It may not be post apocalyptic, or even close to perfect, but Stargate Universe is my favorite television series. From all the sources it pulls from for inspiration, to the mere timing of it's release, SGU may have only lasted two seasons but it ended up being one of the most influential series that I've ever seen. Hold onto your butts, this will probably be a long one...
Whenever my dad was actually around, we used to watch the original Stargate series, SG-1, together. It ran from 1997 to 2007, so it had a pretty good lifespan as far as Sci-Fi shows go. The second series, Stargate Atlantis ran from 2004 to 2009, and it was as equally campy as the original series. I enjoyed both of these, but this was primarily because watching them was something that I got to do with my dad from time to time. Even when he wasn't around, I'd keep watching them so I could catch him up when he got back from whatever hellish corner of the world he was exploring.
Stargate Universe came out in 2009, and by this point my dad wasn't that interested in television anymore so I ended up watching it alone. The tone of SGU was very different from SG-1 and SGA, it was set in the same universe but it was much darker and a lot more serious. It borrowed a lot from Battlestar Galactica, which had run from 2004 to 2009, in that it portrayed space travel as less than a fun adventure and more of a harrowing journey into the unknown where friends and family can be killed at a moments notice. My dad died around the time I was watching SGU, so it'd be remiss of me if I didn't point out how that influenced my opinion of the show.
The basic premise of the show is that there is this Ancient ship, called The Destiny, that was launched from Earth thousands of years ago. It's mission was to set out into the universe, find suitable planets that could support life, seed them with stargates, and then just keep on travelling for as long as it could. The original intent was for it to be launched unmanned and preform the first leg of it's journey without a crew, who would use the stargate to board it later on. The issue here is that the Ancients figured out how to ascend beyond their physical forms before they were meant to board the Destiny, so the mission was abandoned and the ship continued to travel on it's own. It just traveled through the universe for thousands of years, on auto-pilot, collecting data and seeding planets with stargates.
Skip to the present day, and the humans of the stargate program manage to make a connection to the Destiny, but due to a list of random circumstances that include an exploding planet, they're forced to board it without the proper preparations. This is one of the key aspects of the series that I find appealing, the fact that the vast majority of the crew are not even meant to be there. There's a large military force, because it's still the stargate program, but there's also scientists and civilian personnel. They had to board the Destiny to escape certain death, but it's a ship of alien design that's thousands of years old and they've got no way to get back home.
That's the appeal, they're the wrong people for the job and they're all stranded on this ship. The crew can't even control the ship for a large portion of both seasons, they're just passengers, or stowaways, and they're simply along for the ride. All these strangers are forced together and they have to learn how to get along and work as a team to survive. They clash, a lot, over various differences, but eventually they get their shit together and take control of the ship.
Bringing up the fact that my dad passed away while I was watching this series may have seemed a little left field, but there was a point to that. The series has a focus on characters who have had strained relationships with their fathers, and most of the characters have even lost their fathers. One ran away, another died in a car crash, one had PTSD and was abusive and another actually died within hours of boarding the Destiny. It's just random chance that my own father happened to die while I was watching a series that delved so heavily into the topic. It was definitely a factor that made the series resonate with me.
Now, as with everything else I watch, I watched SGU with a critical eye so I could learn how it worked. Combine this with the fact that I've watched this show at least ten times over, it should be obvious that I'm well aware of it's many flaws. There's a few aspects of the show that I don't like and a few scenes that just seem clunky and are there for false drama. My main issue with the show is that the crew have these devices that allow them to swap bodies with people back on Earth. It's a minor quibble but it's a way for them to stay in contact with Earth and it also allows the people of Earth to interfere with the crew of the Destiny. I get why they did it, it grounded the crew a little and let them have a broader cast to interact with, but I feel it would've been better if contact Earth was something that was held off for a season or two, to really ramp up the isolation. Beyond that, there's a few scenes where characters are just standing around info-dumping and giving blatant exposition.
The problems are few and far between, and even further from deal breakers, mind you. They're just minor aspects of a show that you tend to notice when you've watched it so many times. Besides these few points, the show had so much going for it that I was legitimately shocked that it was cancelled after two seasons. I get that the darker tone wasn't what Stargate fans were used to, but it was in no way a bad show.
Considering the set up of the show, with random people thrown together and forced to rely on one another to survive, it should come as no surprise that the series boasted some fantastic characters and that the interactions between them were superb. The thing that set SGU apart from its predecessors is that it's characters were all deeply flawed individuals that clash with one another on multiple occasions.
Colonel Everett Young is the leader of the Destiny. He tries to do the right thing and be an example to others, but he makes the wrong decisions sometimes and circumstances begin to take their toll on him. Colonel Young is often caught between two other characters, Rush and Wray.
Nicholas Rush is the manipulative scientist who, while quite brilliant in various fields of science, is more known for his manipulation of people and situations. A pragmatist through and through, he seems to have cast aside most emotional influences in his decision making and goes with the most logical choices.
Camile Wray is a human resources officer who wasn't meant to be aboard the Destiny, she brings a more humanistic element to the leadership trio. While Rush may be cold and calculating, Wray is empathetic and... calculating. Like a lot of the other crew members, she doesn't have an official purpose but she quickly establishes herself as a sort of civilian liaison and becomes a thorn in everyone's side.
