I’m really enjoying this show. Diverse cast — Ajay Sharma is my present geek-crush — and vaguely feminist overtones make this series one to keep an eye on. Unfortunately, the pacing and characterization of the female characters is incredibly uneven, and the show itself MIGHT be in danger of cancellation.
The basic premise is that the best of the best of an international coterie of astronauts have been selected to go on a five year journey around the solar system. THERE’S A MYSTERY IN POD FOUR, which our astronauts don’t know about, but which has our folks in Ground Control all in a tizzy. This mystery has been manipulating the crew, altering their bodies, and making them have hallucinations. They also all have tangled romantic histories with each other, which is one of the reasons this show has been called Grey’s Anatomy IN SPACE. Also, we are in a strange America where women — GASP! — no longer have the right to choose, and have no bodily privacy in regards to their fertility. What a strange and unfamiliar world. I mean, seriously, I can’t imagine the feds giving money to science, of all things.
I want to begin by talking about the secondary and tertiary characters I love. These ladies have so far emerged as fascinating, potentially complex, conflicted professionals. These characters include…
1. Eve Weller-Shaw, who has a lot of secrets, particularly about the space program. She’s kept them from Ted, her husband, who’s now the mission’s captain, and has been using their relationship to keep him in compliance with the mission. While so far she’s been portrayed as conflicted and big eyed, the fact that she’s got a higher security clearance than anyone else we’ve met so far, isn’t afraid to use it, AND willingly sent her husband into a spaceship containing an unknown alien device suggest she’s going to be a cool character. Potential downers: she might turn into a caricature of a “bad wife.” So far she’s not a villainess, but she’s not exactly a fan favorite either. Also: she’s the only other black person on the show… so even though Ted dated Jen, a white woman, before he and Eve got together, it’s pretty clear there’s some Noah’s Ark two-by-two matching going on there.
2. Nadia Schilling, who is a pilot and is friends with benefits with Maddux Donnor, our tragic American hero. While she’s not the most professional of characters (she keeps trying to hit on Maddux while they’re supposed to be working), I appreciate that she’s really happy being his friend with benefits, and doesn’t really want to be more. She says as much to Zoe, but Zoe, of course, is still mad at her. I hate Zoe, so that just makes me like Nadia even more, especially because she’s funny. Potential downers: Zoe, who is a whinier reincarnation of Kara Thrace, doesn’t like her because she’s screwing Maddux. The show’s writing keeps scripting her as a Mean Girl picking on poor Zoe. Also: she hasn’t actually piloted the ship on-screen.
3. Jen Crane, who is the ship’s biologist. I like her because she’s a nerd, she encouraged her friend to get an abortion, she helped her friend find a doctor to get that abortion done safely, AND she’s portrayed as a character whose reproductive desires change logically in response to her life circumstances. She does want a kid now, because she’s with a man she loves and is established professionally. I think that’s a more complex attitude towards women’s right to choose than is typically seen in SF. Potential downers: She’s keeping a baby rabbit in defiance of mission protocol — she’s just supposed to experiment on the fetuses, then abort them. I’m not sure why she’s keeping this one, but I’m hoping she’s not going mad about babies.
4. Paula Morales, who is EASILY my favorite character. She’s like a fictional Jose Hernandez — she’s a pilot, the payload specialist, and the face of the mission, since she’s the one documenting it for her online class on Earth. Seriously? Even when the other crew members mock her, she insists on the importance of her job. In a nice parallel to real-life Latinos in space, her role as publicity/ human connection establisher is unacknowldged, even though it’s this human connection that helps keep them funded. Also, the growing relationship between her and Wass fits into her character arc. He’s a jerk, but she’s a kind person, so she’s willing to get to know him. Also, this is being handled in such a way that it doesn’t (yet?) detract from the gradual unveiling of her actual professional role. Also, if this romance actually materializes, it’ll nicely counteract what I’m seeing as the very two-by-two nature of dating in this series, since so far all the couples formed “match” racially. Potential downers: So far she’s the face of anti-abortion sentiment. Way to displace misogyny onto a marginalized, racialized, gendered body.
I like these four women a lot. They’re really the reason I keep watching. Now, I’d like to talk about Zoe.
Like I mentioned above, Zoe, like Kara Thrace, is blonde and has a destiny. However, unlike Starbuck, she’s only characterized in relation to the male characters, particular Maddux Donnor, with whom she’s got a romantic past. The first eight episodes of this series dealt with abortion (or at least keeping a baby) — this familiar not-America makes explicit the pressures facing a woman when she’s unfortunate enough to face an unwanted pregnancy. The issue of Zoe’s abortion — and the kind of options women have in regards to their reproductive freedome — acts as one of the foundational questions of the show. What I like about this is that it is surprisingly nuanced. While Zoe has dreams about crying babies, and had a traumatic abortion, she’s not presented as longing for a child. She regrets the kind of choice she made, but acknowledges that it was her choice. This is conveyed in an especially poignant scene in “Bacon,” where Zoe looks over images of a friend of hers who was also in the space program but had to leave due to an unplanned pregnancy. This friend’s daughter is now six; her mother is a happy, successful doctor. While Zoe is looking at the kid’s pictures, Zoe’s friend is looking at pictures Zoe has sent her of the spaceship. These images include Zoe demonstrating the effects of zero-gravity on hair, working with Jen in the botany lab, and in general having the kind of space adventure every admitted student to this program wanted to have. There’s a lot of regret in this scene, but no blame. There’s also a lot of happiness — while Zoe and her friend are both sad about the might-have-beens revealed in this picture exchange, neither seems to regret her day-to-day life. Also, Ajay delivers a surprisingly touching monologue making it clear that this was the best decision Zoe could have made. He says that her abortion freed both herself and her potential child to find lives in which they could both find happiness. If Zoe could get some NOT ABOUT MEN characterization, I’d really love her. As it is, the constant whining has made me nickname her Woey Zoe.
I think it’s because of its nuanced portrayal of abortion that this show is in danger of cancellation. It’s such a shame, too, since it’s one of the best series ABC has introduced in recent years. If you’d like to check it out before it joins that big cable line-up in the sky, it’s available on Hulu.