Friday, December 17, 2010

Destiny Destroyed: SGU Gets the Axe.


Sources all over the next are reporting that Stargate: Universe (SGU) has been cancelled.  The sci-fi series' final ten episodes will air on the Sy Fy Channel in Spring of 2011.

I must admit, I'm deeply bummed about this news.  I caught up with the first season of SGU on Netflix and found it not merely enjoyable, but actually the most daring, entertaining, and serious-minded of the entire, long-lived Stargate franchise. 

Here's the word:

Syfy will end its original action-adventure series Stargate Universe when the show returns with the final 10 episodes of its second season in the Spring of 2011. The Stargate franchise — consisting of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe — has aired on Syfy since 2002. Syfy has a slate of new scripted projects lined up for 2011 including the series premiere of Being Human on January 17, the recently green lit one-hour drama series Alphas and the much anticipated, Battlestar prequel pilot movie, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. Warehouse 13, Eureka & Haven will also return w/new seasons next year


And here's some of my original review of the series from June of this year:

Stargate Universe is a bit edgier, somewhat more serious in intent, and far more mysterious than what I've seen of the other Stargate series. It showcases flawed but interesting human characters instead of gun-toting, romanticized ideals. It's also -- at least from what I've seen -- not as overtly militarized in bent. There are still several military characters involved in the drama, but the show isn't all guns and salutes. Not hardly.

SGU dramatizes a tale of disaster and survival. A group of officers, scientists and technicians from Earth are unexpectedly forced to abandon an off-world base called Icarus following a surprise attack on the installation.

But when the group evacuates through a star gate, it returns not to Earth, but lands bumpily aboard a damaged, colossal spaceship traveling at faster-than-light velocities towards the end of the universe itself.

The man responsible for this selection of destination is the inscrutable Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), who has been working for years to puzzle out the last "chevron" on the Stargate technology in hopes of discovering more about the race that constructed it: The Ancients.

So, a group of about fifty or so people -- the "wrong people" -- according to Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) are now trapped together aboard this inhospitable vessel named Destiny. In the opening three-part episode, "Air," life-support power fails and the crew is forced to scour a desert planet for resources needed to repair the C02 scrubbers. In the second episode, "Darkness," the ship's power fails completely, and in the third, "Light," Destiny becomes trapped on an apparent collision course with an alien star. A lottery is held to see which fifteen people will board an escape shuttle, and who will be forced to remain aboard the ship as it plummets towards the sun...

Outside of the Stargate franchise, SGU is heir to a rich cinematic and television legacy of space adventuring. The series' impressive opening shot -- of the huge Destiny gliding through the void -- puts the Empire's Star Destroyer and the inaugural shot of Star Wars [1977] -- to shame. Then, in the very next shot, the opener cuts to a Ridley Scott-esque tour of quiescent interior corridors, evoking the Nostromo in Alien (1979).

The notion of boarding and deciphering a starship of alien construction reminds me of the Liberator and Terry Nation's Blake's 7. And the scenario of men and women trapped on an out-of-control "vessel" unable to control speed or trajectory made me think of Space:1999's Moonbase Alpha. For good measure, the opener also throws in some (largely unnecessary) character flashbacks that evoke the early years of Lost (2004-2010).

And did I mention that the soundtrack boasts the Far Eastern, melancholy feel of Firefly?

Despite all these familiar touchstones, SGU makes some intriguing and positive modifications on formula. For one thing, the series eschews the horrible techno-babble that scuttled late-era Star Trek (Next Gen, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise).

On those 1990s programs (which have not aged well, for the most part...), the resolution of the crisis of the week always involved a simple re-shuffling of a deck of cards. Let's re-modulate the power array to shoot a graviton pulse at this tertiary domain of subspace that will seal the space/time rift blah blah blah.

Somehow, no matter what hand the crew of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine or Voyager was dealt, it always managed to pull an ace from that deck. Once or twice of course, this was fine but after a while, the cumulative effect was actually a negative statement about humanity and the supposedly-heroic Starfleet characters. They had no real resourcefulness or ingenuity of their own but they did have great technology, and simply by reshuffling the same deck every week, they could survive and flourish in the universe.

