On Friday the 15th of September 2017, NASA engineers and millions of people at home watched history be made in more ways than we can count.
After a 20 year mission in orbit around Saturn, the NASA spacecraft Cassini tapped what sparse fuel resources it had for one last, all important burn. With our Earth a pale blue dot in the vast darkness of space, Cassini positioned itself so its antennae array would point back toward Earth for as long as possible and when its position was correct, Cassini fired those thrusters. Its crash site would be the heart of Saturn. There was a purpose to this destruction. Titan and Saturn’s other moons are the most likely places to hold any form of biological life — other than Earth — and the chances of Cassini contaminating what fragile eco systems may exist there was too high.
To protect Titan, and perhaps our own future, Cassini had to be burned to nothing, to atoms. The final resting place for the craft would be the heart of the planet it spent so long examining. Cassini will become part of the stars.
If that’s not poetic, I don’t know what is.
The moment NASA called ‘Loss of Signal’ was bittersweet in its own way. It signaled the highly successful completion of an absolutely extraordinary mission in space exploration, and the accolades for the team of scientists and engineers behind it can’t come quickly enough. When you picture Cassini screaming towards Saturn’s heart, rattled and shaken, torn apart by atmospheric pressures and impossible frictional heat, as what little power is left is fueled into two things; keeping Cassini on it’s flight path, and telling Earth what is happening …you can’t help but feel something deeper and maybe a little profound.
It feels only right, then, to welcome Oohlo readers to Your Weekend Binge Watch; For Cassini.
Wonders of The Universe
Though they don’t get everything right, if there is one thing you can count on the BBC for, it’s spending stupid money on beautiful documentaries about science and nature. They are crafted to perfection, with better and more memorable soundtracks than 90% of modern cinema, visuals that can overwhelm your capacity to process beauty, and naturally of course, they are narrated by someone with a voice and way of speaking that is so calming as to essentially hypnotise you.
While Sir David Attenborough has and always shall be the absolute master of these works, Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University could easily be considered his proudest spiritual heir.
Wonders of The Universe is one in a series of space based documentaries, in which Professor Brian Cox uses spectacular Earth based visuals and equally thrilling computer models of space and the stars to explore…well, it’s in the name. Over the course of several episodes and at this point a couple of seasons of Wonder, Prof. Cox explains everything, from universal entropy, to how astronauts prepare for space travel, even how our ancient ancestors first learned to measure the stars and map time, building entire civilisations around what the Sun or Moon told them was meant to happen,
The visuals, both the very real locations on Earth and the effective and compelling CGI are gasp inducing at times, and the series is a must for the people who like getting their minds blown for fun. They’re also educational, and Prof. Cox is not the type of guy to talk down to his audience, which adds something else to the entire series. You’re not just being shown pretty pictures and told how great stars are. Professor Cox is on a mission to educate the world and if you tune in, expect to learn something.
Wonders Of The Universe can be found to watch online.
Admittedly, this is the weakest entry on my list, not just because it’s a show I liked way more for its concepts than execution. Cancelled after one season, Ascension is both the title and the name of the Generation Ship on which most of the action takes place. Generation Ships are are like space-bound Arks, massive ships with hundred year missions, carrying travellers, settlers and missionaries to the stars too far to reach in one lifetime. By default, such missions condemn the at least one generation to be born, live and die entirely on the ship, without ever knowing Earth or their new home, but that’s not the only issue. On a ship like this, you require absolute order at all times. After all, if you have a finite amount of people, space, resources, and turning back or stopping means ending the mission entirely … what do you do when something goes wrong?
Ascension is a smart show in that it tries to tackle both of these questions and more. The show opens on the titular ship as it approaches the halfway and no-turning-back points of their mission. As the border between completion or giving up approaches, more people are beginning to show the strain of their commitment and reality is beginning to bite. A kind of fatigue has set in and they still have 50 years of flying left. And right as things are already tense, a beautiful young woman dies suddenly. Closer inspection reveals the girl was murdered.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Ascension mission is a government secret, managed by the son of the man who first conceived of it. To the public, to those who bother to care, Ascension was a concept that was never fulfilled, an idea no one actually put into practice. But the truth is very different.
