Space Janitors: S3E7&8

The thrilling conclusion to my griping about season three of Space Janitors is below the break. If you haven’t seen it and you’re particular about spoilers, I recommend watching it in its entirety. It’s worth your time and doesn’t cost anything.

So far season three has been setting up Darby’s relationship with his father. Turns out his father is just as much a self-centered jerk as Darby, except he’s also completely unrepentant. Admiral Ackbar and Princess Leia are better looking (we’re informed that Ackbar is a very attractive fish, though granted, we are informed of this by Ackbar himself) and very important people. They’re under almost no pressure at all to become better people, and they haven’t. Leia represents the position Darby wants to have, connected to powerful people and important himself by virtue of that connection, and Ackbar is the person who can give it to him. In Darby’s character arc, Admiral Ackbar represents his selfish ambitions. On the flip side, his best friend Mike represents his redeeming qualities, his loyalty to his friends. These two competing motives have defined Darby’s character for three seasons, and now they’re going to be put into direct conflict with one another for the season finale.

I’m going to lay off the dead horse that is Edith’s confused character arc for season three except to remind you of how much more opaque it is compared to Darby’s. Now that we’re in episode seven, the first of the two-parter finale, that confusion is going to fail to pay off. General Crane confronts Roarke as she begins storming the base, and fails to impress her with his crazy psuedo-mysticism. Roarke kills him without a whole lot of trouble and begins her attack. The main characters split up, Edith is headed to engineering to scramble Imperial sensors so that they can escape, Darby and Mike are going to try and find the missing Ellen, and Dennis is going to hold off the attacking storm troopers for as long as he can. Each of them is then confronted by their nemeses along the way, except for Mike, who’s just there to play support for Darby (in terms of emotional arc, in terms of in-universe skills it’s the exact opposite), and Ellen, who’s a MacGuffin in the finale after being entirely absent for season two. She kind of gets the short end of Space Janitors in general.

Edith’s confrontation happens first, Roarke finds her in engineering, makes callbacks to a character arc that never even happened, and then Edith traps her behind the forcefield that the climax of episode three revolved around. Edith uses the knife Crane gave her to activate the forcefield, but after activating it she takes off the scarf that matches the one Crane was wearing, so is the idea here that she’s embracing Crane or rejecting him? What does Crane even represent in all this? From the way Roarke gloats over having killed him and Edith triumphs over her by using Crane’s knife and then quoting one of his catchphrases about million-to-one-odds, it seems like Crane is supposed to be the spirit of the Rebellion, imperfect but ultimately worth it. But from the set up in episode six where Edith’s relationship with Crane is portrayed as both dishonest and disloyal to her friends, and from the way Edith removes her Crane-matching scarf before leaving, it seems like maybe he’s supposed to represent how sacrificing your humanity to get ahead is a ubiquitous temptation in all organizations, and maybe by rejecting her ultimately fake friendship with Crane and instead going to meet up with the people she actually gets along with, Edith is actually rejecting her Imperial past once and for all?

If this all sounds like someone trying to graft meaning onto media when nothing is really there, it totally is, and that’s the problem. You can squint and tilt your head and find some kind of meaning in anything, up to and including totally random noise. Unlike Darby being caught between Mike and Ackbar, it’s completely unclear what Edith’s climax is actually supposed to mean, which means it’s basically a free-for-all on interpretation. Post your take in the comments, it can’t be much more of a stretch than any of the ones I’ve posited in the paragraph above.

After this we get the confrontation between Dennis and Steve. This was actually set up completely in season two. All stormtroopers are clones named Dennis. In season two, a next generation of clones is rolled out, called the Steve clones. They can shoot better and are generally smarter (though they’re still dim jocks), but unfortunately they’re just smart enough to realize that the Empire’s probably lying when they say that clones who make it through eight years on duty will retire to the paradise planet of Pyus Dunes, and the Empire returns to using Dennis clones. The plot twist is that despite how generally evil the Empire is, Pyus Dunes totally exists. Or it did, anyway, in the season three finale Steve informs Dennis that after Roarke got rid of the Dennis clones to bring back the Steves, they blew up Pyus Dunes. So, apparently Roarke has the power to decide what kind of clones are used by the Imperial Navy. Is she, like, an admiral or something?

