OKAY, SO I WAS WRONG ABOUT STARGATE UNIVERSE

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I just watched the latest episode of Stargate Universe, entitled “Sabotage.” If you haven’t seen it, you must. It was one of the finest pieces of science fiction I’ve ever seen.

My personal relationship with art is centered in recognizing balance.  In my view, all art embodies at least two kinds of balance: the first is the balance of the genre it is part of; the second is the balance unique to the particular work itself.

In general, the evolution of science fiction as an art form has been a struggle to achieve artistic balance.  The early science fiction of Jules Vern and H.G. Wells was beautifully balanced, partly because Vern and Wells were not science fiction writers. They were authors who used science fiction as a story-telling delivery mechanism.  It was the story that was important to these writers; science fiction provided the structure to tell those stories.

These early science fiction stories also benefited from the fact that so few people could read and write. Those who could were automatically better educated and cultured than those who could not and, consequently, Vern, Wells and those like them were part of a “high art” literary tradition.

Such status was short-lived. Industrial societies depended on mass education that included reading and writing, which became common even among the uneducated and uncultured.  And it was these great unwashed masses that began both writing and reading science fiction.  Through pulp magazines, Sci Fi moved from high culture to popular culture.

And what a load of crap gushed forth – garbage written by amateur hacks with no story sense and poor vocabularies, using science fiction as a means of adolescent male masturbatory  wish fulfillment that really couldn’t get very far past rocketing off to a place they might encounter space chicks needing rescue from bug eyed monsters.

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In other words, this pulp rubbish lacked artistic balance and focus.  If “ray guns are cool” is the reason a story is written, and if the writer lacks the talent, skill and educational foundation to reach beyond their fingertips, then the story is going to suck.

I believe that has changed.  Kim Stanley Robinson and John Birmingham are proof that SF has changed for the better.

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Robinson and Birmingham are serious artists who, like Vern and Wells, use science fiction frameworks to tell stories that resonate beyond mere fantasy escapist wish fulfillment. Their work is artistically balanced in the same way any good novel worth reading and remembering achieves artistic balance.

Science Fiction cinema followed the same progression from early greatness  - e.g., Fritz Lang’s early silent work -

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From Metropolis


to adlolescent escapism – e.g., the Flash Gordon serials -

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to artistically balanced, nuanced good works that are cinema first and science fiction second – e.g., 2001, Alien and 12 Monkeys.

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The same is true for science fiction television – from high art of the Twilight Zone –

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to the idiocy of the Adventures of Buck Rodgers -

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to the retooled, reimagined excellence of Battlestar Galactica.

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This new video excellence was only possible because the popular audience is older and smarter, and cable television makes it possible to reach a smaller, smarter audience and still be profitable.  Battlestar Galactica was not just an artistic success – it was a commercial success.

And nothing succeeds like success. All commercial successes spawn imitations. Those behind Stargate Universe want to repeat, if not exceed, the BSG‘s commercial success and they concluded the way to do it is to imitate BSG‘s artistic success – i.e., focusing on story, plot and character and complex themes that resonate emotionally and intellectually.

Which created a different balance problem: too much focus on story, plot, character and complex themes is just as bad as too little.

Stargate Universe‘s first season suffered from this imbalance, resulting in slow, ponderous, boring television.  For me this imbalance was so annoying that I actually watched the show only because I was hoping to witness some of the more boring characters die and the slowest, most ponderous story lines end.

Which is why this last episode so delighted me. It is a demonstration of perfect balance between plot, character, theme, special effects and action. It isn’t boring in the slightest and when it was over I wanted more and cannot wait to see the next episode.

I so hope this isn’t an aberration. I so hope this is a sign the series as finally found its voice.

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17 Responses to “OKAY, SO I WAS WRONG ABOUT STARGATE UNIVERSE”

  1. This entry is filed under Lady GaGa?. lol

    I haven’t got into Stargate at all, but I know what I like and you’re right. Probably if I’m going to look at a series that has that balance for me – in no particular genre – that would be Deadwood. The characters were as rich as Swiss chocolate, the language was pure poetry, and the use of the violence that was part of the flavour was short and brutal but placed perfectly and was never ‘just coz’.

    More often than not sci fi just doesn’t do it for me. Usually they’re like a game developer giving you a sandbox engine to create a game with the potential for unlimited awesome sauce and you remake Pac Man. Dicks.

    One ep of good won’t get me to buy the series unfortunately.

  2. paulboylan Says:

    Lady Gaga is nothing. You should be asking who Joseph Bleckman is.

  3. “Rocketing off to rescue space chicks” ? Works for me…
    Missed the first season of SGU, but the 2nd has started now, have been meaning to check it out. All series have their good and bad eps (with the exception maybe of Firefly – all good). I guess its always a compromise, just gotta go with one that has the awsm ones in majority.

  4. Who is Joseph Bleckman?.

  5. It does show promise after a rocky start.

  6. Barnesm Says:

    “garbage written by amateur hacks with no story sense and poor vocabularies, using science fiction as a means of adolescent male masturbatory wish fulfillment”

    The same could be said for what passes writing on the internet (not you’re blog, I was thinking more of the appalling fanfiction you can not help to stumble across)

    I too think SGU is improving this season. I really liked the Rush centric ‘Human’ episode as well.

    Don’t get me wrong I still long for hot lesbian space action, focusing on story, plot and character and complex themes that resonate emotionally and intellectually will do till more space lesbian action comes along.

