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Space: Above and Beyond – The Angriest Angel (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.

Existentialism is something of a recurring theme in the work of Glen Morgan and James Wong.

It echoes through their work. Mulder’s choice of action ultimately serves to define him in One Breath, in contrast to the other more senior male characters in the narrative. The duo’s second script for Millennium, 5-2-6-6-6, opens with a quote from existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Even the pair’s feature film work – The One and the Final Destination films – touch broadly on existentialist themes.

Pressed (up) on the issue...

Pressed (up) on the issue…

However, The Angriest Angel is perhaps the most candid of their scripts, with McQueen explicitly explaining how his actions are serving to define his identity. In his power-house opening monologue, McQueen describes these defining moments as make-or-break points. “Everyone, everyone in this life knows when the moment is before them. To turn away is simple. To ignore it assures survival. But it is an insult to life. Because there can be no redemption.”

This is perhaps the most elegant and effective summary of Morgan and Wong’s approach to character development. McQueen articulates it clearer than any of their characters, but the philosophy applies just as much to Scully in Beyond the Sea or Never Again as it does to Tyrius Cassius McQueen. Indeed, it would come to define their work on Millennium, with the second season repeatedly suggesting that the end of the world was as much a personal event as a massive social occurrence.

Slice of life...

Slice of life…

This marks the beginning of a phase in Morgan and Wong’s writing where the pair would find themselves working through Morgan’s divorce from his first wife. He is now happily married to Kristen Cloke, but there was a period in the mid-nineties where the divorce bled very clearly and very painfully into his work. Morgan himself has been quite candid on the matter, and it is hard not read some of McQueen’s existential crisis as a reflection of Morgan’s own personal concerns at that moment in time.

Morgan and Wong always poured a great deal of themselves into the characters. Morgan has suggested that his divorce informed the characters of Jim Horn in Dead Letters and Ed Jerse in Never Again. On the documentary Beyond and Back, Kristen Cloke suggests that Morgan can be seen reflected in the major characters on the show  – West’s romanticism, Vansen’s protectiveness and even Hawkes’ punk attitude are all facets that Cloke associates with Morgan.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

On the commentary for The Angriest Angel, Morgan himself is quite candid about how the episode reflects what he was working through at the time:

This is about the most personal thing I ever wrote, to me; being about a divorce I went through, which was happening at the time I wrote it. But it wasn’t intended – “oh, I’m going to write about this life-change, this moment before me” – because I think that life is made up of a lot of moments. At that moment, I was facing quite a life-change, and I see it now; how in art, it can come out what you’re going through, without any idea as you’re doing it that that’s what you’re doing.

That cuts right to the heart of The Angriest Angel, a story that is about how character finds itself defined in the strangest of places.

He's had in the ear...

He’s had in the ear before…

At its heart, The Angriest Angel is a story about how people are essentially alone in the universe – how there is only so much that anybody can ever understand anybody else. McQueen relates the story of his marriage – the story of two people who lived together and loved one another; and ultimately did not know each other. “Before we married I tried to tell her what it would be like to be with a Tank,” he tells Winslow. “But hearing it isn’t feeling it.”

The Angriest Angel is about McQueen trying to reconcile with himself – to accept that who he wanted to be, who he hoped he might be, is not who he is. “I’d like to have been a father,” he admits to Winslow. “But I believe in asking myself, then answering, ‘Who am I?’ That wasn’t the answer.” There is something quite harrowing in the way that McQueen processes this, accepting an uncomfortable and unsettling truth, no matter how terrible it might make him feel.

A marriage of inconvenience?

A marriage of inconvenience?

McQueen sees himself as a soldier. That is all that he has ever been. McQueen insists on a personal distance between himself and those under his commands, rejecting the idea that he could ever be a fully-formed person with a life beyond this war. “When this war ends and you go back to raising money for charity and you’re eating dogs at Wrigley and you go back to Mayberry I’m still going to be out here waiting for the next one.”

