Steven Universe Review: "Space Race" (Season 1B, Episode 2)

“I like to dream
Yes, yes, right between my sound machine.
On a cloud of sound, I drift in the night
Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near
To the stars away from here…”
– “Magic Carpet Ride”, Steppenwolf.

“The idea is ludicrous. It would never work – although, several humans, a monkey, and a dog did make it into space…” – Pearl, talking about building a spaceship out of spare parts… and also effectively writing every American’s letter to their representative on why we should increase funding to NASA.

Airdate: October 9th, 2014

Written By: Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu

Plot: A trip to a bunch of broken warp pads leaves Pearl nostalgic for the ability for interstellar travel – particularly, the ability to know what is going on back at Homeworld. Steven and Greg are inspired to make their own silly little space shuttle. Pearl sees this, gets involved, and takes it’s construction to the furthest possible limit.

Review (SPOILERS):

 

Three episodes ago, we watched as the world of Steven Quartz Universe went from the tiny sea town of Beach City, Delmarva, all the way into the deepest corners of outer space. So, why don’t we explore these new limitations ASAP?

Yeah, there’s a funny little thing about space travel – it’s rather complex and stuff. Can’t slap it together. I would make a comparison to this episode, but I can’t. Because this episode was put together like a Westminister Abbey model in a bottle – carefully assembled.

“Edward the Confessor himself could not have done better. Now to set the clocks to Greenwich Mean Time…”
(Unfortunately, the clocks never get adjusted properly.)

Upon reflection, I like to think of Steven Universe as a more (critically) successful version of Star Trek: Voyager. Both shows are feminist-esque science fiction dramedies dealing with people far from their homeland (the Crystal Gems and the Voyager/Marquis crew) and showcasing the bonds between the crew. Thing is, Voyager was treated as a second banana by the increasingly worn-out Trek writing staff – thus leading to a premise that was arguably never fully realized (Trek reviewer SFDebris called it “the beige of space”), as well as arguably inconsistent characterization.

Steven Universe, meanwhile, has thus far executed most things on a level that stretches beyond competent. Sure, there’s the odd exception (“Onion Trade”), but as we’ll see, these writers understand how to convey the stressful – damn near soul crushing – situation that the Gems are in. For this, we focus on our favorite technician, Pearl.

It’s pretty clear that Pearl has, well, reservations concerning Earth and Humanity. Some of this stems from actions involving Rose (as we’ll see come “Rose’s Scabbard” and “We Need To Talk”). Yet more comes from the idea that, well, she’s fled her homeland. Earth is, in effect, her refuge prison, associated with isolation. Her knowledge of humanity is low (at best), and her emotional connections are few and far between.

Looking even further, it’s heavily implied that she deeply yearns to go back to her home planet – Homeworld. (Safe to say that Rebecca Sugar took the Star Trek Guide to Naming Planets and tossed it in the garbage. Not that I’m complaining.) Oh, it’s also a goal that becomes more tragic given what we find out in “Back to the Barn”. Taking that into account, one can assume that she yearns for a world that she wants – added by her reasoning for building a spaceship, just to see what’s happening on Homeworld. Deep inside, she wants her desire for a Homeworld utopia to be true.

When given but a mere opportunity to build a spaceship, she goes full gusto into it. What was Steven and Greg’s cute bonding experience turns into a serious attempt to reach the deepest sectors of space, to the point where she makes precise calculations in terms of building a shuttle (with spare parts, mind you). And I mean serious – she ignores the fact that, by the time she will be back with Steven, Greg will be dead. She also ignores the part of the kid that is, you know, a human. Sure, he survived in space with Lapis Lazuli. But that was only for a scant few minutes. How long can he live deep in space, with no food or water?

Also, fifty years is apparently nothing for Pearl. This is a pretty big example of the length of Gem Years implied by Garnet in “Beach Party”. For Steven, who’s only been alive for around a dozen years? Well, there’s a damn good rationale behind Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. By the time the kid gets back from the test flight, his dad will be dead, his friend will be ready for retirement, Lars and Sadie will be a bickering old couple, and Onion will be a fifty-something year old felon instead of a child.

The fact that Pearl can remain sympathetic despite all of this is truly a great mark of Johnston and Liu’s writing. It’s something that Abrams and Jo didn’t nail as perfectly in “House Guest” – the scenario there was a bit too cliche. Here, it at least feels interesting enough to hit a fantastic beat. (Plus, this episode has some more cool visuals.)

This is the perfect time for Greg to showcase himself as a reasonable authority figure, especially compared to the bumbling goof he was in the last episode. He’s willing to tell Steven that, if there is a chance at failure, there is no shame in bailing out. And once he realizes the gravity of Pearl’s lunacy, he blocks Steven from the test flight. I like the balance that was struck here – the goofy, fun parent, yet also one that understands that there are lines and boundaries. I like how that contrasts with Pearl, who’s both serious about her goal and crosses every line possible in this episode.

