In the preview for "Space Race: Part 1", I noted how I didn't have a chance to do a full review/recap last week's "Skin Game" but feel that it was another solid outing for the FX animated series. After a slow start, last week ended up having a ton of laughs in the second half and neatly wrapped up a pretty huge plot point - the cybernetic return of a former fiancee - by having Katya and Barry's bionic body parts come together. This week's episode finds Archer ready to take down some space pirates for the ISA since the first part of the season finale is set in the final frontier. Oh, and despite the frequent Soviet related story lines, Archer's space race isn't about the Reds, it's about the Red Planet. You know, Mars. Jesus, read a book.
"I... the zone will be one of danger?"
"SR:1" begins with a mayday video from the International Space Station Horizon with the captain exclaiming how they are under, uh, something and we're soon introduced to Bryan Cranston's Spaceman Anthony 'Tony' Drake as well as the ISIS mission for the week. After watching Cranston on Breaking Bad for the last four years, it's easy to forget that he's also an incredibly gifted comedic actor. He was easily the funniest part of Malcolm in the Middle and I always loved him in his small recurring role as Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld. D.D.S. Not that I'm an anti-dentite. Now, I don't want to go too far but he probably ousts both Robb Wells and Burt Reynolds as my favorite guest star this season (meaning ever).
And of course he is. The man (one of only two) won the Emmy for Best Actor three years in a row is obviously going to be amazing and he even rivals Jon Benjamin for screen time. Voice time. The size of the part that Adam Reed wrote the actor is a testament to his genius (both of their genius) and I'm stoked that we're going to get even more with this is only "Part 1." Cranston's work is even more impressive when you consider that he not only plays the hero and villain but manages to be funny as both. Sorry, hilarious as both. As early as the stunning end of the world sequence, the actor plants the hint of suppressed craziness in Spaceman Drake and it was soon obvious that the just crew would not only be manning a mission to help him combat the mutineers but probably get wrapped up in this nut's dream to terra form Mars.
"Happy Cyril? You just destroyed Alderaan."
Before the field agents at ISIS can be blasted into space, they have to undergo a The Right Stuff style training regimen. Okay, more like an Armageddon style training regimen. Actually, there's not much training going on at all. Krieger sneaks into the ISA facilities to get in a couple good lines ("who, him?") before being abandoned on Earth for the rest of the episode (but hopefully not the season). Actually, Reed always does a great job spreading the love and screen time to all of the characters and "SR:P1" was no different. Krieger's "smoke bomb" exit was a great moment early in the episode and even though it seemed like we won't get any Pam or Cheryl, well, we know how that turns out. More on the stowaway callback later.
Archer, Lana, Ray and even Cyril are all subjected to some basic astronaut training, including a not so successful turn on the flight, or should I say landing simulator and getting to take a ride in the vomit comet. Archer soon takes to the weightlessness and I've said it before but I don't care; few things make me laugh like Benjamin voicing our secret agent when he's super excited. Okay, maybe he gets a little too excited? Nope, just right. After their brief stint training, the field agents turned astronauts are called into Drake's office and informed that launch is T minus 12 hours. T means time. Read a book.
"Uh Flight, we're showing that you're grossly overweight."
Lana vomiting works a few times, especially when Archer rides Cyril into it in zero gravity or when it sets up Bryan Cranston's amazing reading of "I'm sorry to hear that Agent Kane because you are going," but it is certainly the weakest recurring gag of the week. A lot of them work wonders though as I especially enjoyed Pam and Cheryl stowing away again, and Archer toying with the danger zone right up until Cranston's perfect final line. The show also often drops weird name references (like Grania O'Malley and Charles Benedict Davenport) but I loved the added 'read a book' insults tagged on top of them.
Back to Lana's vomiting not keeping her from flying to space (for reasons becoming ever more apparent), all of the ISIS field agents including Malory in a spacesuit a little too big for her strap in and blast off. Archer rightly bitches about Tony's possible plot to join the million mile high club but once the flight shifts into phase two, well, he quickly forgets about it and his Oedipus Complex. Archer also assumes there will be a bar, or at least a cantina, on the space station but unfortunately he's seen a few too many science fiction films. Fortunately, they do get phasers that they can set to stun or kill. And the stun can also kill and it takes the defib paddles to get Cyril's (and then Pam's) heart back to beating. Yes, Pam. Of course, her and Cheryl stowed away for the journey - as I predicted in the preview, horn tooted - but this time because Archer needs her booty close by to call.
"F**k you, space."
Bringing Pam on board and throwing everything off-course earns Archer his third strike and gets him sent to the space brig where there's an awesome Great Escape reference, accentuated by the beautifully animated zero gravity. The animation department has once again outdone itself with "SR:P1," so, uh, take that animation department! Maybe you should stop showing yourselves up. Seriously though, the episode was probably the most impressive and expensive of the entire three season run - and this in a series that's always been amazing to look at and well directed. Space offers the chance for imaginative and often stunning imagery, even in the world of animation (Wall-E), and the FX series managed to find that signature middle ground of looking state of the art yet retro. And ultimately perfect for a spy spoof set in space.
With Archer in the brig, the rest of the ISIS field agents are under the command of Drake and must get ready for the boarding party. Cheryl doesn't quite understand what that means, but she manages to whip up a pretty sweet Bjork inspired party dress even if Malory cannot stop drinking to take a look. While those two ladies socialize, Pam is put on guard duty and she's soon in the cell and out of her clothes. Got to love that MOAB. And good thing too because the rest of the agents desperately need Archer's help to defeat the mutineers even though it's incredibly clear by now that Drake and his compatriots are the real villains. The best secret agent in the world makes short work of the last honest defenders of the Horizon before handing over his guns and stepping into a zone of, well, you know.
"Welcome to the danger zone."
If I had one complaint about the episode it's that the narrative wasn't only predictable - a riff on The Right Stuff with some immediately apparent similarities with 28 Days Later - but non-sensical. I mean, why would the ISA team go through the whole process to only bring back one woman capable of breeding? Lana was originally the only fertile female going (Malory cannot have children, even in the world of animation) and she was going to have to risk her life fighting to get there.
It just seems like theres a simpler way to bring back a bunch of women for their Mars colonization. Having said that, I don't really care because "Space Race: Part 1" was hilarious. Cranston's guest spot, the callbacks, the amazing animation and Reed's ability to weave all our favourite characters into the story made it a great first installment in the two part finale. That's right finale. Last night's episode was really funny but unfortunately it also marked the beginning of the end of the amazing third season. Of course, there is obviously still "Part 2" to come and we can at least take solace in knowing that Bryan Cranston will be returning to help finish us off in space. Wait. That all sounds wrong.
Archer airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX. It stars H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walters, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell and Amber Nash. It was created by Adam Reed.