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Space: Above and Beyond – Dear Earth (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.

In many respects, Dear Earth serves as a mirror to Toy Soldiers.

Both stories are based around familiar wartime story beats. Both are very sentimental hours of television. Both are firmly anchored in the idea that Space: Above and Beyond is largely about reworking the narratives of the Second World War for a futuristic outer space setting. There is a lot of overlap between Dear Earth and Toy Soldiers, with the episodes feeling like two peas in a pod. They both appeal to the same aspects of Space: Above and Beyond.

You've got mail...

You’ve got mail…

However, Dear Earth works a lot better than Toy Soldiers did. It is dealing with a similar collection of iconic imagery and ideas associated with the Second World War, touching on many of the same themes and ideas; it is just that the execution is considerably stronger. Dear Earth is a show that not only has a lot more charm than Toy Soldiers did, but a lot more humanity. It is an episode that does a lot to remind viewers why they have come to care for the show’s ensemble.

Dear Earth is a very well-made piece of television.

Astro-turf...

Astro-turf…

Dear Earth is first script for the show credited to Richard Whitley. Whitley would impress showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong so much that he would be asked back to produce another script. Whitley would also write Pearly, the episode that aired directly after Dear Earth. Whitley would make such an impression on Morgan and Wong that we would join the duo’s production posse. He would script Goodbye Charlie for the second season of Millennium, featuring Space: Above and Beyond actor Tucker Smallwood.

It seems inevitable that Whitley would work well with Morgan and Wong on Space: Above and Beyond. One of his earliest production experience was on the musical Rock and Roll High School, which featured The Ramones. Morgan and Wong were fans of The Ramones to the extent that they had given Langly a Ramones t-shirt in E.B.E. and featured the band’s music in The Pilot of Space: Above and Beyond. It seems like a match made in heaven.

Letters from home...

Letters from home…

Whitley was particularly well-suited to writing for Space: Above and Beyond. He had written for ABC’s Homefront. A prestige drama that launched in 1991, with a cast including Kyle Chandler and Ken Jenkins, Homefront was a story about soldiers coming home from the Second World War to the fictional town of River Run in Ohio. Though the series picked up a number of high-profile Emmy nominations during its run, it was not successful enough to last past two season.

However, the research that Whitley had done for Homefront made him pretty much the perfect writer for Space: Above and Beyond. Morgan and Wong have borrowed liberally from the history of the Second World War in crafting Space: Above and Beyond, even lifting particular events and incorporating them into the narrative. Whitley does the same here, changing the details of several recognisable historical events for Dear Earth.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

Indeed, the entire plot of Dear Earth came from Whitley’s research, as he explained in an interview with Back to Frank Black:

Glen called me up and said, “Hey, you know World War II. Think of the Chigs here as the Nazis. So why don’t you come in and pitch an idea?” And I go, “Great!” And so I have to pitch. When I was doing research for the script about my parents, I found out about v-mail. I didn’t know about v-mail, I don’t know if you guys know about v-mail, but it was this amazing thing that these guys would be given, and it was the envelop and the page to write on all in one.

It’s a very fascinating – and often overlooked – piece of Second World War history.

Not quite rose-tinted glasses...

Not quite rose-tinted glasses…

V-mail was designed to minimise the amount of space taken up by communication to and from the front. After all, space was precious. According to Military Communications: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century, edited by Christopher H. Sterling:

Utilising a microfilm mail process that originated in England, V-mail allowed considerable shipping space that might otherwise be taken up with letters to be used instead for needed war materials. A single mail sack of V-mail letters could replace the thirty-seven mailbags required to carry 150,000 regular one-page letters. The weight savings were as dramatic – from 2,575 pounds of normal mail to a mere 45 pounds of V-mail. And V-mail travelled faster, usually being sent by air whereas normal letters were usually sent by sea. From 1942 to the end of the war, close to 1.5 billion messages were sent to and from all theatres of war using this system.

