EPISODE REVIEW: Defying Gravity “Venus” (Episode 12)

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Our Exclusive-by-Default coverage of Defying Gravity continues with this, the show’s penultimate episode. To all our visitors from Canada and the UK, we bid you welcome.

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In 2047:

The Ascans are facing the first cut - of the 30 of them in the program, ten will not survive to the next round. We’re told that Zoe and a couple others are on the cusp, but Eve wants Wassenfelder on the mission for some undisclosed reason, which means someone else has to get bumped.

Zoe wakes up to see a big bald eagle hovering over her window. She goes in to the space center nervous, knowing she has little chance, and sure enough, she’s cut. She takes the news apparently quite well, and more-or-less brushes off everyone else’s condolences. Nadia, of course, was ranked #1. That night everyone (Excepting Zoe) heads to Major Toms to celebrate, but Nadia tells Donner that he’s no fun, and can go if he wants. He wants. He leaves - to Nadia’s obvious disdain - and then he and Zoe evidently knock spaceboots all knight long. The next morning, the eagle is back, so she kicks Donner out saying, essentially, “If I can’t be an astronaut, then I can’t stand to be around people who are.” He leaves. Evram and Claire finally hooked up the night before as well.

Several of the others show up to help her move, and lug all her crap to the train station. She’s got five hours to kill, and sees some people with a lot of tattoos, so she decides to get one. It’s a massive Eskimo eagle dealie, which she wants done all in one session, and so the tattoist gets started.

In 2052:

Nadia and Donner didn’t have sex. Neither did Paula and Wassenfelder, obviously. Both spent their nights chastely in each other’s arms. Zoe assumes otherwise (Naturally) and teases Donner about it. Jen, meanwhile, gets bitchier and bitchier, and is almost deliberately trying to drive Rollie away, and though she recognizes something is wrong with him, she doesn’t care what it is. In a rare non-pissy moment, she does tell Zoe that she would die if she had to live without her.

Nadia, meanwhile, is continuing to have hallucinations of herself with a baseball cap and a beard. In one of these, the doppelganger looks at her rather accusingly I think. Paula, obviously rattled, asks Wassenfelder if he believes in Miracles, and he says “Miracles are just the stuff we know with pieces missing” (Which fits Paula’s situation to a T) and the two of them get in a discussion of faith culminating with him saying that the most religious, faithful people he knows are physicists, who’s work convinces them there’s a higher power.

Claire, meanwhile, defies orders (Go, Claire! Yes! Finally someone in this show who does the right thing!) and tells Evram about the “Genome Changes” they’re experiencing. Evram is very upset by this, but they agree to conspiratorially keep watching the changes, as there’s nothing more they can do. Meanwhile, on earth, the English reporter dude is sensing a story, and he’s pushing hard to get details from AJ and Arnell.

The mission has a very short clock: they can’t stay on the surface for more than 20 minutes or else the caustic atmosphere will start to disintegrate the lander. Zoe’s mobility is limited to about 100 meters. They also don’t want people on earth to see “Gamma”, so they conspire (Groan) to fake part of the landing - one half of it will be real stuff, the other half will be stock footage of the team scuttling around in Arizona, gussied up with some special effects. (Extra groan!) Paula reacts not at all well to this, but rolls with it. She says a prayer for the mission.

The lander goes down, and they loose contact with the ship during entry (why?) and are getting a massive crosswind, and they land more than 200 meters from Gamma. They’re screwed. They resign themselves to collecting some rocks, but then Zoe hears a baby crying, and goes off following it, straight to Gamma on foot, but there’s no way in hell she can get there and back before the heat and pressure and acidic atmosphere kill them all…

To Be Continued…

OBSERVATIONS

Man, this was an unusually smarmy episode - a lot more smut-talk than usual, a lot more overt dialog using words like “Screwed” and stuff that weren’t allowed on TV just a couple years ago. It wasn’t terribly offensive, no worse than average dorm talk, but still surprising. This show was conceived as being aired on a pay-cable network, like HBO or Showtime, and not for a broadcast network. As a result, the series kind of skirts the line of what’s allowable for FCC standards. (Cable has lower standards than broadcast, since it’s theoretically harder for kids and people who don’t want to see/hear such things to do so accidentally.)

One half of our double cliffhanger isn’t too hard to figure: Arnell was one of the ones who made the cut, Zoe wasn’t. Beta wants Zoe on the mission for whatever reason, so he’s going to cause Arnell to have an accident in which he looses his leg. He’ll get cut, and Zoe - who we’ll discover was #21 on the list - will be back in.

Speaking of Arnell, you know damn well that he’s gonna’ crack and tell the British Reporter Dude exactly what’s going on. In fact, you know damn well that he’s going to do it in the next episode. My hunch is that when the reporter finds out what’s really going on, he, himself, will decide to sit on the story rather than broadcast it because he is, after all, a decent guy.

