IF THIS HAD BEEN a movie, it would have started with stock footage of a Vostok rocket taking off from Baikonur Cosmodrome. A helpful title would have appeared onscreen: “Baikonur Cosmodrome, U.S.S.R., October 15, 1960.”
If the director had felt the audience was really dumb, the title would have read: “Baikonur Rocket Launch Facility, Soviet Union, October 15, 1960, one year before the Yuri Gagarin flight.”
If the budget of the film had been high enough, the launch would have been recreated with stunning CGI effects: the flames spreading out beneath the distinctive bell-tailed Soviet rocket design.
If the director and musical supervisor had some taste, the soundtrack as Viktor orbited the Earth twice would have been authentic classical Russian music; perhaps Shostakovich, perhaps Prokofiev.
And if Prokofiev, an ironic choice would have been the melancholy, sycophantically-titled “Hail to Stalin,” written when Joseph Stalin ruled absolutely.
If the director and musical supervisor were hacks who had previously worked together on a Transformers sequel, they would have chosen some John Williams-type pap, all drearily soaring horns and predictably lilting flutes.
There was no window on the Ur-Vostok capsule; it was mostly ground-controlled. But for cinematic purposes, there had to be a window. The audience must see Viktor’s face light up as the Earth turned below him.
Who would play Viktor?
Well, since for commercial reasons, an unknown Russian actor from the same northwestern Leningrad/St. Petersburg where Viktor grew up would not do, the wisest choice would be to cast a haunted-looking Scandinavian actor of the appropriate age; Alexander Skarsgard, for example. There is something about the snowbound Scandinavians and Slavs, a kinship, which would have satisfied. Russians renting the DVD or seeing it in the theaters, although slightly offput by the dubbed-Russian-over-English-speaking lips, would have nodded to themselves and said, “Yes, they captured some of it.”
A less-inspiring choice would have been to go with the usual over-trained and over-mannered British actor, delivering his lines in a flawless faux Russian accent. Still worse, an American actor with the range of a 1.0 electric car, whose Russian accent would be of sketch comedy quality.
Casting Viktor would be fraught with peril.
But a movie could do one thing well. Its visual language could show what went wrong with the retro rocket. In a complex special effects shot, the Vostok approaches the camera, and suddenly we are moving through the capsule, not Viktor’s little air pocket within it, but its actual guts, and we HOLD on the circuit, which is supposed to transmit the signal to fire the retro rocket and de-orbit the capsule. In a bit of cinematic license, we SEE it sparking fitfully, the wiring frayed to the point of uselessness.
Whatever really happened to the retro rocket, that works just fine as movie shorthand.
If this had been a graphic novel, some things would be easier to convey, some things harder. Viktor would look exactly like Viktor; the artist could work from any extant photos that had not been destroyed when Viktor officially became an un-person: a jaunty photo of the young pilot who had just gotten his baptism by fire in the Battle of Kursk; a mid-1950s photo of the Red Air Force test pilot in swim trunks, clowning around with his kids on holiday in the Black Sea, a few blurry shots taken by his wife with an East German camera.
Viktor looks like Viktor.
The Vostok? Not so much so. You can’t have a viable comic book whose background consists of varieties of gray, in shadow. Liberties would be taken to de-grimify the Vostok interior. Patches of yellow, some bright blue instrument panels, an overly creamy hue to Viktor’s flight suit. It could be done, and would have to be. Studies show that the average graphic novel patron, when considering the purchase of a singleton with which he is unfamiliar, will make the decision based on a single quick flip through the book.
The world balloon around “Fire retro rocket!” would arch out of the mission controller’s mouth like a lightning bolt and encase the words in a zig-zag pattern. For emphasis. The next panel, with no dialog, showing Viktor’s hand, his finger pushing a button. (Both Soviet and U. S. spacecraft used binary switches. But license must be taken for the visual language of comics.)
Next panel. Mission Control. The flight controller, drawn with caterpillar-like eyebrow and a lardy body (which visually signifies corruption), a wrinkled, short-sleeved office shirt, and a wilted, narrow black tie. The reader must be made to see that this is the bureaucratic bad guy who sent Viktor on a dangerous propaganda mission with undertested equipment. He yells “I said, FIRE RETRO ROCKET!!!” The letters are larger, all in caps, each line made with thick strokes of the calligrapher’s pen; the three exclamation points are in red. Three teardrop shapes flow out of the mission controller’s mouth, one angling up, one straight out, one angling down.
Next panel. The Vostok serenely orbits the Earth.
Next panel. The Vostok, closer up. Viktor’s strained face is visible in the (really non-existent) window.
