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Space: Above & Beyond – Pilot (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Space: Above and Beyond made a great deal of sense in the context of the mid-nineties. Fox had begun its life as a scrappy little network that had trouble producing seven nights of broadcasting, but had rapidly solidified itself into a credible alternative to the big three networks. There were lots of reasons for this. The X-Files was one reason, but the network had also solidified itself with a slate of popular young dramas like Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Party of Five. Securing the NFL rights in 1993 didn’t hurt.

By late 1995, Fox was largely past the growing pains stage of its evolution. The network had been announced in late 1985, and first hit the airwaves in late 1986. It was approach the end of its first decade by the time Space: Above and Beyond was broadcast. Fox was no longer a small network fighting for scraps, but a viable challenger to the so-called “big three.” This change in outlook would lead to great success in the twenty-first century, but would also lead to change in how Fox did business.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

The X-Files had been the right show at the right time in a number of ways. It landed at the perfect point to speak to a generation that grew up in the shadow of Watergate, but also to tap into millennial anxieties and insecurities. From a commercial perspective, The X-Files launched towards the end of the period where Fox could take chances on young shows struggling to find an audience. The first season of The X-Files was a cult hit, but not a breakout success story. The network had faith in the show, and that faith paid off.

It is interesting to wonder whether The X-Files would have received a second season if it débuted even two years later. After all, Fox would develop a reputation as a network with a ruthless tendency towards cancellation and plug-pulling. If The X-Files had first appeared in September 1995, would it have enjoyed the same fate as Space: Above and Beyond?

Distant sands...

Distant sands…

Of course, the production of Space: Above and Beyond was much more elaborate – and, crucially, much more expensive – than the production of The X-Files. For the first year of The X-Files, the show was reasonably cheap to produce. It was shot in Vancouver, with two main cast members and not too many special effects. In contrast, Space: Above and Beyond had a massive cast, cutting-edge special effects and lots of design work built into it. The X-Files was set in a world connected to our own. Space: Above and Beyond was largely built from scratch.

There’s an incredible confidence to Space: Above and Beyond, and it is possible to read the series as an attempt to cash in on the resurgent popularity of televised science-fiction in the wake of the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Indeed, Morgan and Wong have conceded that Fox originally suggested a show that would play off a proposed Starfleet Academy spin-off, potentially beating it to the punch. Morgan and Wong decided to take that idea their own direction.

Grave trouble...

Grave trouble…

The network’s suggestion of doing a show in the style of Starfleet Academy is perhaps quite revealing. Fox was a young network. Its biggest hits were shows based around young people and targeted around young people. It seems like the network probably wanted a show that would transition half-way between a big-budget hit science-fiction show and a hip youth show – pushing Fox perhaps a little outside its comfort zone, but keeping one foot in what it knew.

Glen Morgan and James Wong, very pointedly, did not want to make that sort of show. Watching Space: Above and Beyond, it is quite clear that the creators were aiming at something a bit more classical. It might have been set in the future, but it harked back to the past. World War II was a major influence. These parallels are obvious even in the opening episode. Winston Churchill is referenced. The key battles in the pilot parallel Pearl Harbour and the Battle of Britain.

Fly boys...

Fly boys…

However, the movie is rooted in more than just the history of the Second World War, but also the way that the war was represented and portrayed in film and elsewhere. A main character is named McQueen, as if to reference Steve McQueen. The group includes the rebel without a cause and a scarred no-nonsense commanding officer who may or may not have a heart of gold beneath his tough exterior. The show’s hero writes extended letters to his sweetheart pledging love undying. The squad are drilled by Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann himself, R. Lee Ermy, a casting coup.

This conflict between what Fox wanted the show to be and what it actually was, could be seen in the marketing. Publicity for the show seemed to desperately target a young audience, because the Fox marketing department knew how to sell that. Kristen Cloke – as the attractive female character – was pushed to the fore, while James Morrison – the oldest member of the ensemble and one of the more popular characters – found himself squeezed out of the publicity materials. This approach would lead some to dismiss the show “Melrose Space”, much to the chagrin of the cast and crew.

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

On the commentary for The Pilot, Morgan and Wong concede that this was the source of some conflict with the network:

We wanted to do World War II in space. Jim and I went to the network. This was three years or so before Saving Private Ryan. And the network would call and, if they had one consistent note, it was, “Knock off the World War II stuff.”

More clubbing!

Bringing in Coolio later, that was their resolution, their attempt. But we wanted it to be sad.

This tension between what Morgan and Wong wanted from the show and what the network expected remained throughout the show’s run.

We have lift-off...

