Monday, August 24, 2009

Defying Sanity

Alright, so it is summer. And there's nothing to watch on TV. And even if there were, it's too hot to concentrate on anything more challenging than fluff. And it's going on several years since there was any space-set science fiction on our screens that didn't have the word Galactica or Stargate in its title. Even so, there's no excuse for watching Defying Gravity, the new series about a six-year mission around the solar system billed as 'Grey's Anatomy in space.' It's not just that Defying Gravity delivers exactly what that none-too-appetizing pitch promises, but that it's not even as enjoyably trashy as Grey's Anatomy. It takes special skill to wring the tension and melodrama out of a scene in which the female lead has been blown out into space by a malfunctioning airlock door while wearing a leaky spacesuit and the male lead has to keep her conscious as he reels her back into the ship, but Defying Gravity's writers are still too busy charting its characters' tangled and semi-incestuous relationships--after a Meredith-and-McDreamy style hookup before she's accepted into the space program, the male and female leads spend five years dancing around each other, stymied by her neuroses and the fact that he feels guilty about leaving his previous lover to die on Mars; the mission biologist is married to the commander, who is replaced at the last minute by his alternate, her ex-boyfriend who is currently married to the deputy mission director; the flight surgeon is married to the on-board doctor; and the second in command bangs anyone she can get her hands on. This is all, by the way, while the characters are supposedly wearing libido-suppressing patches.

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).
These elements alone would be enough to assure Defying Gravity a place of honor in the annals of profoundly dumb science fiction, but it's the final ingredient in the show's premise that elevates it to a brilliant, albeit unintentional, metafictional gag. Late in the pilot it's revealed that the mission profile and crew roster have been determined through communication with an alien known as Beta, who also manipulates events on its own--causing, for example, the health crisis which grounds the commander and engineer and places their alternates on the ship. Every single nonsensical, melodramatic aspect of Defying Gravity's setup can be traced back to Beta. The ship is crewed mostly by green astronauts who have never been to space? Blame Beta. One of the crewmembers has failed every single fitness test? Beta wanted him. The alternate commander on a six year mission has a wife and young child at home? Beta chose him. The entire crew is wracked with unresolved sexual tension and romantic jealousies? That's how Beta wanted it. If you look at these choices, the profile they paint is not of a wise and all-powerful alien intelligence but of a fan of melodramatic workplace dramas of the Grey's Anatomy ilk. In my wildest dreams, Defying Gravity ends with the revelation that the whole series has been the equivalent of the Futurama episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before," and that the alien whose wishes and desires the characters have scrambled to accommodate is nothing but an overgrown kid who wanted their own live dolls with which to reenact their favorite stories.

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?

15 comments:

Len said...

I agree with your overall take, the show is ridiculous and awful.

However, I believe your third bullet point is a bit incorrect. She's growing a particular rabbit embryo past the mandated limits set in her experimental protocol as some kind of surrogate baby, but it isn't actually her own test tube baby.

Doctor Science said...

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?

*cues music* We have a winner!

Even worse -- IMHO this is because their own lives and the lives of people they know in Hollywoodland are characterized by rampant unprofessionalism, nepotism, drug use, ignorance about contraception, and a level of sexism and exploitation that goes beyond "casting couch" to be more of a "casting life".

I hope I'm wrong, but so far the evidence is not against it.

Matt said...

While I enjoy bashing television writers in general and TV SF in particular, I'm not sure print SF does much better with the spaceship thing. I've read quite a few horrible books that were based on the same idea (important space mission crewed by a bunch of unstable people). The most dramatic example is probably the way the original Rendezvous With Rama had a professional exploration team going about their business on a cool big dumb object, but then in the horrifying sequels someone obviously felt they needed to inject some "character drama".

I assume the genre-pervasive emphasis on emotional breakdown on space missions is premised on the idea that space travel is a unique and highly unnatural mode of existence for humans, involving intense mental stresses. But is space travel so different from ocean travel before the steam engine, or submarines today? It's not an accident that whenever space shows up in SF that isn't making a big deal about Scientific Accuracy and Important Ideas, the spaceships are quick redresses of ocean-going ships.

I guess the one difference you can point to is the presence of women, who were traditionally absent on warships and exploration ships. If I'm not mistaken the submarine corps is the last part of the US Navy not to gender-integrate. But even if that makes a difference (and I think a lot of people would argue it doesn't) the smaller the crew it seems to me the more you can count on its professionalism. NASA certainly doesn't seem to have any trouble with its integrated crews.

Ed S. said...

Well, I kinda enjoyed the show, although I'm still puzzled over why it was necessary to keep pulling on the rope to reel in the astronaut from outside. I mean once you give it a single tug shouldn't the astronaut outside automatically started moving towards the door and kept moving without further effort? Something from that Newton guy about objects in motion. And if there was some urgency to get her on board faster a few more tugs would have accelerated her. Why was he continuously pulling on the rope? Well ok, spotting all these science glitches is what makes the show interesting.....

