The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

A recent episode of Scorpion featured a spaceship big enough for dancing—or, at least, hallucinations of dancing. (credit: CBS)

O, full of scorpions is my mind!

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People who are space enthusiasts naturally read space-related websites and seek out information on the subject (you’re reading this website, right?) But most of the general public has no interest in human spaceflight and does not seek it out. The general public’s primary exposure to space is either the occasional news report, or entertainment programming. Last year’s The Martian was the rare exception of a big budget reasonably realistic human spaceflight movie. But most of the time the public is exposed to spaceflight inadvertently, when a television program that normally does not deal with space has a space-related episode, and invariably these episodes are awful.

All of them now look like 2001: A Space Odyssey compared to last week’s episode of the CBS drama Scorpion which featured a character being accidentally blasted into space. It was bad.

Every few years a major entertainment program has focused on a human spaceflight theme, and usually the results have been pretty bad. In 2007, Law & Order: Criminal Intent did an episode that was based upon astronaut Lisa Nowak’s arrest for attempted murder (another one of their “ripped from the headlines” stories.) Because it was set in New York City, they portrayed the “National Space Agency” as based in New York. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit did another astronaut-based episode in 2008. In 2011, the cable spy drama Covert Affairs aired an episode about a terrorist spy working at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC (see “Tinker, Tailor, NASA, Spy,” The Space Review, July 11, 2011) In 2010, CSI: Miami had an episode dealing with a murder aboard a commercial orbiting spaceplane that operated out of Miami. (See “Space cops,” The Space Review, March 1, 2010)

Normally this is the point in this article where I would make some kind of semi-clever quip about how bad all these shows were. But they were at least watchable. The CSI: Miami episode was probably the best of the bunch, demonstrating at least a passable knowledge of commercial spaceflight. But in retrospect, all of them now look like 2001: A Space Odyssey compared to last week’s episode of the CBS drama Scorpion which featured a character being accidentally blasted into space. It was bad.

There are few words to describe how amazingly bad it was, so here are a lot of them.

There are so many entertainment programs available now, and so many good ones, that there’s no reason to watch crap. But that’s what Americans do, in large numbers. To be fair, not every bit of entertainment has to have a message or a moral or any intelligence. Sometimes people just want to turn their brain off and stuff it with cotton candy. Sometimes they never bother to turn their brains on in the first place and so they would rather watch the junk (thus explaining the existence of the Kardashians.) But for the life of me I cannot explain the existence of Scorpion. The show centers on a group of misfit geniuses who have been recruited to work for the Department of Homeland Security thwarting threats to national security. I’ve only seen two episodes, so my understanding of what is going on is blurry, but the theme seems to be that this team is called in to deal with the craziest, most complex threats, and they come up with crazy, complex solutions that they essentially make up on the fly because they’re really smart. It’s just supposed to be a roller coaster ride of insane problem followed by insane solution from an eccentric band of nerds, apparently mimicking to some extent some of the other, better, shows on CBS like NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: Topeka, and Hawaii Five-0.

Scorpion’s producers don’t really seem to care about accuracy or believability or logic or continuity or consistency. Despite spending what must be huge gobs of money on the episodes, it is amazing how slipshod some of it is—not just the writing, but the production values seemed to demonstrate that nobody had any real interest in making any of it look good.

Are you getting a sense of how stupid this episode is? Just wait: it gets worse.

The episode “It isn’t the fall that kills you” dealt with the head of a rocket company coming to the Scorpion team for help. The company’s rocket uses an engine throttle that was invented by one of the team members, Walter, and made available “open source” to anybody who wanted to use it. The valve is experiencing problems and the guy wants Walter to help fix it. In the next scene, Walter and his coworker are inside the voluminous rocket capsule, while the rest of the team is in ground control, and they have isolated the problem. Keep in mind that they are on top of the rocket and the engines are on the bottom, which is kinda like repairing your car’s engine from inside the trunk, but details, schmetails. That rocket capsule is also huge. The current crop of spacecraft under development (Orion, Dragon 2, Starliner) are all about three to four meters in diameter. This spacecraft has a cabin that is easily ten meters in diameter and just as high. It has a lot of empty space. Why? Reasons!

