Back when I slogged through IMDB’s list of “sci-fi” film and TV to pick out my top 25 of the past 25 years, I noticed some stuff with high ratings that I hadn’t seen. Netflix ahoy! Just recently I finished one of these shows, Space: Above and Beyond. It didn’t take too long, because like some other worthies it was prematurely cancelled.
S:AAB (as it’s abbreviated by fans) ran from 1995-1996 on Fox. Produced by Glen Morgan and James Wong (frequent collaborators who had previously worked on The X-Files), it had a large budget for the time, and, apart from a few early exceptions, featured very good CGI. The premise will seem familiar if you’ve seen the Alien movies or Starship Troopers: in the year 2063, humanity is attacked by a previously unknown species of bug-like aliens (soon dubbed “the Chigs”) and must fight a series of desperate space battles to survive. Five of the six main characters start as new Marine recruits (or “maggots” according to their drill sergeant, played by Lee Ermey, seemingly just off the set of Full Metal Jacket), but under the leadership of their new commanding officer, Colonel McQueen, they quickly become hot shit. The 58th squadron, also known as “the Wildcards”, are called in on the toughest, most interesting missions, which conveniently enough are what the audience wants to know about.The first half of the season doesn’t advance the plot much. We get some background on the Earth of 2063, which has united under a single world government after a devastating war with rebellious artificial intelligences. The A.I.s lost but weren’t eliminated, and now appear to be consorting with the enemy off in outer space. If the Cylon-like robots aren’t enough to scratch your sci-fi itch, there is also a population of exploited people who’ve been grown in vats – the inVitros. Two of the main characters, McQueen and Hawkes, are inVitros, and this becomes quite important in several episodes. They are basically the science fictional proxies for present day targets of racism.
The style of the early episodes is uneven. The writing, particularly in the pilot, is not that great, and there’s a fair bit of wink-wink cleverness and/or cheesiness. The best of this first lot is “Ray Butts”, which benefits from a terrific guest actor (Steve Rankin) and some genuine humor mixed with weirdness. That being said, I’m glad that it was the last episode that really, strongly reminded me of The X-Files.
Round about episode 11, things started to improve substantially. The stupid A.I. storyline fell by the wayside, allowing the writers to focus on the war themes and some more nuanced character development. I really started to like McQueen. Most of the time he acts like he has a pole up his ass, but he genuinely loves his pilots – who he calls “the kids”, almost like they’re really his children. He’s not just a father-figure, either; there are a couple of great scenes where he talks about the treatment of inVitros, and it’s obvious that he’s seething with rage about it most of the time. He’s a great character, and James Morrison makes the most of the role. As the season continued, I grew fond of all the members of the squad, even the annoying West. They all loosened up and worked better together, something that’s really important in an ensemble piece.
Meanwhile, the plot and the missions kicked into high gear. I liked that these missions weren’t rah-rah boosterism for our protagonists. They make a lot of mistakes and often seem ridiculously incurious about what’s really going on. After the second or third instance of a character shrugging off or not even noticing something that practically had a neon sign flashing “I’m important!” over it, my housemate and I started coming up with alternate names for the show. “Space: Just Doing Our Jobs”… “Space: Between Our Ears”. Having watched the whole series of 22 episodes, I now appreciate that it was a conscious choice to make the characters fairly normal grunts. They’re not passionate do-gooders or private detectives, they’re just soldiers trying to keep each other alive one day at a time.
This is a show about war, first and foremost. Colonel McQueen is a student of war history and is prone to quoting from Sun Tzu and The Iliad. One episode flashes quotes from The Red Badge of Courage before each act, and another tells the remarkable story of one Christmas Day in World War I when American, British and German soldiers called a truce and came out of their trenches to shake hands, bury their dead, and play soccer. The show focuses quite a bit on bravery and honor in wartime, but the costs of battle are never whitewashed, and the enemy is never dehumanized. (Despite the fact that they’re… not human.) There’s a lot of sweat, exhaustion, sadness, and death, and not so much glory. I couldn’t help wondering, “What’s it all for, anyway?”
As it turns out, there is an evil megacorporation involved. In the tradition of the Tyrell Corporation and Weyland-Yutani, we have AeroTech, manipulator of elections, collector of alien technology, employer of clever-talking, shifty eggheads. There are some strong indications that they, unlike the rest of humanity, knew about the Chigs before the doomed Tellus colony was established. Why they chose to hide that knowledge is never made clear, because the damn show was cancelled!
It was not without its influence, though. I was immediately struck by how much it resembled the Starship Troopers movie that came out the following year as well as the new version of Battlestar Galactica. All three feature a sexually integrated military that wages war against a space-faring enemy. Individual story elements of S:AAB appear to have been copied in BSG: an organic alien ship that has to be reverse engineered by human pilots; an alien fighter pilot who picks off dozens of humans and seems unstoppable (the S:AAB version is called “Chiggy von Richtofen”!); the production of a documentary film about life in the military. The rebellious mechanical life forms who appear human are a common element as well, but I think BSG’s take on it owed more to Blade Runner. After all, the Cylons don’t have cross-hairs on their eyeballs or make techno beeps as they walk around. (Did I mention the A.I.s were stupid? Even David Duchovny’s cameo as the “entertainment model” Alvin EL couldn’t redeem them.)
I think BSG is a better show all around, but in one sense S:AAB leaves it in the dust: diversity. In terms of background characters, I think this might be the most racially integrated science fiction show I’ve ever seen. There are numerous African Americans and Asians in the guest cast and among the extras, and the main cast isn’t bad either: three white men, two women (one white, one black), and one Asian-American man. The Commodore of the Saratoga, the ship the 58th calls their home base, is a black man, and the leader of the 58th is a woman. She doesn’t even have to work at it; she’s obviously the best person for the job and assumes this role early in the season. How refreshing! As the show continued, I marveled at how well they were doing. But then… minor key foreboding music… the final episode came along. I won’t say exactly what happens in case you ever want to see it (and I encourage you to), but I can say that I was aghast. They fumbled it, big time. But there is a particular scene at the end (which will also remain a secret) that almost made me forgive the slip-up.
The verdict: time well spent. If you have the patience to sit through the occasionally lame first half, you’ll be rewarded. And if you don’t I suggest renting just disc 3, which features my favorite episode of the series: “Who Monitors the Birds?”. It’s dark, it’s violent, there’s almost no dialogue… and it’s utterly gripping.