Okay. We’re back. No need for a recap because nothing happened last week. We left off with Jessica Storm having a flashback to how she broke up with Mark Rutherford and Nikki Jackson, and why she wants to kill them. In the present, she meets with the rest of the Artemis crew to discuss how to kill their rivals. Predictably, she insists that Nikki be left for her to kill personally, though this does not actually go on to happen. They show stolen files on the Orion crew, identifying all of them as being good in a fight, except for Doctor Morgan, who is a (spit) pacifist, though Jessica calls out Mark’s hero complex and Ferris’s over-protectiveness toward his crew as weaknesses for them to exploit.
Immediately after the briefing, one of Jessica’s underlings announces that interference from the Martian surface has blocked their feed from Orion 1. It’s not any NASA signal, or any other transmission Jessica is familiar with. This is, presumably, the same interference we heard about before that had stopped NASA from warning Orion about the approach of Artemis. Which means it’s probably time to point out just how few fucks this series gives for anything resembling a coherent sense of how time and space work. I won’t bother faulting them for the fact that there’s no time lag between Earth and Mars, because frankly that would just slow the plot down more. But different parts of the story take radically different amounts of time. They never say how long the trip to Mars actually takes, but it’s long enough that Orion was equipped with hibernation equipment. Artemis will catch up “several months” before Orion is scheduled to depart Mars, and DeWitt was surprised that it could achieve that speed even with bleeding-edge upgrades. Now, technically, that could mean that Artemis is expected to reach Mars only a few days after Orion does, but would you phrase it that way if it were the case? No, of course not. By framing Artemis’s arrival as being “several months before Orion is scheduled to depart”, it implies that Orion will be well into a long mission. And the ordering of scenes so far placed Artemis’s launch after Orion arrived at Mars. But don’t forget, Ratkin and Jessica anticipated that Japan could launch a Mars shuttle in about six months (spoiler: we won’t hear any more of any other country even attempting a launch). In general, events on Earth all seem to be progressing at a normal sort of narrative pace, with gaps of hours or days between scenes, while events in space have large, multi-month gaps in them, yet the events interleave with those on Earth. Even worse, the story on Mars is paced much more tightly; the only time there’s a real gap where you could fit a lot of downtime is before they arrive in Martian orbit, or maybe right before Rover 1 is sent down. Yet the implication is that Artemis’s entire trip from Earth to Mars takes place after half the Orion crew disappears into the Martian underground. The closest we’ll get to a duration for how long they ultimately spend underground is “more than 72 hours”. Things which should take weeks or months are continually interleaved with things that could take at most hours or days.
At this point, something a little funny happens, and I initially misinterpreted it completely. So just for a minute, let’s go with my mistake for a bit, because I’ve got to take some pleasure where I can in this thing. Jessica is trying to figure out what the strange signal from Mars is. She’s sure, with her 180-IQ, that she knows every kind of signal, cipher and encoding used on Earth, and it’s none of those. So she listens to it.
