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Space: Above and Beyond – … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best (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.

Fox has a very weird (and perhaps even paradoxical) reputation when it comes to cancelling television shows. On the one hand, there is the tendency to run successful shows into the ground, missing the window of opportunity to transition them into big screen franchises. The X-Files and 24 are perhaps the most obvious example of this tendency. Of course, this isn’t unusual in American television. If a show is making money, it makes sense to keep on the air for as long as possible.

On the other hand, the network is notoriously ruthless when it comes to cancelling young shows. Although popularised by the cancellation (and subsequent revival) of shows like Firefly and Family Guy in the early years of the twenty-first century, the network had already demonstrated that it had little time for dead weight in the schedule. In hindsight, it seems like a wonder that The X-Files survived its first season, and was allowed to grow and develop into a massive cultural phenomenon.

We have met the enemy...

We have met the enemy…

Indeed, considering the abbreviated runs of shows like Profit or The Tick or The Ben Stiller Show or Harsh Realm or The Lone Gunmen, Space: Above and Beyond was lucky to get a full twenty-two-episodes-and-a-pilot run on Fox, even if it couldn’t count on the network to air the episodes at a consistent time on a consistent day. Space: Above and Beyond was undoubtedly treated shabbily by the network, but it could have been a lot worse.

That’s not the best eulogy you could write for a television show, but it is worth treasuring what we got.

President of the World...

President of the World…

… Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best is quite aware of its own pending cancellation. As if to underscore just how dead the show was, Fox pushed the final two episodes of the season out into late May, after most of their broadcast slate had finished up for the year. They then popped the show back on to Sunday nights, the slot that had originally helped to kill the show. Those watching at home were left in little doubt about the show’s fate, and it’s clear that the production staff knew what was coming.

To be fair, Space: Above and Beyond has always been acutely aware that it was fighting an uphill battle. The show has leaned rather heavily on the fourth wall at times, as the characters reflect on their failure to measure up to expectations. Wang and McQueen wondered whether they would be perceived as failures in Choice or Chance, perhaps reflecting anxieties behind the scenes as the show failed to secure a big enough audience. It is a wonder that the show didn’t feature a briefing about disappointing “efficiency ratings” leading to the cancellation of a mission.

"I wanted to call the company Wayne Enterprises, but apparently that was taken..."

“I wanted to call the company Wayne Enterprises, but apparently that was taken…”

To be fair, both James Wong and Glen Morgan will concede that they let their lives bleed into their writing. A sentiment echoed by many of the cast and crew, Kristen Cloake has suggested that the Space: Above and Beyond was a very personal television show for everybody involved, with the lives of those involved in making the show spilling over into the finished product:

She says that Space’s cancellation is “still to this day very sad to me,” because she adored the character and the people she worked with. “Glen and Jim are really special producers in the sense that they incorporate a lot of who you are, and the dynamics of all of us on the show, into the characters,” she notes. “I enjoyed seeing what they came up with. And I enjoyed the challenge of making it fly for them, because I respect them. It was a fun communication that we had, that way. Glen and Jim really taught me a lot.”

James Morrison has affectionately referred to Morgan as “a thief of life” and Lanei Chapman has admitted that a lot of the dialogue from Damphousse’s description of the Earth in Eyes was lifted directly a conversation she had with Morgan. There is a sense that a lot of actors and the writers has seeped into Space: Above and Beyond during its short run.

West carries a torch...

West carries a torch…

This imbues the series with a strange sort of weight and import. It makes the series feel a lot more intimate and personal than it might otherwise be. There is a sense that the audience has come to know these characters over the course of the season. Even the two least developed members of the ensemble – Damphousse and Wang – have their own unique voices and personalities. So certain aspects of … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best that resonate strongly, particularly as the cast reflect on what they might do after the war.

In many ways, this is a typical war movie scene. Space: Above and Beyond has traded quite heavily in the imagery and iconography associated with war movies, so it makes sense to do the “what happens when we’re back in the world?” conversation, as our characters wonder what the cessation of hostilities might bring. Will they still be friends out in the world, without the conflict to bind them all together? Do bonds formed in the heat of battle linger on?

It all blows up in his face...

