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Nov 18

Where Stargate Universe Went Wrong

This subject has probably been done to death (much like Stargate, I suppose) but nevertheless I’ve decided to have a crack at it myself as it’s something dear to my heart and has affected my life a great deal. So here goes…

The Show

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or are passionately against anything emanating from the talking rectangle in the corner of the livin’ hole, you’ve no-doubt heard of Stargate. For those cave-dwellers that haven’t, here’s a brief lowdown:

StargateA big circular object was uncovered in Egypt which turns out to be a device used for creating wormholes to points all over the galaxy (and then some), allowing people (and things) to step through one end and near-instantaneously appear at the other. Pretty cool, eh? Anyway, it turns out that thousands of years ago an evil, nasty race of parasitic beings called the Goa’uld thought that the human species was a jolly good vessel to use for their own foul ends and, using this system of ‘stargates’ that pre-dated even their civilization, they set about populating other worlds with our species, turning them into hosts/slaves, and making them believe that the Goa’uld were gods. They took on personas which we understand as the ancient gods of the Egyptians, Greeks, Norse, Chinese and so on. This explains why almost every single alien across the stars is a human in a leotard who speaks in a strange accent (very neat and tidy, and saves a LOT of questions that would otherwise get in the way of adventures).

On Earth, a team of explorers was set up (which turned into a big organization) to travel through the Stargate, acquiring alien knowledge and technology that could be used to defeat the aforementioned nasty bad guys.

Tada! (I’ll get to the spin-offs later).

This (relatively straightforward) premise led to one of the most successful sci-fi series of all time, capturing the imaginations of millions, myself included. It wasn’t just the cool storyline that made the show so successful, though; it was the interspersed light-hearted elements, the character interaction, and a very specific character dynamic which allowed the show to almost write itself. I’m sure if the writers ever caught me saying that, they wouldn’t be too happy; but what I mean to say is that the characters were so well developed that it would be nearly obvious what they would do/say next in any given situation.

SG-1: The Character Dynamic

Any great story counts for absolutely nothing unless you’ve got some great characters to go along with it; something which Stargate SG-1 certainly provided. The SG-1 team had the perfect blend of characters to send off to other worlds and have adventures:

SG-1

From left to right: Teal’c, Samantha Carter, Jack O’Neill, Daniel Jackson

Teal’c

Teal’c is a Jaffa, a powerful warrior whose people are for the most part forced into servitude by the bad guys. His role in the team is the stoic, powerful one with emotional baggage he’s too stoic to deal with. This provides not only some interesting side-story, what with him being an alien and all, but also provides a thick-and-thin warrior type for the team that the audience can warm too and root for when times get tough. Throughout the series’ 10 seasons, there were scattered some really touching moments when the tough-guy’s armour cracked a little and we, the audience, were allowed an insight into his humanity (jaffa-ity).

Within the team he has strong ties to: O’Neill, who is the other ‘warrior type’ member of the team,  Jackson, as he’s the ‘I understand other cultures’ guy, and Carter because of the whole ‘you’re frailer but I respect your warrior spirit’ thing.

Samantha Carter

Sam provides three vital roles in the series: she’s the brilliant scientist who can think her way out of even the stickiest situations, the deputy-come-love interest to O’Neill to keep the military theme going and provide some emotional inter-character relation, and she’s also the token woman (or as we can probably all agree, nerd eye-candy). Due to her multi-faceted character in the series, Sam is probably many people’s favourite character, her image adorning the walls of countless lonely sci-fi nerds the world over.

Her connection to O’Neill is a complex one as he is both her superior officer and mega-crush (“but we’re both in the military! Curse this forbidden love!”). Her connection to Teal’c is primarily a battle-brother style relationship drifting occasionally into the, “awww, I just got saved by my big, powerful black uncle. I love him, isn’t he neat?” scene every now and then. Daniel Jackson is pretty much her sassy gay friend throughout the series. They swap stories over cocoa, occasionally bitch about how the other looks, and get all emotional when the other’s being shot at by aliens.