We’re treated to a sample of the audio. Pretty quickly, I recognize what I’m hearing: it’s backmasked. Pull out audacity and reverse it, and it turns out that it’s a clip from much later in the episode:
˙sɹǝʇunoɔ ᴉʞʞᴉN ,,’ssǝſ ‘ʎɹoǝɥʇ uᴉ ʎluO,, ,,˙sʎɐʍl∀ ˙noʎ uǝʇɐǝq ʎɐʍlɐ ǝʌ,I ˙˙˙uǝɯ uǝʌǝ ‘ɹǝǝɹɐɔ ‘ǝƃǝlloƆ ˙ʇsɹᴉɟ pɐɥ ǝʌ,I ‘ᴉʞʞᴉN ‘pǝʇuɐʍ ɹǝʌǝ ǝʌ,noʎ ƃuᴉɥʇʎɹǝʌƎ ˙ɯɐǝʇ ƃuᴉuuᴉʍ ǝɥʇ uo ɯ,I ‘pǝʎɐld ɹǝʌǝ ǝʌ,ǝʍ ǝɯɐƃ ʎɹǝʌƎ ˙ǝɹoɔs ʇsǝq ǝɥʇ ʇǝƃ I ‘uǝʞɐʇ ɹǝʌǝ ǝʌ,ǝʍ ʇsǝʇ ʎɹǝʌƎ,, ‘ʍoɥ ʇnoqɐ ᴉʞʞᴉN ƃuᴉʇunɐʇ ǝʇnuᴉɯ ɐ spuǝds ɐɔᴉssǝſ ˙ǝɟᴉʍ sᴉɥ pǝddɐupᴉʞ sɐɥ uᴉʞʇɐɹ ǝsnɐɔǝq ɹǝɥ oʇ ɹǝpuǝɹɹns oʇ pǝɔɹoɟ uǝǝq p,ǝɥ ʇɐɥʇ sǝssǝɟuoɔ sᴉɹɹǝℲ ˙ɹǝʇɔɐɹɐɥɔ ɹǝɥ ɹoɟ ǝlʇʇᴉl sʎɐs uosɐǝɹ ou ɹoɟ ɯɹoʇS ɐɔᴉssǝſ ƃuᴉɥʇnoɯpɐq spuoɔǝs ǝʌᴉɟ-ʎʇuǝʌǝs puǝds oʇ ǝpᴉɔǝp ᴉʞʞᴉN ƃuᴉʌɐɥ puɐ ‘ǝuoʇ s,snפ uᴉɐldxǝ ʎllɐǝɹ ʇ,usǝop sᴉɥʇ ˙ɹǝɥ puᴉɥǝq ʇɥƃᴉɹ ƃuᴉpuɐʇs sᴉ ɯɹoʇs ɐɔᴉssǝſ ʇɐɥʇ sᴉ ‘ǝsɹnoɔ ɟo ‘uosɐǝɹ ǝɥ┴ ˙ɹǝɥ ʇdnɹɹǝʇuᴉ oʇ ƃuᴉlᴉɐɟ puɐ ƃuᴉʎɹʇ ʎlʇuǝnbǝɹɟ snפ ɥʇᴉʍ ‘pɹɐǝɥ ʇsnɾ ǝʍ ʞɔɐqɥsɐlɟ ʇɐɥʇ ɟo sʇuǝʌǝ ǝɥʇ ɟo dɐɔǝɹ ʞɔᴉnb ɐ sn sǝʌᴉƃ puɐ ‘qoɾ ǝɥʇ pǝʇdǝɔɔɐ ɐɔᴉssǝſ pɐɥ ʍǝɹɔ uoᴉɹO ǝɥʇ pǝuᴉoɾ ǝʌɐɥ ʇ,uplnoʍ ǝɥs ʍoɥ ʇnoqɐ ǝnƃolouoɯ ɐ oʇuᴉ sǝɥɔunɐl ᴉʞʞᴉN ˙spuoɔǝs ǝʌᴉɟ-ʎʇuǝʌǝs ʇnoqɐ uᴉ ɹɐǝlɔ ǝɯoɔǝq ɟo-ʇɹos llᴉʍ ɥɔᴉɥʍ suosɐǝɹ ɹoɟ ,,’ɯɹoʇS ɐɔᴉssǝſ,, ‘sǝɹɐlɔǝp ʎluǝppns snפ ˙ʎlᴉɯɐɟ sɐ ʍǝɹɔ ǝɥʇ ɟo ʞuᴉɥʇ oʇ ǝɯoɔ s,ǝɥs ʍoɥ ʇnoqɐ ɥɔǝǝds ǝlʇʇᴉl ɐ sǝʌᴉƃ puǝsuʍo┴ ‘pɹɐoqɐ ǝɔuo puɐ ‘uoᴉɹO ɥʇᴉʍ sʞɔop ɹǝʌoɹ ǝɥ┴ ˙sᴉɹɹǝℲ llᴉʇs s,ʇᴉ ‘llɐ ɹǝʇɟɐ ‘ǝsnɐɔǝq ‘uoᴉʇoɯǝ ƃuᴉʍoɥs ʎllɐnʇɔɐ ʇnoɥʇᴉʍ uɐɔ ǝɥ sɐ ʎlʇuǝƃɹn sɐ dᴉɥs ǝɥʇ oʇ ʞɔɐq ɯǝɥʇ ƃuᴉɹǝpɹo ‘ǝɔuǝsqɐ sᴉɥ uᴉɐldxǝ oʇ ǝɯᴉʇ ɯǝɥʇ ǝʌᴉƃ ʇ,usǝop sᴉɹɹǝℲ ɹǝpuɐɯɯoƆ puɐ ‘ɯǝɥʇ ɥʇᴉʍ ʇ,usᴉ pɹoɟɹǝɥʇnɹ ˙(Ɩ ɹǝʌoɹ ʎlɹɐǝlɔ s,ʇᴉ ‘ʇxǝʇuoɔ uᴉ ;ǝʞɐʇsᴉɯ ɐ sᴉ sᴉɥʇ) ᄅ ɹǝʌoɹ uᴉ sɹɐW ɯoɹɟ uɹnʇǝɹ sʇnɐuoɹʇsɐ uoᴉɹO ɹnoɟ ǝɥʇ ɟo ǝǝɹɥʇ ʇɐɥʇ sn sllǝʇ ɹoʇɐɹɹɐu ǝɥʇ ‘dᴉlɔ ǝɥʇ uI
Now okay, backmasking legitimate audio to stand in for an alien transmission is fine. But this goes on for four minutes. Which just played into my sense of this episode being padded all to hell. I didn’t cotton on until I got to the end of side four and the same thing happened again.
Yeah. Turns out that the tape had just gotten twisted when I was ripping the tape to CD. There isn’t meant to be four minutes of backmasked audio here. The reason I didn’t realize it is that it just fits in so well in context. I mean, it happens right when Jessica Storm is trying to interpret this signal from Mars. And it’s not like any of the story is missing here. Plus, there’s places later on where there are actual for-real production errors, like big silent gaps between scenes, or incorrect fades in the music during transitions. So it didn’t tip me off when the next scene cuts in for a second three-quarters of the way through and then switches back to backmasking.
