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Space: Above and Beyond – The Dark Side of the Sun (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 is half-way between an epic space opera and a wartime saga.

The Dark Side of the Sun confirms something suggested as early as The Pilot. While creators Glen Morgan and James Wong have a firm grasp of the war story aspect of the show, they are a bit less comfortable with the science-fiction elements. While The Farthest Man From Home was a solid old-fashioned “love in wartime” epic, The Dark Side of the Sun is steeped in stock science-fiction elements and interesting ideas, but seems to falter in the execution.

Wild cards...

Wild cards…

It feels very much like Morgan and Wong are trying to push the show’s science-fiction elements to the fore, but aren’t entirely comfortable with those elements. The result is a curious little episode, one that does a decent amount of character and world-building, while also baking some intriguing ideas and concepts into this potential future for mankind. At the same time, there’s an awkwardness to it all, as if The Dark Side of the Sun is trying to establish the show’s sci-fi credentials and can’t quite figure how everything fits together.

The Dark Side of the Sun is a show that feels like it could have used a bit more time and another draft or two, perhaps a reminder that Morgan and Wong are still relatively new at this sort of thing.

Cold dead eyes...

Cold dead eyes…

In interviews about the show, Glen Morgan tended to play up the war aspect of Space: Above and Beyond, emphasising the debt that the show owed to classic war stories and media:

Jim and I see this not so much as a SF piece as kind of a WW II movie or a war piece in space. We’re drawing, as I said, from All Quiet on the Western Front, but also from Twelve O’Clock High, Guadalcanal Diary, and Air Force. So, our look is much darker than you’ll see on some other shows. Our people sweat and bleed and their hair is messed up. The vehicles they fly in are very cramped and, just like an aircraft, hot and sweaty. We’ll probably be much more action-oriented than some shows, but we don’t want to do action just for action’s sake. It should tell you something about the characters as it happens. We have a great deal of respect for all of the other shows out there and we’ve watched them and said, ‘Well this is what they do’ let’s not rip them off or copy them. How can we be different?’ That was what dictated our choices.

The show did that rather well from the outset, with lots of small details creating a wonderfully heavy atmosphere – from R. Lee Ermy’s role in the pilot through to the reference to “little gold stars on our mothers’ windows” here.

Cloked in mystery...

Cloked in mystery…

The show struggled a bit with the science-fiction element, at least early on. After all, there is a very serious argument to be made that Who Monitors the Birds? is the best episode of the show’s short run, and that is a Morgan and Wong script that runs from a very high-concept science-fiction element. Still, the show struggled with integrating science-fiction ideas in the early stretch of the season. The Dark Side of the Sun doesn’t work, and neither does The Enemy or Hostile Visit, the heaviest high-concept stories in the first half of the season.

The Pilot creaked a little bit when it came to presenting stock science-fiction elements, to the point where it occasionally seemed like Morgan and Wong had over-stuffed their young science-fiction universe. Not only was there an anonymous alien adversary waging war on mankind as they colonised the stars, there were also killer robots and humans grown in tanks. There was even that stock science-fiction sequences like the whole “rock and roll” is now “classic music” bit. It felt like too much information, too fast, too awkwardly.

The ball's in his court...

The ball’s in his court…

The first season shrewdly spaces these ideas across a number of the first three proper episodes of the season, pairing up this world-building with character development for members of the leading cast. So The Farthest Man From Home features a look at the war with the Chigs and a showcase for Nathan West. Mutiny will focus on InVitro rights along with Hawkes. The Dark Side of the Sun develops the Silicates and Vansen. This isn’t a bad approach to take, in theory, allowing these elements more space than they had in the pilot.

So The Dark Side of the Sun features the Silicates, killer robots who rebelled against mankind and launched a campaign of terror. While Morgan and Wong have a number of clever twists on that basic premise, it is very much a stock science-fiction trope, and the episode finds itself torn between the intriguing ideas that Morgan and Wong have about their robots and the more conventional pulpy “killer robot” elements of the show.

Knife to see you...

Knife to see you…

Quite frankly, the Silicates look like something from a mid-nineties television show. They are described as “pirates”, and they look the part – dressed in dark clothes that look well-worn and featuring all manner of scars and wear-and-tear, they look like characters from just about any dystopian science-fiction story produced since the eighties. The show’s industrial refinery setting doesn’t help matters.

There are lots of little touches that make the Silicates seem more irritating than threatening. Every time one talks, we get a little sound effect to remind us that these are machines. Although the idea of having these robots worship chance and luck is intriguing, Morgan and Wong choose to give them awkward slang and idiomatic speech. “You took all the hard-way bets and crapped out,” the leader of the Silicates threatens the group. “Now all bets are off.” Later, she suggests, “Smart money coughs up the convoy’s arrival time.” We get it, they like gambling.

Deal with it...

Deal with it…

The script for The Dark Side of the Sun is a little on-the-nose. Morgan and Wong are among the best television writers of the nineties, and their scripts were often subversive and wry. The Dark Side of the Sun feels strangely clunky as it clearly and repeatedly underscores its themes and core concepts for the audience at home. It isn’t enough to suggest the Silicates’ fascination with luck; the entire cast needs to meditate on reflect on luck independent of Silicate involvement in the story.

