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Sunday, February 14, 2010

SGU STARGATE UNIVERSE 1.0 -- DVD review by porfle

Having somehow managed to avoid every single previous film and TV incarnation of "Stargate", I delved into the 3-disc DVD set SGU STARGATE UNIVERSE 1.0 (2009) not knowing quite what to expect. After a marathon viewing of all ten episodes (which constitute the first half of the first season), I find that while it isn't mindblowingly awesome, it's still a compelling start with the potential for greater things.

Fans of the saga up till now will know all this, but for us novices: billions of years ago, a race of aliens known as "The Ancients", from whom we are descended, built a series of ring-shaped portals called "stargates" which use wormholes to allow intergalactic travel. Having discovered one of these stargates on another planet, Earth scientists and military have been trying to unlock the "dial-up" code which will access the stargate's transportation function. But just as they do so, Icarus Base is attacked by hostile aliens known as The Lucian Alliance and all military and civilian personnel are forced to escape through the stargate to an unknown destination seconds before the planet explodes.

After their chaotic arrival, they find themselves on an immense, automated starship built long ago by the Ancients, which is speeding through hyperspace billions of light years from Earth for some unknown purpose. The ship, it turns out, slows down whenever it approaches a planet with a stargate, giving the crew a specified time to explore the planet and gather whatever materials they need from it before the ship automatically jumps back into hyperspace. Damage from some long-ago battle has made repair of its life-sustaining functions imperative, and as the passengers struggle to survive they also must deal with interpersonal conflicts and the uncertainty of ever being able to return home.

I like a good "spaceship exploring the cosmos" series and this one is shaping up pretty well so far. Not much has been done with the stargates as of yet--the crew only visit two or three planets in this set--but there's more than enough stuff going on aboard the Destiny to keep things hopping. As is often the case in sci-fi, the military and scientific factions frequently have heated disagreements over their priorities and there's a constant power struggle between stalwart Colonel Everett Young (Justin Louis) and the brilliant but arrogant chief scientist Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), with the hapless civilians caught in the crossfire.

Carlyle, a fine actor who played a formidable Bond villain in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, makes Dr. Rush a fascinating character whose motives we're never quite sure of. At times he seems to place more importance on research and discovery than on preserving the lives of his shipmates, and some suspect that their presence aboard the Destiny may even be his doing. As his nemesis Colonel Young, Louis brings a soulful intensity to the role which has made him one of my favorite actors since he played Sarah Polley's ill-fated husband in the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. The interplay between these two solid actors makes for some of the show's best moments.

Among the military characters are Young's second-in-command, the troubled but heroic Lt. Scott (Brian J. Smith), hotheaded but dependable Sgt. Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), and cowardly, rage-stoked loose cannon Sgt. Spencer (Josh Blacker). Back on Earth, the Destiny's progress is monitored with intense interest by Lieutenant General Jack O'Neill (an amiable Richard Dean Anderson) and Colonel David Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips at his best), who will try not only to usurp Colonel Young's command but, eventually, his lonesome wife as well.

The civilians include Ming-Na ("E.R.") as Camile Wray, a human resources executive who thinks she should be in command, Alaina Huffman as plucky and wise medical officer Tamara Johansen, and David Blue as nerdy math genius Eli Wallace. Eli, recruited straight out of his mom's basement because he was able to break a vital stargate code imbedded into an online videogame, is the vicarious wish-fulfillment character for gamer geeks in the audience and alternates between being amusing and irritating. Another old favorite, Christopher McDonald, plays Senator Alan Armstrong, whose daughter Chloe (Elyse Levesque) finds herself the romantic interest of both Eli and Lt. Scott.

