TV discussion

TV Rewind… Space: Above and Beyond 1×12 – ‘Who Monitors the Birds?’

“The Monitors are pleased with you. To be monitored is to be free. Spared the agony of indecision. Released from the burden of choice. In Vitros need only react. To react how America wants you to react. America loves you.“

Of all the compelling characters on Space: Above and Beyond, First Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) is one of the most fascinating. ‘Who Monitors the Birds?’, episode 12 of the show and right in the middle of the season, finally gives us the Cooper Hawkes backstory that we’ve been waiting for.

As an In Vitro, an artificially gestated human being, we know that Hawkes is a little different from the rest of the 58th. The Wild Cards are all young people, but Hawkes, although he looks of a similar age, is the youngest by far, at a mere six years old. Unlike the other Wild Cards, who chose to join up, Hawkes was sentenced to serve a term in the US Marine Corps. But instead of punishment, Cooper Hawkes found a family. As Hawkes himself says: “They’re the only people I’ve ever cared about”.

In a series of flashbacks we see glimpses of the beginning of Hawkes’ life – his ‘childhood’- at an In Vitro facility. We see his ‘birth’, and how brutal and clinical it is: expelled from his tank in a gush of fluid, a grown man roaring his first breath as the umbilical cord on the back of his neck is clamped and cut. We see his education at the facility, or rather his indoctrination, as he is taught to follow the orders of his teachers and caregivers – the Monitors – without question. But when Hawkes watches a bird from his prison cell window, and makes the connection needed to ask a Monitor ‘Who monitors you?’ he is labelled as defective and scheduled for erasure. Independent thought by an In Vitro cannot be tolerated at this Orwellian facility, but Hawkes gets wind of his impending execution, kills the Monitor charged with the task, and escapes into a confusing and unwelcoming world.

There’s a lot to say about this. Firstly, I want to note how impressive it is that Space: Above and Beyond has through-lines for its characters that are drip-fed to us across the course of the show. Because in episode six, ‘Eyes’, Cooper Hawkes, fresh from his loyalty test, tells Colonel McQueen “I lied to ’em about that guy I had to kill”, which references his killing of the Monitor, which we don’t find out about until six episodes later. It’s this kind of detail that makes the show worthy of rewatching – or watching for the first time – two decades on.

Secondly, the way that these flashbacks are directed – by Winrich Kolbe – makes them more sinister than even the details themselves would suggest. The camera looks at Hawkes from disturbing angles, slightly aslant, off-kilter, to suggest that things are somehow wrong here. Everywhere is either clinical or shadowy: a prison or a laboratory. And the clicking of the projector sounds weapon-like, as slides flash up on a screen, telling the In Vitros that the enemies of America are ‘Terrorists Silicates Subversives’: something of a chilling lesson. These are not free human beings; these are slaves. Suddenly we understand Coop a little better, and his vast mis-steps and sudden insights make a lot more sense.

This is an episode of two halves, because what we’re flashing back from is Hawkes’ current mission: the termination of a high-ranking enemy officer, in a secret assignment whose completion will earn him an honourable discharge from the Marine Corps. Hawkes is alone and injured on a planet full of Chig soldiers, trying to stay alive until his extraction unit arrives. And once he completes this mission – well, he rips up that discharge certificate and scatters it to the winds, because the 58th are the only family he’s ever had, and he doesn’t want to leave them.

There are some strange and beautiful moments in this episode. Hawkes encountering an apparition, a grey-skinned dead girl that looks like Vansen (Kristen Cloke), who is both alluring and horrific, and seems intent on keeping him alive. What this manifestation means is open to interpretation, but it’s definitely a strange piece of his psyche. Hawkes making a brief connection with a Chig soldier, calling a temporary truce and exchanging tokens, but later on having to kill him in self-defence. And Hawkes watching the beautiful and bizarre alien birds and once again making insightful connections.

Now, this would have been a great story had it been told in the regular way. But writers Glen Morgan and James Wong wanted to try something completely different, and in the process created an outstanding episode of television with a 40 minute story that contains barely any dialogue. Apart from a brief voiceover from Hawkes for exposition, the only people to speak, briefly, are Major Jack Colquitt – a name that might be familiar to fans of other Morgan/Wong ventures – (Dale Dye), the Monitors, and the apparition that appears to Hawkes. Writing a mostly silent episode was a bold move, but Glen Morgan and James Wong have never been afraid of experimenting with style, and in ‘Who Monitors the Birds?’ they manage to pull off something really special. This episode aired a full three years before Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s acclaimed ‘Hush’, and it’s interesting to note that recent X-Files episode ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’, co-written by Kristen Cloke and directed by Glen Morgan, once again played with the almost-silent style.

A mostly silent episode is in need of a strong score, and the music for this episode, by series composer Shirley Walker, is just glorious, going even further than usual in its power to create mood and accompany the action. This isn’t an episode that will make much sense out of context – few episodes of the show will – but it is a wonderful example of something different done well, and one to watch if you want to learn how to tell a story without words.

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