“Basic Rocket Science” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, October 14, 2010
It was never a matter of if Community would attempt to top “Modern Warfare”, but when. One time is a fluke, twice is a triumph — pull the same trick three times, and suddenly you’ve got yourself a house style going. The question was, where to go next? Mafia movies and action cinema had plenty of recognizable hallmarks to pilfer from, but how many more viable concepts could there really be? If they were going to continue to pursue this approach, sooner or later they were bound to fly too close to the sun.
As we have previously established in this column, what made the other gimmick episodes work so well is their dedication to foregrounding emotional character development. In “Contemporary American Poultry”, it was Jeff and Abed coming to understand and accept things about themselves and each other. In “Modern Warfare”, it was the culmination of Jeff and Britta’s season-long romantic buildup. Even “Beginner Pottery”(which only halfway qualifies as a concept episode anyway) played Pierce’s ridiculous foibles in Sailing class as a heightened expression of his actual emotions. Without that focus on the character’s individual journeys, all we’d have gotten out of them was a series of easy gags. And that’s pretty much what we get in “Basic Rocket Science”1, an episode that amounts to little more than a generic space movie spoof, confirming that just because an episode is parodying something, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s amazing. Perhaps its biggest failing is that you could easily imagine any other show doing an episode like this2, which you should never be able to say about a Community concept episode.
Let’s start with this plot, which is a straight-up mess. The episode never settles on an arc for any of its characters, mainly because it never decides who should be the main focus. At first it seems like it’ll be the Dean and/or Abed, but they both function more as inciting incidents than protagonists in their own right — one sets up the reason for the study group to be there, the other brings them inside the “spaceship”, then they’re both mostly sidelined for the rest of it. Certainly the Dean is the character with the most at stake here, so it’s an odd choice to have him spend most of the episode passive and powerless3. It’s possible to imagine a more involving version of this episode where he somehow gets trapped inside the Winnebago with the study group, which would admittedly be contrived, but not much more so than the episode already is. Unfortunately, they have to adhere to the structure of the thing they’re parodying, so he’s stuck on ground control, and his role is really no more consequential than Chang’s.
And the members of the study group who are “lost in space” don’t fare much better. Nobody’s motivation makes much sense. Shirley doesn’t buy it when Annie explains why she sabotaged the launch, and frankly neither do i4Jeff gives maybe his most half-assed “inspirational Winger” speech ever5, and the group’s bickering somehow seems pettier and more mean-spirited outside of the context of the study room. i think it’s because in this episode there’s no escape from their surroundings — normally when they fight, there’s at least the possibility that someone can just walk out, so the fact that they choose to stay is a sign of how much they have invested in each other. If they’re merely trapped, this investment is a lot more difficult to detect, making the inevitable moment where they reconcile and work together ring hollow6.
Two characters get hints of better stories that never fully emerge. The first is Pierce, who spends the episode in a state of blind panic, to the point where he hallucinates the primitive S.A.N.D.E.R.S. AI speaking directly to him. His fear of his own mortality and his belief that he’ll die alone come to the forefront in these scenes, and it’s interesting that he invokes his recently-deceased mother when he eventually breaks loose and destroys the computer screen. But the episode’s so plot-heavy there’s no real time to explore these fears. The other character getting shortchanged here is Troy, who steps into the role of Captain by happenstance but then proves he has leadership qualities no one would’ve imagined. This marks the start of Troy’s “journey into manhood” as he takes on more and more responsibilities and gradually becomes the self-actualized person who sails away on LeVar Burton’s boat, but that maturity is mostly just hinted at here, with Jeff’s acknowledgments of his capabilities the only real payoff we get. “Epidemiology”, just two episodes after this one, plays the same arc a lot better than this.
Otherwise, despite being overstuffed, this episode still manages to take every narrative shortcut it can to arrive at the big triumphant ending, which unlike all the other big triumphant endings this show’s had so far, doesn’t quite feel earned this time. The climax works fine on its own terms, but as a resolution to this particular episode, it comes off more cynical than anything else, assured in its belief that if they hit all the right pastichey notes, it’ll transcend the strain of all the setup it took to get there. Normally i live for the release of tension in these episodes, but this time no one learns anything, and no one has grown. It’s all quite shallow and forced, and dare i say, even Family Guy-esque. Maybe the first concept episode of the new season was just a Band-Aid they had to tear off, but i honestly can’t think of another one this unsuccessful until about season 4. To better days ahead.
⁃ End tag: ultra low-budget trailer for a Troy & Abed Thing called “Space Ships”, which mostly seems to consist of two grown men pretending to steer cardboard boxes and arguing over who’s on whose six.
⁃ City College rears its head as an antagonist for the first time since way back in “Debate 109”. This one features the first appearance of Dean Pelton’s archnemesis Dean Spreck (Jordan Black), who will return in the season finale “For A Few Paintballs More” to build on the scheming, supervillainous character he establishes here
⁃ Decidedy not a fan of the homophobic jokes at the Dean’s expense here. What makes his characterization work is its hyperspecificity — that he’s a bundle of kinks and peccadilloes the breadth of which is barely even hinted at. The show shouldn’t be falling back on lazy and harmful stereotypes just to explain his proclivities
⁃ This is where i start to wonder, would i appreciate this episide more if i caught all of the references? i have seen Apollo 13, so i get what they’re going for with Abed, but i’ve still never seen The Right Stuff, which seems to be the main inspiration here. My inclination is to say no, since at its best, Community’s approach to parody uses recognizable pop culture artifacts to strengthen character or story. It usually doesn’t resort to provoking a simple “i understood that reference” reaction from the audience, though it doesn’t always avoid it either
⁃ Script note: Jeff agrees with Annie when she blames herself for their predicament, only to reveal later on that he was the one who ratted them out to the Dean. The episode seems to want to have it both ways, so there’s blame to go around, but they could’ve given Jeff’s line about “when you go fishing, sometimes you catch a boot” to another character7 and the scene would have worked fine, and without making Jeff look worse than he already does
TROY: How do you know it was our design? We submitted it anonymously. Whoops
LEONARD: Hard to believe i’m not really not really in space
BRITTA: i remember this thing from high school. During field trips, we used to sneak inside and get…. to praying
SHIRLEY: You don’t know that, it was the 80s. Everybody who made this was on cocaine
JEFF: Pierce! You’re talking to an Atari cartridge!
TROY: We are…. 40 light years outside the Buttermilk Nebula, although it is possible…. yeah, it’s a sticker
TROY: Pierce has got space madness or he’s just old or something
BRITTA: How many schools would let you get a degree in Theoretical Phys Ed?
TROY: There is a time and a place for subtlety, and that time was before Scary Movie
CHANG: i tried to buy us some time with these Doublelicious sandwiches, but they thought i was doing product integration for KFC
ANNIE (driving): Come on, you family-sized bucket of bolts
JEFF: Well, if NASA ever needs someone to keep an arrow inside of a moving rectangle, i know who i’d recommend