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Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

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Star Trek: Voyager – One Small Step (Review)

Star Trek: Voyager marks the end of the future.

Many fans would point to Star Trek: Enterprise as the moment that the larger Star Trek franchise turned its gaze backwards and embraced a sense of broad nostalgia for a future that was already behind that explored in the original series. After all, the last television series of the Berman era took the franchise back to its roots and paved the way for both J.J. Abrams’ pseudo-reboot in Star Trek and for Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s prequel in Star Trek: Discovery.

First (and Last) Flight.

However, this overlooks the importance of Voyager in signposting this shift. In some ways, Voyager represents the end of the final frontier. Chronologically speaking, Endgame is the last episode of the larger Star Trek franchise, the future beyond the finale explored only in Star Trek: Nemesis and as part of the back story to the rebooted Star Trek. Chronologically speaking, Voyager represents the last television series within the Star Trek universe. However, Voyager very carefully and very consciously seeds the nostalgia that would later envelope the franchise.

This is obvious in any number of ways. Voyager is a show that is literally about the desire to return home rather than to push forward. Caretaker established the show as an extended homage to fifties pulp storytelling. The politics of the series – reflected in episodes as diverse as Real Life, Displaced and Day of Honour – were decidedly conservative. Even the genre trappings of the series were often framed in terms of mid-twentieth century pulp fiction; the space lift in Rise, the broad allegory in Innocence, the atomic horror of Jetrel.

We come not to praise Voyager, but to bury it.

However, all of this is rooted in a very conscious yearning on the part of Voyager to connect to its roots. Numerous small scenes across the seven-season run of the show hint at this sentiment; Janeway discussing the romantic past in Flashback, the literal journey home in Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II, the retrofuturism of Tom Paris’ various holoprogrammes, Janeway’s fascination with her long-lost ancestor in 11:59. There was a sense that Voyager was a series as intent on journeying backwards in time as much as space, even outside of its time travel obsession.

One Small Step stands out as one of the most obvious and blatant examples of this nostalgia within Voyager, in many ways feeling (like Friendship One in the subsequent season) like an attempt to seed the literal prequel that would materialise in Enterprise.

It turns out that John Kelly crossed over into a subspace anomaly drawn by Jack Kirby.

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Non-Review Review: The Farthest

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The Farthest is a fascinating documentary looking at the history and the legacy of the “Voyager” space programme.

Assembling a panel of experts from both inside and outside the development process, director Emer Reynolds crafts a captivating examination of mankind’s first journey beyond the boundaries of the solar system and into the untested void. The Farthest is a romantic tribute to the idea of space exploration, to the wonders that it holds and the inquiries that it inspires. It is a documentary that looks to the stars and wonders, as interested in what mankind is putting out there as it is in what wonders lie in wait.

thefarthest

The Farthest is bookended by a number of beautiful shots from Reynolds. The camera stares upwards at the sky as it pans slowly across a number of different locations. The sky can be narrowly glimpsed between the branches of tall trees. The audience’s eye is channeled upwards through the framework of a steel pylon. Occasionally, the sky is clear and blue. Sometimes there are faint signs of human activity, with planes charting the sky at a much more manageable scale than the craft at the centre of the documentary’s narrative.

There is something very striking and very beautiful in these opening and close shots, something that captures the sensation of looking up into the wild blue (or black) yonder and wondering what is out there or what might be staring back. The Farthest feels like romantic ode to the majesty of space, and one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

thefarthest1

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The X-Files: Season One (Topps) #6 – Space (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

If the jump to Ice suggested that the Season One line would only be covering the “highlights” of the first season of The X-Files, then the decision to immediately follow with an adaptation of Space puts paid to that theory.

Ice is generally regarded as one of the strongest stories of the first season. It is moody and atmospheric, tense and claustrophobic. It shines a light on the characterisation of Mulder and Scully, while also offering a particularly memorable (and unsettling) monster of the week. In contrast, Space is generally regarded as one of the weakest stories of the first season. It is clumsy and muddled, slow and dreary. The episode’s direction is bland and the special effects are woeful. On paper, it is probably the least likely choice for a Season One adaptation.

Face the future...

