Friday, November 16, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK #38: The Twilight Zone: "Walking Distance"

There are probably more than seventy-five episodes of Rod Serling's classic series The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) worth remembering in one of these cult tv flashbacks. And I intend - over the years - to get to many of 'em! There's William Shatner spying a gremlin on the wing of an airliner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," or my personal Shatner fave: "Nick of Time," a second season Zone which sees the Shat waging a psychological war with a bobble-head Devil on a dime-store fortune-telling machine. God, I love that episode even more than the gremlin one, maybe because the true subject nature (like the best episodes of the series), is human nature and especially the pitfalls of our nature that trap so many of us.

And then there's "Time Enough At Last," with Burgess Meredith as a dedicated book reader who survives a nuclear holocaust only to...

Or the one about the woman in the bus station who spies her double... but no one believes her until more doubles start showing up...

Or the episode about the woman in bandages, getting plastic surgery, and we don't see her face (or the face of her surgeon...) until the denouement...

Well, you know, don't you? The funny thing about The Twilight Zone is that there are 156 episodes of this classic anthology series, but during the yearly marathons on Sci-Fi, the same fifty or so episodes get rerun. The one with "Talky Tina," or the woman (Agnes Moorehead) in the remote cabin with little spacemen chasing her ("The Invaders'), or the one about a very special alien cookbook ("To Serve Man.") These episodes are all timeless and terrific and worthy of broadcast from here to eternity.

But there are other eminently worthy wonders in this land of imagination too; ones that don't quite bite with scalding irony, or sting with surprise and O'Henry twists. Instead, these installments tug at the heart strings and evidence a deep melancholy. Which brings us to my selection today: "Walking Distance," by Rod Serling. It originally aired in 1959...nearly fifty years ago, during The Twilight Zone's first season on CBS.

This is the story of 36 year old "vice president of media" Martin Sloan (Gig Young), a successful but overworked businessman. He feels like he's been at a "dead run" for a long time, and has grown tired. Martin makes an unexpected stop at a rural gas station one day, only to realize that he's within walking distance of his hometown, "Homewood." It's a place he hasn't visited in over twenty years. While his car is serviced at the station, Martin walks down a dusty road (and we watch him go down that long path in a clever shot utilizing a mirror...), and straight into the Twilight Zone.

For that old town - a place of ice cream sodas, merry-go-rounds, games of marbles, Sundays in the parks and band concerts - hasn't changed a whit in two decades. It still costs a dime for a chocolate ice cream soda with three scoops. Martin wanders the streets and begins to remember a time in his life when things were simpler; slower...happier. He remembers a time when he was eleven years old carving his initials onto a gazebo in the park.

Then, wonder of wonders, Martin spies himself as a teenager carving those initials. He has returned the past. He has traveled back 25 years. Excited, Martin runs to his house and sees his Mom and Dad; both long dead in the present. He pleads with them, telling them he's their son. However, they fear he's a crazed man, a lunatic escaped from an asylum. Determined, the adult Martin chases down his young self on a merry-go-round, and tries to tell him a very important message. He succeeds only in scaring the teenage version of himself, and the boy falls and injures his knee. It's an injury that both Martins feel simultaneously - since they are one in the same. "I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you," the elder Martin whispers sadly after the boy has been taken away. "Don't let any of it go by without enjoying it."

Finally, Martin meets his father again at the foot of the merry-go-round...and his Dad knows who he really is now (Martin dropped his wallet). His father is loving but stern, and tells the elder Martin he must return to the present. "There's no room. There's no place," he tells him. "...maybe there's only one summer for every customer..." Giving the kind of advice only a Daddy can give, Martin's father also suggests "You've been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead."

As Serling's closing narration makes plain, "Walking Distance" is about the fact that no matter how hard we try, we can't go home again. The past is sometimes so close to us that we feel we can reach out and touch it, that it is merely "walking distance" from here. A scent, a turn of a phrase, a photograph, a song, even a retro-toy flashback(!) can spur images of a past that we have left behind...yet not forgotten. And many people, like Martin Sloan, experience that "errant wish" as Serling describes it, that a "man might not have to become older," might never have to outgrow the merry-go-rounds of his youth.

