So I've just finished watching the three part pilot ("Air") of Stargate Universe. A lot of you already will have seen this, so spoilers won't matter so much. If you haven't seen it, and want to go into it completely cold though, proceed at your own risk.
Given how critical I'm possibly going to sound at times later in this review, I will say up front that I enjoyed this, (primarily the first two acts) and strongly recommend it to anyone who likes character-driven science fiction. I have more problems with the third act, (particularly the resolution, which was a pure deus ex machina copout by the writers) but the first two acts represent the strongest sci fi pilot I've seen since either Firefly or Voyager, and one of the most impressive pilots I've seen overall.
To use one of the show's own expressions, "Air," comes in hot. It's earliest moments are arguably its' very best; there's a lot there to like. Joel Goldsmith deserves a very large part of the credit for that as well, with a soundtrack that created exactly the sort of vibe that I was expecting from the advance material I'd read, and really helped build suspense and an alien atmosphere. The sense of just how far the survivors are from home is palpable at times, too; a lot moreso than Voyager, where the distance was basically just an arbitrary number that got casually thrown around, most of the time.
Most of you will have a basic idea of what the series is about in broad strokes. A group of scientists go to a remote planet, (Icarus) to try and dial a gate address, in order to figure out what the mysterious ninth chevron of the Stargate is used for. If you're sufficiently new to the series that you don't know what the ninth chevron is, then you're likely going to need more orientation than I can give you in this review, although this episode of SGU tries to give you some.
Anyway, while they're doing this, the base gets attacked by unknown aliens with Goa'uld ships, during the dialing experiment, which initially fails. They're initially going to do the smart thing and dial back to Earth, but then Dr. Nicholas Rush (essentially SGU's answer to Zachary Smith of Lost in Space; that's a minor oversimplification, perhaps, but sadly not much) orders that the ninth chevron experiment be performed again. This time it connects, and the gate opens.
The Icarus attack was a little deus ex, but not hugely unforgiveable. I also would have actually preferred confirmation of whether or not they were in fact Goa'uld, rather than just Random Aliens of the Week(tm) who coincidentally had Goa'uld death gliders and Ha'taks. They also aren't given any motivation, either. They're just there, attacking, apparently because they got bored, and decided to shoot up a planet for something to do. We don't know.
The people on the base don't have anywhere else to go, and have no time to redial Earth. They go through, and the initial result of that is the opening scene.
That opening scene is executed very well, and is, as mentioned, probably the single best thing about this entire three hours. There's a very real sense that what has happened, has been the result of things majorly going south, with the ultimate turn of events being entirely unplanned.
The single main thing which unfortunately spoils the promise of the opening scene, is the inclusion of the Ancient stones which let the Icarus survivors contact Earth. It destroys most of the initial tension, and I really wish the writers could have resisted the need to give the characters an easy form of Earth communication, at least until a good way through the series. One of the things Voyager got right, was doing that during the last season, not the first.
Originality here, if I'm honest, is largely absent. The episode did a very good job, during at least the first two acts, however, of giving me the impression that I was seeing something I hadn't seen before.
This, however, is something which needs some clarifying. SGU has a lot in common with Harry Potter in this respect. What do I mean by that?
I mean that the Harry Potter stories are made up of a collection of component stereotypes which, by themselves, are completely non-original; but the arrangement of said non-original elements is sufficiently unconventional as to still be interesting. SGU is similar; for anyone who's watched a lot of science fiction, the ingredients will taste very familiar, but the overall pizza comes together in an offbeat and satisfying way.
There have been comparisons of this with Star Trek: Voyager, although except for the initial premise in very broad terms, and the gritty, postmodern vibe, the two aren't really similar. I was also one of apparently very few people who liked Voyager, although I recognised that the two prerequisites of doing that were a) ignoring Janeway, (who far and away represented Voyager's biggest problem) and b) reading a lot of fanfic as well, and appreciating the show more for what it could have been, than what it actually was.
Voyager started off with a similar initial premise, but then dropped it when that show's writers considered it too risky. Whether or not MGM's writers do the same thing with SGU remains to be seen, although we can strongly hope that they don't. Then, of course, there was Firefly, which had a similar structure in some respects, but was canned by the suits for being too unconventional and intelligent, as well. Suits don't like taking risks, and it will be interesting to see whether or not MGM's writers are going to be able to retain control over the direction of this show.
