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Space: Above and Beyond – The River of Stars (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.

And so this is Christmas.

On the face of it, doing a Christmas episode of Space: Above and Beyond seems absurd. Space: Above and Beyond is a show about a grim and relentless future war, where human lives are sacrificed in a long and brutal slog. It is very hard to reconcile that with the traditional structure of a Christmas story, which typically draws together a family so that they might celebrate the possibility of “peace on Earth” and “goodwill to all men.”

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

And yet, the episode works in spite of this contrast – or, perhaps, because of it. The River of Stars opens with a monologue narrated by Wang that helps to set the mood for the next forty-five minutes, documenting the well-known Christmas truces that took place during the First World War. Although these spontaneous demonstrations of good will and trust were by no means unique, those temporary reprieves served as a reminder of the humanity that often seemed lost amid the pain and the bloodshed.

If any show could use a charming feel-good story about the possibility of peace on Earth and goodwill towards other people, Space: Above and Beyond might be it.

Staring at the stars...

Staring at the stars…

Glen Morgan and James Wong seem to have a great deal of affection for Christmas episodes. Beyond the Sea, a first season episode of The X-Files, took place over the Christmas period. It featured Scully coping with the loss of her father and facing his ghost in the midst of a criminal investigation. Although the duo did not write the Christmas episodes in question, they commissioned Christmas episodes for both Space: Above and Beyond and their season running Chris Carter’s Millennium, producing some unlikely and wonderful Christmas television.

These Christmas episodes all work surprisingly well, perhaps because they exist against a rather dark backdrop. The tone of Christmas television can often seem cheap or crass – after all, the themes are pretty common, and when heaped on top of shows that tend towards the saccharine, they can build to critical mass. In contrast, exploring those themes against a backdrop that is a bit more cynical or skeptical can work a lot better. The contrast is sharper, and the warmth can feel a lot more earned than it might in a show that is routinely chirpy or upbeat.

Gift!

Gift!

As the opening monologue suggests, the Christmas truces of 1914 have become something of a mythic moment in the middle of the carnage of the First World War. As Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton note in their book Christmas Truce:

It is not surprising, however, given the standard popular perception of the horrors of the First World War, that this supreme instance of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ has come to have something of a legendary quality. Young people who would normally dismiss that far-off conflict of their grandfathers in the century’s teens as merely incomprehensible, find reassurance, even a kind of hope, in the Christmas truce. Brought to general notice largely by the stage and film versions of Oh, What a Lovely War!, it has been the subject of successful pop songs both in Britain and the United States – even, in 1984, providing the setting for a famous pop video associated with the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney – and has been a useful, often moving source of reference for playwrights, speechmakers and cartoonists. As recently as 1993 an illustrated children’s book based on the truce won a national prize. The event has, indeed, gained rather than lost potency as time has gone by.

There is something incredibly heart-warming in the idea that humanity has some small reserve, even in times when man’s inhumanity is on full display.

Bits and pieces...

Bits and pieces…

Of course, The River of Stars relies on the Chigs honouring the Christmas truce, despite the fact that it extremely unlikely that they themselves would have a holiday of similar significance unfolding at exactly the same time. However, it is worth noting that the Christmas truce was by no means a unique occurrence – particularly in the early days of the war. As Aaron Shepard reflects on his own book Christmas Truce:

Though the Christmas Truce is the foremost incident of its kind, informal truces were a long-standing military tradition. During the American Civil War, for instance, Rebels and Yankees traded tobacco, coffee, and newspapers, fished peaceably on opposite sides of a stream, and even gathered blackberries together. Some degree of fellow feeling had always been common among soldiers sent to battle.

So it does not seem too convenient that the Chigs might make a gesture like this, allowing for a temporary cessation of hostilities and enabling the return of our heroes back to their home base in time for the Christmas party. It is a charming and effective way of underlining one of the core themes of Space: Above and Beyond, the idea that just because an enemy is alien does not mean that it is inhuman.

Wrapped up...

Wrapped up…

It is worth noting that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was perhaps the last time that hostilities were suspended in so complete a manner. The following year, orders came down from senior Allied officials that there was not to be a repeat of the Yuletide ceasefire; there were a few isolated incidents, but nothing on the scale of the events of the prior year. The Second World War had no comparable cessation of hostilities.

There is an argument that advances in warfare make it less and less likely that moments of humanity like this can occur. As people become more and more disconnected, as war becomes easier to wage across impossible distances, it is easier and easier to dehumanise the enemy. Space: Above and Beyond would not even show the face of the enemy until its final episode, illustrating just how impersonal war had become by this point in time. As such, the warmth of The River of Stars feels earned rather than cloying.

A not so merry X-Mas...

