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Pioneer One Review

on Mon, 10/31/2011 - 00:00

“We could have been on Mars twenty years ago,” Dr. Zachary Walzer tells a congressional committee in the web series Pioneer One. “We could be pushing the boundaries of a whole new frontier world. We could be sparking innovation and raising a whole new generation of dreamers who would push us even further than the generations who came before thought possible. That future lies on Mars. And if it’s not us, it will be somebody else that gets there first.”

Dr. Walzer is just one of a small handful of characters drawn into the mystery of Pioneer One when a young Russian male is discovered in Canada and evidence suggests that he arrived there from Mars. Like Walzer predicted, the Soviet Union apparently initiated a secret mission to the distant planet over thirty years earlier, and the descendent of those anonymous cosmonauts has found his way back to a home world that he has never previously seen.

Pioneer One is not an adventure story of “boldly going where no man has gone before,” however, but a political and psychological narrative of both Cold War and War on Terror intrigue. The Russian, known merely as Yuri (Aleksandr Evtushenko), was found in the wreckage of an old Soyuz spacecraft that leaked radiation across a swath of rural Montana. The initial reaction of the US government is that the action was an intentional act of terrorism, and any evidence pertaining to space exploration is a cover-story to hide the true intent of the culprit. Although instructed to retrieve Yuri from Canada and bring him back to the United States as an enemy combatant, Homeland Security Agent Tom Taylor (James Rich) defies his superiors in an effort to decipher the facts surrounding the event.

In many ways, Tom Taylor is a combination of both Fox Mulder and Dana Scully from the classic FOX drama The X-Files. On the one hand, the possibility of Yuri actually landing on Earth after spending his entire life secretly residing on Mars appears too farfetched to carry any credence with Taylor. While Dana Scully would no doubt feel the same way if Pioneer One was an episode of The X-Files, however, Tom Taylor also exhibits the “I want to believe” philosophy of Fox Mulder. Trapped between politically-minded superiors who desire the incident to be classified as an act of terrorism and mounting circumstantial evidence that Yuri is in fact from Mars, Taylor secures himself an additional two weeks to determine the truth.

As far as Homeland Security Deputy Director Eric McClellan (Einar Gunn) is concerned, the truth is obvious and the time allotted Tom Taylor merely provides the opportunity to apply pressure on the Russian Ambassador and force him to admit his government’s complicity. Dangerous relics from the Cold War could easily find their way onto the black market after all, and the nuclear-powered Soyuz rocket in effect served as a “dirty bomb” detonated over Montana. The Russians, however, contend that the United States is unlawfully detaining a Russian citizen. A chess match thus begins between McClellan and the Ambassador, one that is subsequently compounded when McClellan is promoted during the course of the investigation, conspiracy theories begin to circulate among the media and the Canadians become intent on handing Yuri over to the Russians instead of the Americans.

In the meantime, Dr. Zachary Walzer (Jack Haly) is secretly brought in by Tom Taylor to prove that Yuri did indeed arrive from Mars. With a master’s degree in both aeronautics and astronautics along with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, Walzer is considered the preeminent expert when it comes to the red-tinted planet but even he cannot find any conclusive evidence to solve the mystery. Yuri, meanwhile, displays physical immune deficiencies and his body is riddled with cancer, no doubt caused by exposure to hazardous levels of radiation during his journey. He has also been raised under the old Cold War political climate of the past and is thus reluctant to cooperate with his American captors. Then, of course, there is the question of his parents, not only in regards to “who” and “where” they are but “why” they did not make the journey back to Earth with their son.

Pioneer One contains longer episodes than a typical web series, with installments lasting over thirty minutes each, making the series a true counterpart to programming found on traditional television. In fact, it was awarded “Best Drama Pilot” at the 2010 New York Television Festival. Pioneer One, however, was created exclusively for the Internet with funds raised via fan donations and the web series itself is available through BitTorrent and the likes of Blip.tv.

Pioneer One is thus a “pioneer” in its own right, with a finely crafted narrative that’s hard to define from a genre standpoint but is a quality drama nonetheless. Clandestine missions to Mars, relics from the Cold War, contemporary political intrigue, media manipulation, innocent human pawns and the desire to both do the right thing and uncover the truth despite personal consequences all play a role within the storyline. These are not the type of plot threads that one usually finds in a web series but co-creators Josh Bernard and Bracey Smith, along with a talented cast and crew, have proven that there is more to the growing industry than one might expect.

To repeat the words of Dr. Zachary Walzer, “We could be pushing the boundaries of a whole new frontier world.” Here’s hoping that the potential of the web series medium will not linger in obscurity for thirty years like the secret Soviet Union mission that serves as the catalyst for Pioneer One.

Anthony Letizia (October 31, 2011)

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