Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bish's Review Space: Above and Beyond Episode 8: Hostile Visit

"This is Lieutenant Nathan West 58th Squadron, United States Marine Corps, Planet Earth! Open wide you Chig bastards!" - West

Hostile Visit was written by Glen Morgan, James Wong and Peyton Webb.

The episode opens in the midst of a tense battle with the Saratoga being strafed by Chig bombers. The carrier is able to fight them off but one remains, adrift but intact. Recognising an unprecedented opportunity to understand Chig technology, Commodore Ross orders the 58th to explore and retrieve the ship.

The marines are aghast when it turns out that Aerotech, rather than the military, have been given permission to reverse engineer the bomber but the plans are changed when McQueen proposes a different use for it - a risky raid on a major Chig base, using the bomber as a Trojan horse - a propaganda mission similar to the Doolittle Raid from WW2. Ross gives the okay and the 58th set about learning to fly the ship. Aerotech make an attempt to prevent this by deleting some vital data, but the Saratoga crew are able to fill in the blanks and the mission continues.

McQueen learns that the flight window for the mission has to be brought forward and offers the 58th one last chance to back out - none of them do and he petitions Ross to be allowed to accompany them.

The mission sets off and the 58th manage to dodge a couple of Chig patrols and enter orbit of their base on Cerus. Unable to give the correct authorisation code to a sentry sattelite they come under attack and meet heavy resistance as they begin the bombing run. With weapons fire on all sides the bomb misses and the bomber is disabled. The 58th eject in an escape pod as the ship explodes.
Back on the Saratoga, Ross is unable to justify sending an entire carrier to Cerus to look for six marines and is about to rejoin the fleet when Sewell, the Aerotech representative, tells him to set course for Cerus - he will not be disappointed.

To Be Continued...

The Good

Where to start? This is an excellent episode of Space: Above and Beyond on almost every level although the reasons it is so great are perhaps not apparent from my summary above. Reading it back, the episode sounds packed with action and incident and it is, but the focus is really on the implications of these people going on what is probably a suicide mission.

We get a real sense of how the war is going - humanity has been on the defensive for six months because there have been no Chig bases discovered and it is taking it's toll on morale. The central question; the probable trading of lives and useful technology in order to turn the emotional tide is explored a little but never truly debated. This feels realistic, however, in the universe of the show and in the mindsets of our characters. References to World War Two help to keep the context relevant, noting the difference between a kamikaze mission and one that is just extremely risky. McQueen keeps a copy of a poem by a Japanese Kamikaze pilot in his flightsuit:

"With my mission now at hand, my dear old town, my dear old people, I now abandon everything and leave to protect this country. To preserve our eternal and just cause, I now go forth. My body will collapse like a falling cherry blossom but my soul will live and protect this land forever. Farewell. I am a glorious wild cherry blossom. I shall return to my mother's place and bloom."
- Mayumi Ichikawa.

to remind him that "[the man] died foolishly. He gave his life in a lost cause." This is a neat reversal of McQueen's usual admiration for the historical figures he studies and prompts a nice moment where Hawkes, last to volunteer, says slowly, "I ain't no kamikaze..." and when the faces of his colleagues fall he finishes with "'cause I'm coming back!" It is easy to scoff at chest-thumping moments like this but it really is very touching and utterly true to the character.

They talk about death, about their lives meaning something. McQueen openly admits, to Ross, of course, not the squadron, that he loves them and gets the most important arc of all as he is allowed to accompany the rest of the Wildcards despite being nominally grounded. We get a real sense of what makes McQueen tick as he recites a poem that I immediately began to google before he'd finished:

The dim glow falling upon the dried blood of Union brothers in the Manassas eve
Still guides our path.
Constellations hidden by fierce Pacific storms in the Bataan sky
Remain obscured by day.
The stars -- a billion -- for every life laid down in Vietnam
Still shine on us, And will guide those who follow.

but was unsuccessful as it turns out that it was McQueen who wrote it. He has always been a fierce student of military history and philosophy but only a mission like this would get him to lay his soul so bare to the men and women under his command. Ross asks him why an In Vitro would risk his life for humanity and McQueen replies:

"I would consider it my gift to you sir, to have you wonder why I did."

Wang, too, gets a couple of good moments. The beginnings of a romance with Lieutenant Strowd (Melissa Bowen) is touching although probably doomed to failure and his pitch-perfect impression of McQueen hits a comic high note and expertly punctures the growing tension. McQueen, entering at the wrong time, doesn't call him on it, as he realises how hard the situation is.

Hawkes and Vansen have a lovely little scene in the quiet of the flight-deck in the dead of night before the mission. Hawkes wants to go on the mission because "what's the point of sitting around [missing everyone]." and Vansen has a lovely speech about how it is Autumn back on Earth and how she "always fell in love in Autumn". This is arguably slightly overwritten but performed with incredible conviction by Kristen Cloke and has all the more veracity given that this could be her last night in the universe. Rather than going for strict naturalism the script is much more poetic than most things on television and is all the stronger for it.

As well as every scene being filled with good character moments, including a memorable first appearance for Commodore Ross's guitar, there is a good level of continuity, with elements like Aerotech, still represented by the incredibly sinister Sewell (Michael Mantell) right down to a throwaway line about Sergeant Major Bougus (R. Lee Ermy from the Pilot) making his recruits read The Naked And The Dead.

A couple of references to some real-world propulsion concepts, pellet-stream and bussard ramscoops along with the usual smattering of military terminology keeps things pleasingly grounded and the trivia minded might like to know that Hammerheads are armed with "short range kinetic pods" and a laser cannon.

The Bad

A more recent show might have trusted more in our grasp of continuity and showed that the war is going quite badly over time rather than have a scene with a mouthy extra as this episode does. It gets the point across but is extremely heavy-handed.

When the Chig bomber is on its bombing run it appears to be in the Cerus atmosphere but when the Wildcards bail out it has switched to a space background - extremely jarring.

A recognition code that works just by repeating it back doesn't seem very secure, but then it doesn't work the second time.

Chig technology is organic. It fits and is a great concept but I find the idea is a little overused these days. It works very well for the creep factor though, which is presumably why it's such a popular trope.

Future History

None of any note this week. I would have been tempted to include something futuristic made up in McQueen's war poem, but that might have pulled audiences out of the moment.

Past History

So much it cannot all be listed, and I have mentioned some already. McQueen's poem alone mentions three seperate wars and of course there are numerous references to the Trojan Horse and the Doolittle Raid. References to Kamikaze pilots also abound and the Wildcards adopt their tradition of cutting fingernails and leaving them behind for burial. The book McQueen gives West about these men is called Thunder Gods.

A fantastic episode with a great cliffhanger. Probably the most perfect example out of the episodes I've reviewed so far of the show that Space could be when it was firing on all cylinders.

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