Watching the first few episodes of Syfy’s wonderfully demented, decidedly low-tech sci-fi comedy Outer Space Astronauts - premiering Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. – I had flashbacks of both Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the big-screen farce Galaxy Quest. Not just because the Astronauts series is funny, which it is, but because the laughs have obviously been crafted by writers who seriously love the sci-fi genre. Forget warp speed; here the captain orders the ship to “haul balls.” Rather than take the ship to red-alert, the drunken captain – lounging in a La-Z-Boy – barks “do the thing where we fight.” And even the theme song is a hodgepodge of familiar space terminology: “I’m gong into spacedock. Open the airlock. I’m gonna spacewalk. Ooh ah outer space, ooh ah outerspace…space in your face!”
Imagine a whole Star Trek episode if the MST3K dudes were mocking all the pomp and circumstance. This starship, the O.S.S. Oklahoma, has a robot – but he’s a creepy sort of robot with eyes that refuse to blink. There’s the familiar communications officer, but this time she’s the incompetent nervous Nellie who spends the majority of her time fretting over hitting the wrong button. When the crew encounters aliens, the first officer is so intent on scoring with his female visitor that he leaves her colleagues to tour the spaceship’s shield and weapons systems, looking for vulnerabilities. And then there’s my favorite exchange of all:
“Let the log show we’ve arrived at Delta Moon Four for routine maintenance. Pilot, how’s our orbit?”
“It’s smooth and creamy commander.”
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Filmed as a blend of animation and live action – where real faces seem to float in a fully animated world – what struck me most about the production is how quickly I adapted to all the oversized facial expressions and bland backgrounds. More interesting to me was the writing, the many unexpected punch lines and the way that, near the end of the premiere episode, the show even makes a bid for some genuine pathos in a musical montage that jumps between members of the crew and a man lost at space. A rather absurd montage, yes, but a melancholy montage none the less. Like Galaxy Quest, there’s a moment when the humor segues for just a moment into serious sci-fi.
Syfy has high hopes for this outer-space “South Park,” where the quality writing makes up for the shoddy production design. That shoddiness, in fact, is one of the show’s great charms. The network has even made the complete premiere episode available for viewing on the syfy website, hoping to get an early jump on hooking all those “Trek” fans who, like me, think there’s more than enough in our favorite sci-fi franchise worth poking fun at.
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