It all blows up in his face…

Space: Above and Beyond has excelled at doing “World War II… in space!”, often feeling more comfortable with the aspects of the show inherited from the war genre than it does with the science-fiction story elements. Episodes like Never No More and The Angriest Angel demonstrated this, telling stories that felt like science-fiction throwbacks to classic cinema. Here, a pretty standard war story trope is given a great deal of extra depth by the sense that the show itself is articulating the concerns of all those involved.

After Fox cancelled Space: Above and Beyond, Morgan and Wong would return to working with Chris Carter. They provided four scripts for The X-Files and four scripts for Millennium. According to Morgan and Wong, one of their conditions was the freedom to use alumni from Space: Above and Beyond in their episodes. James Morrison appeared in their first episode of Millennium. Tucker Smallwood, Kristen Cloake, Rodney Roland and Morgan Weisser popped up in their four fourth-season episodes of The X-Files.

From here to eternity... or cancellation, whichever is closest...

From here to eternity… or cancellation, whichever is closest…

It genuinely seems like Morgan and Wong tried to take care of the people who had given a year of their lives to making Space: Above and Beyond. A year after appearing in The X-Files, both Tucker Smallwood and Kristen Cloake would appear on Millennium. Cloake would become a recurring guest star during the show’s second season, overseen by Morgan and Wong while Chris Carter was working on The X-Files: Fight the Future.

It is quite telling that virtually the whole gang reassembled for the April 2012 release of the “Collector’s Edition” of Space: Above and Beyond. A labour of love for all involved, especially Julie Ng, the DVD collected all manner of delightful special features and extras. The cast and crew reunited to discuss their time on the series, with many of them contributing to commentaries on important episodes. Even a decade-and-a-half after the show was cancelled, there is an abiding sense of love among those involved.

Sleeping on it...

Sleeping on it…

(It also says something about the show’s fandom. It takes a lot of love to greenlight a release like that for a one-season show that was considered a failure by the network. After all, many popular and successful shows – from Spencer: For Hire through to Picket Fences – have not seen complete releases yet. For a show like Space: Above and Beyond to receive two complete releases, including one very much intended as a “special edition”, is testament to how much affection fans have for the series.)

As one might expect, … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best is largely driven by the cancellation. There’s no big cliffhanger here, no desperate plea for a last-minute reprieve. Instead, there’s a very clear acceptance of how things are going to be. Wong and Morgan kill off half the cast, and cripple another member of the ensemble. Although there are openings left to bring back everybody except Wang, it is clear that the writing is on the wall. This isn’t a season-ender, this is a series finalé.

Reach out and touch faith...

Reach out and touch faith…

Space: Above and Beyond seems quite accepting of this. There are a few affectionate jabs made at Fox during the episode. The teaser opens with an interruption to the video feed as an announcer declares, “We interrupt this program for a special bulletin.” It seems like the show might be getting preempted yet again, recalling the early hiccups in scheduling that meant episodes like The Dark Side of the Sun didn’t air until almost midnight.

It is, perhaps, also telling that the only members of the primary cast to survive are the three white males. While Space: Above and Beyond did not have an ensemble as diverse as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Voyager, it was still quite a diverse show for its time. Even with that caveat, it is worth noting that Voyager tended to do quite little with most of its minority cast members. Garrett Wang did very little for the show’s seven seasons; Robert Beltran and Tim Russ did little more.

A particular point in space and time...

A particular point in space and time…

Watching … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best, one wonders whether the decision to kill off the two members of minorities and the female squadron leader was a pointed decision. Was it an attempt to emphasise the show’s diverse ensemble and to point out how white the majority of prime-time was around it? To pick a not-quite-random example, The X-Files is a very white show, and would kill off its most prominent African American cast member at the start of the following season.

What is also interesting about … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best is that the show avoids a rushed resolution or any real attempt to convince the audience that this is a completely satisfactory ending. It is certainly an ending, but there’s no effort to wrap everything up or to tie a big bow around the series. The war does not end. Operation: Roundhammer does not “drop the Anvil” and the marines do not commence planet-fall.

"Think of it as a list of plot points we have to resolve..."

