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I am – Hercules!!

The Princess calls this pilot script “Apollo 13” meets “the West Wing.” But does she mean “Space Cowboys” meets “Glory Days”? I get little sense of whether or not she liked it; see if you can sort it out:

“Astronauts”/20th Century Fox/ABC

“Astronauts” is a new pilot from 20th Century Fox Television and ABC. If the premise “A young astronaut heads a team being sent up to space to rescue the crew of a damaged space ship” sounds like the start of a movie, you’re right. Except it’s a TV show we’re talking about. Penned by Todd Robinson (White Squall), produced by Industry Entertainment, Ian Sanders & Kim Moses. “Astronauts” is the quick alternative when you don’t have time to watch Apollo 13 and your Top Gun DVD has bit the dust.

The cold war is over, the Russians and Americans have decided to play nice and share their space programs. Collectively, they have three astronauts manning the International Space Station: Commander FRANK MASSE, Specialist MIKE BALDWIN, and cosmonaut VLADIMIR TYURZIN. Everything’s hunky-dory until BOOM! Wouldn’t you know it; the Russian Propulsion Module that’s supposed to dock with the space station collides into instead. In the face of life-threatening danger and under Frank’s orders, Tyurzin high-tails it to the escape capsule. The collision renders them rudderless, but it’s not Frank Masse’s style to abandon ship even if it means freezing to death in space. You can bet if this is a pissing contest, Baldwin isn’t going to bail either.

On the ground, Frank’s little brother BRENT watches the mishap from the Russian Mission Control. Brent is the hero du jour. In keeping with the 21st century anti-hero standard, Brent is far from squeaky clean. He’s got skeletons in his closet and, naturally they cause him to think everything is about him. Spooked during some combat in the Balkan conflict, Brent is the only Air Force pilot in U.S history to ever, ever bail from a Stealth fighter. Somehow this makes him a hero, to the magnitude that he’s been plastered on every magazine cover (sharing cover space with Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton no less), including a stint as “Sexiest Man Alive”.

With Frank’s life hanging in the stars, you better believe Brent’s going to do everything he can to save his big bro’. But it’s not that easy. Brent’s been on ice in Siberia for the past couple of years and things have changed back in Houston. Thanks to scorning his then-girlfriend LESLIE FORSYTHE, another astronaut and Director of Security for the I.S.S., the truth about Brent’s so-called hero status was revealed to SAM WILSON (Brent ejected out of the Stealth and wasn’t shot down.) Wilson, who always suspected Brent’s cowardice and had googly eyes for Forsythe anyway, pulled a few strings and sent Brent packing to Russia. We’ve also got GIG SCOTT, a Reuter’s reporter, who just happens to be in Russia with Brent as all this is going down, who just happens to be in the Control Room taking pot shots at him (apparently Gig is pretty skeptical over Brent’s hero status), and who just happens to follow Brent all the way back to the States where Brent saddles up to bring his brother home.

They’re not alone in their disregard for Brent. None of the crew of the rescue mission cares much for Brent’s swagger either. They’re no-nonsense astronauts, training day in and day out, apparently immune to People magazine articles. Family man Col. Tyler Davis, Capt. Christine Canton, Capt. Dale “Hollywood” Spade, and Pilot Alex Ward all make it clear: Brent’s never gonna be one of them. Full stop.

So, cue the Top Gun theme music, Brent has to prove himself. You’ve seen Top Gun no doubt, so you know cockiness comes before a fall. This means screwing up a simple flight simulator exercise which in real life would have meant killing everyone; Hollywood challenges Brent to a game of chicken on their motorcycles using the air force tarmac, and both lose when the MPs nail Hollywood while Brent bails before they can catch him; Brent makes a huge pass at Forsythe, never mind the huge rock on her left hand courtesy of Wilson, because when you’re Brent doesn’t every woman want you regardless of your past? Brent gets to eat his heart out when Wilson saves Frank with a fancy maneuver that positions the space station towards the sun and some heat (and buys time which Brent thanks Wilson for, as if Wilson did it as a favor to Brent); and Brent nearly drowns in a routine underwater exercise when his suit mysteriously blows up, luckily Ward (even though we know he’ll never go into space) is a big enough man to save Brent’s life ‘cause that’s what heroes do. Brent will figure it out eventually, but for now there’s no time for winning friends when you’ve got something to prove.

