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Space: Above and Beyond – The Enemy (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.

On paper, The Enemy seems like a good idea.

Space: Above and Beyond has a reasonably large cast. It has devoted character-centric episodes to the three leads, and done a nice bit of world-building around that. To this point, the shows have typically split the characters up, pushed some to the fore and others to the background.  The show is now about a third of the way through the first season, so it makes a great deal of sense to do a show that actually stresses the ensemble dynamic.

Nothing to fear, but fear itself...

Nothing to fear, but fear itself…

A story like The Enemy makes a great deal of sense. When you have an ensemble, you can generate drama from next to nothing. Lock five people in a room together, you’re sure to generate some friction. Character practically defines itself as they play off one another. If you can crank up the tension, it will all come together. So a war story where our heroes find themselves trapped together and cracking under the pressure seems like a solid basis for a good story.

The problem is that The Enemy is just a clumsy mess of a script, and one that stumbles over what should be a fairly robust set-up.

"I'm still not sure that producing the episode could be considered a war crime..."

“I appreciate that it was traumatic, but I’m still not sure that producing the episode could be considered a war crime…”

The writers’ room on The X-Files was fantastic. It gave the world Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz and Howard Gordon. Even the writers who tended to drift in and out of the room – like Tim Minear or Jeff Vlaming – were typically quite good at what they were doing. Even if you look back at the first season of the show, The X-Files had a pretty solid creative team coming out of the gate. Chris Carter had a clear vision for the show, but he also had writers like Glen Morgan, James Wong and Howard Gordon to back him up.

Sadly, Space: Above and Beyond doesn’t have a bench quite that deep. Morgan and Wong would assemble a much stronger writers’ room when they took over Millennium in its second season, but Space: Above and Beyond doesn’t have any truly a-list second-stringers to cover for Morgan and Wong. Morgan and Wong are the creators and executive producers on Space: Above and Beyond, but they are also the strongest writers on the show.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

Given their other responsibilities and the realities of television production, Morgan and Wong were never going to script every episode of the season – or even a majority. Of course, they would tweak and edit and re-write most (if not all) of the episodes, but they would have to rely on other members of staff to develop ideas and provide reasonably workable first drafts. The writing staff on Space: Above and Beyond is not terrible, but it is also not brilliant.

This inevitably causes problems when we reach long stretches of episodes credited to writers other than Morgan and Wong. Marilyn Osborn is a veteran of The X-Files. She wrote Shapes for the first season of the series, the episode that rather told a Native American werewolf story in the most generic manner possible. She would not appear to be the first choice for anybody looking to put together a first-season writing team. Although, to be fair, Osborn does do a much better job with The River of Stars.

Bug hunt...

Bug hunt…

To be fair, there are obviously growing pains here. As creators of the show, Glen Morgan and James Wong obviously know exactly what they want the show to be when they write for it. In contrast, the other members of their staff need to find their feet. It is a gradual process, and one that takes a considerable amount of time. After all, Morgan and Wong had the same difficulty on The X-Files; their script for Shadows is seldom considered one of the strongest scripts of the first season.

It is quite possible that the writing staff on Space: Above and Beyond might have developed into a well-oiled machine, and this awkward stretch of episodes would seem like nothing more than a hiccup visible in syndication re-runs or fan re-watches. Sadly, the reality of the situation was that Space: Above and Beyond would never get that room to grow and develop. This season is it, for better or for worse.

A cut above?

A cut above?

The premise of The Enemy is very straightforward. Our heroes visit an eerie and atmospheric planet, delivering supplies for the entrenched soldiers on the surface. “This battle’s been going on since the beginning of the war even though a lot of people think there’s no strategic value,” West helpfully exposits. When the team arrives, they discover that the soldiers have gone out of control, and murdered one another. There’s a secret alien weapon at work. Suddenly, our leads find themselves turning against each other.

This is a pretty classic plot, one that dates back to Who Goes There? at the very least. Strand your heroes, and have them turn against each other as a result of some insidious outside force; instant drama! It worked very well for The Thing From Another World and for The Thing. Morgan and Wong themselves constructed a similar story on the first season of The X-Files, writing Ice. It was a story that worked so well that Howard Gordon effectively wrote it again with Firewalker.

Dead afraid...

