Despite, or rather because, of this inanity, Defying Gravity has quickly become must-see TV for the simple reason that it so frequently scales impressive heights of unintentional hilarity. I find myself wishing for Tor.com's Genevieve Valentine (who did such an excellent job skewering Kings and Eleventh Hour this year, as well as roasting the Defying Gravity and Warehouse 13 pilots) or someone at Television Without Pity (back when they were still mostly about mocking shows) to start a running commentary on the show, but honestly, it's hard to imagine how they would top Defying Gravity's own absurdity. A constant barrage a soap-tinged doctor, lawyer and cop shows has taught us, despite our own experiences to the contrary, that every workplace is fraught with sexual tension, forbidden love, secret pregnancies, familial dysfunction, and long-lost relatives, but when that same approach is extended to space exploration--to a tiny group of people living in total isolation and trying to operate and maintain a furiously complicated piece of machinery in the most unforgiving environment known to man--it highlights the extent to which professionalism has become an vanishingly rare commodity in modern television. When, in its absence, the characters make decisions based solely on personal considerations, the results are both surreal and hilarious:
- The ship's doctor is a war veteran whose PTSD has driven him to alcoholism, but his wife, the flight surgeon, clears him for the mission because she wants to get him away from booze. Not surprisingly, the first time the ship malfunctions he has a flashback, and when a fellow crewmember discovers him her first reaction is not to wonder why a key position was crewed by a dangerously unstable man, but to promise not to tell anyone.
- Upon discovering that he's being dropped from the mission at the last minute, the ship's engineer tries to commit suicide by spacewalk. On his return to Earth, he is shocked, shocked to discover that he no longer has a position at mission control--a decision made by the mustache-twirlingly evil mission director and which no one else agrees with.
- The ship's biologist, now separated from her grounded husband for six years, has decided to create her own test-tube baby, which she is growing in a petri dish next to her rabbit embryo experiments (said experiments are meant to test how cell division functions in zero gravity, which means that she doesn't even know what potential dangers her unborn child faces even at this early stage).
On a more serious note, I find it interesting that the mini-trend towards space exploration stories set on spaceships capable of only sub-light speeds and whose crews are trapped together for years on end has been characterized by an inability to find the inherent drama of such a situation, and instead to veer off into other genres. Defying Gravity shares not only a premise but several plot points with Ron Moore's abortive pilot Virtuality--in both shows, a married couple's stability is endangered by the wife's attraction to the mission commander; both feature a woman who, only days into a years-long mission for which she has been training and preparing for years, decides that she wants to have a baby; both are narrated by a peppy young woman who relays events on the ship back to Earth (though Defying Gravity, thankfully, doesn't adopt Virtuality's moronic reality TV setup and instead plumps for the more sensible televised classroom), and the 2007 film Sunshine, though refreshingly devoid of soapy elements, instead transformed into a horror story in its second half.
What strikes me about this is that the soap opera is actually a very bad fit for the trapped in a tin can premise--there's no way to introduce new characters, no chance of new settings, no opportunity for the characters to make meaningful changes in their lives, and whereas a doctor or lawyer show at least has patients or clients of the week to provide some relief from the character's issues, in space the only way to distract us from the main cast is through technical glitches or unseen alien menaces, both of which wear out their welcome very quickly. Part of the reason, I think, that Defying Gravity and Virtuality are so similar is that there are only so many soapy stories one can tell in such a contained setting. If there is a present-day TV show that I think would suit the 'in space' formula it isn't Grey's Anatomy but The Office--a show about the petty rivalries, insignificant power struggles, and close friendships that develop amongst a group of people stuck in a place and situation they don't really care for but can't get out of.
What this brings us back to, however, is the fact that no one has yet figured out how to tell a compelling SFnal story about long-haul space missions. The most successful television series about space exploration, From the Earth to the Moon, had a deliberately documentary slant, prioritizing the process of the Apollo program's inception, success, and decommissioning over the personal lives of the people involved in it, and devoting whole episodes to, for example, the engineering team tasked with building the lunar lander, or the geologist who trains later Apollo mission crews to search for important samples on the lunar surface. The characters' importance was their contribution, as educated and experienced professionals, to the success of the program, and though their own lives and those of their families were featured in the series, this was a minor note, not the point of the exercise. As science fiction readers, we're accustomed to stories about characters who are defined through their knowledge and skills, but then written science fiction has the option of being the literature of ideas, downplaying character and even plot in favor of neat concepts and cool scientific puzzles. The question becomes, is the probable reality of space travel--long, monotonous months or even years spent in cramped quarters en route from one rock to another--inherently unstoryable, or are modern television writers so unaccustomed to telling stories about professionals and their professional lives that they have no idea how to make a story out of this premise?