Friday, March 25, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 4: Mutiny

"They take us out of the tank at eighteen Hawkes... can't get eighteen years back in a day" - McQueen

The 58th are forced to hitch a ride on a cargo vessel, the SS MacArthur (weirdly split into Mac Arthur in the establishing subtitles) which has a crew of In Vitros commanded by regularly born humans. Hawke discovers that the MacArthur's mission is to ferry natural-borns and In Vitros to a plutonium mining colony. The natural borns are in stasis and signed up for the mission. The In Vitros are still in their tanks and did not.

When a Chig vessel attacks and overloads the nuclear reactor, the captain orders power to be cut to the In Vitro section to save the ship, just as Hawkes has learnt that he has, genetically speaking, a sister still in her tank. The In Vitros come out in a full-blown mutiny with Hawkes unable to decide what to do.

When tensions mount, the captain of the MacArthur is killed accidently and McQueen steps in. The In Vitros back down and work with the 58th to save the ship and destroy the Chig. Hawkes, fittingly, is the one to cut the power to the In Vitro bay and goes in to find his sister, and apologise to her.

The Good

There were strong performances from the main cast this week with a strong moral problem at the heart of the episode. McQueen's status as a father-figure to Hawkes is back in the spotlight, even as he forces him to make difficult choices.

The other Wildcards all had good moments, despite not carrying the main plot. West, tasked with trying to track the Chig vessel through a storm of solar radiation is called out by McQueen on his going AWOL a few weeks ago (Back in The Farthest Man From Home). By the end of the episode West has saved the day and told McQueen that he understands what he did was selfish and will never happen again.
McQueen is typically unwavering throughout. He doesn't care whether he and Hawkes are human or something different: they are marines. It is not that he doesn't care about the injustices - he just has more of a kinship with his fellow marines than he does with unborn In Vitros. He reveals that he never looked for his genetic family, because he was afraid of what he might feel if he ever found them. As things stand, as he tells Hawkes, the 58th is their family.
Wang and Vansen have a slight but amusing subplot where they argue about the nature of love. It emerges that Wang has got himself a girlfriend on "Spacenet", ie, online. This episode came out in 1995 when such things must have seen like a new and scary prospect.
The cat and mouse game between the Chig hunter-killer (dubbed a U378 - trivia fans) and the MacArthur is tense and well presented. While it is not given as much screentime as the In Vitro plot it feels much as a real space battle would probably be: two ships miles apart, trying to work out where the other is and put a hole in her. More evoking submarine combat than the World War Two heroics from the pilot and probably more realistic for it.
The Bad

The prejudice shown by the natural-born crew over the In Vitros is drawn in far too broad strokes. The captain does not seem especially prejudiced but he certainly tolerates it, and his second in command (I think): Potter, is such a cartoon racist as to be completely unbelievable - although he is played by a black actor, which probably seemed smart at the time - maybe it was - I can't decide.

We are given indications that this is what life is like for In Vitros on Earth and her colonies, that McQueen was used for forced plutonium mining before joing the Marines and that the unborn In Vitros will have no say over their fate.

The reason I have a problem with this is not because I have an optimistic viewpoint regarding humanity's continuing tendency for prejudice. I have no doubt at all that In Vitros could easily become an underclass if this future were to come to pass. I just find it heavy-handed. The crew of the vessel are too unlikeable for us to really believe them to be typical of our society, which robs the episode of its punch in quite a significant way.

The scene where McQueen talks about his past is a little more effective, and resonates with the fate of the unborn In Vitros on the MacArthur. I think the problem I have here is that it is muddled. We would have benefitted considerably from a more detailed description of just what rights In Vitros have or do not have. We know that the In Vitro brigades have been disbanded and that they are no longer forced to fight against their will, but has this practice been replaced by slavery and forced labour? There is a line about indentured servitude being banned, but McQueen points out that the unborn In Vitros have no say in their fate - how is this anything other than slavery? This is a massive contradiction that happens in a single conversation and the episode does nothing to address it. The Captain looks sad, but what he is doing does not seem to be illegal, when surely it should be? Do In Vitros get paid? Can they buy their way out? Similarly - the show goes out of it's way to show that Earth is not a one-government planet. These are American In Vitros, do they have different rights to those from other countries? (I'm reaching a bit on the last one - I can't see how they could have easily addressed that without it being awkward).

Hawkes' drama is well-played and I can see how a young man like him would struggle in this situation, but the other big mistake that the episode makes is reducing it to a numbers game: one hundred and sixty-eight In Vitros vs four-hundred natural born humans. Far better would have been to have had equal numbers of lives. Then we'd have had a conflict on our hands! As angry as Hawkes might be about the usual treatment of In Vitros, this is a no-brainer. And that's before we even get into the very sticky philosphical problems this decision conjures up. The natural-born humans have lived, they have their own lives, they're just in cryogenic stasis. The In Vitros haven't even been born yet. There's an abortion debate to be had here but the episode does not even try to take it on.

Future History

There is now a Disneyland in Detroit.

Mention is made of some kind of "World Federation" but we still do not seem to be part of a one-planet government. Perhaps future episodes will clear this up.

I didn't type the fictional slur "tank" at all while reviewing this. Wow, how middle class and liberal am I?

Actual History

Vansen quotes WB Yeats' When You Are Old to Wang. This show can get quite erudite when it wants to.

It was almost inevitable after the West and Vansen showcases of the previous two weeks that this would be a Hawkes one. It touches enough contiuing beats to resonate, just about, particularly Hawkes' continuing search for exactly what and who he is, and the closing scene, with tube after tube of dead In Vitros and Hawkes apologising to his dead sister really hits with a punch that the rest of the episode does not deserve. Rodney Rowland gives a good performance, as usual, so we care about the character but ultimately, however, this episode is too confused about what it wants to say, and too heavy-handed when it decides upon it.

 Space Above and Beyond - The Complete Series is available on DVD and even though I wasn't very keen on this episode, you should still consider giving it a watch.

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