Given that I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s crazy that it took me until this week to realize that Community is essentially an hour-long sci-fi program smushed into the body of a half-hour sitcom. Community has an episodic structure based on one-off adventures and a rabid, convention attending fan base. How could I not have seen this before? Inspector Spacetime, Abed and Troy’s mutual obsession, is the TV show Community wants to be, which really means that Community would like nothing more than to be Dr. Who. It’s not a bad goal. Dr. Who has run for decades to enthusiastic fans who treat the various incarnations of the Doctor like they’re the Space Beatles (Christopher Eccleston being Space Ringo, according to many, though I like him). Community could do worse than the fate of Dr. Who.
Setting an episode at Inspecticon is a perfect Community device. It gives Abed and Troy something to play-act, Jeff something to scoff at, Annie an object for her curiosity, and Pierce a bewildering new activity to mispronounce. Most important, the Dr. Who parody is on the ball enough to please die-hard Whovians without alienating non-watchers. It doesn’t matter whether you get that the robots chanting “Eliminate! Eliminate!” are spoofing Dr. Who’s ruthless Daleks. To non-connoisseurs (nonnoisseurs?), the attention to sci-fi detail comes off as thorough, nuanced, and characteristic of Community at its best. Unfortunately, the promising setup never realizes its full potential.
The episode begins with some time travel of its own. Troy and Britta are in bed together. Last real-world week on Valloween, they were doing things, but not all of the things, according to Troy. Now we’ve jumped ahead several Greendale weeks, and all the things are happening. Well, all the things Troy meant. It seems like Britta’s still holding back certain things. You know, like butt things. Their dynamic is charming. Britta goes out of her way to participate in the hobbies of her sweet, oblivious boyfriend. Troy is growing up little by little now that he’s got an adult, aggressively feminist girlfriend who enjoys, to put it delicately, knocking boots hard.
We don’t see their weeks of budding romance and sneaking around, though, because the episode is more concerned with the fractured Troy-Abed bromance, a relationship that has been brewing over the course of the entire series. Now that the tribble is out of the bag on Troy and Britta’s relationship, Abed has made a new, annoying friend, and Troy is not taking it well. The bond between Troy and Abed is the show’s most fully developed pairing. No romantic couple has equaled the nuance and closeness of their friendship. When they take a novelty photograph at the end of the episode, I experienced a bodily sense of relief. Their male bonding has become the emotional core of the show. It’s almost as though Greendale exists in ancient Greece. Maybe we’ll get to see that episode later in the season.
The attitudes toward women in this episode reflect the stereotype that science fiction is dominated by men and their adolescent fantasies. Although “Conventions of Space and Time” was written by a woman, Britta’s outspoken and reflexive support of Minerva, the widely hated female Inspector, reeks of “I’m not racist but … ” When someone says, “I’m not racist but … ” what they really mean is, “I am racist and … ” Generally it’s a bad sign when you have to start defending your opinions before you give them. Britta’s defense of Minerva Inspector belies the episode’s general attitude of “Women be crazy!’
Britta herself gives Troy the Victorian-era advice of stuffing his displeasure with Abed down inside lest he be labeled as a “psycho girlfriend.” This is problematic, but it’s something that often-contradictory Britta might say. Maybe it’s just the patriarchy speaking through her, but no one steps in to offer a contrary point of view.
What mystifies me even more is the Annie/Jeff interplay. I still don’t buy them together. Jeff Winger is the kind of guy who can only feel feelings when he’s drinking whiskey and staring at boxing gloves. Annie Edison has just spent all day forlornly playing house like an only child whose parents are busy in the other room, while Jeff spit Brit-game to a sexy Inspector Spacetime fan. Jeff clearly feels ambivalent to their relationship. He wants to play Captain Kirk, sleeping with every humanoid female in the galaxy, leaving a fake hailing frequency on the nightstand, and taking off for the far reaches of space. Annie is a smart, anxious woman who can’t decide between living it up during her last year at Greendale and settling down with Jeff or Troy or Zac Efron. Are we supposed to buy their reconciliation because men are from Galacticus III and women are from Some Other Made-up Science Fiction Planet? There should be tension here, but instead we get limp resignation, like they’re characters out of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
It would be more realistic, more interesting, and funnier to see an authentic blow-up between the two of them. It’s unfortunate that a show that prizes its eccentricity and modernity would resort to such normative gender roles. Girl wants to get married. Boy talks about commitment to pacify her. Jeff and Annie seem to spend time together because of generations of sitcom inertia rather than any comedic or dramatic reasons. They could at least acknowledge that they’re totally wrong for each other.
For their parts, Pierce and Shirley exist largely on the margins of Inspecticon. While Chevy Chase bumbles amusingly through the focus group, Yvette Nicole Brown gets saddled with this week’s "Oh, Go Fuck Yourself, Community" moment of the week. When asked about an American reboot of Inspector Spacetime, she replies: “What they like about this show is that it’s smart, complicated, and doesn’t talk down to its audience.” Oh, go fuck yourself, Community. Everyone knows what you’re really talking about. Stop telling me how smart you are! Show me! Boldly go where no sitcom has gone before! (Side note: The episode’s minute-long tags have been so entertaining the last couple of weeks! Why can’t they make the whole episode like that, wonders the same part of the brain that asks why they don’t make the entire airplane out of black box.)
The episode’s science-fiction framework also raises the question:
“How would this episode have been different under the supervision of Dan Harmon?”
It’s a question I’ve consciously tried to avoid because it’s not necessarily a productive one to ask. It’s as fruitless as comparing Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor to David Tenant’s iteration. It means you’re living in the past, and not because you time-traveled there. It’s because you never left. I’m not saying that Community’s fans would be better off crying in the shower and eating ice cream by the pint also in the shower than watching season four. Maybe it’s me. It’s possible that I’m not distant enough from the changeover to stop wondering whether the episode would have been different in a different time stream. Would Jeff, who bears a striking resemblance to Inspector Spacetime’s villain Thoraxis, have tried to bring the whole convention down? Would Toby, Abed’s new pal, have attempted to steal Troy’s identity more insidiously? Would it have been, you know … funnier? I don’t have these answers. It’s impossible to know them, really. In real life, we don’t get to see the other timelines.
I wish I didn’t have to consider this. I wish I could just enjoy the silliness of Pierce sitting up all night in the study room so no one saves his seat. I really want to enjoy the self-awareness of Abed asking if he can “Winger” Toby for a second, before spelling out the episode’s moral in a soliloquy. Or Jeff worrying more about whether his hair fell out naturally than why Annie is saving it. There are several enjoyable moments, but they’re spread out across what feels like several light years.
On a macro level, Community needs to figure out whether it’s a show about characters with feelings or a “monster-of-the-week”-style adventure series. Ideally, it could be both, as the best science fiction is. “Conventions of Space and Time,” though, pushes a narrative forward, but without the eccentricity and flourish of the show’s best episodes. It left me wondering if, in its fourth season, Community has turned into the “American version” of itself.