Defying Gravity: “Rubicon”

Bingo Point

Defying Gravity
Sundays at 10 PM, ABC

Written by Meredith Lavender & Marcie Ulin
Directed by Fred Gerber

It’s a good thing everyone in this show wears name patches on their jumpsuits, because otherwise I’d have a hard time telling them apart. Accents don’t make a character, but that’s really all I have to distinguish some of the female characters. Apart from the leads, everyone’s role is so generic and indistinguishable, they may as well just walk around with character labels on their heads: Jock, Doc, Vulnerable Female, and so forth.

Matters are not helped by the roles these cardboard cutouts are called upon to play. Far from exploiting the potential of science fiction for showing a new and different future, it keeps falling back on stock tropes from the last, oh, five hundred years. Abortion is outlawed, women sleep with their teachers to get ahead, work roles are divided by gender. Worse, virtually every scene divides men and women into cultural stereotypes that were old when the Golden Age of Science Fiction debuted: men talk about The Mission, and women talk about The Relationship. Seriously, people—do we really need this? Is this retrograde Fifties soap opera what ABC thinks will appeal to people of the Twenty-First Century?

The Antares approaches the point of no return for its mission, beyond which return is apparently impossible or impractical (really? This is a suicide mission? Who knew?). The crew insist on calling this the “Rubicon”, invoking inaccurate metaphors about Julius Caesar (note to writers—do your research. Caesar was murdered before he could “create an empire”. His successors did that.) Since the dawn of flight, much less space flight, crews have actually been calling this “bingo point”, not some obscure Classical reference. Maybe the writers thought this was highbrow, but it reads as totally irrelevant. Anyone who knows enough ancient history to get the reference will be puzzled as to how to apply it. Are the crew of the Antarescontemplating a revolution? Invading a country? To cross a Rubicon is to take an action which cannot be revoked, but isn’t the Antares supposed to go home at some point? If you’re going to write a metaphor into a TV show, you should know what it’s all about.

At this crucial point in the mission, as they face a future where they cannot expect help from Earth, this professional, trained, and experienced crew is… preparing a time capsule. Having brought with them the few precious personal items allowed in space, they are now asked to give them up. This is psychological tyranny, and it’s pointless. Who is supposed to recover this time capsule launched into trackless night? Aliens? Santa Claus? This action can only have meaning for the crew—and the only meaning it seems to have is resentment of being asked to part with a precious memento. The writers try to use the mementos as hooks for flashbacks (boy, is that technique getting old), but then they beat them to death.

Only two characters are allowed to develop any depth: Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston, The Time Traveler’s Wife) and Jen Crane (Christina Cox, Blood Ties). Donner actually checks out the ship’s systems before they reach their point of no return (should he not have done this weeks ago?) and discovers an anomaly. Even after he and Ted (Malik Yoba, CSI: Miami) painstakingly examine the water filtration system, they find nothing wrong. Only Maddux’s intuition saves the day, as he insists on testing the water from one system. As Ted later tells his controller on Earth, “Nobody can tell pH by looking.” But what Maddux saw was Martian dirt, a hallucination and a reminder of his continuing guilt over abandoning his crew on Mars years before. He may be an Alpha male, but Maddux gets to incorporate “feminine” traits like intuition and compassion into his makeup. It’s a bit of a cliche, not very well written, but Livingston does the best he can with it and at least Maddux is not two-dimensional.

Similarly, Christina Cox’s Jen gets to focus on science, the only female on board who actually seems to spend time at that. She is forever shown in her lab, or at her computer, or otherwise doing all those white-coat jobs that used to be the exclusive province of men in Fifties standard SF. But when she gets a scene to herself, with her husband back on Earth, the conversation is about children, bunnies, love… oh, good heavens. At least the writers have given her the most intelligent dialogue in the show.

These two characters are the only ones who cross the boundaries set up for everyone else. Maddux usually talks about the Mission, but he also gets to talk about a Relationship like the women do. Jen talks about her Relationship, but at least once is let out to talk about the Mission. Everyone else is kept in the ideological prison of generic characterization, shallow writing, and poor conceptualization. And it’s not really to be wondered at, since the writers refuse to give us an actual plot. Drawing on the example of JJ Abrams’Lost, they pile secret on secret, hoping to tantalize and frustrate us just enough to keep us tuning in. The trouble with that strategy, however, is that you can never reveal the secret. You can’t hand out too many hints. So your “stories” wind up devolving into outright soap opera (we’ve already had the unplanned pregnancy—where is the amnesia?) because all you can focus on are personalities. Character without plot isn’t even a story; it’s a waste of time.

This show was touted as Science Fiction for Women. It’s insulting to be handed standard romance-novel character roles as entertainment for educated women. It’s insulting to be sold a “science fiction” series whose only concession to the wonder, glory, and intellectual excitement of space travel is an occasional shot of a passing space ship. How much science can you take out of science fiction before you have nothing left? Even Star Trek, as retrograde as some of its social structure was, still had enough forward-thinking minds behind it to break new ground in drama, science fiction, and the depiction of a future. Defying Gravity is, if anything, the anti-Star Trek, taking us not only where we have gone before, but where we didn’t want to revisit. It crossed the point of no return on that journey with this episode.