For the second time in her life, Asala flees Hypatia on a spacefaring death trap. Armed with new information that changes everything about The Vela‘s disappearance, she and Niko find themselves trapped in a Gandesian refugee camp with no way to get the word out – and no-one to trust but each other.
I had some reservations about the plot developments at the end of episode 3 – I felt that Asala and Niko were railroaded off-planet – but I was transfixed by the suggestion that The Vela had been hijacked by its passengers. Asala is convinced that the refugees are planning some sort of terrorist act, which is… a leap? I mean, sure, they’re up to something, but Asala’s response seems more Gandesian paranoia than rational conclusion. Or am I really naïve?
However, my musings went out the airlock with the opening scene. Years ago, I listened to Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon discuss how to craft a good action movie: for them, it was about making everything plot relevant. It’s an approach Team Vela have taken to heart: they are ruthlessly showing us the uncomfortable reality of the world-building context they have thrown at us so far.
Ryouta’s vox pops in The Third Passenger and the trip to Hypatia in The Death-Cold served to ram home just how much trouble the outer planets are in. In Camp Ghala, we see what people are prepared to risk in hope of surviving, and what awaits them if they do. The rust bucket full of refugees that Asala and Niko have clambered aboard isn’t fit for the risky hop to Gan-De: the episode opens with the hull buckling and the passengers being sucked into the vacuum.
Needless to say, our heroes survive the disaster, but it leaves deep scars. Niko imagined they understood what was going on in the outer system; now they’re living it, their cosy notions in shreds. But The Vela and her hijackers are still at large. Niko and Asala must tamp down their survivor guilt and deal with the bureaucratic horror of surviving a near-death experience only to wait your turn to be processed into a hellhole camp.
Thankfully, Soraya – the administrator of camp Ghala – is one of Niko’s contacts. One more advantage of privilege: jumping a queue nobody wants to be in, to get expedited passage into a place everybody wants to leave.
I liked Soraya. She’s an expert in the calculus of need – as tough as old boots and willing to play as dirty as she has to, her eyes always on the prize of whatever will deliver for the struggling camp. You might think that the Khayyami president’s youngest child showing up could give her some leverage – but Soraya doesn’t seem all that wild about having to deal with them.
It’s almost like she has something to hide.
There’s something going on aboard Camp Ghala, and The Vela is at the heart of it.
Once aboard Camp Ghala, the episode borrows other, less admirable, action movie traits, sprinting to deliver the next plot twist. Having raced across Hypatia last week, we get enough shoe-horned into Camp Ghala to fill several episodes for my money: politics, supply issues, the inevitable corruption and criminal underworld, a raid on some supposed saboteurs, and of course the driving need for our heroes both to find The Vela and get word back to Khayyam.
This could be thoughtful and nuanced, but we’re skimming through it too fast to do it justice. At one point, the narrative flings in a flashback to the sexual assault of a minor and then storms right on without pausing for breath. I don’t doubt such horrors are common in the camp, but it feels gratuitously shocking – rape as world-building shorthand – even though it isn’t explicitly depicted.
Unfortunately, the effect was to leave me on edge and disgruntled.
SPOILERS (continue on at your own risk)
The penultimate scenes are properly atmospheric, although I nearly got whiplash as the breakneck let’s-dispatch-some-saboteurs-in-a-paragraph-to-get-us-to-the-next-screen pace suddenly lurched to a halt. Having ferreted out the intel they need, Asala and Niko suit up to explore a deserted section of the station…
…and find The Vela. If I hadn’t been out of sorts, this would have been A Moment. Still, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by what they found aboard – and what it seems to imply.
I may be fretting at the pacing and some of the storytelling in this first act, but the underlying plot is right up my street. As we enter act two (and with episode 5 penned by one of my favourite authors), here’s hoping The Vela pauses to catch its breath, flesh out its characters and explore the implications of the set-up so far.
I was sent an advance copy of The Vela in exchange for honest reviews ahead of release, but I’d already subscribed to it because oh my goodness this is so clearly my jam. Not sure where that leaves me with the new UK laws on declaring interests? No, me either.
The Vela is now available at https://www.serialbox.com/serials/the-vela