Planetes’ eleventh episode was easily the series’ high point so far, a thoughtful meditation on the inequality of space colonization that ended in a firm restatement of the series’ ultimately hopeful worldview. In light of that, it’s not too surprising that the followup episode is a much lighter adventure, focusing on such frivolities as romantic misunderstandings and international terrorism.
Yep, terrorism. The Space Defense Front are back, and this time they’ve got a new modus operandi: leaving explosive devices in poorly-monitored smoking rooms. With the Toy Box stuck on the moon for repairs, Fee is forced to rely on these smoking rooms, meaning much of this episode proceeds as one wacky mishap after another, as Fee first arrives at a smoking room only to see it’s been destroyed, then learns the base she’s on is shutting down all its smoke rooms for safety, and finally finds herself almost blown up just outside the entrance of a third smoking room.
Planetes is consistently negotiating a weird balance between grounded drama and farcical adventures, and this episode’s “terrorism comedy” demonstrates both the pluses and minuses of that approach. On the plus side, the way this episode treats both the physical reality and larger politics of terrorism rings true to how we as individuals experience political drama. Fee and Hachi aren’t concerned about the danger posed by the Space Defense Front; they’ve got their own problems, and only really care about terrorism so far as it impacts their own lives. Planetes’ overall emphasis on the mundane grind of professional life makes it uniquely suited to make this point: the greatest challenge preventing greater political involvement is that politics are always irrelevant until they suddenly aren’t, while our daily challenges never go away.
On the minus side, treating the Space Defense Front bombings as comedy really defangs whatever dramatic impact the group might have. This toothlessness is only emphasized in the episode’s last act, when they attempt to send a debris-missile into Seven itself. The threat there is real, but not only is it played more as a punchline to Fee’s tobacco-craze than a legitimate danger, but the philosophy of the Space Defense Front feels totally undercooked. As they themselves explain, they feel that humanity has learned nothing from the energy wars of the twentieth century, and that transferring the energy race to the moon only prolongs humanity’s love affair with constant expansion.
That’s all true enough, but framing themselves as people who “speak for the stars” puts their actions in a wholly philosophical realm that’s entirely indefensible on any moral grounds. They come across as cartoon villains, not antagonists with a point, and they clearly didn’t have to be that way – after all, even Planetes’ own previous episode focused on a conflict that might result in understandable resentment towards the space-faring community. It seems likely to me that the Space Defense Front are meant to thematically push against the “pioneer spirit” that Planetes generally embodies, but by focusing too much on their status as a thematic foil, the show weakens their presence as a legitimate, understandable political movement with specific grievances based in specific injustices.
One point in the Space Defense Force’s favor: the excellent design of their generic terrorist, the vaguely European-looking man who seems singlehandedly responsible for all of this episode’s bombings and the final assault aside. That man’s visual design essentially tells you everything you need to know about his role in the story – concealed by a wide-brimmed hat and ominous camera angles, his facial scar is merely the tip of a purposeful design iceberg. His overall design is reflective of his organization’s philosophy: old-fashioned suit, classic 20th century briefcase, and even an analogue watch. If you’re going to employ a cartoon villain, you might as well lean into the visual design philosophy cartoons do best.
But Fee’s proxy cigarette war is only half the story this episode – the other half concerns Hachi and Tanabe, as they continue to dance around each other in a silly tsundere courtship ritual. There’s frankly not much to say about this material; it makes sense for Hachi’s character that he wouldn’t admit to his feelings, but it’s a little tiring watching these two play out a dance that’s generally the primary concern of much worse series. And this episode even leans into the artifice of this conflict, when it at one point actually has Tanabe perform that “classic” misunderstanding gag of hearing another girl in class theoretically ask out her crush. I’m a big fan of grounded relationship drama, but I’ve had enough of wacky relationship misunderstandings to last me a lifetime.
Which means it all comes back to Fee, in the end. This episode’s finale doesn’t really succeed in terms of actual danger, but it sure does give Fee a great platform to go wild. After ten days of nicotine withdrawal, she responds to the Space Defense Force threatening Seven in the only way she can – by steering the Toy Box right the fuck around, and barreling after their malevolent craft. Crewmen shout and klaxons wail as Fee curses her way back to the station, slamming the attacker out of the way and burning the Toy Box to cinders on reentry. This may have been a silly and middling episode, but Fee sure did kick a whole lot of ass.
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