Walter’s coworker leaves to go get some parts to fix the valve and as she’s driving away the other team members notify Walter that they are looking at their radar and a big storm is moving in. But before Walter can get out of the rocket, lightning strikes it and short-circuits the electronics and the engines fire. Walter has only seconds to decide whether to exit the rocket or close the hatch and ride in it. He pulls the hatch closed and struggles to get to an acceleration couch.

Are you getting a sense of how stupid this episode is? Just wait: it gets worse.

A sign of how incredibly lazy and sloppy the producers were on the show is that we see a few shots of the CGI rocket on its pad both before and after the rocket engines start firing and there is absolutely no sign of the huge storm that we were just shown on a radar screen in mission control. The storm was there because we were told it was there, but nobody saw the need to actually show it or anything. In fact, this happens several times throughout the episode and I got the sense that the producers had a bunch of conversations like this: “Sir, we need an extra ten grand to do the computer animation of the spacecraft reentering, (pause) or we could just have one of the actors say ‘The spacecraft is reentering’ and skip it.”

Another curious omission is that other than seeing the rocket on the pad as its engines start firing, we never see it again at all, not rising up into the air, flying into space, separating its spacecraft in orbit, or reentering the atmosphere. Clearly the production had a budget and that budget did not include any money for additional special effects, or even the use of some stock film footage of a rocket in flight.

There are several fake dramatic moments during Walter’s ascent, such as his flight computers being all higgledy-piggledy due to the lightning strike. One of the team members recalls that Apollo 12 got hit by lightning and they solved the problem by switching the electronics to auxiliary mode and hopefully Walter will remember to do the same thing. He does! And despite the fact that these are two completely different rockets separated by 48 years in time, it works! Totes amazeballs, as the kids say these days (or maybe not, I’m not up on their lingo.)

Walter reaches orbit and then begins floating around the cabin in some of the worst wire-work you have seen since an Abbott and Costello movie—the actor hangs in the giant spacecraft cabin with his butt sticking in the air in what must have been an incredibly uncomfortable groin-squashing position. Now there’s a new problem: how does the team on the ground communicate with poor Walter considering that his communications antenna has been knocked out? Somebody suggests that they could put a powerful communications system inside an airplane and fly around and talk to Walter. But where are they going to get that communications system? They spot a local TV news crew that has set up just outside the rocket complex and two of the Scorpion team members rush outside and steal the TV van. Moments later they have plugged the van’s television communications system into a Learjet that has taken off and is now flying… where? Underneath Walter’s spacecraft? How does the plane stay under the spacecraft the whole time? It’s as if the spacecraft is just hovering up in space rather than going around the Earth, as if the Learjet simply has to keep circling like a baseball player staring up at a fly ball. None of this makes a lick of sense.

It’s as if the spacecraft is just hovering up in space rather than going around the Earth, as if the Learjet simply has to keep circling like a baseball player staring up at a fly ball. None of this makes a lick of sense.

They establish contact with Walter, but now they have discovered two more problems. The first is that Walter is running out of oxygen and is hallucinating, imagining that he’s talking to and then dancing with the woman he’s in love with (who has no interest in him because he’s a rich nerd and she would rather be with the former Navy SEAL who is, needless to say, a stud.) They need to get him oxygen. The first thing they come up with is to use a Russian spacecraft that is flying to the International Space Station in a week. They need to launch it earlier and rendezvous with Walter’s spacecraft. So two members of the team hurry over to the Russian consulate, conveniently located a short distance away. And even though it is in Los Angeles, the interior is a dark, wood-paneled ornate smoking den that you’d expect to find in an old European city. (I’ve been to the Russian embassy in Washington: it’s a dump.) The team members quickly negotiate with some young Russian guy who says his country will agree to the rescue mission provided that a) they get paid for it, and b) the president personally gives the Russians credit for the rescue mission. Considering that if they succeed, it will be well-deserved credit, you’d think that this would be a no-brainer, but it is treated like a Very Big Deal.

