Pre-Internet business models are quickly becoming outdated in today's networked world, where data can be copied and transferred at near-zero marginal cost. Anti-piracy campaigns try to liken downloading movies to walking out of a store with a DVD: you'd never have the guts to do it in "real" life, so why are you so brave online? But this is a false comparison. You might feel a little more gutsy if you could walk out of the store and leave an identical copy behind.
No Macs in space?
So. Pioneer One is a torrent-only sci-fi show which premiered for download a few days ago. You can download the first episode here and, if you like it, donate to the cause. Wethinks a substantial portion of the Pioneer One's target audience will just be happy to stick it to the man, and put their money where their fingers type. That's all fine. As Cory Doctorow and Rudy Rucker and Radiohead have shown, good content pays for itself. In the uber-democratic Internet, you don't need the advertising campaign. Let content speak for itself, become viral, and voila! Fame and fortune. Sort of.
Unfortunately, Pioneer One's content doesn't measure up.
Beginning with grainy, handheld shots and a mumbling, thoughtful overture reminiscent of the voiceover in Primer (an indie sci-fi flick that worked), Pioneer One takes place in Helena, Montana, where a piece of space junk has just fallen from the sky and given everyone radiation poisoning. The Feds - scruffy Tom Taylor (James Rich) and angular Sophie Larson (Alexandra Blatt) - show up and, after retrieving a severely malnourished man from the space pod, realize that they've stumbled onto something very weird indeed. As Soviet cosmonaut helmets, cancer and secret Cold War space programs are unveiled, the episode ends with a big revelation and cliffhanger.
The filmmaking is amateur indie, with shaky cameras and shaky acting. That's forgivable. What's less forgivable is the tired writing and trite story. We're trying to break down outdated business models and reinvent media and culture... with a pair of rehashed Mulder and Scully drones stumbling into the plot of Stranger in a Strange Land? It's cliché after cliché - from the designer stubble of the weary, cynical Fed agent, to the perfect make-up and witty 1950s rom-com banter of his assistant (and yes, what is she but his assistant?). "The best and the brightest. Which one were you?" she asks. Come on, people! Secret government programs regurgitated from the Cold War? Bland, unimaginative jokes? Let me guess: does Tom Taylor have a drinking problem? And really: is a female protagonist so mind-bogglingly weird?
We hate to say this, because we agree with the idea of it: new stories for a new medium, made in a new way. But this just doesn't cut it. We've already seen this story done by Hollywood; yes, we had to pay the man. Why would we want to see it again now? It's regressive content in a progressive package.
If you want to see innovative, non-Hollywood sci-fi, take a look at Primer. Primer's budget was $7000, and it managed to shake things up and become a new cult classic. Pioneer One's first episode budget was $6000, and it was about as exciting as a mediocre X-Files fanfiction (without the sex!). If you want to give your money to the alt culture, support the underground and stick it to the man, we'd recommend you join the crowds on the Cory Doctorow bandwagon or check out Therefore, Repent!. Skip this one instead.