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Space: Above and Beyond – The Farthest Man From Home (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.

Due to network anxiety about the investment in Space: Above and Beyond, The Pilot had a very clear three-act structure building to a very explicit resolution. Not only did The Pilot figure the beginning of the war with the aliens, it also featured a crucial moral-boosting victory. It ended with the squad fully-formed and ready for action. It packed a lot of stuff in, and worked quite well as its own self-contained story; even if it left a host of broad narrative threads for the rest of the series to follow.

The Farthest Man From Home is pretty solid as far as first standalone episodes go. Free from the constraints of having to work as a potential movie-of-the-week, The Farthest Man From Home is free to do a little development and foreshadowing, but doesn’t have to wrap up everything in a neat bow by the time that the closing credits role. It’s also spared a lot of the exposition that made The Pilot feel so heavy – Hawkes’ status as an InVitro is fleetingly mentioned, and the Silicates don’t come up.

It's a wasteland out there...

It’s a wasteland out there…

Instead, The Farthest Man From Home is free to focus on the story that it wants to tell, and in marking out narrative space  for the development of both the larger war arc and West’s own personal journey. The Farthest Man From Home is a rather loose episode, but it’s loose in a way that makes sense for a second episode. It eases the audience into the world of Space: Above and Beyond a lot more fluidly than The Pilot did.

That said, there’s still an awkwardness here as Morgan and Wong struggle to figure out what the show is about and the form that it will eventually take. Examined in hindsight, while The Farthest Man From Home establishes a lot of important stuff for the show, it is also clearly a work in progress for the series – an early iteration of a show that would grow and change over the course of its first season. This is perhaps the second draft of Space: Above and Beyond, a solid base to build on for what lies ahead.

Tag it and move on...

Tag it and move on…

Most obviously, The Farthest Man From Home posits Space: Above and Beyond as the story of Nathan West. The first proper forty-five minute episode of Space: Above and Beyond is devoted almost exclusively to the character of Nathan West, defining his own character arc and setting up his trajectory over the course of the season. The first episode after the pilot is not primarily an ensemble piece, or a world-building piece, it is largely a piece of character driven drama focusing on Nathan West as the central protagonist of Space: Above and Beyond.

There’s a very clear cast hierarchy in place here. The Farthest Man From Home suggests that Space: Above and Beyond will not be an ensemble drama. One of the more interesting aspects of Space: Above and Beyond is the way that the show sits somewhere between an incredibly progressive portrayal of war and science-fiction on weekly television, and a nostalgic throwback to classic war stories. While there’s an argument to be made that Space: Above and Beyond paved the way for Battlestar: Galactica, West’s character arc could come from an eighteenth century novel.

Heart of darkness...

Heart of darkness…

The idea of star-crossed lovers separated by fate is a classic. Most obviously, the term “star-crossed” comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, but the concept can be traced back much further to Mesopotamian and Egyptian Mythology. The trope was particularly common in stories about war, as Andrea Shaw notes in Seen That, Now What?:

Star-crossed lovers have always been a popular subject for tearjerkers and the war provided unquestionable – and patriotic – reasons for separation, misunderstandings, and tragedy between the romantic pair.

Elements of this sort of story could be seen in Waterloo Bridge, The Clock and Somewhere I’ll Find You, all produced during and around the war. That said, Casablanca is perhaps the most iconic example of this sort of separated-by-fate-and-war story.

Shady characters...

Shady characters…

West is a very old-school protagonist, in a way that fits rather comfortably within the stylised nostalgic aesthetic of Space: Above and Beyond. West is the hero who will cross heaven and earth (and the stars themselves) to reclaim his lost love. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned approach to television, despite the show’s science-fiction trappings – one that helps to cement the association between Space: Above and Beyond and classic war films and stories.

The obvious connection to make is between West’s pursuit of Kylen on Space: Above and Beyond and Mulder’s pursuit of Samantha on The X-Files. Both are quests and character arcs established early in the run, providing a nice character hook for the audience. However, the comparison doesn’t quite fit. Mulder’s pursuit of Samantha was a more abstract quest. After all, Mulder had been separated from Samantha for more than twenty years by the time we meet him. It was more of a background concern. Mulder could go half-a-season without mentioning Samantha.

Flags of our grandchildren...

Flags of our grandchildren…

In contrast, West’s pursuit of Kylen was a lot more immediate and a lot more to the fore of his character. Mulder had been allowed years to come to terms with Samantha. Here, the loss of Kylen is a raw wound. While Mulder had enough distance that Samantha wasn’t the sole all-consuming be-all-and-end-all of his character. In contrast, this is the defining character trait of West. Watching the show, we spent The Pilot watching the two get separated and the show’s very next episode is West going rogue in an effort to find Keylen.

