Celebral, Hard Sci-Fi and Realism, is Where it’s At

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post in favor of Stargate:Universe (SGU), which put the older Stargate fans up in arms against me. Our disagreements surprised me. I honestly did not think that in this day and age there are still viewers who like to watch old-style episodic TV. But apparently I was wrong.

There are still people who like to watch actual single-dimensional heroes, who are best friends without any disagreement between them, walk through a Stargate, blindly as to what’s on the other side, end up on different planets that almost all look just like outside of Vancouver, find a Medieval-like civilization each time, find aliens that look just like humans and where they all speak English, end up in some unlikely situation, and then have their team’s scientist patch together some alien & otherwise unknown technology through some completely unscientific way, and save the day in the last 10 minutes of the 45 minute episode. At the end, they step back to Earth, they have a quick laugh as a closing statement, and guess what, next week it will be the same base story again. Yay!

Well, let there be known that I hate with all my might such so-called “sci-fi”. That is not sci-fi, this is “Disney sci-fi”, as Stargate: Atlantis’ own David Hewlett called it. Even the actors of these shows don’t respect that kind of sci-fi (which of course heightened my own respect for Mr. Hewlett). These are some cheap, generic, pedestrian shows, void of any emotion, that do not engage the viewer in any way. It doesn’t make the viewer think, question his opinions about things, learn new ideas, neither make the viewer get immersed in their world — because it’s an unrealistic world.

Enter SGU.

The characters have actual personalities and are not stereotypical (Dr. Rush has got to be one of the best characters that ever graced the television medium in the last 60 years), there are sex scenes as they’re supposed to be, and there is drama — which is what’s the drive for any story since the invention of the Theater 2700 years ago. Some fans have said that SGU is over-dramatic and boring, but from the 36 episodes so far, I can only point my finger to about 2-3 such episodes. Others have said that “SGU is not like Stargate”, and all I can reply to that is: “Thank God!”. SGU has the added intellectual, adult part of the show about sacrifice (self- or forced), spying, caffeine and drug withdrawal, death, corruption, body-swap ethics, framing, attempted murder, alcoholism, abduction, revolution, promiscuity, authoritarianism, mutiny, religion, pregnancy & miscarriage, suicide, freedom of will, torture, depression, execution, euthanasia, HIV, murder & retribution, and of course, ultimately, Ascension, as a goal for any species.

Then there are the technical parts of the show, like the serialized manner the story is told, that feels natural to the viewer. Stories are not self-contained, but rather there is cause and effect, like with everything in real life. Nothing is for free. And then there’s great cinematography and amazing CGI, some of the best ever on TV. About 20 different recurring sets were built for the show, while it’s usually no more than 8-12 for other shows. Originally I hated the lighting of the show, but re-watching the show on Netflix I made a 180 degree change. Apparently the mpeg2 encoding has a detrimental effect in the gamma value of the stream, something that doesn’t happen when watching it encoded in h.264 from the master footage (as Netflix does). It looks perfectly cinematic.

But what’s really making me love SGU almost as much as I loved LOST, is the immersion to it. I’m able to watch a few episodes on Netflix Streaming and after that I’m high. I’m up there. In that million-year-old spaceship, “Destiny”, that’s literally falling apart — making it almost impossible to occupy. I feel alone. Tired. Hungry. Dirty. Hopeless. I’m marooned.

To be able to achieve this kind of feeling from your audience, is pure art.

And the way this works for me is because of the natural and realistic depictions of situations and science (for a show, of course). Instead of having the food, air, water, power, and resources problems solved within 10 minutes on the second episode (as older shows would deal with it), we get the first 6 episodes dealing with these very elemental, very important issues. And the ways these are solved are realistic, adding to the story and to the drama: the crew eats liquid protein for weeks before they found food on some planet, the air purifier requires special chemicals that “can’t just be cooked off” (as Rush perfectly explained) and need to be harvested elsewhere, water had to be extracted by some other planet and it sickens the crew because of alien bacterial life in it, while the ship’s power recharge mode almost leaves 15 people off-world because nobody understands how the ship works. And we have two shuttles, one of which is damaged and simply beyond repair (if that was SG-1/A, it’d be fixed in like, 10 minutes).

