As you’re probably beginning to guess, I’m a sci-fi (spelled properly!) addict. At least when I have the resources available to me. Books, television, movies, they’re all good fixes for me. I’ve been known to love some really bad sci-fi, and hate some supposedly really good sci-fi, but what disappoints me is the failure of successful franchises because of stupid decisions in the pre-production stages. Although I thought I posted on another blog of mine about these two particular shows, I can’t find the post, so I will start over here: Caprica and Stargate Universe died on account of they were stupid. (There’s a non-sci-fi movie reference there, can you spot it?)
Caprica is was the prequel spin-off series for the relatively recently ended Battlestar Galactica television series that set all sorts of standards for science fiction on television. Siffie promised us a television series that took place 50 years before the events of BSG, dealing with the Adama and Greystone families, and how their successes and failures lead to the First Great Cylon War. This is all fine and dandy, but they also promised us something that made absolutely no sense whatsoever when taking the just ended BSG series into account: the creation of the Cylons.
Sometimes I don’t feel all that bright. A lot of times, I miss a lot of details that could be important. And finally, I confess that I only watched a few episodes of Caprica. But what I can’t understand is how the 2,000+ years of Cylon history from BSG could be squeezed into the 50 years between Caprica and BSG. The only possible loophole they have is the Cylon prophecy in BSG that “this has all happened before, it shall all happen again” and huge amount of genetic and archaeological stupidity in both human and Cylon races. Perhaps this huge oversight was going to be cleared up at some point in a later season that we’ll never get to see. But the thing that strikes me most about this glaring oversight? The fact that the same writers, directors, and producers were involved in both series! What, did all of them suddenly forget what the hell they had been preaching for the last two seasons of BSG? Maybe humanity really is that stupid…
What I can’t stand, however, is when a television series is conceptualized without taking into account the successes and failures of other, similar series. While Stargate Universe was beginning to grow on me, like a tumor, it had some significant fundamental flaws that again could have been corrected in pre-production. But before I get to that, I need you to understand why I’m going to do my best to rip this show a new asshole. Excuse my French.
Way back in 1994, before I stopped liking Kurt Russell, came along an interesting movie with the premise that we’d get to know fairly well. The movie was Stargate, and the premise was that an ancient portal to other worlds was found buried in Egypt and taken to a secure U.S. military facility for study. That tickles all the right funny bones with me: you have archaeology and history (thank you Dr. Jones!), the military, and you have science fiction. The portal of course lead to another world where humans had been enslaved by aliens that utilized the names of ancient Egyptian gods. Hell, the film even had French Stewart! The film had a great plot, pretty good acting, and damned good special effects, and I was eagerly awaiting a sequel.
Which never really came… But I got over that.
Then in 1997, Stargate SG-1 came along, and it pissed me off for two reasons, one of which I forgave more readily than the other. The forgivable crime was that it was exclusive to the Showtime television network, which I couldn’t get. It wasn’t their fault, it was possibly mine for not having the correct channel package, and certainly my cable provider’s for not allowing me to have all the channels like I desired. The second crime, which I eventually got over, was the fact that everyone got recast. I was hoping, at the time, that they’d just pick up with the same cast and make a television series based around it, but I was sorely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I was and still am a big Richard Dean Anderson fan, and have been since MacGyver debuted back in the 80’s, but he didn’t seem at all right for Jack O’Neill. So, I vowed to boycott the show, by not even trying to get Showtime, despite the good ratings a number of my friends gave it.
Skip ahead a few years, factor in the rise and fall of the unrelated television show Farscape, the move from Showtime to Siffie, and the introduction of the spin-off Stargate Atlantis. I’m going to go through some of these items very, very briefly, but trust me, they’re related. We’re almost back to SGU, I promise! In 1999, my buddy told me about this new series from the Jim Henson company called Farscape that might be right up my alley. I listened, I watched, I wasn’t impressed. At first. But the series did nothing but get better the longer it went on, and the main character was played by Ben Browder, and it also starred Claudia Black, both of which I loved and both of which eventually went on to play roles in Stargate SG-1. In fact, they’re the reason I started watching SG-1 even though I had started watching Stargate Atlantis regularly. Once I got hooked on SG-1 with Colonel Mitchell’s (Browder) team, I found that the various team members had lots of likable quirks and they obviously worked well together. So, I started watching the old episodes whenever I got the chance, and I decided that my hatred of the series for all those years was completely unfounded. I felt ashamed, and I’m still trying to catch episodes I missed to this day. Sooner or later, I’ll have to buy the complete series boxed set…
Stargate Atlantis tickled my history, archaeology, and mythology funny bones, and drew me in with quirky characters and awesome stories. To this day, I’m not sure who my single favorite character on the show was, but I can tell you who my least favorite was: Richard Woolsey played by Robert Picardo. (Small Rant) I know that Picardo had made numerous appearances on the show and on SG-1 prior to the cancellation of either show, but I knew Atlantis was being canceled the moment they announced that Colonel Carter (Amanda Tapping’s character) was being replaced as expedition commander by Woolsey. I don’t know what it is about Picardo, but I couldn’t stand him in Star Trek: Voyager (see below), only tolerated him for the comedy relief he provided in Star Trek: First Contact, and I actively avoid him whenever possible. (End Rant) Only the addition to the cast of Jewel Staite from Firefly and Serenity kept me watching Atlantis to the end.
