Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Astronauts introduced themselves to each other. A boring dinner party was held where people complained about the public being too selfish and short-sighted and I’m amazed no one used the word “sheeple”. I spent a lot of time questioning the series of life choices that got me to this point.
Reed questions his boss over why he took the job when he clearly hates Mission Red and everything it stands for. He took the job because if he didn’t, someone less qualified would. His objection to Mission Red is that he views space exploration as repeating the mistakes of colonialism, and humanity is bound to exploit other worlds as they did their own. Now, you and I know, because the title of this episode is, “The Invasion of Mars: 1999”, that this is indeed exactly what they are going to do. But Reed isn’t in on the plan, and thinks that Orion 1’s mission is to orbit the moon. You can’t make lunar orbit in a space shuttle, but I’ll allow it since it’s been heavily modified. And the weird thing is, Boness doesn’t indicate that he knows better either. Maybe he was meant to, and it’s just his weird rhetorical style that makes it sound like he doesn’t. His entire argument seems to be based purely on being curmudgeonly and suspicious of any notions of “progress” He argues that, even though Orion 1’s mission is to orbit the moon, this is clearly the first step to pillaging other planets.
Reed points out that the most likely planet for them to pillage is Mars. And, “Extensive experimentation absences an absence of life on Mars.”
Boness responds by challenging the validity of the scientific process. This is only mild hyperbole. “There’s an inherent flaw in your reasoning. Who conducted the experiments on Mars, Reed? Doesn’t the fact that the same greedy humans who raped Earth and have now turned to space raise a little suspicion in your cranium?” He challenges Reed on the basis that the scientific research saying Mars is devoid of life was done by humans, and, in the mildly condescending tone of a global warming denialist, claims that scientists always fabricate their results to get the answers they want when their funding is on the line. That is his argument. Reed doesn’t actually dispute this, but points out that his boss is basically a luddite, which he concedes, admitting that he’d prefer to lose himself in Rockwellian pastoral simplicity (He has to explain what “Rockwellian” means) over dealing with the complexities of 1999.
Then he says that he fears humanity is reenacting the events of ’38 (He has to explain what “38” means. That it is short for “AD 1938”). Reed, who just a minute ago, told us that there was no life on Mars, quickly realizes that he’s talking about the Martian invasion. If, before, he had meant “the science tells us that life on Mars died out shortly after the failed invasion,” why wouldn’t he have said that? Once again, it feels like the narrative keeps forgetting that it’s a sequel. Boness, who’s in his late ’60s I guess, flashes back to a few minutes of Carl Phillips reporting on the initial Martian landing, and suggests that the Martian invasion was motivated by the same impulses that are now leading humanity to the moon. Or wherever. Boness seems genuinely not to know where Mission Red is really going. He eventually more-or-less concedes that he’s just being old and curmudgeonly and agrees to put in an appearance at the wrap party if Reed will run interference for him with the reporters.
After a scene change marked by terrible music trying its best to sound like a Star Trek theme, we cut to Washington, where President DeWitt holds a late-night meeting with the cabinet on the DL. After spending a whole minute dispensing with formalities so that the SecDef can call her “Sandra”, they get on with the bad news: their project to build a fleet of supertankers to ship ice down from the arctic is seven months behind. The “good news” is that it doesn’t matter, since their ice mining efforts are pretty much at a stand-still. They’ve been unable to buy modern ice sectioning equipment, and now they can’t buy replacement parts for the equipment they have, and the American ice miner’s union is slowing down work in protest because they want to join with the international union. This is all tied back to Ronald Ratkin (In case you’ve somehow forgotten, you will be reminded that he is the “World’s first trillionaire”); he controls the supply of ice sectioning equipment, and he also controls the international ice miner’s union, and now he wants the American union as well so that he can, to put it bluntly, take over the world. Of course.
The SecDef proposes that DeWitt declare martial law and have Ratkin rubbed out. And, again, I have no deep principled objection to having abusive rich assholes snuffed for the good of humanity. But DeWitt puts the kibosh on the plan on account of the fact that it would prompt protests from the pacifist lobby.
