Ensemble? Ensemble!

I just came across Stabs’ post on Stargate Worlds, now a shooter and not an MMO (Massively has several articles on the topic), and my comment threatened to become longer than the post itself so I moved back over here.

This is not a gaming post.

This isn’t actually about the on-again off-again not-right-now Stargate MMO, though personally I would jump all over that in a second. It’s about why SG-1 was a great show, Stargate Atlantis wasn’t so great, and Stargate Universe is downright crap. It’s about why the people with the power to greenlight stuff don’t seem to understand that just because Show A has 4-6 people in it who go to different places every week, Spinoff Show B — that also has 4-6 people in it that go to different places every week — will not necessarily be as good or as successful.

I’ve thought about this a fair bit over the years, because it seems to affect my liking or disliking shows regardless of what the shows’ actual subject matter might be. If the ensemble doesn’t gel, the show just doesn’t work for me. If the ensemble works well, on the other hand, I’ll watch despite plot holes you could drive buses through, cheap production values, and bad writing. Because if you’re doing an ensemble show (and there aren’t many other kinds these days), then the ensemble REALLY has to work. That’s not rocket science, but I’m sure it’s a recipe that’s hard to get right.

The original SG-1 team had humour, irreverence, humour, geekiness, humour, sex appeal (eye candy for all tastes), humour, and weird tech. But the show wasn’t about the weird tech, which is what SG:U is about and one of the reasons SG:U is crap. It had gobs of humour, unlike the oh-so-earnest and oh-so-serious SG-Atlantis, which was one of the reasons Atlantis was crap. SG-1 was ultimately about the people in the team — why they did what they did, how they felt about what they did, and how what happened in the wider world affected them; and that’s what makes a great show for me.

Great fiction of any kind is about the people in it acting on and reacting to the wider world around them. Doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with a stubbed toe or with the end of the world — without a human context and primary dimension, it’s pretty much meaningless. (Which is why so many sci-fi and fantasy shows fail miserably, by the way.) And humour happens to be an excellent vehicle for narrative and character development.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying SG-1 was a comedy show and I’m not saying I require one-liners every few minutes. But the plain fact is, the central character was mouthy, irreverent, not particularly happy with heavy-handed authority and wasn’t afraid of saying so. His relations with the equally idiosyncratic other characters were interesting and humorous. He was easy to identify with.

Ahhh. Golly, could this be one of the reasons SG-1 was good while the rest of the shows are crap? Wait a second, I’m having flashbacks to college and English Lit. classes.

In comparison, it took Atlantis several years to realise that a detached intellectual diplomat wasn’t necessarily easy for Joe Viewer to identify with — especially a female one, so that was eventually scrapped and we ended up with the burly shouty military chap in the forefront. It had worked for SG-1, so why not SG-A? Sad thing is, Shepherd was no O’Neill, and the humour (which makes empathising easier, by the way, and is thus a very useful narrative device) — most of it involving either McKay the UberGeek or I’mAllMuscles Ronon — came too late to really do much good. You can see the formulaic seams far too clearly in SG-A, all the more because it’s a spin-off, and they’re stretched far too tightly.

One thing spin-offs need to realise is that while you can use the IP and setting and whatnot of an existing successful show, you really shouldn’t do exactly the same damn thing just with different faces and in a different location. It worked for Star Trek only because it was made 20 years after the original. For a current spin-off, you’ve got to keep the flavour of the original while breaking away from its mould, and I can’t think of many TV series that actually manage to do this. The suits (my generic “they”) always seem convinced that different names and different faces in the same situations will equal instant success.

Sadly, they’re not only repeating the Atlantis mistake with Stargate Universe, they’re compounding it with ultimate crapitude. The alien tech is so alien we’re too ape-like to understand most of it — which turns the viewer off. Oh, except for the bits we think will make cool narrative devices, so fortunately cameras 10,000 years ago worked exactly like they do today, so that’s easy alien tech. How lucky was that, eh?

And the ensemble is not an ensemble. Well duh, stupid! It’s about a bunch of disparate people who don’t necessarily like each other but who have to work together to survive. Key word there being dis-pa-rate — you know, by definition not an ensemble? Oh wait, haven’t I seen this *coughLOSTcough* somewhere else before?

Here’s the difference, and why LOST is great and Universe is not. After 2 episodes, most of the recurring LOST characters had very distinct personalities, quirks, emerging flaws and secret histories. After what, 8? episodes of Stargate Universe, the one thing I can tell you is that the Scottish guy is an asshole (sorry Robert Carlyle), the military guy is a slightly less abrasive asshole with a different accent, they have once a-bloody-gain made the fricking doctor a freaking female (have I beaten that one to death before?), and everyone else is kind of faceless, even if they did make one of the other women gay. (And isn’t that becoming an old chestnut on TV these days? Girl on  girl — yay! Guy gayness? Eeek! Heaven forfend no, we can’t show that!)