My hero and mentor, the late Johnny Byrne -- who served as story editor on the first year of Space: 1999 -- once compared late era Trek and Space: 1999 in the following way. He said that shows like Next Gen and Voyager assumed the characters already had everything they needed to succeed, whereas Space: 1999 adopted the perspective that the characters did not already have what they needed to survive.

Which approach do you think is inherently more dramatic?

And indeed, this is reason why so many episodes of Next Gen, Voyager and Enterprise feel so rote. The sense of danger is missing. In drama, when characters have everything that they need (even when separated from home base by a quadrant or two...), space adventuring just becomes a workaday job. And besides, the holodeck is open all night...

Refreshingly, SGU revives the earlier template, and adopts the perspective that the characters don't have the resources or know-how they need to survive, or, at the very least, don't yet understand how to master the technology that would permit survival to be anything approaching easy.

In other words, the Destiny may provide for all, but the crew -- again, the "wrong people" -- don't necessarily have the skill set to figure it all out. This is Johnny Byrne's Space:1999 principle applied, and applied well.

What I admire about SGU is that, even in these early shows, there's a lot of trial and error on display, a lot of attempts that go nowhere. At one crisis point in "Darkness," I was suddenly, out-of-the-blue, reminded of the Apollo 13 incident in 1970...of people working in space to solve pressing (nay, urgent...) problems with ingenuity, grace, available resources, and luck. The series really captures this vibe well. It's something about the danger of space travel and human inspiration intertwined...and it works. It's a concept that in large part, modern space adventure series have abandoned, and it's nice to see it back at the forefront of the medium.

SGU also gets something else right, and this is crucial. By and large, SGU allows the viewer to scan the drama for subtext rather than spelling out that subtext as, well, actual text.

This was always my primary concern with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica [2005-2009]. Not that the producers seemed more interested in telling stories about Abu Ghraib, September 11th, Al Qaeda, the Geneva Conventions and late 20th century East/West perceptions of God than tales of survival in hostile galaxy, but that they did so in such an on-the-nose, obvious fashion.

By contrast, the early episodes of SGU feature some vivid human drama, but the series isn't crushingly self-important or pretentious in the way that Galactica often was. It doesn't spoon-feed you with obvious analogs for current events. It doesn't pat viewers on the back for knowing that "go frak yourself" is the same as Dick Cheney's famous "go fuck yourself." I mean, we get it, right?

Also, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was alarmingly lazy about creating the universe around itts human characters. On alien planets half-way across the universe, people drove late 20th century, American-produced Humvees. This was basically an admission on the part of the producers that television can't believably do "sci fi" -- a theorem I disagree vehemently with -- and so no real imagination was afforded for the look or design of the show; to create believable alien vistas, technology or cultures. The only civilizations in all of Battlestar Galactica were humans and their creation, the human-looking Cylons.

I just find that idea...immensely depressing. Kind of like us getting to outer space and discovering that in all the cosmos, in all the stars, there are just Liberals and Conservatives, or just Muslims and Christians. As a sci-fi series taking place in the great unknown, Battlestar Galactica could dream nothing better for mankind than perpetual divisiveness and partisanship. Of course, this is an entirely valid philosophy and approach...just not one that engaged me, personally, I suppose. I could always watch the series as an adrenaline-inducing pressure cooker...it worked very well in that sense. But the new BSG had no curiosity about the universe itself.

I have enjoyed what I've seen so far of Stargate SGU because it remembers that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our human philosophy. The universe is a riddle; human nature is a riddle. There are mysteries and terrors in space beyond anything we can imagine. The series is actually based on a riddle itself, the mastery of an alien ship, Destiny. Why was the ship built? Where is it headed? What was its mission?

Because I am so immersed in the history, details and minutiae of sci-fi television, I often check with my barometer, my wife, Kathryn to see how she registers new programs. She watched the first disc of SGU episodes with me and, if anything, enjoyed the show even more than I did. She's no pushover. On the contrary, because she is not strictly a "sci-fi" fan, Kathryn can be cutting, even brutal, in her assessments of these programs.