Face the future…

However, Space ultimately lends itself to a comic book adaptation. The story finds itself well-suited by the transition from live action footage to comic book page. there are a number of different reasons for this, but the truth is that the story is simply better suited to this format. That applies to the technical limitations imposed on film, but also to the storytelling conventions associated with comic books as opposed to live action television. It is a startling result, and arguably the biggest success of the entire Season One line.

Although it is a qualified accomplishment at best, Space is the first Season One comic that manages to surpass its source material.

Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

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Star Trek: Enterprise – First Flight (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

First Flight is a prequel to a prequel.

First Flight unfolds before the events of Broken Bow, providing something of a belated origin story for Captain Jonathan Archer. The tail end of the second season feels like an odd place for such a story. The decision to air First Flight and Bounty as a double feature meant that First Flight premiered only a week before The Expanse, an episode that changed everything that fans thought they knew about Star Trek: Enterprise. Then again, perhaps this is the perfect place for an episode like this.

Ground Control to Commander Robinson... Ground Control to Commander Robinson...

Ground Control to Commander Robinson… Ground Control to Commander Robinson…

Much of the final stretch of the second season of Enterprise is introspective and reflective. The show seems aware that a big change is coming, and takes the opportunity of these last few episodes to look back on a classic model of Star Trek. Judgment puts Archer on trial; Cogenitor wonders whether old-fashioned Star Trek morality plays can still work in the twenty-first century; Regeneration finds the Borg lying among the (literal) wreckage of Star Trek: The Next Generation. First Flight opens with the death of Captain A.G. Robinson, a character we never met before.

More to the point, First Flight opens with the death of the man who was almost the captain of the Enterprise. On the cusp of a creative change in direction that effectively kills the show as it existed in the first two seasons, First Flight is pretty heavy on the symbolism.

... Take your protein pill and put your helmet on...

… Take your protein pill and put your helmet on…

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Star Trek: Voyager – Jetrel (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Jetrel is an interesting episode for a number of reasons. It’s another example of how the first season of Star Trek: Voyager seems anchored in the aftermath of the Second World War. The episode exists primarily as a meditation on guilt over the use of atomic weapon, with the Metreon Cascade attack on Rinax standing in for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Negaska in 1945. Jetrel aired three months shy of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, and amid a national period of reflection about the morality of Harry S. Truman’s actions.

Whatever the context of Jetrel in 1995, it serves as another example of how Voyager seems like a relic from a bygone age, a snapshot of atomic age science-fiction. Cathexis was the show doing Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Faces was an old-fashioned monster movie. Jetrel wasn’t even the first time that the first season had traded in atomic imagery. The aftermath of the polaric detonation in Time and Again was very clearly designed to evoke the aftermath of an atomic blast.

The devil in the pale moonlight...

The devil in the pale moonlight…

Even without all this baggage, Jetrel still feels like a mess of an episode. The heart of the story finds a member of the ensemble confronting a former war criminal while dealing with issues of war guilt and responsibility – a structure that evokes Duet the penultimate episode of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. While that episode worked brilliantly, there’s a sense that Jetrel is burdened a little bit trying to offer a two-hander about guilt while tackling the issue of the atomic bomb.

The problem is compounded by a somewhat messy final act that eschews all the episode’s heavy character-based drama in favour of a contrived techno-babble climax that involves a lot of characters spouting nonsense while playing with light-emitting diodes. Jetrel begins as the strongest and boldest episode of the show’s first season, but ends as one of the prime examples of Voyager‘s preference for techno-babble over character work.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

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The X-Files – Space (Review)

And so we go from what is possibly the strongest episode of the first season to what is definitely the worst. Space is a colossal failure of an episode, with even writer and creator Chris Carter conceding that it was “one of our most unloved episodes.” However, none of these spectacular failures occur for any particularly interesting reason. It’s the wrong idea with the wrong script with the wrong director, and a result that can’t even claim to be “so bad it’s good” like so many of the series’ other lesser hours.

At best, it’s a cautionary tale, a firm establishment of what The X-Files isn’t. Like The Jersey Devil, it’s an indicator that maybe Chris Carter should have been focused more on show-running than writing. Even factoring in the quite decent pilot, Carter is hardly batting a thousand here. However, it also offers some small measure of proof that – despite show’s fixation on extraterrestrials and UFOs – The X-Files is not really a show about space.

... and the stars look very different, today...

… and the stars look very different, today…

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