Paper models, photos and musings of a Paper Kosmonaut

18 May 2018

Missions: a missed opportunity

This is a little rant about a TV series I saw the 1st episode of yesterday on BBC4.

Let’s start with saying I love science fiction. It can’t be weird enough. I love Lafferty, Asimov, Bradbury, Niven, Laumer, (okay, it’s all old stuff.) I also love realistic SF a lot. I think films like “Moon” and “Ex Machina” are excellent examples of good realistic SF. So I was excited to be able to see the start of a new SF series on BBC4, the French series called “Missions”.
It tells the story of a Mars expedition going wrong and weird. In a preview people spoke of elements of “Lost” and “Alien”. Okay, sounds interesting, let’s go for it. Below you can read the rest of my review.

The Eagle Transporter Ulysse 01 on Mars © OCS City
From the start there were things that raised my eyebrow and made me cringe a little. If you try to make an SF drama series which plays in this time or in the near future, you have to have your facts right. And you should make it believable. Lots of SF fans also like spaceflight. So when you incorporate an actual space mission, one that really took place, it should be correct or at least factual. And there it all goes wrong already.

The series start with a flashback to 1967, with Soyuz 1 orbiting the Earth, Vladimir Komarov on board. All external shots are CGI, of course. Why then not depict the Soyuz in its right way?
First, in reality, Soyuz 1 suffered from a severe lack of power because its solar panels didn’t deploy. The Soyuz seen in the opening scene had both its solar panels fully deployed. Big mistake. Also very stupid. It was one of the big problems of the flight and well described in all the stories. Besides, the spacecraft shown looks like a modern Soyuz and not the first version which had an entirely different (and quite notable) docking system.
Secondly, upon re-entry, you see the capsule making its fiery descent zooming through the upper atmosphere. Inside the capsule, Komarov frantically pushes buttons and yells he cannot deploy his parachute. What? Now? during this phase of the re-entry? Come on, give me a break! The capsule now still is going mach 20 or thereabout. And the outside is still a burning ball of plasma. Not really the time to think about opening a 'chute. A rookie writer's error? No, this is just plain stupid. It just would have taken an extra couple of seconds and two, maybe three shots more to get this narrative right.

Then, we cut to a room on earth in the here and now. It is an empty room with just a table and two chairs. A woman is tempting a girl to not eat a marshmallow before she returns. The woman gets into the room next door with a see-through mirror where she and another person is observing the girl’s actions. At a list which is in the woman's hand, we can see the girl is the umpteenth in a long row of kids performing in this session. Some ate the marshmallow, some didn’t. So, it is supposed to be a ‘psychological test’. Not very elaborate or even a highly intelligent one. Just a simple, basic test a freshman at university might come up with. Or one you could do with a crow or a dog for that matter. Not something you see a professional psychologist do. Alright. I will buy it for now, for the sake of the story.

Later that day, that same woman is in her bedroom, watching the TV. A news channel shows the breaking story of an airplane crash, killing one of the astronauts for a Mars mission, due to depart in 10 days.
The woman killed in the crash was supposed to be the crew psychologist. The voice-over continues to say that there is not yet a replacement for this person.
What? No back-up crew? For such an important mission? Every space mission has a back-up crew available at any time. This mistake is, again, just plain stupid and completely unrealistic.

Next shot is two people, naked, having sex. It is the female ‘psychologist’ we just saw in her bedroom. Now she is on the spaceship. In space. Having sex. So, ten days after that news story on tv, she was launched with this crew that trained probably years for this mission. She is the new crew shrink. Now, if you want to have someone introduced in a story as a brilliant psychologist, capable and able to join a Mars mission with only ten days of training, you shouldn’t introduce her with a test like that one with the girl and the marshmallow. There are hundreds of ways you can show her having superb skills as a psychologist. At least they could have shown her teaching a class at university or studying a complex case. For me, this really was the most irritating goof in this episode. It immediately made her unbelievable.

