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Space: Above and Beyond – Never No More (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.

On the surface, Never No More and The Angriest Angel feel like a companion piece to Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance. Both are two-part episodes airing around sweeps, almost in step with the equivalent two-part episodes of The X-Files. Both push the show’s story arcs forward. Both also draw in recurring guest stars Doug Hutchinson and Michael Mantell, last seen during Choice or Chance. In many respects, Never No More and The Angriest Angel could be seen as a follow-up to that earlier two-part adventure.

However, there are a number of subtle differences that help Never No More and The Angriest Angel feel like a series highpoint – rather than another ambitious misfire. Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance seemed like episodes trying to do too much, and straying into areas where Space: Above and Beyond had always faced difficulty. They were high-concept science-fiction epic adventures that also tried to work in character arcs for the entire ensemble, set against a truly epic story about an ambitious suicide mission and subsequent rescue attempt.

It's only a paper moon...

It’s only a paper moon…

In a way, Never No More and The Angriest Angel are a lot more modest in their scope. There are big revelations here, and plot points that push the show’s arc forwards. However, these elements are not foregrounded. Never No More and The Angriest Angel are not episodes that aspire to be all things to all people. Instead, they are two character studies centred on the two strongest characters (and actors) in the cast, filling in other details as a secondary concern.

Space: Above and Beyond always worked better as a war show than as a science-fiction drama, and Never No More and The Angriest Angel seem to realise this. The two episodes play as an extended homage to the tropes and conventions of classic war stories. Never No More is the story of love divided by conflict, and The Angriest Angel is a tale of personal discovery set against the backdrop of a larger war. They combine to produce a highlight of the entire Space: Above and Beyond run.

Not a patch on his original squadron...

Not a patch on his original squadron…

While Who Monitors the Birds? is undoubtedly a more important and influential episode of television, and perhaps the most ambitious teleplay ever written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, Never No More and The Angriest Angel are probably the most effective distillation of Space: Above and Beyond as a television show. The series was largely “the Second World War… IN SPACE!”, and this two-parter emphasises that by beautifully and efficiently playing out two standard war narratives with incredibly craftsmanship.

Specifically, Never No More and The Angriest Angel don’t play into each other directly. There are linking plot threads – from “Operation Roundhammer” to “Chiggy Von Richthofen” – but the two episodes stand quite well on their own terms as explorations of loss and identity. Vansen’s arc is dealt with exclusively within the confines of Never No More, while the bulk of McQueen’s character issues are worked through over the course of The Angriest Angel. There’s no clear cliffhanger lead-in as there was at the end of Hostile Visit.

Across the board...

Across the board…

Had they been produced even five years later, it is likely that Never No More and The Angriest Angel would not have been considered a two-parter. They would simply be two-self reasonably self-contained episodes with elements bleeding over from one story to the next. They would sit comfortably in a season of Battlestar Galactica. However, Space: Above and Beyond was still airing at a time when prime-time drama was still largely episodic. So there is something of a contrast there.

Despite the way that it harks back to classic war movies and evokes the Second World War, there are more than a few ways that Space: Above and Beyond feels ahead of its time. Never No More and The Angriest Angel sit in something of a grey area between a two-parter on a mostly episodic television show in the nineties, and two individual episodes of a more serialised drama in the twenty-first century. It is fascinating to watch.

A fascinating cocktail...

A fascinating cocktail…

Shane Vansen is arguably another way that Space: Above and Beyond feels ahead of its time. Vansen feels like something of a prototype for Starbuck on the relaunched Battlestar Galactica, a female pilot who is not defined by her gender – a flawed, dysfunctional, multifaceted person who exists in stark contrast to many of her television contemporaries. Starbuck was a refreshing character when she first appeared in 2004; Vansen cannot help but seem particularly progressive for a character who appeared in the nineties.

Space: Above and Beyond allowed Vansen her femininity without having her defined by it. She was not a character who was going to be defined by her relationship to a man. The show would not be writing her into a “will-they-won’t-they” relationship with West or Hawkes. Quite early on, Morgan and Wong had ruled out any clichéd romantic entanglements among the cast. “We’re not going to have big love triangles,” Morgan promised in one interview.

Shipping out...

Shipping out…

Indeed, it could be argued that the two credited leads on the show – Morgan Weisser as Nathan West and Kristen Cloke as Shane Vansen – inverted gender stereotypes, just like Mulder and Scully did. Like Mulder, West is portrayed as an emotive and romantic dreamer, a character who tends to “feel” rather than “know”, and is mostly driven by faith. In contrast, like Scully, Vansen is more no-nonsense and rational. Although West might be listed higher up the call sheet, Vansen leads the squadron.