That is her objection. That pacifists would complain if the President of the United States had a civilian (Almost said “citizen” but later it becomes clear that Ratkin’s citizenship is somehow ambiguous, as he’s rich enough to shop around for one) whacked and declared martial law to seize a private company.
Now, we are not told what her plan is instead yet. I mean, we all know what her plan is, because we know what this series is about. But they do that thing where someone says, “Here’s my plan:” and then you cross-fade to the next scene so that the audience will be left in suspense. Only the audience isn’t left in suspense, because even inanimate objects know what the plan is at this point.
But let’s pause here and reflect on this plan. Just so we’re all on the same page here:
- President DeWitt got five billion dollars redirected from water subsidies to NASA
- By telling congress that it was for a military space project
- Which was sold to the public as an emergency mission to fly around the moon
- So they refitted a space shuttle, a vehicle designed for Low Earth Orbit, to travel to Mars
- With the project lead and crew believing they were only going to the moon
- Mars is 141 times farther away than the Moon
- Also, DeWitt doesn’t expect this plan to actually pay off for decades
- And to keep it a secret, they code-named it “Mission Red”
- And they can’t do anything about the Bondian Supervillain who is holding the world’s water supply hostage because it would be a scandal.
- Unlike the President lying to Congress to secretly invade Mars.
- She’s telling this plan, now, to the cabinet. None of them knew. NASA apparently didn’t know. The crew (aside from Ferris) doesn’t know. The only people who actually know about the plan at this point are DeWitt, her chief of staff, and Commander Ferris. This seemingly includes the people who did the refitting of the shuttle to make the trip. Who’s executing this secret plan?
What I’m saying is, this plan is stupid and implausible. And don’t think I didn’t notice the random dig at protesters. In the space of an hour, they’ve twice already suggested that protesters who believe in good causes are a worse problem than the things they’re protesting. Even the Trump administration isn’t that far over the top about victim blaming.
Once DeWitt has faded out to explain her plan, we hop over to the Tosh Rimbauch show. Tosh rants about DeWitt and her wasting of taxpayer money to fund Mission Red. His bullying antics come off as so schoolboy that it’s impossible to imagine his show would have gotten on the air with a male president — I would say “at all”, but it’s 2017, so I know that a grown man can indeed make a successful career taunting female politicians with “Women be shopping, amirite?” jokes. Even his misogyny is lackluster; there’s no nuance, no clever dog-whistling. He basically just flat out says “She’s a woman, therefore she will blow off important affairs of state for manicures and shopping.” And again, I live in 2017, where we’ve all seen how creatively misogynists will prey upon all that is nasty in the psyche of the American public to discredit a woman while maintaining a veneer of plausible deniability that affords them the luxury of turning any accusation of sexism back on the accuser with phrases like “woman card”. He doesn’t bother, instead proudly advertising himself as a proud misogynist. Hell, Rimbauch doesn’t even use the word “Feminazi.” About the only thing he does that shows even the slightest evidence of actually knowing how real political pundits manipulate their audience is that he consistently over-emphasizes the “de-” in DeWitt. That’s actually a something of a realistic kind of petty power play for a character like that.
In between shitty misogynistic jokes, he takes a call from Gary, a listener in Iowa, whose slack-jawed yokel shtick is so thick that you expect the call to end when he shoots at some food and up from the ground comes a-bubblin’ crude. He complains about having a lady president and suggests that she be shot into space. Also there’s a bit where Tosh has a sci-fi audio effect play to indicate that he is scanning for listening devices because DeWitt has his nationally broadcast radio show bugged. Gary mentions family farms being sold “for peanuts”, which prompts Tosh to make a Jimmy Carter joke Gary doesn’t get. Gary also didn’t get the “Gary, Indiana” joke Tosh made earlier, but I don’t blame him because it wasn’t funny.
