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Stargate: Universe

title stars


The shortest-lived of SciFi Channel’s Stargate adventures, Stargate: Universe ran for a brief two seasons before it had its plug pulled, its gate deactivated and its spaceship repoed to an undisclosed location. Most viewers of the series during its original broadcast run will likely have considered that it deserved its fate. It was all but unwatchable.

In retrospect, it was all but unwatchable because of the incessant commercial interruptions, constant promo graphics engulfing the lower third of its screen while it was running, weird pan-and-scan camera movements, periodic time-slot changes and sundry other distractions wrought upon it by its parent network. Viewed on disc, it’s an entirely different universe.

We lost interest in Stargate: Universe on SciFi about five episodes into its first season, and when the box set of said first season popped up seriously discounted at WalMart – during the hot, luridly depressing summer of 2011, wherein there was little else to watch – it seemed worth $19.95 plus two levels of sales tax to see if it was really as bad as we’d remembered it.

Upon a more coherent presentation, Stargate: Universe fares surprisingly well. Its characters come off as dark and troubled, rather than mean-spirited and bitchy; its cinematography is edgy rather than barely competent; its sets are more sinister than badly lighted and its story line actually makes sense.

It has little to do with its predecessors aside from the frequent appearance of a stargate and numerous cameos by actors from the earlier Stargate series, but once you get past the lack of aliens with glow-in-the-dark eyes and big death rays, it rocks.

Stargate: Universe involves a group of soldiers and civilian scientists who find themselves stuck on a derelict spaceship cruising through a very distant and unfashionable corner of the universe, billions of light-years from the nearest Starbucks. “The wrong people in the wrong place,” as one of the characters describes them, they can’t get home, they can barely keep the ship from falling apart and they all seem to want to punch each others’ lights out.

The show has some uniquely clever elements:

  • While billions of light-years from Earth, technology left behind by the mysterious builders of the ship allow select characters to briefly exchange bodies with some of the folks back home. The show’s writers take some liberties with this facility. It’s hardly ethical to shag your girlfriend when you’re wearing someone else’s skin.
  • The spaceship sojourns at passing planets from time to time, allowing its occupants to teleport to alien worlds, usually in the pursuit of snacks. It doesn’t hang around for very long, however, and there’s frequent scrambling for the stargate just before the ship legs it.
  • What few aliens as put in an appearance don’t speak perfectly modulated English with a slight South African accent – or any sort of English at all – and as such, remain successfully menacing and inscrutable. There’s just no reasoning with a CGI life form that only knows how to communicate by shrieking.
  • Everyone with a speaking part has some sort of hidden agenda. They’ve all clearly read Machiavelli and found him to be a lot more compelling than Oprah. They’re also really sneaky, and it’s impossible to tell who the good guys really are. There’s just the outside chance that it’s the aliens.
  • The only characters who actually know what the spaceship is supposed to be doing have been dead for at least a million years, and they don’t appear on camera, or anywhere else.

Watched on DVD, with as much continuity as you like and no interruptions longer than the time it takes to skip the credits at the end of one episode and cue up the following one, Stargate: Universe manifests an engaging narrative and the compelling desire to see what happens next. In the absence of any external issues, attempting to guess which part of the starship Destiny will fall off next is an agreeable diversion.

Our most notable discovery in watching Stargate: Universe on disc was that far from having no detectable story line, as appeared to be the case on broadcast, it has a complex and impressively subtle tangle of stories that were completely lost when it aired.

It should be noted that the second and final season of Stargate: Universe ends with something of a cliff-hanger. While rumors have suggested that a Stargate: Universe direct to DVD movie may appear to resolve it, it remains trapped in an alternate reality as of this writing.