In the scene which the backmasking replaces, Jessica doesn’t pay any more mind to the signal from Mars, but instead just fiddles with the controls until she can hear NASA, and orders the signal jammed to prevent Orion learning of their approach. The remaining three minutes are taken up with a scene which isn’t entirely pointless, but is close enough to it that the episode frankly flows better without it.
We’re introduced to a new pointless character,
Hiro Protagonist Stephen Ulysses Perhero Victor Fries Remus Lupin Edward Nygma Eric Magnus Victor von Doom Richie Rich Captain Jonathan Power Moon Bloodgood Jefferson Davis Clark. He’s an unemployed water purification technician who sounds like an unholy fusion of a fourteen-year-old redneck and… a nebbishy Rick Moranis character. And he lives with his mother. Of course. He’s an obsessive Tosh Rimbauch fan, and blames DeWitt for his unemployment. His mother thinks Rimbauch is unfair to DeWitt, who inherited a mess, and disagrees that she’s responsible for him losing his job at the water plant. This thing can’t go more than a few minutes without shitting on the populace, so she patiently explains that he actually lost his job because, “Citizens didn’t want the cost of the operation of the water purification plant added to their taxes.” I mean, that and the public masturbation, I assume. He vows to be at DeWitt’s upcoming speech to the Ice Sectioner’s Union, in a tone that is supposed to be menacing, but just sounds whiny.
Clark and his mom are watching The Freida
Kahlo Cohen Show, which I assume is a reference to someone, but I can’t figure out who. Sally Jessy Raphael, maybe? She sounds kinda like a drunk Terry Gross. She’s interviewing Tosh Rimbauch about his new book, Better Luck Next Time. He leads off by insulting her weight, though, “I’ve always found heavy thighs real attractive.” “Well then, you must think you’re just gorgeous,” she retorts. They trade barbs for a while (There is an actual good one where Freida says she’s not dumb enough to ever agree to go on Tosh’s show, and he throws back, “I wouldn’t say that”) before getting into the content of his book, which is all about trashing President DeWitt. Predictably, there’s no real content to his arguments other than, “She’s a woman.” He’s proud of his misogyny, as he’d, “Rather insult some desperate short-haired pantsuit-wearing women’s movement than insult the intelligence of decent American people.”
