West: “I see them. I can find them. I just can’t remember.”
McQueen: “You can’t forget.”
I don’t often get mad at TV shows. Actually, that’s a lie: I get mad at TV shows all the time. And one of the things that gets me mad is watching poorly researched, dodgy representations of mental health disorders and their treatments, written merely for maximum shock-value. Especially when it’s in a show that is in many other ways progressive. It feels like such a let-down. You’ll find me, on my more restrained days, wrinkling my nose in disapproval, and with an eye-roll or two at the ready.
But the 1990s were particularly disastrous with regards to such things, and so Space: Above and Beyond’s tenth episode, ‘Stay With The Dead’, had me almost dizzy with the rate at which my eyes were spinning in their sockets. Who is this quack in charge of Nathan West, and who let him aboard the Saratoga? Has anyone checked his medical license? HEY DOC! You just diagnosed this man with head trauma due to a shrapnel wound, so how about you let the swelling on his brain go down before diagnosing him with major psychological issues based on your three minutes of observation, huh? And how about you let him speak with an actual psychotherapist before suggesting that the ONLY option is to destroy his long-term memory because the alternative is ‘Deterioration, ‘til his condition erupts into manic violence or suicide’. HEY DOC! How about you just f*ck off and let someone who is actually qualified do the work!
Now, the actual plot of this episode is a mystery story, albeit a fairly simple one. The 58th Squadron are sent to medevac the 61st, only to find that Chigs have rigged the members of the 61st – alive – with explosives, in order to take out anyone who tries to rescue them. Realising that they are about to end up as casualties themselves, they come up with a plan: dress the dead in their own uniforms to trick the Chigs into believing they are dead, and have West send out a transmission to the Saratoga – which the Chigs will intercept – confirming that he is the only survivor. Plant explosives, and catch the Chigs in an ambush when they come to check out the situation.
Except that it goes wrong, and West ends up with a head injury that leaves him temporarily unable to fill Colonel McQueen in on what actually happened. The 58th have been identified as dead by their uniforms, and because West said so in his transmission. And they are about to really be dead unless West can convince McQueen that he’s not crazy.
It’s a nice little conceit, and actually I don’t have a problem with West coming back confused and traumatised and unable to remember. And I understand that in order for there to be dramatic tension, and time-is-of-the-essence peril, there needs to be a threat to the possibility of West recalling what happened. Drama is conflict, right? But what I do take issue with is the way in which all of this is presented. That PTSD is diagnosable after just a day. That West is letting this happen to himself. That someone with PTSD is inevitably going to become manically violent or suicidal unless they are subjected to extreme physical intervention. That a mentally ill patient has no right to informed consent about a procedure. That someone who is mentally ill must automatically be delusional. It’s sloppy research and lazy writing, and a potentially damaging portrayal.
Now, perhaps there was a point to be made here, about the autonomy of patients and the steamrollering of their rights, or about the lack of availability of appropriate treatment for veterans with PTSD and other mental disorders. Perhaps it was a commentary on the inevitability of psychological distress after witnessing the horrors of war. But if this was the intention then it was clumsily executed.
And it could easily have been turned around. The writers, Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer, if they were going to fudge the details of an illness in order to create dramatic tension, could have made the doctor more obviously incompetent, arrogant, authoritarian. He could have forced the procedure to go ahead against the wishes of West (Morgan Weisser), McQueen (James Morrison), and even Ross (Tucker Smallwood). He could have been presented as the bad guy, and I don’t mean in a moustache-twirling way.
But instead, this all comes across as business as usual, and even McQueen, who originally comes out against the procedure, eventually almost lets it happen. It appears that whether or not West has to undergo this procedure hinges only on whether or not his memory is faulty – even though he has severe head trauma! And when it turns out that the 58th are actually alive, well – surprise! – West suddenly doesn’t need treatment for PTSD at all, even though the symptoms listed by the doctor were still all there.
I know – I know! – that TV shows are full of inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and tropes. Perhaps they have to be, up to a point. They’re works of fiction after all. But appropriate and positive representation is important, and in the same way that TV (mostly) no longer portrays LGBT people as mentally ill, it needs to stop portraying mentally ill people as inevitably violent and incurable and unable to make decisions about their own treatment. There are a lot of sufferers of PTSD out there, and it would be helpful if they could see themselves portrayed as more than just an illness or a dramatic device in a horror story.
Now, if this entire rant suggests that I hated everything about this episode – actually I didn’t. I thought that Morgan Weisser turned in an excellent performance as someone suffering acute psychological distress. And I liked the basic story idea, and the questions raised about what is and isn’t acceptable during warfare, even though I really disliked the details of how it played out. Not every episode of a show that you love is going to be a winner.
But that was the nineties for you. TV is doing much better today. Right?
Are you a fan of Space: Above and Beyond? Let us know what you think of this episode.