Stargate Universe: Darkness, Light and the Luxury of Shadow

Darkness subtracts. Darkness doesn’t just take away where you’re going it takes away where you’ve been, stranding you in an eternal present you can neither see nor touch. That removal of outside stimuli not only forces us to look inward it also brings our inner selves to the surface, reveals things we may not want ourselves, or anyone else, to know. In the dark, the wild things come out to play.

The fourth episode of Stargate Universe, explores the concept of darkness as both an external and internal problem. Externally, that darkness is caused by a sudden collapse in the ship’s power systems, one that Rush blames entirely on Col Young’s deployment of research teams around the ship. In an instant, the Destiny loses everything from lighting to propulsion and coasts, apparently out of control, further out into space. The crew are, literally, powerless and that realisation throws the internal darkness of several major characters into stark relief even as the Destiny slips further into the night.

For Col Young, the darkness gives him a moment to draw breath. A leader who has been almost incapable of leading for the last three episodes, Everett Young takers centre stage for much of this episode and Louis Ferreira’s dialled back, pensive performance gives the commanding officer as much fragility as it does authority. Young’s still badly injured, still trying to function and still doing what he thinks is best, but he’s operating in the dark in every major way and what he finds there surprises both him and the viewer. Young chose his career over his marriage and when the lights go out on Destiny he’s forced to re-examine that decision. There are no histrionics, no over wrought emotions here, just a cautious, reticent, dialled back man trying to re connect with a wife that he abandoned. He’s a good officer and a good leader but when the lights go out he has no idea if either of those things really matter.

For Nicholas Rush, the darkness is a brick wall, too high, too wide and too close. He’s clearly brilliant but he’s not quite brilliant enough, his inability to work with people combining with Young’s drive to get home to drain Destiny’s power. The only thing worse than that fact is that Rush knows it, his relentlessly analytical mind throwing up his mistake again and again until it’s all he can see. The moment where he breaks down is particularly interesting, his anger at Young clearly masking his own guilt and putting his shame and terror at his own failing to the fore. Whether Rush admits it to anyone else, he’s in the wrong and he knows it and that knowledge almost breaks him.

For Tamara Johannsen, the darkness is a chance to take comfort in what she knows. Alaina Huffman is rapidly becoming one of the show’s strongest cast members and TJ’s quiet, pragmatic compassion leads to one of the best scenes to date. Her conversation with Rush, after he wakes up, is the most open either character has been to date, Rush admitting his weaknesses to the one person that he doesn’t think will judge him and TJ taking clear and immense comfort in the doctor/patient relationship. It’s a moment for both of them to catch their breath, to be given support and validation without having to ask for either and it’s remarkable to watch.

For Eli Wallace, the darkness is an opportunity. David Blue’s slightly nervous comic timing is put to tremendous use here as Eli finds himself in three difficult situations, each of which tells us more about him. The first sees Lt. Vanessa James drag him away from a conversation with Chloe to talk to him ‘alone’. The sexual connotation is openly acknowledged in the next scene where James instead takes Eli to an impromptu council of war of the lower ranked soldiers aboard. Eli, to the surprise of everyone there, not only faces them down but acknowledges that their concerns are valid, becoming a bridge between the different crew factions as he does so. It’s a nicely played moment for everyone, where no one is quite right and no one is quite wrong. James may manipulate Eli but she does it for the good of everyone she works with and Eli’s acknowledgement of that is a clear step forward for both characters.
The second moment reinforces this as Volker and Brody, two of the engineers aboard report to Col. Young that there’s no way to solve the power outage. When Eli puts forward a solution, he’s not only thanked by Col Young but also used as a stick to beat the other two men with. Eli is an undisciplined college dropout who, on the first day on the job, was put in the worst situation possible. He’s still working, still doing everything he can and simply by doing that he not only becomes something more than the young man he was when he arrived but also becomes the first member of Destiny’s crew to accept and begin to adapt to their situation.
The third situation neatly undercuts that as Eli and Sgt. Hunter Riley are found using one of the ship’s Kinos to spy on Lt. Vanessa James. Operating in the dark, the two men have reverted to basic adolescent behaviour, a recent memory for both and the end result is a well written but deeply uncomfortable scene. Col. Young’s overt, deadpan disappointment with the two of them is a welcome break in the tension but the fact remains that one of the ship’s best scientific minds and one of the ship’s only Gate technicians are caught using alien technology to spy on a colleague in her underwear. No one’s perfect in the dark and whilst the sexism is in context, it’s still difficult to watch.

Darkness focusses. When you can’t see anything, you find yourself turning to what’s important to you, a fact neatly reflected in the testimonials Eli spends the episode recording from other characters. From Vanessa James’ simple plea to not die out in space to Matthew Scott’s prayer, each one of them turns inwards and only some of them like what they find. Not all of these people are likeable, or even like each other, but all of them are fragile, all of them are human and all of them, in the end, are alone in the dark.
Even then, darkness doesn’t last forever. As the episode finishes, the crew realise they’ve dropped out of Faster Than Light travel on the edge of a solar system, itself an incredible coincidence. When that system is found to have habitable planets, the situation changes and suddenly, the crew find themselves with a tiny sliver of light, a reason to hope. They relax and watch as the Destiny, huge but dwarfed by the gas giant it’s flying through, aerobrakes into the system. Under deep blue, almost marine light, the Destiny’s crew take a moment to revel in the incredible place they’ve found themselves in. Until they realise that the ship is heading directly for the system’s star, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes all too clear and, suddenly, darkness looks like a luxury they will soon miss.

