“I’d go out, when the light was just right. Golden. Autumn. …I can always feel it. Always. There is just this cold, inevitable edge – the air the light, the colours. It’s as if the Earth were letting you know that summer was gone there’s no getting it back. Winter’s coming, and there is nothing that you can do to escape it. A lot of people say that they fall in love in spring. Not me. I always fell in love in autumn. It is just the most – romantic, sexy, desperate – And I’ll never see it again. This enemy could kill every last person on Earth and there would still be autumn. But I’m going tomorrow morning to make sure that there is always someone there to feel it.“ – Shane Vansen
Written by Peyton Webb, ‘Hostile Visit’ is the first part of the first two-parter on Space: Above and Beyond, and one that takes a leap in terms of advancing the series story-arc. So far, little is known about the alien invaders, the Chigs. No one seems to know what they look like, or where they come from, how they operate, or why they attacked the human race. So when the Saratoga, by sheer luck, captures a disabled Chig bomber, it’s not a surprise that everyone wants to get their hands on it.
Using the ship’s navigational computer, it’s possible to find out where the bomber came from: possibly the Chig home planet. Morale is low; humanity is losing the war. Colonel McQueen (James Morrison), proposes flying the bomber back to the region whence it came – a distance too far for human vessels to reach – and using it as a Trojan horse. But AeroTech employee Sewell (Michael Mantell), wants to dismantle the ship and analyse its parts, with a view to creating a long-term strategic advantage for humanity.
When “defeat is on every face” and “fear and surrender is on everyone’s mind” is it best to sacrifice an invaluable piece of technology in order to create a single victory that will raise hope? “Without hope,” says McQueen, “we can’t win. And if we lose, millions of people will lose their lives.” Or is hope irrelevant? Is it best to let morale slide, and bet on science and the assimilation of an alien technology that will eventually even out the score? This then, is the dilemma.
But, actually, it turns out to be not that much of a dilemma after all. Sewell and AeroTech are seen by the 58th as the bad guys: a shady group who classify and cover up, who are responsible for the loss of thousands of human lives. Much of this is just speculation, and neither the viewer, nor the 58th, know the truth about AeroTech, but it’s enough for Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood) to throw them off the Saratoga and take McQueen up on his plan.
It’s an interesting theory, that an alien race would have no knowledge of “the greatest military manoeuvre in human history”, and that this could be the mission that turns the war around. And what tricks might the Chigs have, of which humanity is unaware? “Your enemy has a dark, bloodthirsty heart”, says McQueen of the Chigs, and for the most part this is the filter through which we see them: a demonic enemy to be vanquished at any cost. But Space: Above and Beyond also hints that the Chigs may be something more than this. We have only seen the soldiers of their race: we know nothing of the general populace or what they think of this war. The Doolittle raid of World War II, referenced by McQueen, took the lives of innocent civilians: might this attack do the same?
What we do learn about the Chigs in this episode is that they use bio-engineering in the construction of their ships. The inside of the bomber is full of what look like bizarre internal organs, and the 58th discover that these are the piloting controls. Gooey and disturbing, they require the insertion of an arm to make them work. This is excellent work by the design and effects team: creating a visceral reaction in the viewer, a revulsion that both fascinates and further alienates.
But the biggest thing in this episode, the heart of it, and what all this is leading up to, is that McQueen’s proposal is almost certainly a suicide mission for the 58th. His mission will, in all likelihood, sacrifice not only the alien ship, but also the men and women piloting it. It won’t do vast amounts of damage, it’s merely a gesture: an exchange of “pilots for morale” – and the 58th must choose whether or not to volunteer to give their lives for it.
The writers of Space: Above and Beyond do their research, and it shows. Invoking true stories, and real poetry and rituals from actual wars, adds a further sense of poignancy to already serious proceedings. Kamikaze pilot Yuzuru Ogata’s ‘glorious wild cherry blossom’ poem sits alongside Shane Vansen’s iconic ‘Autumn’ speech, beautifully delivered by Kristen Cloke. Vansen talks about why she is going on this suicide mission, and what she is leaving behind, and all of the 58th are given the opportunity for these reflections before making their choice. They are solemn and thoughtful: they don’t know if they’ll be coming back, and at this point the viewer doesn’t know which characters might be lost a third of the way into the season. Their pre-battle speeches – a soldier’s farewell – are incredibly moving.
There are some moments of lightness and humour: Wang’s spot-on impression of McQueen; Hawkes’ naivete; the banter over their disgust on the alien ship. But all of it just throws into relief the possibility that they will not be coming home.
Since this is the first part of a two-parter, there is no conclusion here about what happens to these already-beloved characters. The 58th – McQueen alongside them – fly the alien ship, but they only get so far before the Chigs rumble their ruse. The penultimate scene of the episode sees the alien bomber blowing up, just as its escape pod clears the blast. Do they survive? “Heroes or fools,” says McQueen: “That’s a determination others will make in hindsight.” Also known as: you’ll have to wait and see.