In Stargate’s Legacy, Adam Barnard looks back at some of the Stargate franchise’s finest episodes. Read more here!
I don’t like crying during TV shows.
I’ll do anything to prevent sprouting leaks from my eyes during cinematic viewings, and I’ve come to believe that avoiding unnecessary sentiment is vital to ensuring you live a life driven by stability and purpose — not feelings.
But once in a while I’ll stumble upon a movie or television episode that is so profound, so well-earned, and so deeply satisfying, that I will intentionally revisit it to help remind me of my own humanity. A template, if you will, for why we as a culture find such value in telling stories.
For me, “Pathogen” is a shining city on a hill for both the Stargate franchise and for the lofty character storytelling to which SGU always aspired. And unlike the all-too-common, emotionally manipulative story arcs of modern entertainment, every minute of the episode is crafted with spellbinding precision.
Eli Wallace‘s mother is ill.
Mrs. Wallace is in stable condition (medically speaking), but she is depressed and developing borderline suicidal tendencies. She fears that Eli has abandoned her — or, at the very least, that he has been taken by the military with no possibility of return. Eli must find a way to convince her to hold out hope despite the lack of physical evidence of his well-being. But things are off to a rocky start.
Back on the Destiny, Chloe Armstrong‘s frequent (and seemingly rhythmic) blackouts raise alarm — and the possibility that she could still be under control of the Nakai. Dr. Nicholas Rush suggests it may be a bi-product of genetic manipulation — an ongoing conversion (or pathogen, if you will).
Opportunistic as always, Rush frames Chloe for Destiny‘s erratic navigational anomalies — which he is secretly controlling thanks to the newly-discovered bridge — and the crew buys it (for now).
The chaos on the ship is further complicated by the fact that Colonel Young has allowed the Lucian Alliance prisoners to integrate with the rest of the crew (with a 1:1 military escort). Alliance soldiers trade intelligence for their freedom — and most Alliance members adapt well.
Somewhere in the D.C. suburbs, Camille Wray visits her partner, Sharon Walker. And despite their rock-solid relationship, Sharon is feeling the exhaustion of their ongoing separation. Will Camille ever make it home? Will it be just a few years … or will it be twenty?
Camille attempts to encourage Sharon (while remaining pragmatic), but their dynamic is strained.
As the episode evolves Camille sees echoes of her own struggle in Eli’s relationship with his mother. The toll on Mrs. Wallace is not unlike the toll on Sharon, and Camille and is moved by a conversation she has with Eli in the hospital gardens.
In an unexpected move, Camille obtains clearance for Mrs. Wallace to visit Destiny via the Ancient communication stones. Eli shares a touching and emotional scene with his mother on the ship’s observation deck — showing her the galactic vista, and explaining (firsthand) why he can’t come home.
All’s well that ends well … but not for long, because a last ditch attempt to stop Chloe’s mutation has failed. Now it is only a matter of time until one of many gaskets (Chloe’s conversion, Rush’s secret discovery, or Simeon’s deviance) explodes and causes a full-blown crisis on the ship.
Robert Carlyle Directs
“Pathogen” is the first (and only) episode of Stargate Universe directed by a regular cast member. And judging by the results, I really wish this happened more often.
Robert Carlyle (who plays Rush) delivers an intimate and theatrical spectacle of character storytelling. He scales back the otherwise opulent cinematic elements of SGU to hone in on these individuals and their profoundly intertwined personal dilemmas.
There aren’t any space battles, off-world adventures, or high-concept action scenes — but that laser-focus pays dividends, because the rawness and honesty of the directing captures some of the most incredible character moments of the entire series.
While Carlyle may lack the technical artistry and visual sophistication that we’re used to from SGU‘s regular directors, “Pathogen” remains one of the most well-directed and tonally precise episodes of Stargate Universe — and perhaps Stargate as a whole.
The Evolution of Wray
Ever since we were introduced to the acerbic and confrontational character of Camille Wray, I developed a deep disdain for her presence on Destiny. This was made worse by her calloused and manipulative power grabs in episodes like “Earth,” “Justice,” and “Divided.”
While we saw some of her humanity in the Season One episode “Life,” she was largely an unpleasant and antagonistic force on the Destiny.
But after seeing “Pathogen” I can honestly say that I had a change of heart. We finally discover the person of Camille Wray. She’s no longer just the bureaucrat causing trouble on the ship for personal gain. She is actually working to improve the lives of everyone on board (you know, her job).
She’s willing to let her straight-laced facade melt away, and reveal the woman beneath the suit. And that wins her favor with the crew of the Destiny — and with the audience.
A New Beginning
The final beat of Eli and Wray’s story arc actually plays out in their absence — instead choosing to focus on their loved ones back on Earth. As Eli’s mom is preparing to leave the hospital she is visited by Sharon, who introduces herself and (ostensibly) goes on to explain their uniquely similar predicament.
