580: The Race: Part 4

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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The Race: Part 4
Things are rarely just crazy enough to work, but they're frequently just crazy enough to fail hilariously.
Title text: Things are rarely just crazy enough to work, but they're frequently just crazy enough to fail hilariously.


Firefly was a television series aired by Fox in 2002, but it was canceled after only fourteen episodes had been produced. Over ten years later, it still has a devoted fan base, apparently including Randall. The main characters were the crew of the spaceship "Serenity", including Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), mechanical genius Kaywinnet Lee "Kaylee" Frye (Jewel Staite), the apparently insane psychic River Tam (Summer Glau), and six others not mentioned in this comic. Nathan Fillion appeared naked at the beginning and end of the show's eleventh episode, "Trash", after having been stripped of all his weapons, equipment, and clothes in a desert. Cueball is mentally overloaded by this image (either aroused or repulsed it is hard to say) to the extent that he misses the start signal.

Worried about his pursuer, Nathan wants to perform a Crazy Ivan, an emergency maneuver used by the crew of Serenity in the pilot episode of the series to escape the hot pursuit of a Reaver ship. It involves a 180° spin turn followed by rapid acceleration towards (and hopefully past) the pursuer, which does not have the ability to make such a rapid turn. In a Firefly-class vessel, it is performed by temporarily reversing the direction of thrust of one of the two atmospheric engines, achieved by physically rotating the engine nacelle. The name of the maneuver is taken from the antics of Soviet submarines in trying to detect (not to evade) enemy submarines hiding in the sonar blind-spot directly behind their vessel. In reality, sharp turns suffice for this purpose; it is not necessary to completely reverse direction. The name entered popular culture after being used in the movie The Hunt For Red October.

Nathan appears to understand exactly what will happen. He asks Jewel to "override the remote differential", implying that the two driven wheels could then be powered in opposite directions, causing a spin-turn. As Jewel points out, this will be unlikely to have the intended effect. Nathan is much heavier than his vehicle, and he is not securely attached to it. Momentum is his enemy. Even if it were successful, it would be utterly pointless, because he would find himself heading away from the finish line. Cueball is only pursuing him with the intent to overtake him, and the Crazy Ivan guarantees that this will happen.

Summer Glau is often a target of sexual attraction for her appearance and her well-known, eccentric characters. River Tam, in the movie Serenity, had subconscious programming that caused her to be able to take on dozens of foes in hand-to-hand combat, and her Terminator character in The Sarah Connor Chronicles also regularly beat on men far larger than her, which, for many, just adds to the attraction. Thus, even as Summer fells him with a devastating kick to the face, Cueball is incredibly aroused. Electric skateboards have been the subject of several other comics like 139: I Have Owned Two Electric Skateboards, 409: Electric Skateboard (Double Comic) and a panel in 442: xkcd Loves the Discovery Channel.

The title text refers to a common ability in fiction for characters to produce an idea that is 'just crazy enough to work'. In real-life situations (such as an electric skateboard race), people are rarely able to come up with an idea that is just out-of-the-ordinary enough to work perfectly, and in their attempts to do so, will come up with an idea that will instead absolutely fail to work (and make them look like fools to boot).

This series was released on five consecutive days (Monday to Friday) and not over the usual schedule of three comics a week. These are all the comics in The Race series:


[Cueball and Nathan Fillion are ready on the start line on their electric skateboards.]
Voice off panel: On your mark...
Voice: Get set...
Nathan: Remember episode 11, when I got all naked in that desert?
Voice: Go!
[Nathan speeds away leaving Cueball standing at the start line.]
Voice: ...I said "Go."
Voice: Someone throw some water on him.
Cueball: Can't...get it...out of my head...
[Nathan on walkie talkie, speeding on his skateboard.]
Nathan: He's right behind me. Kaylee, I'm gonna try a Crazy Ivan.
Jewel [on walkie talkie] (579 shows Nathan's naming confusion): That doesn't make any sense, Nathan.
Nathan: Trust me.
Jewel: No, I mean it's not a skateboard maneuver. The concept doesn't even apply to this situation.
Nathan [via walkie talkie]: That's why it just might work!
Jewel: No, that's the opposite of true!
Nathan: On my mark, override the remote differential and throw her into a spin.
Jewel [via walkie talkie]: okay, but—
Nathan: Mark!
[Nathan lying injured on the ground next to his skateboard, Cueball cruises past.]
[Nathan, trying to stand up.]
Nathan: I'm down. Tell Summer "The chickens are in the hayloft. Plan Gamma is a go."
[Nathan, one foot on skateboard, looking at walkie talkie.]
mumbling from walkie talkie
Jewel: She says, "Plan gamma acknowledged. The meerkats are in the bag.
[Summer Glau is walking off panel.]
Jewel [to walkee talkie]: So we're good?
Nathan: Hard to tell with her. Do you see an actual bag of meerkats?
Jewel: No.
Nathan: Then we're probably good.
[Cueball screeching to a halt as he sees Summer Glau.]
Cueball: Oh! Hi, Miss Glau! I'd love to talk, but Nathan's back on his feet and catching up.
[Summer grabs Cueball's arm.]
Cueball: Wha—
[Summer kicks Cueball in the face whilst pulling his arm towards her, he flies off his skateboard.]
[Summer walking away as Cueball lies crippled on the floor with his sunglasses beside him.]
[Cueball still lying on the floor.]
Cueball [thinking]: I've never been so turned on in my life.


  • xkcd's own transcript for this episode is quite wrong, and words like maneuver are spelled incorrectly.
  • The premise of The Race is that Fillion is too wrapped up in the character of Reynolds and his own portrayal of him to accept the cancellation of the series, which is why he takes the fan up on the race; to aid this conceit, he insists he be called "Mal", but while in this episode he refers to Staite as "Kaylee", he calls Glau "Summer", not "River". Other xkcd episodes about Summer Glau portray her in Randall's imagining as similarly quirky in real life to the way her characters are perceived, so it might be a reference to that.

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Wasn't "Crazy Ivan" originally a submarine maneuver, from "The Hunt for Red October"? --JakubNarebski (talk) 16:44, 28 June 2013 (UTC)

Yes. Unless it has a towed sonar array, a sub has a sonar "blind spot" (the "baffles") where it can't hear anything. Periodically, subs would zigzag to check the blind spot for enemies ("clearing the baffles"). The Russians used a manouver which the Americans called "crazy Ivan," in which they would do a sudden 180-degree turn. It was called "crazy" for the high risk of colliding with the following/hunting sub. 14:58, 2 August 2013 (UTC)Monica