Astra Lost in Space
by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Astra Lost in Space ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Astra Lost in Space ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Astra Lost in Space ?
I've always been a sucker for a good space story. Pepper in the thrill of unforgiving habitats, the nerdy appeal of advanced technologies, and the yearning to experience the unknown, and you've got a pretty appealing formula. So naturally I was looking forward to Astra Lost in Space from its title alone. It's obviously evocative of the classic sci-fi serial Lost in Space, and while watching its premiere, I was surprisingly also reminded of a landmark show from my childhood, Space Cases. This is a niche comparison that's only going to be helpful to people my age who habitually watched Nickelodeon in the mid-'90s, but the similarities are there: rambunctious teens fall through a wormhole and have to learn how to work together, while braving both outer space and alien planets on their long journey back home. All of these stories have their roots in the 300-year-old novel Robinson Crusoe, which itself was predicated on the basic human fears and desires that follow our predilection for exploration. That's not to say that I find Astra Lost in Space too derivative, I just think it's neat as part of a long history of stories people have gravitated toward throughout history.
Of course, when telling a story with roots in familiar narratives, execution becomes more important than ever, and Astra's first three episodes have made me confident for its future. Beginning with a double-length episode is a statement in itself, but Astra uses the additional space (hah) well to establish both its characters and their conflicts. The cold open on a lone girl tumbling through space sets a serious tone with the looming threat of death. We shift to a lighter mood when we roll back the clock, and comedy plays an important role in the overall story, but Astra wants its audiences to know right away that it will not be playing around. It's a smart move that got me invested before I knew who any of these characters were.
The execution of Astra's premiere is full of fairly smart moves like this. The characters feel archetypal at first, but they're distinctive, which is important for a large core cast of nine kids. The character designs themselves do a great job of communicating their personalities, from Ulgar's emo haircut to Zack's stylish nerd glasses. The visual design of the show pops with color, and while I did roll my eyes at their color-coded spacesuits, the little conversation they had about spacesuit fashion won me over. A lot of thought was clearly put into their home setting, even though they don't spend much time there. Director Masaomi Ando doesn't bring a particularly virtuosic eye to the anime's construction, but his execution feels confident, and there are a bunch of little added touches I like. Most obviously, non-space scenes are presented with letterboxing, while space scenes use up the full aspect ratio, as a nod to the universe's incomprehensible vastness. It's a little gimmicky, but I appreciate the extra thought that was put into this choice. The commercial breaks also swoop in with a cutout of the show's logo, which evokes old campy sci-fi serials like the original Lost in Space. There's some awkward CG implementation, and some uses of paneling that don't quite mesh with the flow of an animated series, but overall Astra has a solid aesthetic base on which to build its space adventures.
Astra's writing so far leans toward the boilerplate, but it's more than strong enough to draw an audience into its web of mysteries and alien worlds. My biggest issue so far is that it hasn't quite resolved the tonal tension between its comedy and thriller aspects, partly because the comedy hasn't been as strong as the drama. I've gotten a few chuckles, and a lot of good work has been done to endear me toward these kids, but it doesn't feel as natural as it could. One character loudly describing the thing another character is doing does not a joke make. Still, I like how we're already revealing some layers beneath their archetypal exteriors. Kanata gets his backstory featured in the premiere and expanded in the ensuing episodes. The trauma of losing his teacher and mentor at such a young age, compounded with having to survive in the wilderness, informs his every decision. It's molded him into a natural leader who's quick to think on his feet in the face of disaster and leap without looking for the sake of his friends. More interestingly, it's also instilled a self-conscious fear into him, where he's constantly doubting himself and his decisions because he knows how drastic the consequences of a single mistake could be. This tension between his bravery and his insecurity is engaging to follow, and I'm eager to see how his character grows over the course of the story.
I imagine the rest of the characters will have their histories exposed to the limelight in due time. Quitterie's standoffishness was revealed in episode 2 to be a consequence of a highly estranged relationship from both of her parents, exacerbated by the sudden appearance of an adopted little sister. Given Funi's circumstances, she probably has more bubbling beneath the surface than she lets on, although Beepo is already a clever way to give her more of an edge than your typical anime 10-year-old. Maybe I just have a soft spot for sassy puppets (thanks Thunderbolt Fantasy). Ulgar is on similarly rocky terms with his vice principal father, and Yunhua is also badgered by the specter of her cruel mother. These kids have a lot of issues to work through, but thankfully they'll have plenty of time to do so together. The climax of the premiere, with everyone linking hands to rescue one of their own, is an apt visual metaphor for both their external and internal journeys. They won't be able to complete either of them alone.
Like most good sci-fi, Astra also embraces the intrigue of the unknown to spin a compelling yarn. The Space Ball was a complete mystery to begin with, but the fact that it followed them to an entirely different planet just amps up the sinister implications. The prospect of a traitor in their midst is another classic thriller setup with a ton of potential mileage. With just one piece of evidence—the broken communicator—every character is now on edge as either a suspect or a detective. Plus there are a ton of other suspicious phenomena: the presence of a functioning spaceship right next to where they got spit out, the convenience of a single possible route home, and the fact that their skills are diverse enough to reasonably outfit a space crew. It's already no question that their group was set up for this, but the extent of the plan's nefariousness nature remains a mystery. This paranoia is sure to splinter the group whether there's an actual traitor or not, and it might end up being a greater test of their resolve than anything else the universe can throw at them.
Finally, I just want to mention that I like Astra's position on the harder edge of science fiction. Strict adherence to reality isn't necessary to tell a good story, but it behooves one that's primarily about survival. The Gravity-esque peril that Aries finds herself tumbling through in the first episode is a great example, with the rest of the kids cognizant of the limits of their thruster fuel, and an acknowledgement of the ridiculous precision required when navigating the physics of zero-gravity. Kanata ends up being just a couple degrees off target, but it's enough to potentially doom them entirely. In the third episode, a meteoroid the size of a pebble punctures their ship and almost kills everyone—objects in orbit move fast. Astra still lets its imagination roam with the alien planets, where trampoline trees and parachute plants make for a particularly inspired combination on Vilavurs. I think this balance between the (ironically) grounded threats of space travel and the more fantastical threats planetside will prove to be a good combination.
Overall, Astra launches its space odyssey with all of the elements needed to make a crowd-pleasing sci-fi romp laced with adventure and intrigue. I haven't been totally blown away by it yet, and I don't think episodes 2 or 3 have reached the dramatic heights of the premiere, but it's been laying good groundwork for a lot of future potential. I'm also assuaged by the fact that its source manga has already wrapped up at a reasonable 5 volumes, which implies to me that it's a story that knows where it's going, so the anime should be able to pace itself reasonably. I know I'm excited to see how far these kids will go, and anyone in the mood for space thrills and colorful dorks learning about the value of teamwork should strap in and prepare to get lost in space.
Astra Lost in Space is currently streaming on Funimation.
Steve is lost in space, but he can still stream anime so it's okay. A communications relay has been established on his Twitter.
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