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Space: Above and Beyond – Toy Soldiers (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.

The Never No More and The Angriest Angel two-parter represented a moment when Space: Above and Beyond seemed to gel, when the show seemed to realise what it wanted to be and how it wanted to be about it. Written by showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong, they presented a demonstration of just how well the show could work, and why it had been an absolutely ingenious idea to do the premise of “World War II… IN SPACE!”

So, naturally, Toy Soldiers shows up to demonstrate that we have yet to reach a point where we can do this consistently.

Oh, brother...

Oh, brother…

It is tempting to return to the biggest problem that has haunted the show to this point: Morgan and Wong have not been as lucky in assembling a writers’ room as Chris Carter had been on The X-Files. The best scripts of the season to date have generally come from Wong and Morgan, but there’s really nobody on the staff who can consistently offer the support that a show like this needs. There is nobody to serve as the Morgan and Wong or Gordon and Gansa to their Chris Carter.

There is nobody writing the equivalent of Tooms or Fallen Angel or Ice or E.B.E. or Beyond the Sea for the show, episodes that find a way of teasing the premise just a little bit beyond what the showrunner imagined. This means that the first season of Space: Above and Beyond feels tripped up by the physical limitations on how much of the show can flow from Morgan and Wong’s pens while they serve as showrunners. The middle of the first season has seen a considerable spike in quality, but that is due to Morgan and Wong writing three episodes.

Dead (fresh) meat...

Dead (fresh) meat…

On the other hand, Marlyn Osborne has probably been the most promising writer on staff. She penned The River of Stars, the show’s Christmas episode – probably the best episode of Space: Above and Beyond that was not credited to Morgan and Wong. Morgan and Wong seem to have a great deal of faith in Osborne. She wrote with them on The Commish and the first season of The X-Files. Although she did not remain on The X-Files past the first season, she was brought on to work on Space: Above and Beyond.

Indeed, it seems Osborne’s scripts for Space: Above and Beyond made quite an impression on Morgan and Wong. The River of Stars clearly sets a precedent for Midnight of the Century, the Christmas episode of Millennium produced during their tenure of showrunners. The titlecards breaking up the acts in Toy Soldiers would come in handy when they wrote Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man on their return to The X-Files.

Photographic memory...

Photographic memory…

There are parts of Toy Soldiers that hint at a better episode. Space: Above and Beyond has always been better at war stories than at high-concept science-fiction. Even episodes blending the two elements seemed to work better as war stories – Stay With the Dead teased a thoughtful exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder, only to sabotage itself with standard sci-fi adventure hijinks. So doing an episode about young recruits and inexperienced commanders feels like a slam-dunk of a story premise; this is perfectly within the show’s wheelhouse.

Similarly, there’s a rather interesting exploration of sibling relationships to be found in Toy Soldiers – particularly the relationship between the eldest child and their younger siblings. Forging an individual identity is a very important part of any person’s development, and that can be tough when there is another person very clearly blazing a trail. An elder sibling can represent a strange centre of gravity for a child, and can exert tremendous pressure on them.

The planets are not aligned...

The planets are not aligned…

There is a part of Toy Soldiers that recognises part of becoming a grown-up is choosing to make your own mistakes, so that you can learn from them. When Nathan West objects to Neil’s decision to enlist, and his refusal to question the decisions of his superior, he has to face the reality that Neil has to make his own decisions on his own terms; the inevitably involves making mistakes, but mistakes that are unique to who Neil is and who he may become.

“Why can’t you just let me lose?” Neil asks his brother, a recurring motif throughout the episode. That is one of the more interesting and complicated family relationship dynamics – the idea that respecting a person’s independence means allowing them to make poor choices. There is the potential for great tragedy there, with Nathan forced to watch somebody he loves make a decision that he can clearly recognise as the wrong choice.

Hat's off to him for enlisting...

Hat’s off to him for enlisting…

The problem is absolutely everything else in the episode. On the most basic level, Toy Soldiers is over-stuffed. It tries to do far too much simultaneously. This seems to be a recurring problem with episodes centring on Nathan West. Stay With the Dead had the wonderful hook of a story about shellshock, but crowded out the episode with a cliché mystery. (Of course most of the regular cast isn’t dead!) Choice or Chance didn’t have enough time to do all the subplots justice, particularly West’s. Only The Farthest Man From Home gave the character room to breath.

Toy Soldiers has a bunch of ideas that might work well independently. The revelation that West’s brother has enlisted is a nice continuity touch, building from The Pilot and an off-hand reference in Eyes. Given that Space: Above and Beyond treats the marines as a surrogate family, there is an interesting tension to explore there. After all, as Nathan points out, he did not enlist to fight in the war; is his willingness to accept the loss of Vansen or Hawkes hypocritical if he cannot accept Neil’s decision to take the risk?

Brother's keeper...

Brother’s keeper…

Incorporating Neil West’s story with a story about new recruits (“fresh meat”) makes a certain amount of sense. However, it feels like it muddles the waters slightly. Wouldn’t a story about naive young officers be more powerful if the show didn’t feel like we needed a hook to care about them? The story about young and inexperienced soldiers facing the horrors of war would be more effective if they were truly new and unknown.

That would be challenging. It would ask the audience some tough questions. Do viewers care more about West and the leads than they do about guest characters? Do we brush off the death of new characters too easily? More than that, it might have been interesting to see the difference in perspective between new recruits and veteran soldiers; have our heroes been numbed or scarred by a year of warfare?