It is fascinating, but Dear Earth simply uses this as the backdrop to its character-based storytelling. After all, how better to get some insight into our characters than being seeing how they communicate with Earth?

Medal of honour...

Medal of honour…

Structurally, Dear Earth is quite simplistic. It cycles through stories centring on Damphousse, Hawkes and Vansen. Subplots featuring Wang and West also run through the episode, popping up from time-to-time. Comedy and drama are balanced relatively well over the course of the story, with Vansen and Wang getting mostly amusing plots, while Damphousse and West get some heavier personal material to chew through. Hawkes and McQueen find themselves in a plot that balances comedy and drama very well.

The episode doesn’t clutter itself by trying to do everything at once. It brings its three biggest subplots into and out of focus in turn. Damphousse gets her biggest moments first, before the show turns to the documentary focusing on InVitroes in the military. Although we don’t see the documentary until the end of the episode, it then shifts focus on to Vansen’s subplot, that had been identified at the start of the hour. It is a very efficient structure, one that isn’t crowded or convoluted.

Things heat up...

Things heat up…

Dear Earth marks the return of director Winrich Kolbe. Kolbe had directed Who Monitors the Birds?, probably the most experimental and influential episode of Space: Above and Beyond. A veteran of the Star Trek franchise, Kolbe had a lot of experience when it came to large-scale science-fiction. Dear Earth is perhaps less ambitious than Who Monitors the Birds?, but Kolbe’s confident direction helps the flow of the story.

Dear Earth feels like an appropriate episode for this point in the series. The subject matter of Space: Above and Beyond could be very grim. By its nature, this was a show that would feature untold death and destruction. However, the series worked hard to prevent its atmosphere from being overwhelming or oppressive. Dear Earth is a relatively light episode – even if there are heavy moments in Damphousse or Hawkes’ plots. It is a casual show, one that affords a bit of space to developing characters.

Maybe love really is blind...

Maybe love really is blind…

It is worth noting that Morgan and Wong would bring that balance to their work on Millennium. The first season of Chris Carter’s serial killer thriller was slick and stylish, but could often seem a little oppressive or depressing. When Morgan and Wong took over the second season, they worked very hard to add the faintest touch of levity, to prevent the series from wallowing in its own darkness and cynicism. It was an approach that paid off, and one that is evident from their work on Space: Above and Beyond.

It should also be noted that Dear Earth does a lot of nice continuity work as well. There are a lot of little connections to early episodes to be found in the show, creating a sense that the series is well-plotted and that the writing staff is working hard to keep everything relatively connected. Reference is made to “Operation Roundhammer” again. West’s plot builds off the events of Toy Soldiers. Vansen’s sisters play a part. Damphousse gets a letter from home.

The birth of something beautiful...

The birth of something beautiful…

Although these sorts of continuity elements are commonplace in modern television, they were pretty bold for network television airing in 1996. None of the plot points or details in Dear Earth are thick enough to scare off new viewers, and all are adequately explained, but they are also very clearly contextualised within the show itself. There’s a sense that the show has begun to tie together its own little touches of continuity into a relatively cohesive universe.

One of the problems with Toy Soldiers was that Neil West might as well have been another generic grunt, as we knew he existed but had never really met him before the episode. Introducing him as a character in the episode where he died was very poor plotting. It felt contrived, a cheap attempt at emotional manipulation. In contrast, Dear Earth adds resonance to its plot points by drawing from facts and events that had already been firmly established.

Explosive revelations...

Explosive revelations…

The individual plots are all stock war stories. Most obvious, Damphousse receives a “Dear John” letter from her lover back on Earth.  Her emotional reaction is in keeping with anecdotal evidence from the period, at least according to Ore J. Marion in On the Canal:

During World War II, ‘Dear John’ letters caused as much mayhem among some of the guys as enemy troops and Tokyo Rose combined. I knew several men in combat who, after receiving such letters, threw all caution to the winds and in short order became battle statistics.