Next panel. Inside the capsule. Viktor’s eyes are lidless tennis balls. The dialog balloon is huge, taking up half the panel. The lettering is tiny, in deliberate contrast, lost in the white expanse of the word balloon: “I did.”
If this had been a potboiler novel, the type written by an unknowing, self-important hack like Tom Clancy or a knowing, self-effacing hack like James Patterson, there would be an angry exchange between the flight controller and the young, idealistic engineer, who was seen joking around with Viktor in the early chapters. The purpose of the confrontation would be to advance the plot and deliver chunks of information to the reader. The characters would talk in florid, melodramatic sentences that real people rarely use:
YOUNG KARPOV FELT the eyes of the entire control room on him, boring into him. None could believe that he dared to challenge the authority of Comrade Timoshenko. With a heavy heart, he pressed on.
“Comrade Timoshenko, that man up there needs our help. He is stranded. We must do everything in our power to help him!”
At first, Timoshenko did not reply. His pig-like eyes narrowed underneath those fleshy eyebags, and his untamed-weeds of eyebrows dipped down to form an expression. An expression of pure malice. An expression of pure hate. An expression that bespoke of thumbscrews and rubber hoses in a dungeon at KGB headquarters. The old tyrant’s leathery tongue darted out of his mouth to wipe a drop of sweat from his upper lip. When finally he spoke, it was in a deceptively mild voice:
“What would you have us do in such a hopeless case, Comrade Karpov?”
In the deathly silence that followed, Karpov thought he heard the muffled sound of a jackboot being slowly ground into his face.
Finally, he blurted out: “Ask the Americans for help!”
Gasps filled the room.
“Right now, they are readying a rocket that is supposed to carry a monkey,” he said desperately. “Perhaps if it could be redirected instead to send a rescue craft to Comrade–“
“Treason!” Timoshenko thundered. “To give the capitalist imperialist swine a propaganda coup! Anti-Soviet counter-revolutionary thought crimes!”
“But if we do not do something, he is a dead man!”
“For all intents and purposes, he already is a dead man!” Timoshenko thundered. “An un-person! Non-existent. And so are you! Guards!”
Two burly, jack-booted Red Army guards, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, marched over on his command.
“Take this counter-revolutionary traitor into custody!” Timoshenko thundered.
AS LITERATURE, IT would be bad: Russian-sounding names lazily taken from historical celebrities (the World War II general Timoshenko; the chess champion Karpov); thunderous repetition; and ginned-up-out-of-nothing conflict between two characters, with everyone else (all supposedly knowledgeable engineers and scientists) standing around like cardboard cutouts.
But as history, it would be even worse. (Even before Karpov’s daring escape from a KGB torture chamber with the gorgeous Ludmilla by his side — don’t ask.)
The truth of that control room that day would be hard to dramatise: a thousand urgent side-conversations among groups of engineers; ideas pitched, batted around, and tossed to the ground; everyone running their brains on overdrive to come up with a solution. No one suggested using the American Redstone rockets to retrieve Viktor, because they were all scientifically literate enough to know that Viktor’s current orbit could not be rendezvoused with from a Cape Canaveral launch site, even if the expertise needed for it had been developed — which it had not been.
Perhaps a brilliantly dishonest filmmaker like Sergei Eisenstein could have done something with the movement of crowds…
If this had been a stage play, Viktor’s mental state could have been conveyed through a monologue. The stage may be the best place for an artist to confront anguish. Art wants to fascinate, but anguish can be boring, or excruciating to watch. In either case, it’s easy to look away — unless it is being delivered by a live performer.
There are two dynamics in the theater, which cannot be matched by any other medium.
The first is the performer’s ability to meter his/her delivery to the rhythm of the live people at his/her feet:
People mumbling in boredom? Pick up the pace.
Words getting lost in the depth of the playhouse? Talk louder.
Joke gets a huge laugh? Don’t step on it with your next line.
Joke falls flat? Move on, quickly.
Dramatic scene causing audible sobs? Milk it, carefully.
The second dynamic is the human response to the presence of a stranger. You’re standing on the sidewalk. Someone else comes up. Your eyes go to them. That person’s eyes lock with yours. The lizard brain upon which the sonnet-writing, laser-inventing human brain is built, has just conducted the threat assessment. We are always cognizant of other people in our midst. Live actors trigger this response in us; video images do not.
Put those two dynamics together, and the theater can become the most astonishing of artistic experiences.
So, imagine a theater like the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, with its intimate stage and its steeply inclined seating, packing a largish audience close enough to see the performers rather well with bare eyeballs. The Vostok capsule is a half-cocoon downstage right, from which Viktor can stand up and stride towards the footlights to deliver his monologues. Upstage left (that is, at the rear of the stage, to the audience’s right) is a separate set piece for Mission Control.