While this scene is short in length, the insinuation is clear: Sharon realizes there might be others who understand her plight. And by sticking together, perhaps they can find the strength to push through.
We’ve come a long way from episodes like “Life,” where Telford and Young play games with innocent bystanders to satiate petty vendettas. Instead, we see the crew’s extended family now bond together and find hope — not resentment — as they look toward an uncertain future.
Tears From The Observation Deck
This is where the waterworks truly unleash.
As we entered the tail end of “Pathogen,” I was every bit as desperate as Eli to break through to his mother and quite literally save her life. I wanted leap through the screen and beg her to trust her son.
Communication stones. Body swapping. An Ancient ship billions of light years from home … how can you blame Mrs. Wallace for not believing this total stranger? Especially given the duress of her health issues?
But stakes are incredibly high, and this miscommunication could be fatal. So when Wray steps up to save the day, she truly — in a classical sense — assumes the mantle of a “hero,” and becomes the dynamic and compelling character I always wanted her to be.
And speaking of compelling: the subsequent scene on the observation deck plays my heart strings like no other. Perhaps it’s due to my own close relationship with my mother, and my similarities to the character of Eli — but when I see Mrs. Wallace’s honest reaction of excitement and unconditional love …
Well, I’m moved to tears each and every time.
The Humanity of Stargate Universe
“Pathogen” — in my mind — marked a turning point in the philosophy and identity of Stargate Universe.
Every television show has the chance to make an intellectual statement about the world it represents through subtext and ongoing themes. And while Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis seemed to focus on elements of camaraderie, discovery, possibility — Universe chose to dwell on the darkness and selfishness of mankind.
The nature of the Destiny is in diametric opposition to its inhabitants. The ship is an exploratory vessel built by a master race of aliens, sent to the very ends of the universe to decode a message from the beginning of time. So how pathetic are the crew’s petulant antics in contrast — a literal infestation in the otherwise awe-inspiring vessel.
And while I did enjoy SGU‘s first season as a whole, several story choices crafted a rather cynical and nihilistic statement about the world of Stargate Universe.
But then came the change. And because we already understood how deeply flawed these people were, their steady personal growth — and eventual redemption — is immensely cathartic to watch.
A few episodes later, in the “The Greater Good,” the final stage of the crew’s metamorphosis is completed. The two most stubborn, obstinate holdouts — Dr. Rush and Colonel Young — finally deescalate their long-lasting feud and commit to working together to complete Destiny‘s ancient mission.
This wasn’t how the ninth chevron’s discovery was supposed to play out. But now the crew has found their purpose. And with it, they have discovered a fiery resolve.
Trouble On The Horizon
The final montage of “Pathogen” (scored by Ludovico Einaudi’s “Ascolta”) is one of my absolute favorite SGU endings.
I’ve been on board with Stargate Universe‘s music montages ever since Alexi Murdoch’s song “Breathe” faded in at the end “Air, Part 3.” But this specific instance is probably the most effective use of that storytelling device. While the lion’s share of “Pathogen” focuses on the theatrically-staged human drama, these closing moments efficiently service the numerous side-stories that will become increasingly central as Season Two heats up.
There’s a clear focus on the Lucian Alliance, Simeon, Rush, and Chloe that ends on a dissonant and ominous note here — embracing a kind of Shakespearean foreshadowing, and leaving the viewer hungry for future developments.
The quickest way for a television series to turn me off is through synthetic conflict — where writers awkwardly throw in loss, illness, violence, death, family drama, or general sentiment in a way that doesn’t service the story or tone of the show. But in “Pathogen,” every piano swell, personal sentiment, and tear-jerking moment hits like an emotional bullet.
I believe in these people. I believe in their relationships and their newfound sincerity. I believe in their ability to change for the better.
I’m 100 percent rooting for them to succeed. And I’m starting to find more aspirational qualities in these characters — qualities I want to see in myself.
In that sense, this is an extremely personal episode. It reminds me of my relationship with my mother. It reminds me of life’s fickle, yet beautiful nature. It makes me want to go out and experience the world in the most meaningful way possible, and find my greater purpose.
Stargate Universe may have began as cynical or dark story to watch. But in Season Two — starting especially with “Pathogen” — it became a stirring and deeply human epic, organically developing its characters and story threads right up till the closing minutes of the last episode.
And oh, what a ride it would be.
“Pathogen” was written by Carl Binder and directed by Robert Carlyle, and premiered on Syfy Channel on October 19, 2010.
More From ‘Stargate’s Legacy’
Series Introduction (Video)
“Window of Opportunity” (SG-1 Season Four)
“Heroes” (SG-1 Season Seven)
“Ripple Effect” (SG-1 Season Nine)
“Childhood’s End” (Atlantis Season One)
“Midway” (Atlantis Season Four)
“Broken Ties” (Atlantis Season Five)
“Vegas” (Atlantis Season Five)
“Justice” (Universe Season One)