A Subjectively Obscure SciFi Primer: Space: Above and Beyond
Last month, I kicked off our newest recurring segment, the Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, with Charlie Jade. The idea behind the segment is to introduce binge-watching sci-fi fans to shows they might never have heard of otherwise, be it because they were produced outside the US, one-season wonders, or just quietly performing in syndication for years alongside the heavy hitters. As such, our topic for this month is Space: Above and Beyond, a 1995 series that lasted for one season, ranking among the multitude of sci-fi shows that Fox canceled before Firefly was even a gleam in Joss Whedon’s eye. Space: Above and Beyond is a military sci-fi series that follows a squadron of United States Marines called the “Wildcards,” who are serving in the war against an alien species known as the Chigs. First contact, needless to say, went badly, as they start off by destroying humanity’s only extrasolar colonies.
It’s in the wake of this event that the show begins. With its focus on Marines, the military tone is quite heavy, far heavier than Stargate SG-1 or just about any other example of military sci-fi on TV (we even get an appearance by military fiction’s favorite drill sergeant, R. Lee Ermey, in the pilot). This can make the show a little dry, however, to those who aren’t accustomed to it.
I’m going to approach this show from a slightly different angle than I did Charlie Jade, if only because Space: Above and Beyond is more of an ensemble compared to that show’s sole protagonist.
While Space: Above and Beyond does qualify as an ensemble piece, we do have a nominal main character in Nathan West. Having once been on track to become a colonist, a last minute change pushes West into service instead. He’s still determined to meet back up with his girlfriend, who, as the mostly offscreen love interest of the lead, has plenty of trials ahead on her own. The other, and in my opinion far more interesting, lead is Cooper Hawkes, an “In Vitro” human who grew to adulthood inside a maturation chamber. Discrimination against In Vitros is a big theme of the series, which I won’t spoil here by discussing it too much. Suffice it to say that the In Vitros were grown for a specific purpose and many of them resented that fact, which led to a backlash against them by the general public that has slowly grown into full-blown racism.
Other characters include tough chick Vansen, the reluctant Wang, and the compassionate, religious Damphousse. They serve on the U.S.S. Saratoga under Colonel McQueen, another In Vitro, and go on a wide variety of missions both in space and on the ground. While this kind of jack-of-all-trades squad is a bit nonsensical from a traditional military viewpoint, it allows our characters to get in on the action regardless of where it’s taking place, and provides them with the opportunity to meet the enemy face-to-face in a way that being restricted to fighter craft wouldn’t allow.
Most of the characters grow beyond their initial archetypes, and usually in a good way. For example, there’s not really any romance going on aboard the Saratoga, which is exactly what you’d expect for a military vessel. It’s rather refreshing to have a show that’s free of the mandatory romance arc for once, although it does manage to weasel its way in via West’s desire to reunite with his girlfriend. Still, there’s always a sense, at least to me, of the characters holding back somewhat due to their professional, military environment. It’s only in desperate situations where they seem to open up, which does restrict how well they’re able to be developed.
Space: Above and Beyond was ahead of its time in the way that it implemented story arcs. Not only does it have the war with the Chigs going on, but also the fallout of a war with man-made AI called Silicates, which occurred before the story starts. There’s also the aforementioned discrimination against the In Vitros and shades of a conspiracy arc that was being developed before the show ended. Most importantly are the thematic elements that saturate the show, a constant undercurrent of the horrors and sacrifice of war, which makes itself known both in the war that they’re fighting and the wars of the past. It’s not exactly serialized, but there’s enough plot and character development rolling over from episode to episode to make it seem that way when binged.
With the show set in 2063, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for backstory, but they make the most of what they have. Given that it’s been nearly 20 years since it originally aired, some of the developments are laughable today, but others, like shades of increasing corporate power, are decidedly not.
- The show’s backstory is quite interesting, even if it doesn’t have a lot of room to be developed. The Silicate War that ends six years before the series begins, for example, lurks in the background, having driven some of the characters to be who and where they are. It also provides a means of having a more relatable yet still distinctly non-human force aside from the Chigs.
- Space: Above and Beyond is surprisingly hard sci-fi, with the only significant means of faster than light travel being wormholes, and humanity’s reach is very limited. The Chigs are quite alien, making communication difficult. Their biology seems to be very different from ours as well, despite the same vaguely humanoid shape. The show’s so focused on the human side of things that we learn little about them, and yet it’s clearly a very deliberate approach. The Chigs are as unknown and alien to the audience as they are to the characters, something that none of its rival series could say at the time.
- Space: Above and Beyond also does a good job of developing the characters without losing sight of its “horrors of war” themes. Often times in military fiction, it can be too easy to start hailing the protagonists as heroes and idolize them, ultimately falling out of touch with the themes supposedly at heart (look at Rambo for an example of that one). The characters in the WildCards are just people doing a job, not heroes or villains. And surprisingly, neither are the Chigs.
- The show’s militaristic themes tend to lead to a more subdued (although that’s not to say emotionless) environment, and the sets are realistically cramped, with gray and metal colors dominating. When combined with the show’s already incredibly desaturated coloration, most episodes end up uninteresting visually.
- The restrained military atmosphere can combine with the above to make some episodes very boring. The show definitely has a very specific appeal to it, and if you’re not already into military fiction it’d be easy to lose interest. I was almost ready to give up on the show, to be honest, until an episode called “Ray Butts” (no joke). If you find yourself struggling, try jumping ahead to that one. I suspect that this may have been a big factor in why it was canceled originally.
- Another problem a modern viewer might have with Space: Above and Beyond is the CGI. It’s embarrassingly dated. It’s just bad. Don’t let it turn you off, though. Much like Babylon 5, the CGI was a bold choice at the time and it suffers more from being in SD on a modern screen than anything else.
- The last, relatively minor, quibble I had was the existence of a “Psi Corps”, which felt very out of place in an otherwise realistic show. I’m not a big fan of psychic powers in sci-fi in general, though. I can’t hold it against the series, since it’s such a minor thing.
All in all, Space: Above and Beyond is a show that likely would have thrived in today’s cable and Netflix era of television, with a dark and serious approach that I think would go over well if it were updated properly and managed to overcome that inherent dryness. The producers (better known for working on The X-Files) have said that they drew a lot of inspiration from The Forever War, so fans of that book might especially want to check it out. The ending is a bit controversial, and while I’ve mentioned it here before (spoilers, if you dare to click), it was actually designed to serve as a potential finale, so do keep that in mind when you finish. Unfortunately, it’s not on any of the major legal streaming sites right now (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix), but you can get it via DVD from Netflix, and I’m sure YouTube could help give you a taste. As a reminder of the ratings system, a 5 represents must-see, 4 is good, solid television, 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group, 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” and a 1 is avoid at all costs. This is still a new column, and as such I welcome any input on how to improve it.
So, do you have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’d like for me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here.