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Space: Above and Beyond – 20 years gone



Space: Above and Beyond - 20 years gone

I was excited about the TV series Space: Above and Beyond (SaAB) from the moment I first heard about it in 1995. Back then, the series The X-Files was one of the biggest and most exciting things on television and was riding a creative high to boot. And other than The X-Files series creator Chris Carter the two people most responsible for the look and direction for that show at that time were writers Glen Morgan and James Wong. And those two would be the producers and lead writers on SAaB.

What wasn’t there to be excited about from a sci-fi geek like me?

Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) and Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) consider their futures

Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) and Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) consider their futures

Set in the year 2063 where space travel is common, the world is at peace and human beings can be created wholly inside a lab, SAaB follows a group of Marine Corps recruits who’ve joined up for various reasons; to follow a girl to the stars, to stay out of jail, out of a sense of familial duty… But when an alien race known as the “Chigs” begins attacking Earth colonies across the galaxy, and beating our forces badly, these recruits are thrown into the battle to try and stop the alien advances.

And that’s what most of SAaB is about, this galactic war, the people caught up in the conflict and their losses.

It’s probably been a good 15 years since the last time I sat down and watched the whole SAaB TV series. It was so long ago that I remember the last time I watched the series it was recorded from TV on VHS! But back at the end of 2013 I decided to sit down and watch the show again and review all the episodes leading up to the show’s 20th anniversary this September 24. And while I did watch and review about half the series, I wasn’t able to watch the entire series run again. (Alas, life.)

However, after having watched 14 episodes I can happily report that not only does SAaB hold up today 20 years after it originally premiered, it’s actually still a quite good show. Well, “good” with one caveat.

The 58th prepares for a mission

The 58th prepares for a mission

When I first started re-watching SAaB I was a bit taken aback that while the show does have a central story narrative, namely the progress of war, the actual stories of SAaB sometimes carryover between episodes and sometimes do not. Things will happen in one episode that will directly affect the next but other things are completely ignored.

In one episode the story deals with a character who is suffering from brain damage who must remember a specific piece of information or his friends will be killed. In reality any soldier who has an injury like that would be shipped back home. In the universe of SAaB this character is seen piloting a ship the next episode seemingly injury free. And in more than one episode the Chigs develop weapons that would turn the tide of war in their favor, but these weapons are forgotten by the next episode.

The Chigs attack

The Chigs attack

I had a hard time coming to terms with this all until I began taking each episode on its own terms. I would almost imagine that each episode was a “reset,” that we’re meeting the characters of SAaB for the first time in every episode — that the story before may carry over to each new episode but that the details of the previous episode may may not.

It’s not like SAaB was unique in this regard, lots of similar series of the ‘90s dealt with stories the same way. That each episode was separate, fresh and new from the previous. I think where SAaB almost went from a good show to a great one was the inclusion of the overarching galactic war storyline. It’s something that a show like Battlestar Galactica would take and run with less than a decade after the end of SAaB to great effect.

Now that The X-Files is getting a reboot series set to premiere early next year, let’s hope that a SaAB reboot, like Battlestar Galactica was too, isn’t far behind. 🙂 Currently, the single season of SAaB is only available on DVD.




Space Above and Beyond Review #14: Never No More



Original air date: February 4, 1996

The war has started to turn in our favor when the Chigs launch an experimental fighter that’s capable of wiping out entire squadrons in the blink of an eye. When the 58th are thrown into the fray looking to eliminate this threat will they be be able to take out this alien Red Baron or will they become yet another statistic?

Vansen, Damphousse and Winslow over drinks

Vansen, Damphousse and Winslow over drinks

“Never No More” is probably the best episode of Space: Above and Beyond, it’s certainly the best up to this point. While other episodes have dealt with things like the war with the Chigs and what it’s like to leave loved ones behind and sometimes see them die, “Never No More” is the first episode in the series to handle all that in one episode so succinctly.

Here, the tables are finally starting to turn and the Earth forces are beginning to make advances against the previously seemingly unbeatable Chigs. But whenever squadrons of our fighters go off to patrol around a certain planet they end up getting wiped out by a single, special, Chig ship. And even when we send scores and scores of fighters against this Chig fighter dubbed “Chiggie Von Richthofen” we’re only able to score a temporary victory over it after having suffered massive losses.

