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Space: Above and Beyond – Sugar Dirt (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 end is nigh.

There is a generally funereal atmosphere to the last few episodes of Space: Above and Beyond, creating the sense that the show was well aware of – and had perhaps come to terms with – its own inevitable cancellation. Stardust had assured viewers (and the show itself) that the dead can be heroes too. Sugar Dirt seems a lot angrier about the series’ situation. It is the story of our heroes surrounded and outgunned on all sides; abandoned to their fate by those in authority.

Sadly, McQueen couldn't quite save the show...

Sadly, McQueen couldn’t quite save the show…

Of course, as the fixation on the planet’s airstrip, the opening titlecard and the dialogue makes entirely clear, Sugar Dirt is based on the experience of the US marines who served on Guadalcanal during the Second World War. They fought a superior enemy with a minimum amount of support between August 1942 and February 1943. The battle was long and brutal, but it turned the tide of the war in the Pacific, eventually putting the Allies on the offensive and the Japanese in retreat.

Space: Above and Beyond seems particularly fascinated with the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. “We’re trying to equate it to the American soldiers and the war in the Pacific,” Glen Morgan noted in an early interview. On the commentary to The Pilot, Glen Morgan and James Wong compare the enemy attack on the Vesta Colony to the attack on Pearl Harbour. The show reinforces these connections, with The Angriest Angel proposing a “planet-hopping” invasion of enemy territory.

Night stalkers...

Night stalkers…

While there are undoubtedly influences from the European theatre, it seems like Space: Above and Beyond borrows most heavily from the experiences in the Pacific. It makes a great deal of sense. After all, one of the go-to analogies in science-fiction is the idea that space is an ocean; Space: Above and Beyond builds off that. Its space ships are very clearly modelled on aircraft carriers and even “drop anchor.” Planets are treated like isolated islands floating in the void of space. Sugar Dirt even features a variation of the iconic raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.

This is also apparent in the portrayal of the enemy, who are presented as “foreign” and “other” in a way that mirrors the dehumanisation of the Japanese during the Second World War. Indeed, the cynicism that Space: Above and Beyond expresses towards war is rooted in the typical portrayal of American wars in Asia, as opposed to Europe. In film and television, these conflicts are typically portrayed as more brutal and horrifying and inhumane than the corresponding wars on the European continent.

A dirty job...

A dirty job…

It has been argued that the American experience in the Pacific during the Second World War has been somewhat glossed over, in favour of the more clear-cut warfare that unfolded in the European theatre. Werner Gruhl argues in Imperial Japan’s World War Two:

There are many reasons why the education of Americans about the war has been woefully inadequate. Virtually all forms of communication about World War II, such as history books, classroom work, museum exhibits, movies, and the news media, concentrate mainly on Europe and Nazi Germany’s past. The Asian-Pacific Theatre, particularly Imperial Japan’s invasion of Asia, receives far less attention. Since historically Americans have been primarily from Europe, there is a natural tendency for a Eurocentric view of the world.

Whatever the reason, it seems reasonable to state that the war in the Pacific is relatively under-explored in American popular consciousness – even when only glimpsed through the lens of popular entertainment.

Radio nowhere...

Radio nowhere…

While Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line both competed for the Best Picture Oscar in 1998, Saving Private Ryan was clearly the more favoured the two, winning in five of its eleven nominated categories. The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven awards, but went home empty handed. Steven Spielberg’s D-day epic earned back $450m on 1 $70m budget, while Terrence Malick’s Pacific War saga only earned $98m on a $52m budget.

Even on television, Band of Brothers was a breakout success for HBO when it aired in late 2001. It was a massive critical and commercial success. In spite of this success, it took the company almost a decade to produce a companion miniseries, The Pacific. The Pacific was not the same critical and commercial success that Band of Brothers had been. Some of the press for the show ever referred to the Pacific Theatre as a “lesser-known” facet of the war.

The pieces are in play...

The pieces are in play…

It is interesting to try to contextualise these two facets of the Second World War. In some ways, the European conflict could be seen as the last great conventional war of the twentieth century. As James McMillan notes in War:

To many European participants, the Second World War looked like a re-run of the First. General de Gaulle articulated the view of many Britons and Germans as well as Frenchmen when he claimed that the Versailles Treaty had settled noting, and that the interwar years were a truce, while the enemy regrouped and prepared for new aggression. Speaking in London in 1941 as the leader of the Free French, he declared that Europe was living a new Thirty Years’ War which had begun in 1914 ‘for and against the universal domination of Germanism.’ That verdict is an oversimplification of a much more complicated situation, but there is no doubt that in many regard the Second World War shared marked continuities with, as well as radical differences from, the war of 1914-18. In terms of cultural representations and cultural practices, the Second World War repeated many of the tropes associated with the First World War, only in more extreme forms.

The end of the war in Europe saw a transition to a different sort of conflict – the Cold War. When fighting wars did break out in Europe following the end of the Cold War, they were of a markedly different character and tone than that of the Second World War.

In the trenches...

In the trenches…

In contrast, the Pacific War can be seen as foreshadowing the later American conflicts in Korea or Vietnam, and even beyond. The connections were more than simply geographical, as David Murray Horner noted in The Pacific:

The Pacific War was thus followed by 30 years of lesser (but still very bloody) wars across the Asia-Pacific region. They were driven by two imperatives – communism and decolonisation – that came to prominence because of the Pacific War.

The conflict between the United States and Japan set the stage for the two wars that defined the second half of the twentieth century for the United States of America. There is a clear causal link there. However, the connections run even deeper.

A marine is always prepared...