Light overwhelms. Light doesn’t just show you how far you’ve come it shows you how far you still have to go, stripping you of complacency, of the comfort of not being able to see all the way ahead. That flood of external stimuli forces you to fall back on instinct, on what we know best even if we’d prefer not to. In the light, all the lies we tell ourselves are stripped away until our true selves are exposed, whether we want it to be or not. ‘Light’, the season’s fifth episode, uses the backdrop of a lottery to decide who will leave the ship on the only shuttle to explore what happens when every weakness, every fault and every strength are illuminated.

In the light, Matthew Scott and Chloe find comfort in nothing but each other. The relationship, already forged in adversity through the death of Chloe’s father, is consummated in the light of the star that will kill them, a moment of desperate human intimacy that is all they can hope for and all they really want, It’s not quite love, not yet, but it’s the closest either of them will get. It’s also a moment that shows not only far they’ve already come but how far they still have to go. Chloe is painfully aware that she’s a fifth wheel, lacking even the scientific skills of most of the rest of the civilians whilst Matt is blissfully unaware of anything else, using his time with Chloe to delay the inevitable. He holds onto the belief that she’ll be one of the people picked as long as he can and when that’s stripped away, he falls back on the two pillars of his life; duty and faith.

In the light, Vanessa James remembers who she is. Despite her anger over the relationship between Matthew Scott and Chloe, she does her job, stands her post and looks after her people because in the end, that’s what she knows best. The relationship dies the moment she finds Matt and Chloe together, but something new, something deeper, is born the moment she meets his eyes when she arrives at the shuttle. Everything is said in a single glance and then she turns and guards the airlock, prepared to shoot any of her friends and colleagues who weren’t picked. It’s a moment of silent heroism that not only shows exactly how bad things have got but how strong James is. She’s rapidly becoming one of the most interesting second tier characters and it’s going to be fascinating to see how she’s developed.

In the light, Ron Greer and Nicholas Rush are given the last thing they expected; a moment of peace. Serving with unfailing loyalty, Greer accompanies Colonel Young on what he believes will be his last walk. The moment where Ron apologises for letting Colonel Young down and Young responds with a simple ‘At ease, Ronald’ is heartbreaking, an acknowledgement of a friendship and respect that never feels forced or tawdry.
Rush, for his part, is transformed by their apparent death. He becomes open, calm, even friendly, apologising to Eli and making his peace with Colonel Young. He welcomes their apparent doom for the same reason Ron does; as a chance to lay down his burdens and end his life in exactly the place he wanted to be.

In the light, Eli Wallace remembers who he is. The arrested adolescent who spies on women in their underwear is replaced by a young man who has, he thinks, come to the end of his life and likes where he and who he is. Like Lt. James he’s hurt by the relationship between Matt and Chloe and, like James, he deals with it. It’s Eli who comes up with the idea of recording final messages, Eli who gives Rush the gift of seeing the ship from the outside and Eli, along with Chloe, who faces their fate head on. He’s a good man, not a perfect one, but at long last he realises that he’s good enough.

In the light, Camille Wray gets her priorities right. Ming Na has been the least used of the cast so far but there’s clearly a slow build with Camille that will pay off later in the season. Her Kino message, a simple, honest expression of love for her girlfriend, is one of the episode’s most affecting moments and gives her, and the situation the crew are in, welcome depth.

In the light, the Destiny’s crew learn they have no idea what’s happening to them. The episode’s closing scenes are where it really flies, as the ship plunges into the star to refuel instead of to die and the crew’s celebrations are cut short as they realise the shuttle and it’s crew can’t catch up to them. As Rush, Eli and Scott frantically cobble together a solution it becomes clear that the final lesson the crew learn is devastatingly simple; they must rely on each other to survive. For the first time, the Destiny’s crew are truly united in dealing with a problem and, whilst Rush recoils from his perceived weakness, that bond looks set to stay in place. They’re the wrong people, in the wrong place but,whether in darkness or light, they have no one else to rely on.

3 thoughts on “Stargate Universe: Darkness, Light and the Luxury of Shadow”

  1. Well written. Every episode seems to be setting itself up with things getting a little worse as the crew scrapes by, sometimes just barely. I agree that Eli has set himself up as bridge, indeed in increasingly hopeless situations he is the glue (or silly-putty) holding things together. But watching Dr Rush explode made me wonder how bad things will be for Eli to start to crack, and when he does how hard it will pull everyone else.
    And poor Dr Rush! Such Hubris! Far too smart for his own good and unwilling or unable to shrug off the mysterious nature of his decisions despite that everyone is increasingly starting to believe he only has his own interests in mind.

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