Paul Feig (of Bridesmaids and the upcoming all-lady Ghostbusters movie fame) teamed up with Freaks and Geeks alums Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu to bring us Other Space — courtesy of Yahoo’s original attempt to try and bring down Amazon (while Netflix laughs at both atop a giant pile of money).
It’s about a bunch of loser 20-somethings (unlike the other loser 20-somethings on every other show) who are all given a ship for inexplicable reasons, get blasted into another universe, and have to…you’re already not paying attention, are you?
On paper, it sounded like the American version of Red Dwarf. It’s got the pedigree going for it, and it brought in the father of cult classic MST3K as well as the original voice of Crow. But in reality, it plays more like the American pilot of Red Dwarf (which you should only watch if you are heavily sedated and/or trapped under a pallet of papadums.)
Before I get into the series review, I have to state a few things up front. I’m a huge MSTie. Like traded tapes, have all the books, introduced my husband to it, moved our honeymoon so we could catch Cinematic Titanic live, make my own iRiffs kind of MSTie. I never get into the great Joel vs Mike debate, and love them both equally. Joel’s voicing of Mayor Dewy on Steven Universe is adorable, and I look forward to hearing it every chance I can. Trace has a book called Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children that cracks me up. I didn’t come into this wanting them to fail. The trailer for Other Space left me cold and wondering what was supposed to be funny, but even Pixar can have some bad trailers for great movies. Maybe they were saving all the good stuff for later.
The pilot opens with one Stewart Lipiski (Karan Soni) bringing hot dogs for his crew. During this mission, they get attacked, and our plucky hero pulls off some idiotic move that saves them all. It turns out that no one ever survives the dangerous mission, but what Stewart did was all a simulation — a plot line ripped straight from a Star Trek movie (both the good and the bad one with Khan).
Back in a Holiday Inn meeting room we’re all going to pretend is futuristic, the not-a-federation has decided, “Fuck it, we’re tired of looking competent.” Despite the fact that Stewart brought hot dogs to feed either actors or computer simulations during a test, they’re going to give him his own ship.
Stewart is the eternally apologetic Gary Stu. Despite being barely competent enough to handle a toaster, he’s repeatedly handed everything he could ever want in life. Their maybe government, maybe corporation outfit gifted him a ship because their ratings were low and they wanted better PR. I would’ve suggested filling the ship with adorable Otters to get up recruitment before the crew that’s cobbled together to look good on a poster.
Stewart’s first officer is Karen (Bess Rous), his sister, whose only job is to be the nag. She’s the one who was gunning for the captain’s chair (albeit while stepping on the skulls of those in her way). Whenever anyone acts out of line, she snaps in to remind them all they could die at any second and to suck it up. This would seem outlandish and annoying with any other crew, but here she is, the only thing keeping them alive. And yet, nearly every episode has to end with the nag crying and apologizing to people. I swear, this show should have been called Other Space: Punishing the Nag.
Our second woman is Tina (Milana Vayntrub) – the ditz (yes seriously, we have a nag and a ditz. No, it doesn’t get better). For reasons that are never explained, she’s been Stewart’s unrequited love since college; she also knows nothing about her job, and doesn’t want to go. We first meet her smashing her lips across plexiglass and mooning over her soon-to-be long distance boyfriend Ted. She’s more love-addled than a Lifetime movie on Valentine’s Day.
The last woman is, of course, the sexy computer – Natasha (Conor Leslie). You can’t have a space opera without the completely pointless but utterly gorgeous AI or robot. It’s a legal requirement now. She’s nowhere near as interesting as Holly, and her biggest character arc is finding love. Yeah, a computer, and she can only care about love. We’re really breaking new ground here.
The men are clichéd, but nowhere near as gender-damaging.
The third in command is Michael (Eugene Cordero), who was Stewart’s best friend because he’s less exciting than an imaginary one. That’s Michael’s honest-to-God character description – boring. He’s the Harry Kim of the ship. It’d be one thing if, say, everyone on the ship assumed Michael was uninteresting, dull, and as exciting as wet toast, but in reality was a secret crime fighter or solved space cancer; but I fear that would be too clever for this show. Instead, he’s exactly as telegraphed, a boring guy doing boring things. He manages to be even duller than our captain, who I sometimes confused with a bit of paint still drying on the flimsy sets.
