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Space: Above and Beyond – Pearly (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.

Richard Whitley is one of the more promising writers on Space: Above and Beyond.

While Pearly does not benefit (and indeed actively suffers) from the same loose structure that made Dear Earth work so well, it is an episode very much in touch with what the show wants to be about. It is very much a science-fiction version of a classic Second World War story, to the point where Whitley himself has described it as an adaptation of the classic Humphrey Bogart movie Sahara. It is a nice glimpse at several facets of the conflict that we have not seen yet, but which make sense in context.

Canned ham...

Canned ham…

That said, there are serious problems with Pearly. It is very clear that the production managed to get ahold of a tank for filming, and sought to capitalise on that. The episode’s structure feels rather forced and unstructured in places, full of contrived coincidences that seem a little strange when considered as a whole. Not all of the character interactions feel genuine, and not all the episode’s big moments feel entirely earned. These are legitimate problems, and they do hold Pearl back.

At the same time, Pearly is an episode simmering with potential and ambition. It is hard to hate.

Crossed wires...

Crossed wires…

Pearly revels in the absurdity and eccentricity of warfare. Whitley might have described it as an adaptation of Sahara, but there are just the faintest traces of Apocalypse Now to be found in the episode’s DNA. It is a show about how harrowing and surreal war can seem, and how it ends up taking on a truly heightened and exaggerated quality. Using the premise of our heroes navigating a wartorn region, there is the faint sense that they are drifting further and further into madness as they go.

Pearly is populated with memorable guest characters. To be fair, Space: Above and Beyond has had one or two memorable guest characters before; there was the eponymous commander from Ray Butts, or Burke from Level of Necessity. However, Pearl throws our lead characters into contact with two wildly eccentric (and quite tragic) supporting characters that underscore just how horrific warfare can be. These are people who would seem impossible in the real world, but are right at home in this war.

We salute you...

We salute you…

“Major Cyril Mackendrick of His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards” is perhaps the most obvious example – being British to the point where he carries a swagger stick, living alone behind the lines and subsisting off his own waste. However, even Sergeant Louie Fox is a man who has been altered and warped by the war. Played by a larger-than-life Adam Goldberg, Fox is a man whose “morning coffee” consists of throwing his head back and swallowing the grains. He rambles and rants, easily agitated.

Fox has a clear attachment to his tank. He is very sensitive to the tank’s needs. He seems to value the vehicle’s safety above that of his fellow officer, treating the tank as if it were a living being. “Me and Pearly, here?” he explains. “We got this simpatico thing going.” If the stakes weren’t so high, it might seem a little funny. This is the guy who loves (and names) his car transposed to the war, and amplified significantly. However, even before we retroactively discover his story, there is something sad about Louie Fox.

"They scratched the paint!"

“They scratched the paint!”

Fox promptly gets himself killed, trying to defend his tank from the enemy. After his death, West discovers a book of notes that Fox had been keeping. In those notes, Fox explains where his love and affection for Pearly comes from, why he is so sensitive to the tank’s needs. He lost all his friends in combat, and the tank kept him alive. Is it any wonder that Fox might imbue the tank with personality and vow to protect and take care of it, as it took care of him?

It is a very effective way of underscoring the horror and absurdity of war, that it can leave men so isolated and so disorientated; that it can break them so thoroughly and so completely. It is a side of the war that Space: Above and Beyond has not explored to this point, but which feels perfectly appropriate. There is a sense that Pearly has our heroes venturing into the mouth of madness, even before they discover an eccentric British soldier who is living behind enemy lines, without support or a desire to return home.

We may have a major problem here...

We may have a major problem here…

It is worth noting that eccentrics have always been a part of warfare. There are always stories that build up around eccentric characters on the front. During the Second World War, Jack Churchill was one such example. As Jon Lewis explains in The Mammoth Book of SAS and Special Forces:

The story is told that later in the war “Mad Jack” captured more than thirty Germans in a single night by frightening the life out of them. He would creep up on them in the darkness, then leap out of cover brandishing his claymore and yelling “Hande hach!” He presented a fearsome sight, screaming at the height of his voice and wiedling his sword, bringing them to instant surrender. The Germans must have thought that some demon from the depths of hell had been cast upon them. His action on that night won him admission to the Distinguished Service Order. He was both courageous and completely unpredictable, which made him a force to be reckoned with as far as the enemy was concerned.

So it does not seem unreasonable that this conflict should produce a few noteworthy eccentrics who similarly operate outside the bounds of accepted military protocol. War is not something clean and orderly; it is chaos. Pearly touches on that quite well, giving us two supporting characters caught up in all that chaos.

"Nice to meet you too..."

“Nice to meet you too…”

Mackendrick has positioned himself behind enemy lines and made it a point to listen to alien communications, in the hopes of better understanding how the adversary operates. He seems to have been quite successful. He can understand the aliens as they signal a bombing raid, and he even seems to understand some of the psychology of mankind’s alien opponent. Space: Above and Beyond has suggested that the enemy has a habit of desecrating the dead; Mackendrick understands why.

“If the Chigs come across the grave, they’ll dig it up and mutilate the body,” he assures the assembled marines. “Do you realize they had no concept of a life after death until they heard it from us? My theory is, they believe half of us are living dead – an army of zombies.” It is a cute image, even if it makes little sense. Given how closely the Silicates have been working with the opponent, it seems strange that the Silicates would never explain that human beings do not have the power of reanimation.

