Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review of Odyssey 5

I am enjoying re-watching the Showtime cable TV series Odyssey 5.

Here’s what you would see if you were a waitress in a dumpy diner in Houston, Texas: Around a booth are gathered five dissimilar people: A snobby atheist British scientist with a sports car—what’s he doing here? A young black TV anchorperson—she’s a churchgoing stable wife and mother. A middle-aged fighter pilot turned NASA mission commander, along with his 17-year old son. A blond “girl next door” type, also from the air force, who is now a NASA shuttle crewmember—she has a Texas senator for a father.

That senator, during the next five years, will betray her mother and be involved in unethical behavior. She knows this future because she’s been there—all five in that booth have secretly traveled through time. Through alien science, their consciousness has been downloaded into their previous bodies. So the boy, although now suffering through high school, is really 23, and he’s an astronaut too.

When the waitress comes over to re-fill their coffee she comments, “How come you folks always clam up when I come by?” …It’s because they are grappling with a secret: They were—will be—five years from now, the last surviving humans, looking down from the space shuttle Odyssey, as the entire earth is destroyed. Now they have five years to determine who or what caused the apocalypse—except they are already disturbing the “time line,” so maybe they are speeding up the disaster. Still, they have to try.

Part of what enchants me is how dissimilar the five people are: As the commander says in the booth, they would never “put up with each other” together at a diner in real life. But here they are.

For my part, I am reminded of the story of a boy from remote rural Quebec, come here to the city: He goes around the neighborhood elated, saying hello and conversing with every English speaker he can find. He had thought “the English” don’t like Frenchmen, and the novelty of finding this wasn’t true took a long time to wear off, a time when he went around with a huge smile. Like that boy, I’m still not used to different classes of people liking each other. So I smile: It’s so charming how the five cooperate.

From the DVD collection commentary I heard that although the producers were under pressure to make each episode have a standard “beginning middle end” they nevertheless managed to make it somewhat of a serial. But a series requiring episodes-in-order was still rare back then; (See my historical essay Death of Buffy, archived January 2012) today, according to the commentary, they would have made it more of a serial. Anyways, it worked well enough for me.

On the Internet, I see how the—to put it politely—‘“uninformed” brigade’ don’t like the inclusion of somewhat self-contained episodes, claiming the show had therefore an X-files feeling. Not to me. And I saw every episode of the first five seasons of the X-Files. Besides, as web novelist John Scalzi noted for his “episodes” in The Human Division, if every story is “on plot” then it’s annoying, like constantly hammering a nail.

Others in the uninformed brigade are forgetting, or perhaps they never knew, how the original TV commercials always referred to the show as “Odyssey 5 uncut”: my DVD box says “unrated.” And so these folks, perhaps having a self-righteous religious bent, are greatly upset by how the DVD collection has swear words. Maybe they forget the show was intended for cable, like today’s Game of Thrones, to be shown only to those who request it, only after the kids are safe in bed, never meant for family viewing. Under heaven, there is a time and purpose for cable.

I myself disagree with swearing on TV, and in fact I once wrote an essay on TV morality (Morality, Boys and Hollywood, archived July 2013) but for Odyssey 5 I got used to it, largely because the swearing exquisitely portrays the character of the mission commander. He may go into outer space, but in own his headspace he’s not a white-collar academic, not a gentle scientist—he’s a “pilot”: blunt, realistic, and no bullshit allowed. (When an old colleague asks, “Are you humoring me, Chuck?” His reply is, “When have you known me to humor anyone?) He’s not impulsive, but he has no use for “god damn” —said as two biting words— indecision. Now, back on earth, he keeps the team focused and on the move.

Back when Odyssey 5 was made, 2001, people would tell you about a new sci-fi series or movie in one breath, and in the very next breath tell you how worthy the special effects were. They still do. As best I recall, this trend of equating the worth of a sci-fi show to the worth of its FX started with Star Wars. It’s a trend I still don’t like. What I like about O-5 is how it takes place in the present day, with few effects. No fire breathing dragons, flashy ray guns or rippling space portals. Of course not: Whatever is/was hidden from the crew and the rest of the earth, over the next five years, will not give away its position with bells and whistles.

