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I loved (most of) what the cast and crew of Stargate Universe gave us in the first 10 hours of Stargate Universe … but of course, the story of the Destiny is just getting going. I knew that the first part of Season One would be about establishing the characters, their relationships, and their responses to being stranded on a rust bucket in deep space. It would be about survival — finding basic elements like air, power, and water.
But I wanted more. As nice as it is to have a character drama in the Stargate family, I still want some action and adventure. I want crises from without, not just from within. I want to see space ships shooting at each other and, yes … I want aliens!
Well, my friends, last week’s episode of Stargate Universe delivered in spades. Without giving away any spoilers here for those who have not seen it yet: the story is intense, fast-paced (in all the right places), and emotional.
“Air” was a solid intro to the series that offered a balance of action (Part 1), drama (Part 2), and adventure (Part 3). And “Time” was a damn cool, high-concept episode. “Space,” however, is SGU‘s first master stroke.
If you listen to the GateWorld Podcast, you might have heard David and I mention “The Torment of Tantalus” and “Before I Sleep.” For the first seasons of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, respectively, those were the episodes I think represent the first time that each of the series realized their potential. After a bit of feet-wetting, they were the first truly great episodes of Stargate‘s previous incarnations. And I have been hoping that “Space” might be the same for Universe.
It is. Oh, is it ever.
Note that in both cases, those episodes came in the second half of the first year. “Torment” brought the newly-formed SG-1 team, just now starting to gel, to a planet where Ernest Littlefield had lived alone for 50 years — the first human from Earth to travel through the Stargate for millenia. There, before the cliff-top castle where Ernest lived was destroyed in a lightning storm, Daniel learned that the people who built the Stargates used to meet with three other advanced races in the galaxy — a sort of “United Nations of the stars … Catherine agrees.”
“The Torment of Tantalus” had a challenging problem for SG-1 to solve (how to dial the gate when the D.H.D. is broken beyond repair), multiple levels of series mythology, outstanding performances from Michael Shanks and Keene Curtis, and an underlying emotional thread in the reunion of Catherine with the fiance she believed for decades was dead. And it was episode #11.
On Atlantis, “Before I Sleep” did much the same for the show. The team arrives in Atlantis from Earth for the very first time, activating systems and depleting what little power remained in the Z.P.M.s. The shield holding back the ocean begins to fail and the city is destroyed — the expedition from Earth wiped out. Only Elizabeth Weir survives, and a trip back in time introduces her to the Ancients themselves 10,000 years ago and gives her a chance to change the future and save her people.
With the first close-up look at living, breathing Ancients, a strong performance by Torri Higginson, and a rip-roaring science fiction premise, the episode made me as a viewer feel like the new spin-off was finding a unique and compelling voice. That was episode #15.
Now there are a lot of episodes of Stargate, both before and after those, that I’m not crazy about. My point is that these represent high-water marks for two of my favorite shows. They were turning points in quality. “Space” does this for Stargate Universe. It gives fans exactly what we’ve been asking for.
And let’s recognize that the Powers That Be wrote, filmed, and produced the episode months before we ever saw “Air.” They didn’t do it in response to outcry on the Internet; they did it because their story was moving toward this climactic encounter, because they recognized long before we did that for everything else the show is, it needs these elements, too.
Does that mean every episode will shine this brightly from now on? Realistically, probably not. The bigger budget and higher adrenaline of those season premieres, finales, and mid-season events usually help to make them fan favorites. They also represent what I, as a geek for series mythology, love most: payoff. That’s why episodes like SGA‘s “Be All My Sins Remember’d” and SG-1‘s “Reckoning” are so universally loved — not just for the incredibly cool battle sequences, the visual effects, and the heroes coming up with a plan to save the galaxy in the nick of time. It’s payoff for the months or even years of build-up that came before.
That’s what Stargate Universe has done in the first half of its inaugural year. The writers decided to tell a larger story, slowly. So we got build-up: Meet the characters. See how they bounce off of one another. See how they start to make allegiances. Find out where their priorities lie, what they want to get back home to. Then, when you’ve seen them crying in the corridor over lost comrades and falling into bed to try and cut out a little bit of happiness in the midst of hell … then you threaten them from the outside. Then the space aliens come knocking.
I think the conversation about SGU these past four months would have gone a lot differently if “Space” had aired as the December finale, as the producers originally planned. “Justice” had a nice punch-in-the-gut ending that showed the writers’ desire to take risks with their main characters. They risked turning not just the ship’s crew but also the audience against Colonel Young. (Listen to our recent podcast on “anti-heroes” for more on that.) But “Justice” wasn’t a stand-up and cheer episode like the one we got last week. It wasn’t payoff for ten hours of slow build-up.
Instead, we had to wait an additional four months without the payoff, without the action beat of the story and the external threat. And so a lot of fans concluded that this — the slow burn that focuses exclusively on inward turmoil and relationships — is simply what SGU is all about. If “Space” had aired in December, I think the naysayers might have been a lot more forgiving and optimistic about what is to come.
I only hope that they come back for the payoff. A recent GateWorld poll showed that 24 percent of our readers weren’t planning to watch “Space.” That’s a remarkably high (and disheartening) number for a Stargate fan site. Another poll we ran showed that 22 percent of readers gave SGU some or all of the first half of the season to hook them — but no more. I hope that, when the reviews come in and fans start buzzing about the show, those fans who tuned out will give the series another shot.
For the rest of us … SGU just got awesome.