Orion-1 finishes its OMS burn and stabilizes into orbit, making me wonder how time works in this universe, since I think the implication is that the past three scenes have all taken place at the same time. Never mind. It’s time to open the cargo bay doors, because the shuttle has to open its cargo bay doors as soon as it reaches orbit, because the radiators are on the inside and otherwise, the shuttle would overheat. This is an actual true fact about the shuttle which was often overlooked when it was depicted in film and television — basically, the shuttle keeps its cargo doors open whenever it’s in space (Also frequently mis-depicted in media: the shuttle orbits “upside-down”, with the underside away from the Earth). You earn a small amount of goodwill from me whenever you get this right. This audioplay is so far in the hole for goodwill right now that I’ll take what I can get.
The pod-bay doors won’t open, Hal, and this causes an immediate and tense crisis. Nikki tries the emergency manual release, but that doesn’t work either. Ferris orders Rutherford to try the manual release, and they promptly blow that small amount of goodwill they just earned by stopping the plot dead for a minute while Nikki accuses Ferris of sexism for asking Rutherford to try the control after she’d failed. “Commander, are you implying that I’m not strong enough to move the lever because I’m a woman?” I haven’t seen a block of dialogue so egregiously “Middle-aged white man imagines what a feminist is like based purely on his imagination because he has never bothered to listen when a real one was talking,” since Terrance Dicks used to write dialogue for Sarah Jane Smith in ’70s Doctor Who. In any case, Rutherford can’t open it either, and they all worry a great deal about whether they’ll have to abort the mission. One of them — I’ve lost track of who and can’t be bothered to check — suggests using the external camera to check for anything jamming the mechanism. Ferris placates Nikki by assigning the task to her on the grounds that she’s the most dexterous.
And now we have a narrator all of a sudden. For the first time in this thing, about eighty minutes in, they cut to a voice-over to elide the action. The camera finds nothing, so they shove Rutherford into the cargo bay to have a look at the mechanism himself. With time running out before they have to abort, he finds that the issue is a snapped bolt (or “bolt-like part” as the narrator calls it. Wouldn’t want to be vague on that point), which they replace and open the doors just in time. Pirelli takes a look at the bolt and discovers that it failed due to having been precisely cut half-way through with a laser, which means that someone sabotaged the ship, and I’m not sure we will ever get around to saying who or why. The crew is faced with the possibility that one of them is a saboteur. I bet it’s Doctor Smith. Ferris, fearing a breakdown of crew cohesion, basically orders them not to worry about it.
This tense and dramatic scene… Is told to us by the narrator. Glad they didn’t waste time on that so we had an extra few minutes for Nikki to make unrealistic accusations of sexism. We return to regular voice acting for Ferris to call NASA and, rather than informing them about their issue or the possibility of sabotage, just says everything is fine, and then switches to an encrypted channel to… Tell them everything is fine and he’ll call them back in the morning.
Sigh. Okay, are you ready to start having some villains up in this mess? Because Ferris’s transmission is the segue to introduce the dragon of the piece, Jessica Storm. And if you think that name sounds like it was mislaid by a villainous rich woman in an ’80s soap opera, we are on the same page. I know this is audio, but she is so ’80s soap opera villain that you can pretty much hear her ’80s hair and shoulder pads. Every line is delivered in this arrogant, haughty tone with audible side-eye. I guess it’s technically a success for conveying character in audio for the makers here, because you really can see everything she does. Hands on hips, except when she flips her hair back; always looking at the camera rather than whoever she’s talking to; chin up, rolling her eyes at the stupidity of everyone around her. We cut to her listening in on Orion-1’s transmission after a musical transition that sounds like it thinks it’s the intro to a sports commentary show. In a slow, condescending tone, she tells her goon Hanson (and by proxy, us), how ironic it is that the administration chose to call the secret mission to Mars, “Mission Red” and mocks them for not being cleverer about it. This is new information for Hanson, who keeps asking her to explain what Mars is.
That’s more hyperbole, but only just. Not since Tomes and Talismans have I encountered dialogue that sounds this much like someone’s trying to emulate a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film and can’t remember how to land the punch-line. Long stretches of War of the Worlds II consist of protracted exchanges where one character says something straightforward, and the person they’re talking to repeats it back to them, expresses surprise, then asks for an explanation. Pretty much any time that someone reveals that Orion-1 is going to Mars, the response is, roughly, “Mars? What is it?” “It’s the fourth planet from the sun, but that’s not important right now.”