There's this great dynamic going in with this trio, where Colonel Young is caught between the brain of Rush and the heart of Wray. Although they often clash, Rush and Wray often join forces and butt heads with Colonel Young about how the ship should be run, since he's military and they're both civilian.
The primary character for the audience's introduction to the situation is Eli Wallace, a 25 year old computer hacker who lives at home with his mother. An absolute slacker with a brilliant mind, he's only on the Destiny because he solved a puzzle and the stargate program kidnapped him. He was dealt a shit hand as a kid and was saddled with too much responsibility, he had to look after others and his own interests suffered as a result. He's unmotivated and juvenile at times, and he doesn't really know how to get what he wants. He grows a lot as a character over the two seasons though and he's the character that I identify with the most.
Mathew Scott is an lieutenant who is fresh out of the training program, so he's just as new to the situation as Eli is. These two hit it off pretty quickly as they each make up for the other's shortfalls. Scott is by no means dumb, it's just that he's focused on the combat and leadership roles, while Eli is really really smart. He's a bit of a ladies man, which causes a few issues with several of the other characters aboard the Destiny.
Chloe Armstrong is the daughter of a senator who died aboard the Destiny on the first day the crew arrived. She does her best to make herself useful throughout the series but she's largely a third wheel beyond her friendship with Eli and romantic relationship with Scott. At a certain point she gets abducted by aliens and she starts to mutate, she becomes super strong and freakishly intelligent. It seemed like the writers needed a way to make her character still relevant amid a roster of soldiers and scientists. It felt a little rushed, but overall it worked.
Tamara Johansen is a medic that is forced into the role of ship's doctor, since she's the only one with any kind of medical training. Like Wray, she definitely brings a human element to the series and she's got one of the more heart wrenching story arcs. She's pretty upbeat in general but life just keeps slamming into her, over and over. I would have liked to have seen where she ended up if the series had continued.
Ronald Greer is the big strong guy of the series, he's a soldier through and through but he's also got a temper that gets him into trouble. He's not a douchebag with a temper though, it's more about him being overly protective and ready to sacrifice himself for others at a moments notice. There's a lot going on with Greer and it just sucks that we only got to see a bit of it before the show was cancelled.
Finally, my favorite character in the series, Varro. This guy was part of an invading force that tried to take the Destiny, but ended up turning on his side when things got out of hand. Despite his status as an enemy soldier, he eventually earns the trust of everyone aboard the Destiny and becomes an equal crew member. He's a warrior, like Greer, but he's less aggressive and more soft spoken and reflective.
Watching all these characters interact with one another across the two seasons was always interesting, they were thrown into some seriously shitty situations. Everyone has their own idea of what's best for the group, and people clash more often than not. Factions form and conspiracies to overthrow the military rule are put into play, it takes these people a long time to put their shit aside and learn how to work together. When they finally do manage to work together, things start to go a lot better.
At a certain point, deep into season 2, the characters get the chance to return home but they end up turning it down. While they started out doing everything in their power to get back to earth, eventually they figure out that the original mission of the Destiny is that important that they chose to take it upon themselves to take it as far as they can. There's this moment where everyone is deciding if they'll stay or leave, and we see one of the side characters mulling it over in their head. You can see the realization on his face, the fact that nothing he could ever possibly do back on Earth could compare to the work he'd do on Destiny, and he decides to stay.
I think that's another part of the appeal of the series as well, as much as it's about the human interaction it's also about this universe spanning goal. They're aboard a ship that's seeking the answers to all of life's greatest questions about the universe and our place in it. The characters are dealing with petty politics, personal fears and relationship issues while also seeking out if some kind of god had a hand in the creation of the universe. It's that simultaneous exploration of the ordinary and extraordinary that make the series so interesting.
The creators knew that the show was going to be cancelled, so thanks to the freedom of narrative that science fiction allows, we were sort of given two endings. In one, an alternate version of the crew actually get sent back in time a few thousand years and establish a small colony of humans on a planet, the main crew get to help the descendants of this colony. We got to see the lives they all lived as they set about trying to build a civilization from scratch, it was probably the best ending the characters could have received.
The second ending, the ending of the series, is less optimistic but far more open ended and allowed for a continuation. The Destiny is about to cross a void between galaxies, and the crew all have to go into suspended animation for a few years so the ship can conserve enough power to make it all the way across. Eli is the only one left out of stasis as he's the only one who can fix the last remaining pod, the series closes with him looking out at the universe and smiling. He might not be able to fix the pod, he might very well die, but the fact that he's travelling through the stars means that it's all been worth it to him.
I was definitely bummed when the series was cancelled, but I've heard that there is a comic series released now that has taken up where the show left off. I'm pretty sure Eli would have survived somehow, especially if the story has continued. I'm pretty keen to get my hands on a copy of the comic, but they're hard to come by in Australia so I'm going to have to get creative.
So that's it, sorry for the randomly long post about a sci-fi show that was cancelled six years ago and isn't post apocalyptic. Like I said, it means a lot to me simply because of the timing and context it was released into. I still hold out hope that the show will continue one day, but until then I've still got the first two seasons and those comics to track down.