Space Oddity: Steve Carell heads Space Force on Netflix.
Space dads
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - June 21, 2020 - 12:00am

The interesting thing about Space Force the Netflix comedy series about a new branch of the US military headed by Steve Carell is what it says about fathering today, and what it says about China’s relations with the world.

Frankly, it’s not cutting-edge satire. Rather, it’s the benign ensemble comedy you’d expect from the group behind The Office; in other words, warmer and fuzzier than another recent space comedy, Hugh Laurie’s Avenue 5 (about a commercial space flight gone adrift, made by the creators of Veep. Though neither space comedy reaches the operatic heights of cruelty and savage wit that Veep did).

Space Force stars Carell as General Mark Naird, head of the newly created space branch, whose main mission is to “put boots on the moon by 2024.” Carell plays against type a bit as a tightly wound general who only occasionally displays the farcical instincts of Michael in The Office, or other rubbery-faced roles he’s known for. We learn that his wife (Lisa Kudrow) is in jail for 40 years for some undisclosed crime, and so, in addition to assembling a credible moonshot in record time, he has to raise his teenage daughter (an eye-rolling Diana Silvers) alone.

These are the threads that, along with Carell’s comic gifts and a huge amount of support from John Malkovich as space scientist Adrian Mallory, carry the show along. You’d think a series that ostensibly lampoons the existence of a “space force” — the actual creation of which was loudly trumpeted by the current American president — would pack a bit more bite. It doesn’t; content-wise, the satire is as light as the Space Force astronauts, floating in orbit. But show creators Carell and Greg Daniels seem more interested in bringing people together (admirable), rather than dividing Americans even further. The show doesn’t take cheap swipes at the current Oval Office occupier, other than a few “nasty tweet” references, and the Space Force itself includes all ethnicities (Tawny Newsome and Jimmy O. Yang are particularly good) plus a very annoying press guy played by Ben Schwartz who lowers our perception of millennials even lower.

The through line of fatherhood is basically about Naird not making time for his daughter once they’ve relocated to the Wild Horse, Colorado Space Force facility. He’s always being called away to fix space emergencies, leaving her to roll her eyes and complain, which she does often. And it allows an interesting angle about his relationship with Kudrow (good, as always) who’s made peace with her long-term confinement and urges Mark to consider an “open relationship,” because she wishes to pursue one while in lockup. Daughter Erin, meanwhile, is the one who doesn’t seem too cool about most things in her life, including the idea that her parents have occasional conjugal visits. So creative fathering is a recurring theme here.

It all comes to a head when Erin makes some truly lame-brained decisions and needs to be rescued by her papa in a military helicopter: Dad Ex Machina. Happy Father’s Day!

Mark isn’t the only space dad in pop cultural history, of course. There’s Professor John Robinson, who carries his family on a mission to Alpha Centauri in TV’s Lost in Space (loosely based on Swiss Family Robinson). He’s the kind of genial, problem-solving dad of ’60s mythology, calm but loving, fair and logical — until treacherous Dr. Smith shows up to create havoc every episode.

Then there’s Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, leaving earth to retrieve his past or find his daughter, or something, by venturing through a black hole; he’s a concerned dad, a little more facially revved-up than the typical laid-back McConaughey character. There’s Ryan Gosling as a stone-faced Neil Armstrong in First Man, paying tribute to his lost daughter on the moon (in space, no one can hear you cry). Then we’ve got the archetypal science-loving dad played by David Morse in Contact, guiding Jodie Foster to locate alien life; the tough dad played by Bruce Willis in Armageddon, trying to whip potential son-in-law Ben Affleck into shape until he's worthy of daughter Liv Tyler (a popular dad trope); and the truly weird, warped dad played by Tommy Lee Jones whom Brad Pitt tries to rescue in Ad Astra.

In short, space dads are out there. Way out there.

The other theme in Space Force, which emerges toward the final episodes, is that China is a bullying superpower that can’t be trusted, and this would seem like mere US jingoism and flag-waving if the show didn’t indirectly reference the Spratlys dispute in the South China Sea, albeit played out on the surface of the moon. After some early shenanigans with a US satellite, China rudely plants its foot and scientific base on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility crater — and demands that the late-arriving US Space Force find some other place to set up shop. This leads to fuming and counter-plotting and some funny moments involving pranks on the lunar surface. But it definitely paints a picture of US-Sino relations that have gone sour. (Russians also get predictable jabs about being largely shady.) The season ends with a twist involving pranks gone too far, pointing toward a realization that working together might be necessary for humans to survive, even on another floating rock in space.

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