Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 09 – A Softening of Thorns

Not-Russia’s head honcho doesn’t like how the not-Americans are progressing with their space program, and the Chief promises they’ll have a human in space by Spring. That human will be one of three people: Mikhail, Roza…and Lev. As you’d expect, Lev is over the moon about getting one step closer to it, while Mikhail is more reserved and Roza downright cold, telling him his “tongue is honey” and his “heart is ice.”

While wishing Mikhail and Roza would be more friendly, Lev mostly just wants to give Irina the good news, driving home the fact he cares for her a great deal. She, in turn, can’t hide how much Irina cares for Lev, as Anya mentions to him that she even threw a pine cone on the ice to make a wish. Irina, not to mention Lev and Anya, have a lot of fun faces this week as the highly procedural show lets its hair down a bit.

We also see how much Irina and Anya have grown as friends, with the latter giving the former a full progress report on the three final candidates. Mikhail and the “White Rose” Roza are still running first and second, and Irina can’t help but tip her hat at the nickname, as Roza is certainly full of thorns. Later, after running out of her dungeon due to embarrassment over Lev, Irina asks Anya if she’s been useful and still has value. The sweet and empathetic Anya naturally reassures her with both words and a hug.

Roza’s position as Number Two among the candidates suddenly goes up in flames when she loses control during a high-speed skydive. She spins out of control, unable to move, but Lev catches up to her, steadies her, and pulls her cord. It means Lev has to pull his cord a few seconds late and ends up landing in a forest, but he saved Roza’s life, and later Roza makes no bones about knowing that.

When Roza asks Lev why he saved her, Lev simply said he moved on his own to save a pal. There was no why, only that bond he feels, which has been one-sided up to this point. Roza thanks him by smiling, buying him a soda water, and apologizing for all the nasty things she’s said both to him and Irina, who she calls by name for the first time. The face turn seems sudden but only until you remember she really thought she was going to die. I for one am delighted they found another note for Roza besides prickly bitter xenophobe!

As for Miss Luminesk, who has always been a kaleidoscopic symphony of notes, she and Anya happen to walk by while Lev and Roza seem to be enjoying each other’s company, sparking a degree of jealousy. She’s almost assassinated in the street by a car, whose driver is swiftly executed by Nataliya, who proves she’s as much Irina’s bodyguard as her dorm mother.

Laika was never going to “dispose” of its titular protagonist, but there was always the possibility she and Lev would be separated by powers outside their control. Irina puts on a brave face regarding her choice to relocate to he capital to aid in space research, because it means not being close enough to Lev to hang out whenever they want.

Still, Lev is happy the government he could take or leave is finally seeing the value in Irina, and wishes her well. Anya also arranges for the two to have one last, first date together on Armed Forces Day. Irina’s face upon seeing Lev arrive bang on time is worth a thousand bittersweet words.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 08 – Wait and See

Irina returns to headquarters not to more scorn and racism, but an actual standing ovation—albeit a somewhat forced and stilted one. As forced by the chief as the applause might be, it’s still applause directed at Irina, something she likely never imagined she’d ever experience when she volunteered to do this.

The downside to both Irina’s success and Lev’s role in that success is that it becomes the impetus that separates them just when they were feeling closer to one another than ever. Lev is promoted to full candidate and joins the others for the final tests to select the first human cosmonaut. One would think his knee injury would put him out of the running, literally, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue.

As for Irina, her long expected post-launch “disposal” is postponed indefinitely. While the narrator suggests that someone might try to cause an “accident”, that’s made harder by the fact Anya makes it her mission to be Irina’s friend in Lev’s place. She takes her out for a festive night on the town, wearing traditional dress and performing the ritual of tossing pine cones into the water to grant your wishes.

It would seem Irina got her wish, which wasn’t at all “Love Live the Motherland”, but nothing more than another opportunity to be with Lev. When they meet for the first time in the new year, he’s prepared a spread and presents her with a bouquet. Irina questions the “point” of all this, all the while smiling with glee. So far it looks like these two crazy kids are going to be just fine, but as Lev says, it’s very much still a “wait and see” situation.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 07 – Borscht or Bust

The day of launch has arrived, and Irina dons her proper Zirnitran uniform, but meets one-on-one with the Chief, who has survived countless small heart attacks to get to this point. Due to the risk of the UK monitoring her transmissions once in orbit, Irina is told to read the script of a cooking show to communicate her condition. If everything’s A-OK, she’ll read about borscht. If not, a cheeseburger.

In hindsight, Lev’s arrest was a naked attempt to build up tension and drama before the launch, as his detainment doesn’t even last through the launch. He is freed by Natalia, who discovered that Franz sabotaged the centrifuge in order to kill Irina, thus ending the Chief’s career. Lev is not only freed but gets to be one of the last people Irina sees before her flight to the heavens.

Since this is the first time they’ve attempted this with a person, there’s no guarantee this will be a two-way trip…except for the fact this is just the seventh episode and the titular character is exceedingly unlikely to perish here and now. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a combined feeling of awe and dread—the same thing I’ve felt before watching any real-world spaceflight.

