As penultimate episodes go, ‘And If They Lay Us Down To Rest…’ is a satisfyingly stressful watch. Glen Morgan and James Wong take up writing duties for the first of a two-parter that would ultimately become the series and not just the season end, in order to deliver a strong piece of storytelling that expands upon the series’ mythology and ends on a huge reveal that leaves viewers open-mouthed and wondering how things will play out. Yes it’s been twenty-some years and at this point no one really deserves a spoiler warning, but nonetheless – if you haven’t yet finished watching Space: Above and Beyond, please do yourself a favour and stop reading now.
‘And If They Lay Us Down To Rest…’ opens with visuals and a voice-over from Vansen (Kristen Cloke) on the origins of the universe and how all life comes from the same place. The relevance of this becomes apparent later in the episode. After the opening titles it swings into full-on mission mode with a briefing from Colonel McQueen (James Morrison). The plan to plant false information for the enemy to find, as seen in ‘Stardust’, has been a success. Now the 58th are being sent to an uninhabited moon of the Chig’s home world, where they must complete vital operations in order to allow for the start of Operation Roundhammer.
Except, it appears, the moon is not uninhabited. What the Wild Cards find there, apart from the expected Chig patrols, is a humanoid alien, who appears to be tending to dozens of incubation chambers containing small alien foetuses. And there lies their dilemma. Do they let it live? Or do they kill it? It’s a tough call, and the fate of an entire race might depend on them making the right decision.
Morgan and Wong, throughout the course of the season, have played their cards close to their chest, drip-feeding information about the Chigs, and the war. For the most part, the viewer only knows what the 58th know, and some of that is merely hearsay. Humanity – unless you believe the rumours – thought it was alone in the universe, until the Chigs started the war. But if there is one alien race out there, then why not more? Although, if we met a Chig, how would we tell? Because no one – apparently – knows what the Chigs actually look like under their armour. We’ve seen them turn to green goo. We saw a skeletal clawed hand early on in the series, which we assumed was the remains of a Chig. And we saw a shape-shifting creature that turned to green goo, which may have been a Chig or some other unknown alien. But that’s all that we as viewers, and the 58th as combatants, have to go on.
Which brings us back to the unidentified alien. We as viewers can see that the creature is intelligent, and that it is afraid. But is it just afraid of the humans, or of the Chigs too? If it’s a Chig, they should kill it. If it might warn the Chigs and jeopardise Roundhammer, they should kill it. But if it is neither a Chig nor in league with the Chigs – should they let it go?
As the discussion goes around and around, touching on genocide, the ethics of taking a potentially innocent life, and the value of one life or species over another, the viewer has little more information to go on than the 58th. The hard facts are weighed up against the possible consequences, but with incomplete data comes an emphasis on gut feeling, something that has popped up throughout the series and often been shown to be unreliable. When West (Morgan Weisser) says that the alien doesn’t feel like the enemy, is he right because it isn’t a Chig, or because it isn’t a Chig soldier?
We know what the stakes are, and we want the 58th to do the right thing. And in the end, it seems, they do. Not only do they let the alien go, but they warn it of the impending battle. There is a lovely bit of light relief as they attempt and fail to communicate with the creature, but it is also a stark reminder that the entire war, and all the lives that it has cost, might also come down to a failure of communication, not just in terms of not speaking one another’s literal language, but of a failure to understand one another’s meaning.
In the end, it’s Coop (Rodney Rowland), the almost-alien amongst them, who rescues the situation with his ‘G.I. Geequed’ comic: visuals communicating what words cannot. Indeed, the entire episode has something of a comic-book feel about it, with its contrasting light, smoke and shadows, and its black and green palette, in a series directorial debut from Vern Gillum. The gesture of the alien, in offering a handful of earth, is clearly a significant one, and interpreted as a communication that we all come from the same place. But is this what it really means?
This is an episode that ramps up the tension throughout and – cleverly – keeps us on our toes and guessing, right until the very end. The anticipation of seeing what is underneath the Chig helmet has been building all season, and when it is revealed that the alien that the 58th revealed military plans to is actually a Chig – well, the mind boggles somewhat.
Colonel McQueen, in his briefing, told the 58th that “The survival or extinction of life is in your hands”. In letting one Chig live, have they assured the survival of the human race? Or have they doomed humanity to extinction? Tune in next week to find out.