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Space: Above and Beyond – Stay With The Dead (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.

There is a nice story buried somewhere in Stay With the Dead. Space: Above and Beyond has generally worked better as a story about warfare than an action-adventure science-fiction show. As such, it’s telling that the best parts of Stay With the Dead have less to do with the plot-driven flashback-ridden mystery at the heart of the episode, and more to do with the aspects of the script that confront the uncomfortable realities of war.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an absolutely terrifying aspect of armed conflict. War claims lives; countless soldiers and civilians are sacrificed in the name of the greater good. However, even those who survive are left scarred by the experience. The trauma need not be physical. Exposure to combat and warfare can leave a lasting psychological scar. It has widely been suggested that shell-shock and other post-traumatic stress disorders have been under-reported among veterans of previous conflicts.

The wages of warfare...

The wages of warfare…

Stay With the Dead broaches the topic when West is recovered from the field of battle suffering from anxiety attacks and struggling to recall the details of his experience. He is unable to sleep, with even the smallest noise reminding him of his experiences. Army doctors are unable to help him, and make suggestions that seem more interested in what is most convenient for the war effort rather than addressing his own needs. There’s a lot of potentially compelling commentary about how warfare works, and the conflicts of interest that arise.

However, instead of exploring these issues, Stay With the Dead instead becomes a flashback race-against-time mystery. It is not a very good one.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

There are moments that work here. Medical ethics frequently make for compelling television – watching characters navigate life-or-death choices while trying to balance competing needs and obligations. That is a pretty effective way to generate drama; characters making tough choices about matters of life and death. Can a patient really trust their doctor? Can the doctor really make the best recommendations to their patients?

Stay With the Dead touches on some interesting ethical questions about medical care in wartime. West is recovered from an alien planet suffering from shell-shock. The doctors do their best to treat him, but it doesn’t seem to work. Meanwhile, West is taking up time and space that could be better used to tend to other patients. There is a war on, there are other demands on the doctors involved. There are likely other patients needing care and attention.

All cut up...

All cut up…

This sets up an interesting conflict of interest. Do West’s best interests overlap with the best interests of his doctors? If his doctors are faced with balancing West’s psychological well-being against the other more immediate and more life-threatening cases, do they have an obligation to deal with West’s condition as quickly and as effectively as possible? Putting West through electro-convulsive therapy is not the best  decision from his perspective, but is it justifiable in a broader context?

The Saratoga is not in battle, but it is receiving wounded soldiers. Those soldiers need to be treated. Every time that that the doctors on the Saratoga have to worry about West, it means they have less time or energy to devote to another patient who may have more urgent concerns. It may not be triage, but conditions are reasonably close. Triage comes with a whole rake of ethical issues and dilemmas, as medical practitioners struggle to balance their oaths against the greatest good.

Shocking conduct...

Shocking conduct…

“It’s like a gangrenous leg,” the doctor tries to explain. “We wish we didn’t have to amputate but it’s more important to save the patient.” Of course, in this case, the “gangrenous leg” is everything that makes West who he is – his memories, his personality, his emotions. There’s a question of what the operation is seeking to save – it is certainly not West as a person. Is the procedure simply designed to make West easier to manage? Is “the patient” in this case the state itself?

It is horrific, and perhaps it reflects the larger and more abstract horrors of warfare – the idea that the individual is something that can be sacrificed for what is deemed to be “the greater good.” There are shades of this in Stay With the Dead, as McQueen finds himself standing as West’s only advocate against doctors who are stretched too thin to engage with their patients on personal level. Given the realities of the situation, it is understandable that they would come to see West as a problem to be solved rather than a person who needs help.

He's not there...

He’s not there…

This conflict bubbles through Stay With the Dead. As McQueen and the doctors argue about West, it becomes clear that West is nothing more than a cog in a larger apparatus as far as his doctors are concerned. Trying to convince McQueen to sign off on the ectro-convulsive therapy, the doctor insists, “Actually, it’s recommended by the V. A.” McQueen retorts, “Then something must be wrong with it.” As with a lot of Space: Above and Beyond, there’s a disillusionment and scepticism about those who are tasked with looking out for the soldiers on the front lines.

