Moscow-Cassiopeia (1973)

Hi peeps, Nate here again. Long time readers will know that I am an unabashed and unashamed Russophile from way back before Trump made it cool for the hipsters in Williamsburg to buy stylized Stalin t-shirts from Amazon. And so I thought I'd check out some old Rooskie sci-fi from the early days of Brezhnev's reign, there's a surprising amount of it out there if you know where to look and don't mind being a pirate.

If there was one thing the Soviet-era Rooskies excelled in it was doing amazing technical and engineering feats with little more than gulag labor and a hearty dislike for representative government. They need a massive damn built in a year? No problem. 100 megaton nuke by the next Party Congress? Done. A decent four-door passenger sedan? Well, you know, that's harder than it looks. But if you need a mountain leveled for a coal pit mine in 30 days, a hundred thousand Ivans will make that shit happen. In the context of our movie, Soviet engineers are given a set of blue prints for an interstellar spaceship with an unproven and untested atomic propulsion system and told to get it to Baikonur in what certainly seems like just a few months. Oh, and those “blue prints” are little more than cartoonishly simple pen-and-ink drawings made by a 14-year old schoolboy. I could not make that up. Who, oh who, can provide these plans for a theoretical near-light-speed engine to push a spacecraft into uncharted space? That would be Junior Highschool student Viktor, boy genius and wish-fulfillment avatar for nerdy, girlfriendless adolescents everywhere. Don't question it, just let it ride, baby.

Viktor and his proposal for space travel. Epic, dude.

Despite these challenges, Mother Russia will not be denied the chance to send her glorious cosmonauts into outer space on a mission to the far off constellation of Cassiopeia. Why Cassiopeia? Well, Soviet cosmologists have picked up radio signals from Schedar, the brightest star in that constellation, signals that suggest an intelligent civilization of aliens calling to get a quote on some export-downgraded MiG-29s. And if anyone is going to make First Contact, it will be the Russians and not those cheese-eating surrendermonkey Frenchies or those beer-swilling capitalist Americans.

The Commies had a unique view of the cosmos.

So in a few months the spaceship DAWN is ready to go, chock full of advanced space-age technology and powered by a Space Time-bending atomic engine. "DAWN" is a English-subtitled version of the Cyrillic acronym for "Annihilator Relativistic Nuclear Starship". Really. Ok, all well and good so far, we can accept most of this, it's just a spaceship for a trip to another galaxy, no big deal for the dedicated workers at Astro-Mechanical Komosolets #34. Extra rations for them!

Stern quarter view of the DAWN in flight.

Inside, the DAWN spaceship is typical of the 1960s/70s design style, with lots of blinking lights and oddly shaped corridors. Control panels are generally unmarked, the strip lighting is harsh, and everything seems pretty cramped and cluttered, especially since a number of people will have to share this space for decades. The sets, by the way, were later reused for 1980's Through Thorns to the Stars.

I recognize the overly padded rooms.

Problems? Well, for starts the trip will take 26 years one-way to reach the signal source. Since even the sturdy and long-lived Rooskies have not yet mastered suspended animation (give them time!) their only choice is to pick a crew of youngsters who will be grown adult 40somethings when they finally reach their destination. Entrusting something as vital and humanity-changing as First Contact to a bunch of kids? What could possibly go wrong??!?!? (pro tip: everything will go wrong) After an exhaustive selection process that takes all of fifteen minutes a crew of six is formed, which seems to be mostly made up of Vikor's close friends from school. Since you can't and won't remember their gobblegook patronomic/matronomic Russian names, I've helpfully given them snarky nicknames. Let's run them down, shall we?

Komrade KaptainViktor, aka Viktor “Vitya” Sereda, is an angsty pimpled supergenius and the literal brains behind this entire operation (god help us). Most of the plot is seen through his occasionally bespectacled eyes, and over time we learn that he's woefully unqualified to command a space mission in every way. Just because you have the brains does not mean you can be a good Captain, just ask Mister Spock.

Komrade KaptainViktor's authority will go to his head, duh.

Komrade BestFriend, aka Pashka Kozelkov, is a pleasant sort of fellow, tall and handsome and certainly good at stuff and things, but really just here because he's Viktor's bestest bestie friend and it's that type of movie. Of all the six crewmen, he is by far the most expendable. I wonder if one of the girls can sew him up a Red Shirt, he might need it later...

Komrade BestFriend is pretty nondescript, duh.

Komrade DoucheBag, aka Mikhail “Misha” Kopanygin, is a master memorizer of mathematics and a smarmy arrogant bastard (perhaps because of that). As to why his ability to remember things is important enough to get him a ticket on the DAWN when they have supercomputers that can process a trillion times more info in a millisecond, I don't have any answer. Maybe his uncle is in the Politboro? Komrade DoucheBag's from a different school as Viktor's clan, and as the outsider he has taken it upon himself to be an extra dick to everyone. Fingers crossed he gets eaten by a rabid alien armadillo, slowly digested alive, and then his pulped remains excreted out a rectal organ into deep space. I dislike that kid.