Jessica has bought access to Orion-1’s seekrit encrypted channel, subtly called, “Crimson mode”. Or maybe it’s not called that; Jessica outright says it is, but once Orion-1 switches to it, Ferris uses the term to refer to the bit where they change course and head for Mars. Hanson seems to be smitten with Jessica, and clunkily fact-drops that she’s got a 180 IQ. He praises her brilliance, beauty, and humility. Jessica goes on at length congratulating herself for being so modest. Look, okay. “Person brags about how modest they are” is a funny joke in principle, but coupling it with the idea that Jessica Storm is a Wile-E-Coyote-level Super Genius just undermines everything. We’re meant to believe that Jessica really is a polymath super-genius femme fatale, and not a goofy arrogant, entitled asshole who’s not half as clever as she thinks she is, and that means she should notice how stupid she sounds. Even worse, Hanson’s clearly on the level here, not inserting a subtle dig at his boss.
A few scenes from now, we’ll learn that Jessica is an astronaut, which… I mean… Look, astronauts generally come from the military. And I haven’t done an exhaustive search of the military or anything, but there is nothing about Jessica Storm that indicates to me that she would be even slightly successful in a field where thinking you’re too good to listen to your superiors can get you sent to Leavenworth. She was DeWitt’s second choice to lead Mission Red: Jessica’s test scores were higher, but Ferris had a lot more experience. And if whichever of the writing team (Let’s face it, it’s the dude) keeps putting in these references to sexism actually knew anything about the subject, that might be a place for someone to complain about institutionalized sexism. Because “Ferris got the job because he had many more hours in space,” sounds on the surface like an entirely valid and gender-unrelated reason, but never questioned is why Jessica had so many fewer hours logged. This is an incredibly classic Thing about the dearth of women in certain jobs: women are more rarely given certain jobs because many fewer women than men have the necessary experience, which simply kicks the can down the road. Let’s say they wanted someone with fifteen years of space experience for the job. At the beginning of 1999, there were approximately three women in the world who could even theoretically qualify (And none of them had been active astronauts in years. Don’t sweat this; I think 15 years of space flight experience may not actually be a realistic qualification, it just made for a good example because I know how many there were). Once a gender inequality exists, appealing strictly to quantifiable experience to the exclusion of everything else has the effect of preserving that inequality even if no one involved in the decision-making is actually trying to be sexist.
Not that I would ever expect this stupid thing to notice that, or even that I could reasonably fault it for that omission. But it grinds me bears when they very profoundly don’t notice the sexism here, while making a big show of Nikki being a “feminist” by having her wig out when her commander asks someone else to try the handle after she couldn’t work it when their lives were in jeopardy. They could just as easily had the reason Jessica didn’t get the job be because she is a terrible person showing obvious signs of sociopathy who should never be allowed near a position of authority because she’s likes to brag about her own humility, is only interested in her own self-aggrandizement, lacks any semblance of human empathy, has undisclosed ties to Russia, and told Billy Bush that she wanted to grab someone by the — I’ve wandered off track again. Jessica Storm, for what it’s worth, had been offered Nikki’s job after failing to get the lead, but she’d turned NASA down flat because she couldn’t stand being second-fiddle, which is exactly the sort of trait that helps a person excel in a field like astronauting. Her response was, “I won’t lower my level of expectations to meet your level of incompetency.” Which is a sentence you should really only be allowed to say if you are Kerr Avon or Severus Snape (ZOMG, I wish there had been some way Alan Rickman could have played Avon in a big-screen adaptation of Blake’s 7. Contrariwise, Paul Darrow would’ve made a fantastic Snape if the books had been adapted to film in the 1970s via time travel), and Jessica Storm is neither. Though we actually hear the line being quoted after-the-fact by DeWitt. And I think that the word there should be “incompetence”, not “incompetency”, though I’m not sure.
