Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bish's Review Space Above and Beyond Episode 1: Pilot

"In space, no-one can here you scream... unless it is the battle cry of the United States Marines!"

Space: Above and Beyond is a military science fiction show by X-Files producers Glen Morgan and James Wong. It ran from September 1995 until June 1996 on Fox. Like many such programs it was cancelled prematurely and is not especially well remembered fifteen years later. In the spirit of Jim's excellent War Of The Worlds reviews I intend to review one episode a week, for 23 weeks, and explore the themes that Space was trying to portray, its success in doing so, whether it deserved to be cancelled and, simply, whether or not it was actually any good.

The show opened with a 90 minute pilot episode that introduced the characters and setting of the Space story. Set in the year 2063, it follows The Wildcards, a squadron in the (sadly still fictional, even fifteen years later) United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry during a war with an implacable alien enemy known as the Chigs, named for their resemblance to a kind of Central American flea.

In the grand tradition of such stories we discover how the characters all end up in the Marines and how they learn to function as a unit, with the requisite amount of tension and resentment along the way. The pilot episode does not seek to reinvent the wheel, rather to use well-worn tropes to get the story where it needs to go.

Our lead character (although the show is very much an ensemble) is Nathan West, played by Morgan Weisser. He is a young man who wants nothing more than to be part of the colonisation of another world with his girlfriend, Kylen. Due to political wranglings, one of them has to be taken off of the colony program and it is West who is forced to watch as the rocket takes off without him, carrying the love of his life to her new home. Vowing to follow her into space, he joins the Marine Space Aviators.

More interesting than West to begin with is Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland). He is an In Vitro, a member of a race of humans created in laboratories to fight humanity's wars for them. When this program turned out to be a failure, with many In Vitroes refusing to fight, they were turned loose and now make up an underclass in Earth society. We first meet Hawkes as he gets arrested for fighting back against a lynch-mob and sentenced to the military.

Shane Vansen, played by Kristen Cloke, is another character with a backstory steeped in the history of the show. Her parents were career officers in the US military before being slaughtered by the Silicates, a race of Artificial Intelligences also created by human military minds.

The other two members of the Wildcards who we will follow through the series are Paul Wang (Joel De La Fuente) and Venessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman). They do not emerge from this episode as distinctive as the other three but both have their parts to play. Wang in particular gets a wonderfully awkward moment, as he fails to demonstrate a battle-cry of sufficient ferocity for the squadron's drill instructor, which gets a fantastic callback in the very last episode.

(Trivia note, the instructor is played by R Lee Ermey, of Full Metal Jacket fame - does including him as a drill instructor in your show take you dangerously close to parody? I'm not sure it matters, he's so good at it, and if you can just imagine him yelling "HOT ROD ROCKET-JOCKS OF PRECISION AND STRENGTH, TEAR-ASSING ACROSS THE COSMOS HUNTING FOR HEAVEN! you'll have some idea just how entertaining these scenes are).

The episode opens with a devastating attack by persons unknown on the first Earth colony, Vesta, and although news of this does not get out straight away it becomes obvious fairly quickly that Kylen's colony ship is going to suffer the same fate. It is these attacks, by the Chigs, that precipitates the war that becomes the driving narrative of the show. During the episode our characters go from raw recruits, to their first encounter with the enemy on a partially terraformed Mars, to finally winning a significant victory in space.

As stated, none of these ideas are especially new, but for the most part they are used efficiently enough. The story drags a little whenever West and Kylen are together and the animosity between him and Hawkes is a little cliched. West in particular is problematic for a reviewer because he is by far the least interesting named character. It feels rather as though a script was written that did not have a white male lead and he was parachuted in at the last minute to save the day. That is not a criticism of Weisser. He does the best he can with some very standard material but West just isn't much fun to watch and his angst over Kylen, while understandable, comes across as rather petulant.

Hawkes' angst, by contrast, is better written and much more interesting. Hawkes is both brash and awkward. His bravado comes from his mistreatment at the hands of naturally-born humans and, given that his forerunners were created to fight and die with no say in the matter, it is entirely understandable that he kicks against the tracers while in the military. West does not like him because he was removed from the colonisation program in order to include a group of In Vitroes in a sort of government outreach program, but of course, to Hawkes this is indistinguishable from the hatred he has endured his entire short life. Ultimately, of course, he is looking for a place he can belong, and thanks to combat bringing them together, he finds it in the Wildcards.