A spotlight winks on during interludes to illuminate this portion of the stage, as the Russian, ahem, Soviet engineers form a Greek chorus of the events leading up to Viktor’s predicament. This chorus has a very important function; it keeps the audience from burning down the theater. Because that’s what they would do if they were confronted with an entire evening of one guy just talking.
There are still a few successful one-person dramatic plays out there, but they are mostly revivals of older works, like The Belle of Amherst, that already have a following. Or else they’re vanity projects built around a movie star whose name can sell tickets. If you’re opening a new show without songs that originally appeared in a Disney movie, you’re already operating under a handicap.
We had hoped to outdo America.
But we went ahead before we were ready.
Back to the drawing board, for Gagarin
Shall make our next launch – which we’ll call our first!
One plus one is not two in Russia.
Viktor was written in pencil. Erased!
Cold comfort to pioneer in secret.
Poor Viktor. An atheist, he cannot pray.
But before your air runs out, meditate!
Meditate, Viktor. With your eyes open.
And see strange things, but not impossible ones!
The science is cut and dried. My CO2 scrubbers will run out, and my own carbon dioxide will poison me before I run out of air. My wife and son and daughter are in my thoughts. But I am alone. No one else has experienced this before me.
Or have they?
LAIKA ENTERS, stage left.
LAIKA, AS PERFORMED onstage, is a petite woman clad in a black leotard with matching gloves, leggings, and sleeves as well, which leave only her face uncovered. A spot of dark make-up smudged on her nose is meant to suggest a dog’s nose. She creeps gracefully on all fours.
This is a very dangerous conceit; the audience is expected to titer, just a bit, which is fine — but if they guffaw, they’ll have a hard time getting back into the melancholy mood which the play has attempted to convey, and the whole business will be ruined. To take the curse off of the moment, the producers and director wisely chose to include her, on all fours, in both the poster outside the theater and on the playbook cover. The device was also mentioned in critics’ preview showing reviews, so audiences should be okay with it.
You gotta lead the crowd along.
It disorients one, doesn’t it?
I am seeing things.
Merely a dog? I thought my fame preceded me.
Am I supposed to lick your hand for that?
(PAUSE for expected laughter).
Why are you surprised? You know that I was the first living creature shot into space, just to show that an animal could survive in freefall. I did what dogs have been doing for millennia. I sniffed ahead for danger.
You died up there!
Yes. Up here. They had no plan to bring me back down.
Yes, yes. I know. Their last command to your capsule was to dispense a meal of poisoned dog food for you.
So you were told.
They failed, Viktor. Oh, they wanted me to go painlessly with a bit of spiked paste. But there was a malfunction. Sound familiar? The climate system failed, and I roasted, Viktor. I died of heat from the unfiltered sunlight in orbit.
Yes! But they covered it up, of course. Too nasty, thinking of a slow death of an unsuspecting three-year-old bitch.
And what cover story will they come up with for you?
You are a wise man as well as a brave pilot. You know they won’t admit their failure. What will you be classified as? A satellite? Perhaps an unmanned test of the Vostok pod?
No. No! No, they won’t! I am a Hero of the Soviet Union! I was the youngest pilot at the Battle of Kursk! I destroyed four Tiger tanks. I have ejected from half a dozen dangerous experimental planes for my country.
You know the rules.
I know the system! Oh, the system is bad, I grant you. But the people are good. Good working people, warm at heart, who do not put on any fancy airs. Earthy!
Viktor, you know the good people are at the mercy of the bad, the ones who fill the slots in the system. You knew when you were in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis that innocent soldiers were being executed by the NKVD just to put fear into the men!
But you are right. Most of our own people are good. Why, Viktor, did you know that one of the scientists who tested me took me home one day to play with his children? He wanted me to have some joy before my life ended.
(PAUSE. She cocks her head.)
Oh, Viktor. Who is going to play with you?
VIKTOR hides his face with his hands, and slowly weeps. LAIKA crawls over to him. Slowly, he puts one hand down on her head and strokes her hair.
A TRUE INCIDENT is not the same thing as a true story. An incident happens. A story is told; and, even if based on a true incident, the telling must skew the incident to the demands of its own medium. It must.
The truth of the incident was hard and sad. Viktor died of hypoxia from the carbon dioxide buildup in his capsule. He felt a headache, nausea, then nothing.
His orbiting tomb was passed off as a failed spy satellite, and the next year Yuri Gagarin officially became the first human being to orbit the Earth.
