'Stargate Universe' promises the moon

The Stargate mythology returns to Syfy on Friday, and just as its network's name has changed (from SciFi), so too has the show that has, for some fans, come to define science-fiction during the past decade.

Since 1997, Stargate has been a constant presence on television, with its spinoffs SG-1 and then Atlantis, which ended its five-year run in January. As it has aged, it has built a legacy and a following that rivals its older, better-known Star brethren, Star Wars and Star Trek.

And as it debuts, Stargate Universe promises plots and characters that ensure it will remain a Syfy mainstay for years.

What's different?

Characters: They're richer and deeper.

Pacing: It's slower and more deliberate.

Filming: It seems more like a feature film.

Stargate Universe begins much like any other Stargate, courtesy of appearances by alums of both shows, including SG-1's Gen. Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson). Viewers meet the members of Earth's Icarus Base, which is researching how to unlock the ninth chevron on a stargate. The plot device of the show, stargates, are contraptions built by an ancient race that allow instantaneous travel throughout or between galaxies.

When the base comes under attack (a frequent scenario in SG-1 and Atlantis), the base personnel escape through the stargate. But rather than dial a previously visited world, they make the ninth chevron work for the first time and enter the unknown.

They arrive on an unmanned spaceship sent out years ago by the builders of the stargates. And as the tagline says, "The only mission is survival."

The two-hour pilot episode focuses on their quest to fix the ship's ventilation system. And the future episode titles suggest there will be light and water crises.

Universe focuses much less on the events at hand — you know, the black holes and space fights that defined previous iterations of Stargate — and more so on the characters and how they react to the events. As you meet the show's huge cast, you discover flawed, emotional people whose flashbacks tease you with the strong character developments to come.

Chief among them is Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle), whose enigmatic nature makes him both respected and hated by his colleagues. He'll be the character to watch as the season progresses.

There have been numerous comparisons to the critically lauded Battlestar Galactica, what with being stranded on a spaceship and all, as well as the focus on character relationships and less action. As a fan who has seen every episode of Stargate and every Battlestar, I can tell it's the Stargate brains. Their wry sense of humor permeates this show, albeit at a less frequent pace. And the series draws from a mythology far richer than Battlestar's. It also doesn't have an enemy ... yet. There aren't Goa'ulds or Wraith or Cylons.

And that's part of the appeal: the unknown.

In many respects, the name says it all. Stargate Universe offers an entirely new interpretation of the Stargate universe and it'll be exciting to watch it unfold.