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Space: Above and Beyond – Who Monitors the Birds? (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.

Who Monitors the Birds? is a phenomenal piece of television.

Space: Above and Beyond is a show that only ran one season, languishing on Sunday nights before Fox decided to just scrap the idea of consistently scheduling it and just bounced it around the network timetable. It was not a breakout hit. It did not inspire a revival or resurrection in the way that other science-fiction properties have done. It has a very devoted and strong cult following, but its name is more likely to evoke a vague remembrance than anything more concrete.

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And yet, despite that, Space: Above and Beyond was still a massively influential piece of television. Despite the fact that it was structured as a throwback to classic war movies, it was also a very progressive piece of television. The influence of Space: Above and Beyond can be keenly felt on Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, even though the show seldom gets any real credit for that influence. In some respects, Space: Above and Beyond was well ahead of its time.

Who Monitors the Birds? is put together with incredible skill and confidence. It is an episode that holds up fantastically, and which serves as a demonstration of the series’ lost potential.

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On the commentary for the episode, Glen Morgan can’t quite articulate where the idea came from or why he decided to do it:

I don’t really remember why. I mean, movies are – as Jim and I learned in film school, grew up with –  stories without words. Pictures. So, I don’t know. We just had something up our ass to go, “We’re do one without dialogue, because TV is so much dialogue. They fix things with off-screen lines and it’s just people talking. So we’re going to do this.”

He and Wong committed to this idea, producing forty-five minutes of television that have – by his own estimation – about two minutes of dialogue.

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In the documentary Beyond and Back, former development and programming executive Jeff Eckerle reflects that this was something of a battle for the production team, understandably so:

Glen felt very strongly that this was an episode he wanted to do. He knew that there would be some resistance to it. To do an entire hour of television without any dialogue was a pretty bold move. But it can work for you, or against you. I will say that when I presented it to my cohorts at the network, there was some nervousness and some debate, because it’s a departure. It is making a big departure from the series as it was, and it is a big departure from television as usual. And, eventually, the network decided to support him.

Who Monitors the Birds? is a delightful bold episode of television, on that seems designed to make the network uncomfortable. It is something utterly unlike anything the network expected from Space: Above and Beyond, which is a testament to Morgan and Wong.

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It is worth noting that the writing was almost certainly on the wall at this point. Morgan and Wong have admitted frustration with how Fox handled Space: Above and Beyond, particularly the scheduling of the series. They had initially been promised that Space: Above and Beyond would air on Friday nights, as a companion piece to The X-Files. However, Fox had scheduled it on Sunday nights, a decision that led to all sorts of problems. It was pre-empted by football and subject to heavier censorship.

According to Wong and Morgan, Fox had repeatedly made the promise to air the show on Fridays. They had even promised to shift the show to Fridays in January 1996. That did not happen. Who Monitors the Birds? was the first episode of Space: Above and Beyond to air in 1996, and it aired at 7pm on a Sunday evening. Space: Above and Beyond did not air on a Friday night until after the decision to cancel the series had already been made.

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As such, Who Monitors the Birds? seems almost like a sly protest vote. Despite airing in January 1996 with an introductory monologue explaining the show’s mythos, Who Monitors the Birds? is not a show designed to welcome casual viewers flicking through the channels on Sunday evenings. It has very little dialogue, and so very little exposition; it only heavily features one member of the ensemble, although puts another in grotesque make-up; it is brutal and violent and cynical.

Up to this point, Space: Above and Beyond has been quite sensitive to the whims and expectations of the network. The Pilot had a clear and structured ending, in case they needed to sell it as a stand-alone television movie. Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance were written because the executives wanted more science-fiction. The series had pushed West’s search for Kaylen into the background, acknowledging that it wasn’t quite working.

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In contrast, Who Monitors the Birds? feels like Morgan and Wong throwing their hands up and deciding that Space: Above and Beyond really needs to be its own thing. Who Monitors the Birds? is an episode that is an absolutely abysmal choice to open the new year from a programming standpoint, but one that is a triumphant artistic success. It feels like an episode that shrugs off the expectations that Fox imposed on the show, and was written and planned without any regard for what Fox might want.

The result is a stunningly bold and beautiful hour of television, forty-five minutes of entertainment that seem very out of place in the television landscape of the mid-nineties. Who Monitors the Birds? would still seem bold and unique had it aired a decade or so later on a cable channel; broadcasting it at prime-time on a major network in 1996 was an incredible accomplishment, and one that speaks to Morgan and Wong’s ability and energy.