"Walking Distance" is a beautifully-shot episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as an emotional journey that speaks to human truth. At the center of the story is the merry-go-round as metaphor. Life is indeed like a merry-go-round, we understand: we climb on, it starts to spin, and it feels like we can't easily get off....not without jumping. The episode plays with that notion artfully as the adult Martin chases down his younger self on the spinning amusement park ride.

The merry-go-round is depicted at a cockeyed angle, spinning ever faster. As Elder Martin nears his prey, the camera adopts a high-angle during the chase. Tellingly, Martin never quite reaches himself, just as a merry-go-round spins and spins, moves and moves, but never actually goes anywhere or reaches any destination. When Martin turns around and goes against the tide of the merry-go-round, time seems to slow down and this descent feels like a reckoning, as past and future finally collide, and Martin must make a choice about where he is going to live, and more importantly, how he is going to live. His world needn't be one of "no more cotton candy," "no more band concerts" but to change it, he has to change how he sees life. I love how the episode culminates around a tender conversation between father and grown son...a conversation that could not occur anywhere but the Twilight Zone, because in reality, the father is long dead. Here, the "fifth dimension" makes room for a son - no longer a kid - to experience the wisdom of his father one last time; when he needs it most. Martin's father is the age of the elder Martin, and one sense in both the performance and the dialogue that his Pop understands too well Martin's desire to return to the past; a past without responsibility or stress.

Rod Serling died young, and much of his work, including "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" on Night Gallery expressed this wistful desire to return to a "simpler" time. "A Stop at Willoughby" on The Twilight Zone is a darker meditation on the same demons haunting "Walking Distance," but there the quest to stop running, to find peace, results only in death, not learning. In some sense, I guess I prefer "Walking Distance" because Martin Sloan does get a second chance to get life right; to change who he is. As sad as it is that the past is gone, there's also an optimistic side: every new day is a chance to recapture what we lost; or find a different kind of happiness. I wonder if Rod Serling - who wrote a whopping 90 episodes of the Twilight Zone's 156 - felt like life was a merry-go-round he couldn't escape, or if - with the help and catharsis of the Twilight Zone - he managed to exorcise the same demons expressed by Martin Sloan in "Walking Distance."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

This isn't my choice for the greatest science fiction film ever made. For me, that honor goes to another film of the year 1968, Franklin Schaffner's Planet of the Apes. However, objectivity requires that I state my bias here and explain a little bit about my decision-making process.. Planet of the Apes is a rip-roaring, exciting, dramatic social allegory about race, war, religious fundamentalism and more, whereas Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey appeals almost entirely to the intellect...and the eyes. The film is lugubrious and steady, the mood...removed, clinical, not exciting by any conventional sense. Another way to put it: Planet of the Apes makes the blood run hot; 2001 -- chills it. So this is a personal preference for me, and yet even in acknowledging my preference as a reviewer, I would easily award 2001: A Space Odyssey the number #2 slot on that "greatest" films list, and today seek to acknowledge some of the elements of the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece that make it such an amazing and rewarding viewing experience.

Going back and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey again today, there are three elements that combine to make it a brilliant and visionary science fiction film. One: director Kubrick visually crafts a sense of "cosmic order," an order to the universe beyond that which humanity perceives, via his understanding and deployment of film language or grammar. Secondly, the film serves as a sometimes-ironic meditation on the development and drawbacks of man's technology (or tools), and thirdly, A Space Odyssey functions indeed as the "amazing experience" I noted above. Today's viewers, perhaps more interested in pace, narrative, characterization and the like may harbor little patience for a cinematic venture that pays such attention to reality, scientific accuracy, and the "details" of a futuristic journey into space. Crudely put, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn't a film that you can just interface with passively. It...happens to you. In many ways, it's like you are a passenger aboard the Discovery One, or the Moonbus, or the Pan Am Clipper with the other characters, You're watching -- almost in real time -- as events occur. If you take the title literally, this is nothing more and nothing less than a chronicle of what life is like in "the space age" of the twenty first century. You aren't going to see space battles, time warps and the like, but you will get a bird's eye view of planet Earth, or an orbital space station...after the stewardess serves lunch.