“There’s no such thing as predetermination,” McQueen tells Vansen early in the episode, “and there’s no such thing as luck.” On the journey to the planet, before anybody knows about the Silicates, Wang tells a story about the “Destiny” Casino in Las Vegas. Remarking on the just-above-one-in-four survival rate for InVitros, Hawkes reflects, “We used up all our luck just being born.” At one point, even Vansen has enough of this. “Risk. Chance. You guys are beginning to sound like the damn Silicates.”

Let's not mince words...

Let’s not mince words…

This heavy-handedness is distracting, because there’s a rake of good ideas here. Although there’s a host of unnecessarily clunky exposition about the origins of the Silicates, full of far too much detail and going on far too long, the core idea is sound. Even outside of basic “mankind creates its own monsters” theme that is common to these sorts of robot rebellion story, there is something interesting about the idea of robots embracing the idea of randomness and chance as an almost religious concept.

“Why would ‘take a chance’ cause a rebellion?” Hawkes asks after the exposition dump. Wang replies, simply, “Isn’t that what any really new idea is all about?” It’s a delightful little exchange, and one that probably resonates with Morgan and Wong after their experiences on Space: Above and Beyond. It was a show that did take chances and did try new things, often finding itself at odds with the expectations and planning of the network.

A damned Shane...

A damned Shane…

Despite the rather dated and perhaps cliché portrayal of the Silicates, there are some great concepts at work. The idea that the Silicates did not rebel because of conscious thought, or because they evolved, but instead as a soulless imitation of mankind is a clever (and delightfully cynical) twist. “Their superior intelligence was totally learned,” Wang suggests, implying that their brutality and their violence is not something rooted in their own identity, but instead in their mimicry of mankind.

Similarly, the idea that all of the Silicates are networked and share access to common data repositories feels a little ahead of the time – it’s an element of The Dark Side of the Sun that has aged particularly well. “Any unit can recall events that happened to any A. I. that was ever built,” West explains, which is convenient for the plot, but also an interesting detail of itself. The Silicates are not quite a collective like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but they do share an intangible bond similar to that shared by the marines.

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

There are great ideas here, but there’s a sense that the script can’t find the right way to approach them. The Dark Side of the Sun is clumsy in execution, as if it is not sure how best to impart the necessary exposition to the audience, and as if it doesn’t entirely trust the audience to follow along with it. Even the opening scene feels over-written, as if trying to reduce Vansen’s character and the Silicates to a snappy two-minute monologue. “I see the house where it happened – where the artificial intelligence rebels, the Silicates, took my parents’ lives, and I want to know why.”

There also seems to be a lot of convenient plotting at work. Asking McQueen if she can sit out the mission, Vansen inquires, “You ever feel like there’s something out there waiting?” It feels a little bit contrived that Vansen should feel that way on this particular mission, right before she gets to encounter the Silicates and just before she discovers the reason that the “artificial intelligence rebels” murdered her parents. Perhaps she should play the lottery this week.

"I got a bad feeling about this one, chief..."

“I got a bad feeling about this one, chief…”

Emphasising the sense that Morgan and Wong are trying to play up the science-fiction aspect of the show, The Dark Side of the Sun is packed with genre staples. Anonymous supporting members of the cast drop like flies to confirm that the Silicates are a threat, evoking the infamous “red shirts” from Star Trek. West deploys “smart grenades” in a sequence that feels like an excuse to demonstrate gratuitous science-fiction gadgets. During an attack on the ship, we even get a nice homage to the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Star Wars.

As an aside, the episode’s attempt to tie the threat back into the main war story line feels a little odd in the context of what little the show has established about mankind’s relationship to the Chigs. “It’s unacceptable if the Silicates pirate the helium 3 and sell it to the Chigs,” we’re told. This makes a great deal of sense in light of subsequent developments. Indeed, it could be seen as foreshadowing what is to come.

They've got our heroes in the cross-hairs...

They’ve got our heroes in the cross-hairs…

However, it doesn’t make as much sense in context. At this point in the show’s run, the marines seem to see the Chigs as unrelatable and inhuman, and there has been no officially announced diplomatic contact with the Chigs outside of warfare – at least as far as our main characters seem to know. As such, it is weird that Vansen would jump to the possibility of the Chigs sitting down at the bargaining table with the Silicates. Surely the Silicates using the helium 3 themselves would be just as serious a concern and threat to mankind?

The Dark Side of the Sun does allow Morgan and Wong to underscore the core themes of Space: Above and Beyond. No matter what the main characters may or may not have had before war broke out, now they have each other. Vansen’s decision to go rogue here mirrors West’s decision to go AWOL in The Farthest Man From Home and Hawkes’ flirtation with mutiny in Mutiny. Vansen is putting her own personal concerns ahead of those of the unit – and, therefore, mankind as a whole.

