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.

All Alone In The Night: Stargate Universe

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.