Aboard a spaceship as vast and beautiful as it is broken, a Stargate explodes into life. A young man collapses through it, instantly aware, instantly combat ready, instantly terrified. Behind him, a trickle of humanity becomes a flood as civilians, soldiers and supplies are hurled through the gate out into the ship. There’s nothing orderly about their arrival, nothing civilised. These people are frightened, on the run and completely out of their depth. These are our heroes, a group of men and women completely unprepared for the situation they’re in and their relationships are sketched in this opening scene with real elegance. Eli Wallace is captivated by everything around him whilst Camille Wray looks on in shock, unsure of how she fits in this new environment. Behind them, Tamara Johansen sticks to her training, helping tend the wounds she can whilst Chloe Armstrong lets her badly wounded father lean on her even as she pushes against him. Behind them, Ron Greer keeps people moving, keeps them on their feet. At the other end of the ragged column, Matthew Scott, the first man through, does the same. Above them, Doctor Nicholas Rush looks down on the shocked, frightened group with something between satisfation and resignation. He isn’t frightened at all.
Just as Scott and Greer catch their breath, their commanding officer, Everett Young, is catapulted backwards through the gate. It closes and Young barely has time to give Scott command of the survivors before he seizes and passes out.
The message is clear; these people are in trouble, in every conceivable way. The challenge the show faces is to make us care about them. It does this, ironically, by using the same methods as Stargate Command absorb alien technology; learn accepted wisdom and then turn it on its head.
It’s traditional for a new TV show in particular to have a ‘viewpoint’ character. These are the people the viewers can identify with, the ones who are as ignorant as we are and by extension, we have as much potential as. Viewpoint characters are two way mirrors, people we both identify with and look up to, the bridge between the fictional and real. This particular concept is something that clearly fascinates the Stargate:Universe creative team and the show takes three unique approaches to it.
The first is embodied in Matthew Scott, the first person we see and as a result clearly intended as a viewpoint character. He’s young, handsome, fit and has every appearance, at first glance, of being an industry standard action hero. At first glance, Scott has Han Solo’s swagger and Lee Adama’s natural authority, a young man who steps through the stargate into the unknown with his eyes open and his gun steady. Until you notice how much his hands are shaking.
Brian J. Smith is given one of the toughest jobs in recent genre tv history here, as he is asked to make Scott not only likable but flawed, inexperienced and at times completely out of his depth. He clings to his training like a life raft, contradicts himself and at times is startlingly tactless. In ‘Air‘ Part 3 he tells a series of kind, affirming lies to Eli about why he’s splitting the team into two and successfully sells the younger man on the concept. Then, in full view and clearly audible to everyone else he strides off at the head of his team, saying ‘Now we can make some TIME.’
Scott is an action hero, that much is certain but he’s un-tempered, untested and at times unlike able. Compared to Jack O’Neill and John Shepherd, his unflappable predecessors he’s not just a viewpoint character he’s a direct stand in for the audience. Scott reacts how we would, clinging to what he knows, lashing out at what he doesn’t. He’s not perfect, he’s not experienced but he’s interrogating his situation, trying to understand it from the second his boots hit the deck and that tenacity leads to moments of startling honesty.
The same episode, ‘Air’ Part 3, sees the characters frantically searching for a mineral they need to get the Destiny’s air scrubbers up and running. The only planet they can access is a desert and, as Eli’s team turn back, followed not long after by Rush and a reluctant Greer, Scott finds himself alone.
Except, he may not be. Throughout the episode, Scott sees a dust devil which no one else acknowledges. He follows it, past the point of no return and begins to hallucinate, seeing the Catholic priest that raised him and reliving the events that led him to join the military. Finally, he passes out in front of the hallucinations which stop at the edge of the dry lake bed he’s been searching for. With the help of Greer and Eli he makes it back to the Destiny but says absolutely nothing about what he experienced. Scott’s new but he’s not stupid and he knows that talking about an experience which sits on the boundary line between first contact and a spiritual event is the last thing he needs to do. Through this, his uncertainty becomes a certainty, a strength to accept the absences and questions that his life has already left him with. Matthew Scott is a good man but he isn’t a perfect one, and as a result is far more interesting than a perfect man could ever be.
