Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SGU: "Earth" and "Time"

Yesterday on the blog here, I wrote at length about the latest arm of the Stargate franchise, SGU.

I was especially impressed with the way the new Sy Fy series -- right out the "gate" (sorry...) -- seemed to improve and perfect the formula of TV space adventures.

Specifically, SGU excised the techno babble that caused people to abandon Star Trek in droves in the late nineties, avoided the self-righteous, on-the-nose commentary of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and adopted and updated some of the best and most dynamic ideas from older, classic genre programs such as Star Trek, Blake's 7 and Space:1999.

All that established, it was clear the series was still finding its "space legs" (to quote Scotty) in the episodes I watched prior to my first review ("Air," "Darkness," "Light"). So I was truly, happily surprised when two of the three episodes I watched last night delivered powerfully on the series' potential, providing the young catalog with two stand-out episodes.

First up was "Water," and this one was okay, but not terrific by any means. In some sense, it seemed to rehash that which had already come before, especially in the last part of "Air:" a dangerous mission to an inhospitable planet to collect resources (this time H20), with two crew members nearly left behind as the FTL clock on the Destiny clicks down. This was a perfectly -competent installment, but I did worry a little bit that "Water" was treading...water. It wasn't groundbreaking or fresh.

But then came a show called "Earth" that absolutely gobsmacked me. I didn't mention this in my review yesterday, but one aspect of SGU that I felt worried about initially involved these "communication stones." Specifically, Destiny is equipped with a few Ancient "relics' that permit a person aboard the lost, speeding-to-the-end-of-the-universe Destiny to literally transpose him or herself with another person back on Earth. In early episodes, we saw Colonel Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) undergo this procedure so that Young could de-brief back at Home Base, and Telford -- in Young's body -- could assess for himself the situation on the ship.

I held my fire about the communication stones in my review yesterday because it was clearly still early in the series. But I was afraid the stones were going to prove an easy gimmick (kind of like Star Trek's holodeck) to get the men and women trapped on Destiny into earthbound, safe stories. I was concerned that the communication stones represented an easy out, an escape valve, when it was clear that life on Destiny should be a crucible for tension, anxiety and claustrophobia.

And then came "Earth" (directed by the great Ernest Dickerson...) which surprised this veteran sci-fi, space-adventure reviewer to no end. This episode brings Chloe (Elyse Levesque), Eli (David Blue) and Young back to Earth using the communication stones. Telford takes command of Destiny (in Young's body) and submits the ship to a dangerous experiment which could bring the crew home (and give Homeworld Base a ready-made Ancient ship...), while on Earth, Young (in Telford's body) visits his estranged wife and attempts to patch things up.

Young and his wife do reconcile and have sex, but something goes wrong with the communication exchange during their lovemaking, and Telford returns to his own body...in mid-intercourse with Young's wife. Whoa!

I was stunned by this moment, a logical but entirely unexpected development of the communication stone technology, and thrilled to see a modern sci-fi series tread into real dramatic, human territory, not easy phantasmagoria with laser beams and robots. The moment is funny, shocking, and superbly well-played. Telford "awakes" in his own body to find himself making love to another man's wife; a woman who is unaware a switch has occurred.

To its everlasting credit, "Earth" followed this up with a denouement that literally made my jaw drop.

I don't want to spoil it, but the last shot of this episode is a keeper...a perfect character moment that establishes something important: Stargate SGU is playing for keeps, and playing fair with its premise and technology.
What can I say?...I just didn't expect this. I had kind of dismissed previous Stargates as fun for the kiddies...and then this happens. The creators of this show are working hard to make this Stargate different; to give this Stargate its own unique voice and tenor.

Again, it's important to note that men like Telford and Young are not the romantic ideals of old fashioned TV space operas, but real human beings, replete with flaws and foibles. And this scenario (and particularly the closing moment...) truly gets that idea transmitted. Honestly, I had wondered why Lou Diamond Phillips was playing a character back on Earth (instead of on Destiny) but now I get it; I understand. With this episode, Telford suddenly emerges as a character with real human shades, real and complex dramatic possibilities. He's not just an overly-gruff, wrong-headed military superior...he's something else. And I can't wait to see how his character develops from here...

"Earth" also achieves much for the characters of Eli and Chloe. Having exchanged bodies with a young scientist on Earth, Eli discovers that a whole world (of women, primarily...) would open up to him if he were in, let's say, a more traditionally attractive body. Eli is already brilliant, funny, and he has a great personality...but handsome looks would complete the package for him, he learns. I found this idea fascinating, and wondered about what could happen if someone found a way not to return his or her own body. I also appreciated Chloe's journey in "Earth," her discovery that she -- literally -- "can't go home again" even if she is, actually, home.