A not so merry X-Mas…

A lot of this is down to the charm of the cast. The ensemble on Space: Above and Beyond are very likeable. While the show hasn’t necessarily showcased or developed all of them at this point – Damphousse is still something of a blank slate, and Wang’s biggest character arc lies ahead – it has established that they work very well together. There is a genuine sense of camaraderie between the actors, and a sense that everybody has a particular niche to fill.

The River of Stars plays to their collective strengths. Lanei Chapman has a very soothing and calming voice in the ensemble. Kristen Cloke plays Shane Vansen as a character who has a lot of difficulty expressing herself to other people. Rodney Rowland gives Hawkes an endearing innocence that never feels too forced. “So, all I know about Christmas is that there was one day out of the year in Philadelphia that everything was closed and it was a headache and it was lonelier than usual,” he recalls, in a line that could feel excessive, but plays beautifully.

Dead space?

Dead space?

More than that, The River of Stars feels like it connects the latent sixties optimism that defined some of the earlier episodes – notably The Pilot or The Farthest Man From Home. Space: Above and Beyond is – by its nature – a very cynical show. It shares the same distrust of authority that defined The X-Files, and the same sense that our leads need to create a family of people they can trust outside that. However, while The X-Files is a show anchored in seventies paranoia, Space: Above and Beyond reconnects with sixties enthusiasm and optimism.

Playing “interstellar disc jockey”, McQueen spends part of the episode trying to reach through the void to make contact with his lost squadron. It’s a wonderful demonstration of what faith is – sending a voice into the darkness and hoping that it connects with some one or something on the other side. Of all the Morgan and Wong scripts for The X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond seems to draw most heavily from Little Green Men, which is a story about the romance of space-flight.

Looking out for each other...

Looking out for each other…

It is no coincidence that McQueen chooses to broadcast the speech made by the first astronauts to visit the moon. It’s a reminder of how important and how formative that moment was for an entire generation of people around the world. Broadcast all over the globe, it was a moment when mankind itself seemed to reach into the stars and demonstrate that they were capable of accomplishing almost anything. Even the heavens were no longer out of reach.

There are other echoes of Little Green Men to be found in The River of Stars. In Little Green Men, Mulder and Senator Matheson reflect on the idea of first contact. Matheson recalls how mankind sent recordings of Bach out into the depths of space, hoping that it might reach some alien ears. “Imagine, Fox,” Matheson urges the FBI agent. “If another civilization out there were to hear this, they would think what a wonderful place the earth must be. I would want this to be the first contact with another lifeform.”

Winging it...

Winging it…

Of course, the irony in both Space: Above and Beyond and The X-Files is that this is not the first contact with an alien life form. In The X-Files, aliens begin a program of colonisation on Earth. On Space: Above and Beyond, mankind’s colonial impulses spark an interstellar war. However, it is something to hope that peaceful coexistence is something that might be possible if people can see the very best in one another. This idea of finding some humanity in the alien is a core theme of Space: Above and Beyond.

So The River of Stars touches on that sequence from Little Green Men, as the crew pick up an old signal traveling through space. “Television signals have been inadvertently beamed into space since the 1940s,” Wang tells us. By now, our radio signals have traveled 110 lightyears from Earth – over one quadrillion kilometres. Ironically, some of those signals have even been bounced back to Earth in the years since.

A lighter episode...

A lighter episode…

Sure, the television broadcast of the 1960’s Batman! television show may lack the cultural weight of something like Brandenburg Concerto Number Two, but it is hard not to remember the hopes expressed by Matheson in Little Green Men. There are worse possible first contacts than alien listening posts picking up a broadcast of Adam West and Burt Ward having lighthearted and wacky adventures.

There is a sense that all of this might just be one big misunderstanding – that everything that has happened was not inevitable, but the result of poor choices and bad luck; that it might still be possible to set things right in the midst of all this suffering. As the title implies, stars are a recurring motif, from the shooting star that guides the squad home through to the river of stars they find themselves navigating.

Part-ay!

Part-ay!

“If we were on Earth our ship would seem to be going through the Eridanus Constellation,” Wang observes. “A river of stars.” It is worth noting that aside from the mythological connotations of Eridanus, the constellation is also home to the planet Vulcan from Star Trek, perhaps the most utopian and iconic friendly aliens in the history of popular science-fiction. As such, our heroes are travelling through a section of space that might be home to Earth’s staunchest alien allies in another fictional universe – as if teasing what might have been.

Vansen’s gift to Wang is even a copy of Romeo and Juliet, the story of two “star-crossed” lovers who might otherwise have been happy together, but whose love turned to tragedy by quirk of fate and actions outside their own control. It is tempting to wonder whether peaceful coexistence between humanity and the Chigs would ever have been possible. The River of Stars seems quite optimistic on the subject, suggesting that this isn’t just an inevitable consequence of first contact with an alien intelligence; other first contacts are possible.