In any case, Dennis is having trouble with Steve, until Edith arrives, distracts Steve, and Dennis is able to blast him. Turns out Steve is only mostly dead, though, and blasts Dennis from the floor before expiring. Edith shouts out Steve’s name in what’s possibly supposed to be a reference to the Wrath of Khan, except the acting sounds more frustrated than enraged and they don’t do the camera angle right. Either way, it turns out that Dennis’ sweet Rebel cape is blasterproof and he’s fine, but only after Edith apologizes to his “corpse” for hiding their relationship.

Darby and Mike find Ellen plugged into a giant space laser in Echo Base. Admiral Ackbar is going to use Ellen’s android body as a power source to fire a cannon powerful enough to destroy the orbiting Death Star and shatter the Imperial Fleet, which sounds like a great idea except that the Rebels already blew up the Death Star once (the evacuation is the opening to season two, the rest of which takes place on the near-identical second Death Star) and it doesn’t seem to have slowed the Empire down all that much. Didn’t stop them from, for example, blowing up Admiral Ackbar’s homeworld at the end of season two.

Regardless of how consequential blowing up the Death Star will be to the actual war, Admiral Ackbar is going to suck all the power out of Ellen’s body to do it, which will kill her. It’s been established that while Ellen can normally escape death by uploading herself to the Imperial databanks and then downloading into a new body, when she joined the Rebellion her backups were purged, so now dead is dead for her. Darby asks Ackbar if he’s just been using him all along, and Ackbar says that no, he hasn’t been using Darby. He’s been using Darby’s smarter engineer friend Mike to build the laser and his more attractive android friend Ellen to power it. He would’ve used Darby, except that Darby is not at all useful.

There’s a bit of a hiccup here where Darby asks why Ackbar went to so much trouble to get him into the Rebellion back in season one if he didn’t matter in the end. Ackbar brushes him off and basically just says he’s not important, which doesn’t answer the question at all. It actually just kind of raises it again. What was the whole season one sending a spy to the Death Star just to get in touch with Darby about? Sure, one spy might not be hugely consequential to a Rebel admiral, but Ackbar at the very least thought to do it at all.

In any case, Darby offers to be useful to Ackbar, grabs a mop, and attacks Mike with it, who grabs a broom to try and fend him off. There’s a scene with the two handles crossed that looks like it might’ve been trying to imitate Vader and Luke clashing their lightsabers in front of Emperor Palpatine, but just like the Khan shot the cinematography is off and it doesn’t really carry. It later transpires that Darby is actually trying to stall for time that Mike needs to get Ellen unplugged from the cannon, and an aggravated Mike whispers back that he doesn’t just need time, he needs to be over there working on Ellen. Darby is really bad at stalling, but he and Mike work out a plan in whispered conversation while they continue pretending to duel with their brooms.

Ultimately, they download Ellen into an affirmation droid Mike carries around to tell him he’s good at stuff, getting her out of her body just before Ackbar fires the cannon and shouts “victory for the Rebellion! Victory for me!” This line and others like it help to sell Ackbar’s role as the Emperor Palpatine of this confrontation, trying to turn Darby to the Dark Side by convincing him to embrace his family’s self-centered narcissism over Darby’s loyalty to his friends. Admiral Ackbar’s blunt and unrelenting dickishness in the scene is necessary to keep it constantly obvious that he’s the bad guy despite the fact that firing a laser cannon to blow up the Death Star is generally a pretty good (if probably not decisive) thing to be doing. Ackbar’s not in this for the Rebellion. He’s in it for himself. Then the ceiling collapses on him, so there’s that problem taken care of.

