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Space: Above and Beyond – Eyes (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.

Eyes is perhaps the most ambitious that Space: Above and Beyond has been to this point in the season.

Eyes develops scraps hinted at in The Pilot and The Farthest Man From Home into a complex web of intrigue, with an assassination plot playing out against all sorts of institutionalised prejudice and suggesting sinister conspiracies at work behind the horrific war that drives the show. The last episode of Space: Above and Beyond credited to Glen Morgan and James Wong in 1996, the episode feels like it is solidifying the series. Six episodes in, enough foundations have been laid that development can begin.

An unstoppable killing machine.

An unstoppable killing machine.

Eyes is rather epic in scale, and massive in scope. It is a story about politics and scheming, unfolding quite far away from the front lines. In episodes like The Pilot, The Farthest Man From Home and even Ray Butts, it often felt like our lead characters were quite divorced from the big decisions. It seemed like the show was very much preoccupied with a day in the life of a space marine, rather with the larger forces at play seen only in glimpses and shadows.

Eyes is a show that does a lot to build the world of Space: Above and Beyond, doing a much better job than The Dark Side of the Sun or Mutiny at giving a sense of this dark future. While the script is perhaps a little too cluttered for its own good, it is a very well-constructed paranoid conspiracy thriller.

That's not at all fascist.

That’s not at all fascist.

It is easy to see why Morgan and Wong waited until six episodes into the series before developing a conspiracy narrative. Coming off The X-Files, any creative choices they made were going to be defined in terms of that show. Fox had played up their work on The X-Files in promoting Space: Above and Beyond. Fox had originally planned to air Space: Above and Beyond on Friday nights along with The X-Files, although that changed before the show went to air.

It is a very tough line to walk. Morgan and Wong had departed from Fox’s breakout drama hit to produce Space: Above and Beyond. The X-Files would become the frame of reference for just about anything involving Space: Above and Beyond, which became a problem when dealing with network expectations. “That’s a show that comes along once in a decade,” Morgan told TV Guide in early 1996. “Space can’t be The X-Files.” It was necessary to firmly delineate the two.

Eye-to-eye...

Eye-to-eye…

At the same time, it was hard to deny that Morgan and Wong had learned a lot from their time on The X-Files, and brought a lot of that knowledge with them to Space: Above and Beyond. As Morgan conceded:

“Space is a bigger show,” he says with a laugh. “They’re both very hard. Part of it was a matter of learning more about FX. We knew we had to be ahead of schedule on scripts. But the most important thing we learned from our experience on The X-Files was how we can tell stories across a 22-episode season, how a character like The X-Files ‘Cancer Man’ can play out, how you can have mysteries and not address everything. You can emotionally tie up a character without necessarily tying up the whole plot, or vice versa. We learned how each episode can have closure, yet emotionally lead the viewer into the next show. When you start to see the episodes of Space, which are even better than the pilot, which got caught between regimes at Fox, you’ll actually see more similarities between The X-Files and Space.”

The Farthest Man From Home hinted at those thematic connections between Space: Above and Beyond and The X-Files, suggesting that there were some very shady and sinister forces at work behind the scenes.

What a world...

What a world…

Of course, The X-Files doesn’t own the idea of paranoia or distrust of authority. If anything, X-Files creator Chris Carter was simply building on the paranoia inspired by Watergate and Vietnam in the seventies. Nevertheless, The X-Files had defined that paranoia for an entire generation of television viewers. Suggesting some massive sinister conspiracy at work would just invite comparisons between The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond.

Still, Morgan and Wong developed Space: Above and Beyond using lessons they had learned on The X-Files. The show’s two mid-season two-parters aired during sweeps, overlapping with the two mid-season two-parters on The X-Files. Morgan and Wong worked very hard to give Space: Above and Beyond a mythology and season-long arc, like The X-Files had. There is no point in discarding approaches that work because they might invite comparisons to an earlier project.

Vansen is a BIG Richard Gere fan.