You gotta have faith...

You gotta have faith…

There is something inherently romantic about that. It is easy to get lost in the weight and gloom of Space: Above and Beyond, but the series is underpinned by a strange hope and optimism. In that light, the possibility of the Chigs helping McQueen locate his lost squadron does not seem so remote. It is possible to hope that there is something other than pain and death and cold waiting out there in the depth of space for our heroes.

There are a few moments in The River of Stars that do feel a little schmaltzy. The Christmas Party after our heroes return to the Saratoga is perhaps a little bit too much. After all, the episode has made its point by the time we reach that final sequence, and the Christmas Party scene exists simply to forcefully re-state the themes and subtext that has been been fairly heavily outlined over the prior forty-odd minutes.

'Twas the night before X-Mas...

‘Twas the night before X-Mas…

Similarly, Wang’s character arc feels a bit stock and trite. When constructing a Christmas episode, having a character go through a crisis of faith is a tried-and-tested dramatic hook. After all, what better time of year to remind somebody of how wonderful people can be and how there are people who care and there is something to feel good about. Sometimes people need to have their faith restored, which is a potent Christmas metaphor – the rebirth of faith and hope.

Wang is perhaps the logical choice for this character arc, given his experiences in Choice or Chance. However, forced to share the episode with the rest of the ensemble, it does seem like the character is almost squeezed out of the episode. West, Vansen, Hawkes and McQueen all get smaller character moments that offer little insights into their character. These are – broadly speaking – quite basic. McQueen never gives up on his people. Vansen has difficulty expressing emotion. West is lonely. Hawkes never experienced Christmas.

Radio nowhere...

Radio nowhere…

These are all solid character beats for an episode that has to split its attention six ways. The problem is that Wang has a lot more to work through. Wang went through a terrible and highly personal ordeal in Choice or Chance, and having him work through it as part of a Christmas episode feels a little trite. If Wang had been the singular focus of The River of Stars, it might have worked better; or if The River of Stars offered the culmination of plot and character threads seeded over a few other episodes, maybe this would be enough.

Wang’s plot also suffers slightly from the way that the way that the plot links his atheism to his trauma. Wang is dismissive of the festivities and traditions around the holiday, politely disputing the nativity narrative offered by Damphousse to Hawkes. “Coop, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ,” Damphousse explains. “Actually, it’s the continuation of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Jesus of Nazareth was born on September 15, 7 B.C.,” Wang corrects. He goes on to dispute the story of the star of Bethlehem, dismissing it as a comet.

Present and accounted for...

Present and accounted for…

This is perfectly reasonable. After all, there’s an argument to be made that Christmas has become as much a secular holiday as a religious one. After all, one need not subscribe to Christianity to think it is a good idea to celebrate family and friendship and togetherness in the middle of Winter. The ideal of “peace on Earth” is not exclusive to those who worship a particular religious belief system, and everybody is entitled to celebrate it in their own way.

And, to be fair to The River of Stars, Wang is generally polite in the way that he offers an alternative narrative to the nativity. There is no hostility. Nobody is offended. Everybody seems to accept that Wang is as entitled to his opinion as everybody else, which is a nice sentiment in an episode about how Christmas is about togetherness and understanding. The problem is that the episode treats Wang’s atheism as something that needs to be “fixed.”

Everything is upside down...

Everything is upside down…

Wang’s rejection of the nativity narrative is explicitly tied to his own personal trauma. “With all the death we’ve seen in the last six months… the things I’ve done… how can you believe in all this garbage?” he eventually snaps. All of a sudden, Wang’s atheism becomes a problem that has to be fixed. “I knew you never lost your faith,” West assures him, as the universe conspires to help Wang get his faith back. The problem is the way that The River of Stars seems to equate Wang’s questioning of the Christian narrative with his own emotional trauma.

Again, to be fair to The River of Stars, it does make it clear that faith doesn’t have to be religious. A light in the sky can be a comet and still guide a person to where they need to be. At the end, West proposes a more secular vision of faith to Wang. “That’s what it is. Knowing something’s always gonna be there for you.” West doesn’t wear a crucifix, he wears a picture of Kaylan. While contextualising Wang’s rejection of the religious narrative of Christmas as part of his own personal issues is problematic, the episode has its heart in the right place.

Well suited to the task...

Well suited to the task…

The River of Stars is a charming and endearing hour of television, one that works so well because it manages to contrast with the general mood of the series while still playing to the show’s core themes. It is a delightful and warm piece of television; almost perfect holiday viewing.

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

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