West is defined by his romantic relationship with Kaylen; love is the arc that drives West’s character. In contrast, Vansen is defined by familial or platonic dynamics. The loss of her family is a key element of her back story, and the dynamic with her male colleagues is so platonic that Hawkes’ vision of Vansen as a seductress in Who Monitors the Birds? is almost as uncanny at the character’s creepy and unsettling make-up.

Captain of her own destiny...

Captain of her own destiny…

This is not to suggest that Vansen is sexless or loveless. Never No More is built around an encounter between Vansen and an old flame. However, Space: Above and Beyond has worked very hard to ensure that Vansen is not reduced to the conventional roles played by “the chick” in television ensembles. This is due to fantastic work by creators Glen Morgan and James Wong, but also due to the performance from actress Kristen Cloke.

It is interesting to look at the character work in Never No More in contrast to the character work in Level of Necessity. Never No More is – like Who Monitors the Birds? before it and The Angriest Angel after it – a story that could only really be told with one particular member of the ensemble. The story fits the character perfectly. Who Monitors the Birds? would not work for West (or even McQueen), just as Never No More would not work for Hawkes or Damphousse. In contrast, Damphousse’s character work in Level of Necessity was generic – she seemed to be featured by default.

We'll always have Earth...

We’ll always have Earth…

The episode takes its place from a ballad written by Patsy Cline. The decision to feature Cline’s music feels oddly appropriate. Like Vansen, Cline was a woman who worked in an industry dominated and defined by men, but managed to succeed on her own terms. As Joli Jensen reflects in Patsy Cline’s Crossovers:

Patsy Cline was clearly not a ‘girl singer’ like Kitty Wells, one of the few other country music options of the time. She had, as people told me, “grown up hard”, was sexually frank, swore, drank, and help her own in male company. So Patsy both was and wasn’t country, not only in her music, but in her persona. In the public country music world of the 1950s, girl singer meant modest or demure. Kitty Wells’ answer song, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels was one of the first mentions of an alternative form of ‘country girl’ who spent time in bars and hung out with the boys. Honky-tonk angel was far closer to Patsy Cline’s experience and live performance style than girl singer, but throughout her biographical career, efforts were made to promote her as a pert, fresh, country girl.

As such, Cline feels like an appropriate artist to feature in a show centring on Vansen. Much as Johnny Cash’s music was featured in Ray Butts, Cline’s music makes multiple appearances here. The title track plays, and forms a vital part of the plot, but the episode also features Cline’s more successful ballad, I Fall To Pieces.

Sharing a drink he calls loneliness...

Sharing a drink he calls loneliness…

I Fall to Pieces was written by two male songwriters – Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. The song is one about heartbreak and loss, abandonment and loneliness, reawakened through a chance encounter:

I fall to pieces,

Each time I see you again

I fall to pieces

How can I be just your friend?

The song’s relevance to the plot is obvious, as Vansen finds herself dealing with memories dredged up by her encounter with an old flame, Lieutenant Hall.

Save the last dance...

Save the last dance…

Roy Drusky originally declined to record the song, dismissing it as “a woman’s song.” Ellis Nassour’s Honky Tonk Angel recalls a conversation between producer Owen Bradley and Roy Drusky over the song:

“Well, it is a hit!” he admonished. “You don’t want a hit?”

“Yeah, but it’s a girl’s song, Owen! You don’t hear a man saying, ‘I fall to piece.’ It’s ridiculous.”

The script for Never No More acknowledges this somewhat sexist subtext to the song head-on. It is quite clear that the song applies more to Hall than it does to Vansen. Hall is the one heartbroken by Vansen, and Hall is the one dealing with his own more recent loss. Hall is the one falling to pieces.

Commanding performances...

Commanding performances…

Never No More draws on a wide variety of familiar Second World War conventions. Although set before the outbreak of the war, Vansen and Hall’s break-up scene on the beach feels like something taken from a classic film – a classic image, reminding viewers that even something as powerful as love can be subject to greater forces. Space: Above and Beyond is a show that has traded on the iconography of the Second World War, particularly in cinema; the flashback sequence may be a little corny, but it captures the mood perfectly.

here are other ways that Never No More feels like it harks back to the forties. Although written after the conflict was over, and not necessarily dealing with the same ideas, the episode’s use of Never No More as a romantic reminder cannot help but evoke the love ballads about couples divided by the conflict and hoping for a reunion. The Second World War saw a surge in the popularity of songs that were not written specifically for the conflict – Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain wrote I’ll Be Seeing You in 1938, but it was massively popular during the war.

