We could well be witnessing the birth of a new Sci Fi icon. Channelling the spirit of Dr Zachary Smith and Kerr Avon, Robert (Trainspotting) Carlyle’s Dr Nicholas Rush is an anti-hero every bit as self-serving and manipulative, yet charismatic and watchable as his predecessors. Of course, Carlyle has another advantage, he can actually act (which helps, because he’s given some really cheesy dialogue at times).
You can’t help but watch the show, wondering what kind of contract Carlyle has signed. Usually, US Networks try to get stars to sign up to a multi-season option, but, you keep telling yourself, surely someone of Carlyle’s ilk wouldn’t commit to that. But if he hasn’t, and he does an Eccleston on us, you can’t help wondering if Universe would be a quarter as good without him. Not that the show isn’t without its other merits, but you kinda wonder if casual viewers are going to think of it primarily as anything other than, “That spaceship show with the Scottish git in it.” After just three episodes, Rush is by far the most memorable in the show, if not the franchise (that sound you hear is Daniel Jackson fans sucking air through gritted teeth).
As for the show itself, well congratulations to the production team for actually achieving what Enterprise never did, and genuinely giving us a show that feels like a reboot, and not just more of the same with a different set of faces. Although never quite as gritty as Galactica (a show which it clearly attempts to emulate) it is more than just Stargate with the lights turned down. Although, as the opening shots strive to ram home, the lights have been turned down.
No, this show feels different tonally as well. Partly this is the result of an inherent sense of desperation in the new scenario: while under attack from mysterious spaceships, a mix bunch of civilians and military types evacuate through a wormhole to a undefined location. This turns out to be an empty, damaged, ancient spaceship light years from Earth and heading inexorably further out into the far reaches the universe.
But the show also feels different because it’s not taking a humans-versus-aliens, action adventure approach. Well, not so far, at least. The drama instead comes from the need to survive, internal power struggles and arguments over the right course of action to take next, because the on-board stargate isn’t letting anyone get back to Earth. It‘s a tense, edgy show in which cameos from the original series actually feel a little out of place.
Aside from the Galactica influences, there are also elements of Lost (plenty of flashbacks) and even Heroes (in attempting to make a likable hero out of a geek – three episodes in, the jury’s still out on that one). The trouble is, while the writers have identified elements from those shows worth implementing in Universe, they never quite match them in terms of quality. The dialogue (especially when it comes to relationship scenes) is often stilted and hammy; the characters (aside from Rush and comedy geek Eli) are so far fairly bland and one-note; and some of the plotting and character dynamics are straight from the Big Book Of US Drama Clichés. What we end up with is certainly a more “grown-up” Stargate, but it's not quite The West Wing in space that Galactica was; there's still too much of Stargate slightly hokey SF DNA in the mix, though maybe that will vanish over time.
But there are some truly great moments, with some stunning, cinematic action sequences, a tangibly tense atmosphere and a few hints of an intriguing larger arc plot. Stargate fans should be proud of it*, and it may even pick up a good few converts. It’s a solid, entering start to a series that certainly has promise. It also has the potential to become remarkably po-faced and talky, but there are hints of some twists coming up that shake up the format a bit to prevent that.
But the producers had better work hard on fleshing out the other characters just in case Carlyle does decide to leave.
Stargate Universe premieres in Sci Fi in the States on 2 October, and on Sky One on 6 October
* Unless there's some great continuity cock-ups and controversial aspects I'm not aware of – I'm a casual SG viewer, not a hardcore fan, so I could be wrong in that prediction.