Komrade DoucheBag will surely mellow out, duh.

Komrade FatGirl, aka Varvara “Varya” Kuteischchikova, crew exobiologist and presumably the one in charge of figuring out how to talk to the aliens when they end up being telepathic silicon-based sludge monsters. In the beginning she butted heads with Komrade KaptainViktor over the surely enormous cost of the expedition, money which could have been spent on saving Earth's own endangered species, but later came on board after realizing she could spend a lot of time with cute boys.

Komrade FatGirl will be angry a lot, duh.

Komrade GlassesGirl, aka Yulia Sorokina, is the DAWN's resident underage Doogie Howser-esque space doctor, the one tasked with keeping them all alive and well in the harshness of outer space. She's also the most detached from the teenage boy drama (for now), mostly because her Buddy Holly glasses and her love of science surely means she's a lesbian.

Komrade GlassesGirl is the smart one, duh.

Komrade PigTailsGirl, aka Yekaterina “Katya” Panfyorova, is a supersmart jack-of-all-trades, an expert in everything from metallurgy to art history to karate. She's a last-minute replacement for some other chick who didn't get her parental waiver signed, so she's as much an outsider as Komrade DoucheBag, though less irritating. I get what they were going for with her, a no-nonsense, all-business Commander Worf kind of security chief, but she's just so tiny and soft-spoken that it's hard to take her seriously.

Komrade PigTailsGirl is apparently half elf, duh.

Did I say just six crewmembers? Well, that was the original plan, but one of Viktor's school friends snuck aboard the DAWN just before lift-off and is now stuck in space with them. Yes, that happened. Komrade KomicRelief, aka Fedya “Lob” Lobanov, is the prototypical good-hearted slacker, think Shaggy from Scooby-Doo but without the talking dog. And he looks like pothead Ron Weasley.

Komrade KomicRelief shouldn't touch that, duh.

In a similar movie made in the West (especially today), the "teenagers" would be played by 32-year olds. I checked, however, and all seven of the youngsters in our movie were indeed between 14 and 16 when they filmed this. And other than Komrade GlassesGirl, they all do a remarkably good job with their lines and methods. Komrade GlassesGirl is a terrible actress, just miserable, but perhaps she's deliberately going for the cold, emotionless scientist thing. Yeah, let's give her that.

She's good at brushing her hair, though.

Of the adult characters we meet, none stand out especially. There are scientists and doctors and teachers and whatnot, but since we know we're going to be blasting off for outer space soon, never to see them again, it's hard to care much about them. The exception is (not making this up) a character named “Acting Specially As”, who is literally and figuratively (not making this up) a Russian Doctor Who, right down to his floppy hair, London-cut suit, and (not making this up) ability to travel through time and space to influence events for nebulous gains. Russian Doctor Who (not making this up) is clearly working to keep the DAWN's flight on schedule, showing up at opportune moments to (not making this up) change history retroactively so that everything goes well and certain people (not making this up) are in the crew and others aren't. None of this is sufficiently explained by movie's end.

Doctor Who meets our herokids for the first time.

So, let's take-off, vroom! The early stages of the trip seem to be going well. The stowaway Komrade KomicRelief is found and sorta-welcomed aboard, the engines are humming with typical Soviet efficiency, and no one has scurvy yet. Looking good, people, so we might as well start thinking about the next 26 years and how much stuff with get fucked up in that time. Sure there will be giant space worms in asteroids and maybe Sandra Bullock won't be able to get the hatch open in time, but the real problem, as I see it, is horny human nature. What the film never addresses, even obliquely, is sexuality. Not surprising from a Russian film from 1973, but they still fail to take into account that simple fact that if you put 7 teenagers in a small enclosed area for 26 years without adult supervision they are going to end up humping like Siberian rabbits. Do they just assume that they will never hook up and have babies? Surely there are birth control methods available, because nothing on board we see is set up for raising families and homeschooling toddlers.

Boys and girls will always be boys and girls.

And anyone who has teenaged children (me) can tell you, dating at that age is quite "fluid", no one stays with someone for more than a week and everyone is constantly manipulating, back-stabbing, and gossipping about each other, all in a hormonal frenzy to get laid by someone hotter than the last. Unless they all agree to pair up from the get-go, someone is going to get murdered in a few years in a fit of jealous rage. The other alternative is a 1960-style Free Love hippie commune sort of thing where everyone is free to bone anyone they want, which, as history shows us, never works. People in multiple-partner groups always (always!) end up favoring one person in particular over time, and thus someone will end up jealous and dead. The most unreasonable alternative is somehow (?) keeping the kids (and later adults) from showing any romantic/sexual interest in each other at all. That's obviously not going to happen. Not for nothing, but the actor playing DoucheBag ended up marrying the actress playing PigTailsGirl in real life.

