Few mediums have changed as rapidly as television has in the past, oh, let's say 10 years. Last Sunday, the Bagdad Theater was sold out, crammed with people watching The Walking Dead; a month or two ago, it was a challenge to find anyone who wasn't babbling incessantly about how stupid Don was in the season finale of Mad Men. Whether it's because of The Sopranos or The Wire or Deadwood or Lost or 30 Rock, TV has started to rival film as the thing that people communally watch, think about, and discuss. It's easy to say that this is 'cause TV has gotten better, but I'm guessing it's a two-way street: TV has also gotten better because people have started to take it more seriously. It's reciprocal, and as expectations have gone up, so must quality.
(True, it's a depressing fact that big swaths of TV schedules are still cynically cobbled together from Charlie Sheen sitcoms, Seth MacFarlane cartoons, and Snookis. But still, see above: There's a ton of good stuff out there, more than there's ever been before—and thankfully, genre shows are no exception, thanks to solid stuff like Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who, and Firefly, as well as the promising The Walking Dead and the upcoming Game of Thrones.)
"ARRGH SHUT UP SHUT UP WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH STARGATE?!" you scream, angrily banging your fist upon your collectible Stargate coaster. And I calmly answer: TV has changed a lot in the past 10 years. Stargate hasn't.
Don't get me wrong: Stargate SG-1 (which ran for a ridiculous 10 seasons after starting in 1997) and its first spinoff, Stargate Atlantis (which ran for a slightly less ridiculous five seasons) were hardly great TV. They were essentially pulpy relics of the era of syndicated genre television, when genre shows needed little more to succeed than to, well, fit into a genre. But that was fine: SG-1 and Atlantis weren't brilliant TV, but they were reliably fun to watch. I've seen more Stargate than anyone ever should (for reasons I won't go into, I own all 9,900 minutes of this, and right now my tea is sitting on one of those coasters you were so angrily banging on earlier); what kept me coming back was the shows' outlandish pop sci-fi, goofy humor (from the likes of Richard Dean Anderson and David Hewlett), and confidence-slash-resignation about what it was. "Okay, geeks, we can all agree that we aren't making fine art here," Stargate's creators seemed to say at the beginning of each episode. "But c'mon—how about MacGyver crackin' wise while some dude in a rubber alien mask acts all ridiculous? That'll be fun, right?" And yeah, it totally was. I appreciate good television as much as anybody; also like everybody, I have a spot in my heart for disposable, fun TV.
So everything SG-1 and Atlantis did, semi-successfully? Stargate Universe does the exact opposite. Ditching the humor and light, silly tone, Universe tries to meld the gritty, military sci-fi elements of Battlestar Galactica with the rambling premise of Star Trek: Voyager. Universe is set on the Destiny, a starship that's far away from Earth; onboard is a motley crew (heh) of bickering soldiers and civilians. Like Voyager, it follows a bunch of people stuck on a spaceship in the middle of nowhere; like Battlestar, it's grim and mopey and super serious, and it's always really dark on the ship, and the camera's always handheld.
But Battlestar (mostly) worked because... well, it was a super serious show, and it had actual characters, and actual stuff to say, so you actually gave a shit. Universe, though, has simply traded in SG-1 and Atlantis' shiny, low-fi aesthetic for all the visual trappings that "real" TV shows now use—high production values, pretty cinematography, costumes that don't look like they were shoplifted from Wal-Mart's Halloween aisle. But despite the new look and presumably bigger budget, Universe's writers' room still operates like it's 1997: Characters are paper-thin, villains are mustache-twirly, and no matter how loudly these people shout or how theatrically they pose, their dramas are consistently empty. (All this despite Universe having John Scalzi, one of the best sci-fi authors working today, as a creative consultant.) Yes, all of these flaws were present in SG-1 and Atlantis—but there, they were easy to overlook because hey, look, Space MacGyver making fun of a rubber alien! Here, even when Space MacGyver shows up, he's as frowny as anyone else.
(Speaking of character: As tempted as I am to jump onto the "Stargate Universe's Female Characters are Awful" bandwagon, because, well, they kind of are, I'm gonna resist, because well, all the characters on Stargate Universe are pretty awful. The acting doesn't help; aside from Robert Carlyle's hammy, wild-eyed turn as a possibly mad scientist, the only actor who seems to be even moderately interested in their job is David Blue, who plays Destiny's resident super-smart nerd as a likeable cross between an enthusiast and an outcast.)
And despite Universe's new, serious mood, it turns out out old pulp habits are hard to break: While Universe's writers try to craft bigger, darker, and more personal stories, they're also in the syndication-friendly habit of punching the reset button (BING!) whenever things get too complicated. They also have an impressively awkward tendency to pull an O.C. about once an episode, peppering the show with cheesy montages set to Alexi Murdoch or Mumford and Sons, or bending over backwards to cram in a Janelle Monae performance. With no exception, these are sequences that I wish I could wipe entirely from my memory. BING!
Stargate Universe came out on Blu-ray a few weeks ago. Apologies for the late review, fellow nerds, but it took me a while to drag myself through these episodes. As—for better or worse—a fan of the previous Stargates (and a fan of Battlestar, and Scalzi, and Janelle Monae, who's just fantastic, am I right?), I kept trying to convince myself that this was a show I should like, or at least a show that, despite that last super-boring episode, I should really give another shot. Now that I've got the entire first season under my belt, though, I can't think of a reason to keep watching. When TV was crappier, it was easier to overlook genre shows' flaws in order to get a televised sci-fi or fantasy fix. Now that we've seen better, it doesn't make sense to stick with a show as clumsy and as emptily dour as this one.