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In many ways, Who Monitors the Birds? can be seen as a forerunner to the various “concept” episodes that became very popular in genre television in the nineties – shows that take a particular show off-format and do something quite unusual. The later seasons of The X-Files would do this quite regularly, with episodes like The Post-Modern Prometheus or Triangle or X-Cops. Joss Whedon was fond of these episodes on his shows. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had Once More With FeelingHush and The Body, to name three.

Who Monitors the Birds? was well ahead of the curve. Whedon himself is very much a fan. He has been known to slip sly references to it into interviews. Casting Rodney Rowland in Conviction, the fifth season premiere of Angel, Whedon paused on the commentary to acknowledge that Who Monitors the Birds? had been a major influence on Hush, his mostly-silent episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Hush was roundly (and rightly) praised as a phenomenal episode of television when it aired in 1999.

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However, Hush garnered a lot more attention than Who Monitored the Birds?, airing as it it did in the middle of the fourth season of a hugely popular television show, rather than in the middle of a one-season wonder. To be fair, Who Monitors the Birds? did garner some very deserved attention when it aired. It won Sci-Fi Universe Magazine Universe Reader’s Choice Award for Best Writing for a Genre TV Series in 1996. However, there is a sense that the show was very much “under the radar.”

There is a sense that television itself was more comfortable with this sort of experimentation in December 1999 than it would have been in January 1996. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was a fixture of a television landscape that would soon produce The Sopranos. HBO was emerging as a potent force. Even network television would grow more ambitious and adventurous towards the end of the nineties and into the new millennium. Space: Above and Beyond was produced at a very different time.

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On the Beyond and Back documentary, Morgan talks about how Space: Above and Beyond is largely forgotten and overlooked in discussing the evolution of genre television:

I’m not angry about it. I get angry when the show and the cast doesn’t get credit for some things that we may have established before Battlestar Galactica. But that’s not Galactica’s fault. People who write about these things don’t do their homework. And these things that we all did, they’re forgotten about now because Fox didn’t handle the show properly.

It is an understandable and palpable frustration. Who Monitors the Birds? is an episode that deserves to be counted among the best (or at least most innovative) episodes of television in the nineties, but is often ignored.

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However, even if Who Monitors the Birds? gets somewhat glossed over in evaluations of genre television, it serves as a very clear evolution for Morgan and Wong as creators. Space: Above and Beyond allowed the duo to spread their wings, to get out from underneath Chris Carter’s shadow and tell their own stories in their own style. Running a massive science-fiction war epic allowed Glen Morgan and James Wong to push themselves in a way that they could not have done if they remained with The X-Files.

When the pair returned to The X-Files in the fourth season, they had been changed by their experiences. Their scripts were a lot more ambitious and bizarre and angry than they had been before. Space: Above and Beyond had allowed them to flex their creative muscles. James Wong gained his first experience directing when he had to provide a missing “hero” shot for The Dark Side of the Sun. The ending to Space: Above and Beyond arguably set the tone for the ending to the second season of Millennium.

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Who Monitors the Birds? is the most ambitious script written for Space: Above and Beyond, but it also sets the tone for the scripts the duo would write in the years ahead. It is debatable whether Morgan and Wong ever wrote anything more experimental or more radical that Who Monitors the Birds?, but the episode demonstrated a willingness to play with form in a way that made later scripts like Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, The Curse of Frank Black or even The Time is Now possible.

It would be easy enough for Who Monitors the Birds? to rest on its laurels. The premise of a largely silent episode is enough to sustain forty-five minutes of television easily. It is a compelling hook that really doesn’t need too much else. However, despite this, Who Monitors the Birds? serves as a successful encapsulation of the show’s core themes. It is an episode that hits on a lot of the core ideas of Space: Above and Beyond within forty-five minutes and with a bare minimum of expository dialogue.

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The episode features Hawkes trapped on an enemy planet. The story’s most prominent guest star is killed off in the teaser before he has spoken a word. As Hawkes waits for extraction, he contemplates on his life to this point. The episode keeps dialogue to an absolute minimum. Even in the flashbacks to Hawkes’ InVitro education, most of the information is conveyed through slideshow presentations and diagrams.

As one might expect, words are vitally important in Who Monitors the Birds? The idea of communication and understanding – and whether the ability to articulate words helps or hinders that – plays a significant part of Who Monitors the Birds? The episode’s title comes from an innocent question asked by Hawkes of his supervisor. Those four little words lead his mind on to the next critical question, “Who monitors you?” Three very simple words that change Hawkes’ life forever.

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The InVitro education centre is consciously designed to evoke Orwell’s 1984. In particular, with its rows of people watching “education”, it evokes the iconic 1984 Apple advertisement. In keeping with that tone, words are frequently layered and misleading. Double-speak and euphemisms use words to conceal and mask horrific truths. Those training Hawkes to kill call themselves “monitors.” Hawkes is labelled “defective” for daring to question. The “monitors” plan for him to be “erased.”