But that is not all. During the first shots on board of the spaceship, it already is clear the shrink is having an affair with the commander of the mission. His wife is also on board but the commander says their marriage is deteriorating. (Hmmm.... why should that be?) All in all, a good start for a crew confined to small living quarters in a spaceship for two or so years. The commander’s wife, like her husband, a veteran astronaut, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The commander fell out with his second in command and they don’t speak any more. Other crew members are close to catatonic or suffering from a napoleon complex. All in all, your typical French astronaut crew. (That is a joke, okay?) But really, no one sane would send a team like this up into space for such a mission. They all would have been disqualified early in the selection process. Soon it is apparent there is no discipline on board. Especially with such an important and experimental ‘first’ mission to another planet, one would choose a crew that is stable, disciplined and tight. Let’s just say this chaos is nice for intrigues and it makes the mission more soap-y and exciting for the viewers. But it is totally unrealistic. I would go with this if this was a story in the further future, with bored corporate spacecorp employees on the next boring trip to Xg-577 in the Cygnus system, but not with an near-future ESA mission.

The spacecraft they use is interesting and in some ways even plausible. It is a long open truss structure that obviously is constructed in space. In the middle there is a rotating section to provide the crew with an artificial gravity. That is not only good for a spaceflight lasting years, but also has a practical use for being able to film all on-board scenes here on Earth. There is a big corporate logo on the outside, and that’s okay. But next to it is a logo looking like the iconic ESA logo but spelled ASE with an 'a' in a blue circle. which makes it all look very stupid again. The french might use ASE internally but look at their Ariane rockets. It spells ESA. It is a standardised European logo and ASE is never used as a logo, for Pete's sake. Why not keep it real?

Then, finally when they reach Mars after almost one year, they find out they were overtaken by an American mission that used a nuclear propulsion system. Launched three weeks ago. That is hardly possible. even in twenty years the US won’t have nuclear propulsion. But okay. That's science fiction. And I am willing to go with that. Dream on, USA.

So, it is time to descend with the lander. This lander apparently took a lot of inspiration from the Space:1999 Eagle transporters. This probably might have been a big inspiration in more ways, also because of the affairs going on with the crew members. The lander is attached to one of the 2 rotating arms of the big spaceship. Nice to look at but completely impractical in real life. When undocking from a rotating arm, the lander would still keep on rotating. In the series, it just ‘jumps forward. Orbital mechanics going wrong. Stupid. Silly. Battlestar Galactica 1979 stuff. In reality such a lander would have been attached to the central beam of the spaceship to make docking and undocking easier. This also would rule out this extra plane of movement the lander is in at the roating arm. Also, no fuel necessary to stop any unwanted rotating motions.

In the process of undocking, the lander doesn’t detach properly. Of course not. Because it was attached at the end of a rotating arm. Stupid! While the flight computer's descent mode already is starting up, the crew panics. This problem will tear up the spaceship. So of course, the commander turns around and asks for a volunteer to go outside to fix it. No one volunteers. So the commander himself gets out of the airlock (leaving it open) to fix it on the outside by using a switch box practically located next to the docking tube on top of the lander. We follow all of this in more or less real time, so there are no significant time jumps.
Going outside, the commander
of course doesn't take time to tether himself to the lander, although the crew radioes him to do just that. But, why should he? This is, of course, an emergency and then you should not heed all precautions to prevent making it even worse. Click does the switch. Boink does the docking tube against the astronaut. And there goes the commander, tumbling into space. Too late to try and rescue him. The lander already falls down to the surface (orbital mechanics gone wrong). The airlock, people, The f#*@ing airlock is still open. This really is getting irritating. This were too much errors for me to still make it entertaining.

Okay, there are supposed to be weird and supernatural things going on at Mars later on in the show. Like the crew meeting Vladimir Komarov. On Mars. 50 years after he plummeted to his death. But that’s a thing I really can live with. That is the fiction part of the story. Even that dysfunctional, promiscuous and neurotic French crew is all right for that matter. It’s the science facts that they got wrong that puts me off.
This first episode already pissed me off enough to abandon ship.



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