It’s much harder to talk about excellent shows than it is to talk about decent or bad shows.
This is likely a failing in me. I’m reasonably smart and observant, but I rarely catch everything on the first viewing. This is even more true if a story is doing its job. If it’s doing what I want a narrative to do, then I’m emotionally invested, and my critical thinking brain is disconnected.
Astra Lost in Space managed to do that for 11 episodes. Sure, I could talk about all that this show does well. The pacing of the episodes was brilliant. The slower talking sections never out-stayed their welcome, so when the music kicked up, I was caught up with it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The #anitwitwatches crew and I finished up Astra Lost In Space a couple of months ago. I’ve put off writing for a couple of reasons, but that is neither here nor there.
What is #anitwitwatches? Well, it’s a watch-along led by Jon Spencer Reviews, where we watch a show. We’re just about finished watching RahXephon, which remains one of my favorite shows, and I have more to say about it (believe it or not.)
Now that is out of the way, let’s talk about the story of Astra Lost in Space, just in case you haven’t seen it.
The show tells the story of a group of students going on a camping trip that find themselves flung into the depths of space. They manage to find an abandoned spaceship circling an ice-covered planet and start a journey back home.
To reach home, they need to stop at five planets. Each one presents a unique problem. Sometimes it’s biological. Sometimes it’s geological. Sometimes it’s astrophysical. But the typical pattern is that they land, encounter a problem, deal with the problem and leave.
What makes Astra exceptional is that despite its simple structure, it plays each beat perfectly. For the most part, this show is a master class in writing a short shounen action show. I can only hope that others follow its example.
As I said, it’s a great 11-episode series.
The problem is that it’s a 12-episode show.
Beware. Beyond this point, there will be spoilers. This show is good enough that I recommend watching it. The only thing I will add is that no matter how mediocre the last episode is, it’s not horrible. It’s just disappointing.
So let’s get to it. Let’s talk about the magnificently bungled last episode of Astra Lost in Space.
Parents of the Year Club
Throughout the series, we see the backstory of all of these characters. And, let’s just say, all of their parents (with one exception) are awful, horrible people.
Whether it’s the largely absent mother of Quitterie and Funicia or the abusive mother of Yun-Hua, they are all some level of awful. As far as the story goes (and here come the spoilers), there is a reason for that. All of these children are clones of them. They are destined to become new bodies for their “parents.” So none of them see their “children” as real people. They’re just replacement parts.
The problem is that clones became illegal, so they organized an “accident” that shot them out into the depths of space. They expected them to die millions of miles away from home. But even if that didn’t work, they planted a mole in the group that would kill them.
Throughout the show, we see the abuse they have all endured. The pain and suffering and heartache they went through. So when I learned that they had set this all up, I wasn’t surprised.
On top of it all, the show had painted these “parents” as nearly untouchable. They were all some combination of wealthy, well-connected and exceptionally talented. They would need to be to exercise that level of control and, in some cases, display that level of abuse.
In the last episode of the show, the students finally get back home. They’ve learned all of the secrets, and we, the audience, are ready for a final confrontation.
So I think it’s important to talk about my expectations going into the last episode. We had all of the secrets that mattered laid out on the table. Up to this point, the show’s rhythm would dictate some setup and then a dramatic payoff.
For instance, in one set of episodes, our shounen hero, Kanata, had ridden out among the pollen-producing apex predators of one planet. He is looking for a fruit that will prevent his friends from dying. He learned he needed to collapse at the base of one of the plants to get the fruits he required.
He barely makes it back to the ship with the fruits in hand to save the lives of the rest of the crew. It was a remarkable sequence that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.
I was expecting at least that level of drama when the kids get back home. I was hoping their parents could use their connections to discredit the kids, send assassins after them, or do something.
Instead, what we get can only be described as one of the biggest letdowns I’ve ever experienced. Our intrepid heroes send the evidence to the authorities, and, well, they believe them. The parents are arrested. The kids are welcomed as heroes, and everyone lives happily ever after.
To further compound the great air letting that occurred there, there is only one confrontation between a child and a parent. So we have an extensive build-up with nearly no payoff.
This, more than anything, is the biggest problem with this last episode. The show has set up this conflict for an entire series but never gives us the satisfaction of letting it play out.
So I have to acknowledge there is an argument that this is thematically relevant. The show is focused on not being defined by your past. But that doesn’t make it good storytelling. They should have done something to hammer home that theme rather than just leave it up in the air.
While this lack of payoff is my major complaint, I have to address another complaint brought up by Flah.
The Problem with Conspiracies
So toward the end of the show, they drop another bombshell on the audience. The crew is not from Earth. They are from a planet called Astra.
Not only that, but the people of Astra came to Earth using wormholes. This neatly fills a couple of holes. First, it explains where the wormhole came from the shot them out into space. Second, it reveals where the ship came from. It was one of the exploration ships used to find a new planet.
None of this is really a problem. The problem is that the author needed a reason that none of the crew would know about the means of this migration. So, he used the laziest means ever.
There was a conspiracy. (Put spooky sound effects here.)
So I have explained my problems with conspiracy theories in fiction when I talked about the Second Impact conspiracy in Evangelion. You can read that here.
The short version is that if the NSA couldn’t keep PRISM quiet, do you really think an entire planet’s population would universally shut up about their experiences?
The answer, of course, is, “No. I don’t believe that.” And neither should you.
I understand that the writer was trying to get himself out of a corner he painted himself into. But there were other ways to do that. He could have had it be common knowledge, but that all of the wormhole devices were destroyed. Or it could be a persistent rumor that has been thoroughly discredited.
There are ways to accomplish this kind of sleight of hand, but imagining a global conspiracy to keep a secret is so fundamentally ridiculous that it’s frankly unbelievable.
But… it doesn’t bother me.
The thing is, I know it’s a cheap trick that is in place to fill in a hole that is largely unnecessary to fill in, but it’s a popular cheap trick. This isn’t the first story to use it, and it won’t be the last.
As far as problems go, it’s more on a nitpick level for me.
Where to rank it?
So I like putting the shows we watch in some sort of ranking order. It’s more of a fun exercise than it is significant.
I will say that I don’t like ties on lists. If I make a ranked order, then saying one thing is “as good as” something else undermines the point. It just turns into an amorphous blob.
This does create a conundrum for me. As I said, Astra is an excellent show. In fact, it’s good enough that it deserves a spot in the top section of my list.
For me, the question is: Is it better or worse than Another.
This is a tricky question, and it is both a matter of taste and a matter of quality. If I was just judging based on story construction, I would say that Another edges out Astra. The thing is, the last episode problem for Astra is something. It’s the kind of something that takes a show from a 10 to a 9.
While I think Another isn’t as quickly paced, I don’t think it is trying to be. Overall, I would say it’s a better-constructed show.
But, if I’m going to be honest, I like Astra better. The characters are more appealing. The plot is more fun. It’s just a more enjoyable story. None of these are slights against Another. The reasons I liked Astra more are because it was a show more geared toward my tastes. I wouldn’t fault anyone who preferred Another more than Astra.
So, I’m going to give it to Astra. Despite biffing the ending, I think the rest of the show is too spectacular not to put it at the top of the list.
Here is the list as it stands for me:
Astra Lost in Space
Girls’ Last Tour
From the New World
The Perfect Insider
So I’m going to be honest here, Astra’s place on the top of the list won’t last long. RahXephon is my favorite show of all time. It’s going to be on the top of the list. But for now, I think I’m happy with this.
If you’ve seen Astra, what do you think?
And, as always, thanks for reading.