It is surprising, although perhaps it shouldn’t be, that each episode of Space: Above and Beyond appears to have a clear theme, exploring an idea, or posing a question and then setting out to answer it. Episode three, ‘The Dark Side of the Sun’, looks at ideas of fate and predetermination versus chance and luck, and how risk and gambling fit into the picture.
Aside from the Chigs, Space: Above and Beyond’s other villains are the Silicates, or AIs: a race of artificially intelligent humanoids, created as ‘walking PCs’ to serve humankind. The Silicates record everything that they experience, and relay it to the entire network of AIs, so that any AI can access the memory of another. They developed sentience when a programmer inserted a virus into their network, a piece of code that simply told them ‘Take a Chance’. This led to a rebellion, as they tried to free themselves from slavery.
“Why would ‘take a chance’ cause a rebellion?” asks Cooper Hawkes, who – childlike – knows nothing of the AI war. “Isn’t that what any really new idea is all about?” replies Paul Wang. That such a simple instruction – almost a challenge, a dare – could open the door of a cage and allow a whole race of beings to step through – well, it’s rather profound. Glen Morgan and James Wong really like the big ideas, and this one is fascinating. But if ‘take a chance’ is what saved the AIs from slavery, it is also likely to be their downfall, as they can’t resist a challenge, a gamble. Risk, we are told, is like religion for them.
The previous two episodes have mentioned AIs, and the viewer is aware that Vansen’s trauma originates with seeing her parents slaughtered by Silicates, but up until this point they haven’t been shown onscreen. When they do make an appearance, they look like refugees from the 1980s. And this makes a kind of sense in the context of when the show is set (2060s) and when it was shot (1990s) in relation to when the Silicates would have left earth (2050s). They look human, apart from their crosshair eyes and their damaged ‘skin’ that shows machine parts underneath.
The episode begins with Vansen’s recurring nightmare, about the sun dying, her own coming death, and the death of her parents. She dreams of flying close to the sun, and fighting off AIs in what looks like an industrial complex, and then, in real life, ends up facing off against them at the Icarus Mining Facility. Do her dreams have a predictive quality to them or is it just coincidence, common symbolism, probability? When she tries to turn down mission command because she feels that something is out there waiting to get her, McQueen tells her, in no uncertain terms, “There’s no such thing as predetermination and there’s no such thing as luck”.
When Hawkes, Damphousse, and Wang, are captured by the AIs and about to be executed, Hawkes shouts ‘Take a chance!’ and challenges them to a game of cards. Which he then loses. “Fate’s a bitch,” gloats one of the Silicates, just as Vansen and West burst in and save the day, showing that you don’t have to win the game in order to win the battle, all you need is enough luck to delay the expected outcome.
What Vansen wants is to know why her parents, specifically, were targeted for execution by the Silicates. So when she gets a chance to find out she can’t resist taking it. The AI replays a recording of the night in question, and Vansen discovers that her parents were killed on the outcome of a coin toss. ‘Mother-‘ she says, on hearing a replay of her family’s voices, and the scene cuts away before the word becomes an expletive. Vansen is on a revenge mission, and succeeds in killing all the AIs before they escape the planet.
There are some interesting fragments of character development in this episode. There’s Cooper Hawkes, who cannot wait to open a box containing an antique CD player and copy of ‘Under the Big Black Sun’, and doesn’t seem to realise that he shouldn’t play music in the middle of the night. Hawkes innocently asks questions, and also has a tendency to blurt things out without thinking. He says that In Vitros are bad gamblers, and then later challenges the AIs to a game that he doesn’t understand how to play. He is childlike, and guileless in his actions.
We also see a little bit more of Paul Wang, talking about seeing – presumably? – an Elvis stage show at Vegas, and we hear about his love of sports. A particularly nice touch is him bringing a light-up football along on the mission, just so that he can see it whizz upwards and out of sight in the lower gravity. And Damphousse, who in the pilot episode made an unkind remark about feeling that In Vitros weren’t quite human, does a turnaround and very clearly states that “In Vitros are human”.
Any show set in the future has to make a leap of the imagination when it comes to technology, and it’s always fascinating to look back and see where the writers and designers over- or undershot in their estimations. Here we have walking, talking AIs, who are networked through wireless modems. They record everything and share it. So far, so futuristic. But they also have a collective memory of just 5 terabytes, and they when they communicate with one another it’s with a sound like a fax machine! How far we have come in two decades…
‘The Dark Side of the Sun’ pulls a lot of threads together in exploring its themes. It’s a big subject to tackle in less than 45 minutes, so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t come to any clear conclusions. But by this point we are getting a feel for this world and getting to know its characters and the challenges that they may face. And we’re with them all the way.