“Space Station 76”
Directed by Jack Plotnick
Starring Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, Marisa Coughlan, Jerry O’Connell, Kylie Rogers
Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi
The 1970s were an age of looking towards the stars. From Star Wars to Star Trek, it was a decade of endless possibilities, a time that saw instant dinners, laser weaponry and hovercrafts around every corner. It witnessed the culmination of the space race, the end of the Vietnam War, and the birth of a new unchartered epoch in the suburban trenches of Americana. Mimicking the uneasy blend of conservatism and forward-looking gung-ho-manship that defined the generation, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Jack Plotnick has made Space Station 76 a soapy space opera; a smartly satirical smoothie of 70s manifest destiny – ripe with the impractical hopes of intergalactic expansionism – cut with the tedium of suburban ennui.
At the forefront of this final frontier are an unlikely cast of characters, each representative of the many uncertainties and insecurities of the era. There’s the boredom weary housewife, Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who spends her days slurping down Prosacs, “programing” the crew’s meal du jour, and occasionally sleeping around with Steve (Jerry O’Connell). When she’s not confessing her feelings to the on-board robotic psychiatrist, Dr. Bot – whose toy-sized presence and pre-programed wisdoms are always accompanied by fits of laughter – she mopes and gossips. An icon of post-50s feminine guile, her boozy, unscrupulous mannerisms are as sardonically iconic as her down-on-his-luck everyman husband, Ted, played by Matt Bomer.
Having never quite caught a break, and now sporting a clunky robotic arm – a perfectly retro-futuristic brand of low-budget prop – Ted is haunted by his lack of accomplishments, caught in a cycle of self-destructive lethargy lead by his penchant for illegal horticulture and unsure of his place in the world (er, universe). His emotional arc reflects the pathos of those who nervously straddled The Draft, haunted by the withering courage of a fresh faced soldier never to see a day in combat. He’s shaken but for all the wrong reasons.
Enter new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler) who is at her core representative of the shifting winds of the feminism movement, a firmly competent and confident substitute for a traditionally male role. Striking up an affectionate relationship with Ted’s daughter Sunshine (Kylie Rogers, who looks adorable in a nerdtastic pair of specs,) long-gone sparks of tenderness begin to rekindle the purpose in Ted’s life.
Jessica’s maternal instincts juxtaposed against her inhospitable womb is an example of the tragic irony that Plotnick hits on again and again, to such great effect. But it’s Patrick Wilson, who plays Captain Glenn with startling sensitivity, that is the most outstanding of the bunch and the pinnacle of Plotnick’s satirical heights. As the gruff but gay commander, Glenn’s sexuality is a thing of great shame, something he keeps deeply closeted. Glenn’s stern persona is encapsulated in Wilson’s patriarchal mustache, a metaphorical affront to shield others from the shame he buries, a mask to disguise his bleeding soul. The arrival of Jessica, who doggedly seeks the true reason behind Glenn’s last co-pilot (and secret lover’s) sudden reassignment, sets him on a crash course with his own inner demons…and some asteroids.
The stocky sets, “pew pew” sound design and clunky CGI – that look like crafted on a circa 1976 computer – are as kitschy as they come but the human relationships they serve to frame always feel universal and timeless. Through satire, Plotnick has stumbled upon some brave new world. Bold and esoteric, he’s shown that one doesn’t need to look at the future from behind the jaded lens of an iPhone 5, that things may well be all the more interesting if we rewind the clock and only then begin to look forward.