Vansen is a BIG Richard Gere fan.

After all, this sort of paranoia is a comfortable fit for Space: Above and Beyond. Morgan and Wong had helped to shape the way that The X-Files approached the anxieties and uncertainties of the nineties, with episodes like Ice, E.B.E., Little Green Men and One Breath all suggesting that Mulder and Scully needed to trust one another, even when they could not trust anybody else. This idea of trust and co-dependency would seem like perfect material for a show about marines fighting a long and bloody war.

The core character dynamics in Space: Above and Beyond are rooted in many of the same themes. The show has already emphasised that the characters cannot count on anybody but each other; our heroes need to learn to trust their colleagues ahead of their own personal objectives. The series has a cynical attitude towards authority, even while emphasising the trust that needs to exist between the members of the unit. Even in Ray Butts, the show was sceptical of a commanding officer operating with classified orders.

A hard cell...

A hard cell…

Eyes just pushes this idea to its logical conclusion. What is interesting about Eyes is that it sets up an obvious dichotomy between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys, only to brutally subvert it and reveal that every person in authority is effectively a “bad” guy. Space: Above and Beyond might be romantic and optimistic about the bonds and loyalties formed between soldiers – after all, Commodore Ross is the only authority figure who acts with any decency – but it was skeptical about everyone else.

Interim world government leader Nicholas Chaput is set up as a particularly obvious villain. He’s very much a stand-in for convicted Holocaust denier Jean Marie Le Pen, leading a stand-in for the French National Front that had courted controversy over the summer of 1995 when it scored victories in three municipal elections. The party was anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Europe, which are reflected in Chaput’s “opposition to InVitro affirmative action” and the fact that he convinced France to cede from the E.U.

It's all just a (National) Front for a grand conspiracy...

It’s all just a (National) Front for a grand conspiracy…

The mid-nineties had seen the rise of what was termed “the New Right” in Europe, which saw emergence of neo-fascist right-wing political parties with decidedly racist policies and platforms. As Hans-Georg Betz noted in Exclusionary Populism in Western Europe in the 1990s and Beyond:

The core of this political doctrine consists of a restrictive notion of citizen- ship, which holds that genuine democracy is based on a culturally, if not ethnically, homogeneous community; that only long-standing citizens are full members of civil society; and that society’s benefits should only accrue to those who have made a substantial contribution to it. In its more extreme cases, exclusionary populism has taken the form of cultural nativism which, rather than promoting notions of ethno-cultural superiority, aims at the protection of cultural identity and idiosyncratic values and ways of life against alien intrusion and contamination. In the contemporary populist right, this means, above all, safeguarding and defending the achievements and gains of European culture and civilization.

It is decidedly unsettling, particularly given that this rise coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War fought against such tyranny, fascism and racism. Le Pen had led the Nation Front to some victories in the mid-nineties, and there were similarly worrying trends across Europe including the ascent of the National Freedom Party of Austria.

The inside looking out...

The inside looking out…

The show seems to address anxieties and concerns about these movements. Conversing with McQueen, Hayden reflects that Chapat gives voice to a very angry and disaffected class of people. “There are a lot of paranoid people with no good reason,” Hayden tells the imprisoned McQueen. “They believe what they feel. To patronise them is a serious miscalculation. To ignore them, to hope that they will go away is very dangerous.” Dealing with these sorts of attitudes is a very difficult challenge, one that remains an issue today.

Eyes is hardly subtle about Chaput’s villainy. When the assassination attempt against him is foiled, the conspirator inquires, “If someone had got to Hitler or Stalin or Dr. Stranihan before he reprogrammed the A.I. ‘s how many more people would now be alive? Wouldn’t the world have been a better place?” The badge worn by Chaput is very clearly modelled on a swastika, albeit one fashioned from four versions of the capital letter “E.” (For “evil”, perhaps?)

It is a question of loyalty...