“Think of it as a list of plot points we have to resolve…”

A lot of the finality of … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best came after the episode had been written and shot. According to Beyond and Back, the destruction of the container housing Wang was a last minute special effects addition, while Glen Morgan recalls the editing of McQueen’s final conversation with Commodore Ross:

Jim Coblentz is the editor, and there’s this scene where Morrison is blowed up and there’s Tucker. He’s like, “Shane, Damphousse?” And I think Tucker’s line was, “They sent out a search party…” We cut back to Morrison. Cut back to him. “… It doesn’t look good.” Cut back to Morrison, they wheel him out.

And so Coblentz and I are cutting this, and it’s becoming more and more apparent. So I say, “Hey Jim, cut out the search part.” So he cuts the line out. He goes, “Damphousse, Jansen?” … “It doesn’t look good.”

And then we look at each other. I’m like, “Cut out ‘it doesn’t look good’.” And he cut it out. “Damphousse, Jansen?” [sad head shake] And that’s the great thing about editing. You’re like, “Holy… wow…” It’s pretty powerful.

Glen Morgan’s brother, Darin, has quipped that the edit of the broadcast episode is effectively “the final re-write.” This is particularly true in a deadline-conscious fast-moving production cycle like television. Morgan and Wong really were two of the best writers working in the medium during the nineties, having an innate understanding of these sorts of details, and capitalising on them.

Executive decision...

Executive decision…

One suspects that this understanding of how television works, and the willingness to treat editing and special effects rendering as a final draft even beyond film, is what allowed Morgan and Wong to present … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best as a true (and undeniable) series finalé. It may have been plotted and written with the suspicion that it would be the last episode of Space: Above and Beyond, but there’s a sense that the production team really committed to that idea once the cameras had stopped rolling and it came time to put it all together.

And it works. Nobody watching … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best could walk away thinking that this was the ending that Glen Morgan and James Wong had planned for series from the outset. Instead, it simply draws a very clear and definite line under what came before. It is the ending of the show, if not necessarily the ending of the story. This feels strangely appropriate, creating a sense that – much like Paul Wang – Space: Above and Beyond is going out with guns blazing, with a minimum of compromise.

Flying into oblivion...

Flying into oblivion…

The Wildcards are devastated over the course of … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best. Wang is abandoned in the middle of heated combat, and then blown up in a massive spaceship collision. Vansen and Damphousse are lost into the atmosphere of a planet. McQueen’s leg is blown off in a suicide bombing that seems to end any chance of peace. What is perhaps most interesting about all this is how decidedly small all of this is.

Space: Above and Beyond doesn’t kill off these characters in an epic storyline that ends the war and brings peace to the universe. Instead, they suffer in the course of mundane activities. The Wildcards aren’t devastated in the course of Operation: Roundhammer, laying siege to the enemy homeworld. They suffer these losses attempting to save a bunch of prisoners of war from a hostile enemy squadron.

Holding on in there...

Holding on in there…

This isn’t a mission with any more weight or importance than the kind of mission we’ve usually seen them engaged in. If anything, this rescue mission is less important to the overarching war effort than the events portrayed in Stardust, Sugar Dirt or And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… This would seem to be the point. Space: Above and Beyond has been careful not to glorify warfare, while remaining respectful of those who gave their lives in service of a higher ideal. It is a tough balance to maintain, but the show has done an excellent job.

So it seems appropriate that Wang, Damphousse and Vansen should be lost in a mission that has minimal strategic importance to the overall war effort, while still remaining an act of heroism. Just because they do not die bringing an end to the conflict does not mean their deaths are hollow. They died saving innocent lives, in the course of doing their duty – there is no additional context, no asterisks next to their names.

Ambassador... of DEATH!

Ambassador… of DEATH!

There is no sense that these deaths are any more or any less meaningful than the deaths of any other soldiers who died in the course of their duties. As he goes out, Wang recites the names of his lost brethren as a sort of battle hymn. He cycles through the names of characters killed off over the course of the season. Some we knew quite well, some were simply created as convenient cannon fodder. Wang’s own death is simply an addition to that list. Not the first, probably not the last, certainly not the most important.

It’s harrowing, it’s brutal, and it’s ruthless. … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best is heartbreaking television, but for all the right reasons. Morgan and Wong see the abyss opening beneath the show, but have decided not to fight it. Instead, they embrace it. They dive right in. They embrace just about the only opportunity that a premature cancellation like this can offer the show, the freedom to tell a story like this.

It was a blast working on the show...

