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Space: Above and Beyond – R & R (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.

R & R is what might be described as a “monkey’s paw” situation.

Space: Above and Beyond finally gets to air on Friday nights. It had been promised a Friday night slot in early development, before Fox moved it to Sunday to make room for Strange Luck. Glen Morgan and James Wong had been promised the coveted Friday night slot again in January 1996, but it never materialised. Finally, late in the season, Fox manage to air an episode of Space: Above and Beyond on a Friday night. That episode would even air directly before The X-Files. And not just any episode of The X-Files. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, a classic.

Everything is Coolio!

Everything is Coolio!

However, as the Host himself points out in R & R, everything has its price. Here, it seemed like Fox had chosen the most stereotypically network-friendly episode of Space: Above and Beyond to air in that Friday night slot. So there were hot young people at night clubs, celebrity cameos, romance, angst, melodrama, absurdity. It is one of the most grotesquely heightened episodes of Space: Above and Beyond ever produced, to the point that Hawkes picks up and drops a drug addiction as only one of the episode’s three primary plot threads.

R & R is not a good episode of television. It is the weakest that Space: Above and Beyond has been in quite some time, and the weakest it would be from this point onwards. It seems like a cruel irony that it finally managed to get that Friday night slot it so desperately wanted.

Chalk it up as a misfire...

Chalk it up as a misfire…

In the documentary Beyond and Back, Glen Morgan makes it clear that R & R is exactly what it looks like. It is a network trying and failing to fix a perceived problem with a show it doesn’t understand. Morgan explains:

If you don’t take off in the beginning of the year, forget it. The fixes were always the lamest stuff. Let’s bring in Coolio! So we had Gail O’Grady, who is a wonderful actress who was on NYPD Blue, I believe, and we’re like, “What the hell does she have to do with the people watching this show?” So then, you knew that they didn’t know what to do with your show when they were going back to the kind of fixes that they used to give to Magnum P.I.

R & R is an episode that lends itself to mockery, a show that is so ridiculously awkward an attempt to “fix” misunderstood problems that it almost plays as a parody of network politics. It is just about every cliché about network notes you could imagine, rolled into a single plot.

Playing ball with the network...

Playing ball with the network…

To be fair, the biggest problems with R & R are not the most obvious. The episode is primarily known among pop culture aficionados for two things. There is David Duchovny’s uncredited cameo. However, it is also the episode that features a guest appearance from the rapper Coolio. Coolio is something of a renaissance man, whose more recent work includes reinventing himself as a chef and performing the theme song for an internet pornography siteR & R is part of one of Coolio’s earliest transitions – from massively successful nineties rapper to less successful actor.

In defense of Fox, casting Coolio was a pretty big deal. By this point, he was hot off Gangster’s Paradise, which was the biggest hit of 1995, according to the Billboard 100. It had enough carry-over appeal to ensure that it was also the thirty-third biggest hit of 1996. Coolio had was also awarded the 1996 Grammy Awards for Best Rap Solo Performance in February. He was a very popular and successful artist, so it makes a certain amount of logic for Fox to court him for a role on what should have been their hot young show. R & R is only Coolio’s second credited role.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

What is a little less obvious is why the executives thought that Coolio might be a good fit for a show about futuristic space marines. He appears for a single scene of R & R, managing to overshadow almost everything else in the episode. His performance isn’t great, but the show’s writing is terrible. As if trying to emphasise that they cast a rapper, the writers give Coolio a whole bunch of terrible rhyming couplets. “The Bacchus knows you’re Corps to the core. But you leave it all behind when you pass through that door.”

Still, Coolio is not the worst thing about R & R. He is a part of the problem, but he’s not a problem of himself. He doesn’t stick around long enough to make an impression, and he doesn’t hijack the show from the regular. If anything, he seems as confused by his presence as anybody else. He is an indication of the bigger flaws with R & R, rather than an issue of himself. Still, he presents a large enough target that he draws attention away from the real problems with R & R as an episode of television.

Standard operating procedure...

Standard operating procedure…

From its inception, Space: Above and Beyond found itself struggling against the stereotypes associated with the Fox Network. This was a relatively young network that had found success with young audiences thanks to hits like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 in the early nineties. While The X-Files was quite outside that comfort zone, Fox was still stereotyped as a network filled with young actors doing stereotypically “young” things.

