This week sees Sir Patrick Stewart make his long-awaited return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard in a major new Star Trek series on Amazon Prime Video. If you like your space television a little less serious, however, you might want to consider flicking over to Sky One for the arrival of Avenue 5.
The sci-fi comedy was created by Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep, The Death of Stalin) whose vision of next-gen space travel is overtly cynical. There’s no intergalactic diplomacy or “making it so” happening on Avenue 5, a purely commercial spacecraft that carries passengers through the universe in the manner of a mid-budget cruise ship. Hugh Laurie plays the PR-friendly ship captain, Ryan Clark, whose job is to keep the demanding passengers happy during their trip.
This is a satirical vision of American life lived off-planet. Passengers practise yoga en masse, argue with their spouses over extortionate cocktails and attend half-hearted comedy nights. If viewing the stars out of a window requires getting out of bed, they watch them on an LCD screen instead. The setup presents a unique opportunity for Iannucci and his writing team, who send up our comfortable modern lives and have fun with well-worn science fiction tropes. “T-minus 60 seconds, captain.” “T-Minus, what is that, your rap name?”
The narrative hook comes in the form of a sudden technical malfunction, which causes a change in the ship’s trajectory and adds approximately three years to the journey back to Earth. The luxury spaceship suddenly becomes an ergonomically-shaped, matte white plastic-finished prison for the passengers. It’s not the usual ‘is there enough food and fuel to get them home’ sci-fi peril, but rather: ‘can these neurotic brats cohabit for three years without killing each other?’
Packed to the titanium rafters with gags, Avenue 5 falls somewhere between The Good Place and Veep, but with a shiny Black Mirror skin (the Avenue 5 ship looks like it was designed by Apple). Shouts also go out to WALL-E, the show feeling like a riff on the brief moments the Pixar film spends in the company of humans.
While smartly written, many characters don’t jump out at you right away. Andy Buckley’s (The Office) nagged husband has potential and you warm to plucky engineer Billy, played by Lenora Crichlow, but any work is spoiled by Josh Gad, who oversells absolutely everything as Avenue 5’s billionaire owner Herman Judd. Elsewhere, Laurie manages to make the whole thing feel a little smug. Still, it’s fun to watch him flit between accents and hey, Michael Scott was nothing to write home about in season one of The Office, before growing into a fan favourite.
Though the plot takes a few dark twists, Avenue 5 is curiously light and fluffy for an HBO property. It’s every inch the primetime comedy and would be just as well-suited to a more family-focused broadcaster. In fact, some may wish it had a little more bite – could it say more about topical subjects, perhaps? Probably the most intriguing element to the series is its relation to our present day. There are hints that Earth succumbed somewhat to climate change, and some funny and tantalising allusions to past historical events like the “Huawei Wars”. After a solid opening few episodes, you’re left hoping Avenue 5 develops its own personality a bit more, rather than feeling like someone simply shunted one of the aforementioned sitcoms into space for a season.