One of her observations I found especially trenchant. She noted that the actors in the series seemed to have been cast for their abilities, not for their looks or youth. There are few underwear models here, in other words. The characters aren't all "smoldering" hotties in their early twenties, but real people doing their best in a difficult environment. And again, being the "wrong people," being unprepared for this journey, makes them, by and large, interesting to follow. Young clings to his military training. Rush clings to his belief that he can learn everything on Destiny...if given time, Eli clings to his sense of humor, and so on.

You can never guess what right or wrong turns a series will take as it continues down the long years, but in these early episodes, SGU is promising, dramatic and much better than I expected it would be. It hasn't dropped any land mines that may come back to haunt it (like the identity of the fifth Cylon, or the invisible tree-shaking monsters), and instead seems focused on a good concept and, so far, solid scripts.

I appreciate SGU for the same reason that I've always enjoyed original Trek and Space:1999. It's a program about Humans -- us -- trying to make our way in the stars with danger -- and opportunity -- around every turn. In each adventure, human constitution and ingenuity gets put on the table. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it succeeds in completing the task at hand. But these are programs that tell us, in every hour, that despite the failures, the sky can still be the limit.

Anyway, I'm disappointed to lose SGU as an ongoing series. 
 
Personally, I think it's folly for Sy Fy to double-down on the shaky Galactica franchise after the dramatic failiure of the prequel Caprica to lure an audience.   Blood and Chrome better be exquisite, but here's the thing: even a weekly war drama with robots, set in the past of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, is going to have to contend with the (poor...) way the earlier series ended.  Why?  What kept a majority of fans going on BSG throughout the up-an-down, rocky network run was the tantalizing notion of a "Cylon plan" emerging, and the solution to a compelling mystery, or rather set of mysteries.  What are the Cylons doing (what's their strategy)? Who are they (in terms of the hidden final five)? How does this saga connect to us here on Earth? 
 
Those questions answered, Blood and Chrome can only give us young (meaning re-cast...) versions of familiar characters, and an enemy we already fully understand, and whose endgame we now know.  Which mean it's just going to be space warfare, evil robots, and sexy pilots, apparently.    Now, I've always appreciated the world-weariness and experience of Olmos' Commander Adama, who wore the years of battle and combat on his fatigued, wise face.  But I'm simply not that intrigued with the idea of seeing Adama as a young, inexperienced buck blowing up Toasters from his viper cockpit.  Good for a flashback or two, sure, but as the milieu for a new, ongoing series?

By pointed contrast, SGU revealed that the makers of another and familiar, long-lived franchise were intent on exploring new horizons; delving into new and daring territory rather than treading into the familiar, safe past of a universe that many believed was past its prime.   It's a shame that such creativity and experimentation wasn't rewarded, and that Sy Fy is putting all its eggs in the Galactica prequel basket instead.

 We hardly knew SGU, but down the long years to come, I suspect the program's reputation as a worthy science fiction series will only grow; especially as the pop culture descends further into the pit of unnecessary prequels of re-imaginations.

13 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    Unfortunately, I think the cancelation of SGU was unavoidable.

    I know you are a fan of this particular series (and not so much of the other parts of the Stargate franchise). For me it is just the opposite. And I guess this is why my views differ from yours, on this one.

    First and foremost, it failed to capture the spirit of Stargate. The SG-1 series was fun in a campy, switch your brain off and just enjoy the ride kind of way (Atlantis too, but not so much). SGU's comical, tension breaking moments were almost non-existent.As for the switching yout brain off part... that wasn't an option, either. It was just continuous grit gloom and doom from one end to the other until finally it became just, well, boring. Annoying, even.

    It also failed to create a bond with it's intended audience (if the producers know anything about the television busyness, that is). And to be honest, the intended audience for the original show was kids from 13 to 99. Kids who want to be thrilled, to be shown wonderful things and maybe learn a thing or two in the process. Or get inspired to actually choose science as a way of life. And maybe even as a profession, why not? This series showed nothing new, retold no classical stories, opened no windows to the past, future or present, it was just too limited. To put it mildly.

    These are two biggest failures of this series. And the other one (which I guess was just the consequence of not knowing what to do next) was poor, very poor implementation. The scripts were dull, boring, predictable and in some cases down right offensive.