The bacteria Viktor had brought with him on and in his body partly consumed him. But the oxygen had all leaked out of his cabin within a couple of years, and he became a mummy in vacuum. In the complete darkness of his windowless craft (again: windowless!) his desiccated arms floated freely in front of him. His corpse went round and round the Earth as six decades of history unfolded below.
And let the writer, producer, or artist who would like to tell the true story of what happened to his family raise their hand. Anyone? Of course not.
What’s worth telling?
Wife and two kids given a small pension for a test pilot’s death in a “plane crash.”
His wife died in 1974 when a poorly-trained Soviet physician examined her for stomach pain and missed her appendicitis.
His son followed the memory of the father into the Air Force; on January 16, 1987, he was piloting a chopper carrying an elite team of Spetznaz commandos to a raid on a rebel compound in Afghanistan when a CIA-supplied surface-to-air missile arc’d up, up, up and did exactly what it was supposed to do.
Viktor’s daughter was the only one in those Black Sea vacations photos who lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. She became a crusading journalist. She would have made her father’s legacy one of her crusades, except she really didn’t know about it; she was only four when he died, and knew he had worked on the space program, but still thought he had been incinerated in an experimental Tupolev crash.
Her beat was political corruption. And on June 10, 2008, she was grabbed by four men as she left her shabby apartment, dragged into an alley, and shot twice in the head. No money was taken from her, and she was not raped, either pre- or post-mortem. The Makarov pistol was wiped of prints and carefully laid near her head; leaving the murder weapon in this way sent the clear message that this was political, and was meant to warn other journalists not to be too nosy.
So no, none of that would do. No matter how depressing the source material, you’ve gotta have an uplifting ending. If you’re doing The Perfect Storm, about five guys who drowned in coldness and darkness, you gotta end it with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio smiling triumphantly.
When Viktor finally re-entered the atmosphere in 2010, he went down in the Indian Ocean. His ablative heat shield kept his Vostok intact until it hit the water, at which point it broke up, and various sea creatures got to taste some very moldy protein that day. Not an ending that could recoup production costs, even if you filmed it on the cheap in Vancouver, where the British Columbia tax credit for film producers, combined with a sometimes-quite-favorable exchange rate between the U. S. dollar and the Canadian loonie (that last part is controlled by market fluctuations, so don’t even try to plan on it) makes for a very favorable climate to do the film business.
Very favorable indeed.
Instead, the wise production team would stage this tableaux:
MOTHER, SON, AND daughter are having dinner in their back yard in (as the scene’s title says) “suburban Moscow, 2010.” Like a barbecue, or as close to one as Russians get: picnic table, picket fence, etcetera. The mother, overcome by sudden emotion, asks her adult kids if they can really remember their father, being as young as they were when he died. They hug her from both sides and assure her that, yes, they certainly can. She sniffs away her tears and says, “You know, he was a religious man, in his own way. I’m sure somewhere up there, he’s still looking down on us.”
As one, the three of them raise their gaze to the starry evening.
INSERT SHOT as the Vostok capsule (no interior shot, please!) finally, after decades of atmospheric drag, de-orbits. CUT BACK to the family.
Look, children! A falling star!
Make a wish, my darlings.
CUT TO CLOSE-UP, from her P.O.V., of MOTHER’s upraised, pointing hand, against the darkening sky, and the “falling star” streaking across the horizon.
Make a wish. (Her voice trails off.)
FADE TO BLACK
THERE WOULD BE some debate over what song to play over the end credit scroll. Finally Found a Home by Huey Lewis and the News? More than a Feeling by Boston? Fly Like an Eagle by The Steve Miller Band? Starry, Starry Night by Don Maclean? Wind Beneath my Wings by Bette Midler? Something soft-jazzy by Harry Connick, Jr. or Michael Bublé? Original composition by this writing team that has three hits under their belt, to be sung by Celine Dion? New hip-hop/bouncy pop fusion song by The Black Eyed Peas, written specifically for the movie and which will name the characters and incidents portrayed? This might be the most promising route, because there would be guaranteed promotion by the group. Forget about Across the Universe by The Beatles; the song is stale and, beyond that, there’s the usual pain-in-the-ass of The Beatles catalog’s complex and expensive rights management, a legacy of their disastrous Apple Records corporate structure in the 1970s. But a cover of Across the Universe is more promising and less expensive. If we go that route, do we go with the hip-hop chick who wants to do a straight ballad to prove she has pipes? Or maybe with the former boy band member who wants to kick-start a solo career? We can put out feelers with a couple of prospects and see who’s on board.
Eric “Cruel” Cline lives in Maryland, USA. with his wife and three dogs. His stories have been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Stupefying Stories, NewMyths.com, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, and other places. www.cruelcline.blogspot.com