For ten years we watched Jack O’Neil, Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson, and the Jaff’a Tealc’ enter the Stargate. Others would join the team over the years. Each week we would follow their adventures, first on Showtime and finally on the Sci-Fi (now Sy Fy) Channel. We watched with awe as they stepped through a portal that was in reality a wormhole transporting them instantly to another world, brought online by dialing the device like an old fashioned telephone. For another five years we traveled not only to another planet, but to the Pegasus Galaxy itself to the Atlantis Base, a bright floating city left behind by the ancients, the people who created the Stargate system millions of years before. On this show we met new friends, new bad guys, and had new adventures. The location might have changed. The faces might have, at first, been unfamiliar, but the missions and the entertainment value didn’t let us down. For 15 seasons we enjoyed a spectacular tale to rival the myths of the Greeks and Romans themselves.
I’m told that all good things must come to an end. When Atlantis was finally cancelled, I was made almost immediately aware of the plans to continue the franchise. First reports started coming out that the show was going to be called Stargate Universe. Soon my inside contacts started giving me tidbits about the story. Details began to emerge about the Destiny, an ancient ship abandoned in another universe far away. The ship was on some kind of predetermined course and would sport an unsuspecting crew of humans that would be left stranded on the ship for an indeterminate amount of time. It was starting to sound a lot like Star Trek: Voyager to me. Of course, this is Stargate, so there has to be some gate travel, one would assume. The ship would come with a gate, and the vessel would come out of faster-than-light travel from time to time and dial up a local planet for exploration. The ship was ancient not only in its origin but in its duration in space. There were going to be a lot of system failures, as the equipment was long past its expiration date. The ship itself would know what resources it needed to continue to operate. Searching its vast planetary database, the ship would locate planets with the essential resources, allowing away teams to get such vital raw materials. Unfortunately, the ship didn’t always give a good indication of what to find or where on the planet it might happen to be. Oh, and did I mention the countdown? The ship would decide how much time it would allot for each mission, instituting a countdown. When the clock reached zero, the ship goes back to FTL, and whoever’s not back in time gets left behind.
Soon I knew most everything about the new show except the characters and cast. Now that series has aired its first 10 episodes, and these episodes have quickly gated to your retail outlets on DVD and Blu-ray. I got the opportunity to review the Blu-ray high definition version, a privilege I hope to someday get in a chance to revisit the seasons of the first two shows.
The first thing you will notice, out of the gate, if you will, is that this show is significantly darker in tone than anything you have seen before in this franchise. From the new black military uniforms to the low lighting, darkness permeates every nook and cranny of this series. The gloss and bright colors and lights of the two previous shows are completely gone. As you are introduced to each of the new characters, you will make a few other quick observations. The cast is huge, much larger than the other shows combined. You will also discover that this darkness extends well into the show’s primary characters. There really aren’t any good guys here. Not all of them are evil, but these are all flawed human beings with often dark agendas. They are not really working together, but rather often at cross purposes. Even the support team on Earth is filled with dark individuals who don’t appear all that concerned for the lives of this accidental mission crew. There have been a ton of comparisons of this new show to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and those comparisons are spot on. From the dark brooding mood to the character intrigue, this one has Galactica written all over it. I suppose that isn’t so much of a surprise when you consider how successful that show became. Still, I don’t believe it fits for Stargate. Even Dr. Rush appears to be a Baltar clone, from his personality to his shady dealings. The actors even look a bit alike. It’s an unfortunate direction for my beloved show. There are even trendy pop-ballad music montages that are incredibly out of place for this franchise.
The official SyFy character descriptions follow:
Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle):
The scientific head of the Icarus program and a certifiable genius, Dr. Nicholas Rush is one of the most brilliant scientists of his day. Having devoted some of the most difficult years of his life to the program, he knows more than anyone the importance of what is beyond that 9th chevron address. Definitely not the most agreeable aboard the ship, he is without a doubt the mastermind behind most of what goes on, whether people know it or not. Unwilling to bend to any sort of military rule, his focus is always on discovering the secrets to, and purpose of, the Destiny.
Col. Young (Louis Ferreira):
Far into an impressive Air Force career, Colonel Young took a step back to oversee Icarus security in hopes that he could spend more time with his wife. Reluctantly thrust back into a leadership role, he does his best to watch over those stranded, both civilian and military. Torn between what’s best for survival and what’s most likely to get them home, he comes into constant conflict with both Rush and Wray. Like a father figure to Lieutenant Scott and others on the ship, his actions don’t always follow his advice.
Lt. Scott (Brian J. Smith):
Losing his parents at a young age, Matthew Scott was raised by priests and wished to become one himself. Life and love, however, lead him down a different path and into the military where his dedication to the missions and his teams ascended him through the ranks quickly. Though a young lieutenant, he is a strong believer in the command system and sees himself as a leader to those stranded with him. Unsure about what he’s left behind on Earth, he also struggles with the gray areas that come with command and being so far from the clear cut morality he’s used to.
Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque):
A Harvard-educated aide to, and daughter of, Senator Alan Armstrong. Though privilege had gotten her through most of her life, she has since made a choice to be more than another trust fund kid. Her dedication to her work helped convince her father of the importance of the Icarus program. Forced with challenges far beyond those of a political aide, Chloe throws herself into helping the crew find a way home and finding the emotional connections she never had on Earth.
Eli Wallace (David Blue):
A technology wunderkind with an inability to apply himself, Eli spends most of his time playing on his computer. He catches the attention of the Icarus program after solving an embedded code in a particular video game. Eli finds himself beamed aboard a spaceship, recruited to solve the 9th chevron power dilemma. A sarcastic pop culture nerd, he immediately connects with Chloe Armstrong, the beautiful political aide. His genius is a valuable commodity once stranded aboard the Destiny and leads him to being pulled between the many camps and players on the ship. While torn with leaving his single mother behind, he realizes that he may be part of the most important discovery mankind has ever made.
Lt. Tamara Johnson (Alaina Huffman):
This strong-willed medic had one foot out of the door, medical school scholarship in hand, when the Icarus base was attacked. Suddenly, she finds herself the chief medical officer aboard the Destiny. Tamara is highly respected by those around her, but struggles with her own insecurities and working without the tools or support she needs. She is one of the only people aboard able to bridge the often rocky divide between civilian and military.
Master Sergeant Greer (Jamil Walker):
Raised to be a military man, his physical prowess hides a very troubled past that at times escapes his control. On lockup from a court martial when Icarus is attacked, he is released by Colonel Young and undoubtedly looks to him for leadership. Destiny, while far away from his home and family, is a place for Greer to start anew and become the man he believes he can be.
Camile Wray (Ming-Na):
A strategically savvy member of the International Oversight Committee (IOA) and the highest ranking one stranded aboard the Destiny. Her human resources background gives her a very personal insight into all members of the Icarus program, and now those aboard the Destiny. She struggles not only with being stranded from her family, but also with finding her footing in the constantly changing politics of the Destiny.
Col. Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips):
A high-ranking Colonel in the Stargate program, Telford was chosen to lead the Icarus team through the 9th chevron gate address. He is a career Air Force man with strong values, proudly in command of his superiors’ respect and attention. He is the best man for the mission, and no one is more aware of that than himself. He and Colonel Young have a rocky past, and while stationed on Icarus together tried to stay out of each other’s way.
These are just the main characters. The show is loaded with a large cast of recurring characters. On Earth we follow Young’s wife, who is having a fling with Telford. Richard Dean Anderson joins a couple of episodes.
Finally, the second half of the first season is released. One of the knocks on the first half of the season was that the show was too contained. Every episode was basically a bottle show. Those concerns are addressed in the first ten minutes of this collection of episodes. We’ll finally meet a new alien race through the magic of GC. The show also brings on our first space battle. Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping, and Michael Shanks all return for episodes in this half of the season. (Where’s Chris Judge?) Most important, the show has finally gotten in plenty of action. There’s more exterior tension and a lot of gunfire before it all ends. It does end with a traditional cliffhanger where The Alliance has boarded the ship in an attempt to take it over. A lot of folks are pretty seriously injured or killed before the final credits come on. I’ve not heard that anyone is leaving the show as of yet, but it’ll be January before we know for sure.
Each episode of SGU is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 17 mbps. The picture looks quite a bit like it did on my DirecTV HD broadcast. Blacks are pretty good, but not completely without compression artifact. I’d like to see future Stargate Blu-ray releases stick to just four episodes per disc and give us a bit rate into the 20’s at least. It’s a dark series with very little color, so the high definition won’t be dazzling you there. The most impressive element came with bright whites. The third episode features a white-sands planet that offered some of the show’s most beautiful vistas. I was pretty blown away by that episode’s visuals here. Detail is fine, but not razor-sharp. I’d call it a very average HD video presentation.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio again fine for what it is. There aren’t a lot of aggressive surrounds going on here. This is a claustrophobic show, and the audio presentation reflects that fact. On the planets you get an occasional burst of ear candy, but never much. Dialog is fine most of the time, but not always.
Destiny Starmap Log: This is an interactive starmap that allows you to access short features. They range from character and actor profiles to short scene-specific behind-the-camera looks. It’s an awkward way to access this stuff, but this time they included a play all.
Kino Video Diaries: The kino is this show’s version of the MALP. It’s a flying sphere that sends audio, video, and analytical data back to the person controlling the device, usually Eli. These are often under a minute and often feature Eli’s practical jokes with the spy device.
Audio Commentaries: Each episode comes with a commentary, a Stargate tradition of late. Cast and crew members vary from episode to episode, but many are quite entertaining and educational.
One of the more interesting notes about this release is that it includes a folded box that holds both half-season releases and combines them for a “complete first season” set. But, I’m going to keep them apart. These two collections of ten episodes each are very different and belong in their own place. You know I’m not generally a fan of half-season releases. Mostly I find them shameless money grabs from the fans. Here they have such different tones that in this case, “Maybe that’s a good thing”.