The Earth is set to mount a major new offensive against the Chigs, they think they know the location of the alien’s home planet is, but in order for it to start we first must destroy this new fighter less it continue to kill Marine pilots.

Oakes and Vansen as teens

Oakes and Vansen as teens

With “Never No More” we get a whole heck of a lot of Shane Vansen’s backstory here. This is mainly of her turning down an engagement proposal from her high school boyfriend in a flashback before the war, which with these two characters is where the real interest in this episode lies.

In flashbacks the character of Capt. John Oakes (Michael Reilly Burke) is a bright-eyed kid who’s excited to fly off to a great adventure after graduation in the Marines. But that adventure turned to something darker after the outbreak of the war and more recently with the loss of his girlfriend to this Chiggie Von Richtofen.

And Vansen, who’s been so closed up to this point with the loss of her parents as a kid, comes off as someone in “Never No More” with a bit more heart than I think anyone had expected. She’s in love with Oakes but with the realities of what’s going on around them their relationship is something different. Them being together even for a little while is some small respite from a war that’s taken so many of their friends and comrades.

Chiggie Von Richthofen - Abandon all Hope

Chiggie Von Richthofen – Abandon all Hope

“Never No More” has more gut-wrenching emotion than all the previous episodes combined. And after watching this episode when it originally aired I was never able to hear the Patsy Cline song “Never No More” the same way again.

“Never No More” also features what I’d guess is the most special effect shots of any episode of the series up to this point – even if some of those shots were cribbed from earlier episodes. There’s shots of Marine Hammerheads stalking this Chig fighter and the battles fought between them too. While these shots look a bit dated today none-the-less they were groundbreaking for the time this episode aired.

We also get a bit of the wider scope to the war here too. There’s an (I think) Israeli pilot playing cards with the 58th in one scene and in another the “Fighting Finns” who are I’m assuming Finnish pilots in another.

Grade: A+

 

Goof
The Chigs develop a fighter that’s practically invisible to the Marines yet after the next episode they never use this again. Chig technology that could seemingly turn the war in their favor yet they only ever use it once is a common theme throughout SAaB.

 

Favorite dialog:

Capt. John Oakes in the Tun Tavern

Capt. John Oakes in the Tun Tavern

Capt. John Oakes: “He disappeared about 100 of these ago.”
On who he is now compared to as a teen when receiving death notices is a normal occurrence.

TC McQueen about Chiggie Von Richthofen: “You might as well be talking about ghosts and werewolves because there is no such thing.”

Shane Vansen: “The only certainty is now and I sure don’t believe in forever.”
Capt. John Oakes: “I hate the word you said to me that night, but I’ve come to believe them.”

TC McQueen: “You’re sending them into the dark without a light.”

Shane Vansen: “I’m so sorry that she’s not here, but I’m not sorry that I am.”

Pilot: “Sir, how do we detect it?”
TC McQueen: “When a plane in your formation goes down, you know you’re in the schoolyard.”

Commodore Ross: “Abandon all hope my ass!”

 

TC McQueen

TC McQueen

Stray observations:
Oakes girlfriend Brandt is leader of the “Soaring Hornets.”

Cooper Hawkes has no poker face.

“Never No More” takes place around February 14, 2064. Valentine’s Day.

Vansen and Oakes went to El Cajon Valley High School.

Oakes went to the Marine Corps High Intensity Survival Training on the Moon in the Sea of Tranquility.

The operation the Marines are participating in at the start of the episode is “Shadow Watch.” Later they join operation “Red Baron.”




Space: Above and Beyond Review #13: Level of Necessity



Originally aired January 14, 1996

The 58th are battling the Chigs in the tunnels of planet Daedalus when Lt. Vanessa Damphousse begins experiencing weird visions that predict doom. When a military adviser arrives to test Damphousse for psychic ability and the 58th returns to Daedalus will her visions help or hinder the team?

Paul Wang

Paul Wang

For whatever reason I remember “Level of Necessity” as being a dull episode but it’s actually not one of the bad ones. I think I remember it not being that good because it’s sandwiched between two of the great ones; “Who Monitors the Birds” and the next “Never No More.”

If “The River of Stars” was a Paul Wang episode and “Who Monitors the Birds” a Cooper Hawkes one, then “Level of Necessity” is most certainly a Damphousse episode. Other than a bit at the beginning with the 58th in the tunnels and a longer stretch at the end, most of this episode is of Damphousse and Col. Matthew Burke (Richard Kind) together in a darkened room trying to figure out if she has psychic powers or not.

