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Space: Above and Beyond – Ray Butts (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.

Ray Butts is a collection of familiar war movie clichés.

Space: Above and Beyond is effectively a gigantic Second World War movie in space, and Ray Butts allows creators Glen Morgan and James Wong to roll two of the most instantly recognisable war movie archetypes into a single character. The eponymous officer is at once a soldier traumatised by his past experiences and a tough new commander for a young unit. He is a source of friction on the show, kept ambiguous and mysterious for most of the episode’s runtime.

We salute you...

We salute you…

Ray Butts piles on the questions. The show doesn’t reveal his orders for quite a while, asking the audience to decide whether they trust the orders – let alone the man assigned to carry them out. The show also plays up questions around Butts himself; is Butts a man trying work through his own issues in his own way, or simply a risk-taking and borderline incompetent commanding officer? Ray Butts doesn’t have too many surprises, but it works because Morgan and Wong know how to structure an episode of television.

After the misfiring ambition of The Dark Side of the Sun, it feels almost like Ray Butts puts Morgan and Wong back in their element.

Don't shoot the chef!

Don’t shoot the chef!

Ray Butts is very clearly more of a war story than a science-fiction tale. It would be easy enough to transpose the story to the Pacific during the early forties – something the show as a whole suggests, with the Saratoga resembling an aircraft carrier and various planets serving as islands in a seas of stars. The story’s core and tangential themes are all familiar to fans of classic war movies. There are questions of loyalty and trauma, of duty and the chain of command.

Even the black hole that appears at the climax of the episode serves mostly as a tool of metaphor. “This is the hole and this is the Cerberus wash,” Butts illustrates, using the old “rocks and pebbles” technique. “This is no-man’s-land.” He ponders on what the black hole itself represents. Discussing the experience of entering a black hole, Butt muses, “Bob wanted to believe that you could survive it – even go back in time or forward or cross over to another universe, a place where you could look in on this one from time to time.”

Gunning for the new CO...

Gunning for the new CO…

Clearly Bob was not a scientist – or a “science-type”, as Butt himself dismissively refers to those who know about such things. It doesn’t matter. The black hole works better as a metaphor. It is an effective hurdle for the episode’s final action sequence, and a nice way to close out Butts’ character arc. With their incredible gravity and inescapable darkness, black holes play very well as metaphors for trauma or tragedy; they are objects from which not even light can escape.

Morgan and Wong are stronger at the “war” aspect of Space: Above and Beyond than they are with the “science-fiction” elements. They seem to feel more comfortable with the tropes from the Second World War than they do with the more speculative components. The Farthest Man From Home and Ray Butts are not masterpieces by any measure, but their execution is considerably smoother than the execution of The Dark Side of the Sun. Even director Charles Martin Smith seems more comfortable here.

Down periscope...

Down periscope…

Ray Butts doesn’t have too many surprises. In fact, it is quite candid about where it’s going and what it’s about. As with the rest of Space: Above and Beyond, it’s a reflection on the wages of warfare. Discussing the eponymous character’s cantankerous state of mind, Vansen reflects, “Maybe, it’s just – you know – no one is born that mean. They either put it on for effect, or something happened; something turned ’em that mean. They can never go back.”

It’s easy enough to choreograph the eponymous veteran’s character arc, dutifully set up by the episode. The fate of his colleagues seems quite clear the moment that McQueen asks about him. The repeated questions about his willingness to give his life for the greater good leads to an inevitable pay-off. The fact that he is such a jerk with little sympathy for other people just seems to set up the twist where he risks everything to do right by his fellow officers.

Green for go...

Green for go…

There are points when Ray Butts feels a little too heavy-handed. “Sir,” Vansen states, “I know you’d kill for us. Would you die for us?” He replies, not at all melodramatically, “I’m already dead, Vansen.” Similarly, the main characters have a conversation about Butts while he is lying in the same bunk room as they are. Nursing a drink, Butts confesses his own sense of disillusionment. “I think about the first man I ever killed,” he tells Vansen. “I wonder what he’s doin’ now and if he got the better end of the deal.”

