Preacher in Space

The boring proposition of the Amazon Pilot “Oasis

©2017, Amazon Studios, watch here

The Setup

A chaplain on the deathbed of his wife.

A lonely, selfless man in a dying world. Everybody is in dire need of help. He lives a life of atonement for a past commemorated in his tattoos. The woman who inspired him to become a man of god (or rather gods) chooses to end her suffering, possibly with his aid.

A mission to the edge of the galaxy.

His friend calls for his aid and is willing to invest half a million to get him there. It has to be a chaplain and it has to be him.

A settlement/mining operation in the harsh, desert environment of a remote planet.

Water is sparse, human interaction is rough, souls are in need of saving?

When? 15 years into the future (2032).

The problem? 
The mission of the first human settlement on extraterrestrial soil is on the brink of failure. Conditions are too difficult. The settlers are seeing ghosts, while their leader, the chaplain’s friend, has gone AWOL. Three crewmen are already dead.

©2017, Amazon Studios

The Characters and their Frame of Reference

The time is 2032, the place London, Earth.
The world we know today has turned for the worst within 15 years. People are shown in poverty and suffering. The space colonization project is presented as the last best hope for survival of the human race, but was met with some resistance in the past, due to its immense consumption of resources.

Apparently, travel time to the settlement on “the edge of the galaxy” is insignificant, as no effect of it is mentioned (e.g.: no dilation issues). A possible lag of communication also seems negligible.
There is no going home after leaving Earth for Oasis, so it makes sense there is no emphasis on these issues, especially in contrast to “The Martian”, where they are central to the plot. Travel time and related issues do only matter, when you expect to get back.

Who are the Colonists?

They are a ragged bunch of crewmen who witness the arrival of the newcomers, including the unfazed priest Leigh and the rather shaken botanist Sy. (He’s the sensitive chubby one, so brace yourself for more cliché.)
Furthermore, we have Severin, the pragmatic doctor, BG, a rough-around-the edges hard worker, Keller, a quiet, disciplined security officer, Danesh, a worried stand-in chief executive, Reyes, who seems to be a technical supervisor and communication officer, and Halloran, a seasoned engineer.
The founder, David Morgan, is unavailable by the time Leigh arrives.
It is implied that it’s not the best and brightest who went on this mission, but rather those who could not opt out of it. 
In a world of dwindling resources and a dying earth, the reasons for the best and brightest not being available at the time, could be:
 — they went ahead and died on another project (terrestrial or otherwise)
B — there are no more “best and brightest”, due to the lack of resources and options
C — they’re waiting for the colony to be established and in the green

What do you think? Let me know:

What are we looking at?

The setting is a modern British colony, where we see the ethnicities and representation associated with a current British film production. It does not feel larger than that or more progressive.
Despite putting POC in charge, the choice still comes down to a white male as the founder of the colony and a white male as the lead character, with female characters in supporting roles.

Aside from that, the setting does not try to make a point about the requirements for a job there, yet. The hints are subtle, that a certain qualification level is hoped for, that is rather based on experience than rank or social status.
When Sy impresses Alicia by working around his dyslexia and presenting innovation through improvisation, we see a glimpse of that dynamic. 
You already expect the man to make up for his shortcomings somehow, to not be a total fish-out-of-the-water cliché. I do appreciate him being a botanist instead of an overqualified bioengineer, though.
(Otherwise my point about qualification would fall flat.)

There is no clear segregation between military, scientific or corporate staff. In comparison to “Stargate: Atlantis”, a series which constantly builds on oversimplified tension between military and scientific/military and military/corporate (and has some other very blatant issues), the setup of people dynamics in Oasis feels more realistic in this regard. When human resources are scarce and slim pickings, everybody has at least three jobs and qualifications, you are comprised of the people your company can muster.

(If you’re lucky, it’s exactly the right blend of adventurers to get you through your space dungeon. If your HR or dungeon master is stuck in the 1990s, you‘ll have to follow a faulty but physically “dreamy” male lead, possibly into your doom, and wait for Ripley to change things up.)

Natascha McElhone in Solaris, ©2002 Twentieth Century Fox

The Alien Element: Space Ghosts from Coast to Coast?

What do we know about the Apparitions so far?

They seem to appear in connection to guilt and love. Ghosts that remind you of relationships, actions or changes you deeply regret.

  • A horse that was killed out of greed
  • A daughter who was left behind by her mother was transferred to the edge of the galaxy, as punishment for a “fuck-up” as a police officer
  • A father who has a troubling, possible violence-related impact on his rough-around-the-edges son

(Yes, I am expecting to see the dead wife very soon.)

These subjective hallucinations appear within the visual range and possibly around water or points of interest, like the spot in the desert, where Keller finds the abandoned car. 
The most recent “ghost” is the horse named “Terminator”, resurrected from Halloran’s (Marc Addy) memory, emphasizes the point that it’s not as much about humans but creatures with “souls”.
The crew’s ability to push back the impact of the hallucinations seems to dwindle, as sleep-deprivation and dry air affect them. The chance of alien communication might be depending on psychological and physical susceptibility, both in relation to humidity.

I’m willing to give OASIS extra points for meta reference, if Haley Joel Osment’s character is going to be the only one who will not “see dead people”.

