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Space: Above and Beyond – Hostile Visit (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.

At this point, Space: Above and Beyond could do a lot worse than learn from The X-Files.

There are quite a few echoes of The X-Files in Space: Above and Beyond, becoming more pronounced as the show approaches the middle of the season. Eyes built on the suggestion of conspiracy and cover-up to assure viewers that Space: Above and Beyond was just as cynical about authority as The X-Files ever was. The Enemy felt like an attempt to copy the formula that Morgan and Wong had worked so well back in Ice.

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance feels like an attempt to do a big sweeps two-parter in the style of The X-Files. This was a crucial moment for Space: Above and Beyond. The series had been scheduled outside of its comfort zone, had not been drawing huge ratings, had found itself preempted and bounced around the schedule as a result of factors outside its control. It needed a strong performance for the November sweeps, which were a matter of pride (and money) for the networks and a matter of interest for the advertisers.

So structuring a two-parter around that period makes a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, Hostile Visit does not make for the most compelling first half.

"I want a good clean sweep."

“I want a good clean sweep.”

What is interesting about those big X-Files mythology two-parters was the sense that they were blockbuster television. Sure, there were was a lot of talking, and a lot of mysteries, but there was also a whole of action and iconic imagery. End Game featured a submarine in the Arctic. Nisei – the episode of The X-Files airing five days after Hostile Visit – would feature Mulder jumping off a bridge and on to a moving train. There is simply nothing in Hostile Visit that could possibly compete with that.

The key to big mythology two-parters on The X-Files was a sense that the show was being pushed to the limits. Even when there was a lot of exposition or dialogue, there was also a sense of scale and purpose. 731 is quite a talky episode of television, but it opens with a striking image of mass-murder on American soil and climaxes with a train car explosion filmed by eight cameras. Hostile Visit has none of that weight to support it.

"Thank goodness we got rid of those snazzy visual interfaces and got computing back to coloured numbers!"

“Thank goodness we got rid of those snazzy visual interfaces and got computing back to coloured numbers!”

To be fair, the show seems to know this. The episode opens and closes with large-scale action sequences. The teaser has the Saratoga under fire. It features lots of characters running around and shouting, set against CGI footage. Director Thomas J. Wright does a great job making this seem exciting. The Saratoga is such a part of Space: Above and Beyond that there’s something unnerving about seeing it under threat. There is some great lighting, some wonderful framing, some tight shots and claustrophobic composition.

The action sequence at the climax doesn’t work quite a well. It seems a bit trite to criticise the CGI on a show from 1995. The technology has advanced leaps and bounds. More than that, the special effects on Space: Above and Beyond are often quite effective. In particular, the lighting is usually handled very well on the CGI models. However, put simply, the CGI has not yet reached a level where the show can hang a big action set-piece around it. It’s effective, but not mind-blowing.

Alive inside...

Alive inside…

That said, the problem with Hostile Visit is not so much the two action sequences framing the episode as much as the rest of the episode sitting between those sequences. Hostile Visit is a very slow piece of television. The big plot beats happen before the opening credits roll and during the last act. The rest of the episode is spent providing exposition and little character touches. These character touches are quite nice, but they don’t provide the drive that the episode needs.

There’s a sense that these sorts of character beat may have been better served shunted over into another episode, perhaps something like The Enemy. It is nice to see Wang flirting, and it’s cool to see Commodore Ross playing guitar. It’s a wonderful character beat to have McQueen push so strongly for this mission, because all he has is his sense of duty and honour. These are not bad elements, but they clutter up a story that should feel a lot tighter and tenser.

Airlocked out of the decision-making process...

Airlocked out of the decision-making process…

Given the set-up, Hostile Visit should feel like a clock counting down. It should feel like precious seconds are ticking away. McQueen’s plan is ambitious and brilliant, and dangerous. However, the episode never really gets that across. Instead, Hostile Visit seems to spend most of its runtime trying to figure out how best to delay the mission until the final act. None of the stalling tactics feel suspenseful or dramatic. They are just sort of there.

It doesn’t help that Hostile Visit sees the show embracing hardcore science-fiction concepts, something with which the series has struggled to date. A significant portion of the script is devoted to how alien and cool the captured space ship is, resulting in a lot of telling rather than showing. The idea of a living space ship is cool, but Hostile Visit seems to treat this as an end of itself – treating this captured space craft with an almost academic curiousity.

I want to take his face... off...

