Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NEW!: SGU 1:1 - Air (Parts 1 and II)

Overall Rating: 6.0

A functionally inept attempt to launch a potentially fascinating new series. The SGU pilot 2-parter used a promising blend of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Atlantis filming and character building strategies, but tried to accomplish way WAY too much in just 2 television hours and left this viewer dazed and confused, with a rudimentary understanding of only three of the main characters. I have the feeling that some moments during the show will have more significance later on, but that's generally bad form when doing a pilot.

Plot Synopsis: (presented in chronological order, rather than televised order, because the televised order was confusing)

Geeky Eli Wallace, a shiftless but brilliant gamer, finds a solution to a baffling mathematical puzzle embedded within a massive multi-player online video game, but thinks nothing of it when the game resets. Shortly thereafter, the US Air Force arrives at his door led by General Jack O'Neill, and they whisk him away on a great adventure - attempting to supply enough power to a Stargate on a nearby planet to dial a unique nine-chevron gate address found in the Ancient database. While en route to this secret facility, Eli meets Chloe Armstrong - the daughter of a U.S. Senator from California who has taken over the appropriations committee and is therefore overseeing this project, dubbed Icharus. After a crash course in Stargate history and mechanics, they test Eli's solution and meet with unexplained failure.

While Dr. Nicholas Rush, the lead scientist for Project Icharus, tries in vein to find a mathematical explanation for their inability to get a lock, Eli and Chloe attend a reception held in Senator Armstrong's honor. He makes a rather embarrassing toast in honor of Chloe which is (much to her simultaneous relief and horror) interrupted by a massive assault on the base mounted by the Lucian Alliance (when did THEY get so powerful, BTW?). The Air Force vessel Hammond (captained by Colonel Sam Carter!) attempts to fight them off, but eventually they do enough damage to the planet to destabilize its radioactive core (this planet is capable of dialing the 9-chevron address due its unusually energetic make up), forcing all personnel on the surface to evacuate. Dr. Rush decides that the risk of energy flowing through the open wormhole to Earth is too great to risk dialing home and at the last minute he dials the mysterious nine-chevron address; obtaining a lock using Eli's theory that Earth needs to be the point of origin, rather than the symbol associated with this particular planet. The planet is destroyed as the last refugees plunge through the gate.

After being flung through to the other side at speeds great enough to seriously injure a number of the survivors, they get their bearings and realize they're aboard a huge vessel of Ancient design. It's hundreds of thousands of years old, short on power and structurally unstable. And worse, it has traveled several billion light years from Earth to the outermost reaches of the universe and they have no means of returning home. Their immediate problem is that the ship's life support has been compromised by many hull breeches and there is limited available power to keep shields up around the gaps. The air is quickly getting thin and the 80 or so refugees are in no mood to take orders from Dr. Rush, who claims (rather dubiously) that he has communicated with Earth and that they've placed him in charge. Tempers flare and order is barely maintained by Colonel Everett Young, who temporarily backs Dr. Rush, knowing they need his expertise to survive.

When it is discovered that a massive atmosphere leak on the bridge of the Ancient Vessel "Destiny" is going to result in critically short supplies of breathable air in a matter of a few hours, a severely wounded Senator Armstrong sacrifices his life to seal the bridge off and buy the crew precious time. His daughter is understandably distraught and blames Dr. Rush for sending them all here rather than to Earth, but he manages, through some rather brilliant diplomacy, to calm her down and give himself a chance to figure a way out of this mess. While searching the Ancient database he finds aboard ship, he learns the true nature of the ship's mission. Colonel Scott tries dialing Earth but Rush stops him just in the nick of time, knowing the ship doesn't have enough power to dial such a distant gate. He's learned that the ship will dial local gates on planets that have resources they can use to stay alive - but their time to acquire the things they need will be limited, since the ship will jump back to faster than light travel after 12 hours. A gate-traveling team is formed and an expedition launched to explore the first such world.

Writing: 5.5

There are many things to like about this premiere. For example, the characters are, by in large, painted as flawed - often vein and self-involved - and their interactions are presented pretty realistically. In fact, and I believe this was written into the pilot script intentionally, the show takes on an almost Battlestar Galactica feel, complete with ghostly background music, tawdry sex scenes, weird emotional overreactions behind closed doors, interpersonal squabbles and a general sense of "real"-ness that has sometimes been lacking in other Gate franchises. This might turn out to be a bad thing in the end if they start taking themselves too seriously - after all, the charm of the Gates has always been linked to their likable characters and their optimism. But for now, it made for interesting viewing at the very least.

However, the script suffers from "holy-crap-itis!" That is to say, they tried to write the great American pilot by weaving about 200 threads through 2 hours of TV and it ended up being confusing, disjointed and downright frivolous at times. They threw scenes in there that may be explained later or may not be, but certainly had no meaning at all to the pilot storyline and were therefore in poor form. They expanded on the back stories of only three of the main characters - Colonel Scott, Eli Wallace and Chloe Armstrong. Dr. Rush has the most screen time, but at the moment his character's actions are frequently illogical and baffling, and yet he obviously possesses the power to charm and influence people and a brilliant mind. I sense that his character will be fascinating to watch evolve, but the pilot didn't do him justice. Nor was Everett Scott's back story particularly convincing or interesting.