And, again, by serious I mean deathly serious. She’s willing to die (or at least drive Steven close to death) , for the very small chance that she will get to see Homeworld, for the very faint hope that she will witness the utopia she so desires. For her, failure is not an option – to the point where she even kidnaps (so to speak, given she’s his guardian) the kid. To see this from a protagonist is astonishing – but it gets a tragic aura once one factors in just how disconnected she feels to Earth. She got so wrapped up in her own ego that she begins affecting the well-being of others. Once presented as the rational member of the Crystal gems, this episode deconstructs that.

Unfortunately, the Mach 3 begins falling apart mid-flight. Good idea, Pearl, trying to build a ship out of a barn full of surplus. (Not helped by pressing the wrong key on takeoff.) She wants to keep going, their lives be damned. At this point, Steven, the kid who wanted to go to space, realizes that Pearl’s plan, at least in it’s current state is futile. In this case, he has to be the one to bring her back to Earth – both literally and figuratively.

“Pearl, I know you miss space and I know you worked hard, but sometimes, you’ve just gotta know when to bail!” That sentence, between the music, Callison’s delivery, and the context, carries so much power in it. There seems to be this mindset (at least in America) where we have to give our all to every single thing we do, sending our health and life to the wayside. Once you commit to something, you have to see it through. I just love how this episode portrays bailing out of the mission as ultimately the very best option.

There’s no shame in throwing in the towel, for the sake of not only yourself, but for others. Keep in mind, even if Pearl survived the shuttle’s destruction fall back to Earth, Steven would’ve certainly died. Given what we later learn about regeneration, it would’ve been destructive. And even if she did survive, what purpose would there have been to go to space? While she really wanted to see if Homeworld had become a utopia, it was Steven’s eagerness to see space that drove her.

Amethyst, at the beginning of the show, declared that “We’re not the Crystal Gems without you.” The death of Steven at Pearl’s hands would be the single most destructive thing possible for them.

They bail out just in time – mere seconds after they eject, the Mach 3 disintegrates. Once he finds out that they survived, Greg is less vindicated and more relieved… well, somewhat relieved. (“The kid’s killing me!”)  You wonder why he doesn’t hang out with Steven and the Crystal Gems more often? Over the past few episodes, he had to watch his son almost drown, face down a mad alien, and almost disintegrate in deep space because Steven’s guardian defied him. His silly little bonding activity almost killed his son. That’s gonna smart psychologically.

So, as you can probably guess, Pearl won’t go back to Homeworld. And, spoiler alert, she’d be a tad bit disappointed anyway. But, at least Pearl can sit back and enjoy Earth a little bit more. Because she has somebody to enjoy it with – her adoptive son.

And, hey, maybe Pearl will be successful at going into space one day. And maybe, just maybe, she can see a Homeworld utopia…

“Space Race” is an astonishing episode. Managing to strike a great balance between comic romp and tense tragedy, as well as fleshing out Pearl, almost makes this episode a standout. I say almost mainly because of the sheer quality of some of the upcoming episodes. Yes, they are that good.

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…

Tidbits:

  • Before anybody asks, this review came out a bit later than I wanted it to. I wrote another blog post regarding current events in Steven Universe that I decided to not post for now, I wound up going out to visit family for 4th of July, and I got hooked onto SimCity 4. Totally my fault. Sorry about that.
  • Back on topic to Steven Universe (a little bit), am I the only one that got a weird Challenger vibe at the Mach 3‘s disintegration, what with the shuttle exploding on takeoff? Bizarrely, though, the destruction more closely resembles that of the Columbia – the failure of insulation to stay on led to the shuttle disintegrating and exploding on landing. Tragically, all on board both shuttles died.
  • I just love the Crying Breakfast Friends parody. Silly-looking cartoons have gotten more somber in the past 20 years, eh? Who knew that a show about three alien roommates and their human roommate/adoptive son would be so tense? Also, take note of the sticker. It will come back.
  • What is this, the second time in three episodes that Greg’s van is gutted? Dude’s insurance must be through the roof.

Wrap Up:

Favorite Scene: Greg screaming when the Mach 3 breaks up, only to collapse in relief when he finds that Pearl and Steven bailed out in the nick of time.

 

Best Character: Pearl – this episode manages to showcase both a tragic and arguably less than rational side to her all in the span of 11 minutes.

Memorable Quote: “This kid’s killing me!” – Greg, during the aforementioned “favorite scene”. Poor guy. You are forgiven for any lack of sympathy from “House Guest”.

Verdict: Gold. Gutwrenching, tragic, and yet still silly, “Space Race” is a fantastic episode. Honestly, the one thing keeping it from “Platinum” status is some of what’s to come. 

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