TV discussion

TV Rewind… Space: Above and Beyond 1×19 – ‘R & R’

In a further diversion from operation Roundhammer, this week sees the 58th undertaking a mission to gain some well deserved rest and relaxation/recuperation, in the first (and sadly last) episode of the show to be written by Jule Selbo.

The effects of long-term warfare on a group of military personnel are often, of necessity, unacknowledged on long-running TV shows. You probably want some growth for your characters, but not too much; not unless you are deliberately moving them from point A to point B across the course of a season. And therefore, much of the time, the effects of the horrendous things that happen to these characters are short-lived, negligible, or non-existent. Most of the time such events are never again referenced on the show after the episode in which they occur. Because it would be difficult, if not impossible, for characters to keep doing the things that you want them to do week after week whilst dealing with the effects of one trauma after another.

There are of course exceptions, and in Space: Above and Beyond we see mention of Wang’s torture by the Silicates, as well as Vansen’s ongoing adverse reactions to them. But in general, characters can’t have the traumatic reactions onscreen that they would likely have in real life, and therapy sessions do not make for engaging television. Although ‘R & R’ doesn’t break this rule, it does deal with the lower-level, day to day, basic physical and mental difficulties involved in the daily grind of fighting the enemy and watching your comrades get blown up whilst you survive, if just barely.

‘R & R’ opens on the 58th flying home from a mission, just about keeping their eyes open, barely able to concentrate. West loses it for a second, nearly loses control of his ship, nearly causes what could have been a fatal accident. Hawkes is hallucinating, hits his head during a defensive manoeuvre, has to be yelled at to stay awake until they reach the Saratoga. Wang collapses, asleep, right away, and has to be deposited back onto his bunk. West, desperate to sleep, nonetheless stays awake musing on his need for sleep, and the danger that it is putting his colleagues in.

They are a squadron at breaking point, and Colonel McQueen – himself on the point of collapse – argues their need for a mere 48 hour break, a weekend off. Now some might expect that in such a situation they would simply choose to spend their whole break sleeping. But it’s possible that their minds, even more than their bodies, need some TLC, and besides – again – sleep does not make for enthralling viewing. And so, forfeiting basic needs for something a little higher up on the pyramid, they are sent to the AeroTech pleasure ship, the Bacchus.

‘R & R’ is probably most famous for two things: Green Meanies, and an uncredited appearance by David Duchovny as Silicate ‘Handsome Alvin’ – “programmed to play billiards and do impersonations”. It’s a memorable, if brief appearance by Duchovny, trying to rattle Vansen with taunts about her parents. Vansen is not just a marine, and she needs a win that isn’t about fighting Chigs. Wang and Damphousse have a dance and a drink (separately), and then end up reminiscing and shooting hoops together. There is an almost-kiss, but they don’t get time to discover whether it was what they were looking for. Despite Commodore Ross warning them not to go to the Bacchus “looking for something you left back on Earth” because “you are not the same person you were when you left home”, this is what most of the 58th are doing: trying to discover or reclaim the parts of themselves that are the non-marine parts, because right now their identity as marines is all-consuming.

Of course it’s poor Cooper Hawkes who ends up experiencing a double-whammy of awfulness. The lack of care and respect with which In Vitros are treated in all walks of life leads to him, through no fault of his own, becoming addicted to Green Meanies: a common painkiller, but with extreme and dependence-creating effects on In Vitro physiology. And his lack of knowledge about sex, and cluelessness about normal social engagement leads him, unknowingly, into a liaison (set up by West, in an example of some really bad judgement) with Suzy, a Meanie-addicted prostitute.

They are both damaged people, and the judgements that they throw at one another are painful. One could easily cite as ridiculous Suzy’s statement that “natural-borns can get squeamish” about sex with In Vitros because of their neck-navel. But when one considers the prejudice directed at people of different skin colour, size, or shape, it becomes all too believable. Within one episode we get to see addiction and discrimination, and realise that, actually, the addiction comes about because of the discrimination. Poor Coop. Poor Suzy.

Meanwhile, Colonel McQueen, who has been to the Coolio-fronted Bacchus before, knows exactly what he needs, and what will be most beneficial for the least effort. Because it seems that, far from satisfying their deepest, darkest desires, what the 58th all want from their time on the Bacchus is comfort. So when their time there is cut short and they are plunged, unadjusted, back into ground warfare, their shock and desperation almost overwhelms them. The message that “you cannot lose yourselves” is a strong one. Not on the Bacchus, not on the ground, not anywhere whilst this war continues. Ultimately though, they do find their comfort: in each other and the family that they have created. And this, it seems, it what will really sustain them through the rest of the war.

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