Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #102: Space: Above and Beyond: "R&R"

This is Morgan and Wong Week over at Back to Frank Black, the campaign spearheading the return of Millennium's beloved, cult-TV, criminal profiler.

As you may recall, Glen Morgan and James Wong were writers on Chris Carter's The X-Files, producers of MIllennium's second season, and cult-TV creators in their own right. They were behind an excellent paranormal series, The Others, in 2000, for instance. But given this special BTFB event, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look back at another Morgan and Wong production from the 1990s: Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996).

I featured the pilot episode as my 37th CULT TV flashback back in November of 2007, and today I want to remember another segment, "R & R" produced by Morgan and Wong and written by Julie Selbo. But before we leap into a description of that particular tale, here's (some of) what I wrote about the series premise of Space: Above and Beyond, introduction-wise, back in 2007:

Imagine a "gritty, gutsy" (per TV Guide...) futuristic war drama colored in hues of mood 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.

So this is the cultural context that Wong and Morgan were working on with Space: Above and Beyond. And the episode "R & R," directed by Thomas J. Wright, takes the characters of the 58th to yet another new horizon: furlough.

Specifically, the squadron is exhausted after multiple tours-of-duty, and the In-Vitro pilot Hawkes (Rodney Rowlands) is injured during a Chig attack on his patrol. Colonel T.C. McQueen (James Morrison) is relieved when the group is assigned 48 hours of vacation on a pleasure ship called "The Bacchus."

This vessel is described as "Vegas, New York City and Oz all rolled into one." I immediately thought of Sinoloa in the Buck Rogers episode "Vegas in Space" and "Space City," the so-called "Satellite of Sin" in Blake's 7.

In Space: Above and Beyond, this viper's den looks like a Trump Casino in space, and the futuristic Cabaret's master-of-ceremonies is none other than Coolio (!). He promptly informs the visiting soldiers that Bacchus is the place "where what you can only imagine, we make happen."

He also notes that this is not a world of virtual reality or "phony Holodecks," a pointed line which clearly differentiates Space: Above and Beyond's gritty, hard-bitten universe from that of another 1990s outer space franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Remember, Star Trek off-spring dominated the 1990s, and Space: Above and Beyond was a first dramatic step away from that Utopian world of plenty. Again -- in the heyday of BSG and SGU -- we might not appreciate the pioneering aspects of Morgan and Wong's space combat series as much as we should. Not entirely unlike Space:1999, this program ventured to present a realistic look at man in space; rather than going for an idealistic approach.

Back to "R & R." In short order, the pilots of the 58th start to let their hair down. On Bacchus ,Lt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) sets about winning some dough in the ship's pool hall, only to be verbally upbraided and relentlessly "played" by a psychologically-adroit android pool-shark, uncredited David Duchovny. This characters snarls like Clint Eastood and even asks Vansen "do you feel lucky?" I loved this subplot because it played on expectations (the audience's and the character's): Vansen arrives in the pool hall in a slinky black dress, manhandles her pool cue seductively (!) and vamps it up...expecting to get one by the other players on sex appeal.

Didn't count on a robot, I guess...

Meanwhile, Hawkes has to deal with the specter of drug addiction because of the pain medication he's been prescribed, for his injury. On The Bacchus, goes in search of sexual comfort. A virgin, Hawkes soon meets up with a beautiful in-vitro hooker who is far less glamorous than she appears. She's addicted to drugs too (so she doesn't have to think about how she earns her cash...), and she's the mother of an infant.

And yes, this distinctly un-romantic subplot indeed sounds familiar if you've seen the re-imagined, second season Battlestar Galactica episode "Black Market."

As "R & R" continues, another sub-plot: West (Morgan Weisser) learns that the seemingly-humorless colonel, McQueen, has a fondness for old, black-and-white, W.C. Fields movies. Before long, however, the brief respite from war is called off, and the pilots are back to combat. Hawkes, for his part, has trouble leaving the events on The Bacchus behind. The Colonel, who has also faced drug addiction, tells him "There is there . And here is here."

What we get in "R & R," which aired originally on April 12, 1996, is a dissection of virtually all the program's dramatis personae. Sometimes that dissection is explicit: Alvin (Duchovny) finds the right words about Shane's family life to shake her; to make her lose at pool. Sometimes the character dissection is more subtle: the episode tackles everything from loneliness and virginity to the way "closeness" in combat sometimes creates a false sense of intimacy. James Morrison's character, McQueen doesn't have a tremendous amount of screen time, and yet we learn a lot about him here.

It isn't often in Space: Above and Beyond that audiences got see the characters relate to one another and their universe outside of the battle situation, and their time on the Bacchus (except for the W.C. Fields movies...) doesn't seem relaxing at all. But perhaps that's part of human nature too: our need to pursue love, money and yes, danger, even when we're off the job, supposedly taking it easy. Of course, there's even more danger in pursuing these things when outside the confines of "responsibility. It's hard, as Vansen might say (especially after her encounter with Alvin), to "keep your head screwed on straight" in an environment like the pleasure ship.

Space: Above & Beyond is a remarkably prophetic show. I wrote a few months back about the sense of anticipatory anxiety evident in the works of Chris Carter, and I think you might detect that quality here too, in the efforts of Wong and Morgan. It's the belief that the apparent good times don't last forever, and bad times are imminent. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica of the 21st century also highlighted artificial people, sneak attacks, hookers, R & R, psychological mind-fucks, and gritty space combat, yet it's hard to ignore that Space: Above and Beyond hit the same notes (and without some of the more questionable soap opera plotting) almost ten years earlier. Also, Space: Above and Beyond always remained humanistic, rather than telling us that we are all the fools of the Gods, the victims of a fate we can't control.

So much of success in Hollywood is based on timing. Space: Above and Beyond in the Roaring Nineties, apparently didn't resonate with a wide audience (though its ratings were higher than many genre shows airing on television today). If it the program aired after 9/11, maybe we would have gotten to know Morgan and Wong's intriguing characters and solid writing for four seasons, or more...


  1. Jake Lockley4:30 PM

    SAAB was a wonderfully rich universe - Tanks, Chigs, AI -- there was so much of the universe to explore it's a shame it only lasted one season. My favorite episode was probably Sugar Dirt. I don't think even BSG's new Caprica episodes captured the dark feeling of being left behind in a time of war like that episode did.

  2. Thank you for supporting Morgan and Wong week John. I wonder what other gems you have hidden in your archives!

  3. Thanks for vindicating this show, John. I've always loved it, and I'm glad that you do, too. I hope tha Morgan & Wong can team up for another movie/TV show.

    BTW, are you going to review Morgan & Wong's movie The One (which stars James Morrison & Tucker Smallwood?) I loved that movie, even though nobody else did.