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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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Star Trek: Enterprise – Terra Prime (Review)

This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.

It all began with Spock.

The character of Spock was the only character to survive the transition between the two Star Trek pilots produced in the sixties. Leonard Nimoy first appeared as science officer Spock in The Cage, opposite Majel Barrett and Jeffrey Hunter. When the studio vetoed the original pilot, Gene Roddenberry was forced to jettison a lot of the cast and characters before setting to work on a second pilot. Spock survived serving (along with the sets and props) as a bridge between The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before.

Baby on board.

Baby on board.

Spock is an iconic part of American culture. He is instantly recognisable in a way that very few elements of the franchise can claim to be. He lingers in the collective memory. Leonard Nimoy has repeatedly been favoured over William Shatner as an ambassador of the brand. Nimoy reprised the role of Spock opposite Patrick Stewart in Unification, Part I more than two whole years before Shatner would cross paths with Jean-Luc Picard as James T. Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Nimoy appeared in a key role in Star Trek; Shatner declined a cameo.

Star Trek: Enterprise was never going to feature a guest appearance from Leonard Nimoy. However, Spock as clearly haunted the fourth season as the embodiment of the franchise spirit. The Vulcan-human hybrid at the centre of Demons and Terra Prime makes little sense in basic plot terms, Elizabeth serves as a harbinger that might summon Spock. And, in doing so, Elizabeth might yet summon the future. It began with Spock, it ends with Spock. At least for now.

Infinite diversity in finite combinations...

Infinite diversity in finite combinations…

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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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Space: Above and Beyond (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

It is very hard to judge a series based on the first season alone. After all, many long-running series evolve quickly and radically from their debut year. In many cases, the first season is about desperately trying to find a footing as everybody gets used to the realities of producing a television show. Assessing a first season is often an exercising in gauging potential, which makes it a risky proposition when trying to evaluate the first and only season of a cancelled television show.

Space: Above and Beyond contains its fair share of clunkers, as does any first season with twenty-odd episodes. There are episodes that seem at odds with the premise and mood of the show, being written by staff writers before the show went to air or simply trying to do something with which the show isn’t comfortable. There are episodes that have interesting ideas, but don’t place emphasis on the show’s strengths.

spaceaboveandbeyond-pilot32

However, this is all but expected for a first season. A first season is a learning experience for all involved. After all, the first season of The X-Files was packed with episodes like Shadows, Fire, Lazarus, Young at Heart and Born Again. It is very rare for the first season of any show – particularly a genre show – to be the strongest. There are rules to be learned, beats to be established, foundations to be laid. If shows are lucky, that work gets to pay off in later seasons, as everybody gets more comfortable.

Space: Above and Beyond never got that chance, which is a shame. Because there is a phenomenal amount of potential on display here.

spaceaboveandbeyond-thefarthestmanfromhome24

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Space: Above and Beyond – And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The last stretch of episodes of Space: Above and Beyond are quite mournful and introspective.

It is very difficult to tell a war story. There are a host of tightropes that any writer has to navigate. After all, it is very easy for a story about the bonds of warfare and humanity in wartime to be interpreted as militaristic or fascistic. At the same time, it is very easy for an anti-war parable to seem critical of the soldiers fighting the war, to dismiss the bravery and courage on display in that most horrific of environments.

Seeing eye-to-eye...

Seeing eye-to-eye…

With its futuristic tech and gigantic guns, as well as its fascination with the military apparatus, it is easy to read Space: Above and Beyond as a pro-military piece. Given how much pride it takes in the way that it presents military life, or how much it wallows in the military setting, a casual viewer might be forgiven for assuming the it glorifies warfare. However, this is the most superficial of readings. It ignores a lot of what the show actually has to say about combat and warfare.

Space: Above and Beyond is by turns cynical and romantic in its portrayal of this futuristic conflict – it clearly respects and appreciates the sacrifices made by those in service of mankind, but is also wary about the motivations of those ordering the sacrifices. It is a very delicate balance to maintain. However, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best seem to lay the cards out on the table, once and for all. This is as anti-war as the show ever gets.

Face of the enemy...

Face of the enemy…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Sugar Dirt (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The end is nigh.

There is a generally funereal atmosphere to the last few episodes of Space: Above and Beyond, creating the sense that the show was well aware of – and had perhaps come to terms with – its own inevitable cancellation. Stardust had assured viewers (and the show itself) that the dead can be heroes too. Sugar Dirt seems a lot angrier about the series’ situation. It is the story of our heroes surrounded and outgunned on all sides; abandoned to their fate by those in authority.

Sadly, McQueen couldn't quite save the show...

Sadly, McQueen couldn’t quite save the show…

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