Can Eureka blast off and out of its well-worn formula?

Eureka returned with the second half of its fourth season, as Fargo and Zane accidentally blasted themselves into space. This was a fun, refreshing episode with a few unexpected twists and turns...but should the show be trying to do more?

Eureka needed an episode like "Liftoff." While I liked season 4.0, the big time travel arc ended up just nudging the show's formula when it really needed to jolt it. For all the fun with altered timelines and James Callis, last season ended up reaffirming that, no matter what happens on this show, it's always going to be resolved in pretty much the same way, the characters are always going to interact in pretty much the same way, and Carter is always going to bust out pretty much the same one-liners in response to the latest impossible situation. No matter how much the ostensible status quo might be tweaked, nothing ever really seems to change.

Obviously, it's not particularly profound to point out that Eureka is a formulaic show. But it's remarkable just how absurdly specific the formula is, and how many of the exact same story beats are repeated in every episode - hell, I'm pretty sure more than 80% of the episodes feature a misguided but repentant scientist pleading with Carter that "I never meant for any of this happen." The show is generally good enough that, on an episode-by-episode basis, that isn't such a problem, but it gets a little harder to see the show's virtues when you look at the bigger picture.

Which is why "Liftoff" feels like a bit of a breath of fresh air. Instead of a vague, creeping threat facing the entire town, only Fargo and Zane (and the International Space Station) are placed in mortal danger, as they accidentally launch a vintage rocket while still inside. The second act of the episode takes on a fun Apollo 13 vibe as the team watches helplessly as the rocket hurtles on a collision course with the ISS, and it's refreshing to see a problem that technobabble can't immediately solve.

Admittedly, there's no getting around how ludicrous this plot is - the show actually acknowledges that Fargo and Zane should never have survived take-off, but just how tiny must the odds be that the ship would be on a collision course with the International Space Station? Then again, the space sequences does feature a visual shout-out to the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That counts for a lot.

Can Eureka blast off and out of its well-worn formula?

Anyway, after a minor departure from the show's established rhythms, the third act goes back to the Eureka formula with a vengeance. Zane and Fargo's only chance of returning to Earth involves using the ship's experimental faster-than-light drive, which can be used to fire the rocket back to Eureka, at which point the town's Boson Cloud Exciter can be used to catch them. It's a very Eureka solution, and it really only barely makes any sense at all, but at least a power-depleting EMP offers some entertaining diversions (which is a highfalutin way of saying, "Hey, look at the horses!"). Honestly, I kind of wish they had come up with an appropriately 1960s-era way to bring their 1960s-era rocket home, but the resolution worked all right as it was.

The highlight of this episode really has to be the interactions between Zane and Fargo, and both Niall Matter and Neil Grayston step up their game in this episode. While we've occasionally seen Zane be vulnerable before now, he's never looked so completely defeated as he does here. Fargo gets to be a bit of an action hero, as he refuses to freak out and comes up with a series of ingenious ways to stay alive. Even better, it all still feels very true to the characters we know, even if the episode takes them both in unexpected directions.

The episode also shows a deft touch with the romantic elements. Season 4.0 finally brought Jack and Allison together, which seems like the sort of thing that should be a big deal for the characters...but, as we see here, it isn't really. The episode doesn't ground to a halt so that the pair can hash out their relationship, and the fact that they're now a couple only slightly alters how they interact while on the clock. Indeed, Allison makes it explicit that their romance is strictly off-duty, and they can't let it get in the way of their work.

I imagine this is disappointing for those hoping for a more whirlwind romance after four seasons worth of will they/won't they tension - and it doesn't exactly hurt my argument that nothing ever changes on this show - but I'll admit I much prefer this to a lot of inorganic melodrama, and this actually seems more in keeping with how two people who have been friends for years would approach a romance anyway. We also saw a bit of progression with Zane and Jo (and Andy and S.A.R.A.H., for that matter), but I'll leave that to one side until we see a bit more of where the show is going with that.

Can Eureka blast off and out of its well-worn formula?

Then there's the very end of the episode, which introduces erstwhile Stargate Universe actress Ming-Na as Senator Wen. She has called Fargo to Washington with a very clear - and, to be honest, eminently fair - threat: if Eureka can't get its act together after this latest ISS-damaging disaster, things are going to change. And there's that word again. Can Eureka change from a formula that's coming dangerously close to stale?

We know the show is going to throw plenty of guest stars at that problem - beyond Ming-Na, there's also Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, and for some reason Stan Lee all coming up - but I'm afraid this show is stuck in a rut that it can't get out of. "Liftoff" might represent about as big a departure from the formula as we're ever likely to get, which isn't all that much. But hey...as ruts go, at least it's an extremely pleasant one.