TV Discussion

TV Rewind… Space: Above and Beyond 1×07 – ‘The Enemy’

“You’ve been here before. Anytime you awake in the dark in a cold sweat: moments before, you were here. …I’m not me anymore.”

‘The Enemy’, written by Marilyn Osborn, is a study in the psychology of fear and its transformative power to affect not just our actions, but our entire personality: how it can eat away at us, and destroy our sense of self – that thing we call ‘me’.

Engaged in a supply drop for the troops on a planet that has been engaged in battle since the beginning of the war, the 58th are exposed to an enemy weapon, an electronic nerve gas – strobing lights that penetrate, X-ray style, to the bone –  that triggers a fear response in the amygdala, intensifying pre-existing fears and phobias to levels that become unmanageable. They discover that the friendly fire, thousands of casualties, and high rate of Marines missing in action on this planet, are down to the effects of this Chig weapon, as soldiers lose their minds, and slaughter their comrades.

The fear response evolved to protect us from predators. It readies us for fight or flight: kill the enemy or run away. But when the fear, the predator, is something in our own heads – how do we fight that? How do we run from it? We can’t. And so it has two possible effects: to paralyse us, or to turn the ‘fight’ instinct outwards from the thing in our own minds to the people around us. Scared people can quickly turn on one another. It happens all the time. And it begins to happen to the 58th too.

Vansen (Kristen Cloke) fears the dark. West (Morgan Weisser) is afraid that he will fail in his quest to find Kylen. Wang (Joel de la Fuente) is afraid of cockroaches. Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) is afraid of blood. And Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) – mildly claustrophobic – is afraid of his own space helmet. But the 58th – the Wild Cards – don’t descend too far into madness and aggression before pulling it together and saving themselves and each other. Which is not to say that they are never in danger, or always in control. Their behaviour, under the effect of the Chig weapon, has consequences, and the action of the episode is framed by Ross (Tucker Smallwood) and McQueen (James Morrison) questioning the 58th with regards to the possibility of Damphousse being charged with dereliction of duty, amongst other offenses.

The message seems to be that fear destroys that thing that is ‘us’, and in some way separates (and absolves?) us from responsibility for our actions. ‘I’m not me anymore’, says the mad Marine, and we hear variations on this refrain from several characters who have been hit by the alien weapon. “It describes her actions but not her”, says West of Damphousse being too scared to obey orders. It’s a fascinating, if glancing, look at the psychology of identity, and the question of whether or not we’re our ‘real’ selves when consumed by fear, when we’re turning on one another. The episode also brings up the futility of ‘it won’t hurt you’, with the 58th telling each other ‘it’s nothing’ whilst being consumed by their own terror. “The only way we’re gonna be able to get through that fear is if we acknowledge it”, says Vansen. “But this thing, it’s beyond fear”, counters Hawkes.

It’s interesting to note that Hawkes is the one who remains outwardly most sensible throughout, and perhaps this is down to his underdeveloped emotional state, as someone who has only been alive for a few years, and has possibly experienced less trauma, although the opposite could easily have been true – that his childlike emotions would be quicker to flare into fear and anger.

The entire setting of this episode works symbolically as well as literally. The red lighting on the transport vessel signifies danger, blood, hell, and altered states. And the planet itself, with its atmosphere of toxic gas, ground fog that restricts visibility, scalding temperatures and hidden traps, represents a mind overtaken by fear. “They call it Tartarus,” says West, “the place beyond hell”. And what could be more hellish than being trapped in one’s own terrified mind? And perhaps this descent into madness also represents the madness of war, as well as highlighting the real horror of combat that leaves so many veterans with PTSD and other mental afflictions.

‘The Enemy’ also contains some brilliant moments of deadpan humour to contrast with the high levels of stress. “Aint physics a bitch?” says Wang, trying to remember which angle will deflect the laser beam of the mine that Vansen is standing on. “Yeah, aint it tho”, replies Vansen. During questioning by Ross and McQueen, the rest of the 58th have waived their right to silence, choosing to make a statement about the events on the planet. Hawkes though, asks “What is this stuff about remaining silent?” only to be told “Answer the question, Hawkes!” by McQueen. The cast more than prove their comedic ability, and Rodney Rowland in particular has found his comedy feet in Hawkes’ endearingly dry delivery. He is a delight to watch.

Who then – or what – is the enemy of the episode title? “The enemy was down there but it wasn’t the Chigs”, says Hawkes, blowing away the obvious assumption. If the enemy is fear, or the effect of fear, then the enemy is also us, ourselves. A chilling thought. But in creating and using this literally terrifying weapon, the Chigs have taught us something: “The Chigs must know fear… The Chigs must know us”, says Hawkes, with sudden realisation. If the enemy understands fear, understands us, then are they – perhaps – like us?

It’s been done before, obviously, this ‘people in a tight spot turning on one another’ story, as has the ‘losing one’s mind in combat’ theme. But Marilyn Osborn’s script layers a lot of concepts and complex questions into a fairly straightforward plot, elevating her story from the merely literal to the metaphorical. Throughout the episode, the nightmare quality of the events on Tartarus is framed by the logical questioning of the 58th by Ross and McQueen: a re-framing of terror into rationality. Once again Space: Above and Beyond throws out the big questions. The potential for fear is everywhere, and all we can do is try to manage it. Even if you’re afraid of the dark, like Vansen, at the end of the day you still have to turn out the lights.

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