For the science officer, because they already did sexy computer, they skipped the robot cliché and put in a not-quite alien instead. Kent (Neil Casey) was genetically grown as a clone to harvest organs from for the first baby grown on Mars (Parts: The Clonus Horror shout out). And for some reason, the scientists decided giving him gills and keeping him inside a pool they still had to feed and pipe movies into was less expensive than just dumping him in foster care. My guess is that the Mars guys had the gills and didn’t want them to go to waste. He’s Dwight Schrute, almost to a rip-off degree. He’s creepy and inappropriate, but still gets the girl at the end. Because of course he does.
Our once-illustrious, now-addled engineer is Zalian (Joel Hodgson) who’s there to fill in the chaotic neutral gap. Proving that no science research was done (I doubt there was even a Google search), he’s suffered radiation poisoning over the years, and rather than get multiple tumors, his mind’s skipped past Pluto. I’m not sure if it’s due to chaotic neutral characters being so easy to write or Joel’s talent as the sleepy-eyed bumbler, but Zailian was the first character to get a laugh out of me (which I’ll expound upon later).
And, because if you’ve got Trace you might as well use him, we have Art, the robot. There are four options with robots: you have the neurotic, helpful one (C-3PO or Kryton), the yearning to be human one (Data), the going to blow up your planet one (every villainous robot ever), and the smart ass jerk ones (Bender). They clearly wanted Art to fall into the last category, but the problem with that is you need to make the character likeable in spite of the awfulness, and that’s very tricky to do.
Art’s backstory provides nearly no pathos. He was once a rich guy, wanted to be immortal, made some fancy pillows, and stuck his brain into a body. Yeah, not really sure how appealing an immortal one-percenter who’s an asshole for mostly no good reason will feel to people.
On their first mission, they pretty much just follow the Lost in Space plotline and get sucked into another universe through technobabble magic. Stewart’s excited because he’s a puppy in pants – but not a fun puppy, a weird puppy no one wants to adopt. The rest of the crew get depressed; sit-around-in-pajamas-eating-ice-cream depressed. Why does no one freak out, especially when they’re all vastly under-qualified? I have no idea. That would have required some modicum of character development, but we don’t have time for that. We have to get to hackneyed sci-fi cliché number one!
Karen’s yelling at Stewart about how they have no idea where they are, no idea how to get home, and their only food supply is fudge. As she stages a coup to wrest power from the puppy, the lights raise and – oh look – it’s all been another simulation so the Not-Federation can prove that Karen deserves to be captain. If you’ve watched any sci-fi in the past…how old is TNG? You know where this is going. It’s all an illusion by aliens, because when aliens discover new life their first thought is to fuck with them so they’ll open the airlock to clear out the meat bags, and then they’ve got a sweet new ride. The stereotypical characters all have the kind of fantasies you’d expect, except for Zailian. He finds a sandwich on the floor and happily chows down.
Later, after they all figure out that this would have been considered clever 30 years ago, Michael asks Zailian if his greatest fantasy is a sandwich he finds on the floor. Zailian responds, “It doesn’t have to be one the floor.” That was it. That was the only time I even snickered. Right at the end, as Karen’s crying and begging for acceptance for what will be the first of an infinite number of times. I get that pilots can be rough, but this one was something else. It was like watching a high school performance, not a play, but something they whipped together for a class presentation. I kept expecting someone to start rapping about the cotton gin out of nowhere.
In a later episode, when it’s revealed that the writers had literally no sense of continuity and decided the ship was also once part of a reality show (Doctor Who reboot, season one), Art’s watching the crew members hang around the ship. He says a line that I think sums up Other Space perfectly: “In a minute, I think this might finally be getting interesting. Nope, torture, pure unadulterated torture.” Thankfully, the series does get better. It moves from “oh God, this is so painful I’m turning red in embarrassment” to “something I could leave on in the background while doing other shit.”
If you have even a passing knowledge of sci-fi, you won’t just see the plot points coming, you’ll guess how they’ll end and move on to something better before the characters figure it out. In the second episode, we suddenly have a new, unexplainable character – Adam. No, that was Torchwood. This one was called Chad, played by a lesser not-James Franco. I think it was Gummo Franco. As you can about guess, Chad was an alien that messed with their brains to convince them…oh, just go watch the old Torchwood episode instead.
The third episode was about a planet forming around the ship, which somehow Art can prevent with his magic magnetic powers by sacrificing himself! A small robot can magnetically pull an entire planet around itself? He must also be part Jedi. As you can about guess, it turns out that there are tons of backups of Art around the ship, but it did give Karen a chance to cry and apologize…again.
