Top TV #3: Life

Today is, obviously, the third in this week’s series of ‘my favorite television episodes’. There’s a lot to say in this one, and it’s a tough one to cover, so pardon my disjointed ramblings as I try to pull it together and sum it up as best I can.

To tell the truth, I really struggled with selecting the subject of today’s post. After all, I can easily think of a dozen episodes from other sci-fi series (Doctor Who and Firefly, take a bow) that are better in one or more ways. So, if you haven’t read the caveat from the previous two days, and are easily enraged, you might want to do that now, because today’s selection is “Life” – the ninth episode of season one from the short-lived Stargate Universe.

That’s right – I said it: Stargate Universe. While the series was often criticized by long-time fans of the franchise, I quite liked it. Of course, I thought the previous Stargate series were formulaic fluff (except for an episode here and there, mostly after Ben Browder and Claudia Black joined the cast), so take from that what you will.

For those of you aren’t familiar with Stargate Universe (and I imagine that’s most of you), the starting premise is that a group of scientists and soldiers has to evacuate from a base that’s being bombed by aliens. In a desperate last resort, they manage to activate a stargate to an unknown location and dive through (and if you don’t know what a stargate is, go Google it. There were movies.). What’s on the other side of the gate is an abandoned, crippled alien ship set on autopilot and traveling an incredible distance from Earth – going in the wrong direction – and the new crew have no way of gaining full control. At best, they can keep the life-support going and work some other devices. Fortunately, they can communicate with Earth by use of some handy alien tech introduced previously in a previous series (I think): a handful of “communication stones” that allow a stranded person to swap bodies with a willing volunteer back on Earth.

This particular episode focuses on three of the characters using the stones to go on ‘shore leave’ back on Earth. Aside from the difficulty of visiting their loved ones while in someone else’s body, they can’t tell anyone (at least, anyone who doesn’t have security clearance) who they really are, much less where they really are. Even those ‘in the know’ are dealing with a character in circumstances completely FUBAR, which is bound to cause more than a little stress.

Now, before I go further, let me say that I’m a sucker for tv that knows how to effectively place songs (like the Dire Straits track in yesterday’s West Wing post). So, when this episode did it at the beginning and at the end, using the Flogging Molly song “The Worst Day Since Yesterday,” I was helpless.

Obviously, with music like that, you’re going to get characters who start their day off badly and end it worse. [spoiler alert] There’s the female political officer whose separation from her handicapped lover is causing them to grow apart, and who finds she’s forgetting bits of their lives. Then there’s the colonel who thinks his wife is cheating on him with an Earth-bound officer, and goes to track down the offender, only to bludgeon one of his crewmates who’s in the offender’s body on his own shore leave. Most gripping, though, is actor Brian J. Smith as Lieutenant Matthew Scott, who finds out he’s the father of a young boy and that his ex is now taking her clothes off for money in order to support them – and of course he can’t reveal who he really is. He’s a very likable character throughout the series, and his breakdown at the end of this episode is particularly heart-rending. There are a few other characters featured in the musical sections, but they don’t get a lot of screen time this episode. The guy who runs out of pills certainly causes problems later. [end spoiler alert] That’s another tv device I love: taking characters I like and just dragging them through the mud (also known as the last two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

What really ties it all together is, of course, the music. Can your day really get any worse? Is it the worst day since yesterday? Well, yes… it is.

(You can watch the combined beginning/ending of this episode on YouTube. Though it won’t have the emotional impact you’d get by watching the whole episode, you can still enjoy the song. Flogging Molly for the win!)

Runner-Up: Season one episode three (“Air”; part three of the series opener trilogy) also has a great musical ending where the crew manage to fix the failing air purifiers and commiserate over recent losses – and a WTF moment when something appears on this supposedly abandoned and empty ship. I almost chose it for today, simply because it introduced me to Alexi Murdoch’s wonderful song, “Breathe.” You can see that on YouTube as well.

Tomorrow, something less controversial – and more critically acclaimed – in order to put some balm on today’s selection…

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