Friday, September 11, 2015

Make Time for Some Other Space

The cast of Other Space, currently streaming on Yahoo! Screen.

"In 2054, to celebrate the end of the war between the United States and Switzerland, a multi-national corporate coalition created the Universal Mapping Project to explore the known universe for the purposes of scientific inquiry. The following is an account of the UMP Cruiser, an exploratory vessel that went missing in 2105."
– from the opening of Other Space
Other Space tells the story of a crew of inexperienced officers who set off on a routine exploratory space mission, only to find themselves sucked through a rift in space that thrusts them into another universe. Lost in space, with no way of getting home, they struggle for survival with no-one to depend upon but themselves. In others' hands, this would be the beginning of a traditional science-fiction story – and it has been. Variations on this story have been seen on television for over fifty years: from Lost in Space, to Buck Rogers, to Star Trek: Voyager, to Battlestar Galactica. (Not to mention Andromeda, Farscape, or SyFy's recent Dark Matter.) Other Space is not like any of those shows.

Back in March, Yahoo's online streaming channel, Yahoo! Screen, garnered a lot of attention by bringing back the NBC cult comedy Community for a sixth season. A month later, with far less fanfare, it added another comedy to its small line-up of original programming: Other Space, a science-fiction comedy in the vein of the BBC's long-running classic Red Dwarf. The animated (and often brilliant) Futurama notwithstanding, there have only ever been a handful of science fiction comedy shows on American television, perhaps the most popular being 3rd Rock from the Sun and, I suppose… Alf. (Red Dwarf had a famously failed attempt at an American adaptation for NBC back in 1992, when only a poorly-received pilot was filmed.) But, unless you count NBC's Quark – a one-season wonder from 1978 starring Richard Benjamin, which was Buck Henry's follow-up series to Get Smart – the output has been entirely earthbound. This year, with all the original television being produced, it is very possible this small comedy has escaped your notice. Fortunately we have a few weeks still before the new fall season begins, and you have more than enough time to flip your browser over to Yahoo and watch a new comedy that is at once unassuming and suprising.

Other Space was created by Paul Feig, who created Freaks and Geeks with Judd Apatow in 1999, recently directed Bridesmaids, and will shortly direct and co-write the much anticipated Ghostbusters reboot. Feig wrote the show's pilot episode for NBC over ten years ago, and he was only recently able to get the rights back and find a home for the series on Yahoo. Part B-movie space opera, part workplace comedy, and part live-action cartoon, Other Space has a largely unknown cast, a retro spaceship set (which the crew rarely ever leaves in the short 8-episode first season), and a refreshingly unpretentious tone. With its low budget look and its small ensemble of suitably misfit characters, the series initially has the feel of an extended bit of sketch comedy, but it develops quickly into much more.

Like Red Dwarf (whose plot grew hilariously intricate over the years but, for all the time travel paradoxes and shifting realities, never let go of its vindaloo jokes), Other Space has its ambitions – with the first season venturing into the comic potential of inter-dimensional rifts, time dilation, artificial intelligence, and alien life. Though the series never loses its broad sense of fun, its commitment to inter-episode continuity – each episode builds directly on the previous one, some beginning only minutes after the last one ended – means that like the most ambitious comedies on much more upscale channels, the series rewards viewers who pay attention. (It does this in small ways, with for example a running gag about an entirely fictional Hollywood star which grows funnier each time his name is dropped, and in larger ways, with the developing relationships between the characters.)

Joel Hodgson and A.R.T. (foreground), and the rest of the cast of Yahoo's Other Space.

Karan Soni (Blunt Talk, Safety Not Guaranteed) leads Other Space's crew of untested space adventurers as Captain Stewart Lipinski, a recent space academy graduate whose enthusiasm is matched only by his inexperience. Joining Stewart into space are his perpetually angry (albeit efficient) older sister Karen (Bess Rous) who resents his sudden promotion over her, his sad sack childhood babysitter Michael (comedian Eugene Cordero), his space academy crush Tina (Milana Vayntrub), Natasha (Conor Leslie) the ship's computer avatar with a background in the hospitality industry, and Kent (Neil Casey, Saturday Night Live, Inside Amy Schumer) as a science officer who's more science experiment than scientist. For comedy sci-fi fans, Other Space also boasts the reunion of Mystery Science Theater 3000's Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu. Hodgson plays the Cruiser's aging burnout engineer, while Beaulieu once again voices a bargain bin robot, the engineer's metal friend A.R.T., who also happens to house the post-mortem consciousness of a former billionaire and "inventor of smart pillows." (If they ever told us what "A.R.T." stands for I missed it, but the smart pillow references are there if you look for them.)

Karan Soni brings just enough boyish zeal for adventure to his neurotic and people-pleasing Captain Lipinski to remind us regularly that they are actually travelling in the outer reaches of space. And the innovation of including an adult sibling relationship, a feature not uncommon in the greater world of ensemble sitcoms but far less common in deep space, regularly introduces some much needed weight of real emotion into the mix. While pairing Hodgson and Beaulieu is predictably a reliable and hilarious source of comedy – including a clear shout out to MST3K where the two spend half the episode watching the action on monitors and commenting on it! – it's Milana Vayntrub and Neil Casey who are the series' show stealers. Vayntrub, likely still most famous for a series of AT&T commercials, demonstrates some surprising comic chops over this short season, believably taking the Uzbek (it's funny, because it's true) ship's navigator from the lovelorn ditz she is in the early episodes to the powerfully, and genuinely terrifying and perhaps cannibalistic survivor of the later ones. As Kent, a character with perhaps the most perversely tragic backstory you will ever hear, Casey delivers his every dejected line with such a flat, unassuming deadpan that his anguish is as painful as it is funny.

The scripts are just the right combination of smart and very dumb, amoral (there are some decidedly Archer-esque sensibilities, especially on matters of death, sex, and casual bodily dismemberment) and yet abashedly sentimental. In short, Other Space is distracting fun from start to finish. And besides, sometimes a 'Three Laws of Robotics' gag is precisely what you need.

The entire first season of Other Space is currently streaming on Yahoo. There is still no word if it will be back for a second season.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.            


  1. You've neglected perhaps the first "sci-fi" comedy show, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN

  2. Excellent review. Just wish more people would give this show a try. And shame on Yahoo Screen for not having reupped for Season 2 by now.