So, what going on?

Is this planet purgatory? Are the ghosts angels or demons? Or are they aliens? 
At best, we’re looking at an alien life form that communicates telepathically and is interested in protecting its biological and ecological integrity. 
At worst, we’re looking at religious ambiguity that sends us back to the empty feeling of failed delivery and utter disappointment of the very last episodes of the otherwise stellar Battlestar Galactica in 2009.

If you go “full Solaris”, we end up having to deal with a conscious planetary body or maybe a hive mind like planet Ego.
If you go “full Bradbury”, water acts a transitory element, an otherworldly membrane to bring the settlers in touch with their past sins and their hope for a better future, as it did in the “Martian Chronicles”.

They might be either living in the soil as microbes, or are part of or living in the water. They might also be directing “the flock” towards better places for wells, because the drilling site is poisonous or “holy” or simply where they live and would like to continue doing so.

left to right: Traue, Kapoor in “Oasis”, ©2017, Amazon Studios

The Cast

They’re all well-cast. They represent diversity. They’re engaged in their material. Still, the biggest problem is the male lead, despite his acting chops.
If you’re going to set a brooding, conflicting, calm to the point of being indifferent, white male figure into this environment, what are your expectations of sympathy from a diverse audience? Indifference? You got it.

Imagine Richard Madden was still on Game of Thrones. Antje Traue, equally stoic and capable actress with an impressive rep sheet in sci-fi, looks comfortable enough to play the part, but she seems perfect for the already settled-in security officer.
Even though I like Kapoor, and would have rather seen him than O’Neill as the leader of the colony, I would have preferred a simpler hierarchy, where the lead man wasn’t replaced by another lead man.
Changing that also gives you the option to make the founder of the colony a woman, because boy, oh boy, we are knee-deep into the male-default perspective here, emphasized by the slightly more open, but still classically male-dominant monotheistic theme.

Also: What? No non-binary person? Where are they 15 years from now?

Cover to Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, Art by Michael Whelan

The Verdict:

It doesn’t appeal to me, because it lacks innovation. It lacks a progress that I desire in science fiction. Vision. The dramatization of new and exciting changes in science and how we view our existence in the vast expanse of the universe.

You might agree, that OASIS took parts of “Aliens”, “Preacher”, “Dune” and “Solaris”, set it in an almost Bradburian environment, and assembled an unblended pilot from that.
Do you remember that episode of “Star Trek — The Next Generation”, where a drill goes into a planet that is about to be terraformed, but very basic alien life kills the attempts as a cry for help? Yep. Now I put it in your head.

Creating a visual and psychological reminiscence of Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” got me interested, but it doesn’t hold up very well in comparison. 
While it looks the part, OASIS lacks to create that specific Bradburian atmosphere of sharp social critique, dressed in an innocently curious exploration of human nature, set in the unforgiving harshness and mesmerizing beauty of another world. 
To take those partially outdated concepts and set them into a new frame of reference is something we have to see done. I hope OASIS gets there. Or somewhere else, somewhere new.
Bradbury’s detailed view of everyday people chasing otherworldly mirages is slightly different from what we have seen in many more versions of “space ghosts”, and OASIS takes a lesson from that, but still: The last thing I wanted to see, is another variation of an alien posing as a dead spouse, or angels posing as aliens or whatever ambiguous mess can happen in between those definitions.

There could be hope for OASIS, yet. A certain reminiscence of Frank Herbert’s Dune presents itself at a certain point in the story, in relation to ghosts and water. 
A cave with plenty water, only guarded by a few space ghosts who seek to communicate, is not spot-on Dune, but in the treatment of water as something possibly holy it is close enough to want you to ask for more, for better, for further.
Holy water… A prophet from another world. Does the similarity begin or end here?
It ends.
According to Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, religion is a utility to power, and behavior a slave to gender. Man tends to get religious about his resources and possessive of his territory, no matter how scientifically evolved. While woman cultivates this tendency and ritualizes it to protect and build hierarchic social structures, distributing and executing power through genetic selection.
(This segregation of gender and behavior is nothing I look forward to seeing in the announced DUNE remake, but maybe, if done right, it will express the change we experience in the world right now — or the change we need.)

So, what will OASIS present as its unique difference to what we’ve already seen in the vast world of sci-fi? Will it simply execute a trope better and maybe reinvent it? Or will it manage to surprise the audience with a progressive new angle?

Readers of Michael Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” might already know the answer to that, unless the series plans to wildly deviate from the book.

Antje Traue in Oasis ©2017, Amazon Studios

The Fix:

Gender-swap, my hot fix for everything right now.

Let one of the supporting femmes take on the lead, send Richard Madden home to Westeros, and give us a fresh new perspective on the story you are trying to tell.
No dead spouses as ghosts, please! There must be something better you can do.

I repeat: Abandon the male lead, who is so carefully crafted to be unfazed by everything and replace him with a woman who actually gives a flying f***. Colonisation has never done well from the male default perspective, but maybe this is the point of the story?
Who creates integral structures and maintains them to the level of sustainability? People with vaginas do. But that might just be so 2017 of me… I imagine 2032 much less gender-biased.

Made it this far? Let me know by tapping the lil’ heart. Dankeschön!