Monday, August 24, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: Planetes!

(I don't know why I keep putting exclamations after the titles for the 'hidden treasures', it just somehow seems appropriate.)

Planetes is a 2003 hard science fiction anime TV series that, like Cowboy Bebop before it, is quickly building up a substantial fanbase in North America mostly from sheer word of mouth about its quality. You don't even have to be an anime fan to like Planetes; its very West-friendly, features a broad cast of international characters, and like most great fiction, speaks to universal themes independent of cultural nuance.

The series begins in 2075, when an international treaty organization of space-capable nations (the US, Japan, Russia, and some European countries) have built up a substantial infrastructure both in orbit and on the Moon. The development of Helium-3 fusion, with Helium-3 mined from the Moon, has replaced the old oil economy and has led to a major financial boom among the treaty countries, allowing them to fully expand into space. Hundreds of thousands of people now live and work off-Earth.

But of course there's a downside; all that activity in space has produced a tremendous amount of debris; i.e., space junk. Today, in real life, orbital junk represents a potential hazard to space missions. Sixty plus years from now, its a primary ongoing danger to all orbital activity. So who gets the thankless job of cleaning it up?

The series focuses on a crew of these space-going garbagemen. Called 'Half Section' because they are constantly under-funded and undermanned, they go out in an outmoded shuttle and haul off rogue satellites, old space station sections, abandoned experiments, and much more for recycling.

The crew includes Hachi, the series' main character, who is a young, cynical Japanese EVA specialist. Tanabe, the female lead, is another young Japanese national and the idealistic rookie on her first day in the first episode. The pilot is American Fee Carmichael, a brash, loud chain smoker. System specialist Yuri Mihairokov rounds out the space crew, a stoic, soft-spoken Russian. There's also a small office staff, and they all get their moments to shine throughout the 26-episode run, but the focus is definitively on the crew of the garbage scow shuttle called Toybox.

Planetes shines above most other on-screen SF, both live-action and anime, Japanese or American, in two areas: depth of character and scientific accuracy. The series' great strength lies within its characters' stories and their interactions. As the series progresses, they come across as real and compelling, with both noble moments as well as petty. In other words, they act very human, and the viewer very easily can get caught up in their daily lives.

The series also gives us the most realistic representation of future space travel I've ever seen, and given all the research I've done on space tech for over the last several years, that's saying a lot. There's not a single scientific or technological gaffe that I could spot in the series. It is hard science fiction the way it should be, and reminded me in some ways of Allen Steele's Near Space series of novels, which also contemplated a very similar type of future in space. This technological accuracy greatly adds to the series' verisimilitude.

This isn't to say Planetes is perfect, however. The series' greatest weakness is its female lead, Tanabe, who is annoying in the extreme. This is especially true in the first handful of episodes where, as the rookie, the viewer is introduced to Half Section through her POV. There is nothing wrong with portraying a character as idealistic or foolish or reckless, but she takes all three to such a degree that its hard to believe the other characters would keep her around, especially after she deliberately endangers the crew more than once. In fact, of all the characters, it takes her almost until the series' very end to find any real depth. Fortunately, after the first three episodes or so, the series begins focusing less on her and much more on the its larger cast, and quickly becomes much more watchable. Planetes also relies too much on unlikely coincidences to move its plot along at times.

But if you can get past these gaffes, you're definitely in for a science fiction treat. Episodes 10, 11, ands 12 are the series highlight, in my opinion. Episode 10, focusing on Yuri's past, has an intense emotional gut-punch. Episode 11 features a wannabe space explorer from a third world country's humble program, and though he starts out as a kind of comedic character, one can't help but be moved by his underdog determination by the end. Epsiode 12 focuses on Fee and her bad habit of smoking, but her obsession turns out to be an unlikely salvation for everyone in orbit in the wake of a terrorist attack. The last third of the series focuses on a sprawling eight-episode storyline involving an expedition to Jupiter that Hachi tries to qualify for while also trying to deal with a personal crisis. This is in addition to the mounting terrorist plot to stop it. Planetes also has something very rare among not only anime, but just about all TV series as well--a pitch-perfect ending.

The complete series of Planetes is available on DVD, which you can find HERE and other outlets that sell anime products. Select episodes are also available for viewing online.

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