Jack O’Neill

Jack is one of the best characters in any series ever as far as I’m concerned. You never know quite which box to place him in. In some instances he’s portrayed as being slightly dim and blissfully ignorant to the dangers that surround him; but there are constant references to the superiority of his mind, and very often he’s able to come up with complex solutions to problems. He provides not only the primary tactical role of the show, deciding who goes where etc. (the action), but also the main source of comic relief within the show. The comedic timing, understated humour and witty observations of O’Neill through the series are what makes the show so accessible to all, not just sci-fi fans. The ability to create humour in even dangerous situations without taking away that element of danger or detracting from the storyline (which a number of other shows are guilty of), or to use a joke to highlight how incomprehensible parts of the show must be to people watching who haven’t watched before, is just plain genius. Someone who had never watched the show before could pick pretty much any episode of SG-1 to start watching, and through O’Neill’s actions and comments could still enjoy it and maybe even follow what was going on!

His character is like the adopted brother of Teal’c, the cantankerous uncle of Daniel Jackson, and the object of attraction to a woman with daddy issues for Samantha Carter.

Daniel Jackson

Daniel is a GM’s dream (bit of a tabletop roleplay reference for you, there); he’s a character within the show who has in-depth knowledge about the antagonists they encounter, the people of other worlds, and speaks multiple languages. In other words, no matter what weird and wonderful situation the group find themselves in, there’s one character whose dialogue can inform the group (and the viewer) what’s going on, what we can expect from it, and whether it’s good or bad. Genius!

Although he proves himself to be quite capable throughout (I’ll try to avoid any spoilers); he is also, it’s generally agreed, the weak link of the group. Many of the episodes’ storylines have a ‘let’s save Daniel Jackson from <insert peril here>’ element to them. This is good because even as an ignorant viewer who doesn’t understand that Jackson is the ‘inform the audience of what’s going on’ character, we understand that the team needs Jackson for his expertise, so we find ourselves invested in his wellbeing and hope that everything turns out well in the end.

The firm yet understanding leader

Gen Hammond

General George Hammond was for most of the series in charge of the Stargate Command facility and in turn, SG-1. His character was very wise and knowledgeable, and went to great lengths to accept the counsel of those around him. However, when the need arose, put his foot down in spite of the team’s (or anyone else’s) protests. This made him a very likeable character, iconic even, and provided a moral baseline for the team’s actions. When the storyline got a little bit fuzzy, or maybe some of the plot direction was lost; there’d always be an “I just got orders from General Hammond…” opportunity to steer everyone in the right direction.

The miracle-working doctor

Dr Fraser

 

Although she didn’t have a very active role as far as missions and adventures were concerned, if any of the team were injured they relied on Dr Janet Fraser. More often than not, Dr Fraser would be able to find a cure, fix the key character or otherwise save the day.

She provided the ‘caring person back-home’ role to the series.

 

 

 

So there you have it, the perfect team dynamic. Each of the characters is very well developed, has plenty of interaction with the other characters, and the audience genuinely gives a damn about what happens to them.

 

Stargate Atlantis

The Stargate fanbase were a little bit divided when it was announced there’d be a spin-off series. Some thought it would ruin everything and forever tarnish the good name of Stargate, some thought it was an exciting new way to get some more of that sweet, sweet Stargatey goodness. In my humble opinion, I think the second group turned out to be right. Stargate Atlantis turned out to be an excellent show which, although scattered with (thoroughly enjoyable) links to the parent show, was fully capable of standing on its own as a standalone programme.

The show centered around a group of explorers from Earth who had managed to generate enough power to travel through the Stargate to the Pegasus galaxy, there to find the lost city of Atlantis which, true to the myth, did sink into the water… but was in another galaxy! The ‘crew’ comprises civilian and military personnel from various countries on Earth, and has not one but two aliens on the team. This takes away some of the “America! F**k yeah!” attitude that some critics complained about, and also added double the side story that having one alien on the team brought. Genius!