    Take for example the episode before last. I think that was the moment when SGU jumped the shark. To say that a bunch of abble bodied man and women cannot organize themselves to form a viable community is, for lack of another word... stupid. And to explain that they had "to leave the shuttle door ajar to let air in" is just lazy.

    Could they have done a better job? I think so. They had a bunch of very good characters, they even had a resident alien (or they where working on that) and they had some good ideas. But all these good assets were just tacked on to a very unfortunate idea: make SG something it was not. Yes, it gained some new followers, but it lost it's fans. It's base. I guess that is why most commentators on imdb either love it or hate it. Passionately so.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Claudiu,

    Don't worry that we have different opinions of SGU. That's what makes the world go round! I welcome your perspective.

    I actually agree with you about the differences between SGU and the rest of the SG franchise.

    However -- for me -- those differences are what make the other programs virtually unwatchable, and SGU worthwhile and interesting (and stimulating).

    I find it hard to sit through an episode of SG1 or SG:Atlantis without my attention drifting to something else. I find those programs very, very...empty (and overly-militarized...).

    But I think you are also right that it was this gap between the traditional SG franchise and the new SGU that killed the latter.

    It was, apparently, too wide a schism to breach for the franchise faithul; to overcome eight years of expectations about what SG arleady was to accmmodate something new and tonally different, even at odds with tradition.

    Still, I commend the producers for going in a new direction with SGU, and I don't agree with you that the stories were dull, or that the series offered no new takes on classics. I felt, very much, that SGU was an update, actually, of Space:1999, but without some of the perceived scientific flaws that have followed that Anderson series around for years, rightly or wrongly (namely the use of the moon as a spaceship...).

    I have not yet seen the second season of SGU, but I do know that others have also told me it jumped the shark so-to-speak. I can't really comment on that, alas. All I can say is that I tremendously enjoyed and appreciated the tension, performances and risk-taking of the first season. I thought SGU was the best space adventure to come down the pike since Firefly and Farscape (two favorites).

    Thank you for an interesting and thorough comment on the subject. I enjoy reading your viewpoint.

    All my best,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  3. John,

    Loved revisiting this one. The end of a two year run. Sounds awfully familiar?

    But, unlike you, and I'm not as versed on the subject as Claudiu [who I do agree with here].

    I enjoyed the Stargate franchise in much the same way I enjoyed Buck Rogers In The 25th Century as Claudiu suggested.

    Though, as you put it, there were aspects to SGU that indeed felt more daring despite the fact I felt the execution wasn't working for me.

    It's definitely a series that might take me some time to rediscover and look at it objectively, but I just never became a fan of this one.

    And once again I love your additional commentary on SyFy and its intended prequel. I agree. I think you're looking at a series of the vein in which you describe. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    I did love the build in the new BG but I always felt the "plan" was a little murky and ultimately wasn't a huge fan of the final season.

    Where do you go with this prequel?

    We know what happened with Star Wars.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey SFF:

    End of a two year run...yes, indeed my friend...we've been here before as you rightly point out (Space:1999, Buck Rogers, Jericho, etc.)

    Like you, I definitely got sucked into the week-to-week "build" of BSG, but ended up feeling that I was being yanked around, ultimately. The BSG ending was a cheat, pure and simple. You can't say the Cylons have a plan every week and then end the show with a variation on "well, God works in mysterious ways." I hated that!

    I don't know that revisiting the same world only earlier (but later than the failed Caprica) is going to be very interesting or draw that much of an audience. Though I feel they just want a robot vs. man space battle series, and hope to bring back in the type of fanboy who will oooh and ah over vipers and old-school cylon centurions.

    We'll see what happens with BSG, but I do appreciate you and Claudiu sharing with me your reservations about SGU.

    I think the very fact, perhaps, that I didn't like the other entries in the SG canon probably paved the way for my acceptance and appreciation of this one.

    In many ways, we took opposite, or inverse journeys. Very interesting.

    Thank you for the comment, my friend.

    Regards,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  5. Due to time constraints, I've not become familiar with SGU, though I'd like to and intend to - as generally speaking I've enjoyed the Stargate "universe" from film to TV.

