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Space: Above and Beyond – Choice or Chance (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.

Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance follow the two-part template established by The X-Files, keeping things fresh by offering a pretty dramatic shift between the two episodes in question.

Hostile Visit featured a covert trojan house mission to infiltrate enemy space and stage a devastating attack behind enemy lines. The episode ended with the mission a failure and our heroes drifting through space. Choice or Chance features our heroes landing on a prison planet maintained by the Silicates, the evil artificial organisms that have skirted around the edge of the show’s mythology to this point.

Here's Douggie!

Here’s Douggie!

Choice or Chance comes very close to working. It is a lot more dynamic than Hostile Visit was, which is a good thing for the second half of a two-parter airing during November Sweeps. However, while Hostile Visit felt a little padded and extended, never quite building the momentum necessary for the story to work, Choice or Chance feels a little over-stuffed. There’s a lot of nice stuff here, but no room to properly digest it. It’s an episode that comes up with something for every member of the cast to do, but this inevitably means that the character arcs feel abbreviated and shortened.

There is a  pretty solid two-part episode to be constructed out of the ingredients of Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance. Sadly, the resulting two-parter is not it.

Crash and burn...

Crash and burn…

Choice or Chance largely feels like an attempt to give purpose to the Silicates. This was certainly necessary. After all, the most successful use of the Silicates to this point had been as red herrings in one scene during Eyes. As such, making a conscious effort to play up the threat posed by these killer robots was not a bad call from a production standpoint. Having the main characters land in a Silicate death camp will do that.

However, there is something that seems quite convenient about this – the suggestion that the only way to make the Silicates particularly interesting is to have them throw their lot in with the alien adversaries. It feels like a decision that undercuts any agency or unique identity that the Silicates might have had, turning them into low-level goons and henchmen. This feels a little bit convenient – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and all that.

"This is not happening..."

“This is not happening…”

The show jumps in with both feet. This isn’t a tentative or developing alliance. By this point, the Silicate and the Chigs appear to be working hand-in-glove. It’s not an alliance that seems to tell us anything about the Silicates or anything about the Chigs, or anything about how the two relate to one another. Both Chigs and Silicates hate humanity, but there’s no other sense of what their alliance means. Have they agreed on the distribution of spoils of war? Do the Chigs treat the Silicates as any more deserving of respect than humanity did?

It doesn’t help that this feels like a conscious attempt to put some distance between our heroes and their extra-terrestrial opponents. With their human-like features, the Silicate make effective middle-men, allowing the audience to see a face of the enemy without having to reveal anything more about the Chigs. It allows for an actor like Doug Hutchinson play a creepy and unnerving antagonist, without revealing anything about the Chigs. It seems like a shrewd move from a production standpoint, but not an organic development from a narrative perspective.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

Choice or Chance doesn’t feel like it does that much to develop the Silicates. It seems like the show is lumping them in with the Chigs because it isn’t sure what else to do with them. Rather tellingly, the show has hinted at the possibility that the Chigs are not the inhuman monsters that our heroes believe them to be – that they may have a plausible motivation for the war, and a justifiable grievance. In contrast, the Silicates seems to be nothing more than sociopaths.

Hostile Visit featured McQueen reading a letter home from a Japanese pilot during the Second World War, a rather on-the-nose reminder that the enemy are often people too. The first part also had our heroes discovering that even the ships flown by the Chigs were living organisms – a nice reminder that the enemy is a living being rather than a simple monster. Interrogating Wang, Elroy-El emphasises this. “By the way they hate when you call them aliens and Chigs,” he explains. “In fact, they call you ‘alien’ and a name that translates – well, loosely – into ‘red stink creature’.”

To the Victor the spoils...

To the Victor the spoils…

The show never seems to consider the same might be true of Silicates, that these creatures might be more than inhuman monsters. Certainly, Choice or Chance takes a great deal of pleasure in portraying Silicates as two-dimensional baddies. “When I’m on a battlefield and I see a human dead, I can tell,” Damphouse reflects at the end of the episode. “I can feel something is missing. Something unexplainable is gone. A.I.’s, they’re like the living dead. You can feel they have no souls.” The episode seems to endorse this perspective.

This is to say nothing of the fact that West is apparently able to tell that the creature impersonating Kaylen is an alien using similar logic. “That’s how I knew it wasn’t her,” he admits. Never mind that the alien impersonating Kaylen was the worst spy ever and was obviously poking around for military intelligence, West was able to see through the disguise because anonymous aliens have no souls. It feels like Choice or Chance missed a lot of the important subtext running through Hostile Visit or Space: Above and Beyond as a whole.

Fans looking the create an inter-textual link between The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond, start your engines...

Fans looking the create an inter-textual link between The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond, start your engines…

Of course, the shape-changing alien is a bit of an elephant in the room, one of many elements in Choice or Chance that are not developed as well as they might be. When the creature’s true form is revealed, the show only shows us its green hand before having it melt into green liquid – a decision that feels needlessly obtuse. Is this what a Chig looks like under the armour? Or is it a completely different species? It is a really weird moment that raises more questions than it answers – was this thing a prisoner cooperating with the Silicates, or a Chig undercover operative?