How easy it is to couch horrific realities in generic-sounding words. Even the worst atrocities can be rationalised or justified if the right language is used or usurped. “America loves you,” the InVitros are assured, despite what we have seen to this point. They are also told that “to be monitored is to be free. Spared the agony of decision.” Words are powerful. As much as words can lead Hawkes to question his world, they can also be manipulated in the service of something horrible.

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Who Monitors the Birds? also touches on the series’ core themes about humanity’s response to what it deems alien and other. The aliens do not appear to speak English. No words are passed between Hawkes and the soldiers on the planet. However, in spite – or perhaps because – of this lack of verbal communication, the two are still able to strike up a bond. Hawkes is still able to empathise with these aliens, even after they have killed his colleague, and despite the fact they do not speak the same language.

Without words, Hawkes almost comes to understand the enemy. Early on, he tries to put on an enemy helmet – as if inviting himself to see the world as they do. Later on, he makes a silent agreement with an enemy solider that they should both go their separate ways without killing one another. Both are able to communicate without recourse to dialogue, only crude gestures. There is enough common ground between humanity and their enemy that they can understand each other at the most basic level.

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After all, they both stare at the birds. Morgan and Wong have not been shy about referencing classic war movies. R. Lee Ermy appeared in The Pilot playing a space-age version of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. The way that Who Monitors the Birds? uses wildlife to symbolise innocence and decency cannot help but recall The Deer Hunter. Both Connor Hawkes and Michael Vronsky seem to recognise something of themselves in these animals, and Hawkes shares that experience with an anonymous alien soldier here.

There is some small measure of hope there. If Hawkes and an anonymous enemy can come to an understanding in silence, trading mementos and going their separate ways, surely that must be possible on a larger scale? Hawkes is just a soldier who is just six years old. If this is possible under these circumstances, imagine what a group of qualified negotiators and diplomats might be able to agree amongst themselves. Of course, one suspects that words would only complicate matters.

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Inevitably, Who Monitors the Birds? twists this all around. Hawkes is forced to kill the soldier he spared earlier in the story, undermining the idea of any justice or fairness in war. This plot development could easily seem cynical or trite, but it fits quite comfortably with the broader themes of Space: Above and Beyond. As much as Space: Above and Beyond celebrates the bravery of those fighting for their country and their planet, it id very cynical about warfare.

In many ways, Space: Above and Beyond feels like a treatise on the futility of warfare and the brutality of conflict. The show seems to accept the pointlessness of this sort of bloodshed. Cooper Hawkes is recruited for a black ops assassination mission against an enemy official who was responsible for the massacre of a civilian colony. One wonders what sort of purpose this extra-judicial assassination serves outside of satisfying some desire for vengeance.

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Will this assassination end the war quicker? Will it save lives in the long term? It is possible that this military official is a vitally important cog in the enemy war machine, but it seems more likely that this is just an attempt to avenge a past wrong. It is just another act in a perpetual cycle of violence that threatens to consume absolutely everything. It is a circle from which there is no escape, just more loss and suffering. Who Monitors the Birds? is packed with cyclical imagery, lots of doubling and mirroring.

The opening and closing shots of the episode focus on the two moons in the sky of this alien world. The closing shot features the reflection of those two moons on the surface of a body of water. The show opens with Hawkes and Colquitt emerging from the water; the show ends with Hawkes grimly returning to the water. The sound of enemy gunfire segues to the sound of friendly fire. The gifts are exchanged, and then returned. A life is saved, and then taken. When he chooses to tear up the discharge sheet, war becomes an punishment imposed upon Cooper Hawkes by himself, rather than by the state.

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This sense of doubling and mirroring even occurs within the flashbacks. In flashback, Hawkes is victim of an attempted murder in the same chamber where he was “born”, while this assassination attempt provides the impetus for a more dramatic rebirth as Hawkes escapes into the wider world and decides to find his own way. It is fantastically constructed, and veteran Star Trek director Winrich Kolbe – himself a Vietnam veteran – does a wonderful job bringing the show to life.

Appropriately enough, Who Monitors the Birds? comes packed with abstract symbolism and imagery. It feels very ethereal and almost hyperreal. As with Francis Ford Coppola’s work on Apocalypse Now, there is a sense that the river leads to a very strange and surreal place where the normal rules of reality are not in full effect. Most notably, Hawkes is haunted by the vision of a grotesque female figure over the course of the episode, the embodiment of death itself.

