Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Cosmic Channel Changer
July 2013

Space: Above and Beyond

When people think of science fiction television shows cancelled before their time, the poster child tends to be Firefly. Still beloved by fans today, it fell victim to low ratings and mismanagement by Fox, eventually resulting in its premature end. That said, Firefly isn't the only sci-fi series to feel Fox's sting over the years. In the mid-90s, the network aired Space: Above and Beyond, following the exploits of a Marine fighter squadron, the 58th, caught in a bloody war between humanity and the mysterious "Chigs." It ran for a single season. In that season, however, it managed to weave more depth and heart into its plot than some shows have managed with much longer run times.

A huge part of the series' success is the subject matter it draws influence from. Despite taking place in a future complete with interstellar travel, artificially grown humans and hostile aliens, the show frequently references historical wars. Episode eleven, "The River of Stars," for instance, is based loosely on the Christmas Day truce that occurred between British and German soldier fighting in the trenches in 1914. Likewise, the episode "Sugar Dirt" is based on the Battle of Guadalcanal when US Navy forces temporarily withdrew, leaving the ground troops alone for months to fend for themselves.

Not every episode is directly based or influenced by history, but historical facts and trivia permeate the show. Sometimes the integrated bits don't make sense when you really think about it. In the episode "Dear Earth," for instance, we're shown soldiers eagerly awaiting handwritten mail from home. This happens despite it being well into the future when digital communication would be both possible and faster. That said, it works as a storytelling device because it presents viewers with visuals and ideas they're familiar with. Even today, the lonely soldier waiting for word from home is something that a lot of people can relate to - the use of that familiar figure, as well as other household images of war, allows Above and Beyond a degree of visual short hand that aids in conveying moods and emotions.

As a result, the show often delves into subject matter that could be seen as typical for a war series. There's no lack of moments reflecting on the cost of war, the personal toll of facing and dealing death and, of course, camaraderie. That being the case, it handles these, as well as loftier ideas, with skill and grace. Its handling of race and the concept of "the enemy" lead to some standout moments. For instance, while the Chigs are decidedly alien, they aren't portrayed as mindless or needlessly brutal. The writers actually do an excellent job of humanizing them and with a fair level of subtlety to boot.

For instance, in the episode "Who Monitors the Birds?" one of the main characters ambushes a lone Chig soldier. The Chig, even without a visible face, looks afraid; it doesn't want to die. Sensing this, the human character decides to let it go. The Chig is wary so the human pulls off his ring and gives it to the alien in an attempt to calm it. The Chig, in turn, pulls off its version of a personal memento and trades it for the ring. It's a moment of wordless understanding that's really effective, and later in the episode when the character is forced to kill that same alien, there's a sense of remorse often missing in such stores.

The race issues are handled with similar deftness. In the future presented by Above and Beyond, humanity is split into the naturally born people and InVitros, a race of humans grown in labs. The InVitros are treated as second-class citizens by most and, because of their artificial origins, are largely viewed as expendable. Their plight is a recurring theme that plays out primarily from the perspective of Cooper Hawkes, a member of the 58th. Only five years old (InVitros are born as fully grown adults), his character is a combination of bitter world weariness and almost childish naivety. We see him, throughout the course of the show, struggling both with the prejudice of his peers and the effect it has on him as he struggles to find his place in a world that's deemed him unwanted.

Of course, the effectiveness of Hawkes, and the other characters for that matter, can be owed to a cast that, by and large, is very good. Rodney Rowland is a stand out as Hawkes, expertly putting across a combination of toughness and innocence that is rare to see in male characters. Similarly, James Morrison, who plays the honorable and stoic Colonel McQueen, puts in regularly stirring performances. "The Angriest Angel," an episode that centers in on his character, is one of the best in the series completely on account of the gravitas he brings to the role. The rest of the cast are perhaps not quite as effective; Morgan Weisser is sometimes a bit wooden as Nathan West and Lanei Chapman never really rises above average as Vanessa Damphousse. That said, the ensemble is overall quite good and most everyone has a moment or two where they shine.

The strong cast is a blessing because the show sometimes suffers in some of its technical areas. While the audio and music are both excellent and work well to convey a range of situations and emotions, the show's visual elements often look dated. Granted, Above and Beyond isn't unique in this regard. CGI from the 1990s often looks primitive by modern standards. Above and Beyond's special effects, in turn, aren't even the best the decade put out. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but it can be distracting until you get used to it.

It becomes apparent, even from the show's storylines, that its budget was limited. For instance, the 58th, despite being fighter pilots by trade, are frequently deployed as foot soldiers. The excuse given is that casualties are so high that there's no choice but to send the pilots in. Now granted, the 58th is part of the U.S. Marine Corps which, apparently even in the future, maintains a standard that every soldier be trained as a rifleman first. That being the case, it's not inconceivable that the main cast would find themselves in a front line ground battle. That said, it's still hard to believe that fighter pilots would be thrown haphazardly into a ground war, especially when they're need to fly the planes defending an already outnumbered and outgunned fleet. CGI is expensive however, and deploying the 58th to the front lines was likely cheaper than keeping them in the cockpit for the bulk of the series.

More problematic than the dual roles forced on the 58th is the loss of scale the show often suffers from its small coffers. The audience is frequently told about large, devastating battles taking place, but we rarely see them. The aforementioned episode "Sugar Dirt," for instance, focuses on a battle involving tens of thousands of soldiers,but we never seen more than a few dozen. Most of the show's engagements are even smaller and fail to instill a sense that this is a conflict on the scale of the World Wars of our past.

At the end of the day however, Space: Above and Beyond delivers. Its flaws are minor in the greater picture of its product and count for a lot less than the quality writing and stories that have kept the show enjoyable almost two decades after it ended. Its greatest success is simply that you'll find yourself quickly caring for the 58th squadron and the characters who make it up. You'll smile at their triumphs and mourn their losses. Above all else, you'll find yourself hoping and praying with each new battle that everyone will make it out okay. It's an accomplishment of storytelling that's both praiseworthy and, ironically, something of a misfortune for viewers.

(Spoilers ahead!)

I will go on record as saying that I am not someone turned off by unhappy endings. I would much rather see a show go out on a sad note if that's what works for the story. That being the case, Space: Above and Beyond's ending comes with the dual problem of being of being depressing and feeling more than a little forced. As the story goes, the creators, learning that the show was not likely to be renewed for a second season, opted to end it with an episode that was conclusive but still left room for expansion. Sadly, Fox went through with the cancellation and fans were shocked to watch a final episode that left the majority of the 58th dead, wounded or missing in action. It was bittersweet minus the sugar and personally, the final episode is one that I refuse to watch simply because it's too depressing.

The ending set aside, Space: Above and Beyond is a must watch for fans of sci-fi or even just good drama. The last episode might break your heart, but it only has the power to do that because the twenty-two episodes preceding do such a fine job of making you care. Honestly, I can't think of a more desirable quality in a show than that.

Read more by Stewart Shearer


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