Stargate Universe are among the finest ever made for the franchise. The set design, a mix of Jules Verne and Firefly, are James Robbins’ best work. And composer Joel Goldsmith proves that he is as flexible as the show’s writers by reaching so far outside of himself with a stunning and original score that you have to check the end credits to make sure it is still him.
But “Air” is, again, not perfect. While the three parts are distinct and each tells an important piece of a single narrative, we wonder if a 2-part opener would have made for a stronger start. But we’re getting used to the slower pace of storytelling, just like the writers are getting used to writing Stargate differently. Somewhere in between those is “Air,” a strong start to a show that will only get better. Those who want everything they hoped to see in a new Stargate series will, like the show, need to slow down and wait for the rest of the season to unfold.
Unlike its predecessors, Universe is also a show aimed particularly at adults. This isn’t one to watch with the kids, as one very “adult” scene demonstrates early on. (It’s up to fans to determine whether or not the scene is inappropriate — but watch what is going on with those characters later on before deciding.) It is tonally darker, as advertised, but it’s not the next Battlestar Galactica by any stretch of the imagination. As another reviewer recently put it, SGU finds a sweet spot between the enduring optimism of Star Trek: Voyager (which rarely seemed to appreciate the gravity of its disturbing premise) and the brooding moodiness of BSG, which seemed to take itself so seriously that it was at times nihilistic. For those of us who want optimism qualified by realism (and vice versa), Universe is right on the mark.
What more is there to say? We’ve been talking-up the show for over a year now, and it certainly does not disappoint. But watch it for yourself. We think it’s just what is needed in 2009, and we’re sure that it has a great future ahead of it as we get to know the Destiny and open up our living rooms to the men and women on board. Like the ship itself, Stargate Universe is going where no Stargate show has ever tread.