He lays it on thick, blaming DeWitt for literally every problem facing America, and insists that things would be better if voters had followed his advice in ’96 and voted for — they really mean for us to take this seriously as the name of the Republican presidential candidate — Napoleon Creed. Okay, admittedly, there are real actual people named Newt Gingrich, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, and Reince Preibus. Freida doesn’t have any better counterargument than, “But his name is Napoleon” either. Freida suggests that it’s “price wars and bureaucracy on Wall Street”, rather than DeWitt that is responsible for the current state of affairs, but Tosh dismisses her claims, without even addressing the fact that she seemed to just be stringing random words together with no sense of what they meant. No, he simply asserts that having a woman in the Oval Office meant “all hope was gone.”
He shows off a
red baseball cap black armband of mourning for his lost country, and insists that until DeWitt is “gotten rid of”, “we” won’t be able to have “our country” back and “Make America Great Again”. “Mark my words, Freida: the world will be a better place when DeWitt is out of here.”
Also watching Freida Cohen, the narrator tells us, is Nancy Ferris. She turns off the TV in anger, declaring her hatred of Tosh Rimbauch. She is accompanied by “Officer Doyle”, who has no opinion. “Officer Doyle” is clearly meant to sound like Joe Friday, and he’s only ever referred to as “Officer” (He even introduces himself this way), but later he’ll be referred to as military. He’s been assigned to guard her, what with the death threats and the explosion of her mother. He is terrible at his job. Someone rings the doorbell, and he stays behind in the kitchen at her request to stir the vegetables while she answers the door. He also stops stirring the vegetables and they burn.
Fortunately, this time, the person at the door is Jennifer Connors, the wife of Tom, the town councilman back from the first tape. Remember? No, of course you don’t, it feels like we’ve been doing this for about thirteen billion years by now. Anyway, they burn a few yards of audiocassette with chit-chat, in which we learn some things:
- Back in college, Nancy was a hippie, into Woodstock and jackets with fringe and tye-die, and she voted for Mondale. (Walter Mondale ran for President in 1984)
- Jennifer’s husband Tom is still running for reelection. Apparently the election cycle for town councilman lasts like eight months.
- Jennifer’s full-time job, for what it’s worth, is as a geneticist working for a bleeding-edge genetics lab
- Oh, hey, you want a new ridiculous plot thread that goes nowhere? Jennifer’s company is currently fighting down a scandal where one of their scientists genetically created a man-ape hybrid and released it in Sherwood Forest as part of a complicated Piltdown Man-style hoax.
- It’s been less than a month since Ratkin had all the other water bottlers put out of business.
- Basically everyone knows that Ratkin owns Artemis and who’s in charge of it, and that the whole goal here is for Ratkin to have the Orion crew murdered so he can be emperor of the universe.
- But the media is playing it up as “friendly rivalry” and a “battle of the sexes” like it’s just a cute little harmless competition. This is because Ratkin owns all the news outlets so they are Fair And Balanced.
Nancy has another visitor, this time an incredibly obvious kidnapper disguised as a General. Officer Doyle is satisfied by a glance at his ID and takes the rest of the night off. The alleged general claims that NASA is going to be in contact with Orion, and offers her a lift to go say hi to her husband. Nancy is suspicious (It’s short notice), but still completely falls for it, going with him in his limo (NASA sent a limo?) and only getting worried when they obviously go the wrong way, then darken the windows. When she starts to protest, she gets cold-cocked by Hoover Jones, who claims to be using a voice modulator to disguise his voice and wearing a latex mask so she wouldn’t recognize him if she saw him later. Maybe that explains why his ’30s gangster accent keeps sliding over to John Houseman’s professorial affect. The General makes the mistake of how easy it would be for one person to talk about this kidnapping plot, thus exposing Ratkin’s high-risk strategy, and Hoover shoots him. I don’t really know how this could backfire, at this point. I mean, what are the authorities going to do? Ratkin is basically omnipotent already, we’ve established that. Unprovable kidnapping allegations are going to bring down a guy who isn’t exactly making it a secret that he’s going to murder a NASA crew and has already murdered two and a half wives and a nanny? And it turns out Ratkin will echo that sentiment himself later — he’s so rich that even if he killed Nancy Ferris, he could certainly pay off whoever he needed to to make the problem go away. Hell, I’m not sure why he bothered kidnapping her; he’s Ronald Ratkin. He could threaten Commander Ferris with, “I’ve got my own private nuclear bomb and if you don’t surrender, I’ll set it off in front of your house.” That’s not a bluff: Ratkin really does own his own nuclear weapons.
