Stargate Universe: How to keep a franchise fresh
I don’t follow Lost, so the series finale went by pretty much without rocking my universe. However, I do follow a series which the others don’t, so I thought I’d give it some love at HereBeGeeks on Geek Pride Day.
Stargate Universe is the latest series in the Stargate franchise, and although its premise of a ship stranded far away from Earth is reminiscent of Star Trek: Voyager, it has done much better in its first season than Voyager ever did in seven. With the two-parter season finale coming up next month, I thought I’d give a quick analysis of the season thus far – to make up for the fact that there won’t be an episode this week.
Firstly, it is clear that experience counts for a lot when creating yet another spin-off in an established franchise. Both the creators of Voyager (Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor) and the creators of SGU (Brad Wright and Chris C. Cooper) are veterans of their respective franchises. Based on the common premise, it seems like a natural progression for storytelling to take aspects that are familiar and recognisable, and place them in a totally alien environment, leaving them no chance of returning home.
Yet how does SGU suceed with the unique premise that Voyager never quite lived up to?
Very simply, by creating riveting characters and maintaining a consistent pace in their development. By recognising that the premise is a tool for engaging character drama, rather than the nucleus of a “planet-of-the-week” plot device, SGU trumped Voyager on practically every level. Case in point, SGU’s Robert Carlyle, who has more talent in his little finger than any single cast member in the Star Trek series.
Carlyle is no stranger to villainous roles – he was almost unrecognisable as Renard, the ex-KGB terrorist in Bond film “The World is Not Enough”, he was also Hitler in the HBO miniseries “The Rise of Evil” and Durza, one of the antagonists in “Eragon”. Yet, in SGU, as Dr. Nicholas Rush, he keeps blurring the line between brilliant hero and Machiavellian villain, becoming almost a sympathetic character in the process. The trick of course is to maintain this awkward alliance he has with the other authority figures on board the ship – the military leader Colonel Everett Young (played by Louis Ferreira) and the civilian leader Camille Wray (played by Ming-Na), while still carrying on his agenda of discovering the full potential of Destiny.
Which brings me to the second point in which SGU is superior to Voyager. The ship itself is a goldmine for plots – Destiny, unlike Voyager, is not constructed by human beings, but by the Ancients, the creators of the Stargates. It is a massive vessel, and the crew is no larger than 70. Already, one of the macguffins introduced is the Ancient control chair, which has served as a hook for a future subplot involving a missing crewmember who disappeared after using the chair, and a lynch pin for some of the most dramatic conflicts between Rush and Young.
To no one’s surprise, the third point is the conflict between the two main ‘factions’ – the military and the civilians. This antagonising relationship is sheer genius, and unlike Voyager, where the differences between Starfleet and Maquis seemed conveniently resolved within the first season, there seems to be no real end to the animosity in SGU. The simple fact remains that while both factions in Voyager were military, the writers of SGU recognise that civilians and military personnel do think differently, and that the differences are deeply rooted, fueling stereotypes and prejudice between one another.
Perhaps the final point is SGU’s willingness to move away from both previous Stargate series, yet grounding it very clearly in the Stargate universe (pun not intended). Voyager did this by having representatives from familiar alien species – Romulans and Cardassians appear in the first season. SGU goes one step further and re-introduces one of many antagonists, the Lucian Alliance – a coalition of smugglers and mercenaries – then goes on to make them the primary villains at the end of the season.
The other way SGU is able to maintain its franchise links while effectively standing on its own two feet, is in their sparse use of the Stargates itself. Indeed, while the Stargates continue to be crucial plot elements to any series, they stopped being activated in SGU for several episodes now. A Stargate show without Stargates? Not quite – but definitely a step in the right direction towards creating a unique identity for SGU. Still, as shown in the latest episode, “Subversion”, SGU is not above a couple of cameos from SG-1, the original television series. SG-1’s lead actors Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Shanks seemed (mostly) at home in the “decidedly darker” SGU, with Anderson providing the laughs on more than one occasion.
Some of the earlier SGU episodes were accused of focusing too much on eye candy, with the gorgeous Alaina Huffman and the beautiful Elyse Levesque seemingly playing “damsels in distress” despite their characters’ supposed emotional and mental strength. Yet this proved to be the opportunity of a lifetime for character development, and nearing the end of the first season, Huffman’s character is not only a medical miracle worker, but is also a mother awaiting her first child – a child fathered by her superior officer, Young. Perhaps my only gripe is that Levesque’s character has so far failed to find her niche, continuing to be dead weight while most of the plot draws her in, only to have her do just about nothing.
All in all, Stargate Universe brings a new dimension to the decade-old franchise, simultaneously building on it, yet avoiding it altogether in favour of hard-hitting character-based drama. A worthy successor to the Stargate name, and one I hope will run its intended course of three to five seasons.