Saturday, May 28, 2011

Stargate: Boring (Pilot)

I'd been holding off on watching Stargate: Universe for two reasons. The first, because I (gasp) haven't finished Stargate SG-1. I find it difficult to finish a beloved show, but that's another psychiatrist visit.

The second reason was that I had heard uninspiring things about SG:U. However, I love the world of Stargate and knew I would have to give Universe a try eventually. So finally I decided to watch 'Air', the first episode.

I didn't make it even half way.

A while back, I watched two versions of the same pilot of a tv show and lamented how, within the first few minutes, a viewer could already sense problems in the show.

I found SG:U played right into this same issue of struggling before it had started. Being the third in a franchise, it-- like that Life on Mars pilot-- invites comparisons to its stargate predecessors. Both SG-1 and Atlantis had their troubles but were overall highly successful shows loved by many. Both had very tight pilot episodes that sucked me in.


Universe, starring Robert Carlyle and Brian J. Smith, among others, opens with a large ship gliding in space. So far, so good. Seconds later, we are watching people get tossed at speed through a stargate, presumably aboard the ship. They are landing with enough force to be injured and frequently be hit by flying luggage and other travellers. Initially, I was drawn in, but my content was almost immediately crushed by a single line spoken by Brian J. Smith:
Slow down the evac! We're coming in too hot!

What is it about this line, spoken two minutes and fifty two seconds into the show that stopped me from believing in what was happening? It may have been the self-consciously military phraseology that lacked the specifics to make it interesting, perhaps it was the inevitable knowledge that a lot more people were going to leap through that stargate and lie there shrieking and crying before it was closed and we could get on with things. Perhaps it was also the obvious nature of the statement. Aside from the word "evac", which hopefully you guessed from what you could see, everything the lieutenant says is obvious.

So that's the three minute mark and the air is filled with confused cries. If you listen to the soundtrack alone, you hear two things. One, these confused cries. Two, clearly spoken above the shrieks, some lines of dialogue which only compound the tragedy unfolding.
MAN: My God! Where are we?

WOMAN: What is this place?

Aaah! How awful! These lines are separate from the scene, edited on top of the random screams and crying in an artificial way, evenly spaced. They are spoken in a very amateurish way that sets them apart from the general environment of shock and confusion. Lastly, they are poorly written. Who says, "what is this place?" People in period films written in the fifties. Not only that, these two lines say precisely the same thing and it was something we already knew.

So now my heart is sinking. The writing is unimaginative, the sound editing is bad and nothing about the setting suggests we're going to get some idea of what is going on any time soon.

Other thoughtless actions occur while evacuees continue to fly out of the stargate. A medic identifies herself with a shout. There are people all around unconcious and bleeding and we watch her dealing with a man with a broken arm. The medic says, "hold still, I'm going to put your arm in a sling, okay?"

Hang on. We just saw a picture of a woman, unconcious, with a bleeding head wound. There are still more poeple pouring through the stargate while others lie on the ramp in danger of more injuries and this woman is going to start dealing with a broken arm right now?

Now I start to realise not just in bad writer territory, we're in bad character and environment development territory. The writers have just shown us that they are out of touch with the very situation they have written.

And it goes on. The Colonel is the last through the stargate, thrown much further than the others. There is blood all over him and he slumps to the ground, clearly close to death. The Lieutenant asks the Medic, "Is he okay?" If it was intended to convey the lieutenant's confusion, it didn't quite work. The colonel was clearly badly wounded before he came through the stargate. Of course he's not okay.

Except for quick glimpses of various characters, we've not yet been introduced to any characters. Now, however, the camera focuses on Eli (David Blue) for a moment. And suddenly, we're in flashback mode.

For me, Eli's how-did-I-get-here flashback was the nail in the coffin of Universe's opening sequence. We learn in the next few minutes that Eli was hired by the Stargate program by breaking a secret code hidden in a Prometheus video game. He is, in short, the geek fantasy character-- the audience. Within a minute of opening the door, Eli is offered a non-disclosure agreement (which he doesn't initially sign; he is basically kidnapped by the Air Force and emotionally blackmailed into signing) and we're beamed up into space to have the Stargate Program explained to us by a recording Daniel Jackson.

The crucial ten minute mark has been and gone and we know almost nothing about the characters or the situation. Worse, we do not care about the characters or the situation-- Daniel Jackson's recorded cameo has more personality than the main characters. Nobody's particularly believeable or likeable and the situations are hamfisted stereotypes of scenes most science fiction fans have seen if not on screen, then in their dreams.

Lastly, this flashback has no common link to what is happening in Eli's present at the stargate on this mysterious. Sure, that's the bizarre story that got him off world and no doubt the whole story will be told, but as of yet the audience is not making the link. So far, neither story is really improved by having the presence of the other one. In short, Eli's backstory was entirely unnecessary.

So, compare, if you will, Universe's opening ten minutes to SG-1's.

SG-1 opens with five unimportant Air Force plebs playing cards near something Very Unimportant deep underground. We know all these things in the first thirty seconds of the show after two lines of dialogue. Within a minute, we know that the Very Unimportant object is actually Very Important. Within two and a half minutes, we're already being invaded by aliens. This, if you remember, was the appproximate time of that first disastrous line in Universe. At five minutes, the invasion is over and the wheels of the show are in motion and we meet the first main character of the show.

Colonel Jack O'Neill is on the roof of his house, looking up through a telescope at the place we know this show is going because we saw the promos. We learn in a word and a non-action that he's retired and bitter and he delivers some beautiful opening lines for a show:

A little piece of advice, Major? Get re-ass'ed to NASA. That's where all the action's gonna be. Out there.

That is the main character's first real line. The audience knows: The lead is going to be dry, grouchy and funny. It's going to be space, and it's going to be action. That's at five minutes and fifty-six minutes.

And so the set-up is over and the real plot can begin. Already we're into that moving-right-along feeling that the middle of a show gets. Things are unfolding, introductions being mode, detailed conversations are occuring. At ten minutes, everyone is up to speed: the aliens are here and we have to take action.

The show would be taking action for ten seasons and movies after that.

Back to Universe at ten minutes: The plot was already plodding, the characters were dull, dumb and lifeless, the explanatory flashback unnecessary and too far separated from the action, the action itself thoughtless and grating.

Universe was mostly dead on impact, just like that unfortunate Colonel.

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