Nikki and Gus are reunited with Gloria Townsend on Mars. She’s been getting a tour of the place while they spent the past couple days sleeping off their alien surgeries. Yes, they just handwave over Gloria and Mark spending days on Mars doing nothing. Nikki is struck by how amused Gloria is by the whole situation. There’s a running gag where she’s the only one who gets Martian humor and can tell Ohm and Ari apart. I really hope I’m right about the decision for Nikki to be black hadn’t been made yet, because having her do a running “All you people look alike to me” joke is — okay, admittedly, there’s not a whole lot worse it could get.
Gloria has learned a bit about
Unobtanium Quorium, the energy-producing material that the Martians mine for the Tor. She’s determined that it’s a radioactive element and claims it has a valence of at least 150. This is so far outside of what is even possible in normal science (I am not good at chemistry, but the range of valence electrons for actual elements, and even for reasonable fictitious ones, is between 1 and 12 for reasons that involve quantum mechanics. Like, normal fake elements would go in hypothetical rows under the existing elements on the periodic table. An element with a valence of 150 would go about six feet to the right of the table) that I’m pretty sure she was actually talking about its atomic number. Gloria assumes it’s radioactive, and “self-activating”, unlike plutonium or uranium, and can pretty much be used as a power source directly by just plucking it out of the ground. Ari qualifies this by saying that a 10cm rock could power a space ship for “only” fifty years.
This prompts a tangent where we learn that the Martian lifespan is four-hundred years, which is why he considers powering a space ship for a half-century to be a mere pittance. I mean, if I had something the size of a softball that could power a spaceship for one eighth of my lifespan, I suppose I would hardly call that a tremendous amount of power either. Martian lifespans have drastically decreased under Tor rulership, though, and there are fewer than a hundred of them on Mars, with population attrition and so many of their people being shipped offworld.
We also learn a little bit about the Tor management style when Nikki, in a scene I am dead certain was not written by someone who imagined her as black, casually says that the Martians seem to be doing okay for a slave race. The Tor are pretty hands-off as slave-drivers, basically leaving the Martians to their own devices so long as they’ve met their quota by filling up four space-tankers (the ship on the surface that got the humans involved here) every six months. The Tor are due back in 14 sols.
Ari lets Mark in on the way out. He’s been off looking around. Nikki suggests they plan an escape, and her tone kinda suggests that she’s still suspicious of the Martians, though Gus seconds the idea on the basis that they should make their departure look unassisted lest the Martians be punished.
Nikki plans to set out on foot at first light, whatever “first light” means when they’re underground. Mark points out that the Martian power to manipulate matter might enable them to repair Rover 1 for them. Nikki begrudgingly agrees, and orders Gus to act as liaison on that, assuming that the Martians will be able to read the Rover’s schematics from his mind. The Martians can read human minds, but this hasn’t actually been established yet.
Mark has additional plans. He’s also learned about the capacity of the Tor cargo ships. The ships have a capacity of 400,000 cubic meters and can travel fast enough to reach Earth in a few days. He suggests they steal one to ferry water back to Earth. Gus and Gloria both wet themselves at the thought of how much more convenient that would be, and how, because this fucking show, it would save “months of government debate”. As far as Mark’s concerned, the fact that it would make them heroes is the most important part.