Dead afraid…

This should work here, except that The Enemy goes almost cartoonishly overboard. It turns out that the Chigs have developed a weapon that greatly enhances the fears of anyone subjected to it. This could be a vehicle for character development. After all, fears are most likely rooted in developmental experiences. And The Enemy gives us flashes of that. Wang’s fear of cockroaches is anchored in his traumatic childhood. Hawkes claustrophobia is due to his memory of the tank where he was grown.

However, The Enemy promptly pushes everything to eleven. “This is not us!” characters like Wang and Damphousse repeatedly assert, mirroring the “we are not who we are” mantra repeated over the radio in Ice. The characters speak to one another in cheesy clichés. “If we do this, the Chigs win!” Wang yells. Later, he insists, “I’m not going back there, man! I ain’t ever going back there, man!” Standing his ground, Hawkes threatens, “I may have come into life in a box, but I will make sure you go out in one.”

"Damn it, I almost wasn't even in this one..."

“Damn it, I almost wasn’t even in this one…”

Science-fiction is a genre that can be tough to write. It is very hard to get the tonal balance right in a world where anything you can imagine could be possible. Space: Above and Beyond has generally done quite well when it comes to playing with war movie clichés and conventions, but has struggled with realising the more sci-fi elements of its premise. Here, the miraculous enemy fear weapon is a convenient plot device that could be a handy tool for character development. Instead, the script has not idea how to make it work.

The Enemy is painfully absurd. Space: Above and Beyond is a series that takes itself very seriously. It has a great deal of pride in what it does. Quite simply, it does not have the camp sensibility that could make something like this work. When the magic Chig weapon effectively x-rays our heroes, it seems like something from a cheesy fifties b-movie. When Damphousse does an epic leap across a puddle of blood, it’s hard not to stifle a laugh. However, Space: Above and Beyond is not a show that laughs with the audience.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

It is a show that completely bungles what should be a pretty workable premise. More than that, it bungles it in a painfully boring way. The Enemy feels somewhat slow and bloated. There are plenty of moments in The Enemy that seem to exist to eat up time. While Eyes was packed to the brim, The Enemy feels rather hallow and empty. There is a lot of time devoted to the characters getting suited up, some unnecessary trekking out and trekking back.

Indeed, the show even adds the classic “character steps on a landmine” sequence in order to just extend the episode a little longer and to try to get the runtime to reach the necessary forty-five minute cut-off. None of this feels particularly energetic or exciting. None of it seems particularly engaging. The Enemy feels like the first time that Space: Above and Beyond has been uncertain about what it is doing and how it is doing it.

"Don't worry, Lex Luthor's building some nice condominiums right over there!"

“Don’t worry, Lex Luthor’s building some nice condominiums right over there!”

In the Beyond and Back documentary, Osborn conceded that the “debriefing” framing device featuring Ross and McQueen was a last-minute addition to help bulk up the show’s runtime:

What was interesting about it too was, as I recall, it came in really short. The whole interrogation thing was Glen’s idea. After we shot it, initially, it was really just about them on this planet getting hit by this weapon and getting out. And it was really short.

The decision to structure the show as a flashback doesn’t work. It undermines (rather than enhances) any sense of tension about the mission.

"Don't worry! It'll get better next time! ... sorta ..."

“Don’t worry! It’ll get better next time! … sorta …”

The decision to try and build suspense within what is obviously a stalling tactic also feels like a bit of a waste, with McQueen and Ross coming across as a rather unfunny version of Statler and Waldorf. James Morrison and Tucker Smallwood are two of the strongest players in the ensemble, but the script gives them nothing but clichés and stock phrases to work with. The script tries to give them snappy lines on which to break the act, but it simply doesn’t work.

The Enemy is probably the season’s biggest misfire, a show bristling with potential and working with a fairly simple and effective premise. It just doesn’t come together, which is quite disappointing. It marks the beginning of a difficult and painful stretch for the show, but one that is perhaps not uncommon for a television series in its first year. Had the show run a few more years, it may even have been forgotten. Sadly, it accounts for a significant portion of the show’s total run.

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

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2 Responses

  1. As messy as this episode was there was a certain surreal atmosphere that created quite a bit of horror. From the actual mystery of the planet itself to the idea that it’s a battlefield that lacks any enemies besides yourself. It’s a shame that actual plot couldn’t live up to the planet itself.

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