If this sci-fi does not live or die by FX, then by what? Drama. The casting is perfect. There are no square-jawed saintly astronauts, (the commander would be the first to say, “I’m sure as hell no saint”) only flawed people who argue and joke and screw up. Drama. And fine ensemble acting, since, as the commentary says, they cannot publicly, by day, go around in a large group while doing their investigations, although they can work together at night or go meet at someone’s home.

I had to chuckle at the commander wearing his ball cap sideways and chewing gum like an idiot so he could pretend to be the journalist’s cameraman. And I liked a scene where the NASA commander and the scientist, as themselves, walk into an air-conditioned building and talk to a man in a business suit while their white shirts are hanging out. I got it: Of course! Houston is near Mexico—it’s hot! How nice to see a show that for once isn’t set in L.A. or New York.

Another criticism by the uninformed brigade was that “time travel to fix things” has been done before. But I can’t agree with them, not unless I lower the bar to include anything remotely involving time travel, such as the Back to the Future films. No, Odyssey 5 is it’s own breed of cat. Part of what makes it different is—they know their own future. When your brother is about to screw up? Maybe this time you stop him. That cute date you said “no” to? Why not say yes? And all this sounds trivial next to the worst future of all: The TV journalist knows her little boy is going to die of cancer… but her husband doesn’t believe her. He won’t let her change the boy’s fate. Still, she has to try.

The old pilot, Chuck (as in Chuck Yeager) Taggart is played by Peter Weller. Weller’s father, it turns out, was a pilot. Maybe that helped Weller’s research: I can’t imagine him ever performing a better role—he’s truly that good. I like how Taggart’s wife is a realistic air force wife, not some long legged Hollywood model. I like how Taggart surprises his other son by hugging him instead of shaking hands—because he knows.

The series was still getting good ratings when it was canceled. (Link) It seems Showtime wanted to get away from sci-fi. Too bad. If you see O-5, you should ideally skip the last ten minutes of the very last episode because it has some “What the—?” game changing cliffhangers. (Or else do like me: I just pretend that very last part, like the first Star Trek movie, never happened) This time in my viewing, I did something I’m really pleased with: I enjoyed skipping episode 12, The Trouble With Harry, and then watching it last. It has some fun, offers a resolution to the mission, (no cliff hanger!) and asks everyone a meaning-of-life question at the end.

It’s been nearly a decade since I had last watched my DVD collection; in another decade I know I will dust it off and appreciate it again.

Sean Crawford

~I've included my blog label "feminism" because, with the fate of the world at stake, the characters  dare not enter a shared illusion of the women time travellers being less competent, not like before "woman's liberation," although they—at least the scientist—may act as if other girls are less equal.

~The link above explains why Angel was canceled: Wow. I always thought it ended too soon. As for why Firefly got canceled (Link to my buddy Blair’s review) I just don’t know what to believe. I think some mysteries, like why the third season of Star Trek is so bad, are forever beyond mortal ken. (A local reporter once listed his 20 favorite ST episodes: none of them were from the third season)

~Given that in “the business” the actors are often referred to as merely “the talent,” because they have zero film education, it was a delightful change from other DVD features to hear the long pilot-episode commentary with Peter Weller sounding like himself: a director and college professor with an excellent vocabulary. (Bigger than mine) He easily holds up his end of the conversation with producer-writer Manny Cotto.


  1. Full disclosure: The above comment is my own.

    A fellow writer has been having trouble trying to comment here, and then I had trouble trying to comment on Barbara Sullivan's Solace blog, so I thought I'd better try to comment from out of town (not as site administrator) and see whether I could manage to comment on my site.

    It took me a couple tries. Google-blogspot no longer has you type what you see in a box, but instead click on a series of photographs to abstract (verb) which belong together.

    This is to defeat search-and-spam mindless robot web crawlers.