Things happen, you know.

Oh, and no one has talked about the odd-man-out, poor hapless Komrade KomicRelif. He's either going to have to hope they all go with the hippy free love system (in which he will probably get murdered) or steal one of the girls away from one of the other guys (also, murdered). Either that or he's going to be awfully sexually frustrated for the rest of his life (meaning, he'll eventually murder someone).

He wanders around in his underwear a lot.

For that matter, what if one/several of them turn out to be gay? That's going to screw things up. Asexual? What if one of the guys has his winker cut off in an industrial space accident? What if one of the girls is just really not into these dorky guys, she's saving herself for famous Russian popstar Juvstyn Ivanovich Beiberski? What if one of them is secretly homicidal or into Goth poetry or something? What happens when they have kids of their own one day, how are you going to dilute out the gene pool enough so that subsequent generations don't end up with three arms? So many potential problems.

I hope they keep notes/

Need more problems? We have more. Einstein was right about Relativity, of course, and that 52 year round-trip for them will be about 500 years on Earth. Everyone they know now will be dead for centuries, and they have no way of knowing if they will be coming back to a planet that's an inferno from Nuclear War or overrun with zombies. Maybe it will be a Communist Utopia, maybe it will be Blade Runner, maybe the distant relatives of Trump and Putin will be ruling over a blighted wasteland of higher property taxes and overcooked casino buffet food. Maybe the Earth will have been destroyed by the Vogons Construction Fleet.

They should have argued about this before leaving.

But, for Komrade KaptainViktor at least, the main problem on this trip is figuring out who slipped him an anonymous love note before lift-off. A vast amount of time and energy is spent (wasted?) on his subplot to find the note's author, suspecting in turn all three of his female crewmates and fretting incessantly over what this means for his future lovelife. Komrade BestFriend is here for him like a good wingman, probably his most important role so far. As it turns out, the note was written by a girl who didn't make the cut and had to stay on Earth (Ludmila “Milka” Okorokova). This, in my opinion, is a missed screenwriting opportunity for future conflicts and yucks.

It basically says “I love you, do you love me?”.

Anyway, everything is going swimmingly well, the DAWN is preforming flawlessly (of course, it's Russian-built) and they are on course and schedule, all is well. Ah, but Komrade KomicRelief is here, remember, and if there's one thing such a character type does best it's screw everything up and go “awshucks, guys, my bad” afterwards. And that's just what he does, accidentally bumping the controls and revving the engines, so to speak, hurtling the DAWN past the speed-of-light barrier for a few minutes before they can slow it down again. Yes, they went FTL but let's not bother with that right now. The problem is that they are now so far ahead of schedule that they will arrive at their target star system relatively soon, while they are still teenagers. That's probably not going to end well.

Their speedometer is lacking in the fine details.

So we end our movie here on a cliffhanger of sorts. Some bit of Googling tells me that there is a sequel called Teens in the Universe, made a few years later, that continues their adventures. I will endeavor to find a copy to review, I'll let you know where I get around to it. [Edit: I found it and here is the review]

Getting the bad news from Earth about their sequel contracts.

The End.

Wait, wait, wait, Intern Kelby had some questions about if they stocked the DAWN with porno mags and vodka for the trip. I'd have to say no, but the '70s were an interesting time. More importantly he had some questions about the distance and velocity numbers quoted in the film. It's stated that their destination is 229 lightyears away, which is 1,346,205,248,945,886 miles. At the DAWN's designed top speed (before the accident) the trip was going to take 26 years, which means that the ship would be traveling at 8axj45ax8f012vr7 mph to the x15 fripsalod power. I might have rounded that down a bit. By way of comparison, the top speed of the Millennium Hellyeahfucking Falcon (after Han made some “modifications”) is .5 past light speed, which is 16,740,000 miles per hour. So it could make the Cassiopeia Run in...well, know, I don't like math, never have. As a final comparison point, the top speed of my brokeass, rusty, wobbly, yet-paid-off 1999 Pontiac Grand Am is about 85mph before the front end really starts to shimmy at frightening levels. I like to keep it around 70, even on the beltway, best not tempt fate with a worn-out engine. Last time I changed the oil that shit was milky white, the old girl doesn't have a lot of miles left on her but she's taken good care of me.


To help you better understand the enormous, brain-melting, speeds and distances at play here, let me graph this out for you...

Science don't lie.

Hope that helps. No? Ok, well, just look at this picture for a few hours and your brain will return to normal.

Soothing, ain't it?

Written in January 2017 by Nathan Decker.

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