Although she is reasonably well fleshed out and played efficiently enough by Cloke, Vansen's function in this episode is mostly as a wedge between West and Hawkes. They end the episode as friends and Vansen will have her own stories as the show progresses, but in the pilot she is mostly the voice of by-the-book common sense.

The other important character introduced is Lieutenant Colonel Tyrus Cassius McQueen (James Morrison). He is an In Vitro, but unlike the dissenters that made the In Vitro program a failure, he has become a career soldier. When the episode begins he is a member of the elite Marine squadron the Angry Angels, who have customised uniforms and strut about treating other recruits like dirt. All of them except McQueen. Vansen's dream of eventually joining the squadron she admires is soured somewhat when she is insulted in a bar for proclaiming her admiration for the squadron and a fight ensues. (Is it possible to have an "everybody joins the military and learns to trust one another" episode without a barfight? As far as I can tell it's never been tried...). McQueen does not get involved in this and is clearly marked out as different from his swaggering comrades. When the Angry Angels are massacred by the Chigs later in the episode, McQueen is grounded by damage to his inner ear and, by the end of the episode, has become the Wildcards' new squadron commander.

McQueen is a clear standout character and Morrison plays him with an admirable intensity and commitment. On paper, it is possible that many of McQueen's lines, things like "It's ok to be scared" could appear to be nothing more than military-fiction cliches but Morrison's delivery transcends any such concerns. He is able to portray McQueen's pride in his new recruits, combined with anger over the loss of the Angels and his own disability with almost no change in expression. Perfect for a gruff military-type, Morrison's acting is all in his eyes and it is consistently brilliant. It is clear by the end that McQueen will not rest until the Wildcards have the same reputation as his old squadron. Even at the medal-giving ceremony after their victory he chews the squadron out for pulling an unorthodox manoeuvre that probably won the battle. You can tell by Morrison's performance that McQueen is extremely proud of the young pilots but will not risk the safety of the squadron by praising reckless behaviour. It's a fantastic moment.

However, although it does not come up in this episode, McQueen is still an In Vitro and he has clearly been written this way for a reason. During the final battle, Hawkes ends up with a Chig fighter on his tail and McQueen shouts at him with genuine concern to "kill the right thruster, you stupid tank!" This line speaks volumes. The In Vitro storyline is obviously not just going to be backstory and these two have a journey to go on. Hawkes is badly in need of a parent figure. Has he found one in McQueen?

While the story and characters are certainly compelling enough to make you want to tune in again for the second episode it is probably in the world-building that the true successes of Space's pilot lie. It is always a problem in shows like this to explain what is different and what is similar about the setting and keep it from becoming a massive dump of exposition. Space learns the "show, don't tell" lesson well and, aside from a couple of slightly awkward passages explaining the origins of the term "In Vitro" everything is painted in very efficient, delicate strokes. From dialogue the viewer can piece together that the Silicates were originally created as humanity's soldiers, rebelled, and the In Vitroes were created to replace and to fight them. Nobody comments on this but the irony at work here is brilliant and, more importantly, frighteningly believable. Surely we can all picture the generals pitching this to the president? We do not really see the Silicates in this episode, although we do get the threat of them from a flashback where they kill Vansen's parents, but we know they are still out there, and are bound to have a part to play in future events.

In Vitroes are looked down upon because they refused to fight a war they had no say in and are now downtrodden and referred to by derogatory names like "Tank" (for their method of gestation) and "nipple-neck" because they have a "nipple", which in function is actually more of a misplaced navel, on the back of their necks.

Presumably due to budgetary reasons we do not see a lot of Earth but it doesn't look especially welcoming. Certainly this is no Star Trek style utopia and the nations of the Earth are decidedly not united. These are the UNITED STATES MARINES not the troops of some fictional one-Earth government. I actually find this approach curiously refreshing. After all, does anyone really believe we're going to be pooling our military resources by 2063, or even 2263?

The Chigs are presented as fairly mysterious. They wear black armour that sometimes looks menacing and sometimes looks a little ridiculous, depending on how much movement the stuntman has to attempt. One of the most important, and most mature themes on the show is that while this alien enemy is unknowable in many ways, their individual soldiers are perhaps not all monsters. This is certainly not a new theme for military fiction, but again, it is refreshing to find it in a science fiction setting, played straight by black-clad aliens. The attacks on the colonies appear unprovoked and the Chigs are clearly ruthless in combat but that is not all they are. This is presented most clearly in a scene where The Wildcards capture a Chig prisoner. It sees West's picture of Kylen and indicates that it carries something similar into battle. When Damphouse tries to give it water it kills itself out of fear.

