Defying Gravity: “Love, Honor, Obey”

The Perils of Obedience

Defying Gravity
Sundays at 10 PM, ABC
“Love, Honor, Obey”

Written by Susan Nirah Jaffee
Directed by Fred Gerber

Enough reviewers have taken potshots at this show — and rightly so — that perhaps it’s fair to take a look at what actually works. The leads work: Ron Livingston, Malik Yoba and Christine Cox turn in solid, professional performances no matter what nonsense they’re given to say. There is nothing wrong with the production values, which we tend to take for granted these days until we see old re-runs of, say, the original episodes of Star Trek (that garish lighting!). The special effects show us how far we’ve come, and the shots of space and the ship are convincing enough. Conviction fails only when we get shots of “contemporary” Earth, i.e., America in 2052, where somehow Starbuck’s is still the drug of choice, right down to the trademark cups.

If there are any design failures, they lie on too heavy a reliance on NASA for ideas, and too little imagination/historical understanding of technology. A good rule of thumb when contemplating future technology is to project backwards as well as forwards: if you are setting a show 43 years in the future, ask yourself what, say, computers were like 43 years ago? In 1966, they were the size of a room and ran on vacuum tubes, and nobody carried them in their pockets. So designing computer interfaces for 2052 that look like an interface for, say, 2011, is a little short-sighted. Granted, you want your viewers to recognize a computer as a computer, but we should also be struck with awe and delight at the innovation, the development, the progress shown. That’s what SF is all about. I constantly despair at the paucity of imagination shown by designers of SF shows for television. A hammer has retained its basic shape since Roman times, having reached the practical limits of development, but we are hardly embarked on the computer age; it’s a little early to suppose that the limits of design have been reached. I don’t want a 2052 state-of-the-art computer to look like something I can find next week at my Apple store.

Perhaps it seems petty to nitpick the design concepts of a show which has been, for all intents and purposes, cancelled by ABC. But they say the devil is in the details, and the failure to adequately design a believable environment for a space opera is one of the details that spells failure overall for this show. I’ll grant that television is about characters rather than plot, but those characters have to interact with an environment, and the one set up for these eight astronauts is so bland, so boring, so very NASA, that it drags down the whole show. It forces onto the actors the whole burden of showing us the future–and in this case, the characters they are playing are not even 2009 characters. In fact, with their obssession with sex, religion, sex, and power dynamics, they actually feel like they stepped right out of Mad Men, which is set in the 1950s.

It’s not like all this has to be imagined. If the producers had taken the trouble, they could have asked real, actual astronauts about their experiences in space. Most astronauts will tell you that working in space is awe-inspiring, spiritual, exhilirating, etc. They usually do not describe their jobs as routine or boring, so why do the writers of shows like this feel compelled to make the day to day lives of the astronauts look like paint drying? Everything about the ship and its inhabitants feels as fake as Muzak; when a “solar flare” threatened the crew during this episode, I was delighted to finally see actual danger in the offing. But I was absolutely not surprised that it, too, turned out to be fake.

Maybe the idea is to make the audience feel as paranoid as Maddox, to make us feel as if we cannot trust anything we see or hear on this show. A little of that untrustworthy-narrator schtick goes a long, long way in a serial story. How much of what the crew sees and hears (and we see and hear) is hallucination, and how much is produced by the mysterious Beta? Do we care? By now, after eight episodes, my answer is no.

Love, Honor, Obey covered all three of these topics in a quick 46 minutes that left me ultimately unsatisfied with any of them. The “love” part was given short shrift, focusing primarily on Jen’s idiotic obssession with her rabbit fetus. The “honor” part was mostly bound up with obedience, as in when commander Shaw has to decide between adhering to orders from back home or dealing honestly with his crew in front of him. And of course the “obey” part concentrated on the training of the crew, with its recap of the Milgram experiment of the 1960s. During those experiments at Yale University, subjects were required to administer electrical shocks to other subjects; despite their strong moral beliefs, many testees continued administering shocks as ordered, well past the point where they could have killed their victims (the shocks were faked, along with the “reactions” of the “victims”, but the testees did not know that). This controversial experiment seemed to demonstrate that even the most compassionate and moral of us can be persuaded to “just follow orders”, in contravention of our own deeply held beliefs. “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” (Stanley Milgram) This entire idea runs counter to American notions of independence and self-sufficiency, so of course it is countered by Shaw’s actions in the final moments. Defying Goss’s repeated orders/warnings, he leads his crew to Pod 4 and finally opens it.

To reveal–nothing. All we got were eight reaction shots and a bright light. Since ABC appears to have cancelled this show without a formal announcement, it is likely that this was the last we’ll see of theAntares, her crew, or Beta, whose lovely whale-song filled the last few moments. There were supposed to be three more episodes, but none have been scheduled or advertised, so we may never know who or what “Beta” is, why it managed to produce fractal tomato vines, or why it is causing hallucinations among the crew. Granted that this was never intended to be a finale, it’s a hell of a letdown after all this buildup. I would hope that ABC would at least air the last few episodes, but I expect no consideration for the audience at all from a network that treated Pushing Daisies so shabbily.

Defying Gravity‘s likely last American outing garnered 2.52 million viewers, coming in third in its timeslot and third in the 18-49 demographic. If this was on the SyFy Channel, those would be good numbers. As it is, they are well below the 4.1 million viewers averaged by Pushing Daisies when ABC axed it this year. Even for a summer show, ratings like that will sink even an anti-gravity show.