This all came about when the 58th were underground and along with the 46th on some claustrophobic mission in tunnels against the Chigs. When the two teams were changing levels Damphousse could sense something was amiss. She “just knew” something was wrong and could also see a weird glow around the 46th. And when the 46th pushed on without the 58th since Damphousse wouldn’t let them proceed the 46th were wiped out by a Chig attack.

Colonel Matthew Burke and Vanessa Damphousse

Colonel Matthew Burke and Vanessa Damphousse

After TC. McQueen submitted his report on the incident, citing an “anomalous intuition,” Burke arrived to test Damphousse. What’s interesting here is that while he discovers that she probably does have psychic abilities, he also figures out that they’re only triggered by a rush of adrenalin, so back into the tunnels they go for some on the ground testing as it were.

“Level of Necessity” also features a few replacement members of the 58th which has become a theme of late. There’s a replacement 58th from the 46th named Lubin along with Kelly Anne Winslow (Tasia Valenza) who’s been a member of the 58th for a little while now. Lubin is only around for this episode to seemingly voice his disapproval of Damphousse and the 58th and Winslow will play a key role in upcoming episodes.

TC McQueen in font of a map of planet Daedalus

TC McQueen in font of a map of planet Daedalus

Where “Level of Necessity” doesn’t work is that it lingers just a bit too long on the Burke and Damphousse story leaving the rest of the 58th on the sidelines for much of this episode.

One of the interesting bits here is that this is one of the first times, if not the, that I can recall the 58th not wanting to go on a mission. After Burke tests Damphousse for her abilities, comes up with some interesting results but nothing definitive, he has the team go back to Daedalus alone to uncover a Chig ammo dump. And they only have 11 hours to do it before they’re left behind when the Saratoga and the fleet pulls out. With the odds stacked against them on every turn the 58th actively voices their disagreements of going on the mission. It’s too dangerous, they’re right, and the rewards are too few, right again.

I’m not sure if this was an overall decision by the series creators to have the 58th being seen as maturing as characters and not totally wanting to put their lives on the line for something with so little reward or just a scene that needed to be there to add a bit of tension to the episode. But it totally works.

Grade: B-

 

Stray Observations:

Vanessa Damphousse

Vanessa Damphousse

“Level of Necessity” is the last episode of the series to use the original SAaB title sequence.

Damphousse was born in upstate New York, graduated from Caltech, is an engineer and is either 24 or 25 years old.

“The Tunnels of Daedalus” sounds like a lost episode of Doctor Who.

Matthew Burke is from the Seventh Marine Air Wing.

I’m assuming Matthew Burke’s last name is an homage to Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in Aliens.

 

Possible goof:
I’m not sure that Damphousse’s psychic abilities are ever mentioned again.

 

Favorite dialog:
(To Cooper Hawkes after he was literally buried alive.)
Shane Vansen: “Shake it off.”

Matthew Burke: “What if you had psychic powers?”

Vanessa Damphousse: “The greatest liability to a Marine is doubt.”

Shane Vansen: “Your vision doesn’t change our orders”




Space: Above and Beyond Review #12: Who Monitors the Birds?



Originally aired January 7, 1996

Cooper Hawkes is selected to go on a top secret mission away from the rest of the 58th with a reward of being released from his obligations to the Marines if the mission is a success. But even if Hawkes is able to pull off the impossible, where will he go if he leaves the only home he’s ever known?

Cooper Hawkes

Cooper Hawkes

“Who Monitors the Birds” is another episode I think of when I think of Space: Above and Beyond, and watching it again I was surprised just how well this episode has held up over years. There’s almost no dialog in “Who Monitors the Birds” and everything’s told through action. But I’d guess that even in an episode with very little talking we learn more about the Cooper Hawkes character here than we had in the previous 11 episodes.

In this episode, Hawkes is picked among the rest of the 58th by Major John R. Colquitt (the always wonderful Dale Dye) to land on a Chig planet and assassinate one of their leaders. Since Hawkes is really only in the Marines since it was either joining up or going to prison Colquitt offers him an immediate honorable discharge from the Corps if their mission is successful.

