September 07, 2010

Rocket Girls Ep12: A Wrapup

Over three years ago, in the midst of one of my occasional bouts of blog-self-loathing, I mentioned that I had some thoughts about the final episode of the show Rocket Girls.  Shortly thereafter, I forgot that I even mentioned it and away it went into the depths of the internet.  Flash-forward to last week, when Pete Z won the fourth installment of the "Name This Mystery Ship" contest... which brings with it the winner's choice of a blog post.  His selection was for me to write up those thoughts on Rocket Girls ep12. 

To be honest, I had no idea what he was talking about.  I found the post where I mentioned it the first time, and that jogged no memories.  I had no idea what I was referring to!  Still, a promise is a promise, so it was off to the show to watch ep12 again, see what sprang to mind. 

By the end of it, I knew exactly what I meant. 

If you remember, JAXA's manned two-seat capsule, the Mangosteen, had made rendezvous with NASA's space shuttle Atlantis in an attempt to rescue a space probe destined for Pluto.  The problem was that the probe had reached an orbit too high for either the shuttle or the capsule to reach individually.  After an amazing kludge, however, the shuttle gave Mangosteen enough of a boost so it could reach the probe, fix it, and send it on it's way.  While unlikely, I could roll with that; it made for good story after all.

However, all is not well.  Due to a data-entry mixup (ain't that always the way?), it turns out that the Mangosteen won't be able to return to Earth without burning up during re-entry.  Some quick thinking on the part of both NASA and JAXA gives our heroines, hot pilot Yukari and mission specialist Akane, one chance: a skip re-entry.  This involves the capsule rebounding off the atmosphere a couple of times so as to slow down enough to come through okay.  Okay, I can buy that... it's been done before.  But there's a snag: there's a whole slew of numbers (Coordinates?  Drag coefficients?  Shoe sizes?) that are needed so's the capsule can perform the maneuvers correctly.  One tiny mixup and poof, they're burned to a crisp... and the crew of the Mangosteen traded away their pens to the NASA astronauts.  No problem!  Akane is a super-geeeeenius and can memorize any long sequence of numbers you care to throw at her.  Okay, I can buy that, too. 

Re-entry begins.  The G-forces build.  Akane, frail little flower that she is, passes out leaving hot pilot Yukari to just wing it.  Soon enough, the stresses build enough to drop Yukari as well.

And this is where I began to get really angry at Rocket Girls.

Up until this point, Rocket Girls had one thing going for it that practically no other anime, and perishingly few TV shows of any sort, had ever had before: a realistic grasp of the science of space-flight.  While the concept of having a space program based around high-school girls may sound silly, they had a good explanation for it (size and weight savings) that made perfectly good sense.  All throughout the show, Rocket Girls showed us that they understood just what it took to put anything into space, and used that understanding to make us believe that what they were doing could work... which is exactly what I'd expect from a show that had JAXA, Japan's space agency, as a production partner.  Was it perfect?  No, of course not... but it was close enough to make it seem right.

So what happens?  Is there any doubt?  Of course not: the Mangosteen comes through the blind, unpiloted, bloody-bedamned-impossible re-entry sequence totally intact, everybody's happy, the end, fade to black.

However, what should have happened makes for a more realistic, and in my mind much stronger, resolution, and a much better show as a result.  Simply put, they should have killed the main characters.

The Mangosteen should have burned up on re-entry.  They had gone through all the trouble of explaining just how difficult a maneuver this skip re-entry was, how nigh-on impossible it'd be, then given us the resolution: super-genius Akane being able to spew out the needed digits on demand so hot pilot Yukari could make the required corrections at the required times so as to bring them home.  Remember, up to this point, Rocket Girls had gone to exquisite lengths to demonstrate that they had the science of space flight down cold, and made us all believe that two joshikousei could fly.

And then they threw it all away.  They threw it all away by saying "gosh, let's have a happy ending despite impossible, unbelievable odds."  To use a phrase from Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, they screwed the pooch.  What would have been a magnificent opportunity to show the viewers just how dangerous manned space flight can be, and why we should do it anyway, became just another ending of a Magical Girl show.  For that's what Rocket Girls became in the final few minutes of the final episode of the series... "love and dreams will conquer all."  Space flight is dangerous, and one simple screwup can kill a crew.  They could have shown that, and explained why the sacrifice of hot pilot Yukari and super-genius Akane was worth making.  Indeed, throughout the series the producers never shied away from letting us know the risks... until the very end, when the risks came to the forefront.

Then they pissed the chance away, and what was a decent-to-good series became ashes in the viewer's mouth.  Yes, you could say "it wasn't that type of show."  To which I'd say, "horsehockey."  They went to great lengths to make it exactly that type of show, and they didn't deliver.  I hadn't been that frustrated with an ending since Kare Kano or episodes 25 and 26 of Evangelion

Without a doubt, Rocket Girls was flawed before the ending.  But it could have been memorable nevertheless.  By taking it from the reality-based concept into the realm of fantasy right at the very end, however, they completely ruined it for me.

Too damn bad; I may as well have been the target audience.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:02 PM | Comments (9) | Add Comment
Post contains 1050 words, total size 8 kb.

1 Thanks, but you might want to read about Zond.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at September 08, 2010 08:01 AM (9KseV)

2 Well...they, um....had a good safety margin built in.

(Pete does make a very good point regards Zond.)

For my own part I found the last half of the show rather unsatisfying largely because of Akane, who's inclusion in the team was unrealistic and disturbing given her demonstrated frailty.

