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Space: Above and Beyond – Level of Necessity (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.

Coming hot on the heels of Who Monitors the Birds?, Level of Necessity was almost destined to be a little disappointing. Who Monitors the Birds? is perhaps the quintessential episode of Space: Above and Beyond, encapsulating the show’s core themes and utilising its world in a clever and constructive manner. In contrast, Level of Necessity seems almost rote. It is an episode that might have been written for any other nineties science-fiction show.

There are some nice ideas here, but Level of Necessity feels far too generic. In fact, it seems like the episode is centred around Damphousse not because the story makes any more sense for her than it does for any other character, but because she is the only character who has yet to occupy the centre of a story. Thomas J. Wright directs quite well, and Richard Kind makes for a solid guest star. However, Level of Necessity suffers from the fact that it could be an episode of any other show.

Stars in his eyes...

Stars in his eyes…

In some respects, Level of Necessity feels like a rather wry dig at The X-Files, a show which cannot help but play a big part in forging and defining the identity of Space: Above and Beyond. Glen Morgan and James Wong had helped to define The X-Files, and their success on that show had helped to convince Fox to sign off on Space: Above and Beyond. Fox’s marketing department sought to cash in on that connection, hyping it in marketing materials and promotion.

Indeed, the original plan had been to air Space: Above and Beyond on Friday evenings as a lead-in to The X-Files, something that would likely have helped the fledging programme to build a solid audience. As it stood, Space: Above and Beyond seemed to have learned a lot from The X-Files. It had its own secret government conspiracy, and the show feature two rather high-stakes two parters for November and February sweeps.

What a Kind man...

What a Kind man…

Watching Level of Necessity, it is hard not to imagine the episode as a sly acknowledgement of The X-Files. Colonel Burke, as played by Richard Kind, cannot help but evoke Fox Mulder. It isn’t too hard to believe in a radically different alternate universe where Richard Kind and Gillian Anderson headlined The X-Files. Tall and dark-haired, both Mulder and Burke share an obsession with discovering the truth. Both believe in phenomenon that their contemporaries would consider absurd or ridiculous.

The similarities do not end there. Sharing his back story with Damphousse, Burke explains that his poor personal skills led to his career stalling. “You see, you tick off the old man’s wife at a cocktail party and pretty soon you’re no longer assistant chief of logistics, Omicron Sector,” he offers. “You’ve been promoted backwards. Deputy director of Psi Ops with your own card table in the basement somewhere in Langley, Virginia.”

File it away...

File it away…

Mulder’s basement desk might be at the FBI Headquarters in Washington rather than the CIA Headquarters in Langley, but the similarities remain. Burke is a man obsessed with validating his beliefs. He saw something once, and it changed him – just as Samantha’s abduction changed Mulder. He can no longer believe in the world as everybody else sees it. There is so much more going on, so much to discover and to prove.

“Then I met some people – people who have what you have,” Burke explains to Damphousse. “That thing that convinces me that life isn’t just yes and no black and white, ones and zeros.” Burke’s belief is spiritual – compared with Damphousse’s religious faith at the end of the episode. In a line that evokes The X-Files rather overtly, Damphousse realises, “That’s really why we’re down here – for you so you can believe.”

Trying hard to get Damphousse on board...

Trying hard to get Damphousse on board…

Mulder’s poster famously proclaimed, “I want to believe.” However, there is a sense that Mulder needed to believe – that his quest was obsessive and all-consuming, that it was dangerous and selfish and reckless. Burke also needs to believe more than anything else, and there’s a sense that he is a rather scathing criticism of Mulder. The most interesting thing about Level of Necessity is the way that it very clearly and very forcefully makes it clear that a character like Mulder would have no place in Space: Above and Beyond.

Burke draws from the worst excesses of Mulder’s character. He is a character so consumed by his desire to know the truth that he would endanger an entirely squadron of soldiers just to justify his hunches. Burke is romantic, but he’s also arrogant and selfish. His need to vindicate his own belief system is toxic and disruptive. It is an element that feels very much out of place on Space: Above and Beyond, a show that requires the leads to trust and respect one another in a way that a character like Burke cannot.

Boy, there is going to be egg on somebody's face when this is finished...

Boy, there is going to be egg on somebody’s face when this is finished…

However, as interesting as Burke might be, Level of Necessity still feels particularly contrived. While it works very well as a war saga Space: Above and Beyond has never seemed entirely sure what to do with its science-fiction trappings. The show still hasn’t worked out what it wants the Silicates to be or to do. So piling in extra-sensory perception on top of all this feels a little bit excessive – it seems as if the show is trying to get through as many stock science-fiction elements as possible, as quickly as it can.

It doesn’t help that Level of Necessity reduces Damphousse to little more than a plot device. Her gift comes out of nowhere, and it tells us very little about her as a character. Damphousse’s character arc is that maybe she gets magic powers, maybe she doesn’t, but she brushes over that at the end because this isn’t going to become a cornerstone of her character. Instead, it feels like the only reason Damphousse has visions is so that Burke can show up and the series can tell a story about him.

Ticking down...

Ticking down…

It seems like Damphousse was chosen by the process of elimination rather than any active suitability for a plot like this. West, Vansen and Hawkes all have their own character arcs and motivations that would be cluttered by a plot like this. Wang has a little trauma coming from Choice or Chance that makes him a poor fit for a show like this at the moment. McQueen would be an awesome vehicle for a story like this, if only because his no-nonsense response to the possibility of psychic powers would tear the show apart.

