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.
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.
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 –
to adlolescent escapism – e.g., the Flash Gordon serials –
to artistically balanced, nuanced good works that are cinema first and science fiction second – e.g., 2001, Alien and 12 Monkeys.
The same is true for science fiction television – from high art of the Twilight Zone –
to the idiocy of the Adventures of Buck Rodgers –
to the retooled, reimagined excellence of Battlestar Galactica.
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.
UPDATE March 12, 2016
Yesterday was my sister’s birthday. I forgot to wish her a Happy Birthday.
I’m not that broken up about it.
I love Netflix. I just got through the first season of Stargate: Universe. Gotta say it was fairly terrific. Watching those episodes back to back provided insight that cannot be attained otherwise.
I must conclude that- thus far – Stargate Universe is the best television SciFi I’ve ever seen – second only to The Expanse.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t discount other SciFi television. I was born n 1957. I know televised SciFi. The first movie I ever watched on television was Them! It was broadcast on WGN in the early afternoon. I was an unsupervised toddler in front of a monstrously big Zenith “portable” black and white television.
Watching Them! when I was an unsupervised toddler back in the late 1950’s did not screw me up. No kidding. I know you may think otherwise, but if you do, just get a copy of Them! and watch it. Them! is actually a fairly tame science fiction/horror
“B” Grade 1954 film. I mean, come on – in the end of Them! the United States Army saves the human race. How great is that?
[Almost as good an example of post WW II American optimism as seen in Zontar: Thing From Venus (1966) (a remake of It Conquered the World (1956)) and The Thing From Another World (1951).
I remember those early SciFi classics, televised to the world – including moms and unsupervised toddlers – in the middle of the day when red blooded heterosexual men were at work but moms and toddlers were at home watching television.
And I remember watching Destination Moon, the Thing From Another World, The Twilight Zone and On the Beach on television – sometime between 1957 and 1960.
Then the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00′, 010’s.
I said I know televised SciFi. The good and bad. And I’m saying that Stargate Universe, Season 1, is some of the best televised SciFi I’ve ever seen. Beautiful stuff. A typical juvenile conceit transformed into compelling adult entertainment. Really, really high production values.
We’ll see if it all falls apart in Season Two.