It is a very human moment, and might be the best character beat that Damphousse has had since Eyes, if not in the show up to this point. It is a shame that Whitley’s original ending for that subplot had to be trimmed when the episode ran over time.

Stick with it...

Stick with it…

Vansen finds herself in a subplot about the black market that exists within the ranks. The black market economy is a military inevitability, with certain individuals capable of sourcing the right object at the right price for the right people. Dear Earth offers a relatively benign example, but there are countless historical examples that demonstrate that it is possible for such underground military economies to develop in unwholesome directions. Still, Vansen’s plot lightens the episode nicely.

As does Wang’s. Wang doesn’t get too much to do in Dear Earth, save a light recurring gag about his boots. Stepping on a strange neon green substance on an alien planet, Wang finds himself struggling with bureaucracy as he tries to get ahold of a pair of boots that fit. It is eventually revealed that he stepped in enemy excrement. In a way, it’s a light-hearted underscoring of the show’s themes. If everybody poops, perhaps humanity is not so different from the aliens after all.

All by himself...

All by himself…

The show’s other big subplot features Hawkes and McQueen recruited for a documentary about InVitroes serving in the military. It is a plot that deftly balances some series material with some lighter fare. The documentary director is portrayed by veteran actor Steve Hytner. Hynter had worked with Morgan and Wong before on both The Commish and on Ice for The X-Files. He was perhaps most famous for his recurring role in Seinfeld as fellow comedian Kenny Bania.

The documentary subplot is able to balance lighter moments with heavier elements. It is a story that trades on the dysfunctional father-son relationship that exists between McQueen and Hawkes. It allows James Morrison to be stern and no-nonsense, while also letting Rodney Rowland play a delightfully innocent character. The opening sequence of the episode, where Hawkes is the only member of the squad not excited by mail call, is both funny and heartbreaking.

Berry good...

Berry good…

Of course, the documentary has some historical precedent. During the Second World War, the American government produced several documentaries about minorities fighting in the conflict, including The Negro Soldier. As James Combs and Sara T. Combs note in Film Propaganda and American Politics, it was undoubtedly a highly politicised documentary:

The appeal here is for wartime unity, inspiring blacks to feel proud to serve. The film was first shown only to black soldiers, but then there was a move to expand the audience to white soldier and both black and white civilians. But the white command structure was reluctant to distribute it widely, even though there was survey research that indicated both black and white soldiers approved of its message. Cuts were made that were designed to cater to various military sensibilities and white prejudices: the footage showing blacks under the command of black officers was cut; film showing blacks in combat in both world wars was altered to show blacks serving roles other than combat; and perhaps most tellingly, a sequence that showed a white nurse massaging a black soldier-patient’s back in a physiotherapeutic setting was omitted.

There were other examples of similar documentaries that existed to assure audiences that minority soldiers were doing their bit, while ignoring and overlooking the sorts of institutionalised prejudice that existed. These often felt like elaborate and misleading fictions, designed to solidify the sense of national unity without confronting any of the many underlying issues.

It's all about the paper...

It’s all about the paper…

It is quite clear that the documentary featured in Dear Earth does the same thing. “Because while prejudice may exist elsewhere it never has in the Marine Corps,” the voice-over asserts, with the help of some choice editing, “where InVitros have always been treated equally and fairly.” As such, it ignores not only McQueen’s story about a fire a munitions dump, but also the more recent prejudice that Hawkes faced from human members of his own squad.

As in Mutiny, the InVitro characters serve as effective stand-ins for minorities in the armed forces during the Second World War. There is something very subversive about casting two of the show’s three white male characters as members of such a minority, a way that catches the audience off-guard and turns expectations on their head. It is a very effective way of confronting the audience with something uncomfortable and unsettling, and often overlooked.

And more trouble, to boot...