  7. WTF? Has some damn mutant green space frog been licking your brain? Gimme the space chick HLA any day, just as long as they resolve a couple of existential porblems along the way, like how much time the lesbians should spend choosing shoes. The fact that they may choose the wrong shoes won’t matter, because that’s already happened and there’s nothing they can do about it, so they may as well get into the Space Chick Hot Lesbian Action, like right now. Worked for tossers like Camus, may as well work for Lesbian Space Chicks writers.
    And yes, SGU is very good.

  8. Indeed, not only story but internal consistency, why I got the shits with Star Trek the writers thought that a coherent timeline for events was optional.
    Started watching SGU but in typical fashion the tv station changed times didn’t have it on for a few weeks then put it back on without advertising. I’ll buy the box sets that way I’ll get to watch the show without the agro.
    You are right though Paul, my expectations for good SF has risen markedly, although hot space chicks and gratuitous violence still have a place at the table.

  9. paulboylan Says:

    Okay, look, if I am about anything, I am all about space chicks, and if that is what you want, I highly recommend Barbarella and Flash Gordon (the one shot in the 70′s with music written by Freddie Mercury and performed by Queen). My criticism of SGU is that they went too far the other way. Gimme plot, story and characters I care about – but give me space battles and space chicks, too. As I said, it is all about balance.

  10. I’m surprised that you’d pick this episode as an example of excellence, since there’s some pretty major plot elements that were either poorly explained or outright ignored by characters.

    Part of the ship’s drives fail, initially attributed to failure due to old age. Later characters manage to reach the conclusion that an alien gets aboard the ship and is apparently responsible for causing one of the crew members to sabotage the ship. The alien then presumably escapes or disappears. No one in the crew seems worried about this, at all.

    Another character somehow disappears from a room with only one entrance, which was under constant surveillance. It’s probably going to be an ongoing plot device, but at the time, no one seems to be bothered by his disappearance.

    The story was otherwise pretty good, but strangely none of the characters seemed to be concerned that the aliens were somehow able to control one of them or that someone else had gone missing. This seemed like some pretty severe oversights.

  11. I struggled to stay interested in SG:U when the character development got a bit muddy around Eps 7-9 – the Earthside failing marriage / newly discovered child stuff got a bit much. Glad to see the pace has picked up and they’re exploring some more outlandish stuff. The aliens aren’t the McGuffins I was expecting either, and I’m looking forward to seeing how things turn out.

    Leper – the alien saboteur is explained in a slightly twisty maneuver with the communication stones. The buxom lieutenant is becoming the fall guy (girl?) for everything that goes wrong, it seems…

  12. Just remembered I hadn’t watched the last coupla eps so I raced off and watched the last two – “Lost” and “Sabotage” before reading this. I did like this ep, and without spoiling, I like the way Rush is becoming a more rounded character than just the caricature of an obsessed, selfish mad scientist.

    One or two of the plot components were a bit hard to believe, but overall I’m enjoying it. I like the fact that it’s not too soap opera-ish, and that the writers are willing to leave some storylines open while they jump to another story, then come back to the previous one a few eps later.

    As for the hot space chicks side – I do believe there should be a contractual obligation for at least 3 t-shirt scenes, and at least 1 running in t-shirt scene for Lt. James per episode – I don’t know art, but I know what I like! :D

  13. paulboylan Says:

    Leper: those plot flaws didn’t bother me much. I was more impressed with the excellent character development balanced with space adventure stuff. For me it was the perfect mix.

    Chas: my sentiments exactly.

    Timmo: as I’ve said, I am all for space chicks – which is one of the elements I believe television science fiction worth watching must include.

  14. I do like me some LT James.

    This episode wasn’t great, not like the court room episode, but the plot holes weren’t that big.

    The aliens got on board by using the stones, and taking possession of LT James. Lets just all pause and think about that in our on way shall we…

    The mcguffin of this episode was the chair, so there was always going to be something going on there. As soon as the room started to cool i had to wonder what was happening, i did think that we would find the guy incased in a block of ice acting as the ships central cpu. See my thought is that they havent been able to access the ships higher systems because it doesnt have any. The idea is that it needs a biological component.

    BrianC

  15. There are so many sub-genres within the SF genre. I like most, but not all of them. Top of the tree? Isaac Asimov. It doesn’t get better than that.

    But my second favourite are those deliberately dreadful SF movies. Lobster Man From Mars – I loved it! Mars Attacks was even better; and The Man With Two Brains was so bad it was good.

    No matter how many hacks invade the genre, its dedicated fan base will ensure SF’s survival. Isn’t it sad that the same can be said for all those dreadful vampire novels?

  16. paulboylan Says:

    CC – I’m not sure, but I believe this is the first time you have commented here. If not, I apologize for forgetting. If so, a very warm welcome.

    I disagree that Asimov is at the top of the tree. The top, from my perspective, is Kim Stanley Robinson – who, incidentally, is the key note speaker at the Sci Fi convention this September in Melbourne.

    I also love the deliberately dreadful SF movies. My personal favorite is an incredibly funny parody/satire of the genre entitled “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.” If you haven’t seen it, you must. It is spot on.

    Finally, I am not so sure the vampire genre is doomed. It has been around since Stoker, revitalized by Rice and now revived again by the Twilight idiocy. That shows staying power.

  17. cowboys and aliens trailer…

    [...]OKAY, SO I WAS WRONG ABOUT STARGATE UNIVERSE « PEOPLE OF EARTH: ATTENTION[...]…

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