There is a beautiful irony in this. In Never No More, McQueen had informed Vansen that there had to be something beyond this war – and he was right. However, the tragedy of McQueen is his own inability to see that in his own life. His officers will return to their day-to-day lives, but this is McQueen’s life. He is the eternal warrior, the perpetual soldier. McQueen is a man who believes that he is what he does, and what he does is wage war.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

In a way, this affirms the idea that McQueen truly is “the angriest angel.” The title refers, of course, to his previous squadron – the Angry Angels. They were all killed in The Pilot, and McQueen’s mission against “Chiggy Von Richthofen” could be seen as an attempt to balance the scales – putting McQueen back in the cockpit for the first time since his squadron died and allowing him to reclaim that part of who he is, even as doctors and medical experts (and his superiors) deny that. However, the episode makes other thematic connections between McQueen and biblical angels.

He tells Winslow that a “war wound” rendered him incapable of having children, much as angels in Judeo-Christian theology are traditionally portrayed as eunuchs. Similarly, McQueen’s implication that his human colleagues have some free will that he lacks reflects the anxieties that angels feel towards mankind in texts as diverse as Paradise Lost and Dogma – the idea that mankind has been endowed with a free-will that angels lack, that mankind has the freedom to define themselves in a way that the angels do not.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

McQueen does not shape his identity in choices, but by actions. “There is no reality except in action,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Existentialism is Humanism. “Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.” It feels like an accurate reflection of McQueen’s philosophy as expressed here – where he treats his destruction of the alien adversary as a character-defining moment, one that firmly establishes who he is.

Over the course of Never No More and The Angriest Angel, for example, we never get to see inside the cockpit occupied by “Chiggy Von Richthofen.” The enemy is not a person, it is a concept against which McQueen can define himself. “Chiggy Von Richthofen” inevitably has his own life and story and history, but all of that is irrelevant as far as McQueen is concerned. McQueen will never know who “Chiggy Von Richthofen” was or where he came from. All he can do is use these events to help define himself.

Staring at the stars...

Staring at the stars…

There is, of course, a powerful irony to McQueen’s character arc. As an “InVitro”, McQueen was created by humans to fight their wars. He was not born, but designed. Unlike mankind himself, he knows his creator exists and he knows his intended purpose. Much like the paper-knife that Sartre was so fond of citing as an example of essentialism, McQueen was a character designed by a creator with obvious intent for a clear purpose.

And yet, despite of possessing a certainty that mankind lacks, McQueen still rejects the idea that his identity comes from that design, instead suggesting that his identity is derived from his actions. From McQueen’s perspective, he is not a soldier because he was designed and trained to be a soldier; he is a soldier because he fights. In The Angriest Angel, McQueen derives his identity not from what he wants or from what others expect of him, but from what he does. It is the death of “Chiggy Von Richthofen” that gives McQueen an identity.

Launching into it...

Launching into it…

The paradoxical elements of McQueen’s character make him a compelling and engaging figure. He was designed and bred with the intent that he would be a soldier; then he became a soldier. He was so effective a soldier that very little of McQueen exists outside that role. The logical flow would be that McQueen is following his destiny, the plan of his designer, doing what he was designed to do. McQueen firmly rejects this narrative. The fact that he turned out to be a good soldier does not legitimise that decision to breed him for that purpose.

The Angriest Angel presents McQueen as a character struggling with his own identity, living with choices that he did not make. When Winslow remarks that she isn’t sure whether McQueen’s isolation is “due to circumstances or by design”, McQueen replies, “It’s by design, Lieutenant, but not mine.” McQueen seems to be living out a life largely defined by active choices made by other characters. His wife decided to end the marriage, the government decided to create him as a perfect soldier.

(D)roid rage...

(D)roid rage…

There is a sense that McQueen has struggled against the expectations imposed on him. He has tried to find a life outside the one prepared for him. He tried to be a family man. He tried to integrate with society. He tried to become more than what he had been designed to be. This did not work. There is something tragic about this – the sense that McQueen cannot be what he would like to be, and is instead what he was designed to be. However, The Angriest Angel suggests that McQueen can at least be a soldier on his own terms.