Some options simply aren't on the table...

Some options simply aren’t on the table…

In The Songs that Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945, John Bush Jones notes that the idea of exploring love and separation through romantic ballads had a fairly universal appeal, across the entirety of the war:

What’s interesting about the hundred or more songs of servicemen’s goodbyes throughout the war years is their consistency. Except for a cluster of numbers in 1941 and ’42 whose immediate impetus was the draft, the songs written later in the war look and sound just about the same as those at the beginning, suggesting that saying goodbye in wartime is pretty much a painful constant.

Much of Never No More is built on the idea of timelessness – that certain patterns and inevitabilities recur across history. Love will always be torn asunder. Vansen may hope that she and Hall can pick up where they left off in five years, but that is by no means certain. Never No More evokes this sense of recurring and repeating history in a number of ways, both personal and epic.

To the letter...

To the letter…

Hall proposes to Vansen as Never No More plays in the background, the same song that was playing when his parents proposed. “Chiggy Von Richthofen” is a direct reference to Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron.” The plan for the invasion of the enemy homeworld – “Operation Roundhammer” – shares its name with the Allied plan to liberate France. Even the plan to “planet-hop” to the enemy homeworld evokes the initial plans to “island-hop” during the United States invasion of Japan.

This fits with the broader sense of cyclic history in Space: Above and Beyond, which echoes throughout the show’s run. This glimpse of the future offers a vision of mankind that reintroduced its own form of slavery with both the Silicates and the InVitroes. Several of the key moments in the show’s run consciously mirror important events from the Second World War. The alien enemy are dehumanised in the same way that the Japanese were dehumanised by the Allies. Episodes like Who Monitors the Birds? made this cyclic pattern explicit.

Fight and flight...

Fight and flight…

It is a very cynical view of the future. While the show is romantic about mankind’s ability to accomplish great things, and the possibility of individual heroism, there is also a sense that mankind is trapped by its own history. As much as Space: Above and Beyond is prone to romanticism about the idealism of the sixties and of the potential wonders of space, it is also fascinated with mankind’s unerring ability to mess it all up.

In many ways, Space: Above and Beyond is positioned opposite the other great science-fiction franchise of the nineties. Star Trek: The Next Generation posited a future where mankind had established utopia and people lived comfortably within that framework. Space: Above and Beyond suggests that people may be fundamentally decent, but they are trapped in repeating patterns of conflict and warfare.

The be Hall and end Hall...

The be Hall and end Hall…

Space: Above and Beyond seems to believe that people are inherently good. Vansen and Hall may have difficulties relating to one another after all this time, but they are both willing to work through the hurt that has been caused. When the show’s characters come closest to understanding the enemy, it is inevitably on a more personal basis – the recruits interrogating a prisoner in The Pilot, Hawkes meeting a fellow soldier in Who Monitors the Birds?

In contrast, it is the larger structures that cause problems. The show has repeatedly insinuated that AeroTech knew about the threat posed by the enemy, and kept their knowledge a secret – a decision that cost thousands of lives. There is an unwillingness to share, a sense that AeroTech is more interested in preserving its public image and reputation – not to mention economic standing – than it is in the lives of the soldiers fighting the war. (In The Angriest Angel, Sewell is quick to point out that “Sewell Fuel” is a “proprietary” secret belonging to AeroTech.)

Here's where we make a "military intelligence is an oxymoron gag", right?

Here’s where we make a “military intelligence is an oxymoron gag”, right?

Even the military command structure has made poor decisions over the course of the series, decisions that make it more difficult for our heroes to do their jobs. McQueen is outraged when his superiors consider suppressing knowledge of “Chiggy Von Richthofen” in order to preserve moral. “Our pilots will never know unless they are told of this situation,” he insists. “Sir, respectfully you’re sending them into the dark without a light.” As optimistic as Space: Above and Beyond is about people, it seems cynical of larger organisations.

As such, it makes sense that Never No More and The Angriest Angel both focus on personal stories, even as larger stories play out in the background. These are stories about people caught up in the war, realising that the war itself must be secondary to the show’s primary characters. “There has to be something beyond this war,” McQueen advises Vansen, and this two-parter seems willing to explore and broach the idea that there is.

Vansen's crew...

Vansen’s crew…

The war is an event so profound that these characters have had their narratives distorted by its centre of gravity. However, more than Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance, these two episodes realise that the primary focus simply must be those stories. The war is important, but that scale is best expressed through the influence it wields on the lives of those drawn into it; and not through copious amounts of CGI and technobabble.

Never No More is a superb episode of television, and one of the high points of Space: Above and Beyond‘s brief run.

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

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