Lately I’ve embarked on another rewatch of Stargate: Universe (one of the few TV shows I like enough to have the full series on DVD). I’m once again struck by how fiercely I love this series, and while I’ve already talked about it on this blog some, I felt compelled to gush some more.
Rather than try to make the objective argument that Universe is a great show, however, I thought I might look at why it appeals so strongly to my own personal artistic sensibilities.
Not that I don’t think it’s an objectively good show, and not that I would be unwilling to make that argument, but I think it may be more interesting to examine my personal relationship with the show, and why it’s so perfect for me.
A journey into the unknown:
One of my favourite scenes in all of fiction comes near the end of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who,” where Q hints at what awaits Starfleet in deep space:
It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross… but it’s not for the timid.
This, to me, cuts to the very heart of what speculative fiction is all about: The wonder and the terror of the unknown. Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are about expanding your mind. They’re about making you think it new ways, about new things. They’re meant to expose you to ideas and concepts you never would have considered otherwise.
But that’s just one scene. It’s a brilliant scene, from a brilliant episode, but the rest of Star Trek has lived up to that promise only sporadically at best.
Alas, poor Nicholas, I was him…
Stargate: Universe, however, is that one line of Q’s adapted into an entire series.
Space — as depicted on Universe — is a scary place, filled with deadly hardships ranging from the mundane to the incomprehensible. It’s full of threats to snuff your life in an instant, and terrors to chill the soul.
But it’s also a place of beauty. Audience insert character Eli Wallace is always a wonderful reminder of just how lovely and wondrous so much of what Destiny discovers is, just how cool it all is.
Universe gives us both, the terrible and the wondrous, the bitter and the sweet. There’s battles with ruthless alien monsters, and there’s the thrill of aero-breaking through the atmosphere of a gas giant. There’s the brutal deaths of beloved crewmembers, and there’s the beauty of garden worlds never before glimpsed by human eyes.
And at the heart of it all are questions about the very fundamental nature of life, the universe, and reality itself. It makes you think. It makes you wonder what could be out there. It makes you ask yourself how much of the universe we still don’t understand, and what the answers to our questions might reveal.
That is what speculative fiction should be at its best. That’s what Universe was all about.
Dark done right:
I’m a fan of dark, grim stories. Anyone who’s read anything I’ve written can confirm that. It’s not like Leha’s life was all sunshine and lollipops.
I remember back in the TrekUnited days I was always butting heads with people about this. I wanted Star Trek to be darker. I wanted Stargate to be darker. I wanted everything to be darker. I was fed-up with stories where there were no consequences, where characters were always shiny and perfect.
Nowadays the pendulum has swung the other way. Dark stories seem to be the order of the day now. Perhaps due to Game of Thrones, it almost feels like TV shows are now in an arms race to determine who can have the most gore, the most tragedy, the most warped and twisted characters.
You might think I’d be happy about this, but I’m not. I think the current trend toward cynical fiction misses the point of what makes grim stories compelling in the first place.
I don’t want stories that wallow in awfulness, that revel in the worst aspects of humanity. The point of a dark story is to make the light, the optimism, the goodness shine all the brighter.
That’s what so much of current television — so much of current fiction generally — doesn’t get. But it’s something that SG:U understood very well.
One of the iconic lines of the series is when Colonel Young declares, “These are the wrong people, in the wrong place.” That sums up the character of Universe very well.
The people aboard the Destiny find themselves in an impossible situation, trapped on a decaying alien ship they have no control over at the far end of the universe. To make matters worse, none of them are quite the right people for the job. They’re all battling their personal demons, and things only get worse as the stress of their situation begins to press down on them all.
But they don’t give up. They keep fighting — to get home, to survive, and to be better people. For all their many and sundry flaws, deep down they are largely good people. And that’s what makes it such a powerful show. Watching them triumph despite their demons.
I don’t like stories that are too shiny and happy because they feel cheap. They feel dishonest. When the characters succeed, it doesn’t feel earned.
That’s what makes darker stories more interesting. If the characters are allowed to fail sometimes, it makes it all the sweeter when they do succeed. It does feel earned.
That’s what Universe gets so right that so many other shows don’t. It’s grim enough to feel real, and uplifting enough to inspire. It’s the perfect balance of joy and sorrow, darkness and light.
That’s what I crave in fiction. That’s what makes a story stick with me, and that’s why Universe will always be a favourite.