‘Space Force’: What could have been ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is instead ‘McHale’s Navy’
A stoic General Naird (Steve Carell) with Ben Schwartz.

What could be hipper than a satirical treatment of Trump’s latest boondoggle, the Space Force? And who better to do it than the team that brought us The Office, a funny and occasionally fatal skewering of the corporate ethos, originally conceived by that grandmaster of roasting Hollywood, Ricky Gervais?

Would that that had happened. Instead, Netflix’s Space Force, co-created by The Office showrunner Greg Daniels and star Steve Carell, is a tepid, often unfunny, not skewering or lambasting but often romanticizing of what the U.S. is doing in space. The show wants to hold onto the wonder of the scientific exploration of space. But the reality is instead that the U.S. vision is one of a dangerous, expensive conquest which could add yet another threat to the future of this planet. This is not Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s the Dark Star. And the Pentagon phrase the series uses to describe the project is the bellicose “Boots on the moon.”

Trump may be a waddling, portly Darth Vader who would fall down (and couldn’t get up!) if he tried to wield a laser sword. But behind him is the full might of the Pentagon and especially the powerful U.S. arms industry which can’t wait to feast once again at the public trough this project has opened.

The Space Force, with perhaps a $25-billion-dollar price tag over the first five years, is described by the administration as a project that will allow the U.S. to achieve full-force dominance, controlling Earth by deciding who can and can’t leave the planet and allowing the U.S. to mine the moon and possibly Mars. It is claimed this mission could be “the largest industrial project in human history” with space no longer, as in previous treaties, being declared a global commons but rather a domain, as Trump says “that belongs to us.”

The Space Force, with its inherent dangers to this planet in launching nuclear-powered ships into the heavens, is the U.S. response to China’s Belt and Road or New Silk Road. That project, linking Asia to Europe—which, yes, might indebt other countries to China and which may involve destructive ecological components such as dams—would also raise the living standards of millions. The U.S. counter-proposal in the form of the Space Force, which Japan is already enlisting under, involves starting a costly arms race, and falls into what Giovanni Arrighi calls an international,  Mafia-style protection racket: “Pay up and join us as junior partner or we will declare you an enemy and come with force against you.”

The show, which features exterior shots of the Pentagon, suggesting it was done with the complicity of the military, enlists Carell as General Mark Naird (think Nerd), the socially challenged, partially hard-edged and partially decent head of the force. Carell’s character in The Office was somewhat similar, a boss who wanted to be liked, but there he was surrounded by other characters who often held him up to deserved ridicule. This does not happen here where great pains are taken to preserve Naird’s decency in the chaos that surrounds him, all of which makes the show less funny. It could have been Dr. Strangelove. Instead, it hews closer to a slightly more sophisticated McHale’s Navy.

Such pulling punches in the series is an indication of the presence and pressure of the Pentagon and its chilling effect on American culture. There are some brilliant asides. Naird defends the efficiency of the U.S. Post Office, and the project’s chief scientist Dr. Mallory (John Malkovich) tells him the Post Office is now defunct. “Where do you think they got the money for this project?” he adds.

Naird confronting a Chinese general (Bruce Locke on screen as General Tsenjun).

But mostly the show cozies to the Pentagon-arms industry line. The project must accelerate because first India and then China threaten to surpass it. This is one of the rationales for the Space Force—a lie because China and Russia are both far behind and neither has the desire nor the economic power to compete with the U.S. in space, though if pushed, they must. Naird, who says in response to these countries launching, “Everybody treats us like a doormat,” must by the end of season one counter an aggressive Chinese move to claim a section of the moon that will keep the U.S. from landing its spaceship.

There is a nice budding relationship between the Chinese-American nerd scientist (Silicon Valley’s always reliably funny Jimmy O. Yang) and a female African-American hipster pilot who becomes an astronaut. The relationship develops while she is in space and he is in the control room. This interplanetary “social distancing” accounts for some of the better moments of the series.

They are not enough to save it, however. The show, unfortunately, fits too much like a glove into what the latest component of what President and General Eisenhower warned was a grave threat to American democracy: the military-industrial-entertainment complex.

Last Resort and the problems of resistance

Andre Braugher’s refusenik ship commander in ‘Last Resort’ (with Robert Patrick, left).

Near the end of the first season of Space Force, General Naird disobeys a direct order and refuses to bomb the Chinese mission on the moon. This unlikely scenario was the basis for a golden oldie, a 2012 show which defied the Pentagon as its nuclear sub commander (the very good Andre Braugher) did the same, refusing a direct order of the president to nuke Pakistan.

The show, now available in the U.S. on Crackle and worldwide on Amazon, was a first cut against the 9/11 conservative consensus. It was broadcast on ABC, which had a predominantly female audience and was less attuned to the kind of militant, largely male, police bands on CBS (C.S.I., Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods, etc.) or NBC (the Law and Order franchise). ABC had tried five years earlier to buck the consensus with Traveler, a show about grad students falsely accused as terrorists, a kind of Fugitive with these Richard Kimbles fleeing Homeland Security. That show was almost immediately pulled, barely lasting eight episodes.

With Last Resort, the network was back again, this time with the showrunner Shawn Ryan of The Shield, a Breaking Bad cop show which, though it centered on the police, did illustrate the innate violence and corruption of the force. On this go-round, though, the lead character is a person of integrity who opposes a corrupt system embodied by the president of the U.S., a kind of George W. Bush anti-Muslim, with a trigger finger whose nuking of Pakistan replicates Bush’s “Shock and Awe” Iraq invasion.

With the ship now holed up on an island in the Pacific, some crew members oppose the commander’s decision and threaten mutiny as the U.S. sends B1 bombers against him. The commander threatens to use the ship’s weapons against his own air force and navy and sets up a 200-mile, no-go border zone, as back home in Washington the commander’s wife allies with an arms developer to investigate and expose the president.

The show tanked and was canceled after 13 episodes: The network allowed the showrunners to wind up the series in a finale. It was claimed the problem was that a military drama, even one with a mixed male and female cast, did not appeal to an ABC Thursday otherwise female-centered lineup built around Grey’s Anatomy and its “Doctor Dreamy.”

But there is also every reason to believe that the show, which cast aspersions on the invasion of Iraq and featured a lawbreaker president, was simply too far out of the liberal consensus. Its point of view was too sharply anti-Pentagon, military and defense industry establishment. Traveler and Last Resort are examples of shows that fall outside the purview of the Pentagon. These shows, unlike the more soppy Space Force with its timid critique, are quickly annihilated.

After its demise, Last Resort was broadcast in Australia, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand, the countries that along with the U.S. constitute the “Five Eyes” intelligence network. Hopefully, the show’s social criticism registered and helped at least prompt some questioning of that enterprise, yet another aspect of the military-industrial complex.


CONTRIBUTOR

Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is a television, film, and culture critic. His criticism appears in Morning Star, People’s World; Culture Matters, Crime Fiction Lover, and is on the Pacifica Network in the U.S., and on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris. His books include Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and his novel Left of Eden about the Hollywood Blacklist. Broe taught in the Master’s Program in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.

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