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Space: Above and Beyond (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.

It is very hard to judge a series based on the first season alone. After all, many long-running series evolve quickly and radically from their debut year. In many cases, the first season is about desperately trying to find a footing as everybody gets used to the realities of producing a television show. Assessing a first season is often an exercising in gauging potential, which makes it a risky proposition when trying to evaluate the first and only season of a cancelled television show.

Space: Above and Beyond contains its fair share of clunkers, as does any first season with twenty-odd episodes. There are episodes that seem at odds with the premise and mood of the show, being written by staff writers before the show went to air or simply trying to do something with which the show isn’t comfortable. There are episodes that have interesting ideas, but don’t place emphasis on the show’s strengths.

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However, this is all but expected for a first season. A first season is a learning experience for all involved. After all, the first season of The X-Files was packed with episodes like Shadows, Fire, Lazarus, Young at Heart and Born Again. It is very rare for the first season of any show – particularly a genre show – to be the strongest. There are rules to be learned, beats to be established, foundations to be laid. If shows are lucky, that work gets to pay off in later seasons, as everybody gets more comfortable.

Space: Above and Beyond never got that chance, which is a shame. Because there is a phenomenal amount of potential on display here.

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Watching the twenty-odd episodes of Space: Above and Beyond, it is fascinating how the show is ultimately torn between past and future. It seems to exist as a weird hybrid of nostalgia and innovation. On the one hand, it is constructed as an ode to classic war films – playing out the conventions and archetypes with an infectious enthusiasm against a novel backdrop; on the other hand, it feels like it is pushing up against what network television could do in the mid-nineties.

There is something decidedly old-fashioned about the show’s aesthetic. The Farthest Man From Home frames West’s pursuit of Kaylen as an archetypal story of love separated by war. Never No More touches on similar themes, using Vansen as the focal character. The Angriest Angel is the archetypal story of a soldier who does not know how to be anything else. Richard Whitley’s scripts are almost as overt: Dear Earth is about mail day on the front; Pearl is about the eccentricities of those exposed to warfare for too long.

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The show borrows quite heavily from the Second World War. The Saratoga looks like an aircraft carrier in space. The Earth forces hope to “planet hop” their way to the enemy’s home base, mirroring the United States’ strategy against the Japanese in the Pacific. Episodes like Mutiny and Dear Earth touch on the uncomfortable history of racial prejudice in the United States military during the Second World War.

At times, the show cannot resist the urge to draw attention to these parallels. In Hostile Visit, McQueen draws attention to the bombing of Tokyo. In Stardust, McQueen cites the real-life inspiration for the plot while General Ranford laments the treatment of Ira Hayes by his country. In some respects, Space: Above and Beyond could be seen as one of the most interesting and compelling visions of the Second World War presented on television prior to the broadcast of Band of Brothers in 2001.

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The show’s nostalgia was even apparent in the character names, featuring a bad-ass no-nonsense commanding officer named McQueen and a young pilot named Cooper Hawkes. Although softened a bit by Rodney Rowland’s performance, The Pilot seemed to pitch Hawkes as a rebel without a cause. Although R & R credited hot up-and-coming band “The Blazers” as guest stars and featured a one-scene appearance from Coolio, the show’s musical tastes tended to be more old-fashioned – the show’s soundtrack included Johnny Cash, Patsy Kline and the Ramones.

At the same time as the show drew from the past, it also pointed towards the future. Juxtaposed against its old-school aesthetic, Space: Above and Beyond was quite modern in terms of structure and plotting. The show was fond of ambiguity, would stretch arcs across episodes, and did not adhere to a rigidly episodic structure. For a show that only ran one season, Space: Above and Beyond made quite an impact on the televisual landscape, in a number of different ways.

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Along with The X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond demonstrated that serialisation was the way forward for prime-time drama. Although each episode retains its own identity, Space: Above and Beyond is populated with recurring themes and plot elements. Even outside of recurring characters like Sewell and Winslow, the final third of the season builds toward Operation: Roundhammer, with episodes like Stardust and And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… explicitly identified as paving stones on the way to a longer-form objective.

Its impact was keenly felt in genre television. Most obviously and profoundly, it paved the way for Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica remake. At the most abstract level, it demonstrated that a space combat series was workable. More specifically, it is easy to see Shane Vansen as a spiritual forerunner to Kara Thrace. (Even the scenes of the Hammerheads departing the Saratoga in episodes like Sugar Dirt hark forward to the launch sequences from Battlestar Galactica.)

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It is important not to over-emphasise how radical Space: Above and Beyond was. After all, shows like Murder One and Hill Street Blues had pioneered prime-time serialisation. And there are obvious cases where Space: Above and Beyond suffers from the traps of episodic storytelling. Hawkes’ plot in R & R would likely have worked much better stretched across multiple episodes, while Sugar Dirt would have been a stronger story had it been developed as a multi-episode arc.

