In June 2018 Donald Trump made an announcement at the White House: “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important. Very importantly I am hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”
As with several of Trump’s verbatim statements, it could easily have been a joke if he wasn’t a) deadly serious and b) the president of the United States. But to one Netflix executive, Blair Fetter, it was a potential joke so tempting that he immediately got on the phone to Steve Carell.
“It had been a long time since I’d done anything purely comedic, and I had the itch to do it again,” Carell says, speaking from Los Angeles. “Netflix had this premise they thought might make a funny show, about the origins of a fictitious Space Force — the idea made everybody laugh in a meeting.”
Even though at that point the idea was still just a two-word title, Carell pitched it to his friend Greg Daniels, the comedy linchpin who co-created the US version of The Office (the show that made Carell a household name), King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation. Daniels liked it too, and they were off.
“It had been a long time since I’d done anything purely comedic, and I had the itch to do it again,” Carell says.
“There was no show,” Carell says, “but we liked the fact that ‘Space Force’ was uncharted territory. I thought that was exciting — the fact that at that time Space Force didn’t even know what Space Force was going to be. It was a blank slate, and we could make it whatever we wanted to make it.”
What they’ve made is a workplace comedy where the work is an impossibly complex job — getting “boots on the moon” by 2024 — and Carell’s General Mark Naird is the wrong man to be doing it. Naird is a war hero who is elevated to a four-star general before being told he is being put in charge of the new branch. Initially he is not pleased. His wife, Maggie (Lisa Kudrow), is devastated to be forced to swap garden parties in DC for a desert base in deepest Colorado. But Naird reconsiders.
“He thinks about the significance of starting a new branch, he assumes the responsibility and does it with great pride,” says Carell, who once again pulls off the trick of transforming a buttoned-up buffoon into a plausible human being. “Naird’s a by-the-book guy; very regimented and strict with himself. But he has a good heart. He’s a man of morals and decency, and he tries to abide by that.”
Looming large over Space Force is the Star Destroyer shadow of the real Space Force, and its inception at the hands of the president. The difficulty with all things Trump is that satire and parody were years ago left floundering in the wake of his all-media maelstrom. Where there is humour to be summoned from a presidential pronouncement, Saturday Night Live and all the nightly US talk shows are primed and ready. Although there are references in Space Force to a sabre-rattling Potus who would do anything to get one over on China, mostly it steers clear of sideswipes.
What they’ve made is a workplace comedy where the work is an impossibly complex job — getting “boots on the moon” by 2024.
“That wasn’t the impetus for doing the show,” says Carell. “We wanted to feel less like a bashing of any side politically, and more of an exploration of character and relationships. Have it be situationally funny as opposed to just taking potshots.” He says too much comedy now, not to mention public discourse in general, has become “all or nothing”.
“I feel it’s OK to have an awareness of things and also to point out flaws and eccentricities where we see them, in a non-partisan way. We don’t want to be preaching to the choir. You can sometimes make more impact if you do things with a bit of a lighter touch.”
Both Daniels and he, he adds, have family who are or have been in the military. “Greg and I were adamant that we have a respect for the military, for the struggles they are up against. That’s built in, and I think people might be surprised that the show is that respectful. It’s not mocking the military, but it does have fun with the eccentricities and the red tape and the foibles within an organisation like that.”
“I wanted to acknowledge the positives about the space programme,” Daniels says. “I think maybe one of the reasons why the [Trump] administration is into this is that, for the US, the Apollo mission was a shining moment, a wonderful rallying point for all humanity. You want to do something that’s comic, but don’t want to be mocking something wonderful.”
Space Force thus treads a fine line; like most Greg Daniels or Steve Carell comedy, it is broadly warm-hearted, silly by default, throwing punches only with velvet gloves. But it certainly lands some blows.
“When we started working on it,” Daniels says, “the most salient theme to me was that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he said it’s ‘one giant leap for mankind’. The moon especially has always been hanging in the sky for everybody to look at; it’s part of the patrimony of all mankind.
“Now the brief is ‘boots on the moon by 2024’. It feels almost like a colonial rush, like, let’s make the moon more private, more nationalistic. That seems to line up with a rise in nationalism around the world, not just in the US.”
With the real Space Force gearing up for a lunar landgrab and actual billions being spent on the project, the fictional Space Force was always going to be ironic, intentionally or not.
“It’s funny because as the real Space Force was revealing certain aspects of itself, we were sort of following suit,” Carell says. “They revealed their new uniforms online. A couple of days later we revealed ours. They revealed their insignia; we revealed ours.”
Inevitably, both Space Forces had gone along similar lines. “Each branch in the military has a camouflage fatigues uniform,” Daniels says. “The thought we had was to make the Space Force fatigues based on photographs of the surface of the moon, which has an inherent absurdity, because you’re never going to be camouflaged out in your fatigues on the moon. You’re always going to be in a spacesuit.”
When the real Space Force revealed their fatigues, the camouflage pattern was … jungle.
Yet, beneath all the absurdity, the premise is real. “When we did more research and went to SpaceX and various places,” Daniels says, “they were making the point that this is already happening. Other countries are looking at outer space in a military way, and the internet and our communication systems are vulnerable.
“We’re not going to shove some message down people’s throats, but there’s one in there if you think about it.”
Space Force will begin streaming on Netflix on May 29