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Defying Gravity failed to win over viewers, who didn’t find the space epxloration story compelling. (credit: ABC)

Losing gravity


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Several years ago, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a collection of fake newspaper stories titled Our Dumb Century. The newspaper about the Apollo 11 landing was one of the better ones, albeit highly profane. The headline was a string of epithets expressing amazement that man had walked on the Moon. The reported first words of Neil and Buzz on the lunar surface were similarly expletive-filled with shock at what they had achieved. It was simply unbelievable, the greatest thing ever.

Alas, this is not a sentiment shared by a majority of the American public. While they may be amazed at the athletic achievements of Michael Phelps or other sports stars, as spaceflight has matured, it has become mundane. Except for a few die-hard spaceflight fanatics, the thought of putting a human bootprint on the surface of Mars, or once again on the plains of the Moon, is not the least bit exciting. Other thrills are more important to them than space accomplishments.

Defying Gravity is the closest show we’ve seen in a long time that attempts to depict a semi-realistic version of human spaceflight, and it failed miserably.

This is in many ways the buried subtext of the recently canceled ABC television series Defying Gravity. The show aired for eight weeks, from August to September, before the network yanked it, leaving five unaired episodes. One of my complaints about the show was that the characters were taking a long time to reach their first destination, Venus. After watching those eight episodes, I started to assume (being generous) that the show was not about the destination, but the journey—i.e. all the relationship drama that occurred on their voyage. Now, having watched the last five episodes thanks to a generous reader of The Space Review, I’ve come to realize that the destination was never all that important. At best it was a backdrop. There were other big, non-relationship-drama plot points. Actual space exploration, of living and working in extreme environments and going places for the very first time, was not the focus for the writers.

Defying Gravity was set in the middle of this century and focused on a group of seven astronauts on a six-year mission to visit seven planets in our solar system. It is the closest show we’ve seen in a long time that attempts to depict a semi-realistic version of human spaceflight, and it failed miserably.

Defying Gravity was produced by one of the same people who brought us the chick medical drama Grey’s Anatomy and was essentially a melodrama about a bunch of horny astronauts. An uncharitable person would question why a bunch of libidinous dumbasses such as the crew of the Antares would be trusted with a $10 trillion space mission. (Okay, to be fair, I’m the one who referred to them as libidinous dumbasses.) The first several episodes were not very good—pretty—but not terribly engaging. However, after a rocky start, the stories got better, rising to the level of an adequate drama, with reasonably engaging stories, clearly aimed at trying to attract a female audience.

The series ended on American television with the eighth episode “Love, Honor, Obey.” Having now seen the remaining episodes, this was really the right note to go out on. It’s not that the remaining episodes are bad, it’s just that “Love, Honor, Obey” had the best cliffhanger, and the resolution—as resolutions often are—was not as good. Throughout the series the central mystery was what was the entity known as “Beta?” Beta was somehow pulling the strings on the mission. It could cause hallucinations, and also could do more, such as choosing which persons got to fly on the mission by affecting their health. Beta was located onboard the ship, in Cargo Pod 4. At the end of the episode, after the crew becomes fed up with being lied to by mission control, they enter Pod 4 to finally confront Beta. Fade to black.

The primary effect of ending the show with that episode is that the Beta mystery remained primarily intact. We hadn’t seen it, and we had no idea of where it came from or what it was. Up until that point, Beta was still primarily in the background, and the relationship dramas were in the foreground. That changed in the latter half of the series, as the two themes became more equal.

The Beta effect

The remaining five episodes have not aired in the United States, but have appeared on the Canadian SPACE channel. They significantly changed the feel of the show. The Beta mystery became much more dominant in the ninth episode, and much more central to the overall story arc. The next episode, titled “Eve Ate the Apple,” again demonstrated how the show attempted to mimic Lost: while answering some of the mystery, the show added even more.

When the crew finally enters Pod 4, they see Beta for the first time and learn that it is something that was found on Earth. It looks like a blob of molten lava constantly folding in on itself. They are informed that it is partly organic, but it is also partly something unknown. Unfortunately, they’re told a lot of things—much of the episode consists of a character on Earth staring at a TV camera and explaining, explaining, explaining about what Beta is, how it was found, and what it all means. Somebody needed to throw a flag on all the endless exposition and find a way to explain Beta’s background that didn’t require so much talking.

What could cause the nations of the world to spend trillions of dollars on a massive human spaceflight mission? Extraterrestrial life.

It’s too bad, because the premise is actually rather clever. Beta was found on Earth only after another object started transmitting from Mars. That object is known as Alpha. After Beta was dug up in the plains of Peru and taken back to the Nevada desert for study, occasionally other radio signals would reach it and the two objects would communicate. There are seven of them in total: one on Venus—Gamma—and others on Mercury, Europa, somewhere in Saturn’s rings, and Pluto.

Finally, the mission of Antares makes perfect sense. What could cause the nations of the world to spend trillions of dollars on a massive human spaceflight mission? Extraterrestrial life. Antares is going to retrieve each of the objects.

Of course, everything doesn’t go smoothly. Now that they’ve all been exposed to Beta, they can hear it. It seems to be singing, possibly communicating with Gamma as the ship nears Venus. One member of the crew finds this very annoying. Others find it occasionally charming, but sometimes distracting. Another member of the crew discovers that she cannot see Beta at all, something that she finds profoundly disturbing. Yet another member, Paula, becomes more religious, thinking that the objects are signs of the oncoming Rapture.