Atlantis and Universe are missing more than just decent ensembles (and Atlantis did eventually more-or-less pull that one together in the end, just in time to get canned). They’re both missing entertaining villains — Atlantis’ religious fanatics were faceless, boringly powerful, and just not much fun; and Universe doesn’t have any enemies at all right now except the (cue executive pitch face) “enemy within”. Oooh, exciting! — NOT. Compare with the animal-headed, Egyptian-themed, ultimately self-involved Goa’uld of SG-1: who doesn’t love a good Egyptian theme, eh? It was more exotic than Atlantis’ endless pseudo-medieval pseudo-civilised villages on unexplained planets, yet it was paradoxically much more human: the Goa’uld were pretty much out for Number One, and that’s much easier on the brain and eye than wanting to impose religion on everyone in the universe, Julian Sands’ zealous eye-easiness notwithstanding.

Atlantis was too big — I never really got a sense for the place as an individual entity in the show, which it probably should have been — and whatever the hell the Universe ship is called, it’s too small. Claustrophobic, in fact, which I’m sure is intentional but which ends up backfiring. Letting people through a Stargate by using a reallllly far-fetched “We’re only here for a few hours until the ship decides to move away, quick quick get through the gate, we need water/food/towels/hot chocolate!” device doesn’t counterbalance the ship-board claustrophobia all that well, especially since they keep showing us that the ship, in fact, is pretty much the size of a city. Hoooold on — wasn’t Atlantis a ship that was the size of a city, or a city that could turn into a ship? Oh YAWN. Been there, seen that, wasn’t so great the first time around.

Ya know, I really miss the Asgard.

So what’s the point to all this? There isn’t one, really. I just occasionally turn back into a Lit. student, and it entertains me to dissect shows (or books) and see why A works for me and B doesn’t.

And if anyone has a job in the TV industry for me, let me know. I can write, make coffee, and spot plot inconsistencies at 1,000 paces.

9 thoughts on “Ensemble? Ensemble!

  1. Spot on about the chemistry, I think.

    Star Trek (60s version) is a stand-out show still because of the exceptional chemistry between the actors. Stargate Universe wastes Robert Carlyle because his somewhat exaggerated acting style just doesn’t fit with the minimalist acting style of the rest of the cast.

    It’s all in the way the people click as a cast.

  2. Atlantis didn’t have religious zealots as enemies they had techno vampires that sucked the life out of their prey and then slept for a 1000 years. They weren’t really my cup of tea either but I just wanted to clear things up.

    I think the zealots you are thinking of are actually the Orri which were the bad guys in the last couple seasons of SG:1 once the Goa’uld were pretty much defeated, Richard Dean Anderson left and the guy from Farscape came in. He never really panned out although I actually like the actor.

    1. Doh, you’re right! The vampire guys *could* have been good villains, and at one point were, but they were overly Bogeymanised at the start and it took a long time before they became anything but cardboard bad guys with fangs and long hair.

  3. Wotcha Ysharros,

    I think what annoys me most about Stargate Universe is that the premise has fantastic potential.

    The problem is that the writers seem to have decided to combine “Lost” and “Time Tunnel”, yet chose the worst parts of both as their inspirations.

    Ensemble casts that can or can’t gel aren’t the issue here; bad writing creates bad drama.

    Even an unoriginal concept can seem fresh with great writing; both Farscape and Firefly used the same concept as Blakes 7, and did it well. Casting helped, but what made it work was the writing.

    Hopefully, Universe will get some good writers. But that’s only likely if it survives (somehow) to a second series.


  4. Honestly, I like Stargate Universe. It’s the first stargate that really made me want to watch.

    It also makes me think of an edgier sort of Star Trek: Voyager series. 🙂

    1. For me SG:U is like Heroes — so much potential, so horribly wasted. That tends to make me a little harsher in my criticism than perhaps I need to be. 😀

  5. “Darker and Edgier” = “utter trash” in my book. Atlantis botched it (especially when they killed Carson, though the Wraith were idiotic KISS Stoker jokes to start with), and SG:U is trash from the start.

    The *concept* has potential, but they have veered so sharply and so far from what made the RDA years of SG-1 so great, that concept and potential alone can’t save the show. At least, not for someone interested in what made SG-1 click. SG:U is fine for the LOST/BSG crowd suffering withdrawal and looking for a new scifiemo drug.

    (Oh, and yes, S9-10 of SG-1 were effectively a different show as well. One that I didn’t care for. You can’t shoehorn new characters into an ensemble with a sledgehammer and expect it to work.)

  6. I quite watching Stargate Universe about six episodes in. The body swapping through communication stones, while interesting with its moral implications, seemed like it was going down a dark path.

    I agree with you Ysharros, the ship does feel claustrophobic. You’d think that instead of having sex all the time, the crew would actually explore the ship. 🙂

    1. I wish I had the option of stopping.

      Sadly though I’m STARVED for Sci Fi shows on TV and watch almost anything they put in front of me.

      I’m so weak 🙁

      SG:U does have it’s good moments, here and there.

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