The first half of Stargate Universe showed a lot of promise. The show was having a bit of trouble finding its own voice and style, but there was a lot of potential there to expand the franchise in new and exciting ways. The Syfy Channel (I hate that name) aired the first ten episodes of the season in 2009 and then took a four month break before returning with an additional 10 episodes in 2010. This second half of the season, released as Stargate Universe 1.5, shows that the writers are still struggling with the whole concept. While they make some missteps, there is some movement in the right direction.
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. Given the name Destiny, 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.
While the people on Destiny can't dial home, they aren't totally cut off. 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 Camile Wray (Ming-Na) who is often caught in between the arguing Rush and Young.
The first set of episodes ended with a surprising development. Col. Young had been framed for murder by Dr. Rush and while the two were on a desert planet along Young knocked Rush out and left him to die along while Destiny jumped to FTL flight immobilizing the stargate. It was a gutsy move, to kill off a major character, and at the time I thought that if they really had removed him from the show I would have been impressed. Well, with Robert Carlyle's face boldly planted on the front cover it will come as no surprise that Dr. Rush is not dead. That was a disappointing, though not unexpected development, but he was brought back in a creative way that wasn't cheap and silly (like when Starbuck was stranded on an alien planet in the first season of Battlestar Galactica.)
Part of the problem in the first half was the constant bickering between the civilians and the military leadership with each side vying for control. That's carried over to the beginning of this set too, unfortunately, with Dr. Rush and Ms. Wray instigating a mutiny. This subplot drags the action to a halt every time it rears its ugly head and consists of various characters spouting their ideas about who should be in charge (with the same points often repeated between episodes). Hopefully we've seen the last of those dull ennui inducing episodes, but I wouldn't bet on it.
They do make some improvements to the show luckily. With the addition of an alien race that has been tracking, and trying to capture, Destiny since long before the new inhabitants arrived the series finally has an external enemy to make thing interesting. They haven't given these aliens a name, which is a mistake, but they are advanced and make formidable foes. There's also an earth-born threat that crops up in the latter episodes. When the stories feature either of these two forces the show is pretty good.
On the down side the program features a lot of amazing coincidences and some hand-waving explanations for some of the dues ex machina rescues. What even worse is that some of the amazing feats that occur aren't even explained. At one point it's been established that a planet is too far away to reach by stargate, but the gate opens anyway and people are rescued. Someone asked how it happened and no one has an explanation. Hopefully they'll address that in a future episode, but I doubt it.
Another down side to this character-driven show is that unlike Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, most of the main characters are jerks. Dr. Rush brash and elitists (but not in a humorous way like Rodney on Atlantis) and framed Col. Young for murder because they didn't see eye-to-eye. Young is no better, basically acting as judge, jury, and executioner once he discovered that Rush framed him (not to mention that he was unfaithful to his wife before he left Earth), and the civilian leader, Wray, is duplicitous and conniving. Some of the secondary characters are better, including Lt. Scott who has been regulated to second banana, but they're not the stars. Who wants to watch a bunch of assholes bicker?
Like the first half, this set of shows has a claustrophobic and oppressive feel. Because of the darker tone, much of the humor that marked the two earlier series (I refuse to acknowledge the cartoon) is missing. Even Eli has stopped being the comic relief. They still throw in a reference to other SF movies and shows now and again, always very obvious ones that everyone will get, but these aren't funny and don't lighten the show at all.
The Blu-ray set:
The last ten episodes of the first season 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. First off there are commentary tracks on every episode by various members of the cast and crew. As happened with the first set, I didn't have time to listen to all of them (damned deadlines!) but 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 clip. These include interviews with the actors (in SGU costume naturally) about their roles, directors discussing their episodes, tidbits about the special effects etc. Luckily there is a 'play all' option, which makes these much more fun to watch.
All three 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.
Remember when DVDs first arrived and they promised to have video games on the discs too? Remember how lame all those games were? Well they've included on with this set, SGU: Survival Instinct. Basically you watch a video clip from an episode included on the previous set, and at random points you have to make a decision on what to do with your remote. There are only two choices, and there is no logic involved. You're basically guessing. Who do you send for water, Chole or Eli? The right answer sends you to the next clip, while the wrong one sends you back to an earlier point. This was so dull I couldn't play it for more than a couple of minutes.
Wrapped with the Blu-ray disc, at least with the initial shipments, is a cool extra that I was happy to see: a folded slipcase that holds both halves of season one. That's a nice thing to give to fans that supported the initial release.
It's a mixed bag so far. While I loved the other Stargate series I'm not 100% sold on this series yet. The lead characters aren't nearly as appealing as those in the previous shows, and the writing is a little sloppy. The series is darker and has lost the humor that previously ran through Stargate shows too. I'm still recommending this one, there are some spots that are really good and the show does have a lot of potential, but it's a light recommendation.