All fired up...

All fired up…

The idea of a lone soldier trapped behind enemy lines and finding a way to survive on his own terms is a popular one. Mackendrick evokes those holdouts in the Pacific, the Japanese soldiers who had been left behind by their forces and kept fighting the war, even after it had ended. There is a fear that Mackendrick has truly lost himself out here on the front, despite his assurances that he has simply found himself. (“Tally-ho! Tally-ho, you monsters!”)

Although Mackendrick’s actions are not sanctioned, it is interesting to note that having troops stay behind the lines is considered a valid strategy. The Nazis had project Werwolf towards the end of the Second World War, and NATO had planned Operation Gladio during the Cold War. Both were strategies aimed at disrupting the enemy advance by leaving several enclaves of soldiers behind enemy lines to cause disruption. Quite different from what Mackendrick is doing, but interesting nevertheless.

Smoked...

Smoked…

Pearly does over-complicate itself somewhat when it tries to develop a Paul Wang subplot. The “wandering through the wasteland and meeting eccentric characters” plot is a very effective story engine, and one that lends itself to war stories. After all, war is hell, and sometimes a tour is the best way to illustrate that. However, there are problems when you try to integrate that sort of rambling with a more structured and more logical plot developments.

It seems weird that Wang should just happen to meet another Elroy-El out here. The Silicates are all copies of each other, but it is a big universe; it seems weird that Wang should bump into another Elroy-El in the middle of hat seems to be an unconnected story, and that Elroy-El should want just what Wang happens to have available at that moment in time. It also seems weird that Elroy-El is able to keep up with Pearly long enough for Wang to steal the battery and give it to him.

Dead eyes...

Dead eyes…

The relationship between the Silicates and the aliens has always been somewhat ambiguous. In The Dark Side of the Sun, it was suggested they were trading partners. In Choice or Chance, it was revealed that the Silicates were effectively contractors for the enemy, working mines and such. In The Angriest Angel, the Silicates are spies and saboteurs. In Pearly, Elroy-El seems to suggest that the Silicates are operating ground units; which feels like a shift in the dynamic of their relationship.

It also feels a little strange that Wang gets off the hook for his actions here. His squad are sympathetic to him, and even Mackendrick forgives him. However, it does seem odd that Wang would be allowed back into service after this. It’s possible that McQueen covers for him, but his actions here make it clear that Wang does need professional help to work through his trauma. Putting him back into the front lines feels like an decision that can only be justified by the fact that Joel de la Fuente is in the opening credits.

Firing on all cylinders?

Firing on all cylinders?

Similarly, the fact that Pearly is building to Wang redeeming himself during what might be a big heroic sacrifice – only to be saved at the last minute – feels more than a little convenient and inevitable. Wang’s arc here feels almost abbreviated, crowded out by everything else going on here and also crowding out the rest of the plot. It feels like one element too much stuffed into the script for Pearly.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the show trying to develop the Silicates. These artificial lifeforms have been among the most difficult and troublesome elements of Space: Above and Beyond‘s science-fiction mythology. Even aside from the fact that it felt like the show was never sure what to do with them, there was something rather unsettling about the idea of an irredeemably evil set of bad guys on the series.

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day screensaver?"

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day screensaver?”

Space: Above and Beyond spent so much time illustrating that the aliens were not monsters, it felt cheap to treat the robots as conveniently always-evil bad guy. Space: Above and Beyond was a show that was always consciously aware of the dangers of dehumanising the alien, and yet it seemed quite keen to dehumanise the Silicates. That tendency could make the torture sequence in The Angriest Angel particularly uncomfortable, because the audience wasn’t sure if the show believed Elroy-El was a person.

Pearly hints at the idea that the Silicates might be evolving and changing. Elroy-El seems genuinely concerned about the plight of Feliciti-Oh. “My sweet Feliciti, please,” he begs. “We need him to get the part to make you well.” Speaking to Wang, Elroy-El confesses, “Now, perhaps it is a Silicate virus, perhaps it is just spring – but I have developed certain feelings for the Feliciti-Oh unit that I am not programmed to understand.” Hutchinson really pushes the performance into the uncanny valley.

All in the manual...

All in the manual…

It is interesting to wonder whether Elroy-El was genuine when he made the deal with Wang, whether he loved Feliciti-Oh enough to actually destroy that evidence incriminating Wang. Even if he wasn’t, it is clear that his emotional attachment to Feliciti-Oh was genuine. He is quoting poetry to her dying body when Wang meets him for the second time. He is so distraught at the thought of her death that he threatens to kill Wang if she dies.

The idea of robots developing emotions is something of a cliché, but it is an effective one. It may not be the most original or exciting development, but it does at least give the audience a reason to believe that the Silicates are more than just two-dimensional killing machines that are “okay” to kill and slaughter with impunity. There is a clear evolution in the portrayal of the Silicates between Choice or Chance and Pearly, and that is something that serves the show rather well.

Tanked up and ready to go...

Tanked up and ready to go…

Pearly is not an exceptional episode, but it is an episode that largely works. It is perhaps a little too loose for the ground that it has to cover, but there’s a lot the enjoy here.

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

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