Sunday, November 11, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 37: Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996)

Imagine a "gritty, gutsy" (per TV Guide...) futuristic war drama colored in hues of moody battleship gray. It takes place in deep space following a devastating sneak attack on humanity by an unfathomable and merciless enemy. Our protagonists in the war effort (which we are "losing badly") are young, attractive (but headstrong and angsty...) pilots. Much of the action occurs inside the cockpits of cramped space fighters and in military briefing rooms. The universe depicted by the series is one of murky morality and hard truths which shift in the troublesome and ambiguous sands of wartime. For instance, the specter of torture (here termed "re-education") is brought up in one installment.

You don't think I'm talking about the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, do you?

Instead, the first paragraph of this review describes the Glen Morgan/James Wong sci-fi war drama, Space: Above and Beyond, a mid-nineties-era TV endeavor that aired on the Fox Network for one season (and twenty-three hour-long episodes), and which concerned a squadron of rookie - but committed - soldiers serving in the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry aboard a mobile space headquarters; not the Galactica, but the Saratoga.

Set in the year 2063, Space: Above and Beyond sets its stories in the immediate aftermath of a devastating ambush on an Earth Colony ship bound for distant Tellus, ("the furthest any human has ever ventured,") and thus this nearly-forgotten series imagined a futuristic 9/11 scenario...six years before 9/11 (and eight years before the Ron Moore remake of BSG). The enemy in this case was not the Cylon race, but the menacing and mysterious "Chigs," a derogatory slang name which refers to chiggers... fleas which burrow into the skin.

What remains so interesting about Space: Above and Beyond is not merely that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica co-opted so much from its look, feel and narrative without so much as a "by your command," but rather that the creators' of this cult series seemed to understand - far earlier than most of us - how truly divided Americans were becoming as a people; and how - as bad as it might be - a war effort could conceivably bring us together.

Some context: Space: Above and Beyond premiered just a year after the 1994 "Contract with America" Republican Congress swept the elections, a stinging rebuke to President Clinton and a victory for Nute Gunray...I mean Newt Gingrich. I often recall the 1994 elections as the "revenge of the white man" referendum, because this was the era in recent history in which there was so much complaining in the press about Hilary Clinton's (unelected) role in policy decisions (like health care), as well as lamenting over censorship re-crafted under the new term "political correctness." There was also a mighty backlash against social progress that appeared to the hard-right in America to undercut the white man in favor of women and minorities, specifically programs such as affirmative action. Remember, this was post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas America, when the buzz word "sexual harassment" was all the rage. On a personal note, it was around this time that I first heard the name Rush Limbaugh, and began to meet otherwise seemingly-normal people who followed his every rant like he was some kind of cult leader.

Space: Above and Beyond reflects this reality in nineties America by featuring a diverse group of pilots, the men and women who will fight the Chig attackers. In particular, one of the pilots is Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), who is part of a new minority in America called a "Tank," a term which is more derogatory slang, this time for "in vitros," citizens who were conceived and born in artificial gestation tanks.

America is still land of the free and home of the brave in 2063, but that doesn't mean that the "in vitro" class can expect total equality. As one character states bluntly in the pilot, "we believe in civil rights for in vitros, but not at the expense of our rights." This is EXACTLY what the debate was in the country at the time: women and African-Americans should have equal rights, as long as we didn't establish any laws that gave them privileges over the white man, some believed. Meanwhile - on the show - racism towards the in vitros still flourishes in the ranks of the space marines, mostly out of ignorance. "Tanks are lazy and don't care about anyone," reports one soldier, relying on an old stereotype. Later, a character registers surprise that "Tanks" actually dream. It's always easier to demonize the enemy (even a domestic one...), when you can somehow render them sub-human. Even the military equipment on hand in the Corps. doesn't fit the "Tanks," and Hawkes has to cut off part of his space helmet to accommodate a common "Tank" birth mark. "They don't make nothing with In Vitros in mind," he laments.

