Gather round all ye aspiring astronauts, for it is time for…a history lesson! In 1957, Laika the street dog, here renamed Maly (“small”) and given a loving background, became the first animal in space, proving that life would not spontaneously cease when zero-G was achieved. After this success (though it ended more tragically for Maly/Laika), the pressure was on as the Superpowers of Earth raced to put the first man in space. And here is where our story really begins, within the authoritarian UZSR and the closed city of Laika-44 where the nation’s top secret space research is based. Lev, a young recruit recently demoted for reasons as yet undisclosed, is tasked with training up the first human-like subject shortly to be launched into space in the most reckless experiment to date. I say human-like because actually her humanity is utterly denied by the system, which refers to her as N44, rather than by her real name of Irina.
This detail matters because it becomes a symbol of the racism at the heart of the UZSR military-scientific complex. Why? Because Irina is a vampire—pointy ears, pronounced canines, red glowing eyes, super cool yet impossible hairstyle and all. Lev knows nothing of vampires, but fortunately Irina has been assigned a health manager, Anya, who disabuses him of many of his misconceptions, while Irina does not shy away from clearing up the rest for him. For all the tension and power imbalance of the situation, the two settle into a truce of tolerance quite quickly, spurred on by the nasty treatment of Irina that Lev witnesses and is repelled by, as well as his obvious (but not in a leery way) attraction to her. But are things as they seem or does Irina have her own agenda?
This is all I hoped it would be and more. What I’d hoped for was a well-balanced blend of actual Soviet/Cold War history and alternate reality fantasy, combined with winsome characters whose names followed proper Russian conventions, and some decent art to do credit to the space-capade. Check, check and check! Or yest’, yest’, and yest’! as the comrades say. The “more” I also got was a surprising level of attentiveness to rendering the details of Soviet dress and equipment, as well as the Russian landscape, not to mention monuments, buildings and interiors all evoking the Motherland. Which is to say, a great deal of research has gone into this series! The score is sweeping and grand in its orchestration, calling to mind the classics of Russian ballet more so than triumphal (and at times grating) Soviet marches. There’s a subtlety to the characterization of the two main protagonists as well that, along with the music, signals this to be a solid drama (with a hint of romance) rather than the potentially zany sci-fi that the premise—vampires in space—might otherwise intimate. It’s in the same vein as 86 Eighty-Six, right down to the core theme of racial prejudice and exploitation (vampires are referred to as experiment objects), but with much clearer and sharply defined historical references. And because it’s Soviet history we’re talking about here, I am going to be tuning in enthusiastically every week with my borscht, shuba (herring under a fur coat), and jam in my tea. Урраааа!
Irina: the Vampire Cosmonaut can be streamed on Funimation.