Glen Morgan and James Wong are never afraid of experimenting with their scripts and direction, and so this week we get something a little different from Space: Above and Beyond with ‘Pearly’ – the second episode to be written by Richard Whitley, who also brought us last week’s joy-to-behold, ‘Dear Earth’.
Inspired by the 1943 Humphrey Bogart film Sahara, ‘Pearly’ sees the 58th, including Colonel McQueen (James Morrison), deployed as ground troops and coming under heavy fire from the Chigs. Vansen (Kristen Cloke) is wounded and the Wild Cards urgently need to take shelter somewhere. And lo and behold, they happen to come across Pearly.
Pearly is an Armoured Personnel Carrier, an APC, or – as Sergeant Louie Fox (Adam Goldberg, soon after to be seen in Saving Private Ryan) amusingly corrects Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) – a TANK! She belongs to Sergeant Fox, who treats her a little as if she were alive, somewhere between a trusty steed and a girlfriend. Fox’s love for Pearly is not the usual clichéd male attachment to a shiny status symbol or beautiful machine that we might see with a classic car, but genuine gratitude to a piece of machinery that saved his life. He even writes what amounts to a love letter in her maintenance manual: “I know you’re only a tank and all, but I feel like you believe in me.”
If belief is what keeps you safe, then perhaps Fox’s belief in Pearly’s belief in him has kept him safer than still-missing Kylen’s belief in West (Morgan Weisser). But belief can’t stop bullets, and who could have guessed that the wise-cracking Sergeant Fox would buy it so soon into the episode? Well, everyone really, and that was kind of the point. But since Pearly is the title character in this episode she has to go on without him, and Richard Whitley isn’t above making her shed an oily tear from one of her large eye-like headlights, as West reads aloud Fox’s love letter to her in lieu of a usual eulogy. This is a brilliant piece of contrast: a genuinely sad moment as the 58th bury a barely known comrade and hear his heartfelt thoughts on the thing that kept him alive when he was alone and surrounded by enemies, set against the corny humour of a machine crying for her dead master or lover. We laugh, but we also feel it.
Pearly and the 58th also encounter Major Cyril MacKendrick (Martin Jarvis), the only survivor of a battalion of His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards. MacKendrick is the classic eccentric military Brit, a veritable caricature of a man, but set against the relative normality of the 58th and the OTT Americanness of Louie Fox, he works perfectly. Contrast, once again, is everything here. Knowing that Brits so often turn out to be the bad guys in American drama, it is satisfying to see MacKendrick painted as suspicious, and possibly in league with the Chigs, but then turn out to be the good guy after all. It is also pleasing to see him remain on the planet, taking over custodianship of Pearly, and riding off into the sunrise with her in what turns out to be a rather upbeat ending.
The more serious part of this drama is Paul Wang’s (Joel de la Fuente) betrayal of the 58th in stealing the spare fuel cell that they need to get them to safety, in order to give it to Elroy-El (Doug Hutchison). Now, there are several issues to be discussed here. That Wang was previously tortured by an Elroy-El model, and is now being blackmailed by an Elroy-El. That he feels that his spirit, his soul, is broken, and he wants back what the AIs took from him. That he feels shame over his confession of committing war crimes and doesn’t want anyone to know.
There is clearly trauma, and muddled thinking on Wang’s part, and much guilt and regret at his actions once he is found out. He has committed a serious crime in helping the enemy, betraying his comrades, his country, the human race. But everyone seems to immediately forgive him. They understand, they point out his extenuating circumstances, they tell him that he can get help. But in their immediate forgiveness of Wang’s betrayal, do they just make it all the worse by highlighting that none of them would do such a thing, by implying that of course it’s something that Wang would do because he can’t help it? Double-standards? Or merely the acceptance of a family for a member who makes a mistake? It’s something of a controversial storyline, and is open to arguments over interpretation.
Controversy aside though, ‘Pearly’ is a vastly successful episode in terms of story, tone, character, location, dialogue – it’s got the lot. It’s a real treat to see another episode suffused with humour that sits so nicely against the drama. Whitley’s writing adds a slightly different flavour to Space: Above and Beyond, and it’s definitely one that improves the show’s overall taste.