TV discussion

TV Rewind… Space: Above and Beyond 1×01 – ‘Pilot’ – Review

Tonight we stand beneath a new heaven. After 150 years of calling out, the silence of the universe assures us that life is unique. We are alone. You and I are among the first to bring life to the stars – to this planet. The farthest any human has ever ventured. I know there are those at home who say that we are here only as a status symbol. Others say that we are fortune hunters, or that we’re running away. But I know we’re here because of faith – faith in each other, in a better world. The rocket fuel that brought us here can be burnt away, but our belief in ourselves, in one another, in the future, never can be; never will be.

It’s 2063, and humans have colonised space, using stable but transient wormholes to travel to planets which would otherwise be out of their reach. They have come to the conclusion that they are alone in the universe. On Vesta Colony, as a rousing speech ends, alien crafts appear in the sky and fire rains down on the planet. A Tellus flag is consumed by flames as it flaps on its pole. Thus, epically, begins the feature-length pilot episode of Space: Above and Beyond, the prodigious yet short-lived progeny of Glen Morgan and James Wong, succinctly setting the tone of eloquent dialogue contrasted with violent action which later came to define the series. This, then, will be the heart of the story: a battle for the survival of humanity against an unexpected and unknown foe, led by a diverse band of military personnel, learning to work together in order to overcome the odds.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps it is because 2004’s Battlestar Galactica echoed many of the themes and stylistic elements embodied by Space: Above and Beyond in its solitary 1995-1996 season. But in fact this summary could apply to many other stories, in a range of media and genres, because at heart, and aside from its sci-fi credentials, Space: Above and Beyond is a show about the nature of war, and its exploration of this theme – of the ‘othering’ of an enemy, and of how far we can go without betraying our own concept of humanity – is something which, sadly, is always relevant, and which storytellers will return to, in various forms, time and again.

The tone of this particular piece is drama, verging on tragedy, but it has its moments of (mostly) understated humour throughout. The bulk of the pilot episode revolves around the journeys of three archetypal characters, all of whom are angry, hurt, damaged in some way. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) and his girlfriend are the star-crossed lovers, forcibly separated, and trying to find each other again across the vastness of space. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke), is the reluctant leader, who as a child saw her parents murdered, and having spent her life raising her younger sisters now just wants to look out for herself.

Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), is an In Vitro, a genetically engineered human, created as part of a servant underclass, gestated in a tank, and ‘born’ as an adult. He is the child-like (but nonetheless potentially dangerous) ‘alien’, gradually learning what it means to be human. The action follows these three, and a handful of others, as they join the US Marine Corps and train to be pilots, ending up as part of the 58th Squadron (later the ‘Wildcards’), stationed on the space carrier USS Saratoga, where they lead missions that are vital to the war effort.

The pilot plants plot seeds which will grow and bloom throughout the season story-arc. The A.I. War is mentioned several times, and it is later revealed that this war was started by a race of androids, created by humanity as servants, who gained sentience and turned against their creators. The In Vitros, or ‘tanks’ (a pejorative term), were similarly created as servants, and are now fighting for their rights, and attempting to integrate into human society. And the Chigs, the alien combatants, a race about which nothing at all is known, are – surprisingly – visually revealed in this pilot, rather than just being spoken about.

Both the story and the characters are compelling, with Glen Morgan and James Wong – former writers and producers on The X-Files – managing to strike a difficult balance between what they conceal and reveal, between actual growth and merely its potential. The direction, by David Nutter, also an X-Files alumnus, tends towards classic ‘war movie’ visuals, with a few gloriously epic shots. The 23-year-old computer graphics are the only thing that really jar, and it would be great to see these remastered one day.

Space: Above and Beyond was, and is, forward-looking in its examination and presentation of equal rights and opportunities, of women in the military and in leadership, of where humanity might go astray and how we might make amends. It’s a war story and a love story, both cautionary and inspirational.

There is always a risk in returning to a much-loved show, twenty years after it aired. It hasn’t changed, but you have, the world has. Standards of judgement quite rightly shift with the years, but Space: Above and Beyond, happily, and thus far, holds up rather well.

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