So, you see, I have a lot of love for the Stargate empire, and I was eager to find out what Stargate Universe was all about when the new series was announced. When the details finally started coming out, I started scrambling for a way to get in contact with the writers and producers to get them to change their minds about the direction they were headed in. The reason was simple. Although there were lots of rabid Star Trek fans that loved Voyager, I basically hated the show because it was going so far against all the other series that it wasn’t Star Trek any more. My Star Trek loving friends didn’t even watch the show. I watched out of morbid fascination and in the unlikely hope that they’d make the show better. The concept of Voyager was flawed from the start: Rick Berman and other series creators wanted to “get back” to the simplicity of the original series, which they conceptualized as one ship against the galaxy.
The problem was that at no point was the Enterprise under the command of Kirk ever completely cut off from Starfleet and isolated in unfriendly space. They often went to the rescue of other Starfleet vessels, came in contact with them, and visited starbases. The Enterprise wasn’t forced through season after season of running combat while trying to get home. Kirk dealt with aliens far beyond his ability to conceive not only by fighting them, but reasoning with them. This was never possible or allowed in Voyager or in two seasons of Enterprise. Kirk found solutions, Janeway just dealt with the problems, which given their situation might have been acceptable, but it wasn’t the Star Trek way. The original Star Trek series was about exploration, but after the passing of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek in Berman’s hands seemed to be about nothing but combat and special effects. Frankly, I’m glad Roddenberry didn’t live to see his dream, his creation get perverted in Berman’s hands. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Deep Space Nine which was Berman’s child as well, and I had high hopes for Enterprise though I knew it was going to be put down as well when they made Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer such a weak captain, but Voyager was a complete disaster in my book.
What bothered me the most about Voyager (and Enterprise)? This is difficult for me to express properly, but I hated that the racial mix among the cast felt forced. It was like someone said “We have to have 10% black actors, at least 5% Asian, and let’s see what other minorities we can throw in the mix.” I’m black, and I always love to see black actors in movies and television, but it felt forced on Voyager and Enterprise. I wouldnt’ have cared if there wasn’t a single regular cast member that was black if they cast the best actors for the roles instead. While I’m not griping about the acting on Voyager or Enterprise, I am stating that the racial balance felt forced.
Now that you know my reasoning, here’s why Stargate Universe failed: the producers didn’t learn a damned thing from the failures of Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise. They took an existing property that had a very successful formula, scratched out a lot of what made it successful, and threw it together without considering what their audience wanted, expected, or liked. They keys to the success of both SG-1 and Atlantis is that there was regular contact between the teams, they organized and mobilized like military forces do and should, they made extensive efforts at diplomacy in the tradition of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and had good story lines that occasionally necessitated combat, but blowing something up wasn’t usually the first thing the teams resorted to. At no point were the main characters ever permanently cut off from the supporting characters at Stargate Command. And, most importantly, all the central characters were likable.
Stargate Universe followed in Star Trek Voyager‘s footsteps by immediately cutting off all practical contact with their central base of operations. I think during the filming of the pilot, one of the writers caught whiff of Voyager‘s rotting corpse and contrived the Ancient communication stones to try to counteract this failure, but I don’t think it was terribly successful. Top it off, the commanding officer Colonel Young, played by Louis Ferreira, was an asshole that didn’t have any clear goals or motivations other than he didn’t like to lose what he had. I’m not criticizing the acting, Ferreira played the role quite well, but the character wasn’t remotely likable. Truthfully, the only characters I liked, besides the recurring characters from the other series, on the show were Sargent Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), Eli Wallace (David Blue), Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle), Camile Wray (Ming-Na), and Colonel Telford (Lou Diamond Phillips). I couldn’t care if the rest lived or died. And that was a problem.
One of the keys to success with all of these sci-fi shows I’ve mentioned in this post is that the successful shows featured characters with clear motivations, goals, and had supporting characters that were hellbent on helping them achieve them. They were likable characters played to perfection by their actors. I’m not criticizing a single actor in this post for their acting ability, but I assure you that the the show’s success or failure hinged on the charisma of their characters in addition to the groundwork on which the show was based. Stargate Universe was dead before it ever aired. It had no choice but to fall back on what failed in Voyager and Enterprise: pointless combat and special effects. When that wasn’t enough, it tried to rely on the personalities of the characters and plot elements that were on hand. When those weren’t enough, they tried to correct the problem by adding new characters and twists courtesy of the Lucian Alliance’s “Hail Mary” (opening a stargate connection to Destiny). Everything that I’ve seen in season 2 was damage control, but it was already too late.
The sad thing is, with the last episode I saw (the last one of 2010), they seemed to be getting the right idea: that we viewers want more from our science fiction than just meaningless fighting. Some of the actual plot was good, and there was even some good old fashion Star Trekian exploration. There are a few episodes left that may or may not air, or maybe I missed them already… I’m curious to see them because I wonder if I’d have liked the direction that it was beginning to go in. But it doesn’t matter, because even if I would have, it’s never going to reach the destination for which it might have been headed.
That wraps up this exhaustive rant, but I just have one more thing to say: “F” you Siffie.