Stargate Universe Season 2 DVD Set ReviewA column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy
Let me make something very clear before we get started here. I can't stand Stargate. I could barely get through the original movie all those years ago and did not enjoy any season of SG-1 (although I tolerated them once Ben Browder and Claudia Black joined the cast – a man's got to get his Farscape fix somehow, people!) and I just pretend Stargate: Atlantis never happened.
I know, I know. People love this shit.
I'm sorry. I could never get past the boring nature of the threats or the Renaissance Fair approach to costume design. The aliens were just so un-alien I had no interest. I guess there were Ancient Ones or whatever, but by the time I found out about them, it was too little, too late.
Then it was announced that the new Stargate series would star Robert Carlyle and I was intrigued. I haven't enjoyed every film Carlyle has been in, but I've enjoyed Carlyle in every film I've seen him in. So I decided to give this new show a shot.
I wasn't sure about it when I started seeing clips and images, because it seemed to be trying to mimic elements that made Battlestar Galactica so interesting in those first few seasons. But then Stargate Universe began, and holy crap! It was nothing like the Stargate shows that I hated! It took a gritty and serious approach to its core concept (a group of people stranded on a ship on the opposite end of the galaxy, trying to figure out how to survive both the threats out there and each other while desperately looking for a way home) that was appealing to me.
However, fans of Stargate were appalled.
This show wasn't suitable to watch with their pre-teen nieces and nephews! People were having "S" "E" "X" and they spent two or three episodes just figuring out how to provide enough oxygen to survive! None of the characters were heroic! There was no escapism here!
I loved it.
Plus, it had the author of Old Man's War, John Scalzi, as a creative consultant. I'm a fan of Scalzi, so this was nothing but good news.
But thanks to the incessant grousing of the "real" fans, the Word of Mouth that new shows, sci-fi shows in particular, need to build an audience just wasn't there. That they even got a Second Season was a surprise. A pleasant surprise, but a surprise nonetheless.
I guess it shouldn't have come as a surprise, as the creators had begun working more traditional Stargate influences into the show as the season went on, including guest appearances by fan favorites.
So when Season Two finally hit, there was a little more good will toward the show, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to overcome the damage already done. During the hiatus between the first and second halves of the season (which is Syfy's standard way of killing momentum and ruining its relationship with viewers), it was announced that Stargate Universe would not be back for a third go-around.
And of course, that did wonders for the ratings.
Which is too bad, because what we got with Season Two was pretty damned good. If you quit watching because you knew it was already dead before the final ten episodes even saw the light of day, you missed out on one of Syfy's best shows in years.
Season One ended with a pretty engaging cliffhanger, as the Lucian Alliance, led by the super-sexy-awesome Rhona Mitra as Commander Kiva, had taken over Destiny (the ship, fools). However, in those final moments of Season One, both Kiva and the brainwashed traitor, Colonel Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips) were shot (by each other, as Telford tried to make up for his unconscious villainy).
Season Two picks up right where the previous season had left off and that first episode, "Intervention", does an effective, if perfunctory job of pulling those threads to a close. Kiva dies, unfortunately, and we don't get any Rhona Mitra action in the second season at all.
This made me sad, but I'll always have Doomsday.
The first half of Season Two moves forward with a confidence and daring that you wouldn't normally expect from a show with "Stargate" in the title. If the loss of TJ's (Alaina Huffman) baby in that premiere wasn't hardcore enough for you, the very next episode, "Aftermath", features Col. Young (Louis Ferreira) mercy-killing a character who's been around and featured since the first episode. Young then develops a drinking problem when he can't handle the guilt.
That's some hard-ass shit right there.
If there's a problem with this season, it's encapsulated in Colonel Young's journey. It's bleak and hopeless for far too long. Sure, Young comes out of it eventually, but even as the season winds down, there's this sense of ennui and despair underlying everything. Even resident Mad Scientist Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) isn’t mad enough. The grounding in realism ends up being a burden and there's just not enough adventure and fantasy to really make the whole experience enjoyable.
But that doesn't mean there's no joy here. It's just that the joy is only reached after crawling through depression and anxiety.
For example, Episode 4 – "Pathogen" – is an extremely strong piece of work. It's directed by Carlyle and focuses on the relationship between Eli (David Blue) and his mother (Glynis Davies). Maryann Wallace is infected with HIV and without her son around, has given up on life. Eli's attempts to reconnect with her through the Communication Stones are heart-wrenching, and her eventual arrival on Destiny is just perfect.
Sure this is balanced out with the useless fantasy of the next episode, "Cloverdale", but it's not invalidated; especially when the next four episodes are all just gangbusters.
There's a reason that as the first half of this season wrapped, fans had finally decided to embrace the damned show. It was all too late, but there you go.
And while they're a bit boring as a concept, the Big Bad of this show, the Drones, are effective and serve as a pretty entertaining take on the traditional villains of sci-fi shows like this. Instead of melodramatic villains or galaxy-spanning threats by evil alien cultures, the real threat here is mundane and incessant.
The Drones are a leftover bit of technology designed only to destroy threats to a species long gone. But once they've locked onto you, they never relent. As simple symbols they're effective enough, but as the season moves on, we discover that they aren't just reactive and they become a threat that motivates the series' final plot movements.
In fact, the second half of the season was so much stronger than the first, that it hurts even more that the show was prematurely canceled. Episode Eleven is functional, bringing to a close both the mid-season cliffhanger and the only vaguely compelling story of Chloe's (Elyse Levesque) genetic transformation into something alien.
But from this point out there are only two duds, Episode Thirteen, "Alliances", and Episode Sixteen, "The Hunt". Both of these episodes fall back into the traditional, and cliché, structure that I expect from the original Stargate series. They're not necessarily bad from that standpoint, but to me, they stood out as throwbacks.
