Who would have thought, watching the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin movie Stargate back in 1994 that 16 years later the franchise would be on it's third live action show (the less said about the cartoon, the better) and be one of the most successful SF series this side of Star Trek and Star Wars? As surprising as it is, Stargate is still going strong and the third series, Stargate Universe shows a lot of promise. The first season of Universe was broken into two halves. The first 10 episodes aired from October to December of 2009, and it's scheduled to return for a further ten episodes in April. The first half has been released to home video and after watching it I'm anxiously awaiting the second half to air.
If you've never seen any of the previous Stargate series or the movie, you might be a little lost at first but if you're vaguely familiar with the franchise you won't have any trouble following the story. As you may recall from the movie and SG-1, a Stargate uses a seven 'chevron' address to dial other Stargates in the Milky Way. It was discovered that the device would accept an 8 chevron address, but to dial it would take an enormous amount of energy only an ancient 'zero-point module' could generate. A ZPM was hooked up, and it dialed an address in another galaxy. (Those adventures are chronicled in Stargate Atlantis.) A nine chevron address was discovered, but to generate the unimaginable power needed to dial such an address would entail tapping the core of a special type of planet. That problem has just about been solved as this current series opens.
Yes, Earth scientists lead by Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) and aided by gamer geek Eli Wallace (David Blue) have broken the codes, solved the engineering problems, and just about overcome the final hurdles to dialing the nine symbol address. Unfortunately the base is attacked before they can dial and 60 or so people are trapped in the gate room when a corridor collapses. Realizing that it's a now-or-never situation, Dr. Rush punches in the nine chevron code instead of dialing Earth and saving everyone. The gate opens, and left with no choice the 60 or so trapped people grab as many supplies as they can and walk through.
No one expected what they would find. Instead of landing on a planet, they emerged onto a huge space ship. The ship, unbelievably old, was built by the Ancients, the race that built the Stargates. It's been traveling across the Cosmos for hundreds of thousands of years or more and it's now a billion light years from Earth. Lacking the power to dial back to Earth, the survivors, half military personnel and half civilians, have to discover how to live on this gigantic ship that, due to the ravages of time, is falling apart.
Their first crisis occurs when they realize that the ship, which is not inhabited and never had passengers, has the life support systems, air in particular, turned off. (Apparently the heating was still working as they didn't freeze to death in the first minutes.) Then they have to find a source of water, and food.
While all this is going on, communication with Earth has been established via an Ancient artifact. While that is mainly a good thing, as they now have access to Earth's experts and scientists, the meddling from various military and civilian organizations only serve to cause strife on the ship.
In addition to Dr. Rush and Eli, the crew of the Destiny, as they discover the ship has been named, include the ranking military officer Col. Everet Young (Louis Ferreira) who has a even temper but isn't sure if he's up for the job, his right hand man First Lieutenant Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith), and HR officer (Ming-Na) who is often caught in between the arguing Rush and Young.
One of the neat things about this show is that those are just some of the main characters. There's very large cast, with some of the supporting characters coming to the front in some episodes then fading back to being little more than an extra in others. The fact that they were able to get talented actors to be willing to do that is a tribute to the casting director and gives the show a lot of depth. This is important because like the other two Stargate series, this show is character driven. The reason you tune in week after week (or hit the button to start the next episode) is to see how the crew reacts to their latest problem, and how the various subplots evolve. Having such a large cast gives the writers plenty of opportunity to develop some of the lesser characters.
It does take a few episodes to get into the show. At first it seems like a rehash of Star Trek Voyager, Battlestar Galactica, or Space: 1999. Yes, there are a lot of similarities but by the end of these 10 episodes Universe separates itself from those precursors. This show has more of an edge to it, with some characters being killed off or written out of the show. They also examine the mental health of everyone aboard, with the stress of being trapped in space and facing death constantly is taking its toll on the crew and pushing some people to the brink, and even over it. I enjoyed this darker, more mature look at the Stargate Universe.
Because of the darker tone, much of the humor that marked the two earlier series (again, I refuse to acknowledge the cartoon) is missing. Eli acts as a comic relief some of the time, but when he does they're making fun of him for being a geek. When someone fears that there are aliens on board, for example, Eli wonders aloud if they'll be popping out of people's chests. First off, the line itself isn't funny. The writers are hoping to get a laugh by the fact that someone would be stupid enough to say it out loud. The big problem is that's making fun of SF fans, they show's intended audience. They do that several times, in basically the same manner. It's more insulting than funny though.
The Blu-ray set:
The first ten episodes of the series are presented on two Blu-ray discs that arrive in a single width case.
The show comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that is really outstanding. The whole soundstage is used to get effect, not only in the action sequences, but in the more mundane parts of the show too. The directionality is excellent with sounds moving around the room with great precision. It holds up well during the more sonically actives scenes too. The various sounds never merge into a wall of noise, but rather stay as separate pieces that really places the viewer in the middle of the action. The dialog is clean and clear and very muddled.
The 1.78:1 AVC encoded disc looked very good too. The show was filmed in HD, which means that they had to redo a lot of the stock special effects especially the "whoosh" as a Stargate opens. These look very impressive in HD, especially when compared to their SD counterparts. The interior of the ship is darkly lit, so the image doesn't jump off the screen like some Blu-rays, but once they leave the ship and travel to a well lit planet, like the desert world in an early episode, the image really comes alive.
The colors are nice, with fleshtones being realistic and blacks being deep but not compressed. The level of detail is fine but not exceptional for a HD disc. Overall this is a nice looking show that should please fans.
I was hoping for a bit more in the extras department, but what's there is nice (despite being in SD save for the redited episode). First off there are commentary tracks on every episode by various members of the cast and crew. While I didn't have time to listen to all of them (damned deadlines!) I did spot-check several and what I heard seemed about average for a commentary track. They joke around and tell anecdotes about filming without just describing the on-screen action. (I hate when they do that.)
There's also a Destiny Starmap Log on each disc, which is a gimmick to make this bonus feature look more impressive than it really is. An image of a galaxy has several stars circled. Highlighting any one of them reveals a short (about 2 minute) clip. These include interviews with the actors (in SGU costume naturally) about their roles, directors discussing their episodes, tidbits about the special effects etc. There is no 'play all' option, which is a shame, and I got tired of sitting through the copyright notice at the end of each piece. One thing worth tracking down however is Stargate 101 which is included in this section on the first disc. It's a series of short 'training videos' where Dr. Daniel Jackson explains what the Stargate is and who some of the major players in the galaxy are. It was a fun piece.
Both discs also feature a set of Kino Video Diaries, a series of messages that people aboard the Destiny recorded on small flying camera that are aboard the ship. Some of these are humorous short pieces, others expand on footage shown in the show. It's a nice addition.
There's also an extended version of the pilot episode which still plays pretty much the same as the individual episodes do.
If you watched the first episode of Stargate Universe when it aired and didn't care for it, you should give the show another chance. It takes a few episodes to get used to the new tone and direction of this newest installment of the franchise, but eventually it emerges as a solid show. It remains to be seen if this will have the staying power of SG-1 or Atlantis, and if the writers can continue to advance the story without repeating themselves or having the quality dip, but they're off to a good start. Recommended.