Stargate Universe - John C. Kirk
Oct. 11th, 2009
02:15 pm - Stargate Universe
Back when Star Trek: Voyager started, the big concept was to get back to exploration, i.e. the crew would spend all their time meeting new species rather than acting as a taxi service for Deanna's mother. That's fine, but it had a few drawbacks:
a) With any kind of "quest", the series will be over if/when they achieve it, so you know that they won't actually make it back to the Alpha Quadrant in any particular episode. (Alternately, they will make it but then they'll have to go back to the Delta Quadrant because Tom Paris left his toothbrush behind.) I've seen the same thing on other series, e.g. the animated Dungeons and Dragons.
b) The Enterprise's mission was to seek out new life and new civilisations. The Voyager crew have an unprecented opportunity to do that, and how do they react? "We wanna go home!"
c) It's been suggested that Janeway failed the standard Starfleet initiative test, by having her ship stranded on the far side of the galaxy and not getting back home by the end of the episode. (Picard and Sisko both did far better in similar situations.)
By contrast, I think that Stargate Atlantis took a similar concept but handled it far better. Stargate Command had an opportunity to travel to another galaxy, so they prepared an expedition full of volunteers. These people knew that it might be a one-way trip, and they accepted it; they'd like to come back home one day, but if they did wind up stuck on the other side then that would be a fair exchange for the opportunity. Later on, when they did re-establish contact with Earth, it didn't end the series because they still all had a reason to stay there.
Stargate Universe is much more similar to Voyager: a bunch of people wind up on a spaceship, stranded in a different galaxy, and they didn't want to be there so they're trying to get back home. That's a bad sign, but the first two episode have held my interest, so I'm willing to see where they go with it.
The episode started with a gate opening in a dark room, and several people tumbling down the ramp. There was an advert break after 10 minutes, which made me stop to think "What's the story so far? How would I recap the first section for someone who'd just arrived?" Basically, that's all that happened. If I can condense 10 minutes into 10 seconds, that's not a great start, particularly if I was completely new to the franchise; I'd be tempted to go channel hopping during the adverts and see if anything else more interesting was on. (Obviously this won't affect people who watch the episode on DVD or via a dodgy download, but I think it's something that the production team ought to consider.)
After the ad break, they repeated something from the first section, which seemed odd. However, this turned out to be a trailer for Tuesday's episode, which included clips from the episode that I was in the process of watching. Thanks, Sky! Back in the old days, TV programs used to show a still picture at the beginning and end of each ad break; whatever happened to that? Did they stop doing that to make it harder for people to cut out the adverts when recording?
Anyway, the episode then went into recaps, to show how they wound up in this situation. Since this is the first episode, I'm willing to cut them some slack: it's a common practice to start in media res (James Bond films normally do the same thing), i.e. get straight to the action rather than spending ages on the backstory. However, I'd prefer them not to mimic Highlander or Lost by having flashbacks as a regular part of the story. (For Highlander, the flashbacks tended to be more interesting than the present day stuff, because the whole point was that this guy had lived for 400 years. However, Lost and SGU are both set in unusual situations, so that should be enough to provide story material.)
The basic backstory is that a bunch of people were working at "Icarus base" (in our galaxy), then it was attacked and they all had to evacuate through the Stargate, but they wound up on the ship rather than going back to Earth. This is due to Dr Rush, who seems to be filling the Dr Smith role (from Lost in Space).
One weird effect of the flashback approach is that it actually reduced tension. For instance, one of the characters got trapped under a pile of rubble when the base was attacked, so the other characters didn't know whether he'd survived. However, we as the audience have already seen him arrive on the spaceship in the other galaxy, so we know full well that he's alive and that he gets out of there ok.