Even at this point, it is easy to get a sense of Keylen as an albatross around his neck, particularly given the “just missed her” set-up of The Farthest Man From Home. Watching the episode, there’s a very clear risk here – that Keylen might become something dangling in front of West, a story element that would make for an easy bait-and-switch around sweeps time. While Samantha was just as ethereal for the first six seasons of The X-Files, Mulder did not carry her photo around with him constantly, allowing his character to move forward without needing resolution on Samantha.

Ship-shape...

Ship-shape…

To be fair, it does seem like the show realised the potential problems with this approach to West quite early on. In the Beyond and Back documentary, former development and programming executive Jeff Eckerle notes that this was an early point of contention:

It was like his ghost that was chasing him, and the ghost was to try to reconnect with the love of his life. It was overtaking the show and certainly keeping his character in a box. And so there were conversations about how to get him away from that, so that he could grow as a character over the course of the series.

The fact that Space: Above and Beyond actually moved to address this potential problem and even to resolve this plot point over the course of the first season is an example of how the show was learning as it went along – that it was willing to acknowledge and respond to potential problems.

Go, West!

Go, West!

As the first regular episode of Space: Above and Beyond, The Farthest Man From Home also provides the first real look at the opening credits. Although not the final form that they would take, they do provide a nice glimpse at the show as it was originally planned – rather than as it ended up. Morgan Weisser is the first name listed, with Kristen Cloke and Rodney Rowland following immediately. There is then a break before Joel de la Fuente, Lanei Chapman and James Morrison are listed – firmly delineating the cast.

The Farthest Man From Home reinforces this cast structure. Nathan West is the driving force of the episode. When the squad decide to mount a rescue attempt, Vansen and Hawkes go after him, while Wang and Damphousse cover for them. This means that West is the main character, Vansen and Hawkes are secondary, while Wang and Damphousse feel tertiary. It doesn’t seem like the most efficient use of a cast this size, even this early on.

Walking among the ruins...

Walking among the ruins…

Over the course of the show’s run, Morgan and Wong would work hard to develop the ensemble – to make space for all the players. As the writers addressed concerns about West’s pursuit of Keylen, the other characters would step up to take some of the narrative slack. Although Vansen and Hawkes would take a lot of that, Wang and Damphousse would get their own important character arcs and beats across the show’s twenty-two episode season.

Across the first season, the cast evolved and grew into their roles. By the end of the season, Glen Morgan was considering spinning James Morrison’s McQueen into his own isolated “war at home” subplot during the proposed second season, counting on the character to support his own story largely isolated from the rest of the cast. It is quite difficult to imagine that possibility at this point in the run, Space: Above and Beyond would prove willing to evolve and grow as it went along.

The truth seldom remains buried...

The truth seldom remains buried…

Indeed, The Farthest Man From Home marked the first appearance of Vietnam veteran and actor Tucker Smallwood’s Commodore Ross. Smallwood would make quite an impression across the first season, elevated from guest star to recurring player to main cast member – even getting to show off his own guitar skills in the role. As with so many other members of the cast and crew on Space: Above and Beyond, Smallwood was able to let a little of himself bleed into the performance.

On top of establishing West’s core character arc, The Farthest Man From Home establishes a number of important thematic ideas for the show. In many ways, Space: Above and Beyond is a story about companionship and trust – a theme that Morgan and Wong had woven into the fabric of their work on The X-Files, in episodes like Ice and One Breath. The show opens with marines rescuing what appears to be a lone survivor from the surface of the failed colony on Tellus.

The cards at the table...

The cards at the table…

His ranting and raving, his sense of incredible isolation, gives the episode its title. Pointing up towards the stars, as if trying to figure out the way back to Earth, he insists, “Twelve billion lives… and then there’s me. Just me.” His sense of isolation and remoteness is mirrored in West’s decision to abandon the unit for a personal mission – prompting McQueen to lecture the unit on how the war serves to connect everybody. “Every life in this war is tied together!” he insists.

Naturally, there’s a little cynicism in how Morgan and Wong approach the theme. Despite the suggestion that the marines are all in it together, and that their bond must be incredibly strong, The Farthest Man From Home suggests that this isn’t a universal constant. Secret sinister conspiracy types isolate the survivors of the Tellus colony and operate in secret. Trust is not something that can be taken for granted.

Hawkes sticks his neck out for no man...