The episode doesn't quite land...

The episode doesn’t quite land…

As such, Neil West feels like a cop-out. He is the easiest possible way to make viewers invest in the events of Toy Soldiers. He is a shortcut. The character has been mentioned before, and appeared very briefly in The Pilot, but he is a character who is rendered important by his relationship to one of the show’s leads. He is a character who seems to have been drafted into the episode so that we care when they all die at the climax. Morgan and Wong took care to seed Winslow carefully before her death. Neil is just a gimme.

On top of that, there is the character of Herrick. Herrick is a stock military drama character. He is the well-read commanding officer with no real field experience. “What’s with the semper psycho?” Hawkes asks. Wang explains, “I know the scoop on Herrick. He’s with Fifth Force Recon second lieutenant, drafted right out of Dartmouth. Honors graduate of O.C.S. And T.B.S. Military occupational specialty: infantry.”

Over-qualified and under-experienced? An explosive combination...

Over-qualified and under-experienced? An explosive combination…

Naturally, he is over-qualified and under-trained. He has no practical experience of warfare, and can only recite familiar propaganda and deliver text-book summaries of combat. Inevitably, he discovers that war is quite different from what he studied in books. It is a tried-and-tested war movie cliché. Indeed, it is easy enough for the audience to figure out where the plot is going as soon as Herrick is introduced. It’s an effective war movie trope, but it is a very familiar one.

At the same time, Space: Above and Beyond has made these sorts of clichéd war stories work before. Never No More and The Angriest Angel are pretty familiar war stories, but elevated through craft and technique. The problem with Toy Soldiers is that the episode is somewhat clumsy and heavy-handed. This is obvious even from the teaser, which evokes the ending of Platoon, as new recruits shuffle by our veterans.

Never too far afield...

Never too far afield…

It is an effective moment that hints at how far our heroes have come. The problem is that the episode hammers the point. Unwilling to let the sequence speak for itself, the characters clumsily articulate the subtext. “Look at the way they’re lookin’ at us,” Damphousse states. “Like we know something,” Hawkes replies. Toy Soldiers is an episode that feels heavily over-written, a show unwilling to let any ambiguity linger and one that doesn’t trust the audience to make sense of the show on their own terms.

As clever as the episode is in suggesting that Neil West has to learn to fail on his own terms, it underscores this with a cheesy flashback of the West brothers playing football as children. It is a clumsy sequence that exists merely to articulate a point that the rest of the show makes quite well through dialogue and plot outside the flashback. Similarly, the show doesn’t trust us to identify Herrick as over-educated and under-experienced. “If you can read it, Herrick, why can’t you execute it?” McQueen demands bluntly, at one point in the story.

Space: Above and Beyond reloaded...

Space: Above and Beyond reloaded…

Familiar plot and character beats from old war movies are part of the stock trade for Space: Above and Beyond. The series is fond of riffing on the iconography and imagery associated with the Second World War, playing off the familiar and stereotypical imagery associated with warfare in popular culture. At its best, the show finds a beautiful resonance to this – demonstrating why these elements work so well in these sorts of war stories.

However, Toy Soldiers never seems to get past simple repetition of familiar war movie beats. The slaughter of the rookie squad should be heart-breaking, but it instead plays as a collection of clichés. As Neil West struggles to help a wounded colleague, he pleads, “Just hang in there. Just hang in, man. They’re on their way. The air strike’s coming. We’re gonna carry you out, okay?” There’s no humanity to this; no intimacy. The episode hasn’t bothered to make us care about the characters, but contrives to play out moments that worked in better, more interesting war stories.

The fault in their stars...

The fault in their stars…

There’s a very strange and stilted quality to Toy Soldiers, like Neil West’s observation on reaching the dummy watchtower set up by the enemy to lure the marines into a trap. “It’s a dummy, like those fake planes the British used to trick the Germans during World War II,” Neil observes, which is an effective way of reminding the audience of historical precedent, but feels a little inorganic for a crisis situation. “It’s a trap!” or “they set us up!” would convey the information quickly and with more urgency than a two-second history lesson.

There is something very forced about Toy Soldiers, something that feels particularly artificial and staged. Even the show’s pacing and structure seems awkward. There is an act break that comprises solely of the primary cast looking around at each other, confused and worried, as the music swells around them. Toy Soldiers is an episode that wants suspense and emotional investment, but can’t quite figure out how to make that work. So instead, it takes shortcuts.

Neil the battle to the strong...

Neil the battle to the strong…

Of course, this is the tail end of the first season. Everybody involved in the show is exhausted. It has taken an incredible amount of energy to get this far. Even established television shows tend to feel fatigued around the two-thirds point of a given season; the initial energy has faded, but the end is not quite in sight. This is the point in the season where The X-Files does Fearful Symmetry or Teso Dos Bichos or Young at Heart. Everybody gets tired. Such is the reality of twenty-odd episode television seasons.

This is one of the sad facts of a single-season television show. Each episode takes on more weight than it might otherwise. It makes episodes like Who Monitors the Birds? or The Angriest Angel all the more exceptional, but it makes it harder to gloss over misfires and flawed episodes. Each episode becomes more precious, so each disappointment becomes more visceral. It is easier to bury bad episodes in long-running television shows, even if they account for the roughly the same percentage of the finished show.

Bothersome brother...

Bothersome brother…

Sadly, Toy Soldiers feels like a waste as the clock moves one minute closer to midnight for Space: Above and Beyond.

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

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