I bet you all have been thinking “man, these episodes have been so long and epic, I need something bite-sized and easily digestible”. Well luckily for you, my favorite reader, we have a couple of short episodes on hand that I like to call the “experience episodes”.
Like many great short stories, these are short episodes – ~10 minutes in length – largely told over a single scene. These don’t focus so much on creating a narrative and are instead are geared towards distilling a pure, singular experience. These experiences, either positive, negative, or anything in between, tend to just happen but tend to be life-changing for the protagonist. First up in that regard is the taut survival thriller Helping Hand.
The Episode Summary
Based on a short story by Claudine Griggs, it follows our heroine Alexandria Stephens as she has just the worst day on the job. The episodes starts with Alex, an overworked and underpaid satellite repair technician, starting a routine repair operation on an orbiting communications satellite. Everything is proceeding normally when disaster strikes. An errant piece of debris collides strikes Alex. This knocks her adrift into the vacuum of space while damaging both her suit’s navigation functions and oxygen supplies.
After sending an SOS to Bill, her company ground controller, she finds out she has only 14 minutes of oxygen left, far less than the amount needed to wait for rescue. At first, she resigns herself to her fate. With only minutes left she decides that she wants to live. Her plan is simple. It involves removing one of her gloves and tossing it at just the right angle to build momentum to get her back within grabbing distance of the satellite. She succeeds in building momentum but is unable to get a hold of the satellite, drifting further away in the process. Seeing she’s drifting by her maintenance vehicle, she rips off her now frozen arm and tries again. The episode ends with her, broken but stable, talking to Bill obliquely about the experience.
When I first watched the episode back in March, I thought it was an excellent episode. Acting as a pure, distilled mixture of Gravity and 127 Hours, it is a true taut thriller. It puts its foot on the gas and never lets up as things go from bad to worse for Alex. In fact, there wasn’t a wasted moment in the whole episode. But the best thing I remember from that initial watch was the suspense that came from the situation.
The scariest thing about the episode was the sheer plausibility of the narrative. The issue of errant orbital debris is a legitimate one. One which could essentially keep mankind Earthbound if it grows worse because situations like this would become frighteningly inevitable. In other words, this story will soon be as plausible (if not already) as 127 Hours, which is famously based on a true story.
Plus, space is as terrifying in its vastness as it is beautiful for its infinite wonders. Many sci-fi stories don’t seem to grasp this point, or just outright ignore it. Helping Hand, like Gravity before it, derived much of its tautness from one fact. In the vacuum of space, no matter how close help can be, if something goes wrong you might as well be the only person in existence for all the help they can provide. Besides Beyond the Aquila Rift – and even that isn’t as consistent as Helping Hand – nothing provoked existential horror quite like Helping Hand does in Love, Death & Robots S1.
On my rewatch the other day, my liking of the episode increased. For once, this wasn’t the writing that jumped out at me primarily, but the animation. To me, the animation provided by Axis Studios is sublime.
Sure, it’s once again 3D CGI that aims for photo-realism, but I found it used the animation form the most out of the 6 episodes (out of 11 so far) I’ve reviewed so far. Sure, it doesn’t enhance the display of humanity. I can imagine any of the 6 episodes could provoke uncanny valley reactions, and this one isn’t any different. What truly sets the animation apart from the other episodes is it gives us photo-realistic views that inspire awe. Namely, a view of the Earth that only astronauts have ever gotten. It’s the same view that made Gravity the best movie to utilize 3D in theaters (and that is an opinion I’m willing to fight over). Also like Gravity, the CGI is incredibly effective at how it establishes the sense of scale that makes this episode work. It felt like everything came together to create an incredible experience.
That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other aspect of the episode that jumped out at me during my rewatch; Alex, our Ripley-esque protagonist. No survival story is complete without a protagonist who essentially tells the universe “Fuck You” and decides to survive despite all odds. Alex is no exception.
Sure, her arc isn’t groundbreaking by any means. Like I’ve said before, all great survival stories feature a survivor or group of survivors that in the end possesses the indomitable will to survive. However, it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be compelling. The mere struggle is more deeply ingrained in our DNA than any narrative. Because of this watching Alex go from existential despair to resourceful survivor had me riveted. If there is anything I would truly complain about, it would be how some of the dialogue felt a bit on the nose. I mean, did they need the name drop at the end once Alex is down an arm? But that’s a minor quibble.
So to wrap up this review, Helping Hand is a taut thriller that makes the best of the format of Love, Death & Robots. In ten minutes, we get both a sense of the sheer existential terror and awe the vastness of space can instill, along with the resilience of the human spirit to survive.
My Recommendation: Highly Recommend