Lost in Space: The Squandered Potential of Netflix’s “Space Force”

Steve Carell's 'Space Force' Teaser Trailer Released – Variety

Though the show serves itself up a rich array of satirical targets and boasts a wealth of talent, Space Force never quite reaches orbit. At best, it’s a light-hearted and mildly entertaining diversion from our current national travails. But though Space Force never quite succeeds as a comedy and proves too gentle to serve as real satire, the show nonetheless possesses enough daft charm to endear itself to viewers in its own peculiar way.

Space Force certainly identifies the right satirical targets, President Donald Trump first and foremost among them. Viewers can catch glimpses of a thinly-veiled stand-in for Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, while a character clearly based on Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes takes central stage in an late-season episode. But Space Force fails to draw much if any blood. It gives its only decent scratch to the likes of Musk and Holmes when their analogue’s traveling publicist explains that if just one of their promised gadgets works no one will remember their repeated and frequent failures.

That goes double for the more generic archetypes Space Force attempts to lampoon. Self-absorbed social media consultant F. Tony Scarapiducci – likely a riff on the name of short-lived Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci – represents the greatest missed opportunity, drawn too broadly by actor Ben Schwartz to effectively ridicule this particular pseudo-profession. Likewise, the transparent Russia spy who appears early on amounts to a caricature before he fades away in later episodes. Perhaps the closest Space Force comes to effectively here involves one lowly grunt’s attempt to impress the daughter of Space Force commander Gen. Mark Naird (portrayed by Steve Carell) by rattling off a spate of conspiracy theories he’s read online.

Despite its generally inert satirical execution, however, Space Force still contains some bright spots. It’s imbued with an occasional but all-too-infrequent sense of the bizarre that includes a farcical attempt to order a space chimp to repair a just-launched Space Force satellite that’s been disabled by the Chinese. As the always-exasperated and constantly put-upon Space Force chief scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory, moreover, John Malkovich chews scenery with remarkable aplomb. Mallory himself provides a bit of light satire of performative activism when he threatens to immolate himself in protest of a decision to go to war with China on the Moon but then backs away, saying he’s “proven what I wanted to prove.”

Strangely enough, though, it’s Space Force’s intermittent sincerity that becomes its most engaging feature. From the very first episode, Naird places a premium on people as Space Force’s critical element – and not in the human capital argot of business consultants and economists. Pressed to justify Space Force’s budget under hostile congressional questioning, for instance, Naird explains that, in his experience, “money doesn’t matter, people matter.” In the specific case of the Space Force, he contents, those people put their lives at risk “in the pursuit of science to solve our many problems.” Ironically enough, Naird and Mallory do a better job justifying the fictional Space Force than the Trump administration has managed to do in reality.

But there’s the rub: Space Force takes far too many liberties with reality and does so in ways that reinforce popular misperceptions about America’s space program. To start with, the basic premise of the show seems to rest on the assumption that Space Force has absorbed NASA and the rest of America’s civil space program. Referencing the Trump administration’s stated (if unrealistic) goal to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, moreover, the fictional Space Force is tasked with putting “boots on the Moon” in a similar timeframe. These deviations from reality would make sense if Space Force were a sharper satire, poking holes in the very concept of a space force as put forward by President Trump – or presenting the bland and boring reality of the actual Space Force that belies the image both Trump and the show itself have concocted. 

As it is, however, Space Force leaves viewers with fantastical notions of both America’s overall space program and, perhaps more importantly, what human spaceflight takes. At the climax of the series, the Chinese land taikonauts on the Moon and claim the Sea of Tranquility – the site of the Apollo 11 landing – for Beijing. Naird orders a crash program that sees untrained Space Force personnel almost immediately rocketing to the Moon, as if landing humans on the lunar surface were simply a matter of choice rather than one of hard work, intense planning, and lengthy preparation. By its final episode, Space Force winds up debasing the fine rhetoric it put in Naird’s mouth early on.

There’s more to like and dislike about Space Force. Naird’s single-parent relationship with his daughter Erin (played by Diana Silvers), for instance, weaves another strand of earnestness into the show. But it’s undermined by the bizarre decision to include Naird’s incarcerated wife (portrayed by Lisa Kudrow) in the story. It’s unclear at best what purpose her character serves, beyond giving the show’s writers license to make some stale jokes. 

In the end, Space Force squanders its satirical potential. Though the show picks the right targets, it pulls its punches far too often and lets its quarries off with a slap on the wrist. The show’s winning if largely occasional sincerity amounts to a double-edged sword, working against its satirical possibilities at the same time paints sympathetic portraits of a number of its lead characters. John Malkovich’s exquisite exasperation notwithstanding, Space Force gives its inherently absurd premise a gentle ribbing rather than the good-natured pounding it deserves.