Missions: Story, plot and narrative fighting for air on Mars

I’ve just been catching up on the first two episodes of the French television sci-fi series Missions, currently showing on BBC Four. The trailers made it look like a Gallic version of Solaris or Moon, so I was quite excited by the prospect. Unfortunately, having watched these first two episodes, I felt like I had been sent back in time to very early days of bad TV sci-fi.

There is a recurring model for a sci-fi novel, one which comes through in works such as H G Wells’ War of the Worlds and which Arthur C. Clarke pioneered and made his own. This model could best be described as ‘Mysterious Phenomena’; or, more succinctly, weird things are happening and the protagonists (with us, the reader, peering over their shoulder) are going to find out what they are, how they’re happening and why. And that’s pretty much it. There’s little real character development in a novel/film/series that adopts the Mysterious Phenomena model. There is little protagonist-driven action — beyond curiosity. The reader keeps turning the pages because they need answers to that key question: ‘what are all those weird phenomena and why are they happening?’ It’s worth saying that when it’s done well, it can be made awesome by the awesomeness of the Big Reveal at the end.

Often, this model gets extended into ‘Mysterious Phenomena Are Trying to Kill Me’, where your protagonists are driven by their survival as well as curiosity. Which is nice. Netflix series Stranger Things is an example from recent sci-fi that has done this with immense style together with interesting and sympathetic characters plus a good dose of irony.

Missions, unfortunately, doesn’t achieve style. Or irony. Or sympathetic characters. Or even basic coherence. In the opening episode, we were bombarded with so many plot devices I started to lose count. As I’ve said before (see here), plot is a series of causally-linked events, which obey certain rules of commonly-understood logic. This means plots have to be plausible, they have to be believable. I stopped believing in Missions as soon as Things Started To Go Wrong. Why was failing to re-boot the AI going to kill them? What happened to manual override? Look, there’s a sand storm! Oh, it’s gone now. They’re going to be dead in 48 hours. No, it’s 24 hours now. Do some mental calculations someone! No, it’s immediate, they’re going to die now, don’t let people back in the ship. Oh, it all seems to be fine.

And why is the billionaire backer slobbing about in jeans and a pottery mug of something? Why is there a psychologist on board yet it’s the doctor who checks on a crew members’ mental health? Why, why, why does a crew travelling to Mars have an actual, real-life programmer on board? Who is clearly not fit for his job? And, en route to Mars, why and how were they were overtaken by an American outfit that we’d only just heard about? Oh, they told us that: ‘… something … something … better nuclear … something’. Fine! But why did the crew know nothing until they got there?

The reason all of these events were badly crow-barred into the episode were because of two things: because of the needs of story and the decisions relating to narrative. On the story side (see here), we need to follow an interesting / sympathetic character move from imbalance to balance, via some form of journey. In bad stories, the shortcut to this ‘imbalance’ tends to be jeopardy (hence ‘… Trying to Kill Us’ mentioned above). In Missions this jeopardy was piled on and on with bewildering results and the plot was rendered implausible as a result.

On top of the artificial jeopardy, the seething, dysfunctional crew of the ship (with sixth-form level of jealousies and lust) were ready-made for conflict. But the resulting drama failed to grip you with empathy or interest. I’m not sure what any of the character’s long term desires were: two of male characters’ entire mission seems to have been to bone the female members of the crew. Nobody questioned why this lot were the most unfit (and most implausible) team ever to have crewed a spaceship since Spaceballs. So, plot sacrificed to supposedly give the story of these characters more drama. And yet it didn’t deliver. Who actually cared when the coupling device knocked the commander off into the void? Half the crew were whooping it up later on. Who cares about the MC? She spent most of the entire episode staring solemnly at other people. Story failed.

And how was plot sacrificed for narrative decisions? Decision 1: to get us up into space quickly, forcing too much truncated backstory into episode one, making it too full of facts for us to take in. Decision 2: opening up six stories in twenty minutes, namely, who is the mystery figure? Why did the Americans die? Will the vice-captain have sex with the psychologist? Will the programmer ever lose his virginity? How and when is the AI going to go ‘bad’? Are they going to survive? And I still don’t know what the MC’s story is! Too many stories started but not developed and we end up not caring about any of them. Narrative decisions that failed to deliver story. And we lose interest as a result.

I’m starting to wonder now if the show is ironic after all. And that the massive lack of plausibility is merely an elaborately postmodern wink, poking fun at tired sci-fi tropes. Did the psychology experiment about delayed gratification at the start have some deeper meaning with regards to the series as a whole? (Or was it just to introduce the the MC’s ‘superhero’ skill of being able to predict other people’s decisions before they make them)?

That said … the mysterious figure on the horizon was good and is the reason I’m going to watch a few more episodes. Arthur C Clarke did get it right: we do want to know more those damned Mysterious Phenomena. However, when it comes to the Big Reveal, it had better be damned awesome!

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