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Space: Above and Beyond – And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… (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 last stretch of episodes of Space: Above and Beyond are quite mournful and introspective.

It is very difficult to tell a war story. There are a host of tightropes that any writer has to navigate. After all, it is very easy for a story about the bonds of warfare and humanity in wartime to be interpreted as militaristic or fascistic. At the same time, it is very easy for an anti-war parable to seem critical of the soldiers fighting the war, to dismiss the bravery and courage on display in that most horrific of environments.

Seeing eye-to-eye...

Seeing eye-to-eye…

With its futuristic tech and gigantic guns, as well as its fascination with the military apparatus, it is easy to read Space: Above and Beyond as a pro-military piece. Given how much pride it takes in the way that it presents military life, or how much it wallows in the military setting, a casual viewer might be forgiven for assuming the it glorifies warfare. However, this is the most superficial of readings. It ignores a lot of what the show actually has to say about combat and warfare.

Space: Above and Beyond is by turns cynical and romantic in its portrayal of this futuristic conflict – it clearly respects and appreciates the sacrifices made by those in service of mankind, but is also wary about the motivations of those ordering the sacrifices. It is a very delicate balance to maintain. However, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best seem to lay the cards out on the table, once and for all. This is as anti-war as the show ever gets.

Face of the enemy...

Face of the enemy…

Interestingly, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… does not tell us that much new about the conflict between mankind and the alien. Instead, the show recontextualises information that we already knew or had already been heavily implied. The idea that the war was sparked by human intrusion on sacred ground was suggested in the series’ second episode, The Farthest Man From Home. The show stops sort of suggesting that mankind and the alien are related in Stardust.

In fact, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… touches on a lot of what came before. It simply lumps all that imagery and iconography together, as if to distil the show’s thoughts and ideas about this sort of conflict. Most notably, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… owes a conscious debt to Who Monitors the Birds? in both theme and imagery. Although And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… is nowhere near as ambitious or adventurous as Who Monitors the Birds?, these are themes worth revisiting.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

Who Monitors the Birds? suggested that mankind and the alien were not so different after all. There, Hawkes was unable to kill an unarmed enemy soldier – his own humanity refusing to permit cold-blooded murder, even in the context of war. Although the plot served up a (somewhat inevitable) ironic twist, there was a clear humanity in his choice. Here, Hawkes is faced with a similar choice concerning an unarmed alien who is taking care of a nest of alien eggs.

This alien turns out to be the enemy. Although the episode saves this reveal for the cliffhanger, it seems fairly obvious in hindsight. The show has been somewhat conservative when it comes to world-building alien life-forms. The strange shape-shifter organism in Choice or Chance is the only other extraterrestrial organism to appear on Space: Above and Beyond, and the show quickly forgot about that. Coupled with the law of narrative conservation, it would be a bigger twist if the alien wasn’t one of the enemy.

Hands across the cosmos...

Hands across the cosmos…

However, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… does a wonderful job with that alien. Detailed communication is quite impossible within the constraints of the episode; our heroes are a military unit, not a diplomatic team. However, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… manages to convey an incredible amount of information about this alien creature without recourse to exposition or dialogue or subtitles.

Building off the non-verbal storytelling in Who Monitors the Birds?, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest…  tells the audience all they need to know about the creature in a few short scenes without any dialogue. We see it care for the pods. We see it take care of the young organisms inside the pods. We see it bury one of the embryonic life forms in the soil, with a very mournful expression and gesture.

The idea of a Topps comic published in 2063 may be the most fantastical element of the entire series.

The idea of a Topps comic published in 2063 may be the most fantastical element of the entire series.

As with Who Monitors the Birds?, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest seems to wonder how we can be so different, if we can understand each other on so basic a level. One of the more charming aspects of And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… is the idea that art (particularly pulpy art) is universal. Hawkes communicates with the creature via an issue of G.I. Geequed. West manages to stumble upon a common gesture with a casual reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

With only two episodes left, Space: Above and Beyond seeks to clarify its position. It is, after all, very easy for a piece of art to be misconstrued or misunderstood. As if worried that they may have been misinterpreted or misread, writers James Wong and Glen Morgan even put a teaser at the start of And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… that handily spells out themes that have been baked into Space: Above and Beyond since the very beginning.

A moral quagmire...

A moral quagmire…

“We have met the enemy, and he is us,” cartoonist Walt Kelly famously wrote. The quotation began as a parody of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 message that proclaimed, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Kelly seemed to realise the resonance of his observation. It initially appeared (in a less concise form) in the foreword to his book The Pogo Papers in 1953, but he repurposed it later in his career.

The finalized version of Walt’s Kelly’s stinging observation was used on an anti-pollution poster for Earth Day in 1970. It was then repeated in the daily strip a year later. The reflection also served as the title for the last Pogo collection released before Kelly’s death in 1973. It was also the title of an environmentally themed animated short Kelly had been planning before his death, but which he never finished. The quote has a great deal of resonance and power – reflecting mankind’s capacity to create its own problems.