Especially given how strong the rest of the Back Ten are.
With Episode Twelve, "Twin Destinies", written by series co-creator Brad Wright, the seeds are planted for huge revelations and plot developments to come as the series draws to a close. It is also a return to an idea toyed with during Season One episode, "Time" where the team predictably survive a dangerous situation by getting to try it again and again thanks to a time loop.
This time, however, there is real drama and intrigue as the crew prepares to attempt a possibly catastrophic attempt to power their Stargate while inside the heart of a star. It may be their only way home. But as they are preparing to try, their own shuttle appears on-screen carrying an injured Doctor Rush claiming to be from shortly in their future. The Doctor Rush on Destiny is not amused.
The discovery that the attempt only partially worked, with Colonel Telford being the only one to make it home while the rest of the crew disappear in-transit, and Rush only barely surviving the destruction of the ship, open up very strong storytelling possibilities. Of course, we can't have two Rushes and Telfords running around, so they are winnowed, but it works dramatically.
Plus, they are able to scavenge the crippled Destiny for parts they desperately need. It was a clever and very well done way of solving one plot problem and initiating further complexity down the line.
Because, you see, the crew didn't just die in the Stargate jump. The went back in time nearly 2000 years and established a colony, and ultimately, a civilization that our crew encounter in Episodes Seventeen and Eighteen, "Common Descent" and "Epilogue". And thanks to amazing record-keeping, our crew discovers just what happened to themselves as they grew old, fell in love, had babies (lots of babies!), and died.
I honestly went into it thinking it was going to be sentimental and hard to watch, but it wasn't. It turned out to be very moving and one of the highest of the high points this season.
The final two episodes, "Blockade" and "Gauntlet" find out crew in dire straits. The Drones are back, and they've discovered Destiny's weakness. The ship fuels itself by diving into stars and essentially charging up on solar energy. So they have set up Drone blockades around every candidate for refueling and are waiting to destroy them.
Eli has a plan for refueling in a Blue Super Giant star, since it is so dangerous that it could destroy them and therefore not be on the Drones' radar. Of course, it works, but almost destroys them. It's not the sort of thing they can keep doing.
Not that it matters anyway, because in the series finale we learn that the Drones have adapted to that plan and are now waiting for them at any fueling possibility along their route. The only way out is a desperate plan, again offered up by Eli, to utilize the stasis pods discovered in an episode earlier this season, to put the crew into suspended animation and make a dangerous, three-year hyperspace jump to the next galaxy. Of course, if the calculations are off and they fall short, they could drift for hundreds of years.
And that's where they leave us, folks. It's a brilliant way to close out the series while leaving open the possibility for their return. Even more enjoyable, was the way we close out the series through Eli's eyes. His POV was our entry point into the series back in the very first episode, so it's fitting that it's through him that we say goodbye.
Another nice touch is having this really be about Eli stepping up and coming into his own. Even Rush acknowledges Eli's growth, intelligence, and bravery. It hurts not getting to see these characters any more. This turned out to be one of the strongest science fiction shows Syfy has produced. It was daring to avoid the space fantasy of earlier Stargate shows and allow the characters and plot to grow and develop realistically. When your main threats are finding water, oxygen, and food, rather than megalomaniacal space fascists or whatever, you're dealing with something that's going to have limited appeal to a broader audience.
Pandering to that crowd, when that crowd had already abandoned the show, hurt the first season enough that they just couldn't bring in enough viewers in Season Two. But I'll be damned if Season Two wasn't right up there with the best of Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Farscape, or Battlestar Galactica - the pinnacles of contemporary (late Nineties to Present) television sci-fi.
The 5-disc DVD set includes all twenty episodes of the Second Season, along with over two hours of all-new special features. Every disc has a handful of extras, so the two hours are spread out through the whole experience.
One of the highlights of the special features is "Robert Carlyle Directs" where, as the title suggests, we get a detailed look at the process involved during Carlyle's directing of "Pathogen", one of the strongest of the character-centric episodes this season.
Other strong entries are the sequence of short features about the design and construction of the sets, particularly the gorgeous Bridge. The level of detail and intricate detail in all of the set designs is amazing. And the entry "SG-U Welcomes You to New Mexico's Bisti Badlands" takes us on a tour of the scouting and shooting of Episode Eight, "Malice".
It's just beautiful.
Every episode also has optional audio commentary from stars and guest-stars, providing massive amounts of information and entertainment for the price.
The most painful and touching special feature, though, is the "Behind the Season 2 Finale – Gauntlet" mini-doc. In it, we get to see the cast and crew having fun, growing closer, reminiscing about their time on the show, and then saying goodbye after filming concludes. But the thing is, nobody knew they were canceled yet. The word hadn't come down.
So the actors are all very positive and upbeat, looking forward to seeing each other again to pick up the next season. I mean, why wouldn't they be? They had to be able to tell that they were doing very high quality work. Even characters who had been in the background through much of Season One, got the chance to step out and develop personalities and have plot lines devoted to them. There's no reason they shouldn't have come back.
It's a bittersweet way to round out the DVD collection, but there you have it. Without a single hesitation, I give this DVD set . Syfy really hurt themselves by smothering this show in its crib. Especially doing the same thing to Caprica right alongside it. I only hope they give the next Battlestar Galactica spin-off time to get its feet and grow up.
EDITOR'S NOTE: MORE REVIEWS OF STARGATE UNIVERSE SEASON TWO ARE ON THE WAY!
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to What Looks Good and Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, tentatively titled Damaged Incorporated. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, sci-fi television, the original Deathlok, Nick Fury, and John Constantine. He can be summed up in three words: Postmodern Anarchist Misanthropy. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.