Given that humanity didn’t know that alien life existed until The Pilot, West and his squad seem rather nonplussed at discovering an alien that can shape-shift, despite the obvious security risk it poses. Who is to say these new aliens aren’t infiltrating Earth command at this point in time? Given the way that officers seem to shuttle around the fleet (as seen in Ray Butts), this would appear to be a bit of a game-changer. Instead, it is just shrugged off. No biggie.

Hard cell...

Hard cell…

As with the alliance between the Silicates and the Chigs, the weird shape-shifter feels like a piece of convenient plotting that doesn’t feel entirely organic within the world established so far. It is a nice way to play with West’s aggressive pursuit of Kaylen, his lost love. She is the character’s primary motivator, so it makes sense to bring her into play during sweeps. The X-Files did it with Samantha for Colony and End Game, so it should work here, right?

Again, the heavy influence of The X-Files can be felt here. The West/Kaylen plot in Choice or Chance feels very similar to the Mulder/Samantha plot in End Game. There are green-blooded shape-shifting aliens, there is an imposter wearing the face of our hero’s loved one in order to manipulate him. There is no resolution, just the tease of closure. It’s an approach that worked very well for Mulder, but it doesn’t work as well for West. There are a lot of reasons for this. The loss of Kaylen is a lot more recent than the loss of Samantha, for example.

A captive audience...

A captive audience…

However, the immediate problem with Choice or Chance as compared to End Game is that Mulder is the lead character of The X-Files, while West is only one member of the ensemble on Space: Above and Beyond. Mulder had the bulk of a two-part episode to work through his reunion with Samantha and discovery that this woman was not the real Samantha. In contrast, West has to cover that same character arc in a single forty-five minute episode that is split among five different concurrent plots. He barely has time to process Kaylen’s return before he has to shoot her dead.

This problem runs through Choice or Chance, as the show’s five running plots compete for space. McQueen and Hawkes go on the run and plot a daring rescue mission; Commodore Ross and Sewell take the Saratoga into enemy space; Damphousse and Vansen face a horrific choice; West is reunited with Kaylen; Wang is tortured by Elroy-El. While some of these plots are smaller than others, there’s enough material here to construct a workable two-part episode, instead of sustaining the second part of a two-part episode.

West has enough trouble without this hanging around his neck...

West has enough trouble without this hanging around his neck…

To be fair, Ross and Sewell’s rescue mission subplot takes up about the right amount of space – enough to set up the convenient resolution to the episode’s plot, without eating up too much screen time. McQueen and Hawkes get by with the space allotted to them, even if watching McQueen play Rambo is fun enough that their subplot could easily have been extended. Damphousse and Vansen’s subplot seems to exist to give the duo something to do, but may possibly have worked if it had been fleshed out a bit more.

So West and Wang are the big losers here, when it comes to the limited space available. Wang’s subplot suffers in particular. While West is running around with a shape-shifter impersonating his girlfriend and Damphousse and Vansen are dealing with a tough choice, Wang is getting horribly tortured for information. Wang’s plot is where most of the meat in lies in Choice or Chance. It’s notable that his subplot features the top-billed guest star, the recognisable Doug Hutchinson who worked with Morgan and Wong on The X-Files and would join them on Millennium.

Not so Great Escape...

Not so Great Escape…

There are several problems with this torture subplot. The most obvious is that the audience knows very little about Wang as a character. In The Enemy, it was hinted that he came from an under-privileged background, but the bulk of Wang’s role on Space: Above and Beyond has been to provide exposition and back story. He hasn’t received the same development as characters like West, Vansen or Hawkes.

So this plot is going to define him. Which feels like it removes a lot of the weight from it – rather than the discomfort of watching a well-established character undergoing brutal torture, we are seeing a supporting character whose brutal torture will come to define his character. The subplot would work better with a character we knew more about, or if Wang had been better developed before he was thrown into it.

Marcellus Wallace is going to be pretty miffed...

Marcellus Wallace is going to be pretty miffed…

The constraints outside the story also play a part. This is not the brutal torture of Captain Picard in The Chain of Command, Part II. There is only so much time to show the torture of Wang. Given the difficulties that the show had pointing guns at characters, showing war wounds, or even uttering the word “testicle”, it seemed unlikely that Fox’s Broadcast Standards and Practices would allow a brutal torture sequence to go out as part of their Sunday evening “family hour.”

These constraints make it seem like Wang is broken by Elroy-El almost immediately. There is an introduction between the pair, ending with Wang screaming for mercy. The next time we see the two of them together, Elroy-El claims to have “broken” Wang. He plays back a recording from earlier in their session that seems to confirm it. This is a very potent and powerful subplot, one that is obviously designed to evoke the brainwashing of P.O.W.’s during the Vietnam War, but on that feels more relevant in the era of recordings read by kidnapped hostages denouncing America.

