Hank Stuever Previews 'Stargate Universe,' 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

"Stargate Universe" is about a group of adults who, to escape a menacing alien onslaught, crack the elusive solution to the "9th chevron" and step through a magic, glowing, flat screen. They are hurtled across not just the galaxy but also the whole universe, never to see Earth again.

Which, to me, is sort of like explaining the popularity of such shows. People unlock some desire for escape in themselves, step toward it and disappear into a magic, glowing, flat-screen TV -- and that vast interstellar grid of cable channels, where you live on your planet (Syfy), and I live on mine (Bravo), and she lives on hers (QVC), and he lives on his (ESPNU), and together we form a loose Federation of the Loaf Galaxy.

Marvel if you will at the size of science-fiction conventions or the curious niche appeal of shows that don't appeal to you. The marginal is the mainstream. Though it takes place in the complicated "Stargate" canon (based on a 1994 movie, which begat a nest of "Stargate" TV series that came and went, going on 12 years now), Friday night's two-hour debut on Syfy of "Stargate Universe" is as good an opportunity as any to check in with the state of affairs that is the sci-fi drama.

Two things strike me, beyond "Stargate Universe's" stiffened pace: the predictability of the action and the characters, and the apparent tolerance for borrowing that the sci-fi genre treats as a matter of course. Plagiarism is the notable rhetoric, down to how things look in space and what people out there ever say to one another. What, exactly, gives "Stargate Universe" the right to beam its heroes from ship to surface the way "Star Trek" does? Why, except for budget and/or lack of imagination, do the interiors of the enormous starcruiser here bring to mind the dank hallways of "Alien" and the neo-brutalism of George Lucas's "Star Wars," with LED-bulb gizmo decor from "Star Trek" and "Battlestar Galactica"?

Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), a recently widowed scientist, shows up with a gruff colonel at the door of Eli (David Blue), a geek computer slacker (again, a ripoff of a ripoff) who has unwittingly solved a math formula while playing a video game designed by the Pentagon. He has solved the 9th chevron and is told he must now come with them for questioning. "And if I don't?" sarcastic Eli asks.

"Then we'll beam you up to our spaceship," the colonel growls.

Which they do. And it's off to another planet, a secret lab. The 9th chevron opens up a new Stargate (better than the old Stargate), but the lab is now under attack (By whom? Refer to your Internets, please) and 80 or so soldiers, scientists, civilian workers, a U.S. senator, the senator's daughter, Dr. Rush, Eli, a blond medic, and, oh, look, Ming-Na from "ER" jump into the Stargate.

Zip, zap: It spits them aboard a very old, very unoccupied starship built by "the ancients" who, despite their advanced intelligence, named the ship Destiny. It appears the ship has been traveling for tens of thousands of years, from one galaxy to another.

So now it's a little bit "Lost" meets "Star Trek: Voyager." Why are we here? How do we get home? Stay tuned, if it's your thing. It might last 200 episodes or more. You let me know.

Happily, speaking of Lucas (who is the master borrower of whatever mythology suits him) and never-ending franchises, "Star Wars" has shaped up a little. Over on the Cartoon Network, Season 2 of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" gets underway Friday with "Rise of the Bounty Hunters."

A year ago, the movie version of "The Clone Wars" (a slickly animated version of the saga, set in the time between the second and third prequel movies) seemed to indicate a sad but merciful death for poor, moribund "Star Wars." I hated it. But chopped up into these new 22-minute TV episodes, and relieved of the Lucasian burden of needing to be a moment in cinema and pop culture, "The Clone Wars" has become a nifty little cartoon.

Nothing can be done to make Anakin Skywalker remotely interesting, but "The Clone Wars" moves along with a quick Saturday-serials clip to it, almost all action (and still terrible dialogue) interspersed with actual toy commercials that form the true heart of "Star Wars." It's as fun as making explodey noises with your mouth.

And there's a fantastic new villain (something Lucas's prequel movies sorely lacked) worth tuning in for: His name is Cad Bane, a bounty hunter with a blue face and red eyes, and he wears a vaquero-style cowboy hat and duster. He's been hired to give the Jedi knights all sorts of trouble. Cartoon Network sent the Cad Bane action figure and he's been staring at me all week. I think it's love.

Stargate Universe (two hours) premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on Syfy; Star Wars: The Clone Wars (one hour) airs Friday at 8 p.m. on Cartoon Network.

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