Although there was clearly a lot of love and effort put into the storyline for Atlantis, I think its success is in no small measure due to the character dynamic, which pretty much mirrors that of SG-1.

Atlantis Team

From left to right: Elizabeth Weir, Carson Beckett, Tayla Emmagan, John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Ronan Dex

Elizabeth Weir (the firm yet understanding leader)

Atlantis kept this key character slot in the series, assigning it to Dr Weir. Interestingly, though, they also gave her a lot more of a frontline role, but took away the military allegiance angle and replaced it with a very Daniel Jacksonesque diplomacy and consideration slant.

Carson Beckett (the miracle-working doctor)

Dr Beckett not only provides the most foreign accent in the show (the mystical, faraway land of Scotland), but is the cure-all carebear of the show. He’s the one that every character can like.

Tayla Emmagan

Tayla is an blend of a few character roles put into one person. Obviously, she’s the token female role in the exploration team with clothing that could conceivably fit a 10yr old; but she’s also from another planet within the Pegasus galaxy who has encountered many of the peoples on worlds the team will visit. This provides her with Jackson-like insight into the cultures they meet, the resulting dialogue filling the viewer in. She also adds the Last Samurai-style ‘I will teach the reckless Americans how to focus and appreciate tea’ element as she is a master of martial arts and takes Sheppard under her wing.

John Sheppard

Sheppard is the O’Neill character in Atlantis, however his intelligence is made a point of fact quite early on. He pretty much fills the exact same role as O’Neill, being the trustworthy figure for the team, making seemingly foolhardy decisions and surprising people at intervals with calculated reason. Sheppard is the secondary source for comic relief in the show and, being the most personable character in the team, often engages various members of the crew for this purpose.

Rodney McKay

McKay is an amazing character, brilliantly played. He combines elements of both Samantha Carter and Daniel Jackson in that he’s the brilliant scientist of the team, but is also the laterally thinking problem solver. For the most part it is McKay who provides the comic relief in the series (very well, I might add); often this is played off Sheppard and Ronan to contrast his nerdiness and overactive self-preservation instinct. Similarly to Daniel Jackson, McKay is often the one that needs saving, the ‘weak link’ in the group that the others feel needs protecting.

Ronan Dex

Although not the only alien in the team, Ronan fills the ‘stoic warrior alien’ role that Teal’c plays in SG-1. He’s given a traumatic backstory (like Teal’c) but endeavours not to show it, instead following a warrior code and maintaining fierce loyalty to the military commander of the group (like Teal’c).

 

This fantastic character dynamic, coupled with some strong references to the parent show, made Stargate Atlantis the joy to watch that it was.

The moral of the story:

 SG-1 Character Dynamic (incl. Comic Relief)

+ Different Location (± Ability to Get Back)

+ Reference to Original

= SUCCESS

 

Stargate Universe

SGU Logo

So, we finally come to it: Stargate Universe. With the success of Atlantis and the obvious creative genius of the writing staff, how could it possibly go wrong!? Well… I’ll get to that…

Location

The DestinyThe setting for SGU is actually pretty cool (possible spoilers ahead). It’s set on a mahoosive Ancient ship called The Destiny. The ship dwarfs Atlantis in scale, so there’s no lack of possible problems and undiscovered territory.

The ship itself is on a constant course (for reasons I won’t go into) so it’s in this way that any planetary adventures are accomplished; not by picking and choosing which planets to go to for exploratory reasons, but having to go to planets en route for supplies and so on. This isn’t altogether a bad thing, although it does take away some of the light hearted exploration from the series. Also, the ship is only ever stationery for a certain amount of time; this means that there is an ever-present deadline for any teams who decide to leave the ship. I get it… the idea is to add a sense of drama, but the degree to which they go on about it really brings the mood down a bit. That’s one of the main drawbacks of the show.