Hawkes makes friends with a Chig

Hawkes makes friends with a Chig

Much of “Who Monitors the Birds” plays out after the two have landed, done the deed with Hawkes on the run from the Chigs. During their escape Colquitt was killed and Hawkes wounded and he spends much of the episode drifting in and out of consciousness. When he’s out the episode flashes back to his past from Hawke’s being selected by Colquitt to all the way back when he was a relative newborn being taught at some sick and twisted combat school for Invitro kids.

I think it would be easy in “Who Monitors the Birds” to either place more emphasis with Hawkes on the run from the Chigs or more emphasis on his past since inevitably one is more interesting than the other. But here episode writers, who were series creator Glen Wong and James Morgan, were able to balance the story so what’s taking place in the past is just as important/interesting as what’s taking place in 2064.

Creepy monitor #2

Creepy monitor #2

In flashbacks we learn that Hawkes is really just six years old since Invitros are born in adult bodies. Originally the Invirtos were made to be soldiers in wars that regular humans didn’t want to fight and in “Who Monitors the Birds” we get a glimpse of one of a school setup to indoctrinate the Invitro kids. The kids are told that they’re “released from the burden of choice” and taught how to kill people in preparation for war.

Elements of this sort of classroom training were almost certainly taken from the book The Forever War that has as similar scene at the start of that novel. But watching “Who Monitors the Birds” again I wondered if the series Dark Angel (2000) that also took this same scene from the book The Forever War to open that series also borrowed the idea of the trainees being genetically engineered kids from SAaB too?

On the planet in 2064 Hawkes is able to incapacitate one of the Chig soldiers who seemingly offers him a memento from his armor as a peace offering which Hawkes reciprocates. We also see that same Chig taking in some of the vistas of the alien planet they’re on too. Which will later on come into play as we start to see the Chigs not as some dirty alien species set on galactic domination but more of a sentient race with hopes and needs of their own.

Chig via night vision

Chig via night vision

After the two seperates Hawkes ambushes and kills a Chig patrol of which the friendly alien just happens to be a member. Which begs the question; were the Chigs out hunting Hawkes or were they out looking to help him?

As Hawkes tries to escape from the Chigs who are hunting him we also meet what I’ll call Lady Death played here by Kristen Cloke. Lady Death is a creepy spirit that seems to haunt Hawkes as he’s on the run. Is she part of Hawkes’ consciousness trying to warn him of the approaching Chigs or is she some real spirit trying to steal his soul to the afterlife? We never find out for sure and that adds to much of the unease of Lady Death’s appearance in this episode.

Grade: A

 

Stray observations:

Lady Death

Lady Death

Cooper Hawkes service number is “948-98-01-01446” and his Invitro Registration Number is “866/8557-44-051553.”

John R. Colquitt’s service number is “723-449-6021” and his blood type is b-negative.

Cooper Hawkes was born in either 2057 or ’58 and is six years old at the time of this episode.

The episode takes place in 2064 meaning that the SAaB episodes are playing out in real time since they started in 2063.

The first eight minutes of the episode have no dialog other than an opening narration.

There is a group called the “Fleet Imagery Interpenetration Unit” in the Marines.

 

Goofs

Hawkes birthday

Hawkes birthday

We learn that the episode takes place in January but Hawkes’ watch says it’s November. Which I can’t imagine would be set wrong with him being a commando.

Hawkes says he’s six years old at the start of the episode, but an onscreen graphic has his birthday being 2053 making him 11.

 

Favorite dialog:

On screen slides in progression –
“You have been alive eight months.
The monitors are pleased with you.
To be monitored is to be free.
Spared the agony of decision.
Released from the burden of choice.
Invitros need only react.
To react how America want you to react.
America loves you.
One day you will return her love.
And defeat those trying to harm her.
Terrorists. Silicates. Subversives.
Today’s lesson will now begin.
There are seven 687 ways of killing a human being.
Method number one…”

Cooper Hawkes: “Monitor, who monitors the birds?”
Monitor: “I monitor the birds.”
Cooper Hawkes: “Who monitors you?”

Lady Death: “Until we meet again.”




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.

Wang surveys the universe

Wang surveys the universe

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.

Shuttle and comet

Shuttle and comet

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.

Shane Vansen

Shane Vansen

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.

Grade: A.

Cooper Hawkes

Cooper Hawkes

Favorite dialog:

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.”

 

Goofs:

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.

 

Stray Observations:

The old and new 58th

The old and new 58th

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.