Hyperdrive is a two-series, twelve-episode British sit-com mixing together flavors of The Office, Star Trek and a bevy of other SF and British mainstays. It invited an unfortunate comparison to Red Dwarf in a lot of its press, for obvious reasons, but rarely had the same sort of feel or purpose. It is much closer to The Office in Space, right down to Nick Frost's Captain Henderson being played like a friendlier, more accessible Ricky Gervais character. The concept is the HMS Camden Lock, a British ship spreading diplomatic love to the far reaches of space and handling clean-up missions.
The general format of each episode is to establish some mission early on. Which will be screwed up spectacularly by the end. The mission will be hosed by a combination of ineptitudes. Jeffers will rebel. Vine will be mediocre. Teal will allow her feelings for the captain to interfere. York will overreact violently. Sandstrom will crazy it up. The captain will go in with earnest spirit but vastly outgunned. Something always occurs. And then the crew bounces back, sometimes equally spectacularly, but generally just enough to qualify for a happy ending of sorts.
What makes the underlying repetitiveness of the twelve episodes tolerable is two basic things. The director, John Henderson, has enough intriguing little shots to keep a visual appeal going. The show is also enormously helped by many of the cast playing the crew right to the brink of failure, but do not quite cross the line over into expendable. Henderson might be a bumbling failure of a man who just wants to be everyone's friend, but he is also a good captain when he needs to be and can easily motivate people. He is competent in using his ship as a weapon, and in several matters of diplomacy. Furthermore, Nick Frost makes him absolutely lovable in the midst of his annoying bravado. He is that uncle you have, that you can never quite respect but will always have a beer with if he is game, where he talks about the good old days of highschool and rambles on about his model train collection.
Jeffers, acted wonderfully by Dan Antopolski, who often scoffs at orders, tends to be effective enough and intelligent enough to be more an asset to the crew than a detriment. He becomes the likable goof-off, as opposed to the one who lets everyone down. Vine, played by Stephan Evans, is the "more British than British" crewman. A collector of antiques from the 1990s, dreams of a pub. Wants a simpler time. Just tries to average things on through and wants to be generally left alone to do his job.
Mr. York is played by Kevin Eldon right at the brink of mania. Quick to attack, untrusting. Also a little annoying because his delight in destruction act regularly seems out of place with a man who is good friends with the captain and is often the emotional support. His sneer and skills are powerful to behold, but too many episodes seem to be unsure what to do with him. Eldon responds by casting him a little to the wind, and the effect works. The series two opener is particularly an effective time for Eldon, playing both York and his malfunctioning clone and adding about as much depth as the character is ever afforded.
Then there is Sandstrom, who is likely to be a fan favorite through and through. Petra Massey's athleticism and massive smile and quirky eroticism are an unforgettable part of the show. Her character is somewhere between Farscape's Pilot and Firefly's River Tam. Enhanced to have greater reflexes and control of the ship, her humanity is dialed up to something akin to the ship's computer of The Heart of Gold. Her weirdness both allows her to ape Summer Glau's not-quite-autistic River and makes a stab at the sort of things people do to get rid of Student Loans (read: get Enhanced).
If any of the crew is a let down, it will probably be Chloe Teal. This is not really the fault of Miranda Hart, who puts a lot of life and love into the character, but the imbalance. While everyone else in the show seems to be the masters of calculated ineptitude, the show's makers (who, by the way, are Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, who is indeed the guy with the Bunny Suicides) have cast Teal as the for-sure bumbler. Her character is played off as being ineffective in a fight (scoring under Vine), idiotic despite her intelligence, lacking any common sense, prone to complaint, possessed of a bad understanding of human nature, a tendency to come across as a rabidly nice secretary, and a person willing to sacrifice crew stability for a chance at a romp with the Commander. While she has some of the better lines in the show -- "You can't go around saying nice things to girls because you want them to kill you" and her agnostic hymn of "He may have made the sun, Oh, thank you if you are there, if not we shan't despair" -- the expense paid is being the character that makes the other bumblers look effecient.
The show is a blend of two parodies. The first is the obvious parody of SF conventions. Sandstrom re-enacts a River Tam moment while fighting an obvious Borg parody in the second series. Seconds before that, the scene was a direct lift of the "soon to be boarded" moments that occur only on in A New Hope. The guns of the future are plastic and friendly looking. The ship has numerous "level markings" that seem to impossibly large fro it's apparent size (it's one true shoutout to Red Dwarf, I believe). The agnostic hymns hint at a what counts for a church in the midst of SF's normal presumed atheism.
The second parody form is dedicated to British culture. The crew are composed, at heart, of British office stereotypes. The beauracatic system, represented most by Paterson Joseph's Space Marshall Clarke, is arbitrary in its punishment. They continue to give the bumbling Camden Lock missions while distrusting them to complete it. They use a military ship to make sales. And a good amount of "British Diplomacy" turns out to be one sided trade agreements that benefits the humans.
Being a Yank, I am sure I missed a fair number of the jabs, but I enjoyed the ones I did get, especially since many of them are equally applied to Americans. Beyond the reality TV jab and the "almost too stereotypically true to be true" Queppu who demand to have mediocre inventions marveled at and a respect paid to rulers who wear jester outfits, one long running parody is of 1960s and -70s style British SF in the series of Captain Helix. Waen Shepherd brings forth the eponymous Helix into grotesque focus: verly made up, a massive ham, with painfully minimal sets and a robot sidekick that is a testimony to SF fans's long term ability to see even visual stories mostly in their head. Captain Helix is Captain Henderson's hero and the episodes show up in (just about?) every episode. By the second series, the concept of the captain as fanboy comes into even stronger focus. Not only is retro-SF spoofed there, but SF as a fanboy's game is also poked warm fun at. A show within a show has not been this much fun since Nadesico.
My absolute favorite bit was the final episode's star destroying weapon. "Oh, She [meaning the weapon] is British" says the captain, with obvious admiration in his voice, to which York replies: "Five years late and six times overbudget." Teal joins with "For what it cost, every man, woman and child in Britain could have had their own hospital, though there could be staffing problems". "What if it falls into the wrong hands?" adds York. "We're not going to give to the Americans, are we?" finishes the captain, "This baby is so big it will stop all wars. Even the people it's pointed out will feel protected by its agression. It's a win-win."
That is good stuff.
The good stuff does get swirled around with scenes of tedium that don't quite hold their own, feeling like time filler (which, they are). This is true of all series, but shows up in this one in an almost grating manner. If I were to lay out all the scenes that did not quite jive right, it would be hodgepodge. And memory mostly focuses, in my case, on scenes that worked at least to a cute level, if not to a more definite one. Still, there is a sense, thinking back, of a show not quite tight enough to hold itself together. This is most obvious issues are collected in the first two episodes. Though they have their charm, and some funny moments, the show was cast as more or less straight SF parody. It had yet to find it's human element, that makes it so enjoyable by the end. A lot of people seem to sour on the show in that first hour of footage, and never quite warm to it again.
My recommendation is probably to skip the first episode and go immediately to episode three. After you finish out about episode five, then go back to episodes one and two before moving on to episode six. You won't be confused by the characters, each episode has something of its own continuity that only slightly reaches out to the others. This will help you, though, to feel less abruptly tossed into action and you will actually have a more human feel for the characters to start.
It seems to have run its course, and for the best. The second season provides as complete of a closing as I can see and it has covered many of the themes it is best at covering.
While episodes tend to range from Meh to Good, sometimes within a single episode, the general feel of the show is somewhere between Eh and Good. I have warm feelings towards it, but I do not think it is quite portable to everyone's tastes.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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