For those of us telly geeks for whom ‘The Wire’ was just a bit too much of a jolly romp, the withdrawal symptoms for ‘Battlestar Galactica’, which concluded this spring, aren’t getting any easier. But salvation may be round the corner in a most unlikely form.
Stargate Universe, the third iteration of the surprisingly long-running sci-fi franchise begins tonight… and if you survived that sentence, then congratulations. We can understand scepticism. I’m the sort of person who can list The Doctor‘s companions in reverse order and knows certain phrases in Klingonese. And even I always thought Stargate was daggy.
It was a strangely suburban space opera (actually, it wasn’t so much a space opera, more a collection of Canadians holding the moral high ground over a succession of prosthetics, week after week). But between the SG-1 and Atlantis series’ the Stargate franchise notched up 15 seasons and a rabid fanbase.
But, as I found out on a recent visit to Vancouver, extraordinary things have been happening. On visiting the lot, with the sets for SG-1 and Atlantis gathering dust next door (they haven’t torn them down because there’s plans to keep both series’ alive through one-off specials) there was an unusual buzz about the place. Producer Brad Wright has a favourite phrase when describing the new series: “there are no rubber-faced, English-speaking aliens in this one.” In fact, Wright was staggeringly frank, stopping just short of admitting, “yep, we used to be a bit crap didn’t we?”
But the producers have reason to be confident: their pitch for a grown-up, character-driven spin on the Gate mythology was enough to convince supremely cool ‘Trainspotting’ actor Robert Carlyle to move his family to British Columbia and sign up the proposed five years. Carlyle, maddened by the failure of a run of worthy, low-budget Brit flicks to find an audience, went to LA in search of a career swerve, and found himself signed up to play the series’ principle anti-hero Dr Nicholas Rush, with a brief ‘to make a man who does dislikeable things likeable’.
See, ‘Stargate Universe’ is Stargate as we know it only in that it features a big circular puddle through which people can reach other corners of space. Set in the present day (we have space exploration you know, it’s just a big government secret), a base of scientists, diplomats, civilians and a few soldiers find themselves under attack by an unknown enemy, and their only course of survival is to jump through the gate.
They find themselves on a rusty old ancient spaceship and there they are, screwed. There’s some lip service to the mythology here, but you really don’t need to follow it. This is a story about a group of people who have no business being together, stranded at the other end of the universe with no obvious way home. There’s no gung-ho goodie-humans-against-rubber-faced-aliens; it’s about the desperate lengths ordinary people will go to in order to survive.
All of which is going to sound very familiar to BSG fans. A rickety old spaceship? A group of survivors who don’t really get on? Flawed heroes? An apparently hopeless quest through the stars to find a home? ‘Stargate Universe’ even features an episode early on in the run about the fleet (sorry, ‘crew’) running out of water. Mischievous geeks are already calling it ‘Battlestargate’. And while Wright, and the entire crew go to great lengths to insist that this new series is in no way informed by the seminal sci-fi game-changer, there’s an element of protesting too much.
And no, Universe is no Galactica, not yet – that was the greatest TV series of all time. But it is strong, dark, character-driven series that looks like finding an identity all of its own. And having seen the first three episodes, I can assure you that it’s definitely worth sticking with.
In fact, perhaps the thing at SG-U has most in common with BSG is that, at first, people probably aren’t going to give it a chance. You know what? They should.
Stargate Universe begins tonight (Tuesday 6 October) at 8pm on Sky1.