Planetes’ seventeenth episode was an oppressive demonstration of the inhumanity inherent in the exploration of space, and of the corporate institutions that erect themselves to foster and defend that inhumanity. That was a heavy episode, and was itself following an episode focused on post-traumatic shock, so it’d make sense for the debris crew to finally got a break this time. And in fact, they do end up getting a break: a permanent one. The debris section is disbanded. You’re all fired.
In the wake of last episode’s disaster on the moon, Technora decides to make a shell corporation in order to distance themselves from any future backlash over the Jupiter project. Killing two birds with one stone, the top brass decide to make Dolf the head of this new corporation, thus ending his dangerous corporate ascent without truly firing him. And the petty and incompetent section three chief, whose lack of ability is only matched by his fawning reverence for his superiors, ends up being gifted section two as well, and promptly downsizing the division that once made him look bad. So it goes.
Incidentally, “so it goes” is a conversational tic I originally picked up from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s the term that book’s narrator uses whenever he comes to the end of a vignette detailing the horror of mankind, or the grim ironies a historical long view makes of our actions. At this point in Planetes, the show has shown too much unflinching horror to really warrant anything less – Technora is a vile company, INTO are exactly the pan-global oppressors you’d expect to win the space race, and all of this show’s “heroes” have been shown to possess exactly zero real power. That “their dreams are taking flight” from the opening song feels more bitter with each new episode, leaving the show’s overall philosophy pretty much exactly where I sit: this is a tough world filled with oppressive institutions and bad actors, and the only hope we’ll be finding is the hope we carry ourselves.
The various members of the debris section all take the news in their own ways. Tanabe is predictably furious, given her views on right and wrong are still those of a child – she responds to the news with righteous anger, and a determination to fight the pencil-pushers in order to save the department. Hachi can’t match her enthusiasm; having been oddly chastened by last episode’s grim truths, he’s grown years overnight, and now has his own larger career goals to think about. Lavie responds like the sycophant he’s always been, literally dancing for the amusement of the new chief. And the department’s old hands respond with professional thoughtfulness, Fee and Yuri both frankly considering their next career moves.
Unexpectedly, it turns out to be the old chief who actually has the most poignant reaction to the news. Hanging up one more banner in their dingy office, he slips off his ladder, and ends up apologizing to Edel for everything. The chief has always been a joke of a character, but seeing him actually admit his failings as a manager still feels oddly touching. He was never good at his job, but he liked and cared about his employees, and now Technora has stolen away what little illusion of leadership he had. While last episode focused on the large-scale violence of corporate capitalism, this episode finds fresh sorrow in its smaller injustices. Technora stole this man’s dignity, and now he has nothing left.
Lavie is also granted some unexpected humanity this episode, as his happy phone call to his children ends on something of a sour note. Though he’s excited he’ll finally be able to send them a meaningful paycheck, his children ask “who’s gonna keep space safe?” It might seem hackneyed to use starry-eyed children in order to emphasize the moral consequences of this moment, but Planetes has basically always been about the optimism of youth getting battered by the realities of adulthood. While Lavie can see his promotion in frank terms, that doesn’t change the importance of what his job represents for the children who look up to him.
Those thoughts weigh heavily on Lavie as the crew enter their final mission, and divert to help a marooned spacecraft. Boarding the craft, they realize it’s actually more or less alive, and has just had its navigation systems fried – in fact, it’s even got living passengers. It turns out the movie director from that long-ago ride to the moon has turned his hand to social activism, and is looking to blow the cover on INTO’s covert military operations. INTO have been laying EMP mines disguised as debris out in low orbit, and this director plans to expose it.
After a long episode of losing slowly, Planetes’ eighteenth adventure ends in pure, desperate, hopeless glory. Lavie begins this sequence with a sad but moving speech on how much his children need his income, which sharply reflects the fact that not everyone has the freedom to be a hero. But with so few options left, the rest of the team end up giving Lavie the push he needs. Fee, Hachi, and Yuri are committed to stopping the mine from the start – they’re all dreamers in their own ways, and far from dedicated to Technora. The chief soon follows suit, striking back against second division’s new leader and for once being the father figure he aspired to. And ultimately Lavie joins in as well. Stuck in the most impossible of all their positions, he has to choose what kind of father he’ll be to his children – and decides that his pragmatic concern for their economic futures can’t outweigh his need to be the hero they believe him to be.
It’s a strange and seemingly hollow victory, in the end. While Lavie cheers that drinks are on him, I couldn’t help but worry for all their futures, and hope that the director’s video somehow might save them from corporate and even political repercussions. Planetes’ heroes are all small people in a very big world, and all of the fringes of this episode were laced with reflections on the inconstant nature of this life. Claire’s grip on her job is fading, Dolf’s enthusiasm has seen him handcuffed to the Jupiter project, Gigalt’s condition is worsening, and even Gigalt’s brightest pupil seems to be abandoning his post. For a time, Planetes seemed to believe in its own emphasis on family and people you can trust – but with the debris section now scattered through political games, that trust has proven itself an idealistic dream as well. Though Hachi seems determined to move forward, I finished this episode still stuck on that image of the chief of the floor, wondering where it all went wrong.
There are only small victories in life, it seems. Hachi and Tanabe finding some happiness together. Yuri discovering a peace he’d thought he’d lost years ago. Lavie getting to play the hero for one last time.
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