In the print ads for “Stargate Universe” (8 p.m. Central Friday, Syfy; two stars), a clean-cut young man in a military uniform runs toward the camera, away from danger.
I’ve now seen five hours of the show and still don’t feel all that invested in the the fate of 1st Lt. Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith). Theoretically, I should — he’s one of the show’s lead characters.
Two characters do stand out (more on that below), but the rest of “Universe” feels like an awkward mishmash of genres and tones. Though I had been cautiously looking forward to another iteration of the “Stargate” franchise, at this point I’m not sure its creators are taking Scott and his fellow survivors anywhere interesting.
This drama, which follows a group of soldiers, scientists and civilians stranded on an alien ship very far from Earth, is supposed to be the “edgier” “Stargate” TV series (that’s Syfy’s word, not mine). It would allegedly be more like “Battlestar Galactica” than “Stargate SG-1,” which, at its best, had an team of exceedingly watchable characters take on any number of alien threats armed with advanced weapons, acerbic humor and a great deal of pluck.
I come to “Stargate Universe” with no axe to grind against it; in fact, I’ve seen every episode of “Battlestar” and most episodes of “Stargate SG-1″ and “Stargate: Atlantis.” As a sci-fi fan, I celebrated the different things these shows brought to the genre party. But so far the gloomy, underwhelming “Universe” seems to have ditched many of the elements that the previous “Stargate” shows had, notably camaraderie and a sense of adventure, without adding much in the way of narrative suspense or complexity.
Despite its laudable ambitions, “Universe” has little of the compelling ambiguity that made shows such as “The Shield” and “Battlestar Galactica” work. “Universe” has shakier camera work and a darker color palette, but those aren’t the things that made those other shows great. Those kinds of acclaimed shows have richly drawn characters who are interesting and flawed, and they also regularly feature crackerjack plots that not only have provocative moral dimensions but keep you guessing.
Not to beat the “Battlestar” comparisons into the ground (and I promise this will be the last one), but the rag-tag fleet on that show frequently encountered situations in which individual survivors or whole ships (and their passengers) faced extermination. Many of the episodes in “Stargate Universe’s” early going are predicated on the idea that the alien space ship on which the survivors are stranded could stop functioning and thus kill everyone. If that’s really possible, I kept thinking as I watched the first few episodes, then Syfy spent a lot of money on those sets for nothing.
The other “Stargate” shows typically faced threats from standard-issue (yet sometimes interesting) alien bad guys. Beyond its competent but unexceptional pilot, it appears that “Stargate Universe” is attempting to tell, as so many classic sci-fi films and TV shows have, an “enemy within” story, in which paranoid and fearful survivors either turn on each other or bond in the face of adversity.
There are a couple of problems with that when it comes to “Stargate Universe.” The stories aren’t particularly dense or surprising, and some of the conflict feels quite contrived (as in the problematic Oct. 9 episode, which features a strained plot and an awkward, preposterous attempt to fill in a character’s backstory). And you have to care about the characters before you can become invested in their interpersonal drama.
Perhaps the intention was to have Master Sgt. Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith) come off as a rebellious yet courageous hothead, but the character is just a one-dimensional, obnoxious idiot. Then again, at least he registers, unlike the dull Col. Everett Young (Louis Ferreira). As was the case so often on the other “Stargate” shows, the female characters on “Universe” are notably underwritten. But at least their makeup is flawless.
The smart slacker Eli Wallace (David Blue) and the intense scientist Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) are the only characters, who are worth following, and even if the stories get more interesting, they’d still be the main reason to watch “Universe.” Blue and Carlyle are simply terrific (and, given their excellent chemistry, it’s odd that Rush and Wallace don’t have many scenes together in the first few episodes).
It’s not that I resent “Stargate” going in a more morally ambiguous direction — far from it — but so far its creators seem to have mistaken dourness for complexity. And I wonder if the tendency to repeat the same half-dozen stories and plots, which was a problem that hampered the other “Stargate” series, will infect “Universe” too.
Those aboard the Destiny — the ship the survivors unwillingly come to call home — confide in the shipboard cameras that Wallace found and dubbed “kinos.” The kino diaries, which are occasionally funny, poignant or unpredictable, offer a ray of hope regarding the survivors and the journey of the good ship Destiny.
I’ll keep watching, for a while anyway. Perhaps at some point, “Stargate Universe” will find the “edge” without falling off.
Three “kino” videos are below.
Photos: Smith and Carlyle; Ming-Na, Blue, Lou Diamond Phillips and Blue.