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 for a majority of it. 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 DVD with its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. First and foremost I want to say that this series has a lot of grit to it. It's a darkly lit show for starters and there are lots of shadows to contend with. The image holds up well under scrutiny, but black levels aren't as rich as they could be and there's quite a bit of noise in several scenes here. The picture does offer a nice level of sharpness and outdoor shots fair much better in terms of detail. If you have a choice I'd go with the Blu-ray transfer, but what's here on DVD is adequate for those without.
English 5.1 Dolby Digital is Stargate Universe's main source of audio and it's everything one could hope for. The sounds of the ship and other effects create a great atmosphere with ambient noise and fantastic use of the rear channels. Action sequences really stand out in this regard as well. Dialogue is mostly front-centric and the quality soundtrack fills the soundstage when necessary. This release includes English, French, and Spanish subtitles, along with a 2.0 stereo Spanish track.
The first season of Stargate Universe comes with a nice selection of bonus material. On the lighter side of things there are some "Kino Video Diaries", which are a series of recorded messages from the people aboard Destiny. Snippets like these were used frequently in the show and it's nice to see them taken to a different place here. Some of these diary sequences are quite good and worth checking out.
The "Destiny Starmap Log" is series of shorts that discuss elements of the show's inception and production. The real gem here is a collection of Stargate 101 clips by Dr. Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), which can be spotted in the show as an introduction for Eli to the world of Stargates. There is also an audio commentary for every single episode here, which is pretty daunting to sit through. Granted most of the commentaries boil down to the commentators (actors and crew members) talking about their experience on the show and elements of their personal lives, rather than filling us in on details of the show, but you can't win them all. They aren't bad, but more entertaining and informational.
Stargate Universe takes the franchise in a new direction and it's one that fans of Stargate will undoubtedly argue over for quite some time. The show is a little bit of Voyager mixed with Battlestar Galactica in the beginning, but after a bumpy start things get much more interesting. Universe starts to come into its own by the end and the cliffhanger of an finale leaves you on the edge of your seat for the second season. It's a strong recommendation for anyone looking for a show to fill the current science fiction gap on television.