In terms of resemblance to other series, however, the structure of SGU's pilot is very similar to what I remember from either Sliders or Quantum Leap. If you want to make comparisons with what has come before, Sliders in particular is a good fit. We're given the setup of the initial situation during the first and second acts, and the third act basically gives us our first "slide," or "leap;" in other words an example of what we're going to be seeing on a weekly basis.
The show has also added the following wrinkles to the usual gate travel formula:-
a) The ship which they're aboard is on autopilot, and travelling at faster than light speeds. Every so often it stops near a planet with a Stargate.
b) Once the ship stops, a timer counts down. The ship will only stay within proximity of the given Stargate for 12 hours, before moving on again. This adds some additional urgency to the usual pattern, and may also give us so interesting additional, as-yet-unforeseen consequences as well. This also adds to the degree of similarity with Sliders.
The one area where this show is somewhat original, (at least in terms of the first two acts) is in terms of the degree of solemnity and gravity. As other reviewers have noted, SG1 in particular was nearly always a lot more lighthearted than this; with only a few rare exceptions, there was never any real doubt that Our Heroes would get home in one piece, and everything would be OK in the end. Here, that's nowhere near as certain.
Both the humour and the deus ex machina don't really kick in until the third act; the first two are very much, to quote 4chan's subculture, serious business.
Until I realised the Zachary Smith connection at least, Dr. Rush also kept me guessing. It's difficult to figure out whether or not he really is the proverbial mad scientist, or if he genuinely isn't a bad guy, but sometimes just gets a little too fixated on pure science to remember some of the more important things; like, say, other people's lives. He is the closest thing the pilot has to an antagonist.
It's also very true, as another reviewer said, that Rush is in no way similar to Atlantis' Rodney McKay. McKay could be obnoxious, but was sporadically capable of genuine heroism as well, and when push came to shove, there was never any question of whose side he was on.
It's a bit disappointing just how strong the similarity is between Rush and Zachary Smith is at times, truthfully. There is at least one occasion where Rush nearly gets himself shot by one of the soldiers during the third act, and he does so by being foppishly, pompously antagonistic in almost exactly the same way that Smith would have done. Most of the time Rush's degree of subtlety is good, but occasionally he goes too far overboard.
Overall, although "Air," definitely has some flaws, the main impression was extremely positive, and I was wishing at the end of it that I could have watched more, which is always a positive sign. As long as the writers stay within the rules they've given themselves here, I will very much be interested to see where this goes.
Things I liked:-
- The opening scene.
- The fact that the lines between the civilian group, and the military group, are a lot more loosely defined in this show than they were in either SG1 or Atlantis. There are a lot more civilians here, and they act like civilian beaurecrats, too; in the sense that they whine, drum their heels, and throw tantrums, and they also expect soldiers to do everything they say, when the soldiers have guns and there's no one else around. There was one particular Indian woman who really should have been shot in the leg. ;)
- The production values. This show is expensive, and it shows. I wouldn't have had too much of an issue with seeing the special effects here, on a big screen, for the most part. The soundtrack is also amazing. The Stargate design is a lot more loyal to SG1 than Atlantis, too, which is welcome.
- Ming Na. She might be a little long in the tooth these days, but she's still hot. As embarassing as it is to admit, Chun Li was a major crush of mine as a teenager, even before the Street Fighter movie, so Ming Na portraying her there was pure icing on the cake. ;)
- The Icarus attack. Even though I had problems with those minor details, they weren't huge, and the attack did generate extra tension, and it looked cool, too. It just would have felt even more real if the attackers had some real motivation.
- The ship design. It's very much Atlantean/Ancient style, aesthetically, but rust brown in colour terms, rather than the Ancients' usual whites and blues.
- The SG1 cameos. Poor Daniel got stuck with newbie orientation duty, though. ;)
- Dr Rush's ambiguity, until I remembered Lost in Space.
Things I didn't like:-
- Most of the stuff related to the Senator. Although his death was a surprise at the time, it wasn't in hindsight. The scenes where his wife cries afterwards were simply boring for some reason, as well. Maybe I'm just a callous, uncaring jerk, but I just didn't care all that much.
- The introduction of the communication stones, which let the people on the ship easily communicate with Earth. The tension generated in the opening scene would have stayed if they hadn't been introduced, and again, I really wish they hadn't been.
- The derivative, deus ex machina cheat used to resolve the third act. A random, benevolent, acorporeal alien just happens to save someone's life at the 11th hour and 59th minute, and also just happens to lead said person directly to the McGuffin that they need to take back to the ship. How many times have we seen *that* before?