It is a question of loyalty…

From the start, Chaput is an obvious bad guy, and Eyes makes him a delightfully evil red herring. He is the person with the most to gain from the assassination of his predecessor, making him the most likely to be behind the assassination. When his chief aide asks West to leave a certain door unlocked, it seems as if Chaput is plotting to assassinate his primary political rival. Coupled with the way that his racist policies impact the main cast, Chaput is a shoo-in for the role of episode bad guy.

This makes it all the more delightful when it turns out that Chaput is the target of an assassination rather than the instigator of one. Chaput is definitely evil, but that doesn’t mean that the politicians defined in opposition to him are necessarily good. Eyes very cleverly lulls the audience into a false sense of security about the American Ambassador, Hayden. She is introduces as a blind woman who carries a great deal of sympathy and warmth, and is targeted by an assassination attempt early in the episode.

A shadowy conspiracy...

A shadowy conspiracy…

However, Eyes reveals that Hayden is actually the villain of the piece – so much as any one individual is the villain. Hayden is the one conspiring to assassinate Chaput. She is an opportunist, manoeuvring herself to a position of power. She suggests peaceful negotiation with the Silicates and claims to have marched in support of InVitro rights. She is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; perhaps she is even more dangerous than Chaput. Chaput at least admits what he is.

Eyes very cleverly allows both Hayden and Chaput to be uncomfortably right and horribly wrong at the same time. Hayden claims to be a lesser evil that Chaput, and argues that she cannot take certain public stances because she needs to win her election. While Hayden is not a nice person, and may be responsible for millions of deaths, at she doesn’t seem to be advocating internment in the same way that Chaput is. Hayden can be right about Chaput without being right about anything else.

Shot to hell...

Shot to hell…

Similarly, Chaput is correct when he accuses Hayden of conspiracy. Chaput is speaking something close enough to the truth when he advises West that Hayden knows more than she lets on. However, the fact that he is right about this one thing does not excuse his racism or his attempts to oppress an entire minority. Space: Above and Beyond adopts an incredibly cynical attitude towards those in positions of power. It is not a question of whether they are corrupt and evil, but in what way they are corrupt and evil.

In a nice plot development that seems quite a few years ahead of its time, Hayden is suggested to be working a little too closely with a defence contractor – Aerotech. She was a former member of the company’s “board of governors” and – although she has resigned – there is the implication of an on-going long-term connection. The X-Files never really developed the link between private interests and government corruption, and this aspect provides a nice distinction between The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond.

Look him in the eye and say that...

Look him in the eye and say that…

Eyes also affirms the cynical attitude that Morgan and Wong have towards history, suggesting that patterns inevitably repeat. History happens over-and-over again, perhaps particularly for people who refuse to learn from it. The show opens with a quotation from John Wilkes Booth asserting his patriotism, playing nicely into the themes of the episode. On hearing of the assassination that drives the plot, Vansen observes , “We can fly faster than the speed of light control weather, create artificial life, and nothing ever changes.”

The episode certainly supports her position. “When I was detained in ’31 for marching in an InVitro rights rally the bars were still quaintly made out of iron,” Hayden reflects to McQueen. “I guess no matter what material they’re made from there will always be bars.” At once Hayden evokes the civil rights movement of the sixties, while suggesting that the past has a tendency to recur. Given that Space: Above and Beyond is drawing heavily on the Second World War, she would seem to be correct.

Out of the blue...

Out of the blue…

In particular, Eyes draws upon the internment of Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour, a rather shameful moment in American history – one that tends to get glossed over when discussing “the greatest generation.” When an InVitro assassinates the leader of the world, all InVitros are immediately subjected to a demeaning and embarrassing “loyalty test”, and detained indefinitely until they agree to comply.

Eyes is occasionally just a little heavy-handed, with Damphousse spelling out that this is not a good thing, just in case the audience at home isn’t sharp enough to realise it. “If Chaput can detain McQueen and Coop for B.S. reasons he can do the same to any of us at any time.” The episode is better when it adopts a more subtle approach – having an Asian ambassador bring the test to the attention of Commodore Ross, for example; or quietly contrasting Vansen’s attitudes towards Silicates with Cwirko’s hatred of InVitros.