If Scott’s doubt is quietly revolutionary, his relationship with Eli is, at first, traditional. Scott and Eli are the latest iteration of a partnership that begins with Kirk and Spock, runs through the likes of George Francisco and Matt Sikes in Alien Nation and culminates in the Jack and Daniel and Mckay and Shepherd double acts of the previous Stargate series. In each case one is the heart and the other the mind, one impulsive and one intelligent, one physical, one intellectual. However, with Scott and Eli, the boundaries are a little harder to define.
David Blue is faced with as much of a challenge as Brian J. Smith. Superficially, Eli is a geek wish given form; a gifted young man whose skills are recognised and is whisked away from his life playing computer games and watching TV to assist the most important experiment of all time. If Scott is who we’d like to be, Eli is who we are, a normal young man in an abnormal situation.
Except, even here, things aren’t as simple as they first seem. Eli is phenomenally clever, certainly, but he’s also more than a little angry. In short order, we find out he had to drop out of university to look after his mother, took a wide variety of dead end jobs and discovered his intelligence meant very little out in the real world. He’s charming and gentle, a funny, self deprecating figure who’s a little easier to like than Scott, but a little harder to respect.
Until someone tries to push him and Eli digs his heels in. Blue plays Eli as a young man who is nice until he isn’t, hardened by the events of his life into someone who is desperate to be liked but at the same time completely unwilling to compromise. There’s a wonderful moment at the end of ‘Air’ Part 3 where a Marine detachment sent through to look for Scott and Greer are pulled back to the Destiny. Their CO, 2nd Lt. Vanessa James tells Eli to go back through, that she’ll wait for them. Eli refuses and there’s a tiny beat where James clearly looks at him in a different light, seeing something different to the chunky, fast talking civilian who came aboard the Destiny.
Eli is definitely the show’s joker, but there’s much more to him than that. Like Scott, he’s powered and defined by a difficult past and, like Scott, Eli is a very different kind of hero. The soldier and scientist double act lives on but in these two men, it looks set to break some new and very interesting ground.
Scott and Eli are neatly set up as the show’s viewpoint characters but their perspectives aren’t the only ones we see. One of the others is part of the Destiny itself, a series of automated spherical cameras Eli finds and nicknames ‘Kinoes’. The Kinoes, at first glance are a neat work around for the characters’ lack of resources. The Kinoes are used to scout ahead, examine locations and worlds and make sure they’re safe, just as the MALF did on the original show. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Kinoes have two other, far more impressive roles to play in the show.
The first becomes apparent at the end of ‘Air’ Part 2 as Rush and Colonel Young get into a blazing argument in the Gate room. We see Rush, framed by the gate, at a high angle as he tries to explain why he’s not tried to dial Earth yet. It’s a great shot, showing off both Robert Carlyle’s frantic, desperate performance and the faded steampunk grandeur of the Gate room itself but there’s something a little off about it. It takes a few seconds to realise that the shot is from the point of view of a Kino, slowly tracking events in the room. This technique is used several times and in most cases is done so subtly we don’t even notice, not only adding a very different, very intimate tone to the story but also making a direct connection between the viewer and the characters. We see through the eyes of a Kino and by extension are in the scene instead of simply viewing it. The sense of immediacy that brings is surprisingly intense, tying into the fragile, off balance nature of the characters to create a palpable feeling of unpredictability and danger. It also makes the fact that the Kinoes are active the first time we see them even more interesting; are they an automated system? Or is someone else onboard the Destiny? These are big questions for a pilot episode to raise and to do them through something whose perspective we’re set up to trust is extremely impressive.
