Many people have criticized SGU for various reasons: its mediocre writing and gaping plot holes, slow pacing, bad (under or over)acting, unsympathetic characters, shaky camera, low lighting, etc. However, although I believe these were certainly contributing factors in the show’s demise, there was another more significant factor that is often overlooked; the premise of the show itself.
From a writer’s point of view, the premise of the original 1994 Stargate film was a truly inspiring one: in basic terms, it was a magical door that allowed you to travel to distant lands (the SciFi ‘wrapping’ of using technology instead of magic and substituting extrasolar planets for other lands on Earth notwithstanding) to explore, have adventures, slay monsters and sometimes rescue a beautiful princess or two 🙂
Yes, it may be simplistic and formulaic, but it appeals to the child within. The closed-Christmas-present appeal of a journey through the Stargate excites the imagination of any writer, and gives him/her the perfect canvas to work with. The TV series SG1 and Atlantis fleshed out and expanded the fictional world of the Stargate, but the main premise remained the same as in the film.
However, the new series Stargate Universe took a very different approach. Instead of having its characters travelling and having adventures, it had them essentially imprisoned in a confined space (in this case a spaceship, but it could be anything). This imposed a series of severe restrictions in any story written for the show:
1. the people on the spaceship are isolated and have very limited resources which preclude exploration or new discoveries. In previous Stargate shows, technology evolved as new discoveries were made and it was incorporated to the main plots of subsequent episodes (gadgets, spaceships, medical advances, etc). The premise of SGU pretty much guaranteed that the technology of the last episode would be the same as in the first one. For the same reason, introducing guest stars as new or recurring characters is also problematic.
2. the aliens are not meant to be human-looking, but made exclusively with CGI. Now, CGI is great for creating really stunning creatures on screen, but it also has some severe limitations, both practical and financial:
- on the financial side, photorealistic CGI is far more expensive and time-consuming than a puppet, which in turn is more expensive and time-consuming than an actor in heavy makeup and prosthetics. So the screen time of any CGI alien has to be severely limited to fit in the small budget of a TV show. This also means that you can’t have aliens as recurring characters for every episode, but have to limit them to a handful of episodes per season.
- in practical terms, CGI non-human aliens have an often overlooked but very important limitation; they can’t emote. A competent human actor can portray much more emotion than any CGI character, simply because he/she can use a complex array of expressions, body language and tone of voice to create the character. In CGI these things are certainly possible, but they take a lot more time and money. CGI characters like Gollum in ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the aliens of ‘Avatar’ take months and millions of dollars to develop and perfect. At the current level of CGI technology, a TV show simply does not have the financial resources or time to create something of that quality on a weekly basis.
3. the SGU spaceship is restricted to travelling to a new galaxy (or solar system, it’s not very clear) every week. In theory, this allows for greater creative freedom for the writers. In practice, it means that you can’t visit the same location repeatedly in many episodes. This limits the amount of time, money and work the crew can invest into building a set for a single episode, knowing it will be scrapped and not be used again. It also limits the plot to something that must be resolved at the end of the episode, since there’s no chance of going back for further development.
So what we have is a series of seemingly crippling limitations to the kind of stories that can be written for the show:
- no human actors as aliens on the regular cast, so no ‘outsider’ point of view that most successful SciFi shows have (i.e. no Mr. Spock).
- very limited screen time for CGI aliens because of the budget constraints.
- given the previous two items, aliens can’t be regularly shown or developed beyond the most basic level.
- no human actors guest starring as crewmembers since the ship is isolated. (This could be mitigated somewhat with the introduction of the ‘communication stones’, but it remained strangely unexploited.)
- no followups on previous episodes, since the ship can’t travel back. So any interesting and/or popular guest characters and alien cultures can’t be further developed, as they could in previous Stargate series. For example, in SG1 most alien races (Jaffa, Asgard, Tok’ra and Unas) took several episodes in different seasons to fully develop. The main premise of SGU makes such revisiting and further development difficult if not impossible.
So with all these limitations, what is left to inspire the writer of an average episode? in truth, there are many ways a great writer can turn all these limitations to strengths. Unfortunately, it takes a very dedicated person a lot of time to come up with a single script that can meet all these limitations successfully, never mind having to do so for twenty episodes on a strict deadline. The easiest solution is the formula that most SGU episodes followed: interpersonal conflicts, hints of never-realized conspiracies (since actually writing a fully-developed conspiracy takes a lot more time to do properly) along with a sprinkling of science fiction just to keep the script from being completely character-bound.
To me, from the very beginning this did not sound like a successful formula for a SciFi show. As it turned out, it wasn’t.