We have lift-off…

Still, regardless of how things eventually played out, the pilot for Space: Above and Beyond is pretty confident gesture. The special effects might have dated, and the time and budget constraints might occasionally slip to the surface, but the show looks and feels impressive. It looks sleek and expensive. Although the show filmed in Australia to assist with the budget, it gives the show an exotic feel. Whereas The X-Files had launched as a low-key under-the-radar drama building a cult audience in its first year, Space: Above and Beyond was making a much more dramatic entrance.

Of course, The X-Files is the default point of comparison for Space: Above and Beyond. Glen Morgan and James Wong had long careers in television, but they had been a vital part of what made the firs two years of The X-Files so successful. Launching Space: Above and Beyond from Morgan and Wong was a clear attempt to build on that success, spinning two of the show’s stronger writers and producers out onto their own show.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

Ultimately, the plan didn’t quite work out. As Reeves, Rodgers and Epstein note in Rewriting Popularity, this was part of a conscious effort by Fox to capitalise on the success of The X-Files:

Although Fox has exploited the cult success of The X-Files in an adroit fashion, its attempts to clone that success have failed. The network has paraded a number of unspectacular sci-fi drama (V.R. 5, Sliders, and Strange Luck) through the 8pm slot preceding The X-Files, only to watch each of them fail to attract even a cult audience. Space: Above and Beyond, which was developed by writers and producers from The X-Files’ first two seasons, has also failed to find an audience.

Space: Above and Beyond was arguably something of a compromise. Like those science-fiction shows, it was more high-concept than The X-Files. However, it also had a tangible connection back to The X-Files in the form of Morgan and Wong.

R you ready?

R you ready?

In some respects, Space: Above and Beyond could be seen as the link between Sliders and Millennium, which launched the following year when Fox just got Chris Carter to create another potential X-Files-style hit for them. After all, Morgan and Wong would find themselves recruited to take over the running of Millennium during its second season, producing another divisive (and ambitious) piece of cult television in the process.

Fox’s marketing department made a point to hype their new science-fiction show “from the co-executive producers of The X-Files”, hoping to lure in audiences by association. The connections even led to Chris Carter getting quizzed about the show during interviews and question-and-answer sessions. “Sorry, I haven’t had time to watch Space,” he stated. “Fox, of course, is going to use anything. It’s going to use anything it can to launch a new show, so the X-files connection was a natural, I guess.”

Future shock...

Future shock…

In the documentary Beyond and Back, former development and programming executive Jeff Eckerle suggested that the plan had originally been to pair Space: Above and Beyond with The X-Files on Friday nights:

I think the plan was to pair it with The X-Files on Friday night. It was supposed to be a companion piece. You know, like-minded producers who were integral to The X-Files. But there was another pilot, Strange Luck. It was another off-beat, moody show. By the time the brass came out with the finalised schedule to announce at the up-fronts, Space was moved to Sunday nights at seven, and Strange Luck had taken the Friday night slot.

It is worth noting that The X-Files itself would eventually be moved to Sunday nights during its fourth season, albeit at a much later time and after it had had three years to establish itself as a show worth watching. This Sunday night slot would also contribute to the show’s ratings and audience problems during its first (and only) season.

Leaving a footprint...

Leaving a footprint…

Morgan and Wong seem to playfully acknowledge the inevitable comparisons to The X-Files in the pilot. The opening scene of Space: Above and Beyond feels like a spiritual companion to their script for Little Green Men, the episode that opened the second season of The X-Files. “After 150 years of calling out, the silence of the universe assures us that life is unique,” Governor Borman assures the assembled colonists. “We are alone.”

The sentiment, also explored in Morgan and Wong’s script for Little Green Men, touches on the sort of spiritual and existential crisis that echoed through the nineties – the fear that perhaps the universe was empty and we were the only speck of light in an otherwise dark cosmos. However, while The X-Files does seem to confirm the existence of aliens and extraterrestrials, Space: Above and Beyond offers a somewhat emptier universe.

Sleep of reason...

Sleep of reason…

Here, humanity has created its own problems. Far from the diverse and populated cosmos of Star Trek, it seems that Space: Above and Beyond offers a version of humanity that stares into space and sees its own twisted reflections looking back. The back story of Space: Above and Beyond is populated by Artificial Intelligences that went haywire and InVitro organisms nicknamed for the “tanks” in which they grew. Even later episodes of the first season will suggest that the alien “Chigs” are not as alien as we might like to think.

Indeed, humanity (whether literal or metaphorical) is one of the core themes of Space: Above and Beyond. The series suggests that each of mankind’s enemies are human in their own way, even as humanity itself tends to de-humanise them. When Hawkes wakes from a nightmare, Vansen is shocked. “Don’t take this wrong but, uh, I was just wondering – I mean – well, I’ve always heard that InVitros can’t dream,” she states. The implication is obvious. Dreaming is something that humans do.

