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No sex, please: we're astronauts

Defying Gravity on ABC/CTV

Åsa Karlström 28 September 2009

Claustrophobia: the final frontier?

I was intrigued by the premise of being trapped with only seven other people for company

Defying Gravity is a multi-nationally produced show on ABC in the US and CTV in Canada. It was created by James Parriott, who wrote Forever Knight in the early ‘90s, and is lead writer on Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy. Defying Gravity, said to have been inspired by the BBC ‘docufiction’, Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets (2004), was pitched as ‘Grey’s Anatomy in space’. The series is described as a ‘space travel television drama series’, giving it some feeling of reality.

I am a fan of witty dialogue and good characterization. As I also like space, I looked forward to this show. A spaceship setting provides limited space and numbers of characters to develop relationships. I was intrigued by the premise of being trapped with only seven other people for company. It also boded well that there was a fixed number of episodes (13) in the series before it started screening, suggesting that the writers and producers had agreed on the story line (and ending).

The year 2052 looks pretty much the same as now: people still play baseball and fumble with keys and locks. There are subtle technological changes, such as being able to use a phone by swiping a business card over it, and full-body scans are simple and routine. The night before the launch of the spacecraft Antares, we are introduced to her crew of four men and four women and some of the supporting characters who are to remain on Earth. The characters are diverse, both in their background and training and roles in the new mission to Venus.

Two crew members from a previous mission (to Mars) are Maddux Donner (Ron Livingstone) and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba). They are famous for setting foot on Mars, but infamous for leaving two astronauts behind, who had failed to make the rendezvous to return home to Earth. Conversation plays on the underlying guilt and shame resulting from this. Would you go want to go into space with two people who were responsible for the death of two crew-members, yet who are also two of the most experienced astronauts ever?

The story is told partially in flashback to astronaut training, with Donner and Shaw as instructors. There is apparently somewhat of a sexual cachet associated with having set foot on Mars, and the biologist Jen Crane (Christina Cox) and the geologist Zoe Barnes (Laura Harris), among others, display an interest. When the Antares launches in 2052, there is one married couple onboard: Jen and the commander Rollie Crane (Ty Olsson). The mission physician/psychiatrist Dr Evram Mintz (Eyal Podell) is in a relationship with the medical doctor on the ground, and Shaw has married the second in command of the Space center. The space-bound astronauts wear a “libido suppressing patch”. Naturally, while still on Earth, they experiment to see if the repression can be overcome. Just in case, the men are vasectomized: there is to be no intimacy on this spaceship; and if there is, certainly no consequences.

It is clear, through this tangled web, that people don’t change.

Things don’t really appear to be as they seem. Some of the crew members are clearly not up to par as astronauts: the theoretical physicist Wassenfelder (played by Dylan Taylor) can’t even swim. (This is not as daft as it sounds: present-day astronauts train for zero gravity in water tanks.) The Mission Control Flight Director and former commander of the Mars Mission, Mike Goss (Andrew Airlie), and his second in command Eve Weller-Shaw (Karen Leblanc), talk about ‘the true mission’ and refer to something called ‘Beta’ in one of the pods on the space shuttle. We find out more when the physician on the ground discovers that two of the astronauts have plaques on their hearts, and they need to be replaced by Donner and Shaw.

Ted Shaw becomes the new commander, and now is going to spend six years in space with his former girlfriend Jen, while his wife remains on the ground. Jen’s husband has to remain on Earth for the next few years. And Donner gets to spend those years with two former flings, setting the scene for some very interesting emotional tangles.

Despite this rather confusing-sounding premise, the twists and turns of the plot are fairly easy to follow. The characters slowly come alive, and the different perspectives in flashback provide interest. Jen has a lab on the Antares where she researches rabbit embryos. I am not sure yet what exactly the research involves, but it looks promising. There are plants too, to investigate how gravity – or the lack of it – affects cells. The onboard journalist documents everything and sends feedback to Earth with explanatory tidbits on ‘How we do things in Space’; a bit like a documentary inside the show.

The psychiatrist talks to everyone regularly, for research purposes as well as for counselling. The astronauts themselves have video diaries, and the crew on Earth monitor their vital signs. It all seems like a gigantic experiment, where things start to go slightly wrong. And this mission is going to Venus?

Which raises the question: where are they going with this series? The astronauts think they are on the way to Venus. Ominous comments suggest the possibility of not coming back, but why in that case why have libido suppressing patches? And the stem cell research with small rabbit embryos, the audio hallucinations... there are lots of open ended questions. I was happy to watch the fourth episode, appropriately called ‘Rubicon’.

The series is a nice mix of geeky comments and references, with cool science and new technology, combined with interesting characters and a story line that I, at least, am curious about. I am not the greatest fan of sci-fi ‘monsters in a box’, but I am intrigued by the idea that this ‘Beta’ might be changing the astronauts’ DNA. Is it for turning them into clones of themselves? I want to know what happens.

I am looking forward to each Sunday, to get my next dose of drama in space – even if the sex is less apparent and less accessible than it would be in a series set on Earth.