But Nikki flat-out refuses, being the only one who remembers that they would be stealing from a race of evil alien invaders whose only reason for not having destroyed and/or conquered Earth is that the humans haven’t made a nuisance of themselves thus far. Mark thinks that the possibility that they could outrun the Tor is a counter-argument to this. She points out that Mark is already looking at a court-martial for having disobeyed Ferris’s order to return back on the surface (Though I don’t think Mark and Nikki are military. More than half of NASA’s astronaut corps are in the armed forces, but Mark and Nikki are both heavily implied to be civilians in their flashbacks to their MIT days, and Jessica Storm’s dossiers on the crew only mention Gus as having military training. Even so, NASA is a civilian organization, and while a military astronaut can be court-martialed for violating the UCMJ, I don’t know if breaking the rules of the civilian organization they’re “on loan” to would qualify), and that she’s not going to let him endanger two planets for the chance at being a hero. She does, however, stress that once they return to Orion, Commander Ferris would be within his rights to override her decision, which might be an attempt to set up a point of contrast with Jessica Storm, since Nikki demonstrates that she won’t put herself above the chain of command.
Being dressed down by his superior like that sends Mark into a flashback to what the narrator calls, “The day he got a glimpse of Nikki Jackson’s soul, and didn’t like what he found there.” Because the audience can safely assume to have have suffered significant brain damage by now, the narrator gives us a recap of the previous flashback, how Mark had dated Jessica despite Nikki’s warnings, and had his heart broken by her, that Jessica and Nikki had been friends until Jessica’s betrayal, and that the rebounding Mark was now growing warm for his old friend’s form.
They run into each other while she’s on the way back from an interview for a fellowship, and Mark first suggests that they’ve been avoiding each other for a while, and then that she’d been there to comfort him while he was recovering from his breakup. Mark throws himself at her, and Nikki rejects him, first because he’s on the rebound, and second, because she doesn’t want Jessica’s sloppy seconds (Specifically, while Jessica can’t handle being second and wants anything Nikki gets for herself, Nikki has no interest in anything Jessica has had, “And brother, you’ve been had.”).
The point of this flashback, according to the narrator at least, is to show us “Nikki Jackson’s soul”. So I suppose we’re meant to take it as accurate when Mark responds to rejection by calling Nikki a
bitch and sending her death threats on social media parasite and accusing her of being consumed with jealousy toward Jessica. Nikki admits to having used Jessica, knowing her true nature and taken advantage of it as a friendly and helpful rivalry “until the niche got too small for the both of us. Now we’re competitors.” “Until this moment, I never really knew you,” Mark says. “Don’t flatter yourself. You still don’t know me. You never will. Only one person truly knows me, and she hates me.”
I do not like this flashback. I’m not completely sure what it’s for, but it seems like the point is to leave Mark in the right. But all I see here is Mark coming on too strong, taking rejection badly, and the narrative going out of its way to defend him for it.
In the present, Nikki and Gus discuss the question of whether there even is water on Mars, and how they’re going to retrieve it. Because the impending threat of conquest and domination by a powerful alien race didn’t actually shut that down. Gloria is surprised by the question, since she just assumed someone other than her had already asked. Turns out that there is indeed water on Mars, enough to meet Earth’s needs for centuries. But the water isn’t accessible via Earth technology. It’s bound up in the Martian rock, each molecule “mysteriously bonded” to the Quorium. In that form, the rock is stable, non-reactive, and hard as diamonds. (Let us pause here a second to enjoy the sheer brazenness of the handwave in “mysteriously bonded”)
Yes. Without molecular alteration, Quorium is inert. Yes, this directly contradicts what she said about it five minutes ago. In yet another, “There is no fucking way any of these characters were written as black,” moment, Gus casually suggests they press-gang the Martians into using their powers to extract water from the rocks for them. Mark, at least, suggests that they ask them nicely. By the sound of it, water ought to be a waste byproduct of the mining the Martians are already doing, but later on it will turn out (I don’t know the details) that you can extract one or the other, not both. Nikki tables the idea for now, and orders the crew to focus on returning to the surface.
Side three ends with a short scene back on Earth. On his way somewhere, Tosh Rimbauch has a brief run-in with JD Clark. Tosh is dismissive of him, but can’t resist playing to a fanboy, so he encourages him as a “Right-thinking American,” agreeing with Clark that, “If we could just get rid of [DeWitt], everything would be better,” and telling him that he should, “Keep up the good work.” Clark is confident that Tosh will notice him that night at DeWitt’s speech.
Gee. I bet nothing at all bad is going to happen then…
End of side three. Please flip the cassette over and continue with side four.