“As marines, it’s our duty not to cooperate. As friends, we stick together.”
At this point, more than a third of the way through the mere 23 episodes that is the entirety of Space: Above and Beyond, everything has really come together. The cast – all excellent actors to begin with – have hit their stride with their embodiment of characters who are fast becoming fully fleshed-out. The writing navigates several ongoing story-arcs, exploring ideas, drip-feeding information, and hinting at what’s to come, whilst simultaneously creating a series of separate stories that look and feel unique. And the direction isn’t afraid of playing around, testing out shadow and light and landscape, finding what works.
Whilst many TV two-parters could be edited into one double-length episode and play out seamlessly, ‘Hostile Visit’ and ‘Choice or Chance’ are two very different animals. ‘Hostile Visit’ is, for the most part, a very enclosed story. Set largely aboard the Saratoga, it examines the morality of the suicide mission, and explores the internal conflicts of soldiers who know that they will in all likelihood not be coming back to the people and things that they love. It is an episode of coming together, of resolutions being reached; it’s a contemplative story, full of flowing words. ‘Choice or Chance’ separates these same characters, physically, mentally, emotionally, and pits them against a variety of adversaries: themselves, each other, A.I.s, Chigs. There are no long speeches here: scenes are short and brutal, cutting back and forth between characters and their plights. Everything here is a fight to survive.
‘Hostile Visit’ ended on a cliffhanger that ‘Choice or Chance’ rapidly resolves, with the escape pod from the alien bomber crash-landing on a planet. Hawkes and McQueen escape, but the rest of the 58th find themselves dragged to Kazbek Penal Colony, and this is where we discover that the A.I.s are working for the Chigs. Vansen and Damphousse are caged together, and pitted against one another. Wang is tortured and forced to confess to war crimes. And West is reunited with Kylen – only to discover that it is not actually her, but some kind of – Chig? – shapeshifter. The 58th are being studied. Who are they loyal to? How strong is their loyalty? And what does it take to make them break? As we might suspect, the answer is that they are loyal to one another, to members of the 58th, before anyone else. Semper Fi – always faithful – is the motto of the Marines, and almost every episode of Space: Above and Beyond reinforces this.
It’s great to see characters paired up and playing off one another in this episode. James Morrison as Colonel McQueen and Rodney Rowland as Cooper Hawkes are particularly pleasing to watch as they continue to negotiate something of a father-son relationship, with all the questioning, musing, and humour that entails. Vansen (Kristen Cloke) and Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) have a very memorable scene together where they turn the fatal ultimatum given them by the A.I.s into a deception that sees them congratulating each other on their acting skills: “You’re Brando, babe”, says Vansen. “You’re De Niro, girl”, replies Damphousse. Space: Above and Beyond was impressive in the 90s for creating strong female roles and role-models, and it’s still somewhat thrilling today to see how these women have one another’s backs, and don’t need anyone else to rescue them.
Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) is put in the problematic position of choosing between his long lost love, Kylen (Amanda Douge), and his colleagues – his family – and it’s interesting to see just how much he has changed since we first saw them together. “I never thought I’d feel your breath on my face again”, Kylen tells him, in an incredibly touching moment. But West, although he returns her embrace, has only thoughts of rescuing the 58th. “I won’t leave them”, he tells her, “and I can’t leave you”. Fascinating also is his lack of hesitation in shooting her dead at the end of the episode. Did he really have some instinct, as he claimed, that he could feel it wasn’t her? Or has he changed so much that he would kill the love of his life because she was a traitor?
Traitor is a word that comes up for Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) during his torture by A.I. Elroy-El (a terrifyingly creepy performance by Doug Hutchison). The writing and the performances do their best to suggest the prolonged torture he suffers, that obviously cannot be shown, but what is most telling is how McQueen pauses and looks at him once they have been rescued: McQueen has himself been tortured, and he just knows.
As viewers, we are behind the 58th. We have to be. Everything we see is from their viewpoint, they are good people, and they are on the side of humanity. And yet we are also offered tantalising glimpses into the world of the Chigs, and suggestions that perhaps they are not the monsters that humanity assumes them to be. Elroy-El is particularly forthcoming with the things that he tells Wang about them. They hate being called Chigs. They call humans ‘aliens’ and ‘red stink creature’ because human blood smells ‘repugnant to them’. But perhaps most enlightening – if not just more mind games – is Elroy-El’s statement that humans invaded Chig territory first, and attacked them first. What do we make of this? Are humans the real bad guys in this war? If the A.I.s live for chance, then the humans, the 58th, are the ones who make deliberate – and difficult – choices. But the Chigs – what do they do? This is an episode that raises more questions than it answers.
‘Choice or Chance’, written by Doc Johnson and directed by Felix Alcala, is a worthy conclusion to ‘Hostile Visit’, detailing the separate experiences of the members of the 58th that should have broken them apart, but instead sees them coming back together stronger and wiser than before.