"We come in peace."

Planet fall.

Space: Above and Beyond has hit on this idea a number of times. The Silicates were created by mankind before they rebelled. All that murder and chaos was the result of one line of code written by spiteful ex-employee. The InVitroes are victims of prejudice and hate, but they were manufactured and designed by mankind to fight their wars. If They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Do Our Best confirm that mankind and the enemy are closely related.

As the team reflect on the alien creature’s final gesture, they try to make sense of it. Vansen comes closest to figuring it out. Placing soil in Hawkes’ hand is “a way of saying that we all come from the same place.” Literally and metaphorically. At its core, Space: Above and Beyond is a romantic piece of work. It suggests that there is nothing so alien as to be beyond comprehension. If people are willing to engage and to listen, then there is always hope. People are people, regardless of colour or creed or – here – species.

Suited to the task...

Suited to the task…

On the commentary for The Pilot, Glen Morgan explained that he and James Wong had decided to go this direction about midway through the season:

Back then, they said, “Are we alone?” There was a real big argument that we were it, that we would never see an extra-solar planet. That was the argument. And then they found them; they found like thousands of them. And so the science is all different. The science back then was starting to say – starting to gather – that we came from out there, that maybe life had begun on Mars, that there was a collision and maybe that brought us down here. Or that water came from a comet. So about mid-way, we’re like, “Hey! We’re the aliens!” And I think that around mid-way, we knew that that was where we should go. But not now.

The idea that the alien came from a piece of rock dislodged from planet Earth is very much in keeping the sort of “panspermia” theories that would gain considerable traction during the nineties.

"It's educational!"

“It’s educational!”

If anything, the theory would gain even more traction after Space: Above and Beyond went off the air. And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Did Our Best aired in late May 1996. In August of that same year, NASA announced that it had found evidence of life on a Mars asteroid. This revelation captured the public imagination to such a degree that President Bill Clinton addressed the nation on the topic.

Even Chris Carter would develop the mythology of The X-Files along similar lines, as if to emphasise the idea that mankind might be the alien. In the later seasons of The X-Files, as the show’s mythology grew ever more unwieldy, it would be revealed that the alien colonists had previously inhabited Earth, abandoning it during the Ice Age. It was very much part of the pop culture landscape during the nineties, and both The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond are tapping into the same idea. What if the alien is not really alien?

"I come in peace..."

“We come in peace…”

Of course, the inevitable cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond means that Morgan and Wong never got to develop the idea as well they might. It is only explicitly articulated by the ambassador in … Tell Our Moms We Did Our Best. Nevertheless, it reinforces the key themes running through show since the beginning. As Morgan explained on the commentary on The Pilot:

An element that was important to us was that – in World War II – to an American, the Japanese may as well have been from another planet. How easy to dehumanise them. And then, as you went into war, the soldier witnesses human actions by their enemy and that starts to get broken down. So they didn’t know that we were descended from them. We always wanted to have that – as the show went on – you would learn more and more about them, and they would have families and were afraid.

It is very easy to fight a war against a dehumanised enemy. One need only look at American popular culture immediately around Pearl Harbour to see how effectively (and casually) the Japanese were dehumanised. The abbreviated run of Space: Above and Beyond means that this arc was truncated, but it is no less effective for that.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

Here, the alien creature is not so alien as to be unknowable. “It kinda had eyes like us,” Hawkes reflects after his first encounter. West offers a similar sentiment. “When you kill something face-to-face there’s a connection with the life you’re taking even if it’s the enemy,” he confesses to his fellow soldiers. There is a bond there, a connection that can stretch across the light-years that separate mankind and the alien home planet. Even separated by all that space and time, there is something tying it all together.

“We are you,” the ambassador will claim in … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best. Perhaps peaceful coexistence is possible, if humanity and the alien can form a tangible connection. That is, in effect, why the closing scenes of And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… are so effective, teasing the possibility that these two enemies might reach out to one another. It is no wonder that And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best are packed with hand-related imagery.

Mankind can be so flighty...

Mankind can be so flighty…

The alien creature here places soil in Hawkes’ hand. It reaches out tentatively to touch Vansen. In … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best, the reunion between West and Kaylen is emphasised by a close shot of her taking his hand. Hawkes, West and Ross comfort McQueen by clasping their hands over his as a gesture of support and hope. Perhaps one of the reasons the negotiations go so far wrong in … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best is because the parties are separated by glass, an artificial barrier between them.

After all, Vansen’s opening monologue reinforces this idea. “Everyone that is alive or has ever lived is descended from the same ancestral form of life,” she advises the audience. “You, me; friends, enemies; and all the life we can and are yet to see.” It is perhaps a little blunt, but it is certainly effective. As Vansen points out, if you go back far enough, there was a point where there were no countries; there was one continent, one people. Even further back, there was one life.

Face-off...