The problem is that this is all rather shallow. The doctors really don’t exist as anything more than a hurdle for McQueen to oppose. They aren’t well-defined, and there’s no real sense of crisis to justify the pressure they bring to bear on West and McQueen. (It also seems odd that there are no counselors around to deal with issues like this.) Watching Stay With the Dead, there’s a sense that the characters exist not as a mechanism to explore complex issues of war and triage, but to add a ticking clock to an over-wrought script.

An alien environment...

An alien environment…

The script for Stay With the Dead is just terrible. It features all manner of over-written lines. Trying to recount the details of his latest mission, West offers, “I just can’t remember.” McQueen solemnly corrects him, “You can’t forget.” James Morrison does the best that he can with the material afforded him, but it is genuinely cringe-worthy. The dialogue is a subtle as a sledgehammer. When McQueen refuses to go along with the electro-convulsive therapy, the doctor asserts, “Colonel, it’s you, not Nathan, that needs to make a sacrifice. It’s you.” On the nose, much?

Stay With the Dead is not a script that does much subtlety or nuance, with character bluntly stating philosophical or moral points rather than trusting the audience to make the connection. Suggesting a horrific plan, Vansen warns West, “There are no rules here.” West replies, “Yes. Our rules – the rules that keep us human.” When a marine begs for our heroes to put him out of his misery, Wang reflects, “We’d do it for an animal.” West insists, “He’s not an animal!”

Putting it all on the table...

Putting it all on the table…

It is all horribly over-written, with Stay With the Dead lacking any real depth or sophistication. It doesn’t trust its audience to pick up on the core themes, so it has characters state them bluntly in a matter-of-fact manner. It’s a shame, because there are good ideas here. The way that the doctors treat West as a problem to be solved recalls the way that the marines are forced to desecrate their own dead. The dead and the walking wounded are not people; they are either raw materials or problems to be solved.

Stay With the Dead suffers from the decision to turn the plot into a mystery with lots of involved flashbacks. It turns the whole episode into a plot-driven adventure instead of a character study. West’s trauma isn’t a glimpse at the horrors of warfare, it is just a hurdle for him to overcome so that the day might be saved. The electro-convulsive therapy sequence is treated as plot-driven suspense rather than emotional drama. The question isn’t how the doctors can do this to him, it is whether West can remember the details of what happened on time.

McQueen salutes you!

McQueen salutes you!

The result is an unsatisfying mishmash, as Stay With the Dead undercuts a compelling story hook to tell a story we have already seen several times this season; our heroes are trapped behind enemy lines, while McQueen has to decide whether or not he will give up on them. It’s a compelling story hook for a military science-fiction show, but it is possible to go to that well once too often. After all, The River of Stars will take that plot set up yet again, albeit in a way that works much better than it did here.

The mystery feels a little unnecessary, particularly since we know that Space: Above and Beyond is not going to kill off all but two of its lead characters in an episode like this. The result is the most shallow of mysteries, where plot contrivance seeks to conceal the information from the audience, using a fractured flashback narrative as a way of rationing answers across forty-five minutes of television. Flashbacks can be a great storytelling tool, but their use in Stay With the Dead recalls their use in The Enemy – an attempt to stretch a simplistic premise across an entire episode.

West could do with lightening up...

West could do with lightening up…

Thomas J. Wright would become one of the show’s most reliable directors, and a defining creative voice on Millennium. Nevertheless, the direction on Space: Above and Beyond feels a little bit too conventional. There are some nice transitions – the floor cleaner to the sound of combat – but West’s shell-shock never seems as visceral as it might. Space: Above and Beyond feels very much like a television show, lacking the cinematic style that had allowed The X-Files to stand out against the rest of nineties television.

The episode ends with a bit of gallows humour, recalling McQueen and Wang’s conversation at the end of Choice and Chance. It seems like the show was aware of its own rating and scheduling issues, with scripts making wry reference to how under siege the cast are – even from their supposed allies. Here, the crew return to find their belongings tidied away, their funerals already performed. “Guess they were making room for the replacements,” Damphousse muses. “We were only dead three days,” Hawkes complains. “How quickly they forget,” Vansen wryly observes.

Where's his head at?

Where’s his head at?

Stay With the Dead is not a terrible episode of television, but it is not a good one either. It feels like a story that lacks the courage of its conviction, bristling with potential and opportunity, only to squander it in favour of convention.

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

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