So it looks like Damphousse was the only possible choice for this particular story – she’s a character who exists largely as negative space. She is the member of the ensemble who works best in contrast to the rest of the characters. We know very little about her, aside from the fact that she has a boyfriend at home and she is an engineer. These are not the key ingredients of a fully formed character. Instead, Damphousse is just there.

Journey to the centre of the planetoid...

Journey to the centre of the planetoid…

She is a blank slate who can suddenly develop psychic powers half-way through the season without anybody batting an eyelid. Level of Necessity draws attention to this. The show’s most Damphousse-centric show at this point in the season gives her magic powers out of nowhere in order to spur on a plot about a guest star who dies at the end of the hour. It feels like a bit of a waste, and a rather cynical use of an under-developed member of the ensemble.

That said, Level of Necessity does find a way to touch on some of the recurring themes of Space: Above and Beyond. Much like Who Monitors the Birds?, Level of Necessity hints at the idea that history recurs and that events occur in cycles. It is an idea that is overtly fatalistic, but comes baked into the series. After all, Space: Above and Beyond is very much constructed as “the Second World War… IN SPACE!!!” That heavily suggests that history has patterns and flows.

Rust Cohle gives a much better presentation...

Rust Cohle gives a much better presentation…

Outlining his theories to Damphouse, Burke offers an explanation that would make Rust Cohle proud. “People think that time is like this – just a straight line,” he suggests. “We’re blind to anything but the present. But what if time were a circle, and you were at the center of it? And you could see any part that you turned toward.” Sure, he uses a pencil instead of an artfully carved beer can, but that’s presumably because Lone Star Beer is very tough to come by in deep space.

It is a very clever way of tying what would otherwise be some generic new age psychobabble into the core themes of the show. Who Monitors the Birds? was full of cyclic imagery, stressing that events tend to echo and recur. Burke’s logic makes a certain amount of sense in that context, observing that there are patterns and occurrences that are not always perceptible to the characters trapped in the story.

Everything goes to plan...

Everything goes to plan…

It’s worth noting that Burke suggests we are focused on the present, implying that the past is also ignored or overlooked. People may not be able to see the future; however, if they paid attention to the past, they may be able to recognise patterns and inevitabilities. Much of Space: Above and Beyond is drawn from the Second World War – particularly the conflicts in the Pacific theatre. To quote another science-fiction show that touched on mystical themes with a bit more success, all of this has happened before.

There are some other interesting ideas here. Although Level of Necessity brings up the classic fate paradox – does seeing the future “fix” it so it has to happen? – the show also seems to tease the development of Final Destination. Perhaps Morgan and Wong’s most commercially successful work, the 2000 horror film saw a bunch of high school students cheating death – only to discover that the Grim Reaper does not like to be cheated.

A cut below...

A cut below…

Discussing the possibility of premonitions, Lieutenant Winslow offers a story about an officer who had a dream of his death in a plane crash. He avoided his flight shift the following day, going to get a haircut. His squadron returned home safe, but there was an accident involving another pilot. The stinger line is almost inevitable. “Seems this trainee pilot crash-landed and one of the buildings he took out was the barber shop.” Winslow reflects, “I guess it was his time. Nothing you can do to change that.”

It seems as if her monologue foreshadows the entire Final Destination show franchise. Space: Above and Beyond is a film that very much informs a lot of what Morgan and Wong would do afterwards. It allowed the pair more creative control than they had enjoyed before, and it provided a launching pad for any number of ideas that the pair would touch on the years ahead. It introduced them to a wealth of artistic collaborators and creative partners, and it’s possible that this could have been the genesis of Final Destination.

You don't have to be a psychic to see this ending badly...

You don’t have to be a psychic to see this ending badly…

It is worth noting that projects like “Psi Ops” are not merely the realm of science-fiction. The United States Army operated the Star Gate Project until 1995, with the Defense Department spending $20m on psychic warfare. It was eventually discontinued, when the American Institutes for Research questioned its utility:

The foregoing observations provide a compelling argument against continuation of the program within the intelligence community. Even though a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory, it remains unclear whether the existence of a paranormal phenomenon, remote viewing, has been demonstrated. The laboratory studies do not provide evidence regarding the origins or nature of the phenomenon, assuming it exists, nor do they address an important methodological issue of inter-judge reliability.

These sorts of outlandish government and military projects have been explored and documented over the years, most notably in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats. Despite the fact that they sound like something from a questionable science-fiction show, incredibly amounts of time and money were invested in this sort of project.

This mission was dead on arrival...

This mission was dead on arrival…

These were not necessarily cranks, either. Albert Stubblebine was one of the strongest proponents of research into psychic warfare. Stubblebine was a member of the Army Intelligence Hall of Fame, even if it has been reported that he would occasionally try to walk through walls. Stubblebine was retired after Star Gate was decommissioned. In the years since, Stubblebine has become a vocal part of the “truther” movement. Apparently the conspiracy theorists are not just outside the establishment.

Level of Necessity is also notable for the direction from Thomas J. Wright. Wright would become one of the defining directors on Space: Above and Beyond. While his work on Stay With the Dead was a little clunky and awkward, he does a much better job here. He makes the sequences between Damphousse and Burk seem atmospheric and heavy, lending the show a decidedly uncomfortable feeling. It is no wonder that Wright would become a go-to director on Millennium.

Flight of fancy...

Flight of fancy…

Level of Necessity is not terrible. It just feels a little bland, particularly compared to the episodes surrounding it.

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

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