Into the abyss...

Into the abyss…

Similarly, the pilot emphasises the efforts made to dehumanise the enemy that has attacked mankind. Even the name given to the aliens – “Chig” for their resemblance to chigger beetles – evokes uncomfortable racial epithets from human history. (On the commentary, Morgan and Wong recall being told they could not call the aliens “chiggers.”) The soldiers refer to a captive Chig as “it” or as a “thing.” They are shocked to discover that it holds an object similar to a family photo of its family, and that it needs water.

As much as Space: Above and Beyond is a show about brotherhood and loyalty in service of a higher ideal, it is also surprisingly cynical. It is a show that seems to offer a pessimistic view of the human condition. Humanity has made its own mistakes, and its own errors. It seems that although our lead characters might have enlisted in the military to fight the good fight for the greater good, they can only really rely on one another for support.

Drilling it into them...

Drilling it into them…

Early in the episode, West finds himself bumped off a colonial mission to make room for some InVitros assigned through affirmative action. He objects, stating he spent years training. The InVitros can go on the next mission, he suggests. “The next colonial mission won’t be ready for five years,” his superior states. “There are members of Congress who need to look good now.” When one of the recruits accidentally refers to the drill sergeant as an officer, he quips, “I am not an officer, I work for a living!”

Space: Above and Beyond can occasionally feel a little over-earnest in making the point. It is a show that takes itself very seriously, and the script for the pilot is careful to mark its themes clearly and explicitly. “We believed in you,” West remarks to Overmeyer, the officer removing him from the mission. Overmeyer replies, rather bluntly, “Now the only thing you can believe in is each other.” It is a line that works better as an expression of the show’s themes than a piece of naturalistic dialogue.

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

The characters have a tendency to stare meaningfully into middle distance, to the point where the Beyond and Back dedicates a rather playful section to the recurring motif. Actor Morgan Weisser jokingly explains:

It’s a technique. I got good at it. You gotta have good lighting. You gotta have good hair, which I struggled with. You just gotta project. And you gotta know that there’s an iconic thing you’re going for.

It is the type of sincerity that can easily seem forced, and occasionally tips over into melodrama. As with Millennium, Space: Above and Beyond lacks the quirky lightness of touch and traces of irony that played well against the darkness on The X-Files.

Dark times...

Dark times…

The show occasionally feels a little forced, perhaps a little over-written. Hawkes is established as the resident rebel character, but the script hammers the point a little too heavily. “Ain’t easy for me to recognize a helping hand,” he states to a colleague during a mission to Mars. When it appears like he might be making an emotional connection with Vansen, he ruins it by trying to kiss her. The script can’t leave it at that. “I don’t know a lot about loss and nightmares so don’t go to moaning over it,” he tells her, protesting far too much.

That said, there’s something quite endearing about this sincerity. Morgan and Wong are drawing on classic war movies, and these sorts of heightened and profound moments work in that context. It is clear that a lot of love and a lot of thought has gone into Space: Above and Beyond, and a certain amount of the awkward seriousness of the pilot is a conscious stylistic choice on the part of the show’s creators. It makes Space: Above and Beyond a little more esoteric than something like The X-Files, but it isn’t a bad thing.

Ready for launch...

Ready for launch…

Morgan and Wong have something to say about the American experience in the twentieth century. Space: Above and Beyond links the American narrative of the Second World War to the pride and heroism of the space race. Bob Burnett has contended that the space race narrative is inexorably connected to the American experience of the Second World War:

The end of the U.S. space program marks a shift in the American spirit. Obviously, we are no longer fascinated by space; our attraction was never the same after Armstrong’s moonwalk. What’s more important is that somewhere during the past 50 years, we lost our belief in the benevolent community and our confidence in ambitious national projects. President Ronald Reagan convinced many Americans that “government is the problem” and denigrated large-scale federal efforts as “social engineering.” Reagan marginalized the space program.

One of the benefits of the early days of the space race was that it gave every American a role to play; as was the case during World War II, it created an ethic of shared sacrifice.

On the cusp of the twenty-first century, Space: Above and Beyond feels like a reflection two of the defining moments in what has been termed “the American Century.” Much as Morgan and Wong’s script for Little Green Men lamented the reduction in SETI funding into the nineties, Space: Above and Beyond seems like mourning tribute to mankind’s passing interest in the wonder of space.

Clocking in...

Clocking in…

Here, again, comparisons to The X-Files invite themselves. The third season of The X-Files was very much fixated on the horrific legacy of the Second World War, of the protection of war criminals in return for their assistance in the space race. Episodes like Paper Clip, Nisei and 731 were dedicated to subverting the conventional American narrative of the Second World War, offering a critique and reflection on the crimes committed by the American government stemming from that conflict.

