How lockdown has driven us to become lost in space.
I’m not the first to notice this, but there has been an awful lot of TV shows set in space lately.
Why is that?
Simple answer: people want to get the hell off of earth in 2020.
It’s been the kind of year when blasting off seems like a better option than locking down. Where dreaming of a fresh start seems like a necessary escape from grinding reality. And if we’re all going to be stuck wearing PPE and face shields anyway, they might as well be spacesuits.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But they can hear you go crazy.
Even then, of course, there’s no escape from the reality on earth. All these shows just remind us of our locked-in status. Take, for example, the international crew on the Netflix series Away, led by Hillary Swank. The crew is on an historic mission heading for Mars, but with all the kvetching and intrigue they get up to, they’re basically trapped inside a Big Brother episode, set in zero gravity.
Swank manages to bring some humanity to her character, NASA astronaut Emma Green, as she gets into leadership wrangles with her bossy co-astronauts from China and Russia (the African and Indian astronauts are relatively chill). And after frequent airing-out sessions — and finding a common goal of not dying in space — they come to respect one another and get on with the mission. They even face the kind of supply hassles we’ve all encountered on earth during COVID lockdown, but instead of having to order boxes of toilet paper or crates of wine online, they’re forced to gather water crystals from their hull to replenish their dwindling water supply. Honestly, same.
Away may have a mild cheese factor to it, but it’s a masterpiece compared to Another Life (also on Netflix), which merely posits the question we’ve all had in mind at one time or another during lockdown — “How long will it take before I wig out and karate-kick the sh*t out of my housemates who are truly annoying me?” — and transfers it to a space setting. Katee Sackhoff, who made her space bones in the Battlestar Galactica reboot decades ago, plays Niko, the only grownup on a computer-run space vessel heading towards some distant location to discover why musically-inclined space crystals have planted themselves on earth. She is surrounded by the worst batch of millennial retail employee rejects that have ever been dubbed a “crew” or given the title of “scientist” on a TV show. I mean, very few of Niko’s shipmates seem like they even graduated high school, let alone are capable of running a space station.
While Sackhoff is admirably buff and gets to wear a black sando and leotard getup for proper ass-kicking — a look that befits her “Ripley” status on this Ship of Fools — the rest of her “crew” look they’re dressed for a night of clubbing, and apparently have ample time to apply nail polish and tend to their beard manscaping before every group meeting, during which they either act bored or sly-eye their crewmates in attempts to hook up. Quick to mutiny, slow to think or problem-solve, they’re a rainbow coalition of mediocrities whom you just can’t wait to see get picked off, one by one by one.
And that’s perhaps the one guilty pleasure of watching Another Life: seeing a bunch of useless space douches meeting their deserved fates. You half-hope that an alien life form will pop out of somebody’s chest at some point to remove their smug expressions. Schadenfreude, it turns out, thrives even in the far reaches of space.
TV understands this. It knows we want escape — but nothing too far from the crappy reality TV existence we’re all currently stuck with. It’s a go-to metaphor for our cramped existence. With just a touch of Sartre’s “Hell is other people” thrown in for good measure.
Before COVID hit, there was a glut of Hollywood space movies, some successful, some awful. So it didn’t take long for copycat TV to set its sights on… the stars. But for every interesting movie outing —say, The Martian or Ad Astra — there was gobbledygook like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, or bona fide Hollywood crap like Passengers, with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in an icky stalker tale set in a depopulated space station. Seriously, Pratt stanning on JLaw now seems like a pretty bad idea, coming as it did in #MeToo 2016.
So next came the TV shows. Both HBO and Netflix rolled out space comedies — HBO’s Avenue 5 starred Hugh Laurie as the captain of a luxury space cruiser set adrift for five years, thankfully without a pandemic; while Netflix’s Space Force had Steve Carell as an uptight NASA commander committed to “putting boots on the Moon” in 2020.
But humor tends to fall flat in space. Thanks to Alien, horror continues to be our default mode, even in lockdown. Uncomfortable confinement. Fraying nerves. Dark, spooky corridors to run down. In space, no one can hear you scream. But they can hear you go crazy. Over extended periods of time, even computers go completely cuckoo. (See: HAL in 2001.)
For those wondering what George R.R. Martin has been up to instead of finishing the last Game of Thrones book, there was the short-lived sci-fi series Nightflyers, based on one of his earlier books. In it, a crew including Gretchen Mol as a misguided psychiatrist are on a mission to make “contact” with alien life forms somewhere out in space, but they soon discover a malevolent presence onboard is out to destroy them first, controlling their thoughts and memories. Sounds a bit like Alien crossed with Solaris, doesn’t it? Sadly, the show didn’t make it to Season 2. (We also hope COVID lockdown doesn’t make it to Season 2.)
Then there was Dark Matter, which ran three seasons on Netflix. Again, a batch of people are adrift on a spaceship, with no memory of how they got there, and only vague hints of what their true mission is. A bit more intriguing, but space is really too vast a metaphor. You can pretty much come up with any concept, and make it seem existential by setting it in space. Much more rewarding (and less time-consuming) would be watching the “Space Madness” episode from Ren & Stimpy, if you ask me.
I can’t really say why TV is lost in space these days. But somehow it all seems like a reflection of our own locked-down reality — an unwitting echo of our desire for more personal space, even down here on earth. Or maybe it’s just cabin fever.
Banner photo: Katee Sackhoff (left) is the only adult commanding a crew of millennial idiots on Another Life. (That’s Aussie-Pinoy actor JayR Tinaco, second from right.)