There is a lot to like about Ascension, not necessarily as a whole but as a collection of smart concepts that could have been fascinating if they’d been handled better, or perhaps gotten a second season to flesh out. There is the question of the impact of a mission like this on people, particularly children and adolescents born on the ship and coming to terms with the reality of their lives. Then you have the issue of law and order in this context; how do you dole out a punishment in this place? How do you enforce it? What is an appropriate response to murder?
Perhaps least well handled was what turned out, unfortunately, to be a fairly large part of the narrative; somehow, and it’s not entirely clear how, the effects of the mission may also be … metaphysical. At least one child is developing strange psychic powers … somehow … and it is this failing that (in my mind) probably killed the show dead.
Had the focus remained a little more on the social and moral issues, and on the…fairly big but also fairly easy to guess twist somewhere in the second or third episode, Ascension might have made for a good few seasons of Sci-Fi. As it is, it’s a bunch of fun and definitely worth a day or two of your time and can be found on Netflix now.
We’ve touched on this show before, but it was my own weekend spend re-watching both seasons twice, followed by Cassini’s last pass, that actually inspired this week’s list.
Based on James A. Corey’s massively successful book series, The Expanse is the best Sci-Fi on TV right now and that’s just the plain truth. For the purpose of this piece, I will be talking about the show and not the books.
Detailing the politics and day to day lives of a human race finally living off Earth, the show mingles hard science fiction with political intrigue, personal narratives, and manages to be so topical and current that you could probably watch it and come away with a better understand of current real world international politics than you ever had before.
In the future, humans live in space, no further out than the asteroid belts past Mars. A journey to Saturn is still a mission measured in months and living in space is hard and dirty. Mars and Earth are now separate and constantly bickering nations, always on the verge of war, and naturally the poorest and most vulnerable are trapped in the middle. Belters are humans born on stations built into asteroids. They’re dirt poor, physically changed from planet based humans, and whenever Earth and Mars butt heads, it’s Belters who suffer the fallout.
Season one follows a Belter detective trying to find a missing girl, while elsewhere a group of ice miners are entirely accidentally dragged into some kind of covert black ops mission. Season 2, which recently hit Netflix, picks up right where two left off, and sees our characters plunged ever deeper into the twisting plots.
Visually, The Expanse is the prettiest thing on TV and I don’t just mean the cast (though, they are very pretty). I don’t know a thing about the reality of living in space but the show portrays what seems like the most convincing reality I think I’ve ever seen. It’s hard and rough, and constantly dangerous. These are not the secure and comfortable Starships of the Trek-verse, and despite our centuries amongst the stars, survival remains a day to day concern as opposed to an expected constant.
Like any good show it’s the characters who keep you coming back. I could talk about all of them and we would be here for days, because there really are no bad things to say. Instead, let me talk just about Naomi (Dominique Tipper) and Amos (Wes Chatham). Theirs is one of my favourite relationships in pop culture right now, and it should be yours, too.
Naomi is a Belter engineer with chips on her shoulders the size of the ice blocks she brings home from Saturn. To her credit, they’re hard earned, since being a Belter is about as low as you can be in a future that, depressingly, still has class systems. She’s frighteningly smart and capable, a resourceful badass with a penchant for snark that will win your heart in about eight seconds.
Amos is her best friend and longtime travelling companion. At first glance the tendency is to assume he’s just her muscle, a big guy to back her in a world where everyone has an attitude problem. He will do literally anything for her, including killing, and he has no problem doing it. But the writers, and particularly Wes Chatham’s revelatory performance, paint a far deeper and more complex picture. You quickly realise that Amos needs Naomi much more than she needs him. Amos is far, far more than just ‘the muscle’ on the show and rather than be the gun crazy guy you sort of get sick of after a while, he just grows more interesting in every scene he’s in. If you watch for nothing alone, watch for them.
There’s one thing you don’t get with The Expanse: total escapism. The political and social issues dominating the narrative are brilliantly reflective of our current political quagmire, so you are somewhat grounded when watching; that’s what makes it such good TV. Like the way the show portrays living in space, it’s incredibly easy to imagine the political scheming and plotting we see as how things will be in a couple of hundred years. For a show where crashing contaminated space stations into Venus counts as a day’s work, it feels real, current and very, very now.
The Expanse seasons 1 and 2 can be found on Netflix. Season 3 returns to SyFy in 2018.