Everything goes according to plan at first, but other than a brief shot of Irina on video that soon fizzles out, the entire flight is from the perspective of Lev and the team in the control room. Lev’s crippling sense of helplessness is palpable when they lose contact, and for a few moments, he feels like perhaps Irina really is gone…and really feels that loss.

Thankfully, once communication is restored, Irina recites the recipe for borscht, delighting Lev the flight team down on earth and adding some welcome whimsy to what had been a strictly by-the-book launch procedure, as she rattles off the cooking instructions as her capsule dances above Earth’s night side. She even manages to get her feelings through to Lev by reciting her own recipe: for the odd Zirnitran drink he loves.

While the political officers in the control room really want to blow her up, both when she goes off script and when there’s a chance the capsule could land outside Zirnitran borders. But they don’t blow it up. That said, it’s a mad dash to the remote wintry landscape where the capsule landed, and Lev leads the way on his motorcycle.

While he’s thrown from that cycle when he hits an ice sheet, he only suffers a skinned knee, and gets right back in the saddle in search of Irina and her parachute. He finds it, which…is pretty lucky! But that’s fine; just as this show knows we don’t want Irina to die, it also knows we want to see the pair cuddle under the parachute in mutual relief and affection for each other.

The world may never know who Irina was or the feat she achieved, but it doesn’t matter: she knows, and the human lad knows too. That’s more than enough for both of them.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 05 – Free Falling

A military bigwig arrives to inspect the training facility, and to also tell the two dozen or so candidates that only six of them will make the cosmonaut cut. When one of those candidates screws up their parachuting drill, Lev is suddenly back on the active roster. He might end up in space after all.

Meanwhile, Irina is in the anechoic chamber, which she basically treats like her coffin, only larger and most likely quieter. While in there, she’s left alone with her awful memories of when her village was massacred and her parents torched. At one point she softly calls Lev’s name, and can’t help but grab his sleeve when he finally comes in to release her from her solitude.

Irina probably figures she can’t hide the fact that she doesn’t hate Lev’s guts, so she comes right out and says she considers him the only human who isn’t bad. I’m not sure what that pink-haired researcher did to her! All joking aside, we get another great skydiving scene with Irina ending up in the unenviable situation of having to stare at Lev to keep her head up, even if it means being unable to hide her blushing.

When the two are up in the air they can forget about all the awfulness that surrounds them, but they come back down to earth literally and figuratively when they witness an aborted space capsule flight and the corpse of one of the experiment dogs. Those horrible flashbacks come roaring back, putting Irina in a state of shock.

Lev’s superior picks them up, and tells him that no one was supposed to see that. Back in the command room, the mission commander battles both his ailing heart and the political reality of having to self-destruct Irina’s capsule should she land in another country. You can tell he’s way more in this for the science and discovery, not the patriotism.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 04 – Fly Me to the Moon

With Lev being told Irina will launch in three weeks and her finally trying on a real spacesuit, shit is starting to get very real. If the higher-ups are to be believed, she may not live a long life even if the launch is successful, but Irina doesn’t seem to mind at all, and continues going through the training with nary a complaint (though she does remark that the suit is really heavy).

While Irina is changing out of her sweaty clothes into a fresh jumpsuit, Lev encounters Rosa in the hallway. Rosa is, so far, a completely one-dimensional racist bitch who is a waste of time. But when she lays into Irina to Lev, Irina overhears, and bids that Rosa say what she wants to say to her face. Rosa slinks off, warning Lev not to get his blood sucked. Even though, if we’re honest, it’s Rosa who sucks here!

When Lev and Irina get some free time before she has to enter an anechoic chamber (where you can indeed go mad quite quickly listening to nothing but your body make noises), Irina kinda prods Lev into taking her to a jazz bar. She gets some soda water, natch, but one sip of Lev’s dark red concoction has her slightly tipsy. No matter; she’s never heard jazz before, and she quite likes it.

Later that night Lev and Irina head out to a frozen lake to skate. While last week’s animation really shined with the airplane ride and skydiving, here Irina performs an elegant performance while an insert song plays. It’s really quite something to behold, and the latest demonstration of why Lev should really try to prevent her from being “disposed of” if he can.

Irina and Lev have never been closer. He tells her how he’s wanted to go to the moon since he was five; she told him how her parents were burned alive while she watched…pretty standard date stuff!

As for the whole post-launch disposal thing, Irina volunteered to be a test subject because it meant she would be going to space, and possibly the moon, before the humans defiled it. Even if the Zirnitrans off her afterweards, they can never take away the fact that she danced among the starts before they did.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 03 – Freedom, Not Fear

After a scene involving the pudgy, scheming old men who run Zirnitra from the capital, Sangrad (some who want to kill Irina as soon as the mission is over, some who want to wait and see), we see Lev get his first R&R since taking on the job of Irina’s handler. His former candidate comrades are a mix of curious, pitying, and superior.

