Avenue 5: 1.04 Wait A Minute, Then Who Was That On The Ladder?
“Oh bugger… I’m still here.”
For a moment, after waking up in the morning, Captain Ryan Clark is all of us. Wait A Minute, Then Who Was That On The Ladder? updates us on Hugh Laurie’s spacefaring fraudster in a few short scenes before the opening title. He’s not doing well. We see him practising his American accent, failing, arguing with his own reflection, and desperately repelling real astronaut Spike’s interest in the (fake) bridge controls. It’s economical storytelling that gives even greater urgency to his desperate search for a solution. Not all is bad for Clark: he spends the episode in a fabulous new uniform!
Billie notices his agony, greeting him with a chirpy “you look haunted.” When Clark shares his concern that the bridge crew, “fakes who have been shat out of Juilliard”, might not be convincing enough, Billie brings him to meet the real crew below deck. In the meantime, he picks up pointers from the precocious Zeke (Jairaj Varsani, who was also the titular character in The Personal History of David Copperfield - the number of actors from the Iannucci-verse who appear in Avenue 5 grows each episode). Zeke is not only clever enough to know more about space than Clark, but also to misdirect the creepy Spike away from his own mother.
“I am solid, I am dependable, I am un-fucking-flappable!”
It’s clearly a precarious future for the one percent - in the face of rising hostility from his passengers, Judd laments that he doesn’t want to die in the same way as Richard Branson, “fed to his own pigs on his private island”. While the vigil for Avenue 5 back on Earth has been dealt with, packed with actors briefed to call out NASA and deflect blame from Judd Galaxy, Suzy suggests a ‘batch party’ so that Judd can personally charm the aggrieved passengers in his suite.
It’s a tight contest for the lead character with the worst social skills, but Judd is definitely in the top three, so it’s a smart move to put him in a situation like this. When his charm offensive fails - his three-second hugs, which he times out loud, don’t help - he moves the party to his bedroom to show off his personal memorabilia. His collection includes the skulls of all four Beatles (signed by himself), and the genesis of the Judd Galaxy project - a framed post-it which simply says ‘space travel’ (“not the original, I threw that one out”).
Matt’s back on his pet project, counselling for Doug and Mia, and he listens patiently as they petition him for separate cabins. He repays their trust by projecting a word cloud of his notes onto the wall behind them - a few choice words being “balls”, “yeast” and “cuckhold”. Later, he encourages Karen’s husband Frank to loosen up and use his time in space as a testing ground to try on a different version of himself (“Christian Scientist Frank? Occasionally gay Frank?”) before ordering him another Judd Martini. The less tethered to reality Matt is, the funnier his scenes. When he achieves full cartoonishness - like a kind of satanic Bugs Bunny - there’s no funnier character in Avenue 5.
These separate plotlines coincide when the ship’s ‘wetsuit’ ruptures, spewing a torrent of human waste out into space and past the bridge, presenting a double catastrophe. The hapless Frank has been nominated to push a fake button on the bridge as part of a live streamed PR stunt, and everyone back on Earth gets a direct view of the very messy disaster. Sarah’s line “oh my fuck, look at all that shit!” pretty well sums it up. It’s hard not to feel even worse for Frank as his new confidence fails him and he’s quickly shuffled back into obscurity, blamed for the mess by his sheer proximity to the hot seat.
The leak in the wetsuit, the ship’s barrier against cosmic radiation, needs to be repaired, and the search begins for a hero to head out and fix it. Sarah seals Clark’s fate with an immaculate monologue about how he saved her life when they were mining for asteroids twenty years earlier. “He loves his uniform, but he loves danger more”, claims Sarah. It’s a fantastic culmination to the episode’s running gag of the bridge crew being even worse actors than Clark - it’s not Sarah’s believability that’s the problem here, it’s her timing.
Clark suits up, Billie is ready to send him off into the path of a river of frozen human faeces, and his possible death… and that’s it! For the first time, Avenue 5 ends on a sort-of cliffhanger. As much as I was expecting an episode about a poop explosion to be one-and-done, the show continues to subvert my expectations. The disaster isn’t just dealt with as a grim reminder of the ship’s deterioration, but as a genuine life-or-death situation. I don’t need Avenue 5 to be Star Trek: Picard, but the fact that the ship’s journey has risen to years rather than weeks puts the stakes somewhere in the realm of the abstract. Having a more immediate crisis to deal with is a real game-changer for the crew of the ship.
Fun space fact of the week: I was ready to cry foul at the suggestion that human faeces would make an ideal shield against cosmic rays, but there’s some basis in fact there! The defunct Inspiration Mars Foundation planned to line their manned spacecraft with astronaut waste to protect the crew on board. It’s up for debate whether the Avenue 5, a literal space hotel forty years in the future, would need to resort to the same measures.
We’ll see next week just how messy things can get before they start to get better.