I’m going to start this discussion of ‘Toy Soldiers’ with a huge spoiler, but since it’s been more than 20 years since the episode aired, and you’re probably only reading this because you’re already a fan of Space: Above and Beyond, and have probably watched it almost to death, I’m sure you’ll forgive me. So here’s what I want to say: I was genuinely surprised when Neil West actually died at the end of this episode. Shocked. Perhaps a little TV-level traumatised. Poor Neil. Poor Nathan.
I had originally thought that Neil West (Marc Worden) was going to die. When his helmet flies off, and we see a shot of it on the ground with a bullet hole through it – I thought that was it for him. And then he picks the helmet up and puts it back on and – phew! – it was just a near miss. And I foolishly thought that this bluff meant that he would be ok. But no. In a carefully orchestrated piece of emotional manipulation, Neil West – young and vital and loved – loses his life shortly before his brother Nathan (Morgan Weisser) and the rest of the 58th arrive to save him. And it is genuinely heartrending.
‘Toy Soldiers’ looks at what happens when war, and the role of the soldier, is propagandised and romanticised – something that Space: Above and Beyond itself is never guilty of. The episode, written by Marilyn Osborn, is broken down into chapters, each prefaced by a highly relevant quote, from Stephen Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Eugene Levine. The thought is that young men – mistakenly – go to war to find themselves, to prove themselves, to return changed for the better. They think – wrongly – that their choice is only between death and cowardice. When Nathan West’s brother arrives on the Saratoga after joining up, Nathan does everything in his power to make him see that this is a fallacy.
Herrick (David Barrera), is the rookie commander who disobeys the mission brief in an attempt to make a name for himself, leading his squadron into a trap that costs them their lives. Herrick wants glory and immortality, and is willing to die in order to achieve these ends. He is, as Nathan warns, a loose cannon. This is a particularly apt accusation coming from Nathan, because Nathan himself has been known to disobey orders, prompting Colonel McQueen (James Morrison) to once again give him a warning: “If you let your personal agenda influence your conduct as a marine you jeopardize yourself and every man in this unit.” But the difference between Herrick and Nathan is that Nathan’s disobedience is in the perceived best interests of his loved ones, whilst Herrick is only out for himself. McQueen also lets the blustering Herrick know that he sees him for what he is, with a particularly nice insult, telling him that “an unloaded weapon always shoots the loudest.”
This is the man – the youth – that Neil West has to contend with. And it’s not just about whose orders Neil obeys, it’s also about peer pressure and belonging. Neil might have made the sensible decision to stay alive if he wasn’t being goaded by Herrick, and if he wasn’t the kid brother trying to prove to his older brother that he is grown up, that he no longer needs Nathan’s help. Herrick tells him “Right now we’re your brothers”, and that is enough to push him over the edge, ignoring Nathan’s voice of experience and choosing to take part in a foolish and pointless suicide mission.
‘Fifth Force’ has something of a ‘Famous Five’ feel to it, kids playing at being adults. Herrick is playing with his squadron the way that he would play with toy soldiers, without regard for their safety or their lives. By the time that Neil realises that he has made a potentially fatal mistake – radioing to Nathan “I’m sorry. I’m so scared.” – it’s too late for him. Herrick not only causes the deaths of his own men, he also puts the 58th in unnecessary danger. And it’s here, in this crisis, that the difference between what Herrick thinks makes a hero, and what actually makes a hero – a real marine – is made crystal clear. The 58th work together to implement their hastily improvised strategy for rescuing Fifth Force, proving their professionalism under pressure, showing why they are still alive. They are not in this war for any sense of personal glory, but if they were they would get it by doing the right thing.
Focusing as it does on Neil and his colleagues, and looking back at Neil and Nathan as kids, ‘Toy Soldiers’ suggests that the root of Neil’s dissatisfaction, and his rejection of Nathan’s advice, might have been in a big brother trying – impossibly – to make a younger brother happy. With its doom-laden score by Shirley Walker, and its framing of the story with quotes suggesting how it might play out, this is a difficult episode to watch, but one that feels, at heart, realistic and relevant.