Like the new Battlestar Galactica, everything is kind of dingy and military on Space: Above and Beyond - it's a dirty, used, lived-in universe. But unlike the new BSG, which is often derided as "West Wing in Space" because of its on-the-nose and deadly-serious political agitprop, on Space: Above and Beyond there is actually a sense of humor in evidence. In particular, the series alludes directly to film and television history in several sequences. "I knew we couldn't be alone," says one character, an answer to the Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) ad-line "We are not alone." Early on, another character states "In space, no one can hear you scream...unless it is the battle cry of the United States Marines!," a twist on Alien's (1979's) famous tag. Then there's the guest performance by Lee Ermey in the pilot, reprising his drill sergeant role from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), only sans profanity. In another situation, a space satellite blare...the Ramones.

In the second episode of the series, "The Farthest Man from Home," one character, a pilot named Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) watches archival footage (on the History Network) of JFK delivering his landmark speech about going to the moon "not because it is easy...but because it is hard," a rallying cry for progress and common purpose. Yet in the context of Space: Above and Beyond, I think it means something equally important. A society divided by inequalities of race and sex (like the reactionary America of the mid-1990s...) could still come together in the face of a looming threat. The most direct metaphor was likely World War II and Space: Above and Beyond perhaps hoped to suggest a space age Greatest Generation, one that would put politics aside and unite to fight the greatest foe mankind had ever faced. This generation would have boasted - according to the dialogue -"faith in each other; in a better world," - and more so, it would stick together in times of hardship because (according to the second episode) "every life in this war is tied together." Isn't it a shame that a fictional series about a sneak attack predicted the coming-together of a divided free society, but when the sneak attack came on September 11, 2001, our real-life leaders sought only to gain political points and prestige and to deride political opponents as unpatriotic and weak? Space: Above and Beyond depicts how things could be (and how things were in World War II): national shared sacrifice and common purpose as "storm clouds of war gather."

Going back and watching Space: Above and Beyond, I can see how it is a more thoughtful (and prescient) series than I recognized when I first saw it twelve years ago. In fact, the series feels more timely and important now, since so much about our national context has changed in the last twelve years. The only place in which the series has aged badly is the realm of special effects. Since the series was produced in the mid-1990s, very primitive computer generated imagery is utilized for all the combat and outer space sequences, and in truth...it looks like a video game. I'm sure the effects were expensive and realistic in their day, but CGI ages worse than miniature work...and faster. Also, some of the green-screening in the episodes I watched is horrendous: you can see the green outline around the main characters during effects shots, and it is a distraction. Despite such shortcomings, Space: Above and Beyond deserves for hosannas, especially from battlestar fans. Nearly a decade before that re-imagination, Morgan and Wong sought to accomplish the same things as the Sci-Fi series. It wasn't always successful; but nor was it always obvious. It's always a little galling (not to mention historically inaccurate...) to hear how the new Battlestar has revitalized televised science fiction by taking the genre away from the Star Trek model. This series did so; and earlier.

A final note that may offend (and I apologize): If Space: Above and Beyond had been lucky enough to air on the Sci-Fi Channel, it might have lasted four seasons too. That's right, I said lucky. You've got to laugh at all those BSG fans who complain - boo-hoo - that the Sci-Fi Channel doesn't know how to handle a "quality" series (Jamie Bamber, j'accuse). Here are the facts: if Battlestar aired anywhere else (the CW, the old WB, UPN, or any of the big four...) it would have lasted half-a-season at best with the ratings of the last three years. Heck, my favorite show, the brilliant but low-rated Veronica Mars drew higher ratings than Battlestar Galactica its last season on the CW...and it got canceled anyway! Fans of BSG should laud the Sci-Fi Channel for sticking with a very lowly-rated program through thick and thin. It wasn't always that way for genre programming; as those who remember Space: Above and Beyond and other one-season wonders could testify.

2 comments:

  1. Michael A. De Luca11:13 AM

    If this were made now, I could definitely envision of the marines expressing surprise that that a restaurant with a primarily-"Tanks" clientele would have exemplary service.

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  2. Joey_Bishop_Jr.12:19 AM

    I remember when this was on...hearing the classic "Hey Ho, Let's Go!" scores a lot of points with me!

    Still have to say, from what I remember and your synopsis, the show smells a lot like Starship Troopers...

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