There is something deeply romantic about the freedom of space. Unmoored from the limitations of home, kingdom, or even gravity itself, space promises an open horizon of exploration, a new world where anyone’s potential can be realized. Space is often framed as a realm of conquest to be claimed by bold pioneers; what holds you back is not the gritty specifics of your prior life, but the reach of your spirit. If you can dream it, you can build it. If you can seek it, you can seize it.
Planetes understands that romantic instinct; after all, it is that belief in conquering the beyond that not only inspires both of Planetes’ leads, but even informs its idealistic opening montage. The exploration of space is framed as a general human instinct, as the pursuit of many generations working in high-minded harmony. The romance of space is the romance of human ambition.
But Planetes does not take place in a world defined by romance. Hachi and Tanabe’s limitations are mundane and obvious; neither of them shined in their academic lives or had powerful connections, and now both of them are on unglamorous career tracks. Their personal problems, as they watch those around them seize the fruits of their ambition, are as universal as they are dispiriting.
But Hachi and Tanabe are still very lucky, in the broader scheme. Going to space wasn’t the culmination of their life’s journeys; it was simply something they both did because they really wanted and had the opportunity to do. They are both from wealthy countries, and the circumstances of their birth made seeking a career in space as achievable for them as traveling cross-country for a new job might be in our modern world.
Not everyone possesses their fortune. Space travel is not a truly democratizing phenomenon; as much as we like to herald the pioneer spirit, the choice of who gets to be a pioneer generally rests with which countries can pay for their pioneers’ boats. The countries that could underwrite space exploration own the space stations; the companies that are right with INTO own the skies. In truth, the advancement of human endeavors only increases the gap between the haves and have-nots, as the technological (and thus economic) prerequisites to engage on the global field only become that much more prohibitive.
Planetes’ eleventh episode directly focuses on that political and economic disconnect, as Claire is tasked with handling the nuisance Temara Poitier. We learn early on that Poitier is from Claire’s own country – El Tanika, a South American nation that the space age has left behind. Marked by an unstable government and economic turmoil, El Tanika is a non-player in the global economy. And now comes this gawking man from the sticks, here to remind Claire of all the nothing she left behind.
Claire does not take kindly to Temara Poitier. Her superiors make her job clear: do the bare minimum job in attempting to get his clunky new spacesuit examined, and then get him off the station. In their early meetings, Poitier comes across as an icon of everything Claire dislikes – babbling about their hometown connection and marveling at cafeteria food, he feels like a stain Claire cannot scrub out. Poitier likely reminds her of Hachi, in a way – an embarrassing remnant of a past self, a reminder of something she cast off in pursuit of a career where she could truly dictate her own future.
But Claire’s feelings change as she and her charge are repeatedly snubbed by the companies of the station. Poitier may be embarrassing, but their rejection of him is exactly the kind of corporate snobbery Claire hates. And beyond that, even if she wants to put her past behind her, their rejection of him truly does feel like a rejection of her validity as well. “None of them will take anything produced in El Tanika seriously,” she says. “They won’t even let you stand at the race’s starting line.” If Claire truly desires a more meritocratic commercial order, then playing their game and letting Poitier be snubbed is a total abdication of her values.
Fortunately, the Half Company has no such prejudices against Poitier’s weird-looking suit. Hachi volunteers to have the company look it over, and Fee is actually enchanted by its scrubby but utility-heavy design. As before, Fee’s world presents a clear contrast with what Claire has been made to suffer; though Fee is stuck in an unglamorous job, she is surrounded by people she can trust, and is proud of her own identity. By accepting Poitier’s suit, it almost seems like Fee is accepting a part of Claire herself that this corporate hierarchy would rather forget.
The relationship between Claire and Poitier comes to a head on the day before the suit’s final tests. Claire speaks bitterly of her own childhood – of how she never learned to read in El Tanika, and carried her history like a mark of shame until she was able to leave it behind. In contrast, Poitier is proud of his heritage; he also was only able to gain an education by leaving El Tanika, but he swiftly returned, and put his engineering skills to work in building an industry that could raise his people into the space age. The man that Claire sneered at for hoarding butter now reveals himself to be a highly intelligent and practical man who simply decided to make one difficult but deeply sincere bet. “If it’s all a gamble anyway, I’d rather gamble on dreaming big dreams!”
Poitier’s words are somewhat an echo of Hachi’s – though Hachi is far less accomplished, and his life’s stakes are far lower, both men refuse to compromise, and understand that you only have one life to wager. His feelings also echo Fee’s; tracing his fingers across the names etched in his craft, he speaks of how in spite of heading into space alone, their names mean they are all flying it together. Poitier is Claire’s past tethered to the philosophies of her friends, and in the face of his genuine nobility, Claire can only ask “does it look like I abandoned our country and ran away?”
The final test does not go as smoothly as hoped. As they are completing the final procedures, an INTO police craft arrive, and states that Poitier must be taken in due to a “peacekeeping mission” in El Tanika. That peacekeeping mission means only one thing – classified as an ungoverned state, INTO has decided to calm El Tanika’s rebellions, and pave a nation on the seeds Poitier is attempting to grow. All El Tanikans abroad are now harborless persons of interest, and so Poitier’s dreams must die here.
Hachi doesn’t take that news easily, of course. Making his own high-stakes gamble, he pretends their craft malfunctioned, and through doing so buys Poitier and Claire enough time to complete their tests. Supported by the names of his comrades, Poitier lists them out as his cabin depressurizes, their names recited like a personal prayer as the timer counts down. His prayers are answered. The bird can fly.
Poitier turns Claire down afterwards, when she attempts to rescue him from becoming a ward of the state. It’s easy to see one reason why he declines her offer; her escape clause would require him to abandon his El Tanikan identity, and if he didn’t succeed as a El Tanikan, then what was it all for? Looking down at the distant earth, he proudly states that “our spacesuit has met all the international standards. That fact has been documented, and that should give the others who follow in our footsteps the confidence to keep going.” He doesn’t begrudge Claire her choices, either – in fact, he asks her to stay in space, and keep shining “where we can all look up to you.”
All Poitier can ultimately offer his country is the hope for a better future. All he can show them is the dream of a blue world. Looking down from space, he knows the guns of INTO are carving new scars in the country he loves, further dividing the world he’s fighting for. But with his comrades’ names beside him, the bitter reality of a space age that only validates old inequalities seems momentarily distant. Through the work of his diligent and talented crew, he proved El Tanika could compete on this scale, and the spacebound view of Earth is a treasure bestowed equally on all who see it. “From up here, you can’t see any borders…” he murmurs, staring down at his beautiful home. Our world is defined by injustice, but we are all as one from the sea of stars.
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