This is not a show where magically everything just works. There is pain, but there’s also wonder, there is mystery, there is even true scientific method. The Kinos were a great idea by the writers to analyze potential planets connected with stargates for breathable atmosphere — stargates thats thankfully were not used in every single episode like bread and butter. I absolutely LOVED how Rush had to wait MONTHS before his computer program cracked the ship’s master password, and he was finally able to stir it. In the first ~22 episodes, the ship was in auto-pilot! Heck, we learn about Destiny’s true mission in the 26th episode. We learn stuff as the crew learns it, in natural timeframes. This is not because the scientists of the show suck compared to the ones of the previous Stargate series, but because SGU is more realistic with less pseudo-scientific crapola in it. Of course it has some, but it’s significantly less than on most other shows.

This is what @tinkerware wrote on a review of SGU on the iTunes Store. He was very kind to let me copy his right-on-the-spot comment here, for all to read:

“This is a very smartly written show that shows the best side of sci-fi. It cuts the fake tech speak to a minimum while depicting a rich and consistent scientific and technological world. Anyone who watched the later episodes of Star Trek series can attest that “we can fix gizmo X if we reroute thingy Y from Z” dialog adds nothing and takes away enjoyment from the show. The remaining science and tech is intelligent, consistent and plausible (most of the time). Most important of all, this show does not forget what makes great sci-fi (hint: not GCI). Characters are well-drawn and compelling: everyone has their secrets and weaknesses; all of them are trying to survive a hostile environment. It’s a refreshing take after so many “captain of the universe” crap shows that pass as sci-fi. Of course, all this is a sure ticket to cancellation, which I’m told has already happened. Another reason to give up the cable subscription…”

Finally, another part that I love about SGU is how it handles the aliens. So far, in almost 36 episodes, we’ve only seen two humanoid alien types! And this is what also adds to the realism since according to many scientists today, there are probably a lot of currently habitable planets out there, but very few are expected to have intelligent life, and even fewer of them to carry humanoids. Sure enough, on SGU the stargate-connected planets are mostly vegetation planets with some animal life (most), dead civilizations (1), creatures/monsters (4), exotic alien forms (1), microbial life (1), robotic life (1). Overall, the SGU writers are following well Duncan Jones’ advices on how to create good sci-fi.

Of course, SGU has weaknesses. The communication stones being my main beef, since they reduce the existential element of the show. And strategic mistakes were made too: SGU should have been pitched to another channel, not SyFy (which had a specific kind of Stargate viewers). But none of these problems deter from thoroughly enjoying the show and recognizing it as one of the most serious, and well-written pieces of sci-fi television (in my top-5). Currently, it’s the only show I still watch on TV. In the last few weeks I stopped watching the remaining shows that previously had some of my attention: “V”, “No Ordinary Family”, “The Event” (complete pieces of shit), “Fringe” (interesting premise with bad execution), and even the too-lite-but-entertaining “The Vampire Diaries”. After the (bad) end of the otherwise excellent LOST, SGU is the best sci-fi show left on TV in my opinion. After the last episode is broadcasted in May, there would be nothing as exciting and realistic to replace it — and lose myself in it. In fact, this will be the FIRST time in almost 25 years where there won’t be any space-driven sci-fi on TV. It’s the end of an era.

Since SGU will end in a cliffhanger, I truly hope that either SyFy will order 2-3 tele-movies to conclude the story, or if that’s not possible (I don’t personally believe it’ll happen), I hope the producers can get a deal for 2-3 books. Here’s hope for at least that. It’s just very sad that so many people ignored SGU. It’s a little known gem. Who knows, it might end up becoming a cult show.

14 Comments »

Loic wrote on April 16th, 2011 at 8:48 AM PST:

“It doesn’t make the viewer think”
Sometimes you watch TV to empty your brain and forget the crappy day you just had.
This kind of shows do that perfectly.

I love serialized shows but TV is not always the best way to watch them. Especially when you don’t live in the US.
When they air on TV in France, there’s only ONE airing. If you miss an episode you’re screwed. Sometimes you can replay it online, for one week only, but not always.
And if the ratings are low, the show is canceled even if all the episodes were not aired.
It’s a problem too if you miss the beginning of the show. There is no way to legally see the first episodes before it’s released on DVD or via iTunes, months or years later.
Serialized shows are obviously better but an always available streaming solution is really needed.


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Eugenia wrote on April 16th, 2011 at 3:00 PM PST:

>Sometimes you watch TV to empty your brain and forget the crappy day you just had.

