Review of Final Space (2018)

Moving picture, 14 hours

Seen in 2022.

This review refers to all three seasons of the 2018–2021 series. It was cancelled in 2022, halfway through what its creator claimed to have planned as its storyline.

For a spectacular error, a human is sentenced to years of isolation on a one-man prison ship in space. He also falls in love with the officer who arrests him. He and his friends, dubbed the “team squad”, are eventually thrown into an unrelated adventure to save the universe from Invictus, an evil god from a dimension where space is simultaneously toxic and easily breathable.

Final Space is profoundly imitative. It is a soft space opera where bulky guns fire slow-moving beams and the space suits look retro like Lensman cover art, but where the usefulness of technology is determined by local writing convenience only. Tropes, jokes and story beats routinely trump the physical circumstances of a scene, as if the whole reason for making a science fiction show was to have it run on emotional instead of physical logic. For example, in episode 10, a “rebel” fleet appears instantly, as if it had been summoned by the narrative fiat of a Dungeon World player.

That rebel fleet is rebellious in the same weirdly apolitical, agenda-free way as the rebels of Star Wars (1977). This lack of substance is increasingly lampshaded as a joke, and comedy is dominant early on. There is an infantile animal character, a non-talking cross between Nibbler from Futurama (1999) and Haro from Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). There are also animal people, specifically cats with names like “Avocato”. Plot callbacks like the Dewinter family are primarily jokes about the apparent thoughtlessness of Final Space’s writing relative to smarter shows like Rick and Morty (2013). However, the self-conscious comedic elements are gradually replaced by a darker melodrama that includes an extensive apocalypse on Earth in the late first season.

The first villain, the Lord Commander, looks to have been based on Invader ZIM (2001). To match the move away from comedy, that character is succeeded by larger threats, based on the imitators of H. P. Lovecraft who took Lovecraft’s aliens and turned them into large wrestling humans, in this case patterned after the Titans of Greek mythology. By the end, the show takes itself seriously, only rarely cutting away from scenes of madness, disease, parent-killing and tearful betrayal to assorted comic relief. As a whole it is lazy, but from time to time, the details work. In particular, there is a lot of careful work on facial expressions in the digital animation, selling many of the show’s tonal shifts. The concept comes together in episode 6 of the first season, and there are a few skillfully composed local dramatic apices after that.

Each season has an overarching “ticking clock” plot; a cheap trick. In one of the highest-rated episodes, “The Other Side” (2019), 60 years instead pass with nothing happening, until this is undone like most of the character deaths in the series. That episode’s game with the passage of time is based upon earlier SF like The Forever War (1974), “Timescape” (1993), “Second Chances” (1993) and Interstellar (2014). “The Other Side” ultimately goes nowhere new or interesting, chickening out of continuity by the conceit of an unreliable narrator. That is a shame, because a varied tempo could have been used to develop the characters more effectively, beyond the boundaries of the adventure formula. Ultimately, what sets Final Space apart from the competition is not the quality of its plotting or the unusually dark three-season narrative arc but the subtle generational updates the show makes in its imitations. Helping the facial animation, the character writing and voice acting are distinctly Millennial. They revolve around bromances, flexible gender roles, emotional openness and tolerant found family with a constant but tentative irony that matches the hypermediated presentation.

References here: Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time (2021).

moving picture animation fiction series