During the attack, one of the medics was doing CPR on a casualty. The colonel then came along and told her to stop, so that they could leave. Why? As a first aider, there are situations where I could say that it would be pointless to attempt CPR (e.g. if someone has been decapitated), but I didn't see anything obvious here; the casualty had a neck wound, but there was no massive puddle of blood, and the medic apparently thought that it was worth the attempt. Why did the colonel disagree, and what makes him better qualified than her? They didn't say. Bear in mind that as far as these characters knew, they were about to go through the Stargate back to Earth, and it's been established that Stargate Command has a fully equipped medical bay (with doctors and defibrillators), so the obvious approach would be to carry the casualty through the gate so that he can get advanced care (part of the "chain of survival"). It wouldn't have worked (since they wound up on a spaceship), but they didn't know that, so they should have made more of an effort.
I think the most likeable character so far is Eli: he's a civilian who was recruited after he solved a puzzle in an online computer game. That's not an original idea (The Last Starfighter did the same thing 25 years ago), but it works well. As sulkyblue pointed out, they do actually make a big deal about interstellar travel (rather than taking it for granted), and it was quite funny when Eli took a deep breath before he stepped through the gate.
There were a few cameos from SG-1 characters (O'Neill, Daniel, Sam, and Walter), but they were quite subtly done, so if you weren't familiar with them then all you need to know is "She's in command of the spaceship". However, regarding continuity, I was a bit disappointed that they brought up the "point of origin" chevron. The basic idea is that when you "dial" a gate you use seven symbols: six of them identify where you're going, and the seventh shows where you're coming from. If you go to a different galaxy (e.g. the Atlantis base in the Pegasus galaxy) then you use an eighth symbol, and the journey to this spaceship used a ninth symbol. However, if you only need one symbol to identify where you're starting from, surely you'd also only need one symbol to identify where you're going to? For that matter, doesn't the gate itself already "know" where it is? I realise that they're stuck with this explanation, but I'd prefer them not to draw attention to it.
Once the group arrived on the spaceship, they set out to explore it, so they divided up into 23 teams. Each team had a radio, and they were told to report in to Dr Rush every 10 minutes. Based on my experience in St John Ambulance, this seemed like a rather poor strategy. For instance, suppose that it takes 10 seconds for each team to report in. It would then take 230 seconds for all 23 teams, which is almost 4 minutes, leaving 6 more minutes until the first team reports in again. (If it took 30 seconds per team, you wouldn't have time to work down the whole list before the first team was overdue!) That means that Rush would spend half his time on the radio doing routine checks, and presumably he has more important things to do, e.g. figuring out how the systems work so that they can fix life-support and/or dial the gate back to Earth. In a situation like this, you need someone like Uhura to act as a radio controller. That person can then handle the routine checks, and contact the person in charge as and when necessary. Their radio protocol was poor, since they didn't say "Over" each time they finished speaking. It would also be a good idea to use callsigns for each team, rather than using their real names, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you could have more than one person with the same name, e.g. several people called John (or several people with the surname Smith), and a unique callsign avoids confusion. Secondly, if you have that many teams then you need to make sure that you don't lose track of anyone; counting from 1 to 23 is a lot simpler than saying "Well, I've heard from Fred and Dave, but I can't remember how long it's been since I spoke to Tom".
Later on, they wound up with a problem to solve: one of the shuttles that was docked outside had a hole in the side, so they were losing air, but the door between the shuttle and the ship could only be closed by someone inside the shuttle. (This was due to mechanical failure, since it had been thousands of years since the ship was launched, rather than being a design flaw.) Anyway, this posed a dilemma: would anyone be willing to sacrifice themselves to save everyone else? Personally, it struck me that there was a simpler solution. They'd already discovered some remote-controlled flying cameras, so why not send one of them into the shuttle and get it to close the door? If it has trouble pressing the button, you could sellotape a pencil to the side of it; that's the type of low-tech solution that they would have used in Farscape. Maybe there was some reason that it wouldn't work, but why didn't anybody even consider it?
At the end of the second episode, they discovered that there are gates on other planets in this galaxy, because the Ancients sent out other ships in advance to "seed" them. That makes me wonder whether the crew of the "Destiny" (their ship) will ever catch up with the other ships. It would be quite useful to have a machine that makes stargates!
Anyway, I'm willing to see where it goes, so I'll be watching the next episode on Tuesday.