Unlike in Atlantis where the exodus to a new place was coated in a layer of excitement and wonder, the circumstances that brought the team to Destiny were altogether more stressful and ‘action packed’. Long story short, the mood of the crew is annoyed and resentful from the moment they arrive. This gets annoying very quickly. As a viewer, I don’t want to find myself being the one that says “come on now, pull yourselves together and get on with it!”, that should be done in the show and the mood should be lifted. They do make an effort to do that (which I’ll explain) but not to a sufficient degree, I feel.

In summary: we’ve got a different setting (part of the formula for success listed above), no physical way of getting back but a very rare means of communicating at least (I won’t spoil the story too much for those who still want to see it). So far, so good on that front at least. The only thing impacting the show’s success at this point is that the comic relief has been sucked out via the circumstances of their arrival colouring the overall experience of the location.

The Crew

This is where it starts to go a bit wrong. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that it’s not the acting that causes the crew to be a problem; the actors in the show are great. It’s the writing in its attempt to bring a ‘new angle’ to Stargate which has well and truly let things down.

SGU Team

From left to right: Ronald Greer, Camile Wray, Everett Young, Chloe Armstrong, Nicholas Rush, Matthew Scott, Tamara Johansen, Eli Wallace, David Telford

For a start, you’ll notice there are way more main characters than in the other series, and yes, these are all main characters. The viewer is shown storylines in every episode that follow the lives of each one of these characters. While this isn’t uncommon for a TV show, it is uncommon for a Stargate series. Normally we are introduced to a small (usually 4 strong), close-knit group of people who we follow through adventures and mishaps. I’m not suggesting that viewers are too retarded to follow the events surrounding more than 4 people, I’m just saying that by limiting the number of people that take up screen time, it allows the viewer to better understand and form a rapport with the characters. In time, the viewer finds themself actually caring about what happens to the characters because they’ve come to ‘know’ them.

SGU made the mistake of turning its cast into what is essentially a sappy American soap opera. Whether this is because the writers thought that this was the way to create a modern show, because they thought this would bring in a wider, younger audience,  or simply because they wanted to put a much wider range of characters in the show to maximize the potential for viewers to relate to and like one of them (like fishing with many hooks), I don’t know… All I do know is that what they got was just one pointless argument and dreary Dawson’s Creekesque lovey-dovey moment after another punctuated by the odd perilous attack. It was boring. It hurts me to say it of a Stargate show, but it’s how I feel.

Scott-Rush-Eli

I suppose the main main characters are Lieutenant Scott, Dr Rush and Eli. Of all the characters, they tend to have/instigate the most dialogue.

Lieutenant Scott – has some O’Neill-ish elements about his character, but not enough to mask the whiney teen drama elements. He’s the one most often making tactical decisions when out and about, but they’re constantly coloured by “should I? Shouldn’t I? But, but, but, I think I love you. I do love you. Oh this is so complicated. Isn’t our love complicated?” Just… plain…. irritating. Scott is given NO light hearted lines. There is always something wrong, always a problem he needs to deal with, and not one shred of comic relief to stop it from being an assault to the misery gland.

Dr Rush – is a very complicated character. When compartmentalizing people as I’m doing in this article, you’d be tempted to place him in the ‘brilliant scientist’ box which, fair enough, fits the bill quite well. However, while he does fit that description and is a member of the team, he’s also largely the ‘bad guy’ in the ranks. So, not only is there a big nasty external enemy as in the other Stargates, Universe felt the need to place one amongst the ‘good guys’ as well. While I understand the logic of spicing things up a bit, it really only served to ruin the mood even further. Subliminally, what makes the teams in Stargate so appealing is that we as viewers almost feel as though we’re on the same side. We’re working alongside the team to solve the mysteries and we’re angry when the nasty bad guys do horrible things to them. Because SGU has got so many characters and is far more concerned with following their interpersonal stories, the viewer loses that ‘we’re on the same side’ connection. Rush just becomes ‘that asshole’ from the soap opera.