After the extensive exposition of “Eve Ate the Apple,” the next three episodes: “Déjà Vu,” “Solitary,” and “Venus” returned to the solid relationship drama that the show became after it hit its stride. There are constant flashbacks to five years before the mission, and occasionally to other times. The writers stole this trick from Lost as well. But they are far less effective at it and the flashbacks can be disorientating as the viewer struggles to figure out what time period they’re in.

The lead character, Maddux Donner, quickly realizes that his tragic mission to Mars ten years earlier had actually been a secret attempt to retrieve the Alpha object. That mission ended with the death of the woman he loved and another coworker. Donner realizes that their current mission will take them back to the same site where he abandoned them in a Martian dust storm. He and the other members of the crew still chafe at the deception they encounter. What they don’t realize is that mission control is keeping a big secret from them. Somehow, the Beta object is changing their chromosomes. They are being transformed into something, without realizing it.

The later episodes still betray the show’s chick-drama roots. There is still the voiceover Life Lesson at the end of each episode, usually straight out of a fortune cookie. And there is often a folk-rock montage as the various characters are shown having Very Deep Moments—making love, crying in the shower, operating on a patient—often in slow motion. And there is still the heady relationship drama, where everybody talks about their feelings and their relationships endlessly instead of doing something worthwhile, like fixing the ship, or saving the Earth from killer robots.

Whereas Star Trek gave us endless aliens who had little ridges on their foreheads and spoke perfect English, Defying Gravity made an effort to make its aliens truly alien. They cannot be comprehended.

The relationship drama is not everybody’s taste, but some of the subplots are very well done. In particular, Paula’s story is immensely well written. What the crew has noticed is that Beta makes them hallucinate about certain times in their pasts, and the common theme is guilt. Paula, however, claims to have no guilt; God has forgiven all her sins. To her, Beta is connected to a “miracle” in her childhood, when her pet dog was hit by a truck and came back to life. As the ship’s psychologist probes, however, it starts to appear more and more as if Paula is repressing something. It starts to look as if young Paula was responsible for her dog getting loose, and rather than being revived, the dog died. But in an incredibly clever twist in the final episode, “Kiss,” we learn that Paula was fleeing her mother’s lecherous boyfriend when the dog ran after her and was hit by the truck. The dog did not die: it was revived by the man who molested her. Her guilt was so unbearable that she repressed it out of existence.

But it is the Beta storyline that starts to predominate. Beta is clearly more involved in the lives of the crew than they have realized. They may have all been chosen by it in some way. And it has latched on to particular parts of their lives that it forces them to confront.

In the last episode, two crewmembers land on Venus to recover the Gamma object. This is a well-done subplot. For example, a reporter who has been pestering the ground crew has pointed out the absurdity of the whole enterprise: they’re spending billions of dollars so that one person can walk on Venus for 20 minutes. The whole thing is crazy. Of course, he doesn’t know about Gamma. The mission does not go perfectly and Maddux sets the lander down farther from Gamma than planned. Zoe, performing the EVA, decides to go after Gamma anyway, even though the mission appears suicidal. She is driven by hallucinations that Gamma is the baby that she aborted five years earlier without telling the father, Maddux. Eventually she retrieves Gamma and brings it back to the ship, where Maddux has learned of the secret refused to abandon her (unlike on Mars). They return to the orbiting Antares, but Zoe is severely wounded. The crew starts to suspect that maybe one of the objects’ motives is to force them to confront their limits and to exceed them. The mystery of the objects has only deepened and their challenges have increased.

Defying Gravity’s entire foundation was a calculated attempt at compromise—enough science fiction (presumably) to capture a male audience, and a lot of relationship drama to appeal to a female audience. So the space stuff was largely a backdrop, not foreground. They could have just as easily been on a deserted island. But the Beta storyline certainly increased the science fictional aspects of the show. Although Defying Gravity was too much of a mishmash to really work, the Beta story was relatively clever. Whereas Star Trek gave us endless aliens who had little ridges on their foreheads and spoke perfect English, Defying Gravity made an effort to make its aliens truly alien. They cannot be comprehended. It is unclear if they are good or bad. In fact, such concepts may not even have meaning where the aliens are concerned.

Aliens, not exploration

And that in a nutshell is why we’re not sending humans back to the Moon, or to Mars. And probably not to asteroids either, or some invisible spot in space. The public doesn’t find this stuff all that engaging.

What does a failed television show tell us about space exploration? It’s clear from history that television shows about near-term space exploration rarely get made, and don’t succeed. But Defying Gravity may indicate something more. Although we do not know what was in the minds of the show’s creators and writers, nor do we know what notes were sent from nervous studio execs to the producers, warning them what not to do, one thing is blatantly clear from the overall series: the producers determined that space exploration per se was not exciting enough to drive their stories. Putting aside the relationship drama or the musical montages, the writers determined that setting foot on Mars or Venus was boring. They decided that the wonders of exploring the solar system—the holy $#it moment from The Onion headline—just wouldn’t do it. So they invented aliens.

And that in a nutshell is why we’re not sending humans back to the Moon, or to Mars. And probably not to asteroids either, or some invisible spot in space. The public doesn’t find this stuff all that engaging. Other than pretty pictures from Hubble, and the occasional plucky little rover on Mars, and a few amazing feats by astronauts in space, the public doesn’t think that it’s exciting, nor worthwhile, to explore other worlds. That’s the lesson of a quickly forgotten TV show.


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