Case Study 14: Space: Above and Beyond, Episode 11–“The River of Stars”

Original Airdate: December 17th, 1995 on Fox

In 1995, The X-Files was an up-and-coming cult hit on a burgeoning new network. Fox had had early success with The Simpsons, Married With Children, 90210, In Living Color, Martin and Melrose Place, but they were having trouble gaining equal footing with the other big names in broadcast television. By 1996, X-Files was a bona fide sensation, becoming the first Fox series to breach the Nielsen top 20. But it’s apparent that even before that, Fox knew they wanted to invest in what seemed to be a growing appetite for sci-fi. In addition to The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Fox also gave a development deal to two of the brightest stars in the X-Files writing room: co-writers Glen Morgan and James Wong. Together, they had penned some of the first two season’s most memorable episodes, such as the intense Alaskan bottle episode “Ice.” After Space flopped and Morgan & Wong came back to X-Files with tails betwixt legs, they also contributed many shining gems to season 4, including the seminal “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” which was credited solely to Morgan. They then went on to play a leadership role on Millennium, and for some reason their careers have failed to take off like rocketships. Is Space yet another tale of a brilliant sci-fi/fantasy vehicle cancelled before its time due to a niche audience for the genre in the vein of Firefly, Star Trek or, dare I say it, Hindsight? Or does it deserve its fate in the inky obscurity of the memory hole? It will not shock you to learn that it’s a little of both.

Strengths

  • Intelligent script-writing. It’s always a pleasure when a writer takes joy in knowledge and learning, and it’s especially appropriate for a space opera sci-fi program. Outer space is amazingly cool and it’s something we wouldn’t know anything about without thousands of years of humans striving to understand their world. I mean, look at the Cygnus Loop Nebula. That’s what sci-fi is competing with in terms of conveying a sense of wonder and beauty in a universe where there’s so much we don’t understand. This is an exquisite pleasure of what is sometimes called “hard” sci-fi: when the astonishing things we already know about the world go hand in hand with the astonishing things we can only imagine and work in concert. That’s not to say that soft sci-fi isn’t also thrilling–hell, look at Hindsight. The mechanism doesn’t have to make sense or even be explained for the story to be fascinating. But when a story is laced with a nerdy grounding in real-world facts, who am I to resist? Brian K. Vaughan is a good example of someone who consistently delivers this in his comic book writing and to a certain extent his work on Lost. On the other hand, I’m not sure what the hell was going on in Vaughan’s season on Under The Dome. Nevertheless, the script for this episode of Space ties the story and themes into subjects ranging from the Christmas truce, the scientifically dubious notion that television and radio transmissions are legible light years away from Earth, the constellation Eriadnus, Romeo & Juliet and the Bible. As you’ll see, I wasn’t thrilled with the end result, but some care and thoughtfulness was taken with this aspect of the show.
  • A phenomenal third act set piece. Speaking of a sense of wonder, despite this hour’s flaws the whole thing was worthwhile to watch the sequence where 1st Lt. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) must manually rotate the engine of the small spacecraft (in Space parlance, an “APC”) where he and his fellow crewmen have been stranded in enemy territory after a fight against bandits gone wrong. This requires a spacewalk, and the look in Wang’s eyes when he gets out of the APC and sees the stars around him–well, it’s a thing of wonder. This is amplified by the fact that earlier in the episode we heard him reminisce about his youth on Earth looking at Eriadnus and marvelling at the constellation’s beauty and constancy. In that moment, you can imagine why Wang became a space marine. Not to mention the fact that for something made in 1995 on what can’t have been an astronomical budget, the spacewalk looks entirely believable–unlike, say, the chaos that erupts in the APC after it is initially disabled and is spinning wildly.