    I tripped into SG1 along the same time I was able to be formally introduced to Farscape, during an extended bed stay with a broken back! Perhaps it was the painkillers, but I found I could enjoy SG1 on a sort of 'Saturday Adventure' level. Kind of like the cartoon before the main feature, as Farscape was what I was really tuning in to see, but the adventures of the SG1 folks (scheduled just one hour prior) made for a pleasant appetizer before things got serious.

    Obviously, mileage varies :) I am sad all the same to see SGU go belly up so quickly, though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I just heard the news, and the near-universal sentiment of "good riddance" being voiced everywhere was salt in the wound. Thanks for sharing my grief over the passing of what was probably my favorite current show, and at the very least, the only one which constantly impressed me.

    For the record, I really liked SG-1, thought Atlantis got extremely repetitive and dull after the first season, and thought Universe hit the ground running and never stopped... well, until now. :( And I was ready to hate it!

    (Also: this is my first post here, but I've been reading for a while; thanks for the insights, which have genuinely improved my enjoyment of a bunch of movies and shows.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello my friends,

    woodchuckgod: Oh my goodness -- a broken back! That sounds terrible and incredible painful. I hope you are all right now...I have always heard that back pain is the worst...virtually unbearable.

    But I totally get what you mean vis-a-vis SG1 as the appetizer with Farscape as the main course. That makes perfect sense. I too am sad to see SGU go (and I too am a HUGE Farscape fan; right now in late season 3 of a re-watch...).

    renophaston: I very much agree with you that this cancellation is terrible news, and I've seen the same sood of "good riddance" snarky commentary too. That too reminds me of history: of Space:1999 again. I remember when sci-fi fans cheered for its ending...despite the fact that it was the best (and only...) game in town in 1976. SGU is the same story today. Where else are viewers going to get dedicated, intriguing, and stimulating TV space adenture now?

    Thank you for the kind comments about the blog here, as well. I appreciate what you said very, very much. I'm glad you wrote too, and look forward to hearing more from you.

    All my best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm pleased to say that barring some minor assorted and periodic stiffness, the back healed up fine. :) As it might not be for the taste of all these fine genre readers of varying stripes, remind me to relate the tale to you in some other venue some day. It was certainly an experience.

    (Bottom line, kids? Just say NO! to having a broken back! :D )

    And Season 3.. ah, such fun :) So many amazing stories and episodes (including 'Different Destinations' - easily one of my very favorites of the entire series)

    Glad you're enjoying the re-watch :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. woodchuckgod,

    It's good to know that you are well now, and have recovered. And, oh my goodness -- "Deifferent Destinations" is also one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. It's just absolutely amazing. I've been thinking about doing another cult TV flashback on that particular episode, but I just did a Farscape a few weeks back ("The Way We Weren't") and wanted to give it some time before I returned to the series.

    Tonight, I watch "Revenging Angel," I believe. My wife and I are in love with Farscape all over again...

    best,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sorry to hear about this, John. Didn't SyFy (I still hate that new corporate 're-branding' network name change) also axe CAPRICA? So what the hell do they have left in a serious sci-fi series? I was about to start watching SGU and I feel like I jinxed it somehow. Damn it. I'm even more drawn to SGU (and the FIREFLY-like score you mention) because of this. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter, my friend.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hey JKM,

    Do you watch HAVEN? I think that is quite a good show still standing on SyFy. At first, I wasn't crazy about it but over the course of season 1 I warmed up to the characters and as bits and pieces of the show's overriding mystery have been revealed, the show has improved. There is also nice chemistry between the two leads. Anyways, at least it got renewed for a new season. Whew!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hello, my friends,

    Le0pard13: I am still big-time bummed about the death of SGU. I have not seen the second season but I do wholeheartedly recommend the first season. Some of the shows mid-way through the first sortie are really amazing...

    J.D.: I have not watched Haven, but now I am intrigued about it. I ought to give it a try. Is it out on DVD yet?

    best to you both!

    regards,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  13. It's not out on DVD yet but I'm hoping that SyFy will run a marathon of it some time in the near future as they are sometimes wont to do.

    ReplyDelete