Space's production values, for 1995, are pretty good. The space-planes the squadron flies (called Hammerheads, for their resemblance to the shark) are well designed and believable (one nice touch I like is that they have a rear-facing machine gun that can deal with pursuers) and the CGI that portrays the space action gets the job done very well. Another good detail that few other depictions of space combat have managed (Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica excepted) is that the Hammerheads have to fire retros constantly to maintain position and can exploit the freedom of movement in space to pull off some exciting zero-g manoeuvres. Another cool scifi detail is that the ships use LIDAR, rather than RADAR. In practical terms it is unlikely that this would make any difference to their ranging and detecting abilities, (my physics PHD friend thinks that if the Chig ships aren't made of metal than LIDAR might make some sense, but that the beam required would probably be too narrow) but it's a nice use of a real-world but futuristic term. I have some complaints about the logic of using unguided kinetic weaponry in space and the ranges over which combat is conducted, but, as a long-time fan of almost every show and movie featuring space combat I am used to sacrificing logic on the altar of cool visuals (seriously though - real space combat probably won't be a rerun of World War Two).

It's not perfect, explosions in space look a little pasted on, and the larger models, like the Chig and United States carriers suffer somewhat from a low polygon count. If we are to compare contemporary shows, Space suffers a little next to the various Star Treks (Voyager started the same year) as we were still at the stage where model work tended to trump CGI for believability. That said, any fan of Babylon 5 will tell you that direction can make up for a lot and the advantage that Space's choice to use CGI has here is the ability to produce kinetic, exciting battle scenes, on a weekly television budget, without having to resort to too much stock footage (lets hope so anyway!).

Once we get off Earth and onto the space carrier Saratoga it is clear that the show has come home and the sets improve accordingly. The set for the ship is believably shadowy, military looking and relatively high-tech and there are plenty of extras around to demonstrate this is a massive ship with a lot of personnel.

Mars is represented by pink sand and a green-screened in sky and while not totally realistic it certainly sells the illusion well enough. What I appreciated was that they mentioned terraforming but did not show it. Excellent world-building - they wanted to show that we were settling Mars but did not cheap out and use it as an excuse to portray it with Earthlike visuals. I approve.

The civilian costumes are very 90s, but the military uniforms are excellent, mostly because they are basically just military uniforms. I don't really know much about contemporary American uniforms but I can't imagine these are very different, if at all. Space aired before the current belief that it is ok to just give future people contemporary firearms because the audience won't care, so, pleasingly, the Wildcards carry large, chunky looking weapons that go well with the setting. Nice touches of detail abound, like the helmets that snap into place like a clamshell, or the fact that the cockpits of the Hammerheads are detachable and lower into place before a mission. Not remotely necessary, but a nice visual.

Overall my thoughts on this pilot are very positive. It's not perfect, it drags in places and many of the plot points are cribbed from other sources but the characters and setting are interesting and well set up. To my mind it is a much more successful start than many series get. Even much-loved (and deservedly so) shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Babylon 5 had extremely creaky pilots, a syndrome that Space: Above And Beyond does well to avoid.

The DVD box set of   Space Above and Beyond - The Complete Series is available and can be purchased at


Jimtron said...

I had a friend in college who was a nice guy but had terrible tastes in shows. He recommended this show REALLY STRONGLY, and started me off with a two-part episode, Never No More / The Angriest Angel. It was... all right, nothing special. He did the very common mistake of introducing someone to a show on a key arc episode, rather than a more accessible stand-alone episode.

(For instance, I got my girlfriend, now wife, into Bablon 5 with the episode Believers, a fairly innocuous episode but one that stood alone and had personal significance to her, as it involved medical ethics and she was a medical student.)

Thankfully, years later, Bish strongly suggested I give the series a second look. I'm glad I did. It's not without flaws but was basically a pretty good show, with interesting characters and a good mix of both down-to-earth and sci-fi themes. I look forward to hearing his episode-by-episode analysis.

Ed of Ct. Usa said...

I liked the series. Interesting combo.of history remembered ww one Christmas truce . Authors had obviously been in Korea or Vietnam. Combat. Good emphasis on individual soldiers and characters. That is unusual for the sci. Fi genre.. I still.miss the show