Space: Above and Beyond isn’t a show that, thus far, has been heavy on humour. And that’s understandable, because it wouldn’t always be appropriate to the overall tone of the show, and the seriousness of the subject matter. Which isn’t to say that Space: Above and Beyond never uses humour. Glen Morgan, James Wong, and the show’s other writers know exactly where a well-placed comedic line will enhance their scripts, and the cast know how to make this (mostly dry) humour work for their characters. So it was surprising to discover how close ‘Dear Earth’, written by Richard Whitley, comes to being a full-on comedy episode. It was also somewhat gratifying, after a run of heavy episodes, to get such deliciously light relief.
The episode teaser gives the misleading sense that something hugely significant and vastly ominous is about to happen. Colonel McQueen (James Morrison) looks worried as he directs a ship to land in a Saratoga loading bay. Marines whisper to each other and exchange serious glances. Personnel are flocking in one direction as if they have all been urgently called up. Only Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) is left standing alone, wondering what is going on. Shirley Walker’s music brings a sense of foreboding to the occasion as we see a large object being lifted ceremoniously from the transport vessel and lowered to the floor of the Saratoga. And then, suddenly, the big reveal: “Mail call!”. A cheer erupts from the onlooking Saratoga crew, and the title sequence rolls.
This opening sets the tone for what will be a busy episode with a lot of different things going on. There is no single through-line to the story, everyone gets their own thread, and it is satisfying to see the minutiae of each marine’s life when they are not on mission. The relatively low-key individual stories allow for a strong focus on character, and a wide variety of character development within a short space of time. Most of these stories have been triggered by the mail that each person receives from back home. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but it is to the credit of the actors and the director (Winrich Kolbe) that most of the humour is played straight, deadpan, reined in from the disastrous excess that might have followed had the comedy in the script been allowed to play out unchecked.
Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) receives a long – and long-awaited – letter from her fiancé, enriched with the scents of food from his restaurant. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) gets gifts from his parents: a book, and sod from Wrigley Field – which is in itself funny, as well as the idea of it getting there and still having grass growing on it! Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) is sent a video message from her sister. And Cooper Hawkes and Colonel McQueen – as In Vitros, and without family back on Earth, the only people not expecting mail – get letters announcing that they are going to be filmed for a documentary.
Even the more serious plot aspects of the episode are darkly humorous. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) discovers that his parents are unaware of his brother’s death, they have not been notified. It’s pleasing to see this kind of continuity of story (from last week’s ‘Toy Soldiers’), but it’s also something of a comedy of errors because it turns out that the death notification was sent to the parents of ‘Neal West’ instead of ‘Neil West’. Oops. We’re not meant to laugh, but we’re meant to see the hilarious horror of it.
The same is true of Damphousse’s damaged eyes and Wang having to reluctantly read her fiance’s break-up letter out loud to her. There is a mine of comedy to be found in tragedy and near-tragedy. It’s great to see Vansen (Kristen Cloke) given a chance to flex her comedy muscles as, set off by a little sibling rivalry, she threatens the TV crew, rages about the queue for the vidphone, and whines about being promoted to captain and her sister stealing her baby name.
Hawkes (who thinks it will be fun) and McQueen (who sees it as a violation of his privacy and an undermining of his value) are filmed for a documentary that seems like it might end up being something along the lines of the early days of the now-ubiquitous reality show, where one is expected to show a version of oneself that is, ironically, not real at all. Hawkes’ loyalty is called into question again, and it is both amusing and sad that his friends completely ignore him because they are caught up in their own woes.
Hawkes’ realisation that the documentary won’t change anything for him (“I thought I’d be somebody” – STOP BREAKING MY HEART COOP!) is countered by some fatherly comfort from McQueen: “You are somebody, for what you do every day.”. McQueen is perhaps commenting on the futility of desiring fame as a panacea for what is lacking in one’s life, as well as critiquing the propaganda of war films, telling Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood), “I do my part by everyday actions. I don’t need a camera to give them validity.”. McQueen telling his own story for the documentary is a nice bit of character background, and results in the film – surprisingly – turning out positively.
When Commodore Ross tells Colonel McQueen that “Wars are not just won or lost on the battlefield”, he could, in a way, be speaking about Space: Above and Beyond itself. It needs the meat of conflict and battle that is the heart of the show, but it also needs an occasional bit of levity. It needs the deaths of Ray Butts, and Kelly Winslow, and Neil West, but it also needs Paul Wang whining about his ill-fitting boots.
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