Space: Above and Beyond Review #11: The River of Stars
Originally aired December 17, 1995
The 58th are en route to the Saratoga by shuttle when they’re attacked by Chig fighters. Adrift in space, without a radio and losing oxygen their only hope of survival lies in the most unexpected of places.
In my memory “The River of Stars” is one of the weaker early episodes of Space: Above and Beyond, yet watching it again for the first time in many years I can say that this is actually one of the better episodes of the series. It may even be the best one.
“River of Stars” is a “bottle episode,” mostly taking place in a few sets from the interior of the damaged shuttle with the 58th to the control room of the Saratoga. And I think it’s this element of being closed in with the characters having to deal with one without much outside elements to interfere that makes this episode work so well. “River of Stars” is also very much a Christmas episode, almost too much so. From it taking place at Christmas time to Christmas themes to the “Peace” Christmas message from the SAaB producers at the end of the episode it’s just on the wrong side of too much Christmas spirit.
Much of “River of Stars” is pretty standard stuff. The 58th is in a damaged shuttle that’s drifting off into deep space behind Chig lines. Their systems from power to oxygen are slowly depleting and they can receive radio communications but they can’t send them. Much of the episode deals with the 58th trying to figure a way out of the situation they’re in and TC McQueen aboard the Saratoga trying to figure a way to find his team before it’s too late.
The episode is satisfyingly a slow one, with the 58th talking and bonding as they drift towards an uncertain future. It’s almost the SAaB version of the Apollo 13 movie in many ways.
While it might be standard stuff all the interpersonal stuff between the characters here is really great. From Paul Wang having experienced so much bad in the war that he’s given up faith to Cooper Hawkes, who’s really a child only a few years old in the body of an adult, trying to figure out how to fit in and even McQueen not ever giving up hope that he’s going to bring his guys back alive. In all this “River of Stars” is well written and reveals more about the characters than any episode except maybe the first one.
Here too like with “Hostile Visit,” SAaB creators are setting up that there’s more to the Chigs than just them wanting to wipe humanity out. In “River of Stars” as the 58th drift towards oblivion they receive a mysterious radio transmission directing them to the nearby comet Yanelli Wimberly. Wang figures out that if they can take the shuttle into an orbit of the comet they can ride it out back to friendly space.
And while they’re never quite sure of just where this mysterious transmission came from they suspect it’s from the Chigs. And if the Chigs were the ones to send it and save the 58th why would they want to help and not just wipe them out?
I remember this episode as being more of an episode that features Paul Wang more than it really does. Wang does have a bigger than usual role here from fixing things around the ship to taking a space walk to reorient one of the shuttle’s engines to save the group. But this episode is really a whole 58th episode and doesn’t just focus on one person.
Nathan West (about the engines): “Shut them down! Vansen, shut them down!”
Shane Vansen: “I don’t have to. We’re out of fuel.”
Cooper Hawkes: “All I know about Christmas is that there was one day out of the year that everything in Philadelphia was closed. And it was lonelier than usual.”
ISSCV shuttles have solar arrays to provide backup power for situations like the 58th are in. But in this episode the unit are in deep space and no where near any close stars which would make the solar panels useless.
Wang describes seeing the constellation Eridanus, the “river of stars,” from his home in Chicago as a boy. There’s absolutely no way he could have more than a few stars of that constellation from light-polluted Chicago, let alone the whole thing.
The shuttle the 58th are in runs out of fuel at the beginning of the episode yet they’re able to burn the engines for 58 seconds at the end of the episode to orbit the comet.
Lt. Kelly Anne Winslow (Tasia Valenza) who’s a new member of the 58th is introduced in this episode. She’ll play a much larger role in later episodes.
The 58th are sporting new logo designs on their helmets.
What’s scarier, the prospect of getting blown away by a Chig fighter or slowly drifting off into space?
There’s a neat little moment here where the 58th talks about the idea of the immaculate conception. Some believe it’s true but Wang knows it’s impossible. But the rest 58th point out to him that Cooper Hawkes’ parents never were and here he is.
The 58th picks up an old TV transmission of the 1960s Batman TV theme song as they drift off into space.
This is the last episode of SAaB to air in 1995.
Charles Lacey Beach is a battleship the Saratoga is ordered to help.
Hawkes’ nickname for Wang is “Wanger.”
J. August Richards who plays Deathlok in Agents of SHIELD has a small part here as a pilot of the 32nd squadron, the Chigbusters, who find the 58th.