Meanwhile, big bro Frank and Baldwin are freezing to death in the busted space station. While a rescue mission is intense business, you know… people have to be trained (read: Brent has to earn his stripes to replace the sadly not-quite-good-enough Ward); another shuttle mission was already booked to go up and do some exploratory work. No wonder days after the space station collision there’s angst among the politicians who are having the real pissing contest.

Senator Clint Garner, head of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, doesn’t want the money-sucking ISS program to succeed. If he had his druthers NASA would be used for one thing and one thing only – the missile defense program (I’m betting he’s a NRA Republican, too). He butts horns with Richard Brack, Director of Flight Crew Operations who’s wily and determined that his program will survive even if that means exploiting Brent’s hero status. (I knew it was Brack who leaked the headline “Right Hero for the Right Time”).

Brent’s not going to save anyone until he can get his head out his ass. That means after his testosterone has leveled out, he’s doing the somber I’ve-got-a-past-that-haunts-me routine. Gig confronts Brent about what happened in the Balkans, how a volunteer paratrooper died rescuing Brent and how Brent blames himself for his death (oh boy). Brent sends money to the guy’s widow and kid (he’s not stalking, he’s just looking out for them in a very silent, non-stalker way).

Brent doesn’t get over his ‘universe revolves around me” attitude until he discovers Davis’ wife, Lisa, who normally looks perky, is hiding a big secret (shhh). She’s got cancer and wears a wig. If anyone knew about it, Davis would be grounded from space for life (never mind that Brent walks in off the street to find Lisa in her living room hooked up to all sorts of tubes). Lisa is a trooper, for her kids’ sake, her husband’s sake, but most of all because she wants to live. She gets it through Brent’s thick skull that the paratrooper who perished died because he wanted Brent to live (okay, now I understand why Brent has an ego). If that’s not enough, the paratrooper’s widow sends a message through Gig that she too knows her husband died doing what he loved best – saving people (this must be why Gig stalks Brent, to act as his conscience).

Whew. Brent gets it, he’s not out to save his brother because he wants to be the youngest astronaut in space, or jump the line of surly and better trained veterans. He wants to live and he wants his brother to live too. In a final training exercise where Ward pilots a flight that nearly kills the crew of the rescue mission, Brent takes over and saves the day. He proves that he can cut it under pressure. What’s more is that he gives the credit to Ward, and earns his stripes with the others.

If you’re wondering how Brent saves his brother and what happens when the crew are in space (can they contain their simmering tempers? Is Hollywood going make a pass at Canton so he can be the first man in the thousand mile high club? Freed from his guilt over the volunteer paratrooper will Brent try to eject from the shuttle in the escape capsule? Will he and Forsythe get back together? And what’s happened to Tyurzin anyway? I smell something fishy…) You’ll have to keep watching the series. At first it irked me that this story wasn’t over and not by a long shot, now I’m starting to think it’s either a really bad or really ingenious tactic to make one rescue mission a multiple episode ordeal.

“Astronauts” will be directed by Robert Harmon, and will star Jeffrey Pierce (Brent Masse) and Yvette Nipar (Forsythe), Chris Potter, Bobby Hosea, and Jonathon Banks so far. There was some initial drama over whether Twentieth would stay involved because of budgetary concerns, but for this pilot, they’re still in. The pilot is coming in at about $3.5 million, and what doesn’t go to the Executive Producers will all be onscreen (let’s hope that’s still a few million). Will “Apollo 13” meets “the West Wing” work as a weekly series? We’ll take another look when the tape comes in…

~ Princess X

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