As such, the Space: Above and Beyond almost immediately found itself being defined in those terms. It was, after all, a show packed with attractive young people. Director Thomas J. Wright would affectionately refer to Kristen Cloke as “the Maybelline Marine.” Rodney Rowland had been a model, appearing in advertisements for brands like Gucci, Versace, and J.Crew. It did not take long for the media to come up with a pithy and dismissive nickname for the series – “Melrose Space.”

Seeing green...

Seeing green…

This caused considerable upset among the cast and crew. Glen Morgan spoke about his frustration to TV Guide:

Morgan’s more disgruntled by critics who, he feels, misunderstand the series. “It’s upsetting to see it referred to as Melrose Space,” he grumbles. “Especially since the episodes we’ve done since the pilot are more intense, closer to what we want the show to be.”

There is a sense that the show has worked very hard to get past that description, which makes R & R feel all the more unfortunate.

History's greatest acting robot...

History’s greatest acting robot…

R & R is a show about sexy young people doing sexy young people things, creating the impression that our characters have wandered into a melodramatic late-night soap opera. It is science-fiction staple, the “pleasure planet” episode – albeit on an interstellar cruise ship rather than a planet. It’s fairly common in the genre. Star Trek did Shore Leave. Star Trek: The Next Generation did Justice. Star Trek: Enterprise did Two Days and Two Nights. They were all first season episodes.

The “pleasure planet” episode makes a great first season show, because it allows the cast a chance to relax and to show the characters out of their element. It’s a great opportunity for an ensemble piece, which is handy in a show’s first year. It is also a stock plot, one that almost works out of the can. Part of the problem with R & R is that the show just did a relaxed ensemble “out of their element” piece with Dear Earth.

Love is not the drug...

Love is not the drug…

Although not set on a pleasure cruiser that is “Vegas, New York City and Oz all rolled into one”, Dear Earth did allow for some off-format fun that showcased the ensemble outside the context of the war. There has only been a single “war is hell” episode positioned between Dear Earth and R & R, which takes a lot of the weight away from R & R. There is no sense of the grinding pressure of unending war that would make an episode like R & R essential. Instead, its positioning only draws attention to the fact that it is nowhere near as good as Dear Earth.

There are a lot of reasons why R & R is not as good as the last time we took a look at these characters during their downtime. For one thing, R & R feels like it is obviously and awkwardly pandering. Given the networks’ preferences for popular youth culture, it was inevitable that R & R would feature the sexy young officers partying at a nightclub, something that even the script acknowledges feels out of character for them.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

When Damphousse discovers that Wang has left the dance club, he explains, “I guess with only two days left I wanted to do something that I’d really do at home, you know?” Damphousse understands. “Yeah,” she concedes. “I know what you mean. I was never much for clubs.” It seems a fairly direct acknowledgement of how awkward the whole premise is. That said, the hint of self-awareness does little to redeem R & R.

Even accepting all the limitations imposed on R & R, it is still a terrible script. The episode hinges on the crew being too tired to work efficiently, and demonstrates this in the most ridiculously exaggerated manner possible. Like The Enemy, there is a sense that the direction and the performances might be dialed a little too high. Not only are they tired, they are experiencing rapid mood-swings and almost killing one another right before an enemy attack. And that’s before we get to any of the show’s individual subplots.

Pushing the envelope...

Pushing the envelope…

Wang and Damphousse have a sexy holiday love affair, because they are two attractive people on a Fox television show. Never mind that it comes out of nowhere and won’t go anywhere, it is sexy romantic tension and drama! It even gets to culminate in the two characters making out in the middle of a battle, which plays like a parody of what you’d imagine “Melrose Space” to be. It feels like the most banal sort of pandering, which acknowledges Wang and Damphousse as the least developed members of the ensemble.

Then again, the Wang and Damphousse subplot is poetry in modern compared to Hawkes’ drug addiction subplot. The problem here has nothing to do with actor Rodney Rowland and everything to do with the writing and direction. After a freak encounter with an enemy squadron, Hawkes gets himself hooked on addictive painkillers known colloquially as “green meanies.” Because of course they are. Before he knows it, he is popping them like tictacs.

Throwing the show for a spin...

Throwing the show for a spin…

Space: Above and Beyond is still airing on network television in the nineties. There are limits on how far it can deviate from certain templates. Although the show has aspects of serialisation and interconnected storytelling, it is still a largely episodic adventure. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that Hawkes’ painkiller addiction may have worked better if spread across several episodes, instead of confined to a subplot in an ensemble piece.