It is, perhaps, a little overly earnest. It is, at points, too on-the-nose. On the other hand, the idea that war is hell is a message worth reinforcing – and a lot of this heavy-handedness can be written off as a stylistic choice on the part of the production team. The show’s closing image is surprisingly effective, despite the somewhat clumsy set-up that involves Butts using pancake euphemisms for most of the show’s forty-five minute runtime.

Don't sweat the landing...

Don’t sweat the landing…

That said, there are a number of endearing smaller details that exist around the edge of Ray Butts. Most obvious is the use of music in the episode, with Morgan and Wong incorporating I Walk the Line into the show’s soundtrack repeatedly and heavily. According to Morgan, the production team attempted to recruit Cash for a cameo:

Actually, I’m the Johnny Cash fan. He’s great. We almost had him for that episode. He was supposed to play a visiting general. It would have been really great. However, he needed two weeks to prepare for the role and we couldn’t fit him into the schedule. It was too tight.

It is quite clear that Morgan and Wong have a deep affection for music. Glen’s brother (and writer on The X-Files and Millennium) was named Darin in homage to musician Bobby Darin. Even the guest character in Ray Butts seems to have been named as part of a musical homage; the real life Ray Butts invented the EchoSonic amplifier for guitar, which became a defining sound of the fifties.

Biege skies are going to clear up...

Biege skies are going to clear up…

This isn’t the first time that Morgan and Wong have woven a song into their writing. The Pilot featured music from The Ramones at the climax, and Dark Side of the Sun revealed that Hawkes was becoming quite the fan of twentieth-century punk. More than that, the duo wrote Beyond the Sea for the first season of The X-Files, an episode named for (and featuring) Bobby Darin’s iconic song mourning a lost love. However, the repeated heavy use of I Walk the Line in Ray Butts does mark a change for Morgan and Wong.

In many respects, Morgan and Wong grew a great deal while writing Space: Above and Beyond. The duo had worked as producers and executive producers on earlier shows, but Space: Above and Beyond was the first time that the pair had created a television show. They were operating with considerably more freedom than they had ever enjoyed before. That freedom gave the duo room to grow and develop and experiment.

Dead surprised...

Dead surprised…

In this first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond, Morgan and Wong grew quite a bit as producers, writers and creators. James Wong did his first directing on Dark Side of the Sun, filming a nice hero shot for Vansen. Who Monitors the Birds? was certainly the most experimental piece of writing in Morgan and Wong’s career to that point, and probably still is. However, it very clearly sets a tone for their more playful later collaborations like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or The Curse of Frank Black.

The use of I Walk the Line in Ray Butts marks a very clear evolution in how Morgan and Wong incorporate songs into their shows. The song is heard repeatedly throughout the hour, as if stuck on some repeating loop. The verses heard at particular points are designed to mirror the themes of the given seen. “They’re mine now,” Ray Butts advises McQueen as Cash intones the iconic chorus – “because you’re mine, I walk the line.” During his conversation with Vansen, Folsom Prison Blues plays in the background.

The smoking man...

The smoking man…

This is an approach toward music would become a standard feature of Morgan and Wong’s later scripts, whether the horribly ironic use of Johnny Mathis’ Wonderful in Home or the way that Little Demon seems to force its way into The Curse of Frank Black. Indeed, it is quite possible to trace the use of popular music in The Time is Now – including the entire act set to Patti Smith’s Horses – back to the Johnny Cash soundtrack on Ray Butts.

