Friday, November 05, 2010

Radio Gaga - Listening to Canadia: 2056

A couple of weeks ago while on the CBC website, I stumbled on an ad for a radioplay that had been airing on Radio One that was surprisingly geeky: Canadia: 2056.

Not being a regular listener of the station, I'd missed the series' original run, so I hunted it down on iTunes and downloaded both seasons. I've been listening to a couple of episodes every night for the past little while and have just finished it. On the whole, Canadia: 2056 isn't bad.

As the title makes fairly clear, this science fiction-comedy is set in the year 2056, where the American government warns that the Earth is threatened by a hostile alien race, and builds a fleet of warships to pre-emptively destroy the enemy before they can leave their own world. Canada is the only other government that supports the US mission, and contributes a single vessel to assist the fleet: the Canadia. But you won't find this ship on the front line of battle - at least, not deliberately. Canadia is a maintenance ship - more to the point, the vessel and its crew specialize in unclogging toilets and various other small jobs like replacing lightbulbs.

The story opens with the crew of Canadia desperately trying to get the ship ready so it will be able to leave orbit with the rest of the fleet, when an unexpected new shipmate arrives. Midshipman Max Anderson is an American, son of a senior admiral who thinks her boy needs to man-up and that the best way to do that is to send him off to war - except, wanting to ensure that he'll get home safe, she assigns him to the Canadian maintenance ship, believing he'll be out of harm's way. Max initially has to put up with resentment, American jokes, and the awful realization that he'll be plunging toilets for the rest of the war. Having to deal with this new member of their crew are the Captain, a petty, egomaniacal, somewhat dim bureaucrat who's obsequious to his US Commanders only as long as the com system is on, then turns on a dime to grumble spitefully about them; the much put-upon First Officer Margaux Faverau who holds the crew together as she puts up with her bumbling captain and jokes about her heavy Quebecois accent; absent-minded old Doc Gaffney; and Amanda Lewis, the engineer who quickly develops a crush on Max.

Throughout their odyssey, Canadia's crew has to deal with everything from nutty AI's to American admirals that are either indifferent or overbearing cowboys, mysterious aliens to time travel, catastrophe to brains in jars, Canada-US relations and the stereotypes each country has of the other, government bureaucracy, and, of course, clogged toilets across the entire fleet.

In many ways, Canadia: 2056 feels a lot like the British TV series Red Dwarf. The crews are very much blue-collar workers going about duties utterly lacking in glory, and you get the sense that pretty much anyone from one series' ship would fit in well on the other vessel. Their misadventures tend to have the same feel too. The main difference is that the crew of the 'Dwarf is wiped-out in fairly short order, leaving Lister as the only living human, kept company by Holly, Cat, Rimmer, and later Kryten and Kochanski, while most of Canadia's gang manages to stay alive, more or less. In fact, I'm fairly certain that the creators of Canadia: 2056 are aware of, and probably intended, the parallels with the UK show, as evidenced by a couple of references in the radioplay to "the Jupiter Mining Corporation", which, as fans of "the short rouge one" know, was the name of the company that owned the Red Dwarf prior to her 3-million-year run into deep space.

There are plenty of nods to other SF works though. The afore-mentioned brain-in-the-jar has been used plenty, although every time it came up in Canadia: 2056, I couldn't help but think of the treatment it gets in Futurama (okay, admittedly, Groening's show uses entire heads in jars, rather than just brains, but you get the idea). Max's best buddy the robot is unapologetically R2D2. The series plays with post-apocalyptic survival a bit (take your pick of inspiration there), there's a time machine that's a half-assed cousin to Marty McFly or Austin Powers' rides, and there's an interfering, godlike alien straight outta Trek, among others.

Most of these references were worth a chuckle, but the first season's running joke with the Doctor and 2001: A Space Odyssey got really stale, really fast. I also thought the series ending was a little too The 13th Floor-ish. Parts of the conclusion were funny, but ultimately it was unsatisfying.

Is Canadia: 2056 worth spending $24 to download 24 half-hour episodes? Yes. I certainly would have preferred to listen to it for free when it aired on the radio, especially since CBC is funded by my tax dollars, but looking back at the original air dates and times, admittedly I would have been busy with other things anyway. But I don't regret paying for the download. It was funny enough when it needed to be and told a genuinely good story about some of the relationships among the crew.

I think it's also worth listening to as a way of supporting the dying art of radioplays. When's the last time you listened to one? Especially a radioplay that told a science fiction story, and in particular, one that was produced recently? I'll bet it's been a while, hasn't it? The last new ones, at least the last newly-produced ones with SF elements to them, that I can remember listening to were back when I was a kid in the 70's and early 80's. After that... nothing. Sure, there are rebroadcasts of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds, and the odd radio station here and there (like Rock101 here in Vancouver) will have a DJ who loves radio enough to convince the PD to let him do a classic radioplay show overnight once a week, but those are few and far between. As for the Mothercorp, CBC does a good job of maintaining the art form, but it's pretty rare for it to condescend to produce a radioplay as firmly rooted in the SF ghetto as Canadia: 2056 is. If you remember the better days of radio decades ago, when radioplays were still common, and if you want to experience a well-made one again, this program is worth while. If you're a younger SF fan and you've never listened to a radioplay, or have heard the old Welles cast and want more opportunities to listen to a story and create the pictures with your own imagination, I'd say this series is probably worth trying.

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