Abigail's Mom said...

"scientific glitches," Ed?

It would be more challenging to try and find a scientific fact!

The entire way gravity/weightlessness is handled is a joke. The layout and size of the spacecraft is a mystery. Communications are instantaneous, no time delays for distance travelled. And what about food production? Are we to assume they are carrying six years worth of food with them?

And, finally, what do these beautiful people do all day? Spend all their time admiring themselves in the mirror?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Len:

Oh, has that been confirmed? I haven't seen the most recent episode.

Honestly, that makes more sense, though still not the height of professionalism. If you can get around the logistical issues, having pets on this kind of mission makes sense, but not an undomesticated, untrainable animal whose healthy development is a huge question mark.

DS:

The thing is, I do think there have been television series that concentrate on professionalism and professional ability. For all their flaws, the two Stargates were for the most part uninterested in the soapy details of their characters' lives, and those characters were devoted to and passionate about their work (where the unprofessionalism came in was in the buddy mentality that drove most of the military decisions on both series). Early ER and present-day Law & Order (original flavor, not SVU) downplayed the characters' personal lives almost to the point of non-existence, and The West Wing is the gold standard for making professionalism not only dramatic but inspiring (and used many of the same storytelling tricks as From the Earth to the Moon), though of course in Aaron Sorkin's later effort, Studio 60, he not only depicted the Hollywood mentality you describe but embodied it himself when he used the show to settle grudges against his enemies in the industry.

Of course, all of these shows had wider vistas of story available to them than Defying Gravity does, which is why I think the answer to my question is a combination of the two answers I gave.

Matt:

You're making me glad I never read the Rama sequels.

Though I agree that emotional breakdown, or at least instability, is a likely consequence of long-haul space travel, that's not quite the same as soapy relationship drama. Which is why I think the Office template works better for this setting - it depicts the intense and often nonsensical relationships and obsessions that can arise when people are thrown together for long periods under unpleasant circumstances.

Ed:

Hah, I never even thought about the business with the rope (though I suppose the ship's forward momentum might have created a counter-force). As my mother says, though, there's no shortage of scientific flim-flammery and handwaving on this show.

londonkds said...

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.

Isn't that Red Dwarf, more or less?

Kit said...

Isn't that Red Dwarf, more or less?

Heh. In a sense Rimmer is sort of a proto-Gareth, isn't he? But even Red Dwarf was more in the Star Trek mode; they're all stuck together on the ship, but they keep encountering outside influences. Only the very first episodes were focused solely on the ship and the crew.

In a show about pseudo-realistic NAFAL space travel there wouldn't be nearly so many chance encounters with aliens/androids/time travel, so you'd lose the potential for outside influences (and drama). Also a lot of the within-ship drama in shows like Red Dwarf or Farscape came from the fundamental incompetence of the crew, and wouldn't arise in a more professional setting.

I think for a NAFAL transit story to work, the ship either has to be so huge that it is essentially a world and the plot can therefore revolve around something other than the navigation of the ship, or the crew have to be non-professionals. If there was some sort of accident that forced passengers to take over from the real crew, you could get enough drama out of them learning to run the ship and sorting out their hierarchy to make a show.

But with a professional crew, you don't have that potential. The professions of lawyers and ER doctors and politicians (and Stargate explorers) are oriented around dramatic, episodic events; cases or surgeries or bills. The professions of astronauts are oriented around non-events. Space is relatively uniform, so assuming they do their jobs competently and nothing goes terribly wrong with the ship, their lives are boring and routine. Dullness is the measure of their success. For the same reason there are no serial dramas about train conductors or commercial airplane pilots, there will never be any great serial dramas about NAFAL transit.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, Red Dwarf has some of the feel of what I'm looking for, though as Kit notes most of the plots revolve around outside influences. Plus, in keeping with the show's sitcom format, the relationships between the characters and their personalities remain pretty static - Lister's a disgusting slacker, Rimmer's a puffed-up buffoon, Kryten's a pushover who's smarter than both of them put together. One of the things I like about The Office (I'm talking about the American version - I've only seen bits of the UK original) is that despite it being a sitcom, relationships do grow and develop, as does our understanding and appreciation of the characters. In that sense I think that Moon might be a useful data point in this discussion even though it's not about space travel and only has one character, because one of its major plot points is that three years in a contained environment far away from Earth have had a profound effect on the main character's personality.

so assuming they do their jobs competently and nothing goes terribly wrong with the ship

That's a pretty rash assumption that doesn't, I think, take into account just how hugely complicated a spaceship capable of traveling around the solar system would be. We're talking millions of moving parts, each one essential and capable of failing. Just think about the number of tries it took to put an unmanned lander on Mars. That's not because the people involved were too stupid to get all their ducks in a row - it's because the number of ducks is enormous.