All I can say is...there's something wrong when the viewer comes away from a pilot not sure who the heck half of the characters are, and gravely confused about a few of the ones he does know by name. The job in a pilot is to establish the most important characters and build the show's concept. But this pilot STOPPED right as the concept was being built! Why end the show before we go on a gate mission? There is no stasis established by the end of this pilot, and that is also poor form.

Acting: 7.0

Robert Carlyle seemed uncomfortable in his role as Dr. Rush at some points - I see the talent there, but I don't think he was quite ready to pull it off, so to speak. On the other hand, I thought Louis Ferreira, David Blue and Elyse Levesque were all outstanding in various moments, and I enjoyed the work of guest star Christopher McDonald as Senator Armstrong as well. Most of the rest were like background noise to me...the script is partially at fault for this, trying to service 80 people (of which 8 or 9 needed significant air time) but it's generally a bad sign when you don't come away from an episode remembering key speeches or great reaction takes or...even what these people LOOKED like. They're just plot fairies who are there to move the story. A luke warm beginning for this mega-ensemble, to be sure. Incidentally, Ming-Na just annoyed the heck out of me...I know that was supposed to be a major coup for the casting people, but I don't see it.

Message: 5.5

Who has time for messages when you have to cram 6 hours worth of character development and plot into 90 minutes? :) The sacrifice of Senator Armstrong was well handled, I thought, but other than that, the pilot was without a central message. I would have been more excited about it, had they spent more time "romancing the mission." Because, as a scientist, an expedition to the edges of the the dawn of creation (!) would have made for a great opportunity to send the message that great discovery is at the core of what makes us humans so pregnant with potential...we could have essentially gone back to our SG1 roots in the days when we used to romance the gate itself.

What to Like:

The show was so overwhelming that I did not come away with pieces of dialogue ringing in my head (another bad sign for the writing), so rather than doing dialogue highlights, I'm going to highlight some elements of the concept that are worth looking forward to.

1) The ticking clock

All future gate missions in the SGU franchise will be timed by the ship's autopilot schedule, making every trip through the stargate that much more pressure packed and increasing the jeopardy. It's a bit of a cliche in action movies, but the show "24" proves that a ticking clock does indeed increase the viewer's alertness. It may make the dramatic elements of SGU more exciting than previous gates.

2) Back-biting and interpersonal intrigue

Dr. Rush has already made a very dubious power play that I think will turn out to be disastrous down the road. We will see Camille Wray try to politically assert herself very soon as well, and they'll both have to crawl over Everett Scott to grab the real power aboard ship. The friction already developing between these characters shows a lot of promise.

3) What Atlantis SHOULD have been - isolated and alone

I enjoyed Stargate Atlantis, but the writers did chicken out a bit, IMHO. When the show started, they pitched the concept of a human team in another galaxy...cut off from home and facing impossible odds against a life-sucking batch of bad guys who threatened to swarm their base any day now. After ONE season, they decided...naaahh...let's give them eight different ways to call home. I sincerely hope that SGU will remain completely on their own for the entire run of the series.

4) Underdogs

SGA had ONE underdog character (the socially inept and abrasive Rodney McKay - although brilliant, he was always the underdog when it came to life). They paid off the suspense nicely by hooking him up with the adorable Dr. Kelley (Jewel Staite), and I always enjoy underdog relationships. But SGU has multiple underdog characters, most notably Eli, Chloe, and Tamara Johansen (who didn't get much screen time in the pilot but is a field medic thrust into the role of chief medical officer). I look forward to the possibilities for character growth here (not to mention I'm already a Chloe/Eli shipper!!)

Things to be concerned about:

1) Mega-ensemble

Unlike forecasting the weather, more isn't always better. This show features by far the largest regular cast in the history of Stargate as a franchise. There are a LOT of people to deal with on a weekly basis...I have my doubts about whether we really need like half of them. There seems to be some redundancy. Perhaps they will prove me wrong and make all of these characters fascinating. But in my experience mega-ensemble casts have two outcomes - either some of them really are expendable and you can kill them off (which can be entertaining), or they hang around and people get annoyed with all the lose character threads that never get addressed and it kills the show.

2) Mega-staff

It looks like everyone who's ever worked on Stargate as a staffer wanted a piece of the pilot. Too many writers, producers, executives and directors working together has a bad habit of making the show disjointed and hard to follow and the variation in styles can often lead to a spectacular continuity failure. Hey...didn't I say the pilot had all of those problems?

3) Young people...soooo many young people!

Writers seem unable to resist the temptation to write every early-20s character they have as angsty lovers...this cast is replete with characters who have the potential to play the emo role...even the brilliant pros who constructed Battlestar Galactica couldn't overcome that impulse and wrote all of the younger officers as emo lovesick douchebags. I fear the same thing may happen here...only time will tell.

Final Comments:

All in all, I am basically encouraged by the pilot, despite the reservations I've mentioned here. I will certainly give this show a chance to impress me. Most of the original writers and producers and directors who made Stargate great from the beginning are still around and still capable of producing a quality show. Just give it time to find its place in the heavens. :)

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