Space Station Liberty

The opening shot of this new TV drama is a close up of the side of a woman's face; she is wearing a striking earring of an abstract design. The shot stays in close; we hear champaigne corks popping, conversation: it is a party, and a TV announces a special about the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. We then hear dialogue: "He's on his way now. Back from Space Station Liberty."

Then we cut, a la Kubrick's 2001, to a space station that looks remarkably like the woman's earing. A shuttle leaves, inside it in a airline cabin-esque interior a clean cut young man is talking to an older man in an Air Force uniform. "I'm John Thorpe, and I'm going home," he says, with a big smile, "back to Chicago." In minutes the shuttle appraoches the Chicago skyline; the Lake is there, the Sears Tower is there; but so too is another skyscraper next door towering over it; apparently Frank Lloyd Wright's fevered mile-high dream has come to life.

Welcome to America, 1995. But not the 1995 we know; instead, this is what the America of 1945 dreamed it would be 50 years hence, flush from the victory of WWII. When John returns to the party, reuniting with his fiance (Diana, a fresh-faced girl from Wisconsin--the one with the earring), we explore the differences through the conceit of a TV historical retrospective, that covers the years 1945-1995. The characters are at a party (apparently for John), watching it, commenting on it. We pick the show within a show up at the end of the war. America and its allies are triumphant. China is not lost to the communists; it enthusiastically embraces American culture and economics. Scenes are shown that look like typical New England pastorals; churches, schools, football games--only the people are Chinese. The cold war starts up, belatedly, with a now encircled Soviet Union sinking into dogma. Apparently, its philosophy holds little charm outside of its borders; the whole world seems to be Americanizing. The fifties bring giant advances in technology-- it seems bigger really is better, and skyscrapers in New York, Chicago, and other cities seem to just keep growing, capped off by Frank Lloyd Wright's mile-high masterpiece in Chicago (but even now, plans are afoot to top it in San Francisco and New York). In the sixties, rocketry advances; giant rockets hurtle themselves into space, carrying men to the moon, the Mars, Venus, and the outer planets. Richard Nixon, as President in the late seventies, is shown christening the first manned flight to Saturn. Colonies spring up in orbit, and on the moon and Mars. The cold war is present, but the outcome never seems to be in doubt. There is a space race, and although the USSR's acheivements far surpass anything in our world, the USA clearly surpasses them. NATO troops help both the Hungarian and Czech revolutions break free of Soviet control. Finally, in the late eighties, right on schedule, a beleagered and isolated USSR run by Gorbachov collapses under its own weight and tries to adopt capitalism. Finally, the cold war is over--every aspect of America; politics, science, culture, even economics (no trade deficit in this world; America is still a creditor nation) strides the globe triumphantly. Yet I found these revelations profoundly chilling: I was left with a sense that it was all too easy, and that something about that fact had caused things to go badly awry. Now, on the verge of the new millenium, America was poised to embark on its grandest venture of all: the colonization of a neighboring start system. The first step to the United States in space, to be launched January 1, 2000. The retrospective show within a show ends; everyone turns to John and raises their glasses in tribute. "Oh John, " his fiance Donna gasps, "you're one of the people who's making it happen." The rest of the room, warm, friendly smiles, cheers. For John is one of the engineers designing the colony ship, being build at Space Station Liberty.

Everything, from the clothes and haircuts to the attitudes, reflects the easy confidence and bizarre wholesomeness of the American fifties. None of the familiar social movements have happened; socially, America seems stuck in a bizarre stasis, while technology and foreign policy race ahead. There were no beatniks or JD's in the fifties; no hippies or marches or Woodstock in the sixties; no civil rights movement, no sexual revolution, no women's lib, no disco. Big band music competes with fifties style rock on the radio; teenagers still get malts and go to sock hops. Americans still drive huge cadillacs with fins; some are starting to travel by personal helicopter.