The Pluto probe was not in any way worth dying for so I disagree that having the girls perish for it would have been a good ending. A greater goal (disarming a nuke in space, deflecting an asteroid perhaps) might have made that acceptable, but for me what would have been a better ending would have been if  Akane, who in spite of her frailty had been training quite vigorously and had demonstrated considerable determination, had actually held it together long enough to do the calculation.

In any event the show is an adaptation of the light novels (which continue on into space at least as far as the moon,) so there are limited liberties that could have been taken.

On balance, despite the problems you point out as well as others, I still like the show.
As I said in my review:
We live in an age when technology is often portrayed as an implacable enemy of nature and humanity, when our young adults are coddled and infantalized as "mere children" into their late 20s and where great deeds, idealism and aspiration are looked upon with a mixture of contempt and amusement. 
With science and rationality portrayed as a gateway to success, young adults who ARE adults, even in the most terrifying circumstances, people of vision overcoming all manner of obstacles to achieve their dreams, and a future where the sky itself is no limit,  Rocket Girls is a dynamic and enjoyable rejection of those contemptible pathologies.  

...and Matsuri is hot.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at September 08, 2010 11:38 AM (EJaOX)

3 Yes, I'm familiar (to a degree) with the Zond program, and I'm aware that some of them used the skip method of reentry.  Maybe I didn't make myself clear: I didn't have a problem with the skip reentry in the least.  What I had a problem with was that hot pilot Yukari had to wing it once Akane went to sleep... and still got it right, despite being about to pass out herself.

THAT's where Rocket Girls pissed me off. 

Muppet, I don't disagree that the Pluto probe wasn't worth dying for... but they went ahead and did it anyway.  Everybody fouled up, from the very decision to do it to the bungled simulations of the reentry numbers, to trusting Akane to stay awake under G-forces that she'd shown that she couldn't stand.  Quite honestly, Mangosteen deserved to burn after that series of snafus. 

And should have, just to show how dangerous space flight is: one mistake and pfft.  It makes the successes just that more impressive.

I know about the light novels, and I don't care.  It wouldn't be the first time, nor the last, that an anime diverges from the source material.

Posted by: Wonderduck at September 08, 2010 06:11 PM (blg68)

4 The scriptwriters could have lessened the impact of the pooch-screw by giving Mangosteen an autopilot, and having Akane's super-smart re-entry course programmed into it.  It would still be a deus ex machina sort of ending, but nowhere near as bad as what they went with.  Another alternative would be to have Akane in Mission Control (where she damn well belongs if she can't hack high g forces), sending her calculations to Yukari via radio.  They could have played it up like the scene in Apollo XIII when the flight controllers were double-checking Lovell's arithmetic.  (Or they could have used the Super Evil Alternative--have the girls miraculously survive the reentry, only to have Mangosteen's landing parachutes fail to deploy, turning the splashdown into a splatdown.)

OTOH, I think there's a big problem with the first step in this whole process.  I can't see what "amazing kludge" could have gotten Mangosteen into the higher orbit without either leaving Atlantis stranded in orbit or doomed to break up in a over-stressed reentry.  Did they do an on-orbit fuel transfer?  The only significant fuel source I know of in this situation would be Atlantis's Orbital Maneuvering System, which IIRC uses nasty corrosive and/or poisonous propellants--not something that responds well to kludges.

Posted by: Peter the Not-so-Great at September 08, 2010 06:34 PM (c62wM)

5 Peter, the kludge was simple: they tied the Mangosteen down in the shuttle bay on a pillow, then sped up.  When they reached a certain velocity, two astronauts who had been holding the capsule in place by hand with luggage straps let go, giving the capsule an extra boost.

Yeah, it's as dumb as it sounds.

Posted by: Wonderduck at September 08, 2010 07:03 PM (blg68)

6 That sequence was way worse than conservative heat shield modelling. The whole Orpheus story was garbage, honestly. But hey, still better than Planetes -- by a little bit. Also, I like Akane.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at September 08, 2010 07:51 PM (9KseV)

7 Yeah, it's as dumb as it sounds.

They had...a Mangosteen-sized the cargo bay...(facepalm)

If I were watching that scene, I'd have ripped the DVD out of the player and thrown it across the room with a curse.  Here I was wondering about on-orbit fuel transfers and trajectories, and the scriptwriters decided to go with a frickin' pillow. That IMHO kills any pretense of realism for this episode, long before the pretty-magical-girl reentry.

Posted by: Peter the Not-so-Great at September 08, 2010 08:51 PM (c62wM)

They had...a Mangosteen-sized the cargo bay...(facepalm) 

I lost my copy when the trailer was destroyed, but IIRC the 'pillow' was sized for the shuttle cargo bay for some other purpose related to the Pluto probe.

That sequence was way worse than conservative heat shield modelling. The whole Orpheus story was garbage, honestly.

Yeah, I was actually being snarky about the overbuilt shield.

Compared to the superb climax that was the halfway point it really was a disappointing way to end the series. It might have been forgivable as mid-season filler, but it was pretty dumb.

(Of course what REALLY happened during reentry was that people from NASA who, you remember  had  the skip reentry data, were manning the computers and  tracking the capsule, got someone who spoke Japanese to radio the Mangosteen at the crucial moment and say"NOW!!" )

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at September 09, 2010 10:27 AM (EJaOX)

9 Which is a nice idea, Muppet, but they clearly stated that during reentry all comms with the capsule are lost (which is realistic).  So no NASA-Japanese speaker.

Posted by: Wonderduck at September 09, 2010 03:34 PM (OS+Cr)

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