The Ship as an Antagonist

Sometimes, one of the hardest things to be in the science fiction fandom is be a Stargate Universe lover. At the very least, it’s one of the hardest things to be in the Stargate fandom. If you doubt this, let me tell you a story. I dressed up as Eli Wallace to be a part of my friend’s Stargate cosplay group, and I was asked to get out of the group photo…

So yeah. It’s either that, or they all hate Eli…

At least I go this one, complete with a Rush-is-yelling-at-me-on-the-walkie-talkie expression:

Anyway, there could be a few reasons for the SGU hate. Some people erroneously believe that Stargate Atlantis was cancelled in favor of Stargate Universe. Some really liked the campy scifi feel of SG-1  and Atlantis sometimes employed, and the Nolan-esque grittiness of SGU felt like a betrayal.

But after years of listening, and asking pointed questions, I think the real matter is that the show was misunderstood.

One of issues that I heard over and over from people who dislike the show is that the ship solves all their problems for the crew, so it’s not interesting. There is no tension, they say, and it lacks excitement of finding out how the team is going to solve the problem. McKay and O’Neil’s creative solutions stuck together with technobabble and chewing gum is replaced with the fatalistic acceptance that crew of the Destiny will burn up in a star.

I can’t blame them for thinking that. After all, on the surface, it looks that way, especially when watching the first four episodes.

Essentially, they saw “Air”, where our poor crew end up on the Destiny, and quickly discover that there is not enough oxygen for all of them. The ship takes them to a planet for them to get a kind of limestone for the carbon monoxide scrubbers. Broken-down, and barely inhabitable, Destiny causes just as many problems as it tries to solve. After all, it takes a near inhuman effort of Greer and Scott to find some limestone and barely make it back in time to the ship before it leaves.

This lack of control, by the way, is exactly why Destiny acts as an antagonist rather than a deus ex machina.

The next crisis that presents itself in “Light” and “Darkness”, where the ship flies straight into a star. Having no control over the ship, and no power to do anything anyway, the crew has to make hard decisions. Gone are the Polly-Anna-McKay solutions that would somehow convert power from a strange source, find a ZPM, or whatever he would come up with. Even if they could get power, they have no way to steer the ship away from the star. They don’t have the time, resources, or personnel to save all of the lives this ship is endangering. Instead, they have to hold a lottery to to send a small contingent of people away to live a hard life on a frigid planet that is barely fit for carbon-based lifeforms, while the rest sail into a star to die. The antagonist, again, is the ship. Sure, it turns out the ship goes into stars regularly to power up, but they could not have known that. Not only that, the ship going into a star with no indication of why caused another issue: how to get back the people they sent off as the shuttle is not fast enough to catch up?

The next episode follow a similar theme. They are running out of water. The ship takes them to an ice-planet, most of which is poisoned with ammonia. To make it worse, the ship institutes its countdown clock, giving them a tight deadline to barely get enough water at all. Because of this, Destiny becomes partially the antagonist along with the alien species that is consuming their water on the ship.

All in all, I think this poster says it all:

That’s it. That’s the show.

The show, therefore, is not about the ship solving all the problems. It’s about survival.

But I’ll belabor my point. After the first five episodes, I think it’s very hard to argue that the ship solves any of their problems for them.

Telford becomes the antagonist in the next episode, “Earth”, as he proposes a risky procedure to open the stargate that Rush is positive will kill them all. In “Time”, it’s a simple Man vs. Nature conflict as the crew fights not only multiple timelines where they meet very grisly ends, but a plague. (And by the way, “Time” is probably one of the best episodes of scifi written in the last twenty years, and should have been nominated and won a Hugo award. Even you don’t have interest in Stargate, watch that episode. It actually deals with time travel theory properly.)

And after that, you have the completely man-made conflict when Rush and Young finally come to disastrous results as they vie for power, both believing the other is hampering the the crew’s chances for survival. I don’t see the ship stepping in a mediating this… which it could possibly do if Season 2 is to be believed.  And let’s not forget that Rush and Young’s feud to another problem the ship can’t solve at all, which is the alien Nakai. If anything, the ship’s completely depleted shields, and inability to fully charge up at stars (because they can’t control it), makes it harder for them to survive the Nakai attacks as they limp away from their inexplicable enemies.

The thing is, the ship is pretty much the cause of all of their problems, and when they finally get some minimal control so they can cause even more of their own problems, the ship still acts an antagonist as it takes them in across galaxy jump they will not survive. Their only basic control, combined with ship’s dilapidated system continues to work against them as much as the genocidal drones.

And really, I love it. I relish the plethora of conflicts that layer in Stargate Universe, all of which are at a personal level because it’s limited to the ship. It’s not “oh no, we have to do this to save Earth from aliens… again.” It’s “oh no, these characters I adore could be gone forever,” and “oh my god, we may never find out what Destiny’s mission is, or what theses obelisk planets are.”

I will forever be grateful for how SGU explores the reality of people in a universe with stargates in somewhat unflattering, but always thought-provoking ways. And for me, one of those thought-provoking ways is that the thing they depend completely on for survival is also the very thing that threatens it.

One thought on “The Ship as an Antagonist

  1. Interesting perspective on the ship. I felt so cheated that we never found out Destiny’s true mission. I feel that the ship was more suited to the original aliens health processes. Perhaps they used oxygen and water at a slower rate. I often wished they could have found a guidebook somewhere that could be translated, showing how the ship functioned. I miss Rush, Eli and the rest of the crew. Survival, not exploration, was definitely the premise of this show. Now, I need to watch “Time” again.

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