Still, the show was well ahead of its time when it first appeared in 1995, just as it was ahead of its time when it disappeared from the airwaves in 1996. On an episode-by-episode basis, the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond measures up quite favourably to the first season of The X-Files. Episodes like Who Monitors the Birds? and The Angriest Angel deserve to be counted among the best stuff that Morgan and Wong ever wrote.

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Indeed, even beyond the show’s influence on the wider world of television, it provided an enormous opportunity for James Wong and Glen Morgan to develop as writers and storytellers. This was the first time they had run a show, and it was very much a learning experience for them. They forged professional relationships that would remain in place for years afterwards. Thomas J. Wright would become the go-to director on Millennium. Shirley Walker would score their Final Destination films.

Even individual episodes can be seen to have honed their approach and technique. The Angriest Angel may be the most succinct summary of their approach to characterisation, one that informs and contextualises episodes they wrote beforehand and afterwards, for various shows. Who Monitors the Birds? may be the most ambitious piece of television that the duo ever produced, and one can likely trace the lineage of Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and The Curse of Frank Black back to those forty-five minutes.

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It seems like their time working on Space: Above and Beyond gave the two writers more confidence when it came to producing television. The four episodes of the fourth season of The X-Files credited to Morgan and Wong are quite distinct from anything the pair had written beforehand – they seemed to come from a rather different place, with a greater willingness to experiment and push the limits of the show. Space: Above and Beyond is an absolutely vital part of the growth and development of Glen Morgan and James Wong as creators.

At the same time, it is quite easy to see why Space: Above and Beyond never took off like The X-Files. Its status as an explicitly futuristic series meant that it would be fighting an up-hill battle for any recognition, whereas The X-Files could disguise its genre elements as more acceptable “drama.” There’s also the fact that the show was very expensive to produce, relying heavily on special effects, sets, elaborate production design and a relatively large cast.

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The X-Files had arrived on Fox at the perfect moment. It was positioned perfectly as Fox became a force to be reckoned with in American television. Its first season ratings were not particularly impressive, but they were relatively strong. The next two seasons grew that audience exponentially, as Fox itself expanded. Fox would go on to become one of the most successful networks in the country, while The X-Files would become one of America’s most successful dramas, largely because it had that freedom to grow.

When The X-Files went on the air, the idea of Fox broadcasting seven nights a week was a novelty; Rupert Murdoch had yet to outbid CBS for the rights to broadcast NFL games. In contrast, Space: Above and Beyond arrived at a point where Fox was less inclined to support experimentation or to give fledgeling shows a chance to grow. The network’s slate was more competitive, the demand for pay-off more urgent.

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However, the biggest problem was that Fox seemed to have no idea what to do with Space: Above and Beyond. Fox was a young network with a young audience. Its marketing department was used to selling show very much anchored in the contemporary zeitgeist. It is easy to see how Space: Above and Beyond might have thrown them; anchored as it was in the conventions of classic war movies and set in the distant future, it lacked the modern sensibility of which Fox was so fond.

The series’ advertising made it quite clear that Fox had no idea what they were selling, and to whom. More than that, the scheduling was atrocious. Pairing up Space: Above and Beyond with The X-Files on Friday nights may not have been enough to secure the show a second season. After all, Strange Luck floundered in that slot. However, it would have been a much more comfortable fit, given how hard Fox pushed the show in connection to Chris Carter’s hit.

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Putting the show on Sunday night was an unmitigated disaster. The tendency for football games to overrun meant that the first few episodes of Space: Above and Beyond didn’t have a consistent start time. The fact that Fox had decided that it would air during “family hour” imposed particularly harsh limitations on a gritty war show. The show languished on Sunday nights into the new year, but then the network began to schedule it almost randomly. Even if viewers wanted to watch it, they’d have trouble catching all the episodes.

To be entirely honest, Space: Above and Beyond was always going to be a tough sell. It is hard to propose a marketing strategy that would assure the show a sophomore season. On the other hand, it is quite easy to identify the very serious and fundamental missteps made by Fox in promoting and broadcasting the series. There’s a sense that they didn’t really understand the series, which led to misunderstandings like R & R, which played like a parody of a version of Space: Above and Beyond that Fox could sell.

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Nevertheless, despite all this, Space: Above and Beyond remains a fascinating piece of television history. It is a show that feels unique in tone and flavour, one bristling with potential that wasn’t always fulfilled. Space: Above and Beyond is a show that lives on in later more successful shows that had the advantage of arriving in a more patient and understanding televisual landscape. It blazed trails, and ventured into uncharted space.

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

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