This whole final confrontation pretty much works, although the lightsaber duel with janitorial tools instead of lightsabers is kind of disappointing just for how weak the choreography is. It would be a pretty huge break in character to have the two bumbling janitors suddenly turn out to be expert duelists just so they can have a climactic battle, but they could’ve used the mind worm ale from episode three to cut between an even more clearly unimpressive fight between the two of them and the epic duel they’re imagining that they’re having. They also could’ve had their conversation about how to save Ellen that would’ve come across entirely as “yeah, man” to Ackbar. The cast’s efforts to save Ellen under the influence of mind worm juice went pretty horribly in episode three, but Ellen was able to keep her head under the effects of it (which apparently also affect androids) in that episode’s climax. Of course, there’s no immediately obvious reason to actually drink the mind worm ale in the middle of an Imperial invasion of the base, and it might’ve ended up badly distracting from the actual arc of Darby choosing between his friends and his ambitions, plus I’m assuming they could have actually choreographed a cool-looking duel, and while the effects budget for that is just two guys with brooms just like the duel they actually did, the actual choreography might be a skill they don’t have and didn’t have time to cultivate. Maybe it’s for the best they went the direction they did.

As mentioned earlier, the whole final confrontation pretty much works. The only really weak spot is the moment when they try to imitate Luke and Vader first clashing and completely mess up the camera angle.

After Ackbar, Roarke, and Steve are defeated, the entire group meets up and take a ship from the Rebel hangar, blasting off past the Imperial blockade. They’re no longer Rebels, but they’re still friends. They pick a star to head towards basically at random and blast off into the distance. Fin.

Across all three seasons, Space Janitors tells the story of a group of friends stuck in one bad workplace after another. The first season sets up the dystopian horribleness of the Death Star as a workplace (and it definitely comes off as more of an office building that blows up planets than a military base), the second season depicts Darby slowly turning his allegiance towards the Rebellion, and then in the third season we see the Rebellion as a startup company run by a “visionary auteur” whose only plan is to ride the venture capital until fate bestows Google levels of fame, fortune, and success upon them. Most of them express a desire for personal success, and some of them (most consistently Darby) let that desire grow out of control and strain the friendships they have, but ultimately they always stick by their friends.

The Space Janitors writers barely seem to realize they actually have that theme, though, and their lack of dedication to it is something that I think is holding the show back. They have good actors, the writing works scene-to-scene, and the effects are good enough to get the job done, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a great show, and yet if you show this article series to someone who’s already seen the show, their response is probably going to be “oh, yeah, Space Janitors. I think I remember seeing that.” Rather than something like “oh, Space Janitors! I loved that show.” It’s only been two years since the last episode, it’s not like it’s receded back into the mists of time.

A recurring weakness of the show is that it has difficulty building to anything (I’ve already broken my promise not to flog the Edith/Roarke confrontation any further, but you remember that? Yeah, that), and if it were better at that I think it would have a lot more staying power as a cultural force. Ellen has nothing to do with the overarching theme of workplace ambition against friendship, and this gives her almost nothing to do in the plot. Dennis likewise has basically no interaction with the theme, and becomes relevant to the plot only as a prop to Edith’s story. Mike can get away with this, because he isn’t just a prop, he’s chosen one side of that conflict so decisively that he becomes a paragon representing it. That still leaves two out of five of the main cast with nothing to do.

More than that, the villains interact little with that theme at all. Admiral Ackbar very effectively represents choosing workplace ambition over friendship, using his children as pawns to advance his career and discarding them without a thought if they’re not useful. Roarke and Crane don’t really interact with that theme at all, though, even when, like Roarke, their dialogue really wants them to be. Roarke constantly pinballs between representing the Empire’s corrupt, backstabbing workplace environment and being obsessed with revenge over being abandoned by her friends. The narrative can’t decide whether Edith resolves her conflict by rejecting Crane or learning from him or maybe learning from some parts and rejecting others, or…it’s a mess. I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the problems with Edith’s arc, and this is basically what it comes down to. Her two villains are Crane and Roarke, and Crane represents nothing at all while Roarke declares herself to be representative of something that I didn’t even realize Edith was struggling with until she was having her final confrontation with it.

About two and a half years ago, the day before the season three finale aired on YouTube, the Space Janitors crew announced that they wanted to make a movie. I’m not on their mailing list so I have no idea how that’s going for them, but if they do end up managing to make one, I really, really hope they manage more thematic coherence on it than they did for the show. I liked Space Janitors, but I pretty much forgot about it completely the second they stopped releasing videos, and I think it has the potential to be more than that.

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