The final spin-off in the Stargate sci-fi franchise bit the dust after only two seasons but is only now reaching the free channels in syndication.
As a glossy sci-fi show, this had the potential to be a latter-day Lost in Space; but weighed down with the Erich von Daniken ‘ancient-gods-were-spacemen’ premise and the legacy techno-babble of Stargates SG-1 and Atlantis, Universe is a dull, over-written pudding that lurches between space opera and soap opera.
Satisfying neither fans nor mainstream audiences, Universe took too long to get into it’s stride, it’s ambition undercut with production-by-committee and some hokey sci-fi tropes so bad they derail almost every episode.
You can tell I like the idea of the show more than I like the show. It starts with an SG-team fleeing an alien attack through a random star gate – the worm-hole travel device inherited from Roland Emmerich’s jolly sci-fi actioner Star Gate (1994). Surprised to find themselves travelling on an Ancient (as in million-year old, clunk) starship, the Destiny (clunk), they have no idea where they are in the universe (clunk), the ship is breaking down (clunk) and stuck on auto-pilot (clunk).
As we are reminded almost every episode, this team is made up of ‘the wrong people’ (clunk) in the wrong place, wrong time; the military personnel clash with the civilians (clunk), among them an under-achieving geek (clunk), an amoral scientist – Robert Carlyle playing a version of Zachary Smith (clunk), a struggling young lieutenant (clunk), a medic who’s lost faith in herself (clunk), the senator’s daughter with no contribution to make but look pretty (clunk); and assorted scientists and airmen with ‘issues’ (clunk).
That’s an awful lot of clunking going on in one show.
To be fair to the pretty senator’s daughter (ably acted by Elyse Levesque), everyone on the damn ship is pretty, even the boys. The commander is suitably mature and craggy cut, and still Robert Carlysle exudes enough menace and charisma to wipe them all off-screen.
The plots mostly surround exploring the ship, averting various technical disasters via assorted Deus ex Machina (Greek drama, look it up), and the odd stop-off on some strange planet to scavenge for food or materials.
Where things get really hokey is in the personal sub-plots and soap-operas, especially when the show pulls a massive cheat to bring the characters back to Earth, pulling a body-swap trick with the frankly ludicrous ‘communications stones.’ Honestly, not enough power to ‘gate home or run the Destiny, but put a couple of pebbles on a lightbox and suddenly you’ve swapped conciousness instantaneously with someone on Earth, thousands of light years away. Physics was never a Star Gate strong point.
Worse than that, it allows the show to delve into some murky Earth politics and Peyton Place drama, while also letting in guest appearances from SG-1 favourite Richard Dean Anderson and the ever-nauseating Lou Diamond Philips (not forgiven for all those dreadful 1990’s B-picture ‘thrillers’).
Universe tries to copy Battlestar Galactica in tone and design, but the permanent gloom just renders everything… gloomy. Honestly, you can travel faster than light, refuel by diving into a star, with a mega-shield protecting the ship, but you can’t turn some dam’ lights on?
That’s before we get to the scripts. Mid season, rogue Sergeant Spencer exits by shooting himself in the head. Some episodes I know how he feels. There are some decent performances from the cast, trying to bring some believable depth to their over-burdened, over-written and somehow underwhelming characters, but I can already see the how the odds stacked against Stargate Universe. I hear Season Two is better. RC