Tuesday, April 25, 2023

´The Ark' makes a plea for mutual trust to save humankind

This story proves you don't have to be a ruthless cynic to apply game theory to hard survival choices

Future Earth has gone to hell in a stinking, toxic, burning handbasket. Entire continents are up in flames, the atmosphere is either unlivably hot or fatally poisonous, and what's left of human governments is as good as finished. Superstar tech bro Jeff Bezos no, sorry, Elon Musk no, sorry, Steve Jobs no, sorry, Will Trust (really, that's his name) has funded a space colonization project that will send a dozen generation ships in various directions to search for the next home of our species. The first of these ships, the Ark 1, has been traveling for about five years until it suddenly reanimates its frozen occupants. A mysterious accident has killed their commanders and damaged the engines, and the few people left have to figure out what happened, where they are, how they're going to survive for the remainder of their journey, and how they're going to rebuild society from scratch.

With this premise, it sounds like the newest Syfy production The Ark should be a delight to watch. And at times, it is; these characters have to improvise on the fly with every bit of brains they've got in order to deal with brutal life-or-death choices under unforgiving circumstances. But often, especially in the first couple of episodes, it's difficult to get into the tone that the series wants to adopt. The urgency of the stakes, literally the survival of the human species, doesn't quite fit with the light-hearted dialogues, the melodramatic characterizations, and the silly brand of humor that fill the scripts. But if you manage to get used to the tone, you'll be rewarded with a profound demonstration of how civilization can be saved if the ages-old exchange of hostilities is abandoned in favor of an exchange of goodwill.

Unfortunately, there are multiple hiccups to overcome before full enjoyment is possible. The social dynamic between the ship's crew members is too dependent on the needs of each episode, shifting from animosity to camaraderie to resentment to intimacy with little time to let the characters (or the viewers) process the change. Although this uncertainty helps communicate how fragile this new society is in its first steps, it makes it very hard to follow whose loyalties we're supposed to believe. It's like the writers tried to emulate the cutthroat power dispute from Battlestar Galactica but wanted to also keep the ban on crew conflict from Star Trek plus the chaotic management style from Futurama.

This problem is of a kind with the overall tonal mismatch. One gets the impression that one writer was in charge of plotting a heavy drama with constant crises and impending doom, and then another writer was tasked with painting a coat of rom-com whimsy over it. Of the focus characters, the most notable (and hardest to swallow) are Alicia Nevins, the adorkable teen genius with no speech filter and advanced degrees in everything; James Brice, the imprudent pilot and resident eye candy who somehow only seems to own tank tops; Cat Brandice, the dating advice vlogger conscripted as the galaxy's least professional ship counselor; and Spencer Lane, the protagonist's Designated Foil whose entire role in the show consists in whining about having a woman boss.

So, what's actually good about The Ark? The plotting. This series is a brilliant example of how to write an unfolding story with interweaving parts where solving one problem leads to discovering more problems that lead to unexpected solutions that open yet more problems. This is an incredibly solid structure that maintains an unbroken momentum from one episode to the next. The Ark doesn't have the most consistent characters in space opera, but it does boast an expert command of the chains of consequence that make up a story.

The other great achievement of The Ark is its moral stance. Whereas the big space opera franchises seem to have forgotten how to write a thrilling climax that doesn't rely on who pew-pews harder, The Ark is set on a civilian starship with no weapons, so the big resolution has to rely on the decency of human nature, not on brute firepower. In the season finale, the protagonist argues that the dog-eat-dog methods that one can find both in warfare and in corporate competition are exactly what ruined Earth, and the survivors of humankind shouldn't take that habit with them into space. Instead, she's willing to try openness, sincerity, empathy. That's a way more interesting approach to watch, and the writers do it justice by concocting a way more interesting problem to solve. The crisis in the last episode, which our protagonist doesn't overcome with battle tactics but with kindness and generosity, illustrates beautifully how to survive an iterated prisoner's dilemma, a well-known thought experiment in game theory that serves as a microcosm of everyday life in a society. Nonviolent heroes FTW!

Often it seems like these contentious times have made us forget how to live as humans. By every objective measure, the survival strategy of our species is not perpetual hostility, but cooperation. The Ark makes a powerful case for the position that, if we want to found civilization again, our best chance for it to endure is to build it on the recognition of our common vulnerability and the willingness to be vulnerable with each other. Watching that noble message bear fruit is well worth all the cheesy dialogues.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.