One of the problems with Stargate Atlantis from the very beginning was its setting: for humanity's daring and dangerous first mission to an unknown galaxy, the expedition members are set up in the Ancients' version of Grand Hotel. There they encounter an extremely deadly nemesis race which is, however, asleep (at first), and most of the tension related to the Wraith came from piecemeal encounters and the background fear that eventually they'll all get together and become an actual threat to Atlantis.
Elevation of the Stargate Universe
The internal tension was from minor turf tiffs between military and civilian decisions and similar bureaucracy, symbolized by consummate paper-pusher Woolsey eventually ending up in charge. The second Stargate series, in other words, inverted the intimate peril of the Pegasus mission into a comfy, copasetic junket with the danger often muted and at arm's length.
Stargate Universe (premieres on Syfy Oct. 2, 2009) corrects these premise-related flaws and then some. The unwilling expedition of military and civilian refugees who end up aboard a failing Ancient spacecraft are immediately forced through a series of crises that involve, not fending off ravening monsters, but simply staying alive; and because they have no unity of origin or common purpose, their ability to succeed is compromised far more realistically than with your average team of impossibly capable heroes.
The folks making Stargate Universe (including writers and co-creators Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper and director Andy Mikita) have had over a decade to hone their skills, and their ability to realize an alien environment has been taken to a new level with this show -- particularly with the Ancient vessel, the Destiny. The ability to marry CGI and set to give a sense of a vast, damaged, dirty, and achingly old vessel has come a long way from the rendered-looking vessels we saw on early SG-1; it's possible at times to feel, aboard the Destiny, that this is a constructed thing, lost in the infinite and horrifying vacuum of space, and offering its unexpected passengers far from perfect protection from it.
Forced into a New Destiny
The feel of these episodes (the premiere is the first two thirds of a three-parter, "Air") brings to mind the first season of Battlestar Galactica, with its palpable sense of imminent danger coming not only from external threats but from internal disunity and individual agendas as well. The effort to dial the mysterious nine-digit address is taking place on a planet with a unique, high-energy core; when the planet is attacked by an enemy armada, the project members have only one choice: to evacuate through the stargate. Rush decides at the last moment that they can't gate to Earth -- the imminent destruction of the planet would threaten Earth through the stargate, so he unilaterally decides to evacuate to wherever the nine-digit address takes them. Unfortunately this takes them from a planet collapsing around them to a battered ship very, very far out into the cold depths of the universe.
The conventional means of bringing the viewer into the midst of the crisis, by means of an everyman sucked into the adventure, is executed unusually well in the character of Eli Wallace (brilliantly played by David Blue, who has recently been on Moonlight and Ugly Betty). Eli solves a difficult puzzle in an online game, which turns out to have been placed there by an SGC scientist, Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), looking for a genius capable of solving a maddening real-life riddle: how to dial a unique, nine-digit address on a stargate, something that involves an infusion of power both immense and incredibly specific.
Eli provides the answer eventually, since his thinking is more unconventional (and irreverent, therefore assumption-challenging) than Rush's; but his more important role is to place the viewer/fan in his shoes in the midst of the thrill and jeopardy. (The creators even lampshade this for us: in a few scenes, Eli wears a tee-shirt that says YOU ARE HERE.)
The other breakout performance comes from Brian J. Smith playing a green first lieutenant, Matthew Scott, who's totally unprepared for what happens once everyone comes through the stargate, and has to learn his own measure by the seat of his pants. Smith, a relative unknown fresh out of Juilliard, perhaps is able to bring to bear his own situation as a novice shouldering a significant portion of the weight of a show like this; in any event he hits all the right notes and constantly demonstrates a deep natural talent for exhibiting nuance and connection.
Carlyle is forced to play a tough game, and he does it well: the other characters aren't sure they trust him, and we're not entirely sure where he stands either. Rush is congenitally secretive and self-motivated, and even decisions that seem to make sense carry a whiff of ulterior motive. More straightforward is Louis Ferreira's gruff mission commander, Col. Everett Young. You know where he stands, but Ferreira also communicates a stubbornness and unbending commitment that could send him charging forward before more flexible minds find a back way.
The individuals thrown into this situation -- who also include the passionate Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque), medic Tarama Johansen (Alaina Huffman), hot-tempered sergeant Ronald Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), and IOA bureaucrat Camile Wray (Ming-Na) -- also have pasts with each other, so over the first season much of the tension is going to involve the emergence of secrets and conflicts alongside threats posed from outside. The performances are superb and the writing pitch-perfect, steering clear of hand-wringing histrionics and perverse jokiness.
There are certain weaknesses. Some elements of the premise are, frankly, contrived. For one thing, it's stated that this uncharted distant corner of the universe has planets with stargates, because they were previously seeded by unmanned Ancient ships. And Rush has brought with him a set of Ancient stones that allow them to inhabit a body monitoring matching stones on Earth (and vice versa), magically allowing the people aboard the Destiny to interact with Stargate Command (including Col. Telford, played by Lou Diamond Phillips) and others back on Earth. This is stretching the Ancients' status as "sufficiently advanced aliens" to a whole new level.
But Stargate Universe is exceptionally well made and accomplishes, better than many shows, the remit of science fiction: to take us to an unknown place and time, and explore what humans make of themselves when we get there.