But America is still strangely recognizable. Dan Rather reads the news. Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson still star in movies. David Hasselhoff is still in Baywatch, and still a popular singer in Germany (giving us that piece of info was a particulary deft gag). Bob Dole still criticizes movies for excessive violence. The juxtaposition of familar media figures over alien social mores is a chillingly effective way of making the show feel real. And there are modern problems. AIDS exists (its victims are even more stigmatized then in the real world). There are still low-intensity conflicts in Latin America, continously involving US troops.

Chicago itself seems to have almost no African-American residents (really bizarre to those familiar with it; I grew up in nearby Rockford and was an frequent visitor as a teenager). There are hints that the great post-war migration of African-Americans from the South to the Industrial North never happened, and even that a Malcom X-like leader as established a semi-autonomous homeland (analagous to an Indian reservation) covering parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee). Tellingly, our attension is distracted by the arrival of more champagne during this part of the TV retrospective. It seems a fascinating promisary note.

On a human scale, the show centers around John and his fiance Diana Reeve (yes, the reference is intentional--the actress, Kendra Thompkins, resembles the legendary Donna Reed uncannily), and their friends and families. The people involved seem designed to allow the show to explore the implications of the culture. John, a rocket scientist, a represenative of a technological elite even more powerful than the one in "real" America. His father William is a career diplomat; he brings the American view of the world to the heartland. Diana is a promising young chemist who, like most of the other women in the show, is preparing to give up her career to be a good wife and mother; still there are hints she is a somewhat unorthodox woman for the time. Her father, Samuel Reeve, is a dentist who seems to be a sort of symbol of the American middle class. And John's best friend, Eric, is a writer of (for this America) disturbing fiction; he is considered to be sort of a mildly bad influence on John. His outward signs of difference are limited to a preference for black sweaters and a relationship with a Japanese woman (race-mixing seems to be a no-no). He comes off as a sort of milk-drinking proto-beatnik. Still, his earnest conversations with John raise doubts in John's mind about his life-long assumptions, and establish him as a voice of dissent in a sea of self-assurance.

This show is filled with scenes that seem to comment on America, but leave us unsure what to really think. One of my favorite moments is how the show uses Joan's father's practice of dentistry as a sort of symbol for what America thinks of itself. While at dinner, Mr. Reeve and John have a conversation about John's career. Mr. Reeve starts to explain why he loves dentistry, especially American denistry ("we pioneered it," he says) in an almost religious fervor.

"You see, John, dentistry used to be a painful process. Patients would drink whiskey to numb the pain. Now, when I have a patient properly treated with Novacain and Nitrus Oxide, listening to Beethoven on headphones or watching TV on the special glasses, I can honestly ask him: "how is your comfort level?" Not, "does this hurt?", but "how comfortable are you?". The pain is gone; American knowhow and administration got rid of it. We've made our patients comfortable, just like they're at home watching TV with their families. We took a process nature decreed to cause suffering, and we took the process out of nature and the suffering out of the process."

Mr. Reeve settles back in his chair while the dutiful housewife Mrs. Reeve looks on with obvious admiration and love for her husband in her eyes.

This show will sink or swim on two things: the unique world it has created, and the believability of the cast. I found the worldview fascinatingly detailed, although the writers forced and awful lot of material in two hours. Other viewers may not feel like keeping up. Still, I find it the greatest asset; the potential for insightful social commentary is enormous. I look forward to the writers' (young sci-fi author Tommy Chen and TV verteran Mathew Goldberg) continuing exploration.

The cast is pretty good, filled with all new faces; Maxfield Logan is a passable everyman as John, square-jawed and self-confident. Kendra Tompkins shows promise as Diana, although she threatens to slip into Valley Girl mode (jarring for this show) occasionally. Together they have a very believable chemistry as the perfect young couple in love Henrich Thaler makes the most bizarrely realistic dentist since Steve Martin in "Little Shop of Horrors", and Michael Chapman is appealingly moody as Eric. All in all, highly recommended, although I can't imagine that the suits will leave it on long enough for its inevitable cult following to build to respectable levels.

-- Jessica Pracht

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