I’m personally against such “consumer art”, be it film or music. Maybe I sound like a purist, but to me art must always strive to be high. And even if it doesn’t manage to become high, I’d still give points to the artist and the viewer who tried his/her best.

But I feel sorry for the viewer who uses art to “empty his brain”, mostly because that’s an oxymoron. If someone MUST empty his brain, then he’s got other, fundamental problems in his life, problems that he needs to address before turning ON the TV set.

Besides, the realism of a deeper show can help the viewer escape his own reality. He doesn’t have to empty his brain to forget his problems, he simply needs to escape to the show’s reality, where another set of problems appear. By comparison, his own personal problems might look small. The new set of problems and situations can offer perspective.

See, emptying our brain to forget about our daily problems serve nothing. The problems will still be there tomorrow. Delving into more problems and new situations though, can offer not only relief for the viewer’s personal problems (since the depicted situations are usually more dramatic than most of us go through in our lives), but they can even offer solutions. That’s why I prefer this kind of realistic TV and interaction: it’s essentially active, not passive.


Brian wrote on April 18th, 2011 at 10:22 PM PST:

It’s a matter of taste. Fried chicken vs. Indian.

Some people enjoy simple things; maybe the earlier Atlantis and original Stargate series can be seen as the sci-fi equivalent of mac-n-cheese. It’s easy to consume for a lot of people, and made them happy.

SGU is a more difficult dish; you must follow along. There are strong emotions, and tender moments. Sometimes you think about what you would do in their situation.

It’s this same appreciation that’s in your taste for music as well, Eugenia. Music that causes some listeners to wonder if it’s even worthy of being called music. But for some of us, that challenge is part of the allure.


William Eggington wrote on April 19th, 2011 at 10:21 AM PST:

Fully agree. Well written. Almost depressing watching these last few episodes. Kind of a strange direction to take for the end of a series. . . but then I doubt they thought they were writing the “end”.

I know Game of Thrones isn’t Science Fiction but I hope you “tune in” for that series. Knowing the books they are based on, I know there will be NOTHING formulaic in that story.

Vampires, Zombies and Super Powers have replaced Aliens and Space Ships on TV. I haven’t given up hope. There is still Tera Nova, the new Battle Star Galactica series and Falling Skies looks really good.

The shows families can gather around and feel safe watching are not really the shows I am drawn too but have their place. SGU didn’t do a good enough show of letting it’s prior audience know that there was a difference and the first half of the first season did a HORRIBLE job at transitioning into the more mature audience. The number of times the camera zoomed into boobs and the script intimated intercourse made me think this show was some kind of Spike TV tie in.


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Eugenia wrote on April 19th, 2011 at 11:04 AM PST:

I don’t have cable anymore, so I will be watching “Game of Thrones” when it’s on Netflix in a few months.

SGU will finish with a cliffhanger btw.

Personally I had no trouble getting into SGU the second time I watched it. It was “just ok” for me when watched it on TV. It really bloomed to me when I re-watched it on Netflix. I caught things about it that I didn’t on TV somehow. I think the ads really stopped me from immersing in it on TV.

Last night’s “Common Descent” episode was one of their best yet. A bit rushed (SGU only has 42 minutes of show time, which is rather short and limits the writers), but overall excellent.


Ivan wrote on April 20th, 2011 at 1:59 AM PST:

It is remarkable that a spin-off like SGU (which I haven’t seen, btw), is so much better than the original.
My biggest personal disappointment on the tv-series front recently came with The Pacific (Spielberg/Hanks vehicle). The original Band of Brothers was just amazing, while the Pacific is just not working. It was the most expensive tv show ever produced, btw. I could never related to any of the three main characters – in fact, I had trouble keeping them apart – half of each episode was boring (soldiers waiting for an attack), and feature length is reduced to 42 minutes. This reminds me of an old Woody Allen joke: two elderly ladies talk about their latest trip to a spa: “The food there was horrible!” Other says: “I agree, … and so little was on our plate!”


Willard wrote on April 21st, 2011 at 2:31 PM PST:

Hard Sci Fi isn’t always entertaining, and no one makes expensive tv shows that isn’t entertaining.

This is why you’re not a creative.