With "Earth," SGU has traveled a significant distance towards wiping out any remaining concerns I had with the series. The writers have selected the one aspect of the series premise I worried about the most (the communication stones) and utilized it not only in an authentically surprising fashion that reveals more about characters like Telford, but -- amazingly -- given us the best episode so far using that problematic technology.

The next episode, "Time," is every bit as good as "Earth"..but completely different in tone, movement and feel. It involves the discovery of a kino (a floating, Phantasm ball-styled camera...) on a jungle planet. When the images are played back by Destiny's crew, they reveal a food-collection mission gone horribly wrong. The danger involves a deadly disease and worse, small, lizard-like predators with a penchant for chewing through human torsos.

I can only describe this episode as riveting. If "Earth" represents an unexpected twist in formula, "Time" is a confident, blistering show that captures perfectly the dangers of outer space and finds SGU right on message, re-asserting its raison d'etre. Delightfully, the character work is also uniformly strong here, with one great scene involving Eli, particularly his discussion of mortality (and the concept of oblivion). The episode also features a doom-laden atmosphere: a feeling of inevitability that grants the hour a real sense of pace and drive.

Sex, character development, philosophy and gut-busting aliens?. If SGU keeps on this track, I'm seriously going to have a new favorite space adventure here.

But certainly, considering the quality of the episodes I've watched so far, I'm going to begin blogging Season Two on a regular basis when it airs.

For me, SGU represents another important lesson (which I must re-learn from time to time.) Don't pre-judge a show, even a franchise show. Because if you do, you could miss out on something really terrific. I learned this lesson the hard way with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 1990s...I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it by my wife, only to learn I was ignoring something special. Same thing with Millennium: I initially dismissed it as serial killer of the week. Not until I began paying attention did I see that Chris Carter had created another real masterpiece.

Well, SGU, I've learned my lesson (again...), and I'm boarding Destiny for the duration.


  1. You know, I never really have watched too much of the Stargate stuff, except the original movie, which I enjoy.
    Space:1999, lol, I used to watch that with my dad
    Great article.
    Come check out my site
    Petunia Scareum from Deadly Serious

  2. At its best, the Stargates *were* mediocre sci fi. They focused on the relationships between and among the main characters, and sacrificed realism, authenticity, controversy, and even thoughtfulness. SGU changes all that.

    Re. SGU, and without giving anything away, the one thing I am concerned about by the use of the stones is what people choose to do with bodies that are not their own. (This will become more clear as the season winds down). I'm not sure the writers really thought through the implications of the stones and their use.

    I'm eagerly looking forward to your next reviews of the show. As usual, your instincts are spot on and your trenchant analysis makes me want to re-watch the show!

  3. I still like SG-1 and Stargate Analysis, despite their problems, for the performances and for the escapism, but SGU is definitely looking to be taken more seriously than past incarnations.

    Granted, I do think SG-1 and Atlantis were a little techno-babble happy.

    Perhaps it's the fact SGU feels nothing like the previous incarnations. It's like SGINO [Stargate In Name Only], but I'm being flip about it. It has an entirely different vibe though. Your lens for the series if forcing me to re-evaluate. I really only watched about four episodes.

    I feel like the worm is turning and SGU is beginning to pick up steam on the critical front despite fans being really torn by the latest franchise.

    There are still a few elements missing for me, but I tend to wait things out before jumping in or giving up. Unfortunately, we all waited far too long for Firefly. And therin lies the mistake. That for me was the one that really got away. Painful.

  4. Thank you for the comments everybody.

    Trick or Treat Pete: I will definitely check out your blog!

    Peter: I tend to share your judgment of the earlier Stargates. I didn't watch enough to have a highly-detailed picture...but what I saw did strike me as mediocre and under-serious. SGU is a revelation.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: We've all had shows we missed out on, that's for sure!:) I think your prudence is justified, waiting before jumping in or bailing out. I was able to watch I guess about 9 or 10 episodes of SGU over two days and in that "marathon" fashion I pretty much fell in love with the show. Watching it one week at a time? I don't know if I would have picked up everything so clearly. DVD really is ideal, so far as format (or Blu-Ray, I guess...). I'm going to buy the set when it comes out...this is the rare modern space show that both Kathryn and I enjoy watching.

    Thanks everyone!