There’s also a sense that the behind the scenes conflicts and frustrations are starting to seep into the scripts. In Ray Butts, Wang is delighted to receive a copy of Roman Pulanski’s version of Macbeth. During one sword fight, the footage is censored. Ignoring the fact that it’s weird the military censors would let it get to that sword fight before censoring things, it does feel like a delightful wry commentary on the limitations imposed on Space: Above and Beyond by Fox’s Broadcast Standards and Practices.

Eyes like a Hawkes...

Eyes like a Hawkes…

This was another result of the schedule shift that had seen Space: Above and Beyond airing at 7pm on Sundays instead of before The X-Files on Fridays. The Sunday slot was part of Fox’s “family hour”, which might not have made it ideal for a space-age war epic. On the Beyond and Back documentary, James Wong recalls some friction over a line from Ray Butts:

I remember that we had a huge argument with the network about the use of the word “testicle.” I think it was an argument that went on from the moment we wrote the script to almost the moment we aired, and we ultimately decided not to take the word out. We though it worked, it was part of the anatomy, it wasn’t a disgusting use of the word or a sexual connotation or anything like that. We stood our ground, decided not to change it for Broadcast Standards. When it aired, we didn’t know what would happen. When it aired, they actually cut out four seconds of the show.

It provides an example of the sort of tensions that existed, and the difficulties that were facing Space: Above and Beyond as a result of the network’s scheduling decisions. It is fun to watch The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond, and see the writers skirting the very edges of what they can get away with.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

Wong was quite candid about the difficulties of dealing with Fox’s Broadcast Standards and Practices division:

“That’s a real problem with a show about a bunch of tough Marines at war,” says Wong. “In combat, people get show, people die–but we’re not allowed to show the impact of a weapon.” Adds Morgan: “We can’t even verbally refer to certain violent acts. My biggest fear is that, if you can’t show a how horrible war is, it may start looking like a great adventure.” 

The show could not even show a gun pointed at a character’s head, let alone the consequences of a severe physical injury.

Battle damaged...

Battle damaged…

Here, Wang points out the absurdity of the situation. “Damned Armed Force censors,” he complains. “We can kill Chigs, we can earn medals, but we can’t watch a fight on TV?” Hawkes then decides to act unilaterally and just “pop the v-chip”, which is a hilariously pointed reference itself. The real-life v-chips had been made mandatory for television sets in August 1995, as part of a moral panic about children and television. It is quite terrifying to think the technology will remain in place into the far future.

However, the easy with which Hawkes can bypass the v-chip feels like a biting commentary on how completely ineffective the “v-chip” was as a piece of technology. Even ignoring the statistics suggesting that very few people used them, enterprising children and teenagers could simply read the television instruction manual to help them to reset the password back to “0000.” So the usefulness of the v-chip was questionable at best.

McQueen of hearts...

McQueen of hearts…

Ray Butts may focus on the young team under the command of the eponymous officer, but – like Mutiny before it – it demonstrates how essential and how effective James Morrison as part of the ensemble. McQueen is not a focal point of the episode. It is not the story of McQueen losing his unit, so much as it is the story of the unit receiving a new commander. However, Morrison does absolutely great work playing a loyal serviceman watching silently as questionable decisions are made.

At one point, the squad asks whether McQueen would follow Butts into battle. McQueen answers clearly, and properly. “He’s an officer in the Corps, trained to care about his marines and yes, if so ordered, I would follow him.” He turns to leave. As he reaches the door, he seems to hesitate. He adds, somewhat reluctantly, “But I’d watch my 6:00 and I’d watch each other’s 6:00s real close.” This is as much as McQueen can bring himself to say about his own anxieties and concerns, and Morrison plays it perfectly.

Be very quiet, we're hunting Chigs...

Be very quiet, we’re hunting Chigs…

Ray Butts is not a great episode of television, but it’s a reasonably effective early first season show from a team still finding their feet. It’s a nice example of how Morgan and Wong are growing on their own show, and also a demonstration of how comfortable they are with the war genre. Space: Above and Beyond has yet developed fully, but it’s getting there.

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

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