It is a testament to the overall quality of Space: Above and Beyond that despite its single, solitary season, amongst its 23 episodes there are still some that are considered classics. Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer’s ambitiously scripted ‘Sugar Dirt’ is one such episode.
‘Sugar Dirt’ begins with the first step of the long awaited Operation Roundhammer, with the plan to take back from the Chigs an airstrip on the planet Demios, which will give humanity control of an entire sector. Heavy troop losses are expected. The 58th are sent down to the planet, but the sudden potential for a strategic advantage that could end up saving millions of lives forces a sudden change of plan, and the supporting fleet, including the Saratoga, abandon the 25,000 troops on Demios, the Wild Cards amongst them.
Like many Space: Above and Beyond plots, this one is based on real events of the Second World War, where troops were left alone on the island of Guadalcanal for several months. This is referenced by Colonel McQueen (James Morrison) as a precedent for leaving the troops on Demios in order to advance the fleet elsewhere, and the episode itself is actually dedicated to ‘our fathers and grandfathers at Guadalcanal’.
We rejoin the Wild Cards two months later. They are patrolling, burying the dead, collecting dog tags for identification and personal items to be returned to next of kin. At 19.00 hours, every day without fail, they transmit a radio message to the Saratoga, making an updated report on their mission, and how many marines they buried that day.
What ‘Sugar Dirt’ does exceptionally well is showing, within the brief period of time allotted by the episode, a series of snapshots of what the 58th have endured over the course of their two months on their own on the planet. We see them forced to watch, helpless, as Chigs slaughter a marine, because they are out of ammunition and there is nothing they can do; their frustration that the supply drops don’t contain enough food; their hunger, irritation, and embarrassment as their stomachs rumble as they conduct yet another funeral. We see them coping with the smell of the decaying bodies that they are searching, and we see the solemnity with which they remove personal items. We also see the seriousness with which Captain Vansen (Kristen Cloke) forbids them from taking even something as insignificant as a condom from a wallet for themselves. Because in wilderness and war, upholding one’s own pre-existing rules and standards may be the only way to stay sane, to keep it together, to survive until the next day.
Which is also why Vansen does not participate in the pivotal scene that gives the episode its title. Coming across the remnants of a supply drop, West (Morgan Weisser), Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) and Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) are shocked to see Wang (Joel de la Fuente) put his face to the ground and begin to lick the dirt. The heat from an explosion has melted the contents of an emptied tin of sugar into the ground, and as hunger turns to desperation the four of them pick up handfuls of dirt and begin to eat it. Simple as it sounds, it is something of a shocking scene, and the viewer is perhaps with Vansen as she looks on, concerned, disgusted, disturbed.
Vansen is still firmly in command, but she can see it beginning to slip away as it gets increasingly harder to motivate her squadron. She gives them purpose in their actions, and their daily report to the Saratoga gives them hope. When the radio transmitter fries, she manages to hide the fact from them for another twelve days, continuing to pretend to send reports, knowing that no one out there can hear her but that the very act of doing it will give the people under her command hope. The point at which they find out that she has been deceiving them is when they finally give in to despair, and they are ready to slit their own throats rather than become prisoners of the Chigs. This gives way to a second incredibly poignant scene: one in which the five of them share a ‘last supper’, taking it in turns to stick a fingertip into a single serving packet of sugar; their hope of rescue replaced by the simple wish that some sugar will stick.
‘Sugar Dirt’ also looks at the flip side of the troops abandoned on planet: those who had to make the decision to abandon them, and how they are faring with their decision. McQueen thinks as a Colonel, advising that strategically they need to leave the troops on Demios. But the 58th are his kids, and he feels like a father abandoning his children. Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood) sums it up when he tells the newly rescued Wild Cards: “As a commander, I feel no need to explain my actions. But as a man, as a human being I must share my emotions. I have never been more ashamed of myself or more proud of you.”.
Ultimately, it is the persistence of the 58th in calling the Saratoga every day that not only gives them resilience but also stops the General as he is about to admit defeat in the fight to conquer Ixion. The 58th radio through that they have re-taken the (now abandoned) airstrip, and as presumed defeat turns into victory it gives the commanding officers the hope that they need to keep fighting. In finding a purpose, they spur on a victory that leads to their rescue.
‘Sugar Dirt’ is a beautifully written and executed piece of television: tight, tense and understated. Its brief moments of humour are set cleverly inside moments of horror – taking a condom from a dead man, rumbles of hunger as they bury dead flesh, protesting the slander of a beloved sports team as they watch a man slaughtered – and the viewer both laughs and winces. The cast do a sterling job of portraying a unit on the verge of falling apart, and we feel the catharsis of Vansen’s dirtied and tear-crumpled face as they are rescued. With just two more episodes of the series to go, ‘Sugar Dirt’ really couldn’t have been any better.