In contrast, Space: Above and Beyond seems to embrace the traditional narratives of the Second World War and the space race. It doesn’t glorify the administrations responsible for these events, instead acknowledging the heroism of those on the front lines. As much as The X-Files condemns those in authority, Space: Above and Beyond pays tribute to those who sacrificed everything in service of a higher ideal. Despite its solemn atmosphere, Space: Above and Beyond feels more optimistic than The X-Files.

This colony's about to go down (under)...

This colony’s about to go down (under)…

As with any pilot, there are obvious growing pains with Space: Above and Beyond. The most obvious is the way that the pilot struggles with introducing its rather large cast, building a world and telling a story that feels self-contained while providing the entire basis for a potential television series. That’s a lot of weight for any script to bear, even a two-hour television movie. The pilot occasionally creaks under the pressure.

After all, the two-hour pilot movie covers an incredible amount of ground, on top of introducing six characters. We get three origin stories – who West, Vansen and Hawkes are and why they enlisted. Origin story. We get the squad’s training at boot camp, overseen by the wonderful R. Lee Ermy. We get the start of war with the Chigs, and a sense of palpable dread as it builds. We get the squad’s first unsupervised mission to Mars. He get a brief journey home and shore leave, allowing the ensemble to regroup. We get the inevitable and important third act battle.

Built like a tank?

Built like a tank?

The pilot finds itself trying be both the potential launching pad for a show and a self-contained story in its own right. As Glen Morgan confesses in the Beyond and Back documentary, this was down to Fox hedging their bets with a risky investment:

It began as a pilot. And then it was not getting too much excitement because of the regime at Fox at the time. And Peter [Roth] just kept at it, he was adamant about this show. Back then, they had a two-hour department, they would put out a movie of the week – they are long gone now. So then we expanded it into a two-hour, which I think for the pilot fit a little better. Peter sold it there, as even if it didn’t get picked up as a series, it could play as a movie, a standalone as they call it.

As a result, the pilot ends with a pretty definitive resolution, with the squad successfully winning a key victory against the enemy. The story has a clear three-act structure and resolution, which leads it to feel a little over-stuffed, as if it is trying to do too much.

We have met the enemy...

We have met the enemy…

There is also a sense that Morgan and Wong are still learning the language of science-fiction. The world of Space: Above and Beyond is rich and surprisingly fully-formed, but it does occasionally feel like the show indulges in science-fiction clichés a bit too heavily. The pilot introduces not only anonymous alien attackers, but also the suggestion of robots and synthetic humans. It’s a veritable a smorgasbord of science-fiction clichés. These elements are developed quite well over the course of the series, but feel a little overwhelming in the context of the pilot.

(To pick another example, the pilot features a rather corny “classical music in the future gag”, with one marine recognising the music of The Ramones. “I heard this in my 20th Century history class. They called this rock and roll. I think this group was called The Pink Floyd.” It’s not a bad joke, but it such a stock science-fiction gag that it feels like it needs a novel twist to work. Space: Above and Beyond plays it awkwardly straight.)

Just not on the cards...

Just not on the cards…

Still, Space: Above and Beyond does a lot of what it needs to do. It establishes a world and the characters that inhabit that world, while setting up the themes that the show would revisit across its twenty-two episode run. It might be a little rough around the edges, but there’s time to fix that.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Space: Above and Beyond:

4 Responses

  1. Wow, I’d forgotten all about this show! Thanks for reviewing it.

    I was a teen in mid to late 90s and while the genre shows I watched most were The X-Files, The Outer Limits and American Gothic (now there was a show) I did watch Space: Above & Beyond and found it fascinatingly different. It was exciting but downbeat and I wish it had lasted longer.

    (Also surely Sliders found at least a cult audience? It ran for years, even if I stopped watching after we lost Professor Gimli.)

    • Okay, Sliders is probably the exception. In my defense, I was more quoting Reeves, Rodgers and Epstein for their general point. That said, my understanding is that the show had a very rough time of it – a lot of mass exoduses in front and behind the camera and heavy network interference and retooling.

      I actually remember quite liking what I remember of American Gothic. That’s the one with the sheriff who may be the devil, played by Gary Cole, right?

      • Oh that’s fair. I deserted ‘Sliders’ myself fairly early on when it became clear it was cracking – of course by that time ‘Buffy’ was around and that spoke to 15 year old me a lot more. I think ‘Sliders’ stuck with me because it always felt like a roleplaying game put on screen more than most (I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in that show’s dna is a late night one off game – you can practically hear the dice rolling.)

        ‘American Gothic’ was that show yes. It had it’s share of problems too, but Gary Cole was great!

      • Gary Cole is always great.

        I remember thinking the West Wing needed more Gary Cole.

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