From its pilot episode, Stargate Universe tried very hard to be different both in terms of artistic direction and storytelling than the previous Stargate series. This in itself was a commendable goal, since Stargate’s biggest weakness (and paradoxically also its greatest strength) was its formulaic nature.
The problem was, the creators of the show didn’t really seem to know what they wanted SGU to be; they only knew what they didn’t want it to be. So while SGU left most of the elements of the old-school Stargate style behind, it did not have a style of its own. Instead, it borrowed heavily from other shows (many have compared it -unfavourably- to the 2005 SciFi series ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – as will I) but the elements it imitated where not utilized correctly, probably because they were just that: imitation, not inspiration.
The fake-documentary visual style (out of focus, bad lighting conditions and shaking camera) was first introduced in movies like ‘The Blair Which Project’ and more recently in the SciFi film ‘Cloverfield’. However, what works for a two hour presentation does not necessarily work quite as well for a 20-hour TV season. For one, it is very tiring to the viewer. But most importantly, it takes far more time and skill for a cinematographer to fake a shaky camera than to use a static one. Scenes that take minutes to record on a steady camera can take hours on a (correctly done) shaky camera, just because you have to plan in advance all the shaky camera movements so that they capture exactly what you want. A TV show does not have the resources to use the shaky camera effect properly on a regular basis. Even Battlestar Galactica used it only for certain scenes, and they gradually toned it down over the course of the first season.
The low lighting in SGU is another example of imitating things that they could not successfully reproduce. It takes more work to create a low-light set than a well-lit one, and whoever the lighting technician was on the SGU crew simply did not have either the skill, resources, or time to make a proper job of it. So whereas other shows (such as the X-Files) used darkness and shadows to great effect in SGU the darkness is detracting from, instead of adding to, the sense of immersion.
The sound design was another problem in SGU. Stargate was (and is) primarily a space opera. This means over-the-top larger-than-life situations, and the musical style must match and enhance the mood of the scene. Classical orchestral pieces are usually the preferred means for SciFi musical scores, such as John Williams’ classic Star Wars score. The original Stargate movie score was such a piece, and it was adapted brilliantly for both SG1 and SGA.
In SGU, the producers tried (again) to mimic a different, more restrained type of score used to great effect by shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. However, this kind of score hardly fits with the Stargate storytelling style, even in SGU. In SGU many emotional scenes fall flat due to lack of proper background music. The simple solo piano riff used in SG1 and SGA on similar scenes was replaced by awkward silence. (A good example of how important music is for emotional scenes can be seen in the SG1 season 5 episode “Meridian”. Watch the final act of the episode with muted audio and see -or rather hear- how great a difference it makes to the mood.)
The acting in SGU was very difficult to judge. Due to the camera, lighting and musical shortcomings of the show, scenes that would be good from an acting standpoint were simply ruined. It’s almost impossible for the viewer to immerse himself into the emotional plight of a character, when during an actor’s monologue the camera keeps jerking around, darkness obscures the actor’s features, and there’s no music to add to the mood. Under these circumstances, even a really great performance by a world-class actor will be destroyed.
That being said, my own impression was that most of the actors had a distinct ‘fish-out-of-water’ feel about them. I think this was probably because they were asked to perform what was essentially a classical character-driven drama in a science-fictional setting. I’m convinced that if you removed the actors from their SciFi surroundings and placed them in a modern suburban home, acting exactly the same scene, their performances would seem much better.
Although I already discussed some of the problems facing the writers of the show, I feel compelled to point out a few things that left me disappointed. Yes, the premise of the show was very limiting to the type of story that could be told, and yes, the artistic direction of the show was uninspired; but the show could be much better nonetheless, if the writing was more competent.
The most glaring issue was -of course- the character development. Characters make the backbone of any show. An audience will happily watch likable characters, and forgive any and all other shortcomings in the story. However, characters in SGU were not just unlikable, they were also unrealistic. One basic rule when writing characters, is: be truthful to your character’s identity. This basically means that you can’t make a character that is supposed to be one thing, and then turn around and give him a completely contradicting personality.
In the case of SGU, we have characters that are supposed to be either top scientists or elite military personnel with a few politicians thrown in the mix. So you’d expect the scientists to be afraid yet excited by the prospect of new discoveries, the soldiers to be calm and battle-ready according to their training, and the politicians to take a leader/organizer/mediator role. They are all proud professionals, and with maybe a couple of exceptions, no one would freak out or start bickering in a life-threatening situation.
Yet in the show the personalities of all those characters do not reflect their supposed professions. It takes a certain kind of person to become an elite soldier, a top scientist, or a successful politician. However, the way the characters of SGU react to situations do not reflect their supposed personality traits or their training. The soldiers are cowardly and undisciplined, the scientists stupid, and the politicians irritate instead of moderate, and they seem to be incapable of diplomacy or compromise. In fact if anything, they all fall into a single type of personality: the overpaid, pampered and neurotic Hollywood script writer.
Because in the final analysis it seems that the writers of SGU made the classic rookie mistake of asking themselves “how would I react to this situation?” instead of asking “how would the character react to this situation?” when they wrote their stories. And this more than anything else is what makes the SGU characters unrealistic and therefore uninteresting.
The stories of SGU suffered much from this; just exploring the three different mindsets and cultures (military, scientist and politician) could make for many interesting stories, seeing how the three different factions faced problems and interacted with each other. But since none of the characters’ personalities were realistic, this opportunity was wasted. Instead, what was written in the stories was lukewarm drama, petty bickering, backstabbing and paranoia. These stories might have seemed far more realistic if the spaceship’s crew consisted solely of professional script writers 🙂
Another glaring problem was the so-called ‘communication stones’. From a production point of view, the c-stones were a convenient way to reduce expenses by filming as many scenes as possible on local urban locations instead of having to create new sets for every show. From a storytelling point of view, the c-stones could be used to put new characters on the spaceship. However, in most of the episodes I’ve seen, the c-stones were used for the former reason rather than the latter.
It’s hard to appreciate the invention of the c-stones, when it becomes apparent that they were not indented to further any plot line, but simply as a cost-cutting measure. This also explains why all the Earth-bound scenes seem so out of place in SGU; the Earth c-stone scenes/episodes were forced upon the writers, and they didn’t know what to do with them. For me personally the worst c-stone based episode was the one called ‘Life’ (which translated from Newspeak is of course ‘Death’) in which nothing relevant to the story seems to happen, and it happens at a snail’s pace.
It’s ironic that Stargate Universe is, in true Orwellian Newspeak, the most restrictive in both theme and scope of all the Stargate shows to date. The way they were used in the show, the c-stones came to represent the exact opposite of the Stargate: instead taking off on the wings of imagination and travelling to distant worlds to explore and have adventures, the c-stones took the show (in every sense) back down to Earth.
In my opinion, SGU died a deserved death. Not because it was different than the other Stargate shows, and certainly not because it put its emphasis on character interaction over pure adventure. It deserved to die because in the end, it was a bad imitation of far better shows, and a lazy effort by certain people (you know who you are) who were so used to success, that they did not bother to invest their full creative energy in making a show that it could stand on its own. If they had, they would not hide it behind the ‘Stargate’ brand name, but would’ve put it on the air as a new independent series ‘from the creators of Stargate SG1’.
Stargate Universe was a bad show, but it must not be forgotten; it teaches a very valuable lesson on what not to do when you are producing a science fiction or in fact any kind of TV show. Because in the end the network might buy your show, but it’s the audience who will make it a success or a failure. When you try to please the former by ignoring the latter, you will suffer the consequences.