TV discussion

TV Rewind… Space: Above and Beyond 1×13 – ‘Level of Necessity’

“I know it sounds weird. I mean, it was weird. At first I thought this is some new Chig weapon or maybe an electrical disturbance. But no one else saw it. And I – I had the strongest feeling that things were wrong.” – Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse

‘Level of Necessity’ is the thirteenth episode of Space: Above and Beyond, and the second episode to be written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer. Their first episode, ‘Stay With The Dead’, although problematic in its representation of mental illness, made for dramatic and compelling viewing, albeit for the wrong reasons. But ‘Level of Necessity’, although it bears some thematic similarities to ‘Stay With the Dead’, feels somewhat lacking in energy and anything of real sustaining interest.

Whilst on a mission inside the Chig-ridden tunnels of the planet Daedalus, Lieutenant Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) experiences an ‘anomalous intuition’ that appears to predict danger and death for some of her colleagues. This event attracts the interest of Colonel Matthew Burke (Richard Kind), who is on an obsessive mission to prove that ‘clairvoyant precognition’ is real, and that Damphousse now possesses this rare ‘gift’.

There are many real-world reports of the military’s involvement in research into psychic ability and the paranormal, so this could actually be a fairly sturdy premise for a story. And back in the 90s, when The X-Files was at the height of its popularity, and books on the mysterious and unexplained were flying off the shelves, an episode about ESP might have seemed like a winning formula. But unfortunately, as good as it might have looked on paper, and especially viewed through the lens of today, ‘Level of Necessity’ makes for a rather flawed episode of television.

Its main problem is that it doesn’t sit at all well within the show itself. Space: Above and Beyond has more than enough avenues to explore in its own mythology, without resorting to a cheap attempt to crowbar some X-Files-style spookiness into it, with Colonel Matthew Burke as a momentary Fox Mulder, ranting about working out of a basement and wanting to believe. The plot doesn’t advance the overall series story-arc, and it doesn’t do anything to develop characters or relationships. It has no lasting effect on the progression of the show at all. And whilst a Damphousse-centric plot is very much to be welcomed (and also somewhat overdue), this episode does feel like a wasted opportunity to gain real insight into the character, or to give her something worthwhile to do.

‘Level of Necessity’ does contain moments of tension, and the claustrophobic tunnels are in themselves enough to make one sweat. But overall the pacing is somewhat off, with long scenes between Damphousse and Burke that should feel edgy and anxiety-inducing but are actually rather dull. These lead to an almost groanworthy climax as Damphousse supposedly gains control over her ‘gift’. Where the episode does have merit is in its themes and deeper meanings: the fascinating ideas and questions thrown out in what, by this point, is Space: Above and Beyond tradition, as the characters discuss their thoughts on the existence of psychic powers, fate, fear, and belief.

Space: Above and Beyond is full of classical references, so if the planet is Daedalus (for its Labyrinthine tunnels) and we mix our Greek myths, it’s possible that Damphousse is Cassandra, destined – at least for this episode – to speak the truth and never be believed. However, there is nothing in this episode that says whether or not ‘clairvoyant precognition’ is something that really exists in this universe, so it’s possible that all Damphousse really experienced was extreme fear and exhaustion. But if clairvoyant precognition was real, how would one tell the difference between it, and ordinary feelings of anxiety, fear, or discomfort? There is the question – voiced, completely reasonably, by Lieutenant Lubin (Kane Picoy) – of whether the fuss made by Damphousse in the tunnels, far from saving the lives of the 58th, is what put them in danger, and led to the deaths of the 46th.

Damphousse is “An engineer. A problem solver. Comfortable with the quantifiable.” And how does someone like that react when faced with an experience that she can’t explain? With disbelief. Without the intervention of Colonel Burke, this strange experience might have been labelled as the effect of fear, as suggested by Lubin. It might have been eventually forgotten, and almost certainly never repeated. But Burke pushes Damphousse, until she doesn’t know what to believe.

The title of the episode refers to the level of adrenaline required to inhibit cognition severely enough that one simply acts without thinking: something that cannot be reconciled with marine training. And so Damphousse doubts herself, and she doubts Burke, and she doubts the very existence of psychic powers.  And as Damphousse herself says, “The greatest liability to a marine is doubt.” Burke, on his crusade, has put lives in danger, and he eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice in his pursuit of what appears to be almost a religious experience for him.

Once again Space: Above and Beyond comes back to discussing ‘choice or chance’ – one of the mantras of the Silicates. If fate exists, can we change it? Or will our actions inevitably lead to the consequences that we were trying to avoid? This idea – that fate, and death itself, will always catch up with you – seems to foreshadow Morgan and Wong’s later involvement in the Final Destination films, although whether this story spark is relevant or coincidental is – well – choice or chance.

At the end of the episode Damphousse puts away the recording of her ‘vision’, and that’s the end of that. Whether her supposed gift is something that the series would have come back to in later years we may never know, and we can only really judge it as it currently stands: alone, and one of the show’s weaker episodes.

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