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Eugenia wrote on April 21st, 2011 at 3:03 PM PST:

Hard Sci-fi is entertaining exactly because it’s more real. If I wanted to entertain myself with complete fairy tales, I’d read “Alice in Wonderland”. A book I can’t stand.

>This is why you’re not a creative.

Really, now? I’m creative alright, with the right budget, resources and time.


Ian wrote on April 21st, 2011 at 4:47 PM PST:

Realism is the wrong word to use when describing SGU.

The autopilot gag was far to reminiscent of a major flaw in a similar wormhole-themed show called Sliders. It served as arbitrary plot device to force the show into an episodic format. I saw through that instantly and moaned.

The backstory re: ancients is horribly convoluted and entirely nonsensical. Please do not describe a show that takes and entire season to reveal its mission as “finding God” as realistic.

Please do not confuse the character of Rush as realistic and good television. A character that volatile, and that much of a clear threat to the survival of a military operation should have been thrown out of the airlock unceremoniously by the CO at the very first episode just based on his actions in that episode alone. THAT would have been a realistic response, and could have led to a far more interesting character development arc for Eli. Rush was by far the most annoying character to ever grace television in my entire lifetime.

Please do not use the equivalent of running to the store to get an air conditioning filter as a main point of “realism” if you expect me to not laugh in your face, and also not explain to you how calcium carbonate can easily be synthesized in a lab with materials they should have with them on hand.

Please do not confuse lack of appropriate pacing as “realism.” By your standards an episode involving painting a wall that takes a three episode arc to complete would be simply riveting, brilliant, “realistic” programming.

Please do not oversimplify human relationships as a perpetual dramafest as “realistic.” If you want nothing but dysfunction as your version of “realistic” human relationships, go watch a Soap Opera. I don’t understand why the idea of a small military unit necessarily having compatible personalities seems “unrealistic” to you.

And I could go on, but these are the glaring examples of how you take the obvious FLAWS of SGU, not just as a science fiction show but just a dramatic show in general, as strengths and why you’re befuddled as to the insipid mess it really was. This is why it is not getting renewed. It is unwatchable because a person that’s expecting realism is expecting REALISM, NOT SOAP OPERA.

Oh, and I didn’t even address the continuity issues with a 10 foot pole. Factor that in and you just have massive, massive, massive, massive, fail, enough to create a black hole of fail.


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Eugenia wrote on April 21st, 2011 at 5:04 PM PST:

I won’t reply to you on a point by point basis. We obviously don’t agree on anything. And SGU is not exactly episodic, at least not compared to most other shows out there.


Willard wrote on April 21st, 2011 at 8:54 PM PST:

>>>This is why you’re not a creative.

Really, now? I’m creative alright, with the right budget, resources and time.<<

Yes yes, sure sure.

You're creative when conditions are perfect, but that's why it's a hobby and not a profession right?? Even then it seems you'd rather consume what others create than create yourself.

A true creative has no time to wait for perfect conditions, budget, resources, etc. The act of creation is done on whatever scale is available.

True art isn't cheap. So what if it cost $5,000 or $50 million. Monetary costs aside, it takes years and energy to bring it to fulfillment. There's singularity of commitment.

Look at all the great art in the world, it consumed it artists every moment of their existence. None of it was done under "perfect" conditions.


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Eugenia wrote on April 21st, 2011 at 9:35 PM PST:

I don’t disagree with your opinion on art, I just don’t see how any of this has anything to do with the article. I’m not the one who shoots SGU.


Willard wrote on April 23rd, 2011 at 6:24 AM PST:

Sigh.

With all your pontification, you seem oblivious to the notion that maybe what you consider hard sci-fi is not for everyone, especially a tv audience.

That’s not to say you can’t have a successful sci-fi show. It doesn’t always work, the networks aren’t patient enough to find out, or it’s too far ahead of it’s time.

It’s a business after all. The reasons the shows cost so much is because they require teams of people to produce a weekly show on schedule. This isn’t your $5,000 indie short.


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Eugenia wrote on April 23rd, 2011 at 11:05 AM PST:

I’m not oblivious to anything. I know that this type of show is not for everyone. But that was my point: it should be. Because it’s a much more well-thought show than standard action shows, or cop, or lawyer shows that the TV is full off. Viewers should STRIVE to watch more intelligent shows. Otherwise, where the hell is personal and social progress? Progress must be made even in entertainment.


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