It’s clear that due to his time with Irina, he’s no longer one of them…and that might not be the worst thing. As for “things”, it’s clear Anya doesn’t consider Irina one, but a fellow person. As a scientist, she knows the best way to overcome fear of something is to understand it better. She understands vampires to an extent she doesn’t fear them in the least. On the contrary; she adores “Irinyan”.

Lev ends up applying this axiom to Irina’s acrophobia, by exposing her to the most extreme heights so she can eventually realize how goddamn awesome it is when you’re flying and thus overcome her fear. Their moonlight flight is a series highlight in terms of visual panache; it really draws you in, like the great Miyazaki adventure in the sky.

Lev’s experiment on his “test subject” works like a charm, as Irina’s fears are replaced by wonder and a thirst for freedom unquenchable by even the fizziest lemon seltzer available. But the flight doesn’t just change Irina. It continues a gradual but inevitable change in Lev, from a soldier carrying out his duty of handling a test subject, to a young lad developing feelings for Irina Luminesk as if she were an ordinary human woman.

Lev isn’t training Irina in order to achieve the mission anymore; he’s training her so the government won’t dispose of her for not measuring up. Fortunately Irina excels at pretty much everything they throw at her, and once she’s over her acrophobia, flight and parachuting (another bravura sequence) is no exception. One of Lev’s colleagues warns him not to develop feelings for Irina, but it’s clearly already way too late for that!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 02 – Lemon Seltzer

This week is entirely devoted to the beginning of Irina’s training to become the first human(esque) Cosmonaut in space. Lev is right beside her all the way, enduring the same trials, so it’s no surprise he fails to see her only as an object and a test subject and not…a person like him.

After Lev narrowly outruns Irina on the track drills, she tries to regain her pride by outlasting him in in a 90-degree (Celsius!) steam bath. The senior researcher is a real racist piece of shit who insists on binding and muzzling her when it’s Lev’s turn to bake, then strapping her into the centrifuge so tight the chafing makes her bleed then subjecting her to too many Gs too fast.

If Dr. Asshole’s goal was to dehumanize Irina, it had the opposite effect, not just with Lev but with Anya as well. Seeing a vampire bleed the exact same blood, like running beside one or enduring intense heat, intense gravity, or intense…space food is only making Lev think of her more as just a human with pointy teeth and no sense of taste.

It’s with this in mind and a spirit of playfulness that Lev takes Irina to the parachute training site in the middle of the night. When she shows signs of acrophobia but won’t admit she’s scared, she gives her a little push, and she ends up on an awkward, harrowing ride to the bottom. But I’m sure the same exact thing happened to Lev his very first time, just as I’m sure it would’ve happened with me!

The kicker is when Lev treats Irina to a new sensation: carbonated water. Because she despises everything Lev represents, she won’t explicitly admit she really loves the stuff, especially with lemon, but whether she likes it or not shes warming to him just as he’s learning that vampires are just humans with a few differences that are, at the end of the day, not enough to engender the prejudice and oppression Irina and her kind suffer.

We learn from the boss that Lev was chosen specifically because he was liable to treat Irina like a person. It remains to be seen if Lev, like Lena in 86, will try to rebel against Irina’s oppressors for her sake.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 01 (First Impressions) – What We Do in the Cosmos

An alternate-world space race between USSR and USA analogues, in which the Soviet equivalent power decides to recruit a vampire to be the first person in space, could’ve easily been played as pure farce. Heck, The Death of Stalin was a laugh riot. But Irina, The Vampire Cosmonaut has … ahem … loftier goals.

IVC is, in fact, straight as an arrow when it comes to presentation. Avoiding the names of real nations or people works to its benefit, as this is a world that still has a space race like ours and was still initially won by Rus-er, Zirnitra by launching an artificial satellite and then a dog I’m sure would have rather stayed on earth.

Reserve cosmonaut Lev Leps, who will probably never see orbit since an incident, is chosen to monitor and train N44, AKA Irina Luminesk. While she’s a vampire, this world’s version is far more human, not drinking blood or changing form. But because she’s not a “real” human, the government is putting her up in space first, and it’s Lev’s job to make sure she’s ready.

While I’m sure this wasn’t the higher-ups intent, Lev, who resembles an all-growd-up Claus Valca, has a kind heart. Despite strict orders to treat “N44” like an object (after what happened with this world’s version of Laika), his attempts to maintain emotional distance are awkward and ultimately unsustainable.

As for Irina (voiced by the legendary Hayashibara Megumi), she later has to remind herself that despite how nice they seem, Lev and the lab assistant and vampire expert Anya would kill her without hesitation if ordered to do so. Only…I don’t think that’s the case? Lev seemingly adds to her doubt about that sentiment when he apologizes for how she was treated and leaves a blanket and hot water in her cell.

IVC’s first episode sets everything about its world and major players very efficiently and succinctly, with some nice little details and humorous moments on the edges. It’s a little dull and plodding at times, but I’m nonetheless eager to watch Lev and Irina form a bond over their mutual love of the stars.