Hawkes sticks his neck out for no man…

And, yet, as with their work on The X-Files, Morgan and Wong suggest that all that people really need is each other. Just as Mulder and Scully have one another in Ice or One Breath, the marines have each other here. The Farthest Man From  Home suggests that “home” is not a literal place, or an institution, or even a society. It is suggested that “home” is people you love and trust. Reflecting on the mission, West tells Vansen and Hawkes, “I just want you to know, I was close.” Vansen asks, “To her?” West replies, “To home.”

To West, Keylen is home – she is an ideal, she a person who represents security and safety. The title of The Farthest Man From Home does not refer to the survivor of the Tellus massacre, as much as he may lay claim to it. Instead, the title refers to West himself, who abandons his new family and fellow officers to wander off isolated and alone. The squad is now West’s home, even if he does not realise it entirely.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Cementing the show’s core themes, the first act opens with West watching a recording of John F. Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech as part of a historical documentary titled “A Century Beyond Dallas.” These confirms the link between the show and the end of the Kennedy era – assuring viewers that the show’s 2063 setting is not mere coincidence. Much of Space: Above and Beyond can be read as an almost nostalgic ode to the sense of purpose and destiny that came with the American involvement in the space race and the Second World War.

In some respects, this provides an interesting contrast between Morgan and Wong’s work on The X-Files as compared to their work on Space: Above and Beyond. The X-Files is a show set int he present that is firmly anchored in seventies paranoia and insecurity. It is a series that is steeped in the legacy of the Nixon era, with a character named “Deep Throat” and Samantha’s abduction during the Watergate hearings. In contrast, Space: Above and Beyond is a show set in the future that harks back to the Kennedy era, a sentiment paean for that sense of purpose and romance.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

In some respects, Space: Above and Beyond could be said to have been ahead of the curve, proposing strong Kennedy-era nostalgia in the nineties. Sixties nostalgia became much more of a driving force in pop culture after the millennium, with JJ Abrams’ taking Star Trek back to the sixties, Barrack Obama inviting frequent Kennedy comparisons and Mad Men exploring and skewering the era with the benefit of hindsight and distance.

It is interesting to ponder whether the nostalgia for space flight and exploration in Space: Above and Beyond might have played better a decade or two later, as a companion piece to something like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or even X-Men: First Class. Then again, the show aired in the television season stretching between the fiftieth anniversary of V-Day and VE-Day, so perhaps it seemed the logical place for post-Second World War nostalgia. Even then, it arrived ahead of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.

West of Eden...

West of Eden…

The Farthest Man From Home does weave some elements of conspiracy and secrecy into Space: Above and Beyond, taking advantage of the opportunity for open-ended storytelling. The audience is teased with the prospect of a sinister cover-up by people who know more about the conflict than they let on. “We wouldn’t want to be irresponsible in our account of your experiences,” an official advises the lone survivor of Tellus. “In particular, what you may have learned from any extended exposure to the enemy.” 

Rather than simply laying on the exposition, The Farthest Man From Home teases its audience with glimpses of a dysfunctional future society. Trying to leverage information, the sinister shadowy figure threatens, “Tell me, or you’ll be taken away and re-educated about your time on Telus.” The survivors are led away at the end of the episode. “See you in fifty years,” one remarks to West. There’s something quite unsettling about this approach, which avoids the awkward info-dumps of The Pilot in favour of mood and atmosphere.

Something spook-y is going on...

Something spook-y is going on…

The Farthest Man From Home also demonstrates just how much work Morgan and Wong have put into the show. Without giving anything away, the episode sets up some plot points that will pay off further into the run – suggesting that Wong and Morgan knew where they wanted to take the arc. Indeed, in hindsight, it is quite clear what the spook was trying to conceal here, and The Farthest Man From Home does a lot to set up later revelations about the nature of the war.

That said, there are some bumps in the road. The Farthest Man From Home doesn’t really have a resolution, even if that isn’t a major problem. It’s the second episode. It is allowed to be a little loose and casual, and set-up is more important than pay-off at this point. Still, it is quite easy to see why the network and fans were a little uncomfortable with the idea of West’s pursuit of Keylen driving the show’s plot. A non-ending like The Farthest Man From Home can be excused, but not as a regular feature of the show.

Staring into space...

Staring into space…

Simialrly, the episode’s conclusion feels a little contrived, as the squad manage to avoid any repercussions accruing from their actions on Tellus. Despite the fact that West’s actions put lives in danger and violated direct orders, there is no punishment for his disobedience. The crew get off the hook, in part because the mission paid off. It feels a little convenient, particularly given the way that Hawkes was similarly able to casually disobey orders at the climax of The Pilot.

So The Farthest Man From Home is not perfect. More than that, it is not even clear that Space: Above and Beyond has entirely found its feet yet. That can be excused. This is only the second episode. Still, there is promise and potential here, even if there are still warning lights flashing.

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

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