TV or Not TV


Stargate: Universe – “Earth”… Final Conflict


I used to like the SciFi Channel. Its daytime lineup included reruns and marathons of old television shows and movies from my childhood. And its primetime lineup proved it was one of the few niche channels we were promised when the concept of 500 channels became a practical reality in the mid-1990s. But SciFi, it turned out, was a work of science fiction in and of itself. And it is dead. In its place is SyFy; similar yet different.

I am a fan of science fiction, but not a huge fan. I like classic Trek and occasional episodes of the later franchises (“Enterprise” excluded, of course). I like Star Wars, but not enough to buy any of Episodes I through III. I count “Babylon 5” as one of the best written series of all time, but understand those who complain about the lackluster CGI and production value. And in the last two years I have come to appreciate the evolution of the Stargate franchise from its humble roots as the worst Kurt Russell movie ever made (though, ironically, the best James Spader movie ever made) to a viable series with a successful spin-off. Not much else stands out in the genre for me (maybe “Red Dwarf,” but I’d call that a sitcom, not a science fiction show). And yet I respected what the channel’s original intent was: To provide a place for movies and shows of the genre. It was never going to be the highest rated network in America, but neither were most of the 500 channels we were promised.

A “Network for Women” was never going to hit the high mark when it knowingly alienated half of its potential audience right out of the gate. A 24-hour all-sports network was never going to be watched by people who didn’t like sports. FoxNews was never going to be watched by people with synaptic activity. And yet the people who run those networks accept that, al-be-it begrudgingly in some cases. They learn to make lemons out of lemonade. And they also learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Fans of science fiction aren’t always the desired demographic, but they are a loyal demographic who will endure a lot of abuse. They will be mocked by critics and pandered to by writers. But they do not suffer fools gladly. And they do not react well to betrayal.

Take away the core elements of Stargate: the characters, the humor, the mythology, the action. What you are left with is a familiar concept: a science fiction series about aliens and cool weapons and war between galactic superpowers. But what happens when you take away the characters, humor, mythology, action, aliens, cool weapons, and war between galactic superpowers? You end up with a soap opera, and not a very interesting soap opera. You end up with bad writing, overacting, gratuitous (yea, I said it) sex, and everything else that is NOT Stargate and is NOT science fiction (except for the gratuitous sex part). You end up with the bland concept of trapped people (“Lost” characters roamed around on an island, as did the crew of the SS Minnow — “Voyager” characters roamed around on a starship, as did the crew of a certain battlestar).

There is no science fiction involved — that the series is set in a space ship is ancillary to every story told so far. There is nothing of the original Stargate franchise beyond a few cameos by former cast members (and even their dialogue feels stilted) and actors occasionally walking through (or, more often, walking by) a giant, metal donut. They might as well have called the series “Pigs In Space: Universe” and simply ignored the backstory of Link, Piggy, or Dr. Strangepork (for the record, “Pigs in Space” contained more science fiction than “Stargate: Universe”). The show is a failure on many levels. But, more than that, the show is a betrayal. Fans of science fiction and fans of Stargate feel betrayed in equal measure.

The SyFy Channel’s slogan is “Imagine Greater.” Viewers of the SciFi Channel have no need to imagine. All we need to do is recall the channel five years ago… or 10 years ago. It was never the highest rated channel in the world of cable, but it was our little corner of that world. SciFi was certainly greater than SyFy. And SciFi never would have aired SGU.
In case you couldn’t tell, I watched “Earth,” the episode I am unofficially dubbing the finale of the franchise. And now that all is said and done, I have one question: Who is this series geared towards? It isn’t geared towards Stargate fans, and it isn’t geared towards science fiction fans. Heck, it isn’t even geared towards Lou Diamond Phillips fans.

The plot was contrived and, again, lacking all elements of the franchise. As the episode unfolded, I had three ideas to make it better. The first would have been geared towards attempting character development, making Scott interact with the woman he’s having sex with who is presently inhabited by the consciousness of another woman (they feebly attempted something along these lines with Young, without success). The second idea was geared towards science fiction fans: As they were firing weapons to expel energy from the ship, the weapons fire could have attracted the attention of some alien race (they could have been friendly aliens or sinister aliens, your choice). The third idea would have been geared towards Stargate fans: rdaSend Richard Dean Anderson to assume temporary command of the Destiny instead of Lou Diamond Phillips (he had already been hired to be in the f-ing episode, why not make his character the top dog for a day instead of the pencil-pushing desk-jockey he seems to have morphed into). But instead, we hung out with the geek’s mom and the pretty girl’s club-hopping friends back on Earth. We already knew the geek was a momma’s boy and the pretty girl was vapid. But the show ignored what its fanbase would actually want in favor of — I don’t know — who wanted to see that story play out? What audience are they trying to attract with this series?

I am at a loss. I’ve seen some of the other 500 channels revamped and reimagined. The Learning Channel became TLC, CourtTV became TruTV, and TNN became Spike, each with varying degrees of success. I understand the temptation to ignore the niche audiences in favor of programing with more mass appeal, but I don’t see who amongst the masses would find “Stargate: Universe” entertaining. I am at a loss. I have lost a network that once appealed to me, and a television franchise that once appealed to me.

RIP Stargate.

God speed.