McQueen rejects the will of his creator. When the Saratoga’s chaplain suggests that he make peace with creator, McQueen bluntly replies, “My maker was some geek in a lab coat with an eyedropper and a petri dish. What do I need to make peace with him for?” While Sartre’s existential philosophies were rooted in the author’s atheism, McQueen is still able to embrace them despite knowing the identity of his creator and knowing his creator’s intent.

Surgical precision...

Surgical precision…

In a way, McQueen’s refusal to make peace with his maker while accepting his identity as something defined by his own actions reflects Sarter’s concept of “abandonment”, the idea that mankind must accept its own isolation and reject the idea of a higher authority. As Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness:

Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.

The Angriest Angels affirms that McQueen has done just this. He has tried to be something other than what his creator intended to be. He tried to be a husband and a family man, but that did not work out. McQueen has accepted that cannot be anything but what he is, regardless of the expectations imposed on him or his attempts to react against those.

"Well... this awkward..."

“Well… this is awkward…”

There is something heartbreakingly sad in McQueen’s realisation of self, carrying with it the knowledge that he is ultimately alone in the universe and that he can never fully understand anybody else. “I know now with certainty who I am,” he reflects at the end of the episode. “But I’ll be damned if I’ll ever know the point. And now all I can ask is ‘Who was he?’ and ‘Who was she?” and ‘what was the point?'”

It is an effective commentary on the pointless horror of war – one that destroys lives needlessly and arbitrarily. However, it also suggests something truly depressing about an existential philosophy. Existentialism suggests limits to knowledge and understanding outside the self. We relate to the world through our understanding of self, which is unsatisfying in many ways. After all, quite a lot of the conflict on Space: Above and Beyond is rooted in an inability to understand or relate to the enemy – dehumanising the alien, rendering it subhuman, failing to comprehend it.

Standing up for himself...

Standing up for himself…

The Angriest Angel is notable for being the first episode to focus almost exclusively on McQueen. The character has had juicy material before, in shows like Mutiny or Eyes or even Stay With the Dead or The River of Stars, but he has typically played a supporting role to the primary members of the cast. The Angriest Angel pushes McQueen to the fore, allowing James Morrison to carry an episode completely on his own.

This is a very canny decision, as McQueen is very much the show’s breakout character. As played by Morrison, he served to anchor the show – Morrison’s stern no-nonsense approach working well in contrast to the energy of the younger performers. There are even fan sites dedicated to re-telling the show from McQueen’s perspective. Had the show lasted more than a season, it seems likely that McQueen would have grown further in popularity – particularly considering the plan to give him his own chunky Earth-based subplot during the aborted second season.

Top Cat...

Top Cat…

Morrison himself identified McQueen as a familiar archetype, one well suited to an epic war drama:

“He’s the enigmatic badass, if you will, who emerges from the fog, shakes things up and then splits,” chuckles the actor. “This type of characters has appeared in literature throughout history, certainly in more recent genres like westerns. I’ve always been fascinated by the guy who comes down from the mountain, saves the town and then goes back up the mountain and no one ever hears from him again. He’s the archetypal silent stranger of few words. That’s what appeals to me about McQueen and that’s what I saw first.”

McQueen is essentially a timeless character. It is not hard to imagine McQueen as a Civil War veteran trying to find his way in the Old West, or a grizzled commander in the heat of the Second World War. Even Morrison’s performance style seems to hark back to a more traditional approach to acting.

Sleep of the just?

Sleep of the just?

The show seems to have identified Morrison as an asset at this point in its run. The revamp of the credits before Never No More gave Morrison the job of introducing the basics of the show to casual viewers, while giving the actor the coveted “and … as” credit, demonstrating that the last name in the opening credits was not considered least. The character’s appeal is likely rooted in the way that he gels with show’s decidedly classic aesthetic.

The Angriest Angel affords us our first real look at McQueen’s personal life. It is one of the very rare occasions that the audience gets to see the nipple on his neck. We also catch a glimpse of his quarters, decorated with all manner of interesting personal artifacts. The design on his quarters is quite elegant – lots of little details that don’t feel like they were picked up in bulk, but accrued over a life-time of thought and service.

Looking out for each other...

