Thursday, June 26, 2014

“A Hard Day's Night”: Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys

As a genre, science fiction, especially science fiction that is in some way descended from Golden Age Hard SF, seems largely focused on the machinations and inner workings of giant, authoritarian, monolithic institutions. Be it some futuristic extrapolation of the army, the navy, the intelligence sector, the police or huge, sprawling technoscience corporations, science fiction seems one the whole unsettlingly comfortable with mulling about the halls of power, likely owing to the genre's futurist roots. Remember, James Blish, a member of the influential group of sci-fi writers the Futurians and the guy who novelized the original Star Trek series, thought, somewhat bewilderingly, that Pfizer would usher in a Trotskyist revolution so long as we pledged support to them and bought their products.

This is, suffice to say, equal parts untenable and unacceptable.

There are exceptions to this trend. The first two Alien movies, arguably The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf, bits and pieces of Doctor Who at various points in its history. Star Trek itself tends to go back and forth on this: Though the point of the franchise is very much that the Federation is anything but an unambiguous group of good guys promoting a utopia and how our crews operate under that knowledge, this fact seems to have been lost on a worrying number of creative teams and this isn't as emphasized as frequently or as strongly as it really needed to be. Raumpatrouille Orion is better, though that crew is still a bunch of ace pilots. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was anything but this, but invoking Nausicaä in this case does feel a bit like bringing a nuclear bomb to a knife fight.

Then there is, of course, Dirty Pair. Kei and Yuri may job for the 3WA and United Galactica, but they have a much higher calling than that and, by virtue of being professional wrestlers operating by cyberpunk logic and the way this show has been portraying them, we're very much meant to read them as working class characters. Even so, the series hasn't done a story overtly about this yet, and this is what “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys” is about.

In some ways, this episode is “The Case of the Backwoods Murder” for Kei, with the Angels taking a job that puts them in contact with a childhood friend of hers who gets mixed up in the mission in some form. What this allows us to do is get a rare look at Kei's backstory: Though the Sunrise anime and the light novels are of course two separate continuities, we can assume Yuri's backstory is roughly similar here to what was described in “The Case of the Backwoods Murder”. In this episode though, we learn that our suspicions regarding Kei were correct: She grew up on a more urbanized planet and probably lived off of the streets. After Kaia, the leader of a fleet of space pirates who are after the precious gem the girls are tasked with escorting, introduces himself as someone from Kei's childhood, Yuri even openly supposes he's one of Kei's “delinquent friends” from “back in the day”.

As for Kaia himself, he's another in a line of subverted romantic foils for the girls. Like we saw with Sydney a few weeks ago, Kaia goes out of his way to peg himself as potential love interest for Kei, but he's exceedingly less subtle about it, to the point it manages to interfere with the way his backstory is conveyed. He even introduces himself right from the beginning as Kei's long-lost childhood friend, tacitly setting himself up to play a predetermined role. But this time Kei shoots him down right from the start: No sooner are we introduced to Kaia then Kei confides to Yuri (and us) that he's what in modern parlance would be described as a “massive douche”, and that he's the kind of guy who thinks that because he's attractive every woman wants him simply for existing. In other words, Kaia thinks he's “God's Gift to Women”, if you will, and you can imagine how well Kei and Yuri take that. Kei does nothing but smack-talk and insult Kaia for the rest of the episode, but it never connects with him: It's as if he's reading from an entirely different script and doesn't realise what show he's on.

This comes to a delightful head in the climax when, figuring out they have the real gem amongst a fleet of decoys, Kei rewires the shipping container as a bomb and sends it over to Kaia's ship, as Kaia asks her to come with him. She gives a big, emotional monologue straight out of any pulp serial or cheesy drama about distances and lifestyles keeping people apart and how her giving up the gem is symbolic of her love and his victory and how he should think of her every time he looks at it. And it's total and complete bullshit, as Kei flags it as a feint to us from the start and then proceeds to laugh maniacally as Kaia's entire starfleet, which appears to be roughly the size of a solar system is obliterated in the ensuing conflagration (Kaia's OK, of course: As Kei takes care to reassure us, a “little thing like that” won't do him in. Once again, don't forget it's all play-acting). So, Kei's speech becomes a textual “decoy”, Kaia's self-absorbed bravado and machismo becomes a metaphor for a preponderance of tropish, patriarchal writing, and the Angels think the best attitude to take towards something like that is to blow it up.

But the workaday feel of “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys” isn't limited to what we learn about Kei's childhood as a street rat. The Angels are on an expressly mundane mission this time, even compared to tracking down a lost cat in “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death”: All they need to do is transport the gem, valuable in a certain kind of precision mining, from the 3WA headquarters to an deep space excavation. The girls are basically truck drivers here, hauling cargo on a cosmic highway, and the show does an amazing job conveying what a world where this kind of job exists would feel like. The distances here are ridiculous: The mining operation is an entire galaxy, and they can't use warp drive because it would have an adverse effect on the gem's harmonic resonance, which means the girls are basically traversing the intergalactic void in a straight line on impulse. Thankfully faster-than-light technology seems to be more advanced in the Dirty Pair universe than in the Star Trek one and this is a distance achievable in what seems like a few days instead of a literal eternity.

But what this manages to do is simultaneously evoke feelings of cosmic wonder and mundane drudgery: We're awestruck at the scale of the journey the girls are undertaking and left to wonder about how many countless indescribable sights Kei and Yuri can see if they have the ability to explore at this level, and yet the journey still feels like what it is-A mind-numbing truck drive from one point to another. I love the little scene before Kaia shows up where the Lovely Angel is in mid-flight and the crew is just passing their time: Yuri is reading and listening to classical music, Kei is exercising and practicing her martial arts and Mughi is baking a cake, which is a heretofore unknown kind of adorable not possible to measure with current technology. Dirty Pair gives us a world that manages to capture our imagination with inspiring science fiction vistas while also reminding us of the grit that exists in any fantasy world extrapolated from, and designed to talk about, our own.

And then there's the final scene, which is just a fist-pumping moment of perfection: Kei and Yuri play Gooley like a flute, totally taking advantage of his tendency to dismiss, belittle and unjustly blame them. As far as I'm concerned, it's a contender for Gooley's best moment in the show (though I'm also quite partial to “You idiots! from “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” and one bit in an episode coming up). The boss is a hardass who doesn't live in the same world as his workers and doesn't understand them, as it frankly should be ( shouldn't be, but it should be in fiction about jobs and work in capitalistic systems). Kei and Yuri may be forced to work in an unfair world and for a system and institution with at the very least questionable ethics (severely so, as we'll soon find out), but they can't be held accountable for this any more than they can for anything else, if for no other reason than, as the protagonists, they're allowed to transcend, reclaim and reappropriate it.

Kei and Yuri are workers for the light.


  1. One of the big things I am enjoying about this series is its ability to "transcend, reclaim and reappropriate" as you say above.

    I don't know it it's just down to the drawing style but felt that there was a transgender edge to the character of Kaia. I felt that something like that may be coming (and it does overtly appear in a later story) and it was very refreshing to see in an animation.

    1. "One of the big things I am enjoying about this series is its ability to 'transcend, reclaim and reappropriate' as you say above."

      That really does seem to be a major theme here, doesn't it? I think it's a major strength of this series and Dirty Pair in general. We can even use this to salvage the show itself in its weaker moments.

      Interesting take on Kaia: I'd never thought of that, but it is certainly interesting in lieu of what happens next episode, as you say.

  2. Aye for sure - I also did spend quite a while working out if Kaia was actually a women at first.