Friday, April 8, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 6: Eyes

"Tell My Mother I Died For My Country, I Did What I Thought Was Best" - John Wilkes Booth, April 12, 1865
Eyes was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Félix Enríquez Alcalá. The Saratoga returns to Earth and the 58th are looking forward to some R&R when the news comes through that the Secretary General of the UN, Spencer Chartwell (previously seen in the pilot) has been shot and killed by an In Vitro. With leave cancelled the Saratoga becomes the base for political wrangling between the two candidates to take over from him, Ambassador Nicholas Chaput (George DelHoyo), the undersecretary and therefore de facto leader until an election is held and Ambassador Diane Hayden (Harriet Sansom Harris), who was recently on the Aerotech board of governers. Chaput is the leader of the very right-wing French "Partie Nationale D'Identite" and has recently caused France to secede from the European Union.

In addition to this, In Vitroes are being made to take loyalty tests (heavily influenced by the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner) and it soon becomes obvious that there is a plot afoot to kill Chaput. McQueen refuses to take the test and is incarcerated. Hawkes takes the test and is brainwashed into becoming an unwitting pawn to assasinate Chaput. McQueen, who realises what is happening after Hawkes pays him a visit in the brig manages to talk him down and no harm is done. Meanwhile, West has been approached with information suggesting Aerotech, and therefore Hayden, knew about the aliens before setting up the Telus and Vesta colonies and it looks like the conspiracy might go further than that. Nonetheless, Hayden wins the election and the 58th are left with their suspicions and nothing to back them up.

The Good

Six episodes into the series, this seems like an apt time to get a bit more information on Earth politics and the wider situation. It appears that the United Nations is extremely powerful in this time and the Secretary General can be said to "rule the world" but bodies such as the European Union still exist, as do individual nations like the United States. It is perhaps not surprising given Morgan and Wong's impressive X-Files credentials that there would be a conspiracy of some sort at the back of the show and the idea that the Aerotech corporation knew that the aliens were out there before the colony missions certainly has legs.

I also appreciated that the right-wing (and French no-less!) politician was actually the potential victim here. Although his politics would not have made him a good choice for Secretary-General at least he wasn't trying to assasinate the competition. We get no explicit confirmation that Hayden was in on the plot, but of course she was, and of course Aerotech knew about the Chigs. A lesser show would have made Chaput the villain, or at least had the real threat apprehended by the end of the episode but neither of these things really happen. Clearly Hayden is going to be a recurring character and the shadiness of Aerotech is only going to deepen.

The other thing I enjoyed about the episode was a real sense of continuity. Several specific incidents in the past few episodes are mentioned, including The Battle Of The Belt from the pilot and the fight with the Silicates on Bunuel in The Dark Side Of The Sun. Specifically the squadron get some replacements in order to shore up their ranks after the losses there. I complained in that review about the anonymous characters going to their deaths, so at least these new guys get some lines (actually one of them, Swerko, played by John Verea turns out to be a would be assassin). Whether any of the remaining reinforcements recur later remains to be seen, but this is a step in the right direction.

The Bad

My thoughts about the implications of this episode are largely positive but the actual story left me pretty cold. A little bit like the pilot I feel that the episode was working despite a rather pedestrian tone. I could have done without West being so trusting of the creepy United Nations agents that he was almost persuaded to leave his guard down while on duty so that the two ambassadors could "meet" - ok, he was promised information about Kylen, which is a legitimate blind-spot for the character, but this is still dereliction of duty so severe it could only happen on television, and the obviously evil UN men are too broadly portrayed for West to come off as looking anything other than an idiot.

Speaking of which, while I appreciated the extreme right-wing French politician as the innocent party and the sweet blind American lady being the real threat, I felt that the agents carrying out the In Vitro loyalty test and plotting to assassinate Chaput were too generically foreign and sinister looking. For a conspiracy to be believable we should be shocked and while the final twist isn't bad, it was still all too hampered by convention. Before The X-Files collapsed under the weight of it's own mythology it was much better at giving us layers of paranoia and government intrigue and Morgan and Wong should have tried harder to recapture this unsettling feeling. I also just plain wasn't interested in the brainwashing plot for Hawkes. I liked the idea of the loyalty test, because that seemed like a good way to challenge these characters in different ways: Hawkes because he doesn't always know if he actually is loyal to Earth and McQueen because he's so thoroughly loyal that the more question offends him to the point of mutiny. When it turned out that there was something more sinister at work though I lost interest. The test was unsettling enough, giving it an actually evil purpose was a step too far towards comic-book villainy.

Future History

There was a bunch in this episode but the most memorable is Vansen's mention that the US President was shot and killed by a Silicate in 2051, although as a Brit, the reference to France's secession from the EU, which I already mentioned, was pretty close. (I wonder if we were before them...

Past History
There is no better example of the seriousness with which this show takes history than the fact that the very first shot of the episode is the quotation I have reproduced at the top of the page.

An episode that fleshed out the universe of the show very well without actually telling a very compelling story. I take marks away by forcing one character to be an idiot and the other to be a pawn but kudos for taking the time to carefully construct a world and build a mythology. Hopefully future visits to this plotline, which are surely inevitable, are more nuanced.

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