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Review: Air - Part One

Air Part One is the first episode in Season One of Stargate Universe.

Review
I was eagerly awaiting the beginning of Stargate Universe; new characters, new situations, new everything but with the familiarity of the Stargate franchise. What I did know of the premise half concerned me (a little too Star Trek Voyager in concept; not sure of how they’d make the Stargate central if based on a ship) and half delighted (the idea of placing the characters and their development central to the story-telling, and what appeared to be a great cast). Added to that was my baggage of expectation: it had to be recognisable to me as Stargate. Ultimately, the first instalment of SGU had a lot to deliver if I was going to fall in love with it as a show: luckily, it delivered.

This is Stargate. More it feels like the franchise has gone back to basics and refocused on its original vision: to tell a story about how humans of today survive when faced with extraordinary alien situations. Everything seems designed to deliver that fundamental vision from the overall production, new filming technique, the plot and the characters.

Let’s start with the filming which from a technical aspect is completely over my head so I can’t comment on what logistically is actually different but what I can say is that the feel of the show has changed for me. The audience point of view now seems to be in the middle of the action rather than removed from it. It means I was engaged quicker and swept up by the story before I knew it: this first hour of a three-part story disappeared very quickly.

The technique, commonly used on dramas, also embeds subliminally the suggestion that these are real events happening now just as in a cop/legal/medical TV serial, and by doing so it underscores that this is about people just like us caught up in something that is happening now. It is the characters that truly deliver this though.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, the characters are all from Earth and human. There’s no Teal’c or Teyla to deliver an alien viewpoint, and the focus in Air Part One is also very much on Eli Wallace. As the young computer geek who solves the equation needed to dial the ninth chevron and who finds himself suddenly thrust into the Stargate programme, his sense of discovery goes a long way to providing that ordinary man point of view. His induction and learning also provide a neat way of explaining Stargate to the uninitiated. David Blue deserves huge kudos in making Eli immediately likeable and Eli’s wry remarks provide a welcome light note occasionally in the otherwise serious plot.

The second character highlighted is Doctor Nicholas Rush. Here truly is a complex character whose motivations are murky at best. It’s an accomplishment of Robert Carlyle’s acting skills that Rush’s frustration, his obsession with his project, is so evident to the audience that I didn’t just see it or hear it in dialogue, I felt it. And yet, there is a hint of why he may be obsessed in evident grief expressed as he looks over a picture of himself with an unknown woman. Rush is not the everyman Eli represents but he is flawed, filled with emotion: human.

All the characters are presented in a similarly ‘whole’ fashion with both strengths and weaknesses on display whether on the ship or in the flashbacks told to deliver the back-story of what happened to get them there. For example, Lieutenant Scott struggles to keep control of the evacuees and shakes when his hand comes away from Young’s head covered in blood yet he steps up and issues orders, organises the evacuation. Scott probably gets the third most focus out of the rest of the characters with others in the ensemble, such as TJ and Young, highlighted enough to introduce them but without too much time spent on showing their point of view.

This is very true of the Stargate alumni on show: Jack O’Neill, Samantha Carter and Daniel Jackson are all background characters here. Nicely slotted into places where it would be natural for them to be without stealing the limelight and only truly showcased in the final scene where the question is posed by Carter, communicating with O’Neill back on Earth, of what has happened to the eighty-odd people unaccounted for.

The plot of this first episode is completely focused on that; what has happened to these characters, why have they ended up in this situation, who are they. The use of non-linear story-telling actually enables this to be told while ensuring the action begins from the outset. The abrupt arrival of the evacuees from Icarus into a dark gate room means the audience is immediately in the middle of the story. The flashbacks are not signalled which was disconcerting in the first instance but appreciated as the story moves forward. Signalling would have detracted from the action and there is a sense of satisfaction that as a viewer I’m being treated as intelligent enough to ‘get it’.

The story also keeps the alien aspects to a minimum. There are no aliens: the attack on the Icarus base is shown primarily from those involved on our side of the battle rather than long shots of the alien ships in space. The special effects fit seamlessly and naturally into the production without introducing anything that feels unreal. Moreover, the main alien technology on show is the Stargate itself. It is lovingly placed front and centre of this first instalment.

Air Part One reminds me of SG1’s pilot, Children of the Gods, in many ways. It is about humans not really knowing what they’re doing; floundering through the Stargate into a newly alien environment and trying to survive. It has that same raw quality for me that SG1’s first season delivered in spades. As Part One finished, I couldn’t wait to get to Part Two. Have I already fallen hook, line and sinker? Absolutely.
 

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