“If we were on Earth our ship would seem to be going through the Eridanus Constellation. A river of stars. When I was a kid in the winter, it’d get dark real early. On my way home from basketball practice I’d see Eridanus in the sky. It gave me comfort to see it return every year, to know some things never went away.” – Paul Wang
And so we reach ‘The River of Stars’, aka the Christmas episode of Space: Above and Beyond. And this one… This one gets me every damn time. If you were in a cynical mood you might say that it’s schmaltzy. But I sneer at your cynicism and declare this episode to be a powerful, uplifting, and moving musing on the meaning of faith and the mechanisms of peace. By which I mean – I’m a big softy and it punches me in the heart.
I wasn’t expecting a Christmas episode from a futuristic science-fiction show, but perhaps I should have expected it from a show about war. When the episode opens with the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce, you kind of know where it is heading. The 58th are trapped aboard a damaged ship that is falling through no man’s land into enemy territory. Their radio won’t transmit, and it’s only a matter of time before they either run out of oxygen or are taken out by enemy fire. It’s Christmas Eve and they don’t expect to make it back home. And then they receive a strange transmission telling them how they can hitch a ride to safety, on the back of an incoming comet.
It’s a bold and ingenious story from writer Marilyn Osborn, and it plays out perfectly. The idea that this transmission comes from a Chig, that they are not all bloodthirsty savages, that they can have empathy, and show compassion and kindness, is something of a revelation. And having the 58th ride home on the back of, essentially, a Christmas star – well that is indeed ‘an incredible visual’.
Space: Above and Beyond, at its best, has some really gorgeous writing to its name: dialogue that is poetic, insightful, and heartbreaking. ‘The River of Stars’ manages all of these. It also manages the right amount of humour, those throwaway moments of lightness that throw the drama into relief. And it’s not afraid of using other people’s words to enhance the mood: in this case the Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8, and a quote from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Musically, it even manages to get the Batman TV show theme and ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ in there too.
The direction, by Tucker Gates, really works to further the mood of the story. Particularly lovely is the shot where we are looking through a frosted window at a contemplative Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke). It’s classic Christmas framing, but in this case it’s a spaceship rather than a living-room window, and the background twinkling is from stars and console lights, rather than a Christmas tree. And then Shane hands out presents. It’s just beautiful. I also like the slow moving, slightly uneven shots, to suggest the movement of the ship in space.
Although this is a Christmas episode, as you might expect from Space: Above and Beyond, the musings on faith go further than just religion. Vansen suggests that Kylen has become West’s faith: “Something that he would die for because he believes it’s right.” And West (Morgan Weisser) believes that faith is “knowing something’s always gonna be there for you”. The river of stars itself represents faith, in all its definitions and complexities.
And then there’s Colonel McQueen (James Morrison). McQueen is a guy you want on your side. I love that he counts the ships back in, and immediately springs into action when the 58th aren’t amongst those that have returned. That he stands up to Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood) to request a search party, and shuts down anyone who suggests that the 58th are gone, standing by his belief that their radio is in receive-only mode: “I know you’re out there. Hold on. Don’t lose faith.” McQueen is the someone who will always be there for the 58th, will always be on their side. So it’s fitting that West’s photo-tag of Kylen, the symbol of his faith, is eventually handed over to McQueen as a Christmas gift.
There are so many emotional moments in this episode. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) breaking my heart because he’s never been given a gift before. McQueen firmly believing that the enemy transmission is “Presenting us with a gift”, which equates to not just the lives of the 58th, but a larger gesture of peace. Wang’s (Joel de la Fuente) mystical moment as he watches the comet and reconnects with his faith. And the 58 second burn time that puts the Wild Cards exactly where they need to be. This is a beautiful episode, and even two decades on it has me reaching for the tissues. Every damn time.