I noticed this weeks ago, but keep forgetting to mention it: Zoe’s apartment bears a striking resemblance to Starbuck’s apartment from the RDM Battlestar Galactica, except that the entrance is on the ground floor, rather than at the top of the stairs. I mean, it’s really close - it could actually be the same set, at least the living room area. I wonder if that actually *is* a set, or an actual location they found somewhere, since they re-used it as Leoben’s apartment during the New Caprica Occupation arc as well, even though it made little sense to do so.

The first words on Venus: “Mark the day with a footprint, a sep forward in the path of man.” Meh. After two episodes of agonizing over this, I expected better. They were making fun of Armstrong’s “One small step,” which seems unfair to me, that’s completely brilliant and even noble.

Paula’s clearly struggling with her faith, and her faith is obviously, on some level, there to cover up some deep trauma as a kid (Again, I’m voting on sexual abuse, but it could just be a neglectful mother). She seems to have hit some level of ambient pressure, however, in which she can both believe and doubt at the same time and still function. Wassenfelder appears to be instrumental in this, though he didn’t really do much. It’s obvious that their emerging relationship is supposed to symbolize a synthesis of the Religious and the Scientific, the Rational and Irrational, which is, I think, at root what this show is all about.

Paula’s prayer deserves comment here: “Lord, please protect our friends and colleagues, Zoe and Donner, in this difficult task. If we’re facing evil, protect us. If we’re facing You, protect us. All we are seeking is the truth, and in Your Name we serve. Amen.” Nice, short, to the point, and kind of touching.

For those who pooh-pooh this whole notion of science and religion getting along and playing nice, for those who bristle at the thought of a prayer in a space show, I’ll mention that the first thing Buzz Aldrin did, after they buttoned down from the lunar landing was to have a catholic communion.

The lander is named “Crossbow” - that’s so cool!

An “Auto-abort” feature seems like a really bad idea to me. If it’s a pins-and-needles landing (As, say, Apollo 11 was), you really don’t want something like that distracting the pilot at the last crucial moment. Added to which, an abort-to-space is probably more dangerous than a bungled landing. Why? Well, in the Apollo program, an abort-to-orbit would have put the LEM in an unpredictable orbit way out of schedule, with little or no spare fuel with which to dock with the CM.

There’s a couple scientific qualms with the landing as depicted, but on the whole I give them high marks for trying to do it accurately.
Though the rocket engines looked really cool, there’s really no reason you’d use rockets to land on the surface of Venus - the atmosphere is so amazingly dense (roughly equal to the water pressure of our oceans about half a mile down) that it would make more sense just to use ballast tanks or a balloon or something. The atmosphere is so dense that it would eat up most of the re-entry velocity without needing to use any fuel, and then, since it’s so dense, getting about on the surface would be a snap - the whole lander could ‘float’ in the air like a minisub, and it could move around just by using small propellers. The failing here is that the writers are treating this like a lunar or Martian landing, and in fact the environment is completely different, so those approaches aren’t appropriate, or even really feasible. I’m not ragging on them for it - they’re writers and producers after all, not scientists - I’m just pointing it out.

Another thing I’m fuzzy on is why they went through communications blackout, though this is less of an issue. On earth, when spacecraft re-enter the atmosphere, they’re going so fast that the atmosphere literally burns from the friction at such a high temperature that a field of plasma grows up around the spacecraft, and this plasma is dense enough to block radio waves. This usually lasts six or eight minutes, depending on the velocity and stuff. That said, however, the plasma is only on the *bottom* of the re-entry vehicle, so it’s blocking signals heading to or from the ground. Since the shuttle’s been in service, we’ve put up communications satellites that relay communication to re-entering spacecraft from above. In other words, flight control calls a satellite, which calls the shuttle, and the shuttle responds to the satellite, which calls flight, get it? Since the Antares is in orbit ABOVE the Crossbow as it’s going in, they shouldn’t loose communications at all.

I think. It’s possible that since the atmosphere is so dense, the plasma field might be considerably larger and enshroud the entire ship briefly, but that seems unlikely to me.

On the other hand, the JIM suit-like nature of Zoe’s V-suit makes perfect sense ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JIM_suit ) and they got that one bang on. Likewise, limited surface time would be a problem, owing to the extreme conditions, but 20 minutes does seem ludicrously short. (I mean, they’ve got heat shields to get them through entry, these would theoretically work on the surface too, and if not, hell, just make the outer hull out of ceramic, which handles high temperatures well and is impervious to most acids)

My final concern - the difficulty of liftoff - I’ll table until next week, but suffice to say the lander we saw would realistically be incapable of getting back to orbit. Just for fun, see if you guys can figure out why, and post your answers in the comments!

Very much looking forward to the finale next week. In the meantime, you can watch the episode online here http://www.megavideo.com/?d=UH5B8FKE , and as always, special thanks to astute republibot nwkeys01 for finding it for us!

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