A marine is always prepared…

“The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we’ve seen ever since, a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions,” Tom Hanks argued when discussing his work on The Pacific.  While the geography of countries like the Netherlands and France made it tough to mount successful guerilla campaigns against occupying forces, the geography of Pacific lent itself to that warfarethe Americans actively encouraged and supplied guerilla groups in the Philippines.

Indeed, the American government actively supported and supplied Ho Chi Minh during the Second World War, allowing him to solidify a power base that he would use to wage the Vietnam War. It mirrors a lot of the complications and complexities that would come to define the conflicts of the twenty-first century, with the United States training and arming the Taliban during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, only to see that backfire spectacularly.

Down amongst the dead men...

Down amongst the dead men…

It is fascinating, then, that Space: Above and Beyond should be prescient enough to draw its own future war from the realities of the War in the Pacific. Space: Above and Beyond is a show that manages to be looking both forwards and backwards at the same time – in more than just one way. For example, its archetypes and stories are frequently lifted from classic war stories, but there’s also a sense that its storytelling is just a little ahead of the curve – pointing to Battlestar Galactica and other shows.

However, in its decision to draw on the war in the Pacific, it seems to point forwards towards the wars of the twenty-first century. It is worth noting that two of the show’s most accomplished directors – Winrich Kolbe and Thomas J. Wright – had served in Vietnam. They undoubtedly drew from their own experiences in the portrayal of the war, portraying a version of conflict that feels like it transcends the conflict in the Pacific Theatre and extends into the later wars in Korea and Vietnam, and then beyond.

Flags of our fathers...

Flags of our fathers…

A lot of the show resonates today. The idea of a war against an enemy almost beyond comprehension, driven by cultural differences and unceasingly brutal feels almost prophetic in this era of the War on Terror. The sight of the enemy dismembering the human dead, terrorising the survivors, evokes beheadings and on-line videos. Even the Silicate campaign of senseless and randomised violence feels in line with contemporary concerns about terrorism. Space: Above and Beyond arguably holds up better in hindsight than it did at the time.

And, yet, it cannot be anything but a relic of its time. Sugar Dirt is a bold and ambitious piece of television. The show has tried to do the classic “the team falls apart under pressure” at least twice before, with neither attempt working. Third time is the charm. The tension between the cast in Sugar Dirt feels a lot more earned than similar sequences in The Enemy or R & R. However, in spite of this, Sugar Dirt seems restricted by the realities of nineties television.

Everything falls to pieces...

Everything falls to pieces…

There is only so much you can fit into a forty-five minute episode of network television. Sugar Dirt works hard to give the impression of the passage of time, but it suffers because it seems inevitable that the team will get off the planet by the end of the episode. It may have been months for them, but it is still forty-five minutes for the audience. Factoring in set-up and establishment, we are almost half-way through the episode before the marines are truly left to fend for themselves.

The Pacific did a decent job of capturing the mood of Guadalcanal, but it also had a much larger budget and the luxury of drawing from an audience at least casually familiar with Second World War narrative conventions. Even then, it took about two episodes. There is a sense that Sugar Dirt may have worked better with a little more space to tell its story. It is easy to imagine the story expanded to a multi-episode arc, similiar to the “New Caprica” arc on Battlestar Galactica or the “re-Occupation” arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Honouring the dead...

Honouring the dead…

Still, while Sugar Dirt is not quite as strong as the episodes surrounding it, it a nice demonstration of how firmly Space: Above and Beyond has found its grove at this late stage of the season. Based purely on a re-watch of the DVDs, one would imagine the show had turned a page – that the growing pains were almost over and that Space: Above and Beyond had figured out a fairly effective and reliable way to tell the stories that it wanted to tell.

Sadly, this is not to be. It is trite to compare making a television show to fighting a war, as tempting as the analogy might be. Nevertheless, there’s a sense that the production staff could empathise with the unit abandoned on Demios by their superiors. Space: Above and Beyond had not been well-served by Fox, with the network having no idea how to find an audience for the show. It was subject to arbitrary censorship, bounced around the schedule, poorly advertised.

Best-laid plans...

Best-laid plans…

Sugar Dirt itself was victim to this unpredictable scheduling. James Wong and Glen Morgan had pursued (and had been promised) a Friday night slot as a companion piece to The X-Files. Instead, the show debuted on Sundays, where it was frequently preempted when football games ran long. The network had promised to start airing the show on Friday nights in January 1996. Instead, Who Monitors the Birds? debuted on Sunday night.

Fox finally aired an episode on Friday night in April 1996. R & R looked like everything the network might have wanted. It had hot young people doing hot young things, a hip trendy celebrity guest star in Coolio, a visitor from The X-Files in David Duchovny. It aired the same night as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, a classic episode of The X-Files. Given how terrible R & R turned out, it was like a grotesque parody of how Morgan and Wong and Fox had hoped the show would turn out.

Sticking the landing...

Sticking the landing…

Nevertheless, had Space: Above and Beyond received that sort of support earlier in its run, things might have been different. Stardust aired the week after. It was broadcast on Friday, even though it did not have the support of a new episode of The X-Files. However, just in case fans might get worried about Space: Above and Beyond airing in a consistent time slot, Sugar Dirt aired the very next night at 9pm. The show then went away for over a month before returning for its two-part finalé. Poetically, it left the Fox schedule as it had arrived; unloved, on Sunday nights.

For anybody even casually familiar with television scheduling, this was a bad sign. The network does not shift around a show it hopes will attract an audience. It seemed like Fox was simply moving Space: Above and Beyond around to fill potential gaps in the schedule – to fill dead air left by the cancellation of Strange Luck and to eat up a broadcast hour late on a Saturday night. The writing was very much on the wall at this point.

All for nothing...

All for nothing…

Sugar Dirt captures that mood quite well.

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

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