In that sense, I actually think Defying Gravity is doing a pretty good job - so far they've had the characters deal with a leaky spacesuit, a misplaced piece of equipment causing power shorts, and a faulty sensor in the water filtration system, each of which, in an environment in which there's no service station, no turning back, and none of the natural forces that engineers have been relying on for centuries, might have scuttled the mission. The problem, of course, is that these crises aren't inherently dramatic, and the writers haven't figured out how to make them so.

Kit said...

That's a pretty rash assumption that doesn't, I think, take into account just how hugely complicated a spaceship capable of traveling around the solar system would be. We're talking millions of moving parts, each one essential and capable of failing.

That's a good point, but if you're relying on mechanical malfunctions to supply the drama you've effectively created an engineering procedural, and I think there are two fundamental problems that limit the potential of that format.

1) The audience likes to watch problems they can follow and resolve in their own heads. When Josh Lyman yells at some senators to whip up support for a bill, we understand the basics of the bill, the opposition, and how he's trying to resolve the problem of the week.

But suppose a circuit blows out in the life support system- perhaps there's some tension in figuring out which circuit and scavenging some materials to effect the repair, but we can't ever actually see the circuit. The problem and its solution are essentially opaque to us. To create an effective procedural, you have to make the procedure accessible to the viewer, and engineering problems strike me as particularly intractable in this respect. Maybe that's just because I've never seen an engineering procedural, but I rather suspect that they don't exist because they'd be difficult to create.

2) Because engineering creates an opaque procedure, it's going to be very hard to make the engineering problems differentiable to the viewer. Sure, you've got separate circuits running the air and the hydroponics, but is the viewer really going to care which component of the life support blew out? Damage to the life support is only interesting the first two or three times. There just aren't enough parts of the ship to break to create the variety a show like this would need.

This sort of story could work very well as a movie, I think; something drastic goes wrong and they spend the rest of the movie scrambling to fix it. (Okay, so they've already made that movie several times.) But as a serial?

A character drama of the crew slowly cracking up could be interesting, but unless the show had absolutely amazing writers I think they'd still need some procedural framework to hang it on, and I don't think engineering could cut it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As an SF fan, it would be nice to think that it is possible to write a compelling engineering procedural, but I admit there's not much evidence for it. Though I think that the success of CSI and Bones indicates that there's a market for science-based storytelling, both shows derive much of their drama from the fact that science is being used to investigate a murder, and at any rate I'm not sure that engineering is as easy to explain to laypeople as forensics.

This sort of story could work very well as a movie, I think; something drastic goes wrong and they spend the rest of the movie scrambling to fix it. (Okay, so they've already made that movie several times.)

Most notably, Apollo 13, which is not only a story about engineering but about engineers coming up with creative solutions under terrific time constraints. My favorite scene in that film is one in which a room full of engineers are tasked with finding a technical solution to one of the problems facing the astronauts, and given a box of miscellaneous objects, including socks and food tubes, to do it with, because those are the available objects on the spaceship.

Marshall Ryan said...

I agree with you that the show is bad, but I'm kind of fascinated in HOW it's bad, which is different from your usual ways SF shows can be bad.

Namely, it's pretty much a bad workplace soap-drama, just said workplace happens to be on a spaceship in the 2050s.

The show isn't interested in technobabble or showing us fancy things that go ping or ridiculous future fashions or overdosing us on FUTURETECH. This is just Normal Life, but it happens to be in the future.

There's something about that-- sci-fi as something normal, being shown on primetime on a major network-- which is commendable, even if its normal aspects are banal and ridiculous.

Jennifer said...

I'm pretty much watching this for the lulz. Really, it's for laughter. Their weird handling of "we can't really film with no gravity, so OBJECTS don't have it?" The overly angsty guilt they give the blonde about aborting her precious one-night-stand broken-vasectomy baby because she hears crying? The total lack of chemistry between her and Ron Livingston? Letting him and his friend go back into space again when you know darned well it wouldn't happen again IRL? The scary psuedo-Russian hobag? A Wizard-oh, excuse me, Beta Did It for everything?

And I like Christina Cox, but I desperately want to slap whoever made her deliver the line "It's our space baby!"

But really, there's not much else on, so I might as well make fun of it while it lasts.

Gary Couzens said...

The thing is, I do think there have been television series that concentrate on professionalism and professional ability.

In a different genre, but M*A*S*H was a good example. In the operating theatre, the doctors and nurses were professional to a fault. Outside it, of course, they indulged in pranks and horseplay, but that was to let off steam - and the daily life-and-death traumas of the Korean War setting gave it all a context.

Abigail's Mom said...

Re: episode six

OK, so we've established that the authors have no knowledge of science . . . but, do they have any knowledge of anything?

In their geewizz future, firearms are so uncommon that ER doctors don't know how to treat a GSW; emergency heart-shocking paddles are wireless AND there is no Geneva Convention (!!): combatant doctors enter a battlefield at the head of the attack force and double as spotters for artillery!!!

Best of all. Abortions aren't performed in a hospital or clinic. Instead, you take a nice little pill that removes both the unwanted baby and all your reproductive plumbing at one and the same time.

Unbelievable!

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