So last week, we witnessed the passing of yet another science-fiction franchise from television. Syfy broadcast the series finale of Stargate Universe on Monday, and I call it the demise of the franchise because the show's cancellation has been a death blow to the promised SG-1 and Atlantis movies as well. Though it's possible that MGM will bring the franchise back through comics, novels—or yes, even another movie or spin-off—for now there will be no more Stargate on television. That, to me, is far more tragic than the cancellation of a single series. Still, I'm going to take a look now at Stargate Universe and its impact on my opinion of the franchise as a whole.
In the beginning, I remember a strong backlash to the show's "darker tones" and charges that it Syfy wanted a "darker sci-fi" show to replace Battlestar Galactica. Apparently "light sci-fi" just doesn't pay the bills, although the continual renewal of Eureka seems like it would belie this idea. Anyway, there was the usual clamour from the die-hard reactionaries that Stargate Universe wasn't "the same" as the good-old days, and for that reason they were going to boycott the show.
Well that turned out well for the franchise, didn't it, reactionary fans?
To be fair, the style of SGU did depart rather drastically from the previous two Stargate series. For me, these stylistic differences were far more troublesome than changes to the tone of the stories. I watched "Gauntlet," the series finale, on Wednesday, and I discovered I am still not used to the tight-angle shaky-cam-style cinematography that, yes, makes the series seem more like BSG. I miss the more wide-angle filming from SG-1 and Atlantis. I could also have done without the montages, set to mopey music, at the end of every few episodes. I realize that this is common in television shows these days, probably because it is an inexpensive way to telegraph how various members of the ensemble cast feel. But that has never been Stargate's style, and it just felt out of place. I want space opera, not soap opera.
The worst stylistic change, however, was the colour palette and the lighting. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I despise dark, low-contrast sets; if I have too much trouble seeing what's happening on the screen, why would I even bother watching the show? (Because it's Stargate, that's why!) I understand that the set designers want to distinguish between Destiny, a very old and antiquated ship, and the more advanced Ancient designs in Atlantis. Nevertheless, you've got people wearing black uniforms wandering around on a mostly-dark ship with black and brown walls.
So before the story even becomes a factor, Stargate Universe did feel different than the previous series, and not always in a good way. This was a significant stumbling block existing fans. I won't pretend to guess what people new to the franchise thought when they first saw SGU. If they did become fans, it's probably because of the plot and characters and not the lighting, but I could be wrong.
My reaction to the first season of SGU was probably along the lines of an optimistic "meh." To be honest, I had a similar reaction to the last season or two of Atlantis, where I kept hoping for a good new antagonist to emerge (Todd doesn't count). But no, the writers kept dragging back the Replicators like they were going out of style (which they weren't; they were already out of style). Season 1 did a great job exploring the human element of being stranded aboard a somewhat-run-down spaceship with no way of getting back home. Yet the episodes were sometimes frustrating, and there was no reasoning with them once they dropped into "montage mode." My frustration with season 1, however, stems more from a frustration with season 9 and 10 of SG-1 which then got carried over to SGU: where art the episodic television?
Stargate SG-1 had its beginnings in great, episodic storytelling. The Stargate itself, which is second only to the TARDIS as a storytelling device, is made for that format: each episode, SG-1 stepped through the gate, not knowing what they would find. Sure, there was a larger mythology, but it mostly stayed in the background while each episode's story took centre stage.
Gradually, the series metamorphosed into a more serial format, culminating with the final two seasons, which were one large story that finishes in Stargate: The Ark of Truth. There is nothing wrong with serial television per se, and I love that format as much as I like episodic television, if not more. Yet once in a while I yearn for the halcyon, episodic days of this franchise, when one steps through the gate and confronts the unknown.
SGU should have been a renewal in that regard. New series, new galaxy, new rules. It made the first few tentative steps toward that goal, but then it faltered. For me, the single most disappointing thing about the series is the way it marginalized the Stargate, turning it into little more than a supply chain for Destiny. I feel like the show did not use the Stargate enough, despite the fact that, especially in season 1, it was used in almost every episode. When it was used, most of the time it led to worlds devoid of humanoid life, suitable only for a monster-of-the-week or some new supplies to keep Destiny stocked. That, for me, wasn't enough. And I miss the humanoid life forms! I realize that the Ancients hadn't visited the galaxies through which Destiny was travelling, so they couldn't have seeded them with life like they did Pegasus and the Milky Way. But weird CGI blue fish aliens and soulless technology-destroying drones do not make awesome storytelling, especially when the former storyline got brushed aside like so much dust from season 1 and the latter just did not seem to die.
If that last paragraph seemed too vitriolic, it's only because I want to voice my disappointment in SGU compared to what it could have been. Unlike some fans, I am not going to give the writers a blank cheque and blame Syfy solely for its cancellation. SGU was not great, and while it improved in leaps and bounds during season 2, it still had problems. Were these problems enough to merit cancellation? I don't think so, and as much as anyone can be blamed when it comes to these events, the proper target is probably Syfy. But let's qualify that.
Not living in the States, I don't accurately know the extent to which Syfy promoted SGU. I am lucky enough to live in Canada. This is a nice place to live--government notwithstanding--but it also happens to have a specialty science-fiction and fantasy channel, SPACE, that actually, you know, cares about science-fiction programming. And so far it has not announced any wrestling in its line-up! I am so, so sorry, my American friends, that you have had to endure the bait-and-switch Syfy has achieved in the past two years. Now that it has changed its name and become the channel that will "imagine greater," it seems ready to replace intriguing science fiction with wrestling and cooking shows. This is a betrayal of the first order, and I feel your pain. While I do not think that Syfy cancelled Stargate Universe only because it wants to make room for more "mainstream" entertainment, I think the cancellation, coupled with the shift in the network's programming policies, demonstrates a lack of engagement with or interest in science fiction in general. That is a shame, because the Sci-Fi Channel has brought us great programming in the past. And the worst thing is that boycotting the channel entirely is a terrible idea, because there are still shows on there worth watching--and not watching them would just encourage Syfy to cancel them altogether!
Still, if there is anything this Syfy scandal has demonstrated, it is the need to support independent productions. Buy DVDs of your favourite show, introduce them to friends, and watch or buy web extras. Support the shows like Sanctuary that try to roll it alone. It's clear that if science fiction is going to have a place on television, mainstream or sidestream or slipstream, it will get there because we put it there, not because there happens to be a network around that cares about science fiction.
And as for Stargate Universe: I am sad to see you go. We had our rough moments, but you were full of potential, and your writers had established enough credit to continue, at least in my opinion. The dynamics between the military and the civilian characters were excellent. Though still nominally under a military command, personified by Colonel Young, civilians like Nicolas Rush and Camille Wray had considerable input--not to mention the contributions of Chloe, Eli, Brody, Volker, Park, etc. And Stargate Universe carried its ensemble cast very well. It was a clean break from the four-person team format of the previous two series, and by season two the writers were well into pairing off characters. Finally, Stargate Universe embodied the themes so prominent in its predecessors: the precarious balance between exploration and protection, as seen in the interaction between the scientists and the military personnel. Colonel Young wanted to get his people home; Rush wanted to complete Destiny's "mission." Neither really knew if their goals were compatible. And now we'll never know.
You were cut down before you could reach your prime, Stargate Universe, and I mourn your loss, both as a show and as the present flagship of one of the best science-fiction franchises in television history. I will miss you.