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Space: Above and Beyond – Toy Soldiers (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 Never No More and The Angriest Angel two-parter represented a moment when Space: Above and Beyond seemed to gel, when the show seemed to realise what it wanted to be and how it wanted to be about it. Written by showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong, they presented a demonstration of just how well the show could work, and why it had been an absolutely ingenious idea to do the premise of “World War II… IN SPACE!”

So, naturally, Toy Soldiers shows up to demonstrate that we have yet to reach a point where we can do this consistently.

Oh, brother...

Oh, brother…

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Space: Above and Beyond – The Angriest Angel (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.

Existentialism is something of a recurring theme in the work of Glen Morgan and James Wong.

It echoes through their work. Mulder’s choice of action ultimately serves to define him in One Breath, in contrast to the other more senior male characters in the narrative. The duo’s second script for Millennium, 5-2-6-6-6, opens with a quote from existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Even the pair’s feature film work – The One and the Final Destination films – touch broadly on existentialist themes.

Pressed (up) on the issue...

Pressed (up) on the issue…

However, The Angriest Angel is perhaps the most candid of their scripts, with McQueen explicitly explaining how his actions are serving to define his identity. In his power-house opening monologue, McQueen describes these defining moments as make-or-break points. “Everyone, everyone in this life knows when the moment is before them. To turn away is simple. To ignore it assures survival. But it is an insult to life. Because there can be no redemption.”

This is perhaps the most elegant and effective summary of Morgan and Wong’s approach to character development. McQueen articulates it clearer than any of their characters, but the philosophy applies just as much to Scully in Beyond the Sea or Never Again as it does to Tyrius Cassius McQueen. Indeed, it would come to define their work on Millennium, with the second season repeatedly suggesting that the end of the world was as much a personal event as a massive social occurrence.

Slice of life...

Slice of life…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Never No More (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.

On the surface, Never No More and The Angriest Angel feel like a companion piece to Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance. Both are two-part episodes airing around sweeps, almost in step with the equivalent two-part episodes of The X-Files. Both push the show’s story arcs forward. Both also draw in recurring guest stars Doug Hutchinson and Michael Mantell, last seen during Choice or Chance. In many respects, Never No More and The Angriest Angel could be seen as a follow-up to that earlier two-part adventure.

However, there are a number of subtle differences that help Never No More and The Angriest Angel feel like a series highpoint – rather than another ambitious misfire. Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance seemed like episodes trying to do too much, and straying into areas where Space: Above and Beyond had always faced difficulty. They were high-concept science-fiction epic adventures that also tried to work in character arcs for the entire ensemble, set against a truly epic story about an ambitious suicide mission and subsequent rescue attempt.

It's only a paper moon...

It’s only a paper moon…

In a way, Never No More and The Angriest Angel are a lot more modest in their scope. There are big revelations here, and plot points that push the show’s arc forwards. However, these elements are not foregrounded. Never No More and The Angriest Angel are not episodes that aspire to be all things to all people. Instead, they are two character studies centred on the two strongest characters (and actors) in the cast, filling in other details as a secondary concern.

Space: Above and Beyond always worked better as a war show than as a science-fiction drama, and Never No More and The Angriest Angel seem to realise this. The two episodes play as an extended homage to the tropes and conventions of classic war stories. Never No More is the story of love divided by conflict, and The Angriest Angel is a tale of personal discovery set against the backdrop of a larger war. They combine to produce a highlight of the entire Space: Above and Beyond run.

Not a patch on his original squadron...

Not a patch on his original squadron…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Level of Necessity (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.

Coming hot on the heels of Who Monitors the Birds?, Level of Necessity was almost destined to be a little disappointing. Who Monitors the Birds? is perhaps the quintessential episode of Space: Above and Beyond, encapsulating the show’s core themes and utilising its world in a clever and constructive manner. In contrast, Level of Necessity seems almost rote. It is an episode that might have been written for any other nineties science-fiction show.

There are some nice ideas here, but Level of Necessity feels far too generic. In fact, it seems like the episode is centred around Damphousse not because the story makes any more sense for her than it does for any other character, but because she is the only character who has yet to occupy the centre of a story. Thomas J. Wright directs quite well, and Richard Kind makes for a solid guest star. However, Level of Necessity suffers from the fact that it could be an episode of any other show.

Stars in his eyes...

Stars in his eyes…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Who Monitors the Birds? (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.

Who Monitors the Birds? is a phenomenal piece of television.

Space: Above and Beyond is a show that only ran one season, languishing on Sunday nights before Fox decided to just scrap the idea of consistently scheduling it and just bounced it around the network timetable. It was not a breakout hit. It did not inspire a revival or resurrection in the way that other science-fiction properties have done. It has a very devoted and strong cult following, but its name is more likely to evoke a vague remembrance than anything more concrete.

spaceaboveandbeyond-whomonitorsthebirds13

And yet, despite that, Space: Above and Beyond was still a massively influential piece of television. Despite the fact that it was structured as a throwback to classic war movies, it was also a very progressive piece of television. The influence of Space: Above and Beyond can be keenly felt on Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, even though the show seldom gets any real credit for that influence. In some respects, Space: Above and Beyond was well ahead of its time.

Who Monitors the Birds? is put together with incredible skill and confidence. It is an episode that holds up fantastically, and which serves as a demonstration of the series’ lost potential.

spaceaboveandbeyond-whomonitorsthebirds3

 

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Space: Above and Beyond – The River of Stars (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.

And so this is Christmas.