Doing (re)fine on their own...

Doing (re)fine on their own…

Trying to explain her vendetta, she tells West, “If any A. I. Is capable of recalling any A. I. event then this one can tell me why they killed my family.” West replies, matter-of-factly, “You’ve got another family to keep alive.” This is a key theme of the character arcs for West, Vansen and Hawkes across the first season – learning to accept what has happened in the past, and realising that their fellow soldiers are their family now.

The Dark Side of the Sun is an episode focusing on the character of Shane Vansen, played by Kristen Cloke. Vansen is a compelling character, and Cloke does good work here, despite the script’s occasional clunkiness. Indeed, looking at Cloke’s performance, it could be argued that Vansen was Space: Above and Beyond‘s biggest influence on Battlestar Galactica – she seems like a clear influence on Starbuck from the relaunched science-fiction show.

Big damn hero...

Big damn hero…

There’s also a sense that the other characterisations are beginning to gel. The Pilot leaned a little too heavily on the idea of Hawkes as a the token rebel. Here, we get a sense of Hawkes as an overgrown child rather a rebel. More than that, though, Hawkes also serves as an effective vehicle for exposition – providing a character who can serve as an audience surrogate when things need to be explained or laid out.

It is worth noting that Space: Above and Beyond was running into trouble with Fox, even at this early point in the run. The show had originally been planned for the Friday slot alongside The X-Files. This made a great deal of sense, given on how Morgan and Wong were veterans of The X-Files, the pre-release publicity leaned heavily on the connection to The X-Files, and they were both genre shows that seemed like they might attract cult followings.

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

However, the show was originally scheduled for Sunday evenings at 7pm. According to Frank Garcia and Mark Phillips’ Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004, this was intended as a show of faith in the show:

“Our plan had been to go in at 8pm Friday, right before The X-Files,” says Nutter. “But Fox loved the Space: Above and Beyond pilot so much, they said, ‘Let’s put it on at 7pm Sundays.’ That was a really tough slot. It like we were being damned for having done such a great job on the pilot. But the show did, at least, last the entire season.”

That seems like one of the worst possible slots for a series like Space: Above and Beyond. It was a gritty science-fiction war drama, airing in what was very much a traditional family slot. This would pose its own challenges for the series.

Starin' at the sun...

Starin’ at the sun…

The Sunday evening slot was a problem for Space: Above and Beyond in more ways that one. It had the misfortune of airing in the slot after the football, which had a tendency to overrun. As creator James Wong explained in Beyond and Back:

So the show started during football season, I guess. The problem with the timeslot was that there was overruns, so that if the football game went on longer, then the show never started on time. Sometimes it was just cut in in the middle of the show, as I remember. Right in the middle. You missed the first few minutes, or the teaser that set up what the show was going to be about.         

The Dark Side of the Sun was an episode particularly affected by this scheduling problem. The day that it aired, the game between the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins went so deep into overtime, that The Dark Side of the Sun aired at 11.30pm. It had been pushed from the slot before prime time into the slot after prime time.

Marine life...

Marine life…

This problem contributed to the sense that Fox had no idea what to do with the show. The scheduling of the first season was a nightmare. Space: Above and Beyond would eventually make its way to Friday evenings, but rather late in the production year – certainly too late to do anything to save the show. Even then, there were still all sorts of hiccups. Stardust aired on Friday 19th April, while Sugar Dirt inexplicable aired the very next day – Saturday 20th April. Of course, by that point, the writing was already on the wall.

It goes without saying that scheduling is very important for a young television show trying to secure an audience. A mass audience is not going to seek out a new show, let alone chase it around a broadcast schedule. Falling in love with a show is a lot like falling in love with anything else, it requires a certain amount of reliability and commitment. The audience needed to know when it could see more Space: Above and Beyond, and the security of knowing that the show would be back the following season.

Falling to pieces...

Falling to pieces…

It is interesting to note that The Dark Side of the Sun marks the directorial debut of writer and creator James Wong. Although Charles Martin Smith (now most famous for Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2) directed most of the episode, actress Kristen Cloke revealed on the commentary that James Wong had to step in late in the production cycle for a particular shot:

Jim Wong shot this. That shot where I just turn my head? That was shot on a sound stage after. They needed that shot, they didn’t have it. That scene where Shane gets a taste of revenge and she’s going to go save her friends. They didn’t have that shot, that hero shot.

Although Wong would not direct a full episode of Space: Above and Beyond, he would direct Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man when he and Glen Morgan returned to The X-Files the following year. He would also direct the first and third Final Destination films. It is another small example of how Space: Above and Beyond helped Morgan and Wong grow as creators.

Enemy mining operation...

Enemy mining operation…

The Dark Side of the Sun is not a strong episode. Indeed, it indicates some of the weaknesses that Morgan and Wong are going to have to work on as they develop Space: Above and Beyond, demonstrating that the duo are not quite as adept at science-fiction as they are at war or drama. Still, The Dark Side of the Sun does not want for good ideas, and contains a few nice moments – it just never seems entirely sure how to integrate them.

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

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