I want to take his face… off…

As such, Hostile Visit provides our first real glimpse at the enemy. Surprisingly for a show about an interstellar war, Space: Above and Beyond has offered little in the way of concrete information about these aggressors. According to Glen Morgan, the studio was anxious to reveal more about the foe:

“I think as we go to 22 shows we’ll show more and more about the aliens,” says Morgan. “Although the toy [merchandisers] want us to do a whole thing about the aliens, I think we’re going to handle it a little more slowly. Our heroes come across strange things the aliens leave behind after a battle, which provides a mystery element to it.”

Hostile Visit plays with this a bit, allowing the audience a glimpse of the alien enemy that threaten our leads week-in and week-out. So far, the adversary have been cloaked in mystery, and Hostile Visit peels back the layers. It even teases the audience with the possibility of seeing an alien face as Hawkes pries off a mask from a body found in the ship.

The only good Chig...

The only good Chig…

Again, this feels like something that Space: Above and Beyond has learned from The X-Files. It is very much “teasing” the audience, revealing little tantalising snippets of information. However, it is holding off on the bigger chunks, trying to whet the appetites of the viewing audience. After all, The X-Files played its cards pretty close to its chest for most of its run. Morgan and Wong had scripted E.B.E., an episode that teased a glimpse of an alien only to reveal an empty sterilised room.

Part of the problem with Hostile Visit is that it feels clinical in its approach towards these mysteries. There’s no real emotional connection at play here. The fact that the ship seems to be a living organism is treated as something cool of itself, an effective science-fiction high concept, rather than a stepping stone to interesting philosophical questions or thematic development. Is it ethical to use a living organism in this manner? Is the ship as much a casualty of war as any other fallen soldier?

Well, thank goodness I am not a Freudian...

Well, thank goodness I am not a Freudian…

When asked if there were anything he would do differently, had he a chance to do Space: Above and Beyond over, Glen Morgan replied, “I think I would have not have done Hostile Visit or Choice or Chance.” He is just as candid in the Beyond and Back documentary:

I was not about fantasy sci-fi. The stuff I liked was grounded: Alien, Soylent Green. So I was trying to keep it that. Marines in space. Tom Towler and Steve Zito, who – I think – were brought in to sort of help us out because we’d never had a show, wanted to make it ‘science-fiction.’ And that’s the thing… how they flew the ship and all that stuff… I wanted to give those guys their part in the show. But I just didn’t dig it and it got out of whack.

Hostile Visit feels like an episode of television that hasn’t quite found its own balance or rhythm, that is not entirely sure what it is about or how it is going to be about it.

Holding on together...

Holding on together…

It feels like Hostile Visit and Choice or Choice brush up repeatedly against the core parts of the show’s mythos, only to struggle with them. As with the rest of Space: Above and Beyond, Hostile Visit toys with the idea that the enemy is not as inhuman as people might like to think. As strange as their ships are, they can still be flown by humans. “Isn’t it incredible that our bioelectrical makeup could operate a life-form which evolved in such a distant and so different an environment as Earth’s?” an expert asks.

This sense that the enemy is not as different as they may appear is reinforced by the decision to have McQueen quote from a letter written by “a kamikaze pilot.” It isn’t subtle, but it provides a nice reminder that the Japanese were often dehumanised in the minds of American soldiers during the Second World War, but were really just the same underneath it all. It’s a nice sentiment, particularly juxtaposed against McQueen’s earlier advice that the “enemy has a dark and bloodthirsty heart. Assume everything is dangerous.”

"The eighties never go out of style. This space ship is just money, baby."

“The eighties never go out of style. This space ship is just money, baby.”

The problem is that Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance never really manage to hammer these themes home. The script hints that the enemy soldiers may be more similar to humanity than we would care to admit, but never really asks the same questions about the living ship that has been captured. Similarly, for all that the show hints at the possible decency of the alien adversary in Hostile Visit, Choice or Chance is careful to deny any hint or semblance of the same for the Silicates or the mysterious shape-changing alien.

Still, the episode hits on a few more of the core Space: Above and Beyond themes. Hostile Visit makes it clear that the ship is something that can only be flown by a group of people acting as a team rather than a set of individuals. “It appears the enemy worked together like an orchestra to pilot the craft,” we’re told. In case the audience doesn’t get the subtext, we quickly hear McQueen shout, “We’ve been here five days, and we’re nowhere! Launch window is in 10 days. You people have got to work together.”

Lining up...

Lining up…

Again, it’s a nice statement of the show’s core themes – the idea that a number of people coming together in service of a greater goal become something more than they could be operating alone. The whole “volunteer suicide mission” thing is a massive war movie cliché, but it works well enough in context that it isn’t a major problem. It reinforces the idea that these characters have formed their own band of brothers.

