Unbelievable! With "Founder's Day," the season 4 premiere of Eureka (July 9, 2010 on Syfy), we finally encounter that most elusive creature in the history of science fiction: a production team that's kept their hands off the reset button.
Conventional wisdom holds that the weekly series format mediates against change from week to week, yet drama depends on change and conflict within a story; the most hackneyed way of reconciling these opposites is to undo radical change at the end of the episode and make it all like it was (pressing the reset button). In the past even Eureka has been guilty. But not this time.
A New World
To be fair, few shows are as ideally situated to shake things up as Eureka, or as willing to deal with the consequences. Past flirtations with divergent timelines have involved the deaths of important characters and exploration of memory as a by-product, and even curse, of seeing the way things might have been, or had been before reality was given a swift one-two punch. So far, these timeline storylines have resulted more in the weathering of the characters through bitter experience than in change to the show itself.
But, as I said, not this time.
The basic idea: In the midst of preparing for Eureka's 60th anniversary celebration of Founder's Day, long-suffering Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) unknowingly gets sucked back to just before the town was officially founded. There he immediately encounters Dr. Trevor Grant (new series regular James Callis), a scientist working with Albert Einstein. Soon it turns out that Allison, Jo, Henry, and Fargo (Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Erica Cerra, Joe Morton, Neil Grayston) have also been somehow sent back to the past. The machinations of how they get home are less important than how they deal with each other along the way, and what happens afterward.
A Stitch in Time
Meanwhile we're having the great fun of seeing all the principals in 1940s drag, including Jack looking very at home dressed both as a G.I. and in a suit and fedora, and Allison in a (pristine) nurses's uniform. And Jack, of course, has all the best lines: after succeeding at his usual dangerous task to fix the Whatever Device, he cackles merrily and tells Founder's Day what it can do with itself. Colin Ferguson remains the most valuable weapon in the Syfy arsenal.
James Callis, though, looks poised to give him a run for his money: part of the tension of these first few episodes is not only Dr. Grant's enthusiastically expressed appreciation for Allison, whom Jack has been trying to get closer to for years, but also the intriguing prospect of watching the effect of adding a star of Callis's wattage to Ferguson's show. Ferguson seems more than ready to rise to the occasion.
And Callis's presence in the Eureka format is fascinating to watch. On Battlestar Galactica Callis was free to be as subtle or bold as he liked, because the rich complexities of the series could handle anything he threw at it. Here, in the brasher dramedy format, we watch Callis adapting his technique, less able to give away what Grant is thinking than he'd been able to do with Baltar, and so less easy to read. Is he going to fit in, dropped into the middle of a tightly bound ensemble of three years' making?
Carter and Grant
Then we get to a scene where Grant has a brief, beautiful exchange with a suspicious guard, who growlingly asks whether Grant had thought he'd get away with something. "I did," Grant says, and flicks his eyes up briefly: "I really did." And I decide I love James Callis all over again.
All of the regulars get some reasonably meaty stuff in the first two episodes, including Zane (Niall Matter) and even Allison's son Kevin (Meshach Peters). Plus, we get a return from Tess (Jaime Ray Newman, thanks to the cancellation of her series Eastwick); later episodes will feature Wil Wheaton, Jaime Kennedy, and the return of Matt Frewer.
Eureka started out in dangerous territory, with the outsider getting drawn into the life of a secret town, in a format that mines comedy from drama: the result could have been a "what explodes this week" kind of show. But the combination of exceptional writing (led by creators Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia) and a truly compelling and always pleasant performance from Colin Ferguson, who manages to make us laugh and feel for the poor sucker every single time he saves the town, has led Eureka in a deeper and more fulfilling direction. Each season, Eureka has gotten stronger, bolder, and better, and this season promises to be its best yet.