Stargate Universe was canceled weeks ago, which adds a sort of fatalist poignancy to the final ten episodes that begin with "Deliverance" (premiere: March 7, 2011 on Syfy). In these last few episodes, the inadvertent crew of the ancient starship Destiny twist their way out of daunting crises, yet their writhings are futile to escape the steel grip of their most implacable enemy, the fatal disinterest of their own network.
The Last Leg
I'd describe season 2.5 as promising for the future of Stargate Universe if we didn't already know that there isn't one. I was one of those who cheered SGU from the beginning, invigorated by its realistic build from urgent problems of immediate survival to a scope and scale progressively grander and more complex. But for those who scoffed that SGU started slow and dark ("Turn on a light!" said some -- why, so it can look like the Grand Hotel sets of Stargate Atlantis?), seasons 1.5, 2.0, and now 2.5 have escalated the stakes at every opportunity.
The midseason finale left Destiny on the brink of being destroyed by the machine-driven Berzerker drone ships, having been lured by the alien Ursini into an ambush by the drones. This particular scenario offers an interesting opportunity to contrast the approach of SGU with its franchise predecessors. The teams from both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis were also threatened by indomitable machine forces -- the Replicators, advanced robots capable of reproducing themselves indefinitely, consuming all available resources in an area to create more of themselves. Compared with them SGU's attack drones seem mundane: they're just dones, armored deliverers of firepower with no capabilities more elaborate than using their considerable numbers and firepower to batter Destiny to smithereens.
The Power of Humanity
The point is precisely that the crew of Destiny are living on the brink of destruction every moment. Their fundamental situation is exactly the same as in the series premiere, "Air": their survival is so precarious that the danger posed by the threats they face are orders of magnitude higher than they would be for the heroes of previous series.
SG-1 and Atlantis built up the power and might of Earth and its forces to positively giddy levels: its stars reduced the awesome, race-enslaving peril of the Goa'uld to a joke, with Ba'al clones popping up hither and yon to snark at SG-1; humanity built mighty starships of their own, acquired the mind-bending technology of the Asgard, and even created a stargate tunnel between far-flung galaxies. It's a question worthy of the great writers of the sci-fi pulp era: when humans start to walk among the stars as gods, are they still human?
Drama works not just from conflict but from vulnerability as well. The overempowerment of Stargate's heroes had the palpable effect of eroding the drama and suspense from the encounters between other species and Earth's unflappable, wise-cracking defenders. The Wraith struggled to establish themselves as a believable threat against the rep earned by the victors over the Goa'uld and Ori, and by the end their galaxy-ensnaring might was reduced to the wry sarcasms of a Wraith named Todd. Yes, both SG-1 and Atlantis were great shows -- well written, well acted, and with many powerful and effective stories; but they did themselves a disservice by the progressively enhanced capabilities of Stargate Command.
Rethinking Sci-Fi Conflict
Stargate Universe wisely rethought this approach. SGC was placed in the background, both by distance and with catastrophic defeats against the Lucian Alliance. The fleeing occupants of Icarus base were literally hurled onto the dying Destiny. Even without dealing with hostile life forms, survival was a challenge.
And now, at the top of season 2.5, the humans are faced with three dangerous external threats of a very different nature. The attack drones represent the kind of threat that Destiny, without support fighter craft of its own, is not equipped to face, especially in multiple engagements. The Ursini represent a different kind of threat, a weak and desperate race, willing to ensnare the humans to save themselves. And from within, the blue aliens' pathogen is slowly taking over Chloe, with the looming moment her humanity falls away impossible to predict.
In this context the friction among the humans becomes magnified in its ramifications. On SG-1, human threats to the heroes' united front came from standard-issue villains: ambitious megalomaniacs, venal traitors, or small-minded politicians. (SGU still has some of this as well: in an upcoming episode, a senator and an SGC scientist come on board Destiny, via the stones, to evaluate the mission.) The interpersonal conflict in SGU smacks much more of how we know reality actually works: even now, halfway through season 2, the leaders of the expedition -- Young, Wray, Rush, and Telford -- have different agendas that drive them to wariness or actual mistrust even at the very moments when working together is imperative.
The Future of 'Stargate Universe'
"Deliverance" and the episodes that follow are certainly not perfect television. Peter DeLuise, a longtime laborer on the Stargate stable, has perfected a style of direction that uses motion, over the shoulder shots at unexpected moments, and the occasional momentary obscuring of the subject to make the viewer feel like he's standing right there, on the bridge during a battle or eavesdropping on a critical meeting as the leaders agonize over what to do.
The downside of this observational style is that even an action-packed episode like this one -- a lot happens in "Deliverance" -- seems to slow down in moments where the crew pause to do urgent but mundane things, like attempting to fix the shields so that the Destiny can jump to FTL before it's pulverized by the drones. This choice to show such moments normally, rather than as hectically as the battle scenes, is a good one; but it does have secondary consequences for pace in an action-driven episode.
My quibbles with SGU are few. The outstanding acting, writing (which is also mercifully free from technobabble), and production values arise from a strong idea. Throwing an unprepared crew into a reconceptualized form of suspense and conflict? Brilliant. A complex figure like Rush whose motivations and goals aren't always written on his sleeve? A commander who's imperfect, not necessarily equipped to trounce every problem that comes his way with a joke and a high-five? About time. Stargate Universe is an experiment, and -- unlike Syfy (and the fans who tactlessly cheered its demise) -- I don't believe it was a failure.