“No offence, but how can something grown in a tank consider itself related to anything else? Except maybe algae.”
One of the things that science-fiction does particularly well is to take an issue out of its real-world context and reframe it in the setting of a fictional world in order to better examine it. All types of fiction aim to hold a mirror up to nature, this is true, but setting a story in the future, or on an alien planet, removes the viewer several steps further and – hopefully – allows them to consider their attitudes and reactions to a subject or situation in a way that is less personally emotive or politically charged.
Most science-fiction shows, I think it’s safe to say, have – for better or for worse – at some point attempted to tackle the subjects of racism and inequality, either as issues built into the framework of their fictional universe, or as a situation within one or more standalone stories. Throughout its 23 episodes, Space: Above and Beyond does the former, asking who humanity considers ‘human’, who it considers to be ‘people’, and examining how it treats them, particularly with reference to its In Vitros, or ‘tanks’: amongst them the 58th Squadron’s Cooper Hawkes and Colonel McQueen.
‘Mutiny’, the ominously-titled fourth episode of the season, sees the 58th catching a lift back to the Saratoga on a deep space cargo freighter. It’s no easy journey: the ship has to navigate the notoriously dangerous passage known as Blood Alley, and when the freighter comes under attack, the passengers, crew, and cargo are all in danger.
Why is the cargo, specifically, in danger? Because it consists of people: humans suspended in cryogenic sleep for ease of travel, and 6 containers of unborn In Vitros. And when the freighter needs to cut power to a section of the ship, it’s either the unborn In Vitros or the sleeping humans who have to die. The maths looks simple: 168 souls in one section; 400 in another. The captain chooses to sacrifice the smaller number of lives – the In Vitros – in order to save the rest of the ship. And in an equal society this decision would have been tragic, but also pragmatic.
However, in a world where ‘tanks’ are routinely insulted, degraded, and segregated, where they are still treated as an underclass or subspecies, and where, in defiance of the abolition of indentured servitude, they are still being shipped, unborn, directly to the plutonium mines, this decision looks like nothing less than discrimination.
The atmosphere aboard the freighter is already somewhat toxic. The six ‘tanks’ aboard all work in the nuclear engine room doing the “dirty jobs”, as opposed to the seven natural-born humans that make up the rest of the crew. And although the captain is “better than most”, he still tolerates the vile prejudice of his first mate, Potter, with barely a raised eyebrow. The order to kill 168 In Vitros, along with the discovery that Cooper Hawkes has an unborn ‘sister’ (an In Vitro with whom he shares a gene pool, batch, and creation date) on the cargo manifest, is the tipping point that leads to mutiny.
It’s here that discrimination meets the other themes of this episode: family, and loyalty. And it’s here that Cooper Hawkes is torn between his desire to save his sister and other members of his own race, and his loyalty as a Marine to the 58th, and to Colonel McQueen in particular. In the end, Hawkes comes to the conclusion that “There are no sides… just right and wrong”, and although he eventually follows McQueen’s order to kill the In Vitros, actually pushing the button himself, it is very much left open to interpretation what ‘right and wrong’ are in this scenario.
One could debate how clumsy or astute a take on discrimination this was in 1995, but there is no doubt that it was well-intentioned. Making the only apparent black crew-member the racist antagonist was possibly an over-zealous attempt to underline the point, but one can see why the decision was made. But the thing that doesn’t sit right in this scenario is Damphousse’s inappropriate and patronising reaction to McQueen congratulating her on getting the nuclear reactor stabilised. “I had a little help from my friends”, she tells him, smiling and seemingly oblivious to the fact that one of her ‘friends’ just gunned down a portion of the crew. This is something of a disservice to Damphousse: she deserves better.
Tying in with the theme of family in this episode is the sub-theme of romantic love, and we get a quick glimpse into the beliefs of the 58th on the subject. In the 1990s internet dating was in its infancy, and so we have Vansen questioning Wang on the validity of his relationship with someone that he met via a personal ad on Spacenet: something that we would barely question in 2018. West comes to the conclusion that he was selfish in going AWOL to search for his girlfriend, Kylen. And Damphousse, perusing a letter from her boyfriend, tells Nathan that “Love isn’t learned… It just is.”
‘Mutiny’ is the first episode of the season not written by Morgan and Wong themselves, and writer Stephen Zito deserves kudos for a tightly paced story that develops characters, builds on relationships, and further advances an important through-line of the series. The direction, by Stephen Cragg, makes the setting of the piece look vast, but in tone one feels that it is set aboard a submarine rather than a space freighter.
This episode very much belongs to Hawkes and McQueen, and actors Rodney Rowland and James Morrison carry the piece well, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to what their characters are feeling, despite their claims that they don’t feel the same emotions as other humans.
It began, this sad story, with Cooper Hawkes sitting beside a dead colleague, struggling with his feelings, unsure of what to do or say. And it ends as it began, as Hawkes visits his longed-for and now lost sister, floating, dead, in a gestation tank. Until this point she has just been a number on a cargo manifest, but now he gives her a name: Katy. It’s a horrible scene, and yet touchingly human. And this time he knows what to say: “I’m sorry.”
We all are, Hawkes. We all are.