And more trouble, to boot…

The experiences of InVitro soldiers very clearly mirror the experiences of African American soldiers during the Second World War. Generally, they find themselves facing racist assumptions, including presumptions of cowardice. It is worth noting that this racist presupposition remained part of military culture until the Korean War. The African American 24th Infantry Regiment would only officially be cleared of cowardice in April 1996, the month after the airing of Dear Earth.

Similarly, McQueen’s memory of the fire at the munitions dump is an obvious call back towards the Chicago Port Disaster in July 1944. The incident killed 332 people, mainly African American soldiers who had not been properly trained in the handling of munitions and had been working in a highly charged and competitive atmosphere with little concern for the safety of those working with the highly volatile materials.

Firing blind...

Firing blind…

It is a harrowing and effective reminder of the differences that exist between the popular narrative of the Second World War and the more cynical reality. To the public, the Second World War was waged as a war against tyranny and oppression. It was a fight for the greater, to bring freedom to a people living in the shadow of fear and terror. However, there was little genuine attempt to deal with institutionalised prejudice and oppression within American culture itself. Dear Earth hits on this quite well.

Of course, the episode avoids ever getting too heavy. There is a delightful sense of wry self-awareness to the documentary sequences. The director has a name badge that identifies him as “Kolbe”, reflecting the real director of the episode.  After outlining McQueen’s career and personal history, he states, “We’ll get all of that in a voice-over.” It feels like a nice wink to the voice-over that Fox had recently added to the opening credits, helpfully explaining the show to new viewers.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that they will still be using 4:3 aspect ration in 2064...

Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that they will still be using 4:3 aspect ration in 2064…

There is even a sense that the show has to deal with real-world concerns like network censorship. Offering to follow Hawkes to the showers, he promises Vansen, “Don’t worry. We’ll black out the naughty bits, hon.” Perhaps the director hits on the reason why Space: Above and Beyond never has any of those bonding-in-the-showers sequences that define various war movies, including Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which would be aired the following year.

There are moments of self-awareness outside of the documentary subplot. At one point during a briefing, McQueen seems to pause to close off something that might be perceived as a plot hole in the show. “Now, I’ve been gettin’ an earful of bitchin’ and moanin’ about pilots being deployed as ground pounders,” he explains. “Hear this, C.F.B. This is not the air force. This is the corps, air-ground combat element of the 51 st MEU – every marine a rifleman. Therefore, you will fight on command: where needed, how needed.”

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

It feels almost like McQueen is replying any fan criticism of the fact that the leads on Space: Above and Beyond do absolutely everything the plot demands. If it is an episode set on a planet, they fight on a planet; if it is an episode in space, they fly fighters. There are obvious production and narrative reasons for this; the whole point of having main characters is that they do everything the story needs to get done. Otherwise, the cast would balloon substantially.

However, McQueen’s justification for this is delivered so directly and so clearly (“C.F.B.”, in fact) that he seems to be speaking out of the television and at the fans nitpicking at home. Network television in the nineties – particularly genre network television in the nineties – was very much aware of its fandom. The X-Files writers would lurk on message boards dedicated to the show. Star Trek writers like Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Ronald D. Moore would post with fans. Morgan and Wong were both active on-line.

He'll be brief...

He’ll be brief…

Erin Maher and Kay Reindl were recruited to write for Millennium from The X-Files fandom, after an argument with Glen Morgan about The Field Where I Died. They were very engaged with fans, and there is a sense that Space: Above and Beyond was just as in-touch with the viewers posting on-line. McQueen’s rant seems like a direct rebuke to those wondering why marines are flying fighter jets, but there are other examples of the show getting in tune with fandom; like downplaying West’s obsession with Kaylen.

Dear Earth is a fantastic little episode, and one that suggests that show may have finally found a writer who works as well with the show as Morgan and Wong do. Up to this point, the show has struggled a bit finding voices that can match Morgan and Wong. Richard Whitley demonstrates that it might be possible for the show to find and develop such writers. If only there were time.

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

2 Responses

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