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The female figure – played by Kristen Cloke – is very much an ode to “the Whore of Death” who was most famously (or infamously) described by William Manchester in Goodbye Darkness, his memoir of the war in the Pacific:

Indeed, to a healthy imagination, she was the most improbable of sex objects. Her flesh was anything but appealing. It was deadly white, like a frog’s belly, and covered with running sores. Twin lines of vile maggots appeared on her upper lip, entering her nostrils in endless, weaving columns. Gray fungus grew up her arms. Gaunt, prehensile hands restlessly clutched at each other, like fingers stitching a shroud. When she grinned lewdly, as she presently did, she revealed vicious jagged teeth sharp enough to rip out your throat, as those Java rats are said to lunge through your cheeks to reach the morsel on your tongue. She exhaled a foul stench. But it was her eyes, eyes as old as tombs, which were the most phenomenal. A direct stare is the boldest way to invade the sheath of privacy which envelops each of us, and she was using it devastatingly, diminishing the distance between us to the intimacy of a membrane. Her wide pupils were in turn stony, reptilian, shameless. She trembled suggestively. She was soliciting me.

It is a very vivid and uncomfortable image, and one that informs Who Monitors the Birds? so much that the earlier drafts of the script were actually labelled “The Whore of Death.”

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Although Manchester provides perhaps the definitive account of the phenomenon, it is worth noting that his vision is by no means unique:

“The concept originally came from reading William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness,” says Morgan, “but then you do some research, and you find it’s actually a common kind of phenomenon among soldiers, a vision that combines that eroticism with death.”

“In Manchester’s book, the vision he saw was so horrid, but it was dressed like a New England prep school girl,” adds Morgan, who decided along with Wong that Hawkes’ death-vision should appear to him as Shane.

“There’s just a whole other level for Cooper by having Shane there,” says Wong.

But once Cloke arrived on the location as the unearthly Whore of Death, Morgan and Wong discovered their creation had perhaps more relevance than they first realized.

Says Morgan, “Dale Dye, who played Jack Colquitt, the guy who goes on the mission with Cooper, came up to Kristen after she was all made up, and he looked at her and said, ‘I’ve seen you before – when I was in Vietnam.'”

The inclusion of Vansen adds an interesting layer to all this. She is one of the closest women in Hawkes’ life, and serves as all types of female archetypes. Having her represent a highly sexualised version of death itself is delightfully unsettling.

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Rodney Rowland carries most of Who Monitors the Birds? by himself. Shooting at night, with a large number of stunts and with a minimum of dialogue, it would be a tough assignment even without the other difficulties presenting themselves:

“Next to my performance on The X-Files that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” muses the actor. “I spent twenty-one-hour days in freezing cold and being constantly soaked down. I had to go to the hospital three times due to exhaustion and also to be treated for asthma. I never had asthma in my life; I had no idea where it came from. It was worth it, though. When I look back at that episode there are several scenes, I think, which are some of my best work ever. It was such a daring type of thing to do, especially for network television. That’s typical, though, of Glen and Jim. They don’t settle for the ordinary.”

Rowland isn’t alone in that assessment of the show. When asked to cite their own favourite episodes, Who Monitors the Birds? immediately jumps out to Morgan and Wong as well.

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It is also worth pausing to acknowledge the work done by composer Shirley Walker on the show. Active in television since the early eighties, Walker had a distinctly old-fashioned style – she even wrote all her film scores by hand. In contrast with a lot of the scoring and composing for nineties television – and, in particular, Mark Snow’s work on The X-Files or Millennium – Walker tended to hark back to classic Hollywood, featuring large orchestrations and sweeping melodies.

Walker’s music often feels like it could play perfectly over a classic black-and-white feature – lending her work a classical quality that was quite rare in contemporary television composing. Her style worked so well on Batman: The Animated Series because she captured the cartoon’s sense of timelessness. Walker’s music felt perfectly in step for a world where lasers and zeppelins coexisted. There is an element of that to her score for Space: Above and Beyond. spaceaboveandbeyond-whomonitorsthebirds22

She gives the show a very classic and orchestral feel, really helping to cement the idea that Space: Above and Beyond is a Second World War epic that has been transposed to the distant future. It is a very grand style, but one that perfectly sets the mood for the story that Morgan and Wong want to tell. It is no surprise that Shirley Walker would remain a frequent collaborator with the duo until her death, scoring the first three Final Destination films and Black Christmas.

In many respects, Who Monitors the Birds? is an unconventional Space: Above and Beyond score. It is largely driven by synth and electric guitar, in contrast to the show’s broad orchestral style. It is a decision that works very well – immediately marking the episode’s soundscape as alien and unusual. More than that, Walker is clearly channelling the sorts of eighties science-fiction that informs the production design and mood of Who Monitors the Birds?

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Who Monitors the Birds? is a sadly underseen television masterclass.

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

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