Episode four is when the lack of character continuity really starts to crack. In order to pick up fuel they need Tina – our ditz – to perform an incredibly complicated maneuver. They hand wave it away by claiming that everyone in the Ukraine can do that. Uh huh. So she was completely useless except for this way, in which she’s vital. That makes…what? But, plot twist, she gets dumped by a timed message from Ted! Drama bomb!
The next episode is another Voyager plotline rip off, this time as Tina and Harry Kim, I mean Michael, have to go down to the newly-formed planet to pick up the fuel she failed to rescue before. But, in a shocking twist, it turns out that there’s a major time dilation, so they have to wait for eight months on an unknown and freshly-formed quarry, I mean planet. How do they have food, or a bed, or the ability to breathe? My best guess is a wizard did it. My better question is, why the shit couldn’t they just call the ship they transported out of (yeah, there are transporters)? Sure, it would have come out like the Barry White, but eventually someone on there might have figured it out.
Sadly, Voyager did it better and funnier. Down on the planet, the two characters have to argue, fall in love, argue more, and then hunt each other for sport. Tina, again our supposed ditz, is powerful and crafty enough to trap Michael and saw off and consume his leg. But because this is nebulous zone characterization, by the time they’re back on the ship, it’s all forgotten, no big deal. Michael gets himself a new robot leg made by that wizard again, and prefers it. AAAHH!
This is like that fudge problem. You introduce a problem – they have no food but fudge – and rather than stretch it out for hilarious results (a time lapse of people having to eat fudge, crashing from the sugar, freaking out, hoarding the fudge, fighting over the fudge, crying over the fudge), they solve it with a hand wave and a replicator that was just sitting in storage. For God’s sake, do they have Mary Poppins’s handbag on that ship? They solve every damn problem with a reach off screen, ta-da technology fix!
I get that Michael’s supposed to be as exciting as already-popped bubble wrap, but wouldn’t he maybe get a bit angry over his damn leg getting eaten? And perhaps use that anger to throw some great quips at other people? Shouldn’t the other crew members be a bit freaked out that one of their own tasted people meat and maybe liked it?
Nebulous characters do not work in genre. It’s a favorite trick of a lot of American sitcoms. If you don’t lock down your characters, then you can alter them to fit whatever plot you want. Okay, fine, it seems old fashioned as hell now, but some people seem to like it. Why it fails in speculative fiction is that you’re asking people to accept not only that the rules of the characters could change at any minute, but so can the universe. It’s like building a city on a soap bubble. Everything could burst at any second, so you don’t feel any proper connections.
Other Space‘s other problem is that the jokes themselves are so flat. There are almost no inside ones; it’s all reactionary on the surface. Early on, Stewart says he was a huge fan of Zailian. Much later (far too late) in the series, we see Zailian offering advice to Stewart. I kept thinking how great it would be if he spliced in vaguely-sounding wise things with something random like “Always keep a sausage in your coffee cup.” And then later you could see Stewart with a sausage in his cup. It’s little inside jokes like that that are so damn easy to do but have such a great pay off.
Feig’s stated that he’s wanted to get Other Space made for eight years, but this show feels much older than that. I kept expecting a laugh track. The occasional camera throwbacks to The Office made no sense, since we’re never given the idea that there’s a documentary crew – highlight next bit for spoilers:
And the big twist at the end where it turns out that they’re all part of a reality show would have felt hackneyed five years ago. Doctor Who did it in 2005. It’s not retro enough to seem kitsch, it’s just who gives a shit? You’re being filmed for a reality show that no one in your reality will ever see because you’re in a different universe. Oh my God, why does this not bother any of you?!
It’s as if the writers aren’t inhabiting the world they created. In the Tina goes full cannibal episode, we learn that transporters are real (despite cellphones apparently not existing). Yet, in the last episode, Stewart and Michael float through space to another ship. Why didn’t they take the transporter? If it was supposed to be for comedic effect, shouldn’t someone have commented on it? Maybe an, “Oh shit, how did we forget that?” moment. Or did the writers forget that they already handwaved a problem away and backtracked?
As we were nearing the end, I joked with my husband, “$10 says that a holodeck is going to show up.” Sure enough, after spending an entire 12 days in this other universe, they break out the imaging room so our computer can go on a date with our creepy science officer. But it’s adorable, because he spends the whole time ignoring her. Isn’t love grand?
If you like and miss the old sitcoms from the early aughts, want something that needs little to no attention span, and is comfort food the way cheap and artificial Easy Mac is, then you might enjoy Other Space. Otherwise, I’d suggest just re-watching old Red Dwarf, but skip season nine. Always skip season nine.