It was a blast working on the show…

To be fair, … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best stops just short of nihilism. It decides to reunite Nathan West with Kaylen, closing off the character’s arc. West has been chasing Kaylen since The Pilot, with the show dangling her in front of him in episodes like The Farthest Man From Home and Choice or Chance, only to inevitably snatch her away at the last minute. While the idea of giving West a character arc and a clear goal was a shrewd decision, it was not a dramatically satisfying direction for the character.

For a while, it seemed like too much of an echo of The X-Files. Much like Samantha Mulder on The X-Files, Kaylen served as an ethereal ideal for the protagonist to chase down and pursue. She was an effective piece of back story and character history, a solid character hook and an understandable motivation. However, The X-Files managed to push Mulder past Samantha. Samantha become only one facet of Mulder’s pursuit of the truth. In contrast, West seemed solely defined by his pursuit of Kaylen.

Survivors...

Survivors…

The show seems to have acknowledged as much, toning down its references to Kaylen into the second half of the season. In the documentary Beyond and Back, Morgan seems a little disappointed the show had to move away from that:

Maybe at that time, a guy like “I love you and I’m going to find you!”, that Western or Civil War story. Maybe we weren’t doing it right, or maybe it was just too cynical a time, or what. And so they wanted to get him off of that.

This decision to deemphasise West’s pursuit of Kaylen left the character somewhat listless in the second half of the season.

"We mean you no harm..."

“We mean you no harm…”

In many respects, Morgan Weisser had been introduced as the leading member of the cast. He was first billed in the credits, introduced with a clear arc and direction in The Pilot, and was the focus of the first episode to air after the pilot. The decision to deemphasise West’s pursuit of Kaylen – while allocating more space to Hawkes, McQueen and Vansen – had the effect of pushing actor Morgan Weisser back into the ensemble.

It is worth nothing that West is the only member of the Space: Above and Beyond ensemble to get a happy ending. Wang is pretty clearly dead. Vansen and Damphousse are most likely dead. McQueen is missing a leg. Even Hawkes has just lost his mother and father figures. However, amid all that darkness, West is reunited with Kaylen. As bleak and as dark as the ending might be, it stops just short of nihilism.

Everything's O-Kay(len)...

Everything’s O-Kay(len)…

In the Beyond and Back documentary, Kristen Cloake suggests that Glen Morgan wrote West as his romantic and optimistic side. As such, it feels important that West manages to accomplish something in the end, however small. There’s a sense that perhaps this isn’t the worst thing in the world. At least Space: Above and Beyond got a full season order, and Morgan and Wong got a chance to say some of what they wanted to say.

… Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best would be an unsatisfactory series finalé in any context where Wong and Morgan had been given time to properly plan it. It is almost impossible to imagine the episode working as the last word on a version of Space: Above and Beyond that ran for three or four seasons. In that context, it would seem cruel or callous. However, coming at the end of a stretch of twenty-odd episodes and closing out a show cancelled before its time, it feels pretty much perfect.

"Operation: Roundhammer has been cancelled..."

“Operation: Roundhammer has been cancelled…”

It is not necessarily the ending that anybody would have wanted when the show started out, but it is an ending. And that counts for a lot.

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

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6 Responses

  1. Thank you for reviewing this intriguing but half forgotten show!

    I do wonder if ‘Space Above and Beyond’ was a victim of timing in trying to sell a war story during an era that, at least for Americans, reflected boundless peace, prosperity and strength. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the far more successful US military against aliens show of the decade – ‘Stargate SG-1’ – was able to tap in the Nineties conspiracy paranioa, albeit with the twist of the heroic conspirator.

    ‘Space Above and Beyond’ feels like it is in the odd position of being very dated and ahead of it’s time – a decade later and who knows?

  2. Just had a blast reading through all these reviews. I just watched Space: Above and Beyond for the first time and while it didn’t grab me, I was still interested in some critical thought about the show. Thanks for writing these!

  3. I started this review at “Ray Butts” and was surprised at the seemingly negative light. I could not belive that the show I love so much could be taken apart piece by piece and just ripped to shreds. The more I read, however, the more I started to see for myself some of the truths that escaped me before. The episodes I know are weak, some have a story line that doesn’t quite make sense. That was a well written review. I ended up reading the whole thing at one fell swoop. I really enjoyed it, thank you!

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