"No, this doesn't remind me of a swastika, why do you ask?"

“No, this doesn’t remind me of a swastika, why do you ask?”

The internment of Japanese Americans did become something of a talking point in 1995, as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Star Trek actor George Takei had grown up inside an internment camp. The parents of Lance Allen Ito, the judge overseeing the O.J. Simpson trial, had met in such a camp. While it obviously draws on the popular memory of the Second World War, Space: Above and Beyond also explores the aspects that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked.

The InVitro plot largely works because it draws in Hawkes and McQueen. James Morrison once again gives McQueen an incredibly dignity – a dignity that makes these sequences all the more uncomfortable. The fact that the interrogation seems to draw on the test from Blade Runner helps as well. There’s a sense that it’s not only McQueen’s loyalty that is being thrown into question, but his basic humanity. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and Morrison sells it phenomenally well.

Interred or not, McQueen won't be deterred...

Interred or not, McQueen won’t be deterred…

Rodney Rowland also does good work as Hawkes. Lacking McQueen’s experience or insight, Hawkes seems to have no frame of reference for what is going on. There is something surprisingly affecting about his confused reaction to the detainment of McQueen – as if he’s too innocent to figure out what is really going on. “Why are you in here?” he asks McQueen, clearly unsettled at seeing his mentor held behind bars. “Did you answer one wrong?”

The idea that questions could have a “wrong” answer, as if McQueen were simply flunking a written maths paper, is both darkly hilarious and incredibly depressing; the idea that a person’s freedom could be taken away from them on the basis that they may have failed some sort of abstract test of loyalty or patriotism. No wonder people like Chapat and Hayden seem to prevail. Any system like that must be fundamentally broken.

A handy confession...

A handy confession…

Morgan and Wong also get a chance to underline some of the show’s other core themes – in particular, underscoring the idea that the Chigs may not be the monsters we seem to think that they are. West doesn’t seem too happy with the idea that Hayden is pursuing a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “Don’t the lives of the colonists mean anything?” he demands. “We’ve seen them butcher our wounded begging for help.”

Space: Above and Beyond repeatedly emphasises the tendency to dehumanise the opponent in warfare, particular where the opponent looks somehow “different” from you. This was an issue in the Pacific during the Second World War, but it is a much older concept, as Hayden notes in replying to West. “The American Indians did the same thing. At the time they were seen as aliens but we know they were defending their land that was being taken.”

Le Pen is mightier than Le Sword...

Le Pen is mightier than Le Sword…

As with The Farthest Man From Home, the show seems to be hinting that the Chig aggression might be justifiable, and that these alien creatures may be operating according to a logic that humanity can comprehend and can understand, if they are willing to do so. It’s a very nice bit of set-up from Morgan and Wong, capitalising on the fact that the audience won’t get to actually see a Chig under their helmet until the end of the season.

Still, while Eyes works very well, there are a few minor hiccups along the way. Most obviously, the Silicates feel like an awkward fit. They do provide a nice way to contrast Vansen’s racism with that or Cwirko, and to underscore how humanity makes its own messes, but they also feel wasted. They appear in a single scene, which seems to just establish that the same actors can recur in roles. While obviously intended as effective red herrings, their appearance seems a little too functional, a little too lean, a little too utilitarian.

"Boy, am I glad the Saratoga's lighting is set to 'atmospheric'."

“Boy, am I glad the Saratoga’s lighting is set to ‘atmospheric’.”

West’s outburst to Hayden also feels a little out of character. It might be reasonable for West to offer these uncertainties in these terms to a colleague or a fellow officer, but it seems very unprofessional to state them so bluntly to a visiting dignitary. More than that, the scene seems to imply that West might harbour a particularly racist attitude towards the Chigs, more than any of his fellow marines. This doesn’t feel like something the show has properly hinted at or set up, let alone is willing to explore.