Stanley Kubrick's film, often billed as "the ultimate trip," tells the story of mankind: from the beginning to the "next step." From the "Dawn of Man," to "Jupiter and the Infinite Beyond," the film charts his development as a species. Watching over mankind (with unknown intent and agenda) are the alien monoliths: black, featureless obelisks that appear almost as signposts in the development or evolution of humanity. In the distant past, a monolith appears on Earth over the home cave of a tribe of primitive apes, and - emitting a strange signal - pushes the apes to grow, change, develop. After contact with the monolith, the apes miraculously develop an understanding of technology, or tools - weaponry.

The next monolith is discovered buried deep inside the crater Tycho, not terribly long after modern man has developed the ability to travel to the moon. The monolith sends a transmission to Jupiter and it is there, in orbital space, that man will have his next rendezvous with the monolith; one that will push forward the species' development again further; evolving mankind into enigmatic "star children."

Taken as given the idea that the monoliths are far more advanced than the race they shepherd, it is crucial for filmmaker Kubrick to craft a sense of overarching order in the universe. He begins doing so from the very first shot of the film. It is a beautiful outer space landscape which depicts Earth's pocked moon in slow descent. Beyond the moon, growing visible, is Earth itself - blue and beautiful. And over the Earth, even more distant, is Sol, our sun - shining brightly. The three bodies are aligned, forming some aspect of geometric progression, a perfect one-two-three. This is the first indication of a cosmic order, but not the last.

We see this kind of geometric staging of heavenly bodies in "The Dawn of Man" sequence as well. There is shot from ground level, gazing up at the imposing monolith. The sun - high in the sky - is intersected by the monolith's apex, and here we have another viewpoint that intimates order: a direct line from the monolith to the heavens above; to the "star" people or aliens.

Late in the film (near the climax), Kubrick's camera depicts a shot of Jupiter and its myriad satellites. Once more, the heavenly bodies are lined up in symmetric, precise sequence, but then - interestingly - a black monolith intersects the line of planets and moons almost perfectly on the horizontal xis, splitting the line in two. It is almost as though we are gazing at an algebraic equation created by the planets' positions. It is at almost exactly at this moment that the "trip" into the Monolith begins, and represents another symbol of Kubrick's obsession with a sense of cosmic order. It is an order beyond mankind's understanding or comprehension since we - unlike Kubrick's omnipotent camera - can never see such a view; never act as "the eyes of the universe," as it were. We travel between worlds; in orbital space, but can we see the stars how God does? Or how the Monoliths do? In all these views, the stars are immaculate and perfect, ordered for eyes not our own.

In charting a cosmic order, Kubrick also splits his film into what I see as three distinct movements. One is natural ("The Dawn of Man"), one is technological ("18 Months Later; aboard the Discovery) and one is spiritual or supernatural, ("Beyond the Infinite"). These are the three stages of existence mankind must travel in order to evolve to the next realm of existence: the star children.

In "The Dawn of Man," Kubrick's locked-down camera reveals a sunny, barren Earth in a succession of beautifully composed static landscape shots (no fewer than eight separate shots). There is life here (and our first indication is the sight of animal bones on a bluff...), but the long, vacant emptiness of the landscape seems to reflect the life and times of the apes. They huddle at night in their cave, afraid of the dark, and by day fight inconclusive battles over territory with a nearby family group. The apes are living beings who possess intelligence, but not true self-awareness or anything beyond rudimentary instinct. The arrival of the monoliths change all that.

By the year 2001, mankind - long gone down the path established by the monolith all those aeon's ago - now dwells in a totally technological world. Whereas "the Dawn of Man" featured a wholly natural world, one of bleak landscapes, wide savannas and rocky outcroppings, everything in the year 2001 is totally and completely artificial. We do not glimpse even an iota of something "natural" (besides man himself, perhaps). Man has utilized "tools' to remake the world around him and in doing so has even left behind that very world. Once he achieves space and lands on the moon (a sign, perhaps, of a technologically advanced world...), he has reached the second threshold desired by the monolith; the threshold which will lead him, finally, to the spiritual world.

