The Stargate franchise has really grown into something special. What started out as a film back in the 90's became a sci-fi favorite in the form of SG-1. The original series ran for ten seasons and fans were shattered when it came time to close the curtain. Stargate Atlantis took the torch and carried it forward for five more years, and now it's Universe's turn. Does SG.U have the staying power of the other two?
For those unfamiliar with the Stargate franchise jumping into Universe may be a little daunting with no previous knowledge of terminology and history. Basically all you need to know is that millions of years ago there was a race of humans known as the Ancients. They were so technologically advanced that they spread their species throughout the universe with spaceships and inventions known as the Stargates. These interstellar gates connected worlds via wormholes and made it possible to seed life on other planets. Something happened to the ancient civilizations, however, and to this day humanity can still feel the effects of their ingenuity. Heck, they're the reason we're on Earth in the first place.
While I won't get into the history of exactly what happens in SG-1 or Atlantis, I will say that in Universe's setting there is an Ancient ship that humanity wants to get to. It was launched via automation roughly a million years ago as a vessel for the Ancients to visit other galaxies in. Her name is Destiny and she's pretty tough to get to. The power of an entire planet is necessary to dial the Stargate's ninth chevron in order to find her, and even then there are equations aplenty that need resolving.
The top minds in the world are put to work on the Destiny project, but even Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle), who is basically the smartest guy in the world, can't figure it out. And so they put the equation that needs resolving in the form of the Ancient's language inside a video game. It seemed like a desperate play, but an unemployed MIT dropout named Eli (David Blue) cracked the code for them. Recognizing his genius, the military and Dr. Rush pay Eli a visit and essentially kidnap him for their mission. He's beamed from the planet to a space ship and then they travel to a world known as Icarus, which is powering the Stargate. Upon arriving to the planet they are attacked by a powerful armada and forced to use the Stargate to evacuate. Thus the people from the Icarus base are now trapped on the other side of the universe on an Ancient ship they can't control.
With no way home and barely any resources the new crew of the Destiny has to fight for survival. The first couple of episodes feature them essentially moving from one crisis to the next until a larger story arc begins to form. A lack of energy, a lack of food, no water, and an inevitable confrontation between the civilians and military power aboard the ship leave the opening moments feel like a desperate fight for survival. One good thing for the crew from Earth is the fact that Destiny seems to anticipate their needs. The automated ship and the people on board form a symbiotic relationship in a way as the ship gives them time to explore planets within the reach off a Stargate in order to look for supplies.
The show takes a while to get going and to be fair the opening moments almost too closely resemble early parts of Battlestar Galactica. The aforementioned "crisis of the week" plotlines were all things the crew of the Galactica and the Colonial Fleet had to deal with on their run from the Cylons. But Destiny isn't running from anything, right? Well, she kind of is.
About halfway through the first season an alien race shows up trying to gain access to Destiny and crack her mysteries. They are immediately hostile towards the humans on board and they're a great threat for our protagonists to face. They are powerful and possess technology that gives the aged Ancient ship a run for her money. Additional foes line up towards the end of the season, though I won't divulge who they are or what their intent is.
When Destiny isn't being assaulted during its tour of the galaxy, the crew is at each other's throats. Rush is constantly at odds with Col. Young (Louis Ferreira) and some personal drama heats up between the people on Destiny and those back on Earth. Through an Ancient communication device they are able to swap consciousness with people back on our planet. This gives them a vehicle to revisit loved ones and create possible opportunities to find methods of making a way home.
It takes a while for the training wheels to come off, but Stargate Universe really comes into its own by the end of the first season. The characters develop nicely and I appreciated seeing the stress of the situation they're in breaking down tolerance levels. The interpersonal relationships here become key elements of the story and the mystery surrounding Destiny is utterly fascinating. With a foreboding atmosphere and sense of hopelessness similar to Battlestar and the edge of the galaxy theme like Star Trek Voyager, Universe feels a little old hat. Those impressions are mostly initial to the season and they create many bumps in the road, but thankfully by the end the writers send the series in its own direction. Sci-fi fans, or lovers of Stargate, can consider Universe strongly recommended.
Stargate Universe is presented on Blu-ray with its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The show's production looks great and on DVD the series received a solid transfer, albeit with a bit of noise and black levels that left one wanting. On Blu-ray, however, Universe's 1080p output and AVC encoding gives the series a nice edge. The interior shots of the Destiny don't exactly leave one's jaw on the floor, but exterior shots and off-world expeditions allow more robust details to come through. Moments such as Destiny flying into the sun, an away team visiting a desert planet, and communication visits to Earth are noticeably better here versus the DVD. The picture offers more stability, vibrancy, and contrast and this is definitely the version to pick up.
English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is the main source of sound on the Blu-ray edition. Trust me when I tell you that the mix here is freaking fantastic. On DVD the series was lively, but the Master Audio track leaves the soundstage feeling even more alive somehow. Destiny feels like a living, breathing entity with all the sounds that bleed into your surroundings. Crisp dialogue, perfect sound effects (seriously, just listen to the Stargate revving up for the first time), and even the soundtrack are far more pronounced here. A near perfect experience that rarely disappoints.
English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included here. There is also a 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish track (an upgrade to the 2.0 Spanish track available on the DVD).
On DVD Stargate Universe Season One came with a solid mix of supplemental features. An extended version of the premiere episode, "Air", was appreciated by unnecessary, and there were audio commentaries for every single episode. These features make their way to the Blu-ray release as well, along with the "Destiny Starmap Log" (SML), which is a collection of shorts, interviews, and production video about the series. There are also "Kino Video Diaries", with the actors recording messages in-character as part of a personal log.
What's unique to the Blu-ray? Well, there's a game entitled "Survival Instinct", which presents an adventure of sorts from the episode "Time". In this game viewers press Blue or Green buttons to make the right decisions. In all honesty it's kind of boring and feels like a throwaway feature. Some "Kino" and "SML" features here are also exclusive to Blu-ray, so have fun fishing through them.
Ultimately Stargate Universe is a worthwhile spin on the popular franchise. The new direction leaves the series feeling totally different from other Stargate endeavors in the past, and yet at the same time it's familiar due to terminology and recurring guest appearances. Sure it could be argued that Universe is the offspring of Voyager and BSG, but the show manages to find its own footing towards the latter half of the season. Anyone looking for a strong science fiction series that will leave you wanting more will find it here.
If you're attempting to pick between the DVD or Blu-ray versions, know that this Blu-ray edition is the better of the two. The additional snippets of bonus features are a nice inclusion, but the real treat comes thanks to the video and audio quality. In both departments the presentation is superb. Strongly Recommended.