Weaknesses

  • No future culture. This show falls prey to a common failing among sci-fi set in the future. Without thinking seriously about the evolution of culture decades or centuries into the future, it’s hard to create a textured, lived-in reality. A quick and lazy way to do that is to create an environment where everyone is obsessed with the culture of the second half of the 20th century. Futurama is set in the year 3000, but we’re given jokes like a David Dinkins themed donut shop or a bartending robot modelled on Isaac from The Love Boat. Sure, it’s a comedy and the anachronism is part of the joke, but it still loses something because you feel like the writers are reaching for cheap pop culture jokes that have nothing to do with the very unique setting they’re working with. For another example, look to Ernest Cline’s novel Ready, Player One, which is set in 2045 and which features a teen protagonist obsessed with the 80s pop culture of Cline’s youth. This tendency rears its head in Space when the APC picks up on a broadcast of 1966’s Batman and, apparently, 1st Lt. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) is a fan. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Batman franchise still exists in 2063, but it stretches credulity to posit that West is a casual fan of a show from 100 goddamned years ago. I say casual because he indicates that the show features “one guy that’s like a bat and one guy that’s like a bird.” Space gets it exactly wrong–no one knows what Batman is, except for the dude that is passingly familiar with an artifact of the franchise that is already fading into obscurity today. It would be better if they took a moment to discuss a Batman sitcom airing in 2063 where the Caped Crusader starts an organic produce co-op. At one point, Capt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke, Final Destination–which is incidentally another Morgan/Wong production) distributes Christmas presents to her crew, fearing she may not get another chance. Her gift for 1st Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) is a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. This would be like giving your buddy a record by The Carter Family for Christmas. What, there’s no worthwhile records from the 2040s? This is science fiction. We’re in the future. Despite what they may say, human culture did not begin and end with the baby boomers.
  • Botched exploration of a theme. This episode of Space badly wants to say something on the subject of faith but what that something is never actually comes together. As mentioned, the plot centers on an intrepid crew of space marines marooned when their APC is disabled. Life support systems are beginning to fail and they seem consigned to either a slow and painful death or a brief and painful death if they are found by their enemies. It’s also Christmas. The world of Space  features a subaltern class of humans called In Vitros. As the name suggests, they’re artificially gestated until they reach the age of 18, at which point they’re harshly brought into a world where they are resented and objectified. Rowland is an In Vitro forced into conscription after violently resisting his would-be captors, but due to his decidedly unusual upbringing he knows nothing about Christmas. 1st Lt. Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) explains the holiday from a Christian perspective, which Wang tartly rebuts with material realities. But it turns out the problem is not (just) Wang’s secular humanism but rather bitterness and disillusionment fostered by being a soldier in a brutal and violent war. Of course, we can’t just let reasonable people disagree, so a deus shows up in this particular machina in the form of a mysterious transmission that instructs our heroes how to maneuver themselves into the gravitational range of a passing comet that will take them straight back home. As Wang notes, this context-free suggestion from the universe will only serve the marines if they take its advice on…faith. And when Wang goes out to adjust that engine, Vansen reminds him that they are putting their faith in him. And back home their commanding officer TC McQueen (James Morrison, 24) tirelessly awaits their return despite the fact that he’s received no communication from them and has no idea where they are, because he has faith. Upon their happy return, West advises Wang that if he wants to understand faith, he needs only to look Eriadnus as he did as a boy, because “faith is knowing that something is always there.” Of course, that’s a neat little tagline, but it’s also simplistic and frankly kind of stupid. True faith, the faith that this show is trying to talk about, is not merely a confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow. There’s a reason that faith and hope are often mentioned in the same breath, because faith is what spurs hope on. If you have faith in yourself or your partner or your god or humanity, you have a reason to keep moving despite the odds. The show attempts to posit that the most important form of faith in this context is the crew’s faith in each other, but it doesn’t actually demonstrate that. What does it mean that Vansen has faith in Wang when he goes to adjust the engine? What trust is she placing in him? It’s not like he’s going to intentionally fuck things up and kill them all. Does she have “faith” that he’s smart enough and determined enough to move the engine? If he weren’t, it would hardly be a moral failing on his part, so it all strikes me as pretty damn hollow. Also, if you want to tell a story about the power of faith it’s awfully cheap and unconvincing to insert a magic lifesaving comet into the narrative proceedings. Faith draws its power from believing despite the evidence, from outside of the evidence. If you need a miracle to have faith, you’re doing it wrong. It’s nice to see the show trying to say something instead of just rolling with a naturally suspenseful survival story, but seeing how it turned out makes me wish they had just let the story carry itself.

Motivation: Well, it seems pretty transparent that the stakes here are survival, but as I said, the show’s not actually interested in telling a story about that. It’s trying to tell a story about Wang’s self-discovery. It’s trying to tell the story of a man who crosses himself before every mission finding a reason to believe in God again. It’s just not doing it super well.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. This has the bones of a promising show, but an hour of memorable television this is not.

NEXT TIME: We return to our recurring coverage of the anime world by taking a look at yet another franchised juggernaut: Gundam. (See what I did there?)

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Case Study 14: Space: Above and Beyond, Episode 11–“The River of Stars”