Looking out for each other…

There is a bonzai tree alongside a portrait of George Washington. Reflecting McQueen’s status as a timeless soldier, there is a copy of The Illiad, a tale which has been described as “the first great book, and the first great book about the suffering and loss of war.” There is a sense of McQueen as a character rife with contradictions and complexities, a character who could easily seem one-note or cliché, but instead becomes utterly compelling. A lot of that comes from the writing, but a lot of it comes from Morrison.

Even outside of McQueen’s characterisation and the distillation of Morgan and Wong’s existential approach to characterisation, there is a lot to recommend The Angriest Angel. It seems like the show has finally figured out what to do with the character of Sewell – a mysterious figure who seemed at risk of turning into a particularly knock-off of the Cigarette-Smoking Man at certain points in The Farthest Man From Home or Hostile Visit.

Fueling the war effort...

Fueling the war effort…

Here, Sewell is portrayed as a deliberately pathetic figure rather than a shrewd chessmaster – one murdered casually for an early act break. He is a character with a tremendous ego – even arrogantly naming a newly discovered energy source “Sewell Fuel.” Sure, he claims that the boys back at the company came up with the term, but he uses it casually and almost seems to smirk as he thinks of his own name attached to a potential game-changer.

The name has other connotations. Given AeroTech’s role in stoking this conflict and the company’s own private agenda, it seems appropriate that an energy source with horrific power and implications should be named for a senior executive at the corporation. Sewell is not interested in the lives that might be lost during the conflict, just the sense that he will be a part of an epic piece of history. “This missile will change the nature of the conflict,” he boasts. “The war will no longer be fought over galactic territory but over Sewell Fuel.” Sewell seems excited by the possibility.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

Space: Above and Beyond is a series that is romantic about the grunts who wind up fighting in these sorts of horrific conflicts, but the show has little sympathy for those more senior officials who stoke the fire and who are so casual about the lives that will be lost in service of their agenda. As with a lot of the work of Morgan and Wong, Space: Above and Beyond manages the difficult feat of being both hopelessly romantic and cynical at the same time, albeit in different way.

The Angriest Angel also reintroduces the Silicates into the show. Doug Hutchinson reprises his role as Elroy-El, the artificial intelligence who brutally tortured Wang back in Choice or Chance. It is a gloriously creepy performance, with Hutchinson gleefully playing up the android’s creepiness. Elroy-El is very fond of licking his lips suggestively, while Hutchinson’s performance eases the character into the uncanny valley – giving a sense that there is something distinctly inhuman about the terrorist robot.

Flight of fancy...

The flight stuff…

As Morgan notes in the commentary, the interrogation scene between McQueen and Elroy-El pushes the envelope for a network television show in the mid-nineties:

This was 1995, we did this. He tortures him. And my network notes were – in a sense, paraphrasing – “this is ridiculous, we would not do this, even to a robot.” We’re talking about this thing fifteen years ago, and – to me – the show is always taking place back then; but six years later, we were doing it.

Morgan is right. There is a tendency for science-fiction to be ahead of the curve, perhaps because it does not need to be anchored in the present as firmly as other genres. This is one example of Space: Above and Beyond being quite prescient.

"Dammit, forgot I wasn't Tooms for a moment there..."

“Dammit, forgot I wasn’t Tooms for a moment there…”

Indeed, the Silicates themselves seem quite ahead of their time – perhaps that is why the show struggled for so long with the question of what to do with them. Re-watching Space: Above and Beyond, the Silicates feel very much like contemporary terrorists. They implicitly linked with “terrorists” in the power-point presentations at the heart of Who Monitors the Birds? and their methodology as revealed in The Dark Side of the Sun cannot help but evoke the brutal horror of contemporary terrorism.

The Silicates seem to conduct terrorism in its most basic form: they commit (literally) random atrocities in order to provoke fear and terror from the wider community. In The Dark Side of the Sun, Vansen discovers that her family was murdered on the flick of a coin; it could just as easily have been another family in another house. There are elements of that to modern terrorism, particularly incidents like the infamous Woolwich attacks. The last few years have seen the rise of the so-called “Nike terrorist”, a breed of zealot who will “just do it.”