The Aerotech elements of the plot provide another obvious connection back to The X-Files. In The Farthest Man From Home, the mysterious Sewell was introduced as an obvious stand-in for the iconic Cigarette-Smoking Man in The X-Files. He was a rather plain-looking and drab individual who seemed to be conducting mysterious (and ominous) business while keeping secrets from our lead characters. The final scene of Choice or Chance even features Sewell inspecting a mysterious recovered artifact.

Alien territory...

Alien territory…

The problem is that Sewell as presented in Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance simply isn’t as interesting as the Cigarette-Smoking Man. William B. Davis gave the Cigarette-Smoking Man a surprisingly hefty screen presence – particularly given that he didn’t have any line for half the season. Michael Mantell doesn’t give Howard Sewell the same sort of menace or weight. In his brief appearances in The Farthest Man From Home, he seemed like a threat. In Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance, he feels like a generic corporate weasel.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting Sewell as a mid-level corporate lackey, but he doesn’t seem to present any real threat to the characters. He doesn’t seem like a figure who wields any sort of authority, and certainly not somebody who is used to dealing with military types. He seems like a guy who fills out time-sheets and prepares snazzy power point presentations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that banal sort of evil, but the role Sewell fills in the narrative requires something more substantial.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

It doesn’t help matters that Sewell sort of has a point when he criticises McQueen’s plan. “I have to admit your idea is brilliant,” he reflects. “The Trojan horse. The greatest military manoeuvre in human history and our enemy has no knowledge of its precedence. But that’s why we should be studying this technology so we can build our own Trojan horse, instead of wasting it on a foolish act of bravado.”

Ignoring the fact that Sewell takes for granted that the enemy has no equivalent Trojan War myth, his position is valid. From what Space: Above and Beyond has presented of the war, humanity still knows relatively little about the enemy. Studying a space ship would seem like a key step to understanding their culture, their technology, their mindset. Risking something that potentially valuable on an immediate suicide mission right after it was captured? That is a risky decision.

In space, no one can hear you play blues guitar...

In space, no one can hear you play blues guitar…

Hostile Visit also provides a sense that the show has grown comfortable with itself. The show is out of its first stretch. The actors have had a chance to grown comfortable in the roles, and the writers have had a chance to watch them do so. So little personal details begin to creep into the edges. As the duo conceded, they would draw on the actors to script the characters:

We walked around the set one time, we saw Tucker playing blues guitar outside the trailer. We asked, “Can you really play that? Bring it to the set and we can use that!” We would see things like that and incorporate them into the scripts.

Joel used to walk around impersonating James Morrison, so James and I scripted it in.

These are just two examples. Damphousse’s description of Earth in Eyes was drawn from conversations with actress Lanei Chapman. Here, the conversation between Vansen and Hawkes about autumn was based on a real-life conversation between actress Kristen Cloke and writer Glen Morgan.

Making quite an impression...

Making quite an impression…

It is no wonder that actor James Morrison jokingly referred to Morgan as “a thief of life” in the Beyond and Back documentary. There is a sense of camaraderie and bonding going on here – a sense that a family has formed to the point where people can share their own insights and gifts within the framework of the television series. Tucker Smallwood plays blues guitar, so it informs his character on the show. It’s an example of how Morgan and Wong are exceptional television writers.

More than that, it’s interesting to note how much of a family the production team became on Space: Above and Beyond. Morgan and Wong have gone on record about how part of the reason that they worked on the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium to help generate work for these actors who had trusted them and now found themselves unemployed. Morgan and Wong seem to build up lasting  relationships with their crew and their cast.

"Don't poke the alien!"

“Don’t poke the alien!”

After all, Choice or Chance already demonstrates that Morgan and Wong have their own “family” of supporting performers. Recurring Space: Above and Beyond actress Ashlyn Gere had appeared in Blood during the second season of The X-Files, and would appear during the second season of Millennium. She would also pop up in The One. Doug Hutchinson had played Eugene Victor Tooms in Squeeze and Tooms on The X-Files, and would also appear in the first episode of Millennium produced by the duo.

Hostile Visit introduces another important member of the Morgan/Wong extended production team family. Director Thomas J. Wright does a great job with the material available to him. He would direct six episodes from the first season of Space: Above and Beyond. Morgan and Wong would recommend him to Chris Carter when they submitted Dead Letters, their first script for Millennium. Wright would go on to become one of the defining creative voices on that show, even beyond Morgan and Wong’s tenure.

It does not compute...

It does not compute…

Hostile Visit has its share of serious problems. It doesn’t work as well as the mythology episode that it is trying to emulate. there is interesting material here, and great potential, but Hostile Visit has no idea quite how to get at it. At the same time, there is a sense that the cast and crew on Space: Above and Beyond are really beginning to gel, and that the team is getting quite comfortable with one another.

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

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