Proving of utmost importance to both the show's characters and its writers are the "communication stones", an Ancient device which allows the Destiny's passengers to temporarily swap bodies with certain Earth personnel. This makes way for a lot of emotional and sometimes soap opera-level scenes of Scott, Chloe, and Young, among others, sharing intimate moments with their friends and loved ones. Telford's body-swaps with Young pose a problem when he aggressively asserts his authority while aboard the Destiny and then later, during a momentary glitch in the transfer, finds himself having sex with Young's wife. (Oops!) The whole idea of someone inhabiting my body and then going off and having sex with people I don't know sorta gives me the willies anyway--who knows what you could catch?

These slow-burn stories are pretty leisurely-paced, with the only whiz-bang space-battle action taking place in the hectic first episode. However, I found them engrossing and often quite intriguing when not bogged down by unnecessary melodrama. In "Light", the ship is knocked off-course and is headed directly for a sun, which means that fifteen passengers must be chosen by lottery to escape in the shuttle while the rest face their impending doom. "Time" finds several of the main characters on a lush jungle planet where they are attacked--and killed--by vicious reptilian creatures, while the rest of the passengers start dying off due to a mysterious virus they've contracted there. (Okay, you know the main characters aren't really going to all die, but it's still an interesting episode.)

In "Life", Dr. Rush discovers a chair which may impart vital knowledge of the ship's functions to whomever sits in it, but only at great risk to his life (not unlike similar devices in FORBIDDEN PLANET and the ST:TOS episode "Spock's Brain"). "Justice", the final episode in the set, begins with one of the main characters shot dead and the gun being discovered in Colonel Young's quarters, leading to him losing his command and finding himself on trial for murder. A shocking revelation and an intriguing cliffhanger ending, with both Young and Rush apparently starting to lose it big-time, round out the set.

My main complaint about SGU STARGATE UNIVERSE is its tendency to grind to a halt in order to indulge in labored, overwrought melodrama, complete with maudlin plinky-piano music, which seems grafted onto the stories rather than contributing to their forward momentum. These detours from the main thrust of the plot are the sort of stuff you usually see under "deleted scenes" in the Extras menu and rightly so. One of the good things about a sci-fi show like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is that it incorporates the interpersonal drama into the stories so well, something which SGU needs to work on in future episodes.

A major storytelling device which has its ups and downs is the floating camera sphere known as the "Kino", which is important to the crew for reconnaissance (it can be sent through the stargate to retrieve vital advance data) and surveillance, but which is also used by the writers to indulge in weepy, angsty diary entries by the Destiny's inhabitants. (As one IMDb commentator complains: "All they do is stand around on this dark dull boring spaceship moaning about stuff.") We get enough of that kind of soul-baring blather during Dr. Johansen's psych evaluation-confessionals, and all of this emo introspection justs gets to be too much after awhile.

Technically, the show is well-designed with some very nice fly-by shots of the Destiny streaking through hyperspace and a wealth of interesting though often underlit interior sets. Many of the ensemble scenes are directed with a documentary approach rather than the usual one-camera routine, allowing castmembers to use a looser and more theatrical acting style. Joel Goldsmith's music is a plus (except for the drippy plinky-piano stuff), although I could do without the emo-ballad montages.

The 3-disc DVD set from MGM and 20th-Century Fox is in 1.78:1 widescreen with English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish Dolby Surround. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French. All episodes feature chatty commentary tracks with the cast and producers. Extras also include an extended version of the pilot "Air", conversations with the cast, numerous Kino diary entries and miscellaneous footage, and a helpful featurette for "Stargate" newbs entitled "Stargate 101: Presented by Dr. Daniel Jackson", which gives a basic history of the franchise.

SGU STARGATE UNIVERSE 1.0 lays the groundwork for what could be an exciting and provocative series that still has much room for improvement. I'll be looking forward to what's in store for us in the future, but for now, these ten introductory episodes provide a generous amount of thought-provoking sci-fi entertainment. Hopefully, the writers have a clear-cut destination in mind for the Destiny and for the show itself instead of trying to drag it out indefinitely--I'd hate to see it turn into "Gilligan's Starship."

Read our review of Season 1.5 here.

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