The last portion of the film, "Beyond the Infinite," depicts astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) leaving behind his technology (the star ship Discovery and the malfunctioning computer HAL 9000) for the enigmatic black monolith in Jupiter's space. He flies into the monolith and upon intersection point the film cuts to a very long, very odd montage -- a "cosmic trip" -- in which we are treated to a plethora of strange visions. Light seems to swirl by the camera, and then the viewer is left gazing for long periods at otherworldly vistas. Green oceans; mountaintops turned red. High angle views of an orange planetary surface and the like. It is distinctly as though nature (the world of "the Dawn of Man") has literally been inverted in the quest for the spiritual. Here, nature is different; the land is different.

There is no room for technology, either, in this realm and very soon David Bowman finds his pod and space suit gone as he ages (seemingly at warp speed) in an odd Victorian apartment. He spends his days (or minutes, perhaps...) waiting to die so he can achieve the next form of human evolution, which I believe the film suggests is a metaphysical form. People often ask what the Victorian sitting room represents or symbolizes and my best description of it is that it is evolution's antechamber. The body's natural death is apparently a prerequisite for the next stage of human life (otherwise, the monolith could just zap Bowman with a laser beam and send him on his way). Instead, David Bowman must grow old locked in his aging body, let his physicality fail. And in that last moment, when the astronaut is old and infirm, laying in bed, he seeks to touch the Monolith (which re-appears before him). He can't quite grasp the afterlife; can't quite touch the Monolith. But then, when he dies, his body disappears, re-formed into the glowing "star child," a baby with soulful eyes dwelling in a kind of translucent womb. This is the birth of man as a spiritual being, and Kubrick has prepared the viewer for the transition by taking man from nature, to technology, to what lays beyond...if not the dark night of the soul, than the glowing brilliance of spirituality; the soul.


In charting the development of the human race from its natural beginning to its spiritual future, Stanley Kubrick seizes on an irony. The very intelligence brought to humanity by the Monolith - the wherewithal to understand tools and technology - is the very thing that could actually destroy humanity. In "The Dawn of Man" stage of the film, the first "tool" or technology utilized by the apes is a discarded animal bone. It can be used to kill prey during a hunt and therefore assure survival for man (as we see in a montage as a giant beast falls dead after being struck...) or it can be used as a devastating weapon with which to kill enemies and hold on to territory.

The ape armed with the animal bone kills an enemy ape and in a moment of nearly orgasmic delight and triumph, tosses the bone high into the air. Up and up, Kubrick's camera tracks the ascending weapon until - boom - the greatest (and most sweeping) film transition in history. The bone becomes an orbiting satellite in the 21st century. This transition dramatizes in one shot the entire sweep of human history: he has gone from wielding animal bones in the desert to building spaceships and leaving Earth's gravity. The understanding of how to use a tool (and a weapon) has led him to create an entirely technological world around himself.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the HAL 9000, the last word in mellifluous-voiced computers. Like that animal bone in prehistory, HAL is no more than a tool or a device to make life easier for humans. But - also like the prehistoric bone - HAL is dangerous, a weapon. Worse, technology has evolved to such a point now that the "tools" mankind creates can out think him (winning at a Chess game...), and even kill him, as HAL murders the astronauts in suspended animation and cuts the air line of astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). The agenda from Kubrick, I believe here, is a word of warning. It might very well be that Kubrick saw this period -- the technological period that precedes the spiritual period - as the era when the human race is in most danger of destroying itself. 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced in the late 1960s during a war that seemed like it was going on forever (Vietnam). It was the era of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation...a time when a push of a single button (the use of technology again...) could rain death upon millions across the planet. HAL is not just Frankenstein's son, a child of a creator turning bad, but the embodiment of the technological age and inherent dangers thereof.

If man can survive his flirtation with deadly machines, with the technology he himself has forged, 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to suggest, than there will be no limits for him in the universe. If he lets go of the things he made, the destructive things, the sky's the limit.