As a result, Hawkes’ painkiller addiction hits every stock nineties television cliché about drug addiction. At one point, Hawkes has what can only be described as a “drugasm” after taking one of the pills – in a relatively public area of the Saratoga, no less. Similarly, he starts sneaking the pills, and winds up having to go cold turkey with the support of his friends. It is like a subplot from some young adult television show, compacted into a single forty-five minute episode that already has a bit too much going on around it.

“But we get four solid episodes after this, right?”

It’s all very much your stereotypical public safety announcement, culminating in two sequences underscoring that drugs are bad. At one point, Hawkes finds himself with a drug-addicted prostitute who keeps her baby in the next room – which is an image that might be heartbreaking if it had not become a pop culture cliché. This sequence culminates in Hawkes throwing notes into the child’s crib, which is more hilarious than heartbreaking. R & R also offers the inevitable sequence where Hawkes’ drug addiction leads him to let the squad down.

It’s all very rote, very trite, very inevitable. The subplot culminates in the marines gathering around Hawkes to help him quit the drugs. “How badly do you want to remain a part of the 58th?” McQueen asks him, and that question is apparently all that it takes to get Hawkes to go cold turkey. It is very safe, very comforting. The episode glosses over the physical and emotional hell that is cold turkey, the pain that affects not only the person going clean, but those trying to help in some small way.

The road to recovery...

The road to recovery…

Hawkes’ addiction is ultimately too clean, too sterile, too firmly delineated. It plays like the idea of addiction, depicted by somebody who read about it in a short story or a magazine. Hawkes reappears in Stardust, completely free of his addiction. It almost seemed as if that addiction never happened. It feels like something he can cut off and leave behind, rather than something he carries with him. When it is mentioned in Stardust, it is a fleeting reference made as part of an info-dump from another character.

The other notable aspect of R & R is the guest role from David Duchovny. He is not a heavily featured guest star, but he is still a significant part of the plot. He is uncredited, wearing sunglasses for most of his appearance and doing a questionable Clint Eastwood impression. It as bizarre as anything else in R & R, and could easily seem just as cynical. However, it is perhaps the closest that R & R comes to working. Along with McQueen’s black-and-white movie, the pool hall is the recreation activity that fits most comfortably with Space: Above and Beyond‘s classic aesthetic.

That's his cue...

That’s his cue…

However, Duchovny’s cameo is interesting for other reasons. His presence seems like a show of support and solidarity for Space: Above and Beyond, which had been produced in no small part due to Morgan and Wong’s success on The X-Files and had originally been planned to air as a companion piece. One of the biggest problems facing Space: Above and Beyond had been the decision to separate the two shows, and the sense that Space: Above and Beyond had not enjoyed the same support and encouragement that The X-Files had received from the network in its early years.

It feels appropriate that Duchovny should show up to welcome Space: Above and Beyond to Friday nights, as something of a goodwill ambassador. Glen Morgan’s brother Darin would include another nice gesture in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, the episode airing the same night as R & R. Blaine Faulkner, one of the supporting characters in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” wears a clearly branded Space: Above and Beyond jumper. While it’s most likely luck rather than design, these are nice touches for the first episode of Space: Above and Beyond to air on a Friday.

Space Vegas!

Space Vegas!

That said, there is a sense that relations were not entirely warm between the creators of The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond. In that interview with TV Guide, Glen Morgan was quite frank about Chris Carter’s attitude towards the show:

Has Morgan gotten any feedback from his former colleague, X-Files creator Chris Carter? “I don’t think he’s too thrilled,” Morgan admits candidly. “Everything is on good terms, but he doesn’t really want to hear about the show.” (Carter says he has no comment.)

To be entirely fair, Carter was busy running his own show, so it’s understandable that he would not want to be distracted by another series. (After all, Morgan and Wong would admit that they didn’t have time to watch the third season of The X-Files, except for Darin Morgan’s episodes.)

Dirty weekend, eh?

Dirty weekend, eh?

However, there is a sense that he might have been a little frustrated with how Fox pushed Space: Above and Beyond in connection to The X-Files, noting that Fox was “going to use anything” to sell the series. After all, Carter had worked very hard to protect his brand, and not to dilute the profile or impact of The X-Files. Given that Carter was planning to launch Millennium the following year, it is perfectly understandable that he would be a little wary of Fox promoting a new show from “the executive producers of The X-Files.”

