Stargate: Universe Is the Perfect Show for Me

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.

The starship Destiny in Stargate: UniverseRather 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.

Dr. Rush examines his own skull in Stargate: Universe

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.

The Destiny flies between galaxies in Stargate: UniverseDark 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.

The cast of Stargate: UniverseThat’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.

The sky over an ice planet in Stargate: UniverseThat’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.


Review: Altered Carbon, Season One

Netflix’s adaptation of the sci-fi novel Altered Carbon was first put on my radar by Ashley of Robo♥beat, who is a fan of the book. Later, I listened to one of my friends here in the city raving about it while we were at dinner. With two people whose opinions I respect recommending it, I figured it was time to give it a try.

The logo for the Netflix series Altered CarbonAltered Carbon is cyberpunk-ish series depicting a far future where consciousness has been digitized, allowing people to continually download into new bodies as a form of immortality (Battlestar Galactica fans will find much of this series feels familiar). The rich can afford an endless supply of clones of their original body, while the poor are crammed into whatever body — or “sleeve” in the show’s lingo — is available.

Into this world awakens Takeshi Kovacs, a veteran of a failed revolution who is hired by one of the ruling aristocracy to solve the murder of his last body. As he investigates the case, Kovacs comes face to face with a conspiracy spanning centuries, and the brutal realities of life in the future.

And let’s be clear: It is brutal. This is by far the most absurdly violent and gorey show I’ve ever seen, and I used to be a huge Dexter fan. There’s also more nudity than I’ve ever seen on TV.

Mind you, I’m quite unfazed by both blood and boobs, so I wouldn’t say this is a complaint.

It does sort of touch on my one big issue with Altered Carbon, though, and that’s that this is a show with absolutely no subtlety whatsoever.

Kovacs and his sister in one of Altered Carbon's flashback sequencesThe social commentary, for instance, could give Bioshock a run for its money in the realm of ham-fisted delivery. Just as in the case of Bioshock, I even agree with the show’s politics, but even so it’s just so over the top and shamelessly unsubtle I have to facepalm a bit.

Similarly, most of the characters are cliched to the point of being utterly cartoonish, as is a fair bit of the dialogue.

The one exception to this — and a major highlight of the show — is Poe, an artificial intelligence who runs the hotel where Kovacs stays and has chosen to construct his persona in imitation of Edgar Allen Poe. He’s the perfect gentlemen, and a delight in every scene he’s in.

I also found it very visually appealing show, albeit in a dirty and gritty sort of way. The production values and special effects are easily equal to any Hollywood blockbuster.

The action sequences are excellent, as well. The fight scenes are so intense and well-choreographed they could almost give Continuum a run for its money.


Takeshi Kovacs in Altered CarbonAs for the main plot, it’s… decent. Altered Carbon sort of turns into a different show about halfway through, and I actually like what it evolves into, but it takes some adjustment.

It does do a very good job of exploring the personal and social ramifications of being able to download one’s mind into new bodies… but I didn’t find this quite so clever or thought-provoking as the writers probably hoped. Perhaps because I’ve already seen similar ideas elsewhere in sci-fi, or perhaps because I’ve never been all that attached to my own body.

It’s also a bit jarring how the actor who plays Kovacs’ original sleeve is so much better than the actor who plays Kovacs’ current sleeve, with the end result that I really like Kovacs as a character… but only in his flashbacks.

All in all, while Altered Carbon tries to sell itself as intelligent sci-fi, I think it’s much more accurately described as a simple-minded action-adventure/softcore porn series. Looked at through that lens, it’s a fun ride.

If there’s a second season, I’ll watch it.

Overall rating: 7.1/10