Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 2: The Farthest Man From Home

The Farthest Man From Home was written by the series creators Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by David Nutter.

After the defeat of the Chigs in our solar system at the end of the pilot, Earth begins to take the fight to the enemy. The Saratoga is at anchor within reach of Tellus, the world that Kylen and West were going to colonise. A group of Special Forces land on Tellus to scout the wreckage of the colony ship and find a survivor (French Stewart) , raving mad, who calls himself "the farthest man from home".

West, catching a glimpse of the survivor, manages to sneak in to speak to him, and is given hope that Kylen might be alive. Before a scouting mission to the planet he goes AWOL, steals a Hammerhead and flies down solo. McQueen does not order Vansen and Hawkes to pursue him, but does not explicitly forbid it either.

West, exploring the wreckage, finds Kylen's ID tag with a recorded message for him, telling him to look to the high ground. Before he can gather himself he is attacked by Chig ground forces who pursue him until he finds shelter in a cave, filled with the dessicated remains of Chig bodies. He finds two more survivors here who tell him that the Chigs won't enter the cave because they're scared of their own dead, but the others have been taken to a prison camp.

West sets off in pursuit as Hawkes and Vansen come under anti-aircraft fire. Hawkes is hit and ejects, while Vansen manages to escape. McQueen orders an army APC, with Hammerhead air cover to be despatched to extract the marines.

Hawkes and West meet up and argue about West's actions before coming under fire. They are forced to retreat from the prison camp, rescuing the two survivors en route and make it to the APC just as West sees a Chig transport taking off, carrying the prisoners, possibly including Kylen, along with it.

Back on the Saratoga, Commodore Ross, played by the excellent Tucker Smallwood (a different commodore from the pilot) gives the marines, including McQueen, a severe dressing down, but ultimately the whole incident is hushed up. McQueen tells the jubilent Wildcards that they should be careful about celebrating, because "someone higher up obviously pulled a string" and "if we're not careful, we could be hanging from it." In the last few shots of the episode we find out that this string-puller is very likely Sewell (Michael Mantell), a leading light in Aerotech, the company that sponsored the colonisation efforts, and who has been taking a great deal of interest in the Tellus survivors.

Tellus is declared lost and the Saratoga moves off to help elsewhere in the fight.

The first episode after the pilot of any TV show is a tricky beast to get a handle on. It needs to tell its own story while simultaneously laying out the framework for a typical episode. As is the case in most ensemble shows, each episode of Space tends to focus on one or two of the main characters, with the others in supporting roles, and, because this is the second episode and he is ostensibly the lead character, West took centre-stage in this one.
I have decided to adopt Jim's Good and Bad format for these reviews, so without further ado:

The Good

The cast continue to perform very well together. None of them, with the possible exception of James Morrison, are exactly top-level actors, but they do well with the material they are given and even if I don't quite believe that they are United States Marines, I don't find it hard to believe that they are these characters.

Nice confirmation that the Wildcards are a team now. Hawkes and West argue on the planet about West going AWOL, but there is no question that Hawkes would go to get him, and everyone is in it together when Commordore Ross is dressing them down. We also get to see the lengths McQueen will go to for his team. Unlike the rest of the Wildcards, he knows that this will probably cost him his career but he does it without hesitation. It is only the intervention of Aerotech that saves him.

A lot more detail that expands the universe: It was good to see the army Special Forces teams. Clearly the Saratoga does not only carry marines. There is always a danger in these stories that the giant spaceship appears to serve only the few title characters. This is not the case here.

While relaxing West watches a documentary which features Kennedy's famous "Why go to the moon?" speech. Taking this along with the pilot, wherein the UN Secretary General quoted Winston Churchill's "Never in the field of human conflict was so much, owed by so many, to so few", it is clear that Space will be a show with a sense of history, sometimes unusual in Science Fiction.

Obviously the most important details are those that are not fully spelled out yet. Sewell and Aerotech are so far portrayed as unambiguously sinister (mostly with lighting and music cues) and the fact that there are Chig tombs on Tellus is a clear indication that they were there before us, which might provide a motivation for their attack. I also like the idea that the Chigs are frightened of their dead. Once again the world-building is smooth and naturalistic.

Another good moment is Hawkes taking a knife to the padding in his helmet so he can fit his neck "nipple" in without chafing. "They don't make nothing with In Vitroes in mind" he says, but, in a nice performance from Rodney Rowland, it's with resignation rather than angst. He is explaining to a genuinely interested Damphouse. The episode would lose nothing without this scene but it is a good indication that the In Vitro storyline is not going to be forgotten.

The Bad

The problem with that episode is that it assumes a certain amount of investment in the West and Kylen arc. Unfortunately, since this was the least interesting part of the pilot, it once again proved difficult to care here. West going AWOL happens too early in the series for it to be dramatic. If we had had a few more episodes of the team following orders and fighting the Chigs and then had this storyline, it might have had more dramatic impact. As it is, we don't yet know whether this will be a show where the characters disobey orders every week. While intellectually we know that what West has done is wrong, the show doesn't do anything to earn an emotional reaction.

The acting from the survivors in the cave was a little dodgy and I could have definitely done without West's last, yelled, "KYLEN!" as the Chigs flew off. That was a needlessly hammy moment in a show that tends to avoid them.

I am not going to use Jim's The Ugly category in my reviews as Space tends to avoid out and out blood and gore. However, this moniker certainly applys to the CGI of West shooting down a Chig satellite. The Hammerheads generally look pretty good, but the satellite shattering into regularly shaped purple polygons was just dreadful, even for 1995. The aggressively 90s intro sequence might also qualify, but I think the urgent, martial nature of the theme really saves it.

While I would not go as far as to describe The Farthest Man From Home as bad television, it does lack a certain drive. The main character gone AWOL plot feels like we've seen it too often and while the pilot was able to get away with this sort of borrowing as it introduced the characters it would have been nice to see something a little more original and surprising in this slot. While there are lots of well-presented details that make the episode fun to look back on and pick over, as a story ultimately the second episode comes to less than the sum of it's parts.

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