While Rush’s character is explained in greater detail, we learn that he may be so anti-social because of a series of emotional episodes in his life prior to the expedition. Robert Carlyle, excellent actor that he is, plays this very well and the viewer finds themselves feeling for Rush as a human. Then, without going into detail, something happens in the story that completely turns you against him. Great! So that great actor you hired to play one of the central characters has finally been given some room to strut his funky stuff, the viewers (if there’re any left) have finally taken to him; let’s completely alienate him in the storyline! Grr…

Eli – is the most likeable character in the show. From the very beginning of the show it’s made clear that he’s the comic relief, the only comic relief in the show. For the majority of the first season the viewer is led to warm to Eli and view him as the all-around good guy. This is done very well. Unfortunately, his saddening back story is introduced, and he becomes part of a tragic love triangle. Yep… the curse of the American soap opera strikes again! Eli’s character also acts as the sassy gay friend to Chloe, which would be fine if there wasn’t the constant unrequited love references spoiling what could otherwise be a nice light-hearted scene. He also fits the bill for ‘brilliant scientist’, which cements him as an essential character, but I get the feeling that the only reason he’s there as a brilliant scientist is because the writers knew they were going to villainize the primary scientist, Rush. In my view, there was a great possibility to ease off the deathful attitude of the entire show by allowing Eli to lift the general mood of the crew. Unfortunately, the moody soap opera cast snapped at and picked on Eli, leaving him a sort of victimized, quivering wreck that the viewer ends up feeling sorry for. Great…. so the ONE chance we had for a bit of a laugh in this show is now the subject of our pity!

This show is SO depressing! It’s so un-Stargate! You’d think over a decade of experience would tell the writers that what people want from an episode of Stargate is some good ol’ fashioned light hearted entertainment!? It’s like they’ve looked at the success of moody drama series such as those on HBO, and looked at the dramatic increase in popularity of shows that have young, attractive people struggling to decide who they’d like to mate with next; then decided they’d try and capitalize on the success of both and retain their existing fanbase. Guess what…. that didn’t work. I think they only made a second season out of denial!

No Dynamic, No Success

So there you have it. I think Stargate Universe could have been really good. The storyline is great, the cast is good (although it could do with some pruning), and they had a writing staff which had proven themselves with over a decade of sci-fi gold. What got in the way was whichever talented young exec stood up in the meeting and said, “I think we should shake things up a bit”. He should have been immediately beaten on the nose with a rolled up newspaper and told, “NO! We’re not going to spit in the soup while people are still eating it!”

I truly hope that the crushing failure of SGU doesn’t deter the writers/producers altogether. I hope they analyse the results in the same way I have here and think to themselves, “the world needs more Stargate. Let’s make a new series using the same character dynamic as SG-1 and Atlantis”.

I don’t want to know what a world without Stargate looks like.

It’s the moral responsibility of the producers to ensure that generations to come have a fresh memory of Stargate as it was originally intended to be.

Don’t bow to what so-called trend analysts tell you is ‘cool’ and ‘popular’, they’re clearly not in touch with your intended audience.

About the author

Mr Llamatastic

3 comments

  1. shane

    Oh my god, completely agree with you. The writers really screwed up on this one. I pretty much hated every character on the show. Only character I did like was the rough and tough no BS soldier. After watching most of the 1st season, I realized this show pisses me off so much, so I stopped watching. So glad they ended it. I hope they create a new stargate show, but I doubt they will after this failure. Plus, I don’t know what it would be about and where it would take place.

    Great job writers! Not.

  2. Jim Bonner

    Eli and Rush were reverse casted. Dr rush should have been the overage and underdeveloped gamer still living with his 90 year old mother and Eli should have been the graduate student and brilliant mathematician.. It could make sense for Dr rush to be friend zoned.. but not Eli. It opens with a problem with the people being tossed about, and the female lead obviously got the part because of excellent casting couch work. The show was influenced every episode by the dream of a big screen opportunity. And .. it is obviously pushing a Gay marriage agenda.. geeseee who wants someone in another body to come home and make love to your partner,, you can borrow it but there are some rules..

  3. Mr Llamatastic

    A good comment thread re: this article on Tumblr: http://mrllamatastic.tumblr.com/post/74375387683/where-stargate-universe-went-wrong

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