"Yes, we do get our alien torture chairs from the same suppliers as The X-Files, why do you ask?"

“Yes, we do get our alien torture chairs from the same suppliers as The X-Files, why do you ask?”

Undoubtedly, it was a harrowing and prolonged experience. The treatment that Wang received off-screen was certainly brutal and horrific. It is, in theory, hard to blame Wang for giving in and agreeing to whatever Elroy-El wants in order to make the pain stop, even for a moment. The problem with Choice or Chance is that the episode doesn’t explore or detail or even properly hint at this horrific process – whether because of limited time, or censorship issues. This gives the unfortunate impression that Wang gave in too easily. It seems Elroy-El just had to ask him twice.

At the same time, Choice or Chance does cleverly allow Elroy-El to score some points. His treatment of Wang is obviously horrific and terrifying, but it’s interesting that a lot of the “confession” he urges from Wang has some basis in fact. “You know, you invaded their territory first, didn’t you?” he asks. “You threatened them first, now, didn’t you? Didn’t you? And this morning you murdered innocent lives; civilian lives, young lives. Didn’t you, Wang, Paul? With your insensitive bombing attack?”

Going in circles...

Going in circles…

All of these statements seem plausible, based on what the show has hinted. As much as Space: Above and Beyond is a story modeled on the Second World War, it cleverly avoids sanitising that history. After all, war inevitably costs civilian lives, and both the Allied and Axis powers conducted questionable military actions against largely civilian populations at various points during the Second World War. We don’t know any more about the planet our heroes attacked than they do. It is quite possible that there was a substantial civilian population.

Of course, the war began with the brutal murder of human civilians by enemy combatants, so it is hard to present the Chigs as victims in this conflict. However, the suggestion that our heroes may have attacked a civilian population does a lot to underscore the moral ambiguity inherent in any large-scale military operation. This is particularly true in the era of terrorism and guerilla warfare, but it applies to all forms of organised warfare. Even in so-called “conventional” warfare, civilians and civilian institutions often become targets or victims.

Hitting the ground (and) running...

Hitting the ground (and) running…

The false flag attack from Hostile Visit was explicitly compared to Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo in 1942. However, the Allied firebombings of Tokyo in March 1945 are much more controversial. 2,000 tonnes of explosives were dumped on Tokyo by Allied bombers, resulting in the loss of between 80,000 and 130,000 civilians. It has been deemed the deadliest air attack of the Second World War. That it occurred almost a month after the international outrage provoked by the Dresden bombing suggests the extent to which the Allies had dehumanised the Japanese.

War is horrific, and atrocities and questionable decisions are frequently made on both sides. The use of a hijacked enemy craft to mount a covert attack on an enemy stronghold is easy to justify from humanity’s perspective, but it is an action that could easily be defined as a “terrorist” attack by the enemy. The conventional narrative of the Second World War often glosses over the fact that the Allies may have conducted some terrible actions on the road to victory. Space: Above and Beyond shrewdly avoids buying unequivocally into that narrative.

We salute you...

We salute you…

Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance aired during sweeps, the point in the network schedule where every show tries to put its best foot forward – jockeying for position and trying to secure some sweet advertising revenue for the year ahead. For most young shows, this is make-or-break time. These are the moments where everybody is watching and where you frame the debate for the year ahead. These are the ratings that people point to when they discuss the potential future of a show, because these are the episodes where the production team should be trying hardest.

Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance are trying. They are – conceptually, at least – “big” episodes with a lot of weight behind them. Hostile Visit is book-ended by large-scale action set pieces. Choice or Chance gives everybody in the ensemble something to do, features high-stakes and pushes several recurring plots forward. However, they don’t quite make it across the line. They don’t work as well as they should.

A shot in the arm?

A shot in the arm?

Of course, even if Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance had knocked it out of the park, the show would still be facing an uphill struggle. The Sunday night slot was killing the show, which was not earning the ratings necessary to justify the budget Fox had allocated. The end of the football season had meant that the first few episodes had been preempted and bounced around the schedule, making it very difficult for people who wanted to watch the show to find it, let alone for the show to lure in casual viewers.

There’s a sense that the series is aware of this, even at this relatively early stage. Choice or Chance ends with the cast returning home after a failed mission, wounded and defeated. “You think we’ll catch heat because we missed the target?” Wang asks as they come into land. Solemnly, McQueen admits, “I think we should prepare to be seen as a disappointment.” It’s not too hard to imagine similar conversations taking place behind the scenes, as various external factors made it difficult (if not impossible) for the show to reach its full potential.

"Next on America's funniest home torture videos!"

“Next on America’s funniest home torture videos!”

Choice or Chance is a very flawed episode, and it seems like Space: Above and Beyond is struggling a bit as it reaches mid-season. This was  big science-fiction two-parter that should have served as a showcase for the series. Instead, it feels like something of a misfire. Nevertheless, there are bits and pieces here that work. The show just hasn’t quite figured out how to coalesce them into a functioning whole.

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

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