The third approach the series takes to its viewpoint characters is both the darkest and most playful, set in motion by the Ancient communication devices Col. Young brings on board. The devices allow the user to swap consciousness with a volunteer back on Earth, giving them the chance to touch home but never stay there. It’s a tantalising and horrific concept, a jet black mirror designed to give the characters everything they want but never letting them keep it. Three episodes in it’s effects are already being felt by Everett Young, David Telford and Nicholas Rush in particular.
In a kinder series, Young and Telford would be the heroes, both experienced SGC Officers who are accustomed to command and the difficult decisions that come with it. Here, they’re something a little more human and a lot more desperate, Young taking the command of Icarus Base despite his wife’s objections and Telford finding himself the Commanding Officer of a mission that got underway without him. Originally intended to lead the expedition to the Destiny, he instead finds himself a reluctant, ill tempered visitor to the ship, out of his depth and an active danger to Col Young in particular as he pushes the other officer’s seriously injured body past tolerances. Louis Ferreira and Lou Diamond Phillips are already one of the show’s most interesting pairings as the two officers and the contrast between the quiet, considered Young and the tenacious, pitbull-like Telford is neatly drawn. Both men are heroes of their own stories but not quite heroes here and that sense of displacement and discomfort is one of the show’s most fascinating aspects. The connection with Earth, if anything, only drives home the isolation these characters feel as Young struggles with his new command, Telford struggles with his lack of one and everyone else finds that the only thing worse than being cut off from home is being able to visit but never quite stay.
Even the presence of the communication stones proves troublesome, as Dr Rush takes credit for bringing them aboard, despite Col Young doing so. Rush, once again, should be the hero especially given the Stargate franchise’s long-standing respect for the idea of the Hero Scientist.
Superficially, Rush is just that. Played by Robert Carlyle, he’s brilliant, difficult and driven, a man who has sacrificed everything for his work and yet seems all too aware of that. Carlyle has the toughest job of all here, having to sell a character who is both vital to the mission and possibly responsible for it, a man whose heroic actions are tempered by self interest and whose palpable hostility towards Scott and Greer walks the line between irritability, snobbery and racism. He’s very difficult to like but impossible not to watch, a still point in the constant, whirling chaos of life onboard Destiny who may be the crew’s salvation, their biggest problem or both.
In fact, Carlyle plays him as a modern Prospero, a distant, aloof figure who at times gives every appearance of hating everyone around him. But, like Prospero, Rush is capable of moments of startling kindness, whether it’s congratulating Eli on his bravery on the desert world or offering comfort to a grief stricken Chloe. His best moment though, comes in a confrontation with Scott where he refuses to let the younger soldier bully him into achieving the impossible. Scott takes two steps towards him, the threat and confidence in his face crumbling as he says one word that encompasses everything everyone in the room is feeling:
Rush’s response is gentle, understanding and even then, a little mocking.
‘What makes you think I won’t try?’
All three men orbit around the communication devices and, by extension, control of the mission, each drawn to the other and each struggling not just for control of the mission but control of themselves. Later episodes promise to add characters like Camille Wray, the senior civil servant aboard to this mix but even without them, the communication devices make the constantly shifting power structure on the Destiny part of the viewer’s perspective. The unreliable narrator is part of the architecture and if no one can be trusted then everyone has to be watched.
Stargate:Universe is ambitious and confident in exactly the way it’s characters aren’t, a series filled with complex, flawed people who are constantly forced to scrabble for the tiniest, most elemental victories. The final moments of ‘Air‘ Part 3 demonstrate this beautifully as we see a montage of the air scrubbers being repaired and every character reacting to the new, clean air. As ‘Breathe‘ by Alexi Murdoch plays we see each one of them realise where they are, see each one of them realise how much trouble they’re in, what’s behind them and what’s still to come. Clean air is a victory for these people, a tiny assertion of control. It’s all they’ve got and even that is taken away from them as, in the last seconds of the episode, something breaks free from the Destiny and flies off. The final message is clear; the Destiny crew are alone, out of their depth and the only people they can rely on are the last people they want to, each other. Whether they can, and what happens when they fail, remains to be seen.