Salvation Episode One: Pilot

Let me jump right in here before I get to my review of the first episode, and say that before this series started I had read a lot about it.  Everything I could in fact. Someone had called to my attention a few days prior to its premier that there were a LOT of similarities between this story and my own works, so I was doing my homework to see if there was any truth to that idea.  Along the way I noticed that the producers called Salvation “real science fiction,” so I’ve decided to will use that as the first yardstick to see how close they come. (I’ve included some links as references below.  Check them out to learn a bit more on asteroid science.)

And so it begins: “Pilot”

In the opening prologue scene we find Neil Degrasse Tyson delivering the line that foreshadows the reality of our earthly situation with regards to asteroids and meteors. It carries a gut level punch of truth when played against scenes that show real footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor that blew up over Russia on February 15, 2013.

“We just don’t even know they’re out there until it’s too late.”

He’s right, we don’t, and maybe we won’t, until it IS too late.

From there we cut to our main characters who are immediately put on a collision course. Darius Tanz, a wealthy entrepreneur/engineer who is clearly styled after Elon Musk (except obviously much prettier … Sorry Elon) and Liam Cole, a brilliant young astrophysicist who can’t set an alarm early enough to get out of bed on time to attend a TED type of talk that is being hosted at MIT, for brilliant scientist types.

At this talk, Tanz delivers the next most important line of the story:

“All our eggs are in one cosmic basket. If the Universe decides to plant it’s big old ass in that basket … we’re toast.”

Sounds a little like a slightly more crude version of something Musk said in an article I read a couple weeks ago, but hey that’s probably why it rings true isn’t it?

At this point the story picks up from what could be a pretty good Hard SF set up, and shoots into the miasma of interpersonal parenting angst that belongs in a YA drama on the CW network.  (What?!?  Well, ok maybe.) The mom in these scenes is apparently some high-power press type for somebody in Washington.  It takes about thirty seconds to catch the whole family thing – the ex husband – the ex husband’s girlfriend – the fact that mom is having an affair with her boss. Oh and the daughter is also flexing her independence muscles.

After a detour through a bog of thickly applied human drama, we find ourselves faced with a whack-ton of geek flirting, interspersed with scientific sounding handwavium, as Liam meets a cute girl in a bar. She turns out to be a science fiction writer and is obviously turned on by technobabble since they fall passionately through the door of her apartment in the next scene. (Who knew that science was such a turn on???)

Later in the night, Liam (who can’t be awakened by his regular alarm) jumps out of bed when his computer texts his phone to tell him … you guessed it … there is a killer asteroid coming at the earth.

He immediately runs to his advisor/professor and dumps the news on him.  And from here the story gets interesting….

Image credit: CBS

The following morning we end up with a missing professor, and a big Black SUV full of bad guys who chase Liam across the MIT campus on his bicycle (well actually they chase him a half block before he skids off on a sidewalk and they give up).  Needless to say he’s freaked out.  So, rather than go to the police, he somehow manages to get himself into an elevator with Darius Tanz where he blurts out, “The world is going to end in 186 days.” Or something to that effect.

So other than finding out that the government already knows about this asteroid, that’s the set up for the series.

One of the things that annoyed me most about this episode is the idea that the dialog, although quick and witty (when not sappy and angsty), is shot through with attempts to speak science.  “There is a 97.2% probability that this is a planet killer.” WHAT!?!

97.2% sounds very precise, and obviously represents a LOT of meaningful information that comes from tons of complex calculations … but then it is followed by a fuzzy-fluffy-bullshit term like “planet killer.”  How can you give me a calculation that’s accurate to one part in a thousand, and then try to make me swallow a “planet killer.” Can you even tell me what a planet killer is?  Exactly? Is it a one cubic mile asteroid? Is it a ten cubic mile asteroid?  Is it one that hits on land, or in the ocean, or near a super-volcano?  WTF is it?

“I don’t know, but somehow I can precisely tell you this asteroid has a very accurately determined probability of doing SOMETHING to earth that is kinda, sorta bad.”

My brain shut off at that point.  The mental circuit breakers kicked into protection setting and I went into disbelief mode.

Sigh.

By disconnecting from the idea that this might be a science fiction story, I realized it was still potentially a cool science fantasy.  Ok.  I can live with that.  I can even ride that a long way (after all I enjoyed Star Wars).

Image Credit: FIAAA / B612 Foundation Illustration / Dan Durda

I stare mindlessly at the far too frequently hot bodied cast, until I get to the point that they’re planning to use a gravity tractor to deflect the asteroid.  Here again that’s a real idea proposed to deflect asteroids.  The hint of science baited me out of my protective mode and my brain began to slip back into functioning. They even got the idea that you can’t blow up an asteroid to save the world correct … thus the need for a gravity tractor.

But it was a trap.

About three whole seconds later I remembered that a gravity tractor takes a lot longer than six months to deflect an asteroid that is big enough to be a planet killer (whatever we decided that was). And then I realize that they hadn’t launched it yet. There was no way they’d get the necessary hardware out to near Jupiter (which is where the asteroid is) without taking more than the 189 days they’ve got left. And then it’d need to work for YEARS to get enough deflection  … so the brain went back into hiding again.

God, would somebody give these guys a book on orbital mechanics?  Please?

Now with my brain safely protected UNDER the cushion on my recliner, I sat and watched the last half of the pilot episode with little reaction (other than an occasional moment of pure open mouth confusion).  In the last half hour they spent most of their time deepening the characters and making you really NOT like the guy in charge of the Government’s mitigation plan. Bad stuff happens and more bad stuff happens, and all he does is lie to the people on his team, especially the woman he’s having his affair with.

Come on do I have to hate him? Apparently the answer is, yes.

I think there is so much potential in Salvation even though the first episode spent way too much time diving in and out of the muck of emotional angst.  Sure, the idea that in 186 days there might not be a world left is enough to ruin anyone’s day, but it doesn’t mean we have to spend the time we have left slogging through the emotional goo of a Gilmore Girls episode (nothing against the Gilmore Girls … it just wasn’t meant to be science fiction).

This was the first episode of the series, so I understand the producers want to get the audience on board with the characters as quickly as possible, but in my opinion they tangled things so badly with interpersonal drama that the real story got lost in the fog.  There were some really good scenes where you can profoundly feel the characters coming to grips with their changing reality, and the acting in those moments was strong enough to show some serious depth.  But if they’re hanging this story together with snapshot images and not paying attention to the bigger picture, they’re going to be creating a pixelated version of the concept at best.

For all that it sounds like I am panning the show, I’d give it 4/5 stars on the story and acting, and 3/5 on the science because I KNOW what might be ahead, at least in theory.  I’m an optimist so I’ll be back to keep watching in the hopes that it grows into something good.

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