TV discussion

TV Rewind… Space: Above and Beyond 1×05 – ‘Ray Butts’

“In my life, I’ve killed hundreds: people, aliens, A.I.s. The first life you take is hard. The second one is harder but then after that you forget whatever it was that made it tough in the first place. But then, one day you come face-to-face with the other side, and it bites back.”

From the moment that Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Thomas Butts sets foot aboard the Saratoga he causes turmoil amongst the 58th Squadron. He arrives in an unidentified Hammerhead jet and overrides the hangar bay door lock, bursting to life and straight into a brawl. He is aggressive, confrontational, and deliberately offensive and insulting. He refuses to answer Colonel McQueen’s questions, and he provokes and sneers at the Wild Cards. He eventually reveals that he is on a classified mission and is taking over command of the 58th.

The Wild Cards, understandably, are less than enthusiastic about this. They’d lay down their lives for Colonel McQueen (James Morrison) because they know he’d do the same for them. But Ray Butts? How far can they trust someone who breaks his own rules in combat practice and messes with their heads seemingly for the fun of it?

Once again Space: Above and Beyond examines themes of loyalty: to one’s peers, to one’s commanding officers, and to the Corps itself. But this time it also looks at the duties and responsibilities of a commanding officer to his subordinates, and what can happen when these come into conflict with a mission objective. And in Ray Butts himself it ponders what a man might become when he has been involved in decades of conflict.

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, this is something of a character study, and a moving one at that. Ray Butts, admirably played by Steve Rankin, could have easily been a caricature, but instead he is complex and all too human. The viewer, watching him, takes the same journey as the Wild Cards themselves: from curiosity to loathing, then on to distrust, and finally respect.

Ray Butts is a fascinating character. He joined the US Marine Corps at twenty years old. He’s been tortured as a prisoner of war. He speaks about himself in the third person. And he has a catchphrase: “Easy as eating pancakes”. He is damaged: that much is clear. When Vansen asks him “What do you think about in the dark?” he answers: “I think about the first man I ever killed. I wonder what he’s doin’ now and if he got the better end of the deal.” And to her pertinent and probing “Would you die for us?” he tells her “I’m already dead”. Not so reassuring!

He gets a lot of dialogue, including a rather poignant speech near the end of the episode, when his strange behaviour is finally explained. It turns out that his plan, the entire ‘classified’ mission that he drags the Wild Cards into, is not just – as he had initially (and grudgingly) told the 58th – to retrieve six Hammerhead jets from an alien planet. Instead he means to retrieve and bury the six members of his unit who were killed by Chigs, when he abandoned them in order to complete the mission they were on.

One could wonder if all this guilt and grief that he feels is about more than losing just colleagues, and if Robert Joseph Grant – Bob, who, given the choice, would die going down a black hole whilst listening to Johnny Cash – meant more to him than just a friend. Perhaps this is reaching, but it could be read that way, and such things were often presented in a largely subtextual way in the 1990s.

It’s telling that McQueen managed to call Butts out on his evasions right away, when he was first refusing to talk: “You screwed up, didn’t you? I think men got hurt under your command, and you won’t come clean.” He might not like Butts, but he understands him. And although he dismisses the Wild Cards’ complaints about Butts with “We’re in the middle of a war. If we stop following orders, there will be no order. It’ll all fall apart”, he also warns Butts about his duty of care: “I know we’re at war, and people die. But if any of my people die because of you, all your recon skills and black ops training won’t be worth a damn. I’ll find you”. These are two men with similar backgrounds but wildly different leadership styles.

There are a fair number of comic moments in this serious episode, and Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) in particular seems to be the light relief, with his clueless questions and his comedy-stumbling into a dead body. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) manages to cut to the heart of the matter in her every question or statement, the voice of truth, or morality.

In the end, Ray Butts does die for the 58th. Right up until the end he believes (or possibly make-believes) in his own ability to beat the odds. But when he runs out of fuel and out of luck he goes with good grace. And he tells them that it’s been an honour to work with them. He dies – or perhaps lives forever – when his jet is pulled into a black hole: something of an upsetting ending for this man that we have grown to respect in 40 minutes of viewing time.

The end scene of this episode is perhaps one of the most memorable and moving of the series. Set – as is much of the episode – to a soundtrack of Johnny Cash, it sees the 58th being served a specially ordered dinner of pancakes. Shot upwards, so that we see their faces as they do it, each member of the 58th takes their portion of pancakes and drops them through the refuse chute, where they float out into space. It is surreal and sad, and an appropriate tribute to a man they won’t easily forget. I guess those pancakes weren’t so easy to eat after all.

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