But it turns out that the side trip to the Russian consulate is for naught, because Walter is running out of oxygen even faster than they predicted and his hallucinations are getting goofier—now he’s dancing in the giant capsule with his imaginary girlfriend. So the team needs to come up with a quicker solution. They do: they will hack into a Norwegian satellite that is near Walter’s spacecraft and fly it over to his spacecraft. Walter simply needs to open up his spacecraft’s cargo hold and one of the Scorpion team members will fly the Norwegian satellite inside. It has oxygen onboard (which it “uses for fuel”) and so that oxygen will somehow leak out and save Walter.

Have I mentioned that this episode was incredibly dumb?

Before they can execute this new plan, it becomes clear that Walter is running out of oxygen even faster than before. There’s no time to do the rendezvous thing. They need to bring Walter down to Earth immediately. But (there’s always a “but”) it turns out that Walter’s spacecraft’s parachute pack was damaged by the lightning. He has no parachute.

So the Scorpion team comes up with another solution. They will command Walter’s spacecraft to reenter the atmosphere and they will blow the hatch so that Walter is ejected from the spacecraft and breathe atmosphere. Of course, Walter will then be falling from hundreds of thousands of meters. But they’ll figure something out along the way.

I swear that I am not making this up.

So Plan A is to have somebody jump out of that Learjet that has been hovering under Walter’s spacecraft and he will fall with a parachute and meet up with Walter in mid-air and grab hold of him and they will then safely parachute into the ocean holding each other tight like two horny teenagers.

Seriously, that is the plan.

And so we see this—Walter falling through the air, still able to talk to the mission control people via his headset even though he’s falling through the air. And the Scorpion team’s government minder is parachuting to catch him. But he misses—dang! So the Scorpion team quickly comes up with Plan B. Somebody points out that a few people have survived impacts with Earth without a parachute, but the ground has to be soft and aerated in some way. Walter is falling toward water, which is not compressible (curse you, suddenly relevant physics!). But then they come up with the great idea of creating an explosion under the water at the spot where Walter is falling, which will create a lot of bubbles in the water and cushion Walter’s impact.

So studly SEAL-guy calls up his friend, an admiral in the Navy, and that admiral calls up a submarine that is conveniently in the exact same location where Walter is falling (which, you’ll remember, was conveniently in the exact same location as the Learjet), and orders them to fire a torpedo and detonate it below Walter.

Keep in mind that all of this—the guy jumping out of the Learjet, the team figuring out how to aerate the water with the exploding torpedo, the guy calling the admiral, the admiral calling the submarine, the submarine firing the torpedo, the torpedo detonating—is happening during the short period of time while Walter IS FALLING THROUGH THE AIR.

Of course Walter survives, and amazingly the same submarine that has fired the torpedo to Walter’s location has also somehow managed to shoot some rescue divers to the same location to help him up to the surface.

I doubt that it will affect anybody’s understanding of or opinions about human spaceflight in any way. But is it too much to ask for at least some basic accuracy about how spaceflight actually works? Apparently so.

Scorpion is the kind of show where the writers don’t give a shit about anything. Yeah, they don’t care about consistency—clear skies over the rocket right after the huge storm hit—and they don’t care about logic or physics—an airplane that somehow stays under the spacecraft the entire time. But they also don’t care about chronology. There is no way for all these other things to happen during the short period of time that Walter is falling through the air. It is as if the two things are happening in entirely different timelines that suddenly converge.

It’s all just so insanely stupid.

The episode is a shaggy dog story, full of outlandish, impossible-to-believe aspects. I doubt that it will affect anybody’s understanding of or opinions about human spaceflight in any way. But is it too much to ask for at least some basic accuracy about how spaceflight actually works? Apparently so.

I checked the ratings for Monday night. Seven million Americans watched Scorpion, more than any other show in its time slot. Seven million.

I was so amazed at how dumb this show was that I did not even have the energy to get annoyed at it. Fortunately, a friend reminded me of the opening refrain from the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000: “If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself ‘It's just a show, I should really just relax.’”

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