Similarly, the moment where West seems to agree with Cwirko about the InVitros seems strange for a character who has been cast in the mould of a heroic series lead. “I trust McQueen,” he states. “But I learned firsthand what the Tanks are capable of when they had me thrown off the Tellus colony. We’re at war. The world is scared and growing divided. Now, if you were a Tank, and after all the hell you’ve been through suddenly there was a window of opportunity to take over – wouldn’t you do it by any means necessary?”

He'll always to "Top Cat" McQueen to me...

He’ll always to “Top Cat” McQueen to me…

Of course, Space: Above and Beyond is already transitioning to a more rounded ensemble, but the statement still feels a little uncomfortable. Is West trying to lure Cwirko out? Is this a sting operation? Is this a set-up? That might make a certain amount of sense. West is, after all, the character who Chaput attempts to recruit; so having him express racist sentiments makes that more plausible. If this was all just an attempt at a sting or a set-up, the episode doesn’t develop the idea far enough.

Still, these are minor problems. Eyes is an episode packed to the brim with ideas and concepts and twists and revelations, so it is almost inevitable that there will be a few hiccups along the way. Eyes would probably have flowed a lot easier with an additional five or ten minutes of airtime in which to hash out these problems. Then again, it probably could not have sustained an entire two-parter, so these hiccups are inevitable.

Well, security is better late than never, right?

Well, security is better late than never, right?

Eyes marks the end of a run of scripts written by Morgan and Wong to introduce the show. Of the first six episodes, only one was written by a writer other than Glen Morgan and James Wong. Up to this point, the duo have been very firmly driving the narrative. Of course, their role as executive producer means they will be revising and reworking all the scripts for the rest of the season, but Eyes marks the end of this stretch of Space: Above and Beyond.

From here until Who Monitors the Birds?, the show will be scripted by writers other than Morgan and Wong. This isn’t the longest run of Space: Above and Beyond without a writing credit for the duo; there’s a longer gap between The Angriest Angel and If They Lay Us Down to Rest… Nevertheless, this feels like the end of a very distinct part of the life cycle of Space: Above and Beyond. Morgan and Wong have laid the foundations. Now other writers will build on top of that.

Perfect ten?

Perfect ten?

Eyes is probably the strongest episode of Space: Above and Beyond to date. The show still has to iron out some kinks, but it feels a lot closer to a workable template than it has been before.

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

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6 Responses

  1. Fascinating. This is an American show? It’s very unusual to have these reference something as foreign and (comparatively) obscure as the rise of Le Pen – I’d have expected either a reference to McCarthy or a similar American icon, or, if it was from another country, something iconic and memorable like apartheid, fascism, the Cultural Revolution… At the time this show aired, the FN were still dismissed as freaks by many even in France, nasty but still fringe, and not especially infamous outside of it.

    (It’s to show’s credit. I often wished Star Trek would wander outside of its Americana comfort zone more, what with the whole “united Earth” thing).

    • You may be right, I may be reading too much into it. Then again, given the amount of research that the duo tend to do for their scripts, and how much attention they seem to pay to the world around them in general, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover there was some link there. (Of course, it could just be a somewhat cliché “the French are jerks!” moment that you occasionally see in American pop culture.)

  2. (Your comment about the Le Pen clone being less dangerous because at least he admits what he is is depressingly spot on given where his party is now, witb his daughter putting a nice marketable smile on what he created. The old man cracking jokes about gas chambers was a lot easier to rally people against).

    • Yep. It’s the old UKIP/BNP chestnut. It’s surprisingly easy to seem like a legitimate political movement when the bar is so low. The fact the BNP exists means that UKIP is not the most racist UK party, and thus makes it easier for people to legitimise them.

  3. Are you sure this was mid 90s or mid teens when the far right was popular on Earth?

    :-0 2016, 2017

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