Jessica orders Hanson, who’s still hung up on the whole “Mars? What is it?” thing, to record Orion-1 while she goes and calls her boss, which means it’s time to introduce you to the Palpatine to Jessica’s Vader, Ronald Ratkin (the world’s first trillionaire). After a shitty musical transition that thinks it’s the walk-on song for a pro wrestler, we’re connected with Lily Tomlin’s Phone Company Operator character. They do have their cliches down, at least. You can practically hear the cat-eye glasses and see her swapping plugs around on an old-fashioned manual switchboard. She fends off a bored-sounding CNN reporter while we drift over to her boss, who’s meeting with his doctor.
Ronald Ratkin (the world’s first trillionaire) speaks in a low, hissing growl that evokes Ebeneezer Scrooge for me. Actually, no, even better: he sounds like the voice my son does when he’s voicing the bad guy who has come to fight his superhero action figures. You get a sense of a withered, frail man, with one eye much larger than the other. I don’t know where I get that detail from, but it’s there. Ratkin is slowly dying from an unspecified degenerative disease, but he seems cool with that; his only real concern is living long enough to become emperor of the universe (That is literally what DeWitt says his goal is). His doctor is an old college “friend” who Ratkin taunts for his hatred of hard work and penchant for expensive living. That penchant is facilitated by his enormous retainer, and when Ratkin tries to bully him by threatening to fire him, forcing him to, “Work double-shifts at Kaiser hospital,” the doctor responds by suggesting he might write a tell-all about Ratkin should it come to that. Why is there a random slam against Kaiser hospital here? Fucked if I know. Ratkin angrily kicks him out to take a call from Jessica as the incidental music decides to be the theme from an ’80s glam-drama set in Las Vegas for our transition back to Tosh Rimbaugh.
Rimbaugh’s PA has a contact in Ratkin Enterprises, who’s contacted him with a hot tip about Mission Red. Ratkin is reluctant at first, especially at the price tag, but he’s overcome with visions of another broadcast award to go in his cabinet at the hint that Orion-1 isn’t going to the Moon.
Every link in this thing is weak, and Rimbauch is the weakest of them all. The thing that bothers me is that he’s entirely sincere. There’s no hint of cynicism to him (This becomes worse later, when he does something incredibly cynical, but is entirely earnest about it); he’s the same person off-air as on-air. He really believes that he’s doing a public service by exposing the inherent corruption of a president with boobs.
Actually, sincerity and earnestness is the big overall problem with this production. I don’t object to it being ridiculous. So much here seems like over-the-top parody. Tosh Rimbauch, for crying out loud. Our villains are Erika Kane and Dr. Evil. The space commander seems to be straight out of a ’50s sci-fi movie. Nikki Jackson is a straw feminist out of a ’70s action show. The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, and everyone we meet launches into a sermon about how the problems facing the world are due to special interest groups, the public’s desire for easy answers, and rush-hour traffic. The dialogue is clunky, full of repetition, exposition, and repetition. But you never get the feeling that any of this is a deliberate attempt at comedy — it’s certainly not good comedy. No, everyone seems to be perfectly on-the-level the whole way through. Not in a playing-it-straight sort of way, even; no, they seem to be under the impression that this is an entirely serious science fiction story. I’ve mentioned before that the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film Airplane! is essentially a shot-for-shot remake of the ’50s Canadian thriller Zero Hour!. When I first heard this audio drama, I found myself wondering whether this was something of the same ilk. Parts of it really feel like they were written back in the fifties; there’s a very earnest, very traditional silver-age sci-fi yarn in here. But all of the political stuff they layered around it is practically South Park in its scatter-shot cynicism, lashing out indiscriminately at special interests, detached politicians, even, inexplicably, the scientific method. But if this was an attempt to update an old story with ’90s sensibilities and repackage it as an over-the-top homage, then they’ve neglected to actually make it a fun one. All that’s here is earnestness in the Silver-Age Sci-Fi adventure, and painfully unfunny over-the-top political intrigue. If I wanted to watch the people who run our civilization act like cartoon supervillains in a way that isn’t any fun, I’d just go back to watching the news. There are idea here that could have a fun payoff, but they just never manage to get around to it.
The plot’s going to pick up once we get to Mars, but only a little. And don’t hold your breath. We’ve got a lot of not-Mars to slog through before we actually get there.
This is the end of side 2. The story continues on the next cassette.