That said, the subplot involving Duchovny works reasonably well, giving the actor a wonderfully creepy role playing off one of the strong members of the show’s ensemble while delivering all his lines with a cheesy Clint Eastwood impression. It is gonzo, but in a way that works. It also means that the night of 12 April 1996 featured two Fox television shows dedicated to the idea that David Duchovny makes a pretty convincing robot, as Blaine Faulkner suggests Mulder is a “mandroid” in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” No wonder Gillian Anderson won the Emmy.

Work hard, play hard...

Work hard, play hard…

However, it also feels like a plot that connects back to the show’s larger themes and plots. Vansen gets to play pool against a Silicate, while the show gets to reinforce the idea that maybe Silicates are not as one-dimensionally evil as the early episodes implied. “Shame what happened to your parents,” the robotic “Handsome Al” advises Vansen. “Should let a few rotten apples spoil it for the whole bunch of us.” Sure, Alvin is a creep, but he doesn’t try to murder anybody. Which makes him the best Silicate featured in the show to date by default.

However, even the pool hall subplot doesn’t land as well as it might. It simply manages to work much better than the various other threads running through R & R. It is easy enough to tell where the story is going, and the gamblers who decide to stake Vansen back into the game after losing the last of her money are a pretty obvious plot contrivance. As effective as it might have been for “Handsome Al” to demonstrate how Vansen tends to sabotage herself by allowing emotion to cloud her judgement, R & R is not an episode that will do an obviously “downer” ending.

Pre-medicated malice?

Pre-medicated malice?

As a result, the show never actually works through Vansen’s arc here. What is the point of all this for Vansen as a character? Is she learning that not all Silicates are monsters? Is she learning that her rage and anger make her weaker rather than stronger? Or is she simply beating the Silicates on another playing field? There are two wildly different ways to read the plot, and the script never seems to indicate one way or the other. Nevertheless, it comes close enough to working that it counts as the episode’s biggest success.

R & R is a spectacular misfire, which seems tragic when it seems like the show might finally be getting something that had been promised from before The Pilot even aired. It feels like some sort of twisted cosmic joke – the show ends up positioned in the spot it always wanted, and then sabotages it spectacularly as it tries to please the network. Then again, the shift to Friday night is perhaps one cruel joke. The writing was already on the wall at this point in the show’s run.

Thank goodness those gamblers were willing to pool their money...

Thank goodness those gamblers were willing to pool their money…

The move to Friday was never going to save the series at this point, even if it had come out with all guns firing and the full support of The X-Files. It was a losing last-minute gamble.

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

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4 Responses

  1. It is strange how after an episode like “Dear Earth” makes you enjoy spending time with the characters during their off-hours, “R&R” makes you yearn for them to get back to the fighting. There are only things I like about this episode:

    1) McQueen watching W.C. Fields (the brief clips of “the Fatal Glass of Beer” are the only intentionally funny spots in the hour).

    2) Duchovny’s hysterical Eastwood impression, which is easily the most-quotable moment in the series amongst my friends (for all the wrong reasons).

    I will say, the scenes of Hawkes & West in the club are kind of interesting, given the two began the series with a lot of animosity; placing West in a position where he has to deal with Hawkes’ child-like questions about sex has a lot of potential; pity about everything going on around it.

    • Yep, Duchovny’s cameo is quite fun, and while the actual point of the sequence is a little… simultaneously muddled and grossly simplified, maybe? … I didn’t mind the scenes with Cloke and Duchovny together. And McQueen’s geekery is awesome. I love that character so much.

      Also, glad to see somebody is following my Space: Above and Beyond reviews. They’ve been relatively quiet, compared with the simultaneous X-Files reviews.

      • As a matter of fact, when you began these reviews it encouraged me to revisit episodes on Youtube; once I saw they didn’t have either “Never No More” or “The Angriest Angel,” I bought the DVDs.

        Darren, thanks for this series of reviews! Although I notice the comments on this site are few and far between at times, the amount of work you do to research the behind-the-scenes material, the impact on popular culture and exploring where the ideas depicted in television shows originated is altogether staggering!

      • Thanks, Michael!

        Those two episodes count among the best things scripts Morgan and Wong ever wrote. And I don’t mind it being quiet. I check back in every once in a while, so I try to reply back to any comments on old posts. As for the research, well… I figure there are a lot of reviews out there, so I may as well try to do my homework on the show. Contribute something to the conversation, as it were.

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