On the face of it, doing a Christmas episode of Space: Above and Beyond seems absurd. Space: Above and Beyond is a show about a grim and relentless future war, where human lives are sacrificed in a long and brutal slog. It is very hard to reconcile that with the traditional structure of a Christmas story, which typically draws together a family so that they might celebrate the possibility of “peace on Earth” and “goodwill to all men.”

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

And yet, the episode works in spite of this contrast – or, perhaps, because of it. The River of Stars opens with a monologue narrated by Wang that helps to set the mood for the next forty-five minutes, documenting the well-known Christmas truces that took place during the First World War. Although these spontaneous demonstrations of good will and trust were by no means unique, those temporary reprieves served as a reminder of the humanity that often seemed lost amid the pain and the bloodshed.

If any show could use a charming feel-good story about the possibility of peace on Earth and goodwill towards other people, Space: Above and Beyond might be it.

Staring at the stars...

Staring at the stars…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Stay With The Dead (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.

There is a nice story buried somewhere in Stay With the Dead. Space: Above and Beyond has generally worked better as a story about warfare than an action-adventure science-fiction show. As such, it’s telling that the best parts of Stay With the Dead have less to do with the plot-driven flashback-ridden mystery at the heart of the episode, and more to do with the aspects of the script that confront the uncomfortable realities of war.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an absolutely terrifying aspect of armed conflict. War claims lives; countless soldiers and civilians are sacrificed in the name of the greater good. However, even those who survive are left scarred by the experience. The trauma need not be physical. Exposure to combat and warfare can leave a lasting psychological scar. It has widely been suggested that shell-shock and other post-traumatic stress disorders have been under-reported among veterans of previous conflicts.

The wages of warfare...

The wages of warfare…

Stay With the Dead broaches the topic when West is recovered from the field of battle suffering from anxiety attacks and struggling to recall the details of his experience. He is unable to sleep, with even the smallest noise reminding him of his experiences. Army doctors are unable to help him, and make suggestions that seem more interested in what is most convenient for the war effort rather than addressing his own needs. There’s a lot of potentially compelling commentary about how warfare works, and the conflicts of interest that arise.

However, instead of exploring these issues, Stay With the Dead instead becomes a flashback race-against-time mystery. It is not a very good one.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Choice or Chance (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.

Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance follow the two-part template established by The X-Files, keeping things fresh by offering a pretty dramatic shift between the two episodes in question.

Hostile Visit featured a covert trojan house mission to infiltrate enemy space and stage a devastating attack behind enemy lines. The episode ended with the mission a failure and our heroes drifting through space. Choice or Chance features our heroes landing on a prison planet maintained by the Silicates, the evil artificial organisms that have skirted around the edge of the show’s mythology to this point.

Here's Douggie!

Here’s Douggie!

Choice or Chance comes very close to working. It is a lot more dynamic than Hostile Visit was, which is a good thing for the second half of a two-parter airing during November Sweeps. However, while Hostile Visit felt a little padded and extended, never quite building the momentum necessary for the story to work, Choice or Chance feels a little over-stuffed. There’s a lot of nice stuff here, but no room to properly digest it. It’s an episode that comes up with something for every member of the cast to do, but this inevitably means that the character arcs feel abbreviated and shortened.

There is a  pretty solid two-part episode to be constructed out of the ingredients of Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance. Sadly, the resulting two-parter is not it.

Crash and burn...

Crash and burn…

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Space: Above and Beyond – Hostile Visit (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.

At this point, Space: Above and Beyond could do a lot worse than learn from The X-Files.

There are quite a few echoes of The X-Files in Space: Above and Beyond, becoming more pronounced as the show approaches the middle of the season. Eyes built on the suggestion of conspiracy and cover-up to assure viewers that Space: Above and Beyond was just as cynical about authority as The X-Files ever was. The Enemy felt like an attempt to copy the formula that Morgan and Wong had worked so well back in Ice.

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

Hostile Visit and Choice or Chance feels like an attempt to do a big sweeps two-parter in the style of The X-Files. This was a crucial moment for Space: Above and Beyond. The series had been scheduled outside of its comfort zone, had not been drawing huge ratings, had found itself preempted and bounced around the schedule as a result of factors outside its control. It needed a strong performance for the November sweeps, which were a matter of pride (and money) for the networks and a matter of interest for the advertisers.

So structuring a two-parter around that period makes a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, Hostile Visit does not make for the most compelling first half.

"I want a good clean sweep."

“I want a good clean sweep.”

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Space: Above and Beyond – The Enemy (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.

On paper, The Enemy seems like a good idea.

Space: Above and Beyond has a reasonably large cast. It has devoted character-centric episodes to the three leads, and done a nice bit of world-building around that. To this point, the shows have typically split the characters up, pushed some to the fore and others to the background.  The show is now about a third of the way through the first season, so it makes a great deal of sense to do a show that actually stresses the ensemble dynamic.

Nothing to fear, but fear itself...

Nothing to fear, but fear itself…

A story like The Enemy makes a great deal of sense. When you have an ensemble, you can generate drama from next to nothing. Lock five people in a room together, you’re sure to generate some friction. Character practically defines itself as they play off one another. If you can crank up the tension, it will all come together. So a war story where our heroes find themselves trapped together and cracking under the pressure seems like a solid basis for a good story.

The problem is that The Enemy is just a clumsy mess of a script, and one that stumbles over what should be a fairly robust set-up.

"I'm still not sure that producing the episode could be considered a war crime..."

“I appreciate that it was traumatic, but I’m still not sure that producing the episode could be considered a war crime…”

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