Face-off…

Stretching back even further, the connection becomes stronger. There was a point in time when all the matter that forms all of the universe was compressed into one impossibly tiny space. Where there was no one people or one planet or one galaxy. There was just a single solitary thing, from which everything else flowed. “One day (before there were days), everything (before there was anything) – you, me, the sun and all the stars we can and cannot see – were together in a size smaller than this point of light.”

… Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best confirms that the alien species originated on Earth, but that’s almost incidental. It underscores Vansen’s point that we are all in some way connected, but it is not entirely necessary. After all, Vansen’s point would remain just as valid had the enemy evolved completely separate and distinct from mankind. We may have to reach back farther to find the point of connection – or the point of departure – but it would still exist.

Bush war...

Bush war…

This is an optimistic way of looking at the universe, one anchored in humanism and empathy. It is a philosophy that points out the horrific absurdity of warfare, over perceived differences or conflicts. What ties the universe together is so fundamental and so essential that the idea of waging war seems ridiculous and tragic. There was a point – before consciousness and before identity – when everything coexisted in harmony.

Perhaps most telling is the optimism at the heart of And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… The show features our heroes deciding not to murder innocent life forms. They warn the alien creature about what is coming so that it might be able to save some of those young organisms. This is a very risky decision, as our characters concede. There is every possibility that the organism may alert the enemy and sabotage the planned invasion. The whole war might be lost on this moral decision.

Hawkes, diplomat.

Hawkes, diplomat.

It is a very tough choice, as is any moral choice in war. Trying to balance lives is a risky proposition, one that assumes there is some acceptable measurement system. Informing the alien creature about the invasion endangers the beachhead landing; not informing the alien will cause untold damage. Collectively, our heroes decide to be optimistic and hopeful. They decide to trust this creature, and to hope that making the choice to preserve life is the best decision.

Interestingly, Morgan and Wong complicate the issue. And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… closes on the revelation that the squadron just revealed the fleet battle plans to a member of the enemy’s species. The mission is compromised. The invasion will now be bloodier than it would otherwise been, and chances of success are greatly reduced. By the time the “to be continued” appears, it looks like our characters fumbled the ball. They made the wrong choice. They gave the enemy information that will cost thousands of lives.

Putting his war face on...

Putting his war face on…

However, it is not as clear cut. Our heroes took a high stake gamble. It didn’t pay off with the same immediate moral reassurance that the viewer would get on Star Trek or Doctor Who. However, Morgan and Wong are reluctant to state that this was the wrong choice just because it made things more complicated. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Morgan and Wong’s writing – a willingness to step outside the characters and leave it to the audience to reach their own conclusions.

Most obviously, the ending of Beyond the Sea asks viewers to reach their own conclusions about Scully’s refusal to witness the execution of Luthor Lee Boggs. Never Again invites the audience to decide for themselves just how healthy the relationship between Mulder and Scully really is. Even The Angriest Angel leaves it to the viewer to decide whether McQueen’s attempts to impose his own personal meaning on this conflict can be justified.

Loving the alien?

Loving the alien?

This is part of what makes Morgan and Wong such a compelling team, particularly on television – where there is more room to develop character, and each episode doesn’t have to be the definitive and exclusive statement about a given character. The pair work very well at layering moral choices on top of one another, without imposing their own views too forcefully. It is often possible to argue both ways about a Morgan and Wong script, to agree or disagree with a decision made by the character. (It goes without saying that these decisions always feel in-character.)

Not everything is cut and dry, which was a breath of fresh air on network television in the nineties. While it is possible to argue that our heroes made a tactical error here, there is also a lot of evidence to suggest that Morgan and Wong think it was the right choice from a moral perspective. After all, the tactically sound decision is not always the moral choice, and vice versa. While their decision to trust the alien with details of Operation: Roundhammer would put Earth forces at a tactical disadvantage, it did bring the enemy to the negotiating table.

All goo in the hood...

All goo in the hood…

Again, there’s a healthy ambiguity around the enemy’s attempt at negotiation. Given how it turn out, there’s an argument to be made that it reinforces the sense that our heroes made a tactical error. There’s a direct causal link between their decision to reveal the planned beachhead landings and the suicide bombing that kills senior officials and cripples McQueen. It is hard to call that any sort of victory, moral or otherwise.

And yet, despite that, there are some indications that the enemy sought to negotiate in good faith. The fact that the prisoners of war are offered as a gesture of good will indicates that perhaps the enemy had hoped to agree some sort of truce. Maybe the plan wasn’t always the suicide bomb. Maybe things just escalated and got out of hand. After all, it does appear like heightened human voices cause physical discomfort to the enemy. Maybe there’s hope after all.

Dead before its time...

Dead before its time…

As with a lot about As They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best, there’s not a lot of room for hope. This is a war story after all, and war stories leave little room for optimism or compassion or empathy. However, there is just enough space and ambiguity left to find some hope in this charnel house, even in the darkest of days.

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

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