“These are strange days, Colonel. There are a lot of scared people. And I must admit, with good reason. And there are a lot of paranoid people with no good reason. They believe what they feel. To patronise them is a serious miscalculation. To ignore them, to hope that they will go away is very dangerous.” – Diane Hayden, United States Ambassador.
When the Secretary-General, leader of the world, is assassinated by an In Vitro during a live TV broadcast, it sets in motion a chain of events that could change the fate of the human race. It sparks racial conflict, with natural-born humans looking for payback against In Vitros. It results in an order being issued that In Vitros must submit to a controversial, polygraph-based loyalty test: a complete and utter witch-hunt. And it leads to the United Nations electoral council meeting aboard the Saratoga to decide who will be the future leader of the world.
The candidates are controversial. Nicholas Chaput (George DelHoyo) is current Under-Secretary of the UN, and represents the ultra-right-wing Identity Party Nationaliste from France. France, in this universe, has recently seceded from the European Union, and the emblem of the party, in case anyone is unsure whether these are supposed to be the bad guys, looks more than a little like a swastika. Opposing him is United States Ambassador Diane Hayden (Harriet Sansom Harris), a lifelong activist who believes in In Vitro rights, invites Silicates aboard the Saratoga, and wants to open a dialogue with the enemy in order to facilitate peace negotiations. She is also blind, which is shorthand for cementing her good intentions.
But of course nothing is ever quite as straightforward as it seems, and Space: Above and Beyond doesn’t pretend that it is. You know you’re in for something fairly hefty when an episode begins with a quote from John Wilkes Booth: “Tell my mother I died for my country. I did what I thought was best.” And here we have the main themes of this story: what precisely is best? What does ‘the right thing’ look like in context? And what exactly is ‘the greater good’ and how much can be justified in trying to achieve it?
This is a show that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions, and also doesn’t try to provide neatly wrapped-up answers. Instead it revels in complexity and nuance, and the sixth episode of the season, ‘Eyes’, is packed with these. It’s an ambitious episode, with an intricate plot that involves several attempted and one actual assassination, mind-control, racism, treachery, manipulation, a bomb, conspiracies, revelations, tests of character, truth and lies that are indistinguishable from one another, and lessons from history.
Science-fiction often draws on the past in order to create the future, and in a show about war there is no shortage of material. Glen Morgan and James Wong also incorporated commentary on then-current events into their show, so it should come as no surprise that something written 20-plus years ago can land, squarely and terrifyingly relevant, in the lap of today. As Vansen (Kristen Cloke) comments to Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) and Wang (Joel de la Fuente): “nothing ever changes”.
In this era of Trump and fake news, of an increasingly hostile environment for anyone perceived to be an immigrant in both the USA and UK, of the rise of the ‘alt-right’, Diane Hayden’s speech is startlingly relevant: “There are a lot of scared people… with good reason. And there are a lot of paranoid people with no good reason.” Because here’s the thing: scared people can’t tell whether or not their fears are justified. And politicians, big business, religion – anyone with something to gain by making people fearful – nurture and prey on these fears, deflecting responsibility, redirecting blame, and setting the most vulnerable up to tear each other down. It’s demonisation of the other on a vast scale.
Diane Hayden goes out of her way to do just the opposite: humanising a literally inhuman enemy, and declining the offer of bodyguards, because to see her able to walk around without them will make people feel safer. Chaput, on the other hand – the obvious bad guy – very much plays with people’s fears. He uses the recruitment techniques of today’s far-right: find an angry young man with a gaping hole in his life, and the seeds of a grudge, and attempt to fill that hole with fear and hatred. West’s anger over his loss of – essentially – the privilege bestowed on him for being a natural-born human, which – unintentionally, unknowingly – led to the loss of his girlfriend, makes him potentially vulnerable to Chaput’s recruitment. We know that West (Morgan Weisser) is one of the good guys, and yet…
Chaput also tells West something that is either a vicious lie or a horrifying truth: that Hayden and the board of Aerotech, who sent the colonists to Tellus and Vesta – they knew about the existence of the Chigs, and they sent the colonists to their deaths. Vast conspiracy, or character assassination? It certainly gets West’s attention. And whilst Nathan West’s loyalty is being tested in real time, In Vitros Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) and McQueen (James Morrison) are submitting to officially sanctioned loyalty tests.
It’s painful to watch these men – these heroes – submit to such violations, simply because of the way that they were born, and it is a vast relief when Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood) shuts down McQueen’s test: “This is a damn good man. And I don’t need your machines or your questions to know that.” Because sometimes all it takes is for someone to say ‘this won’t happen here, in my house, under my watch’.
West, in the end, is loyal to the marines, and doesn’t take the bait offered by Chaput and his aide. He ends up stopping Lieutenant Rick Swirko (John Verea) from shooting Chaput. McQueen also comes out a hero, preventing a second assassination attempt on Chaput, and almost certainly saving the life of Hawkes, who had been the victim of mind-programming whilst undergoing his ‘loyalty-test’. In a series of misdirections, it turns out that Hayden is the one who had planned the assassination attempts on Chaput, with the cooperation of Chaput’s own aide.
Wang’s question at the start of the episode – ‘How can one murderer change the world with the speed of a bullet?’ – is echoed at the end by Chaput’s traitorous aide: “If someone had got to Hitler or Stalin… how many more people would now be alive? Wouldn’t the world have been a better place?” “That’s for the world to decide”, replies West. And in this scenario, we – the viewership – are the world.
This is a dark and compelling episode, tremendously well executed and with beautiful dialogue, and it’s a credit to Glen Morgan and James Wong that they have created something with such a nuanced understanding of a complex situation. It’s just a shame that it is still so relevant today.
Are you a fan of Space: Above and Beyond? What are your thoughts on this episode? Let us know.