Things come a head...

Things come a head…

In many respects, the Silicates seem to foreshadow the rise of this new breed. The arbitrary nature of this sort of terrorism would have been very unfamiliar to contemporary audiences, who had would have grown up with the terrorism practiced by the IRA or ETA – telephoned warnings and code words. Given these precedents, many Westerners would have expected terrorist campaigns to come with some form of strategy and rules, even as they claimed countless innocent lives. This change in the perception and profile of terrorism adds a lot of resonance to the Silicates in retrospect.

That said, as much as The Angriest Angel seems to foreshadow concepts like “enhanced interrogation” and measures like Guantanamo Bay, there is some historical context for McQueen’s brutal torture of an enemy combatant. There is a lot of the Second World War that doesn’t really get talked about, and both The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond have not been shy about exploring that on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the conflict.

"... would you care to assist me in performing surgery on a torpedo?"

“… would you care to assist me in performing surgery on a torpedo?”

As David P. Forsythe noted in The Politics of Prisoner Abuse, there is some question about the treatment of certain Axis prisoners of war during the Second World War:

It seems the British record was relatively good with regard to rank-and-file Axis POWs. But it has been asserted, with some evidence, that the British tortured some high-value German POWs in ‘the London Cage’, hiding them from visits by the ICRC (whose visits were customary but not mandated in the 1929 Geneva Convention). As for German spies, not subject to POW protections, it seems the British authorised secret and harsh interrogation, using sleep deprivation and other techniques we will come to examine in this study. One sub-unit of this ‘Camp 020’ in Germany seems to have spun out of control, with German detained spies looking similar to Jewish victims of the German concentration camps.

There were other infamous sites closer to home – most notably “the London Cage”, located in one of the posher areas of London and the epicentre of various torture allegations.

"And your impression of me is reductive in the extreme!"

“And your impression of me is reductive in the extreme!”

The London Cage was overseen by Alexander Scotland, who documented the goings-on at the military prison:

Among the documents stored at the National Archives at Kew is the manuscript of Scotland’s memoirs. In his first draft he recalled how he would muse, on arriving at the Cage each morning: “‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ For if any German had any information we wanted, it was invariably extracted from him in the long run.” There was pandemonium at the War Office when the book was submitted to be censored in June 1950. Officials begged Scotland to quietly lock the manuscript away, then threatened him with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Special Branch detectives were sent to raid his retirement home at Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. The Foreign Office urged suppression of the book, as it would assist “persons agitating on behalf of war criminals”. An assessment by MI5 pointed out that Scotland had detailed repeated breaches of the Geneva convention, with his admissions that prisoners had been forced to kneel while being beaten about the head; forced to stand to attention for up to 26 hours; threatened with execution; or threatened with “an unnecessary operation.”

The systematic and calculated use of torture by Western democracies is not a new concept by any measure. (The fact that Scotland references the same Dante quote that appears on the hull of the fighter flown by “Chiggy Von Richthofen” adds a nice – if likely accidental – piece of symmetry to the whole thing.)

The Angriest Angel is also just a phenomenal episode of television. It is structured very well, very clearly. It has a very clear purpose and objective, one that is firmly anchored in the characters. It is carried by one of the strongest members of the ensemble. It is hard to point to a sequence in the show that doesn’t work. Even the decision to intercut the “previously” flashbacks with McQueen’s opening monologue is a clever structural element – a way to bring the audience up to speed while still conveying vital information about this episode.

The Angriest Angel is put together with incredible skill. The final act – intercutting McQueen’s dog fight with the memorial service for Winslow – feels earned and justified by everything that came before. Even the decision to seed Winslow in episodes like The River of Stars pay off dividends here, making Winslow seem like more than just an anonymous red shirt being led to the slaughter so McQueen has an emotional stake in the final confrontation.

While Who Monitors the Birds? may be the most influential episode of television produced during the run of Space: Above and Beyond, the two-part Never No More and The Angriest Angel represent the show at its very best. These two episodes seem to be the perfect demonstration of what Wong and Morgan wanted the series to be be – existential character drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War in space. It is magnificent.

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

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