2001: A Space Odyssey runs over two hours, and yet there is barely 45 minutes of dialogue in the entire film. Kubrick tells his tale with beautiful, icily precise visuals, stunning special effects, and - often - classical music. The middle section of the film involves Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) traveling from Earth aboard a Pan Am passenger ship to a rotating space station. After a time on the station, he boards a vessel bound for the moon, and continues his journey. This part of the film serves as a travelogue, a day in the life of a commuter in the 21st century. Some people may find it interesting; others may find it dull, for it is the equivalent of one of us taking a trip across country by plane: sitting in our seat on a 747, going out to the runway, flying to another airport, boarding another plane, and so forth. There's a lot of waiting, phone-call making, and even a bathroom break.

The point of all this, I believe, is two-fold. First, Kubrick has created a drama of the near future, and hopes to dramatize what life is like in that time period. It should seem both familiar and strange at the same time, and it is. These sequences are unerringly realistic. But also, I believe Kubrick's naturalistic approach in this middle-part of the film best sells the "cosmic" order and "danger of technology" elements of the film. Mankind believes he controls the universe, as we see here, in the kitchen-sink depiction of space travel as "routine" and "ordinary." But, it is only the illusion of control, as we understand when we meet HAL later. We don't control our technology; the opposite is true. Also -- remember - we don't create the order in the universe -- it is beyond us; and all those geometrically perfect shots of planets in lines reflect that. This section of the film establishes well the illusion man has built around himself. That bubble of delusion soon gets punctured.

One of the longest and most beautiful portions of 2001: A Space Odyssey arrives in this middle section. It is the docking of the passenger flight on the station. It is a lengthy scene (far lengthier, even, than the Enterprise in drydock sequence in Star Trek: the Motion Picture [1979]) and it is cut and paced to Johann Strauss's waltz, The Blue Danube. This selection of music adds an elegance and pace to the scene, but also connotes almost a sense of whimsy. The two space vessels (the station and the ship), are performing a technological waltz of their own, aren't they? The players aren't even human, but the Blue Danube suggests that this space docking maneuver is...a dance. Emotionally, I think we respond to the use of this music in two ways. One, it is a hypnotic piece of music, and we succumb to its spell. But secondly, it is - after some fashion - a humorous or silly selection...and here I think Kubrick is sneaking in that devilish sense of irony once more. He's scoring the future...with the past. He's reducing a technological marvel to...a dance.

The kitchen sink reality of the middle-portion of the film (the travelogue, let's call it), is heightened by Floyd's tour of the space station. He makes a long distance telephone call to Earth and speaks to his daughter The phone booth he uses is adorned with a Pacific Bell logo. He walks past the station restaurant (a Howard Johnsons) and later we catch a glimpse of the billeting accommodations...A Hilton hotel. Later, en route to the Moon, Floyd has to take a potty break and - in a neat visual gag - must read the rather lengthy directions for operating a "zero gravity toilet."

Once the movie has shifted to the Discovery One, there is still this sense of the routine, of the Earthly norm, only transplanted to outer space. Frank Poole is first depicted jogging around a control room, then watching cable TV (BBC 12) while he eats his dinner from a tray. Again, all these scenes of "the routine" establish that two-fold Kubrick agenda: that we are not the masters of technology but vice versa, and that we are taken in by the illusion that we are the masters of the universe.

Why does HAL go nuts and kill the crew of the Discovery? The answer comes at us, almost invisibly, during Dave's sojourn into the Logic Memory Center to unplug the homicidal computer. A message plays revealing that HAL is the only "person" aboard Discovery who knew about the mission to contact the Monoliths. See? We have now outsourced "need to know" information to our tools...and it has driven them mad. The ultimate misapplication of technology, perhaps. The machines control the mission.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a meticulously-crafted, beautifully rendered cinematic journey. It's a film I can watch any time and become hypnotized by, even if it doesn't punch me on the gut level of Planet of the Apes, The Matrix or Star Wars. Above all, It is a splendid match of director and subject matter. One senses Kubrick behind the scenes, like those enigmatic monoliths, manipulating each and every moment. Almost forty years old, the film is as fresh and gorgeous and as open to possibilities and interpretation as it was when first created in the 1960s. Perhaps it isn't as flashy as later sci-fi epics, but it is surely one of the grandest, most thought-provoking, most carefully (and artfully) constructed visions of mankind and his future ever brought to us in the cinema.

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 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.