Space: Above And Beyond.
In 1995, a new series debuted on the network that had an unfortunate, but mostly earned reputation of killing many a promising sci-fi series (“Alien Nation” “Firefly” and a few others). This single-season series (it was planned for five) was the ambitious, Australian-lensed space war series called “Space: Above and Beyond” (1995-1996).
Superficially, the series seemingly owed a lot to Robert Heinlein’s jingoistic 1959 novel “Starship Troopers” (later a 1997 Paul Verhoeven feature film), but it was much more than that. It told many kinds of war stories, from “Patton” to “Platoon.” For a series that only ran a single season, “Space: Above and Beyond” (SAAB) created a gritty, richly-detailed war-torn universe.
The story begins in the year 2063. Humans have cracked faster-than-light space travel, and are beginning to colonize local solar systems. Earth’s first extra-solar colony on the planet Tellus (16 light years away) is destroyed in a devastating attack by an alien race known as “Chigs” (an epithet given by humans, due to the aliens’ armor resembling a chigoe flea).
Rumor has it that some of the colonists were taken as prisoners of the Chigs. The Chigs aggressively press on into the our own solar system, and a desperate Earth sends scores of space marines to retaliate. Enter the 58th Marine Squadron, aka the “Wild Cards”…
The Wild Cards.
One newly-minted Marine, Lt. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) is a former civilian colonist who lost his seat to an in-vitro “tank.” In-vitro tanks are an artificially developed race of people, born at age 18, who were originally created for slave labor.
Though legally human, the tanks were denied many basic rights until affirmative action programs allow them to hold greater positions of respect and authority. This affirmative action costs West his seat on the colony ship and separates him from his fiancée Kylen, but arguably saves his life.
With the hope of finding Kylen as his driving force, West joins the Marines; eventually becoming a member of the 58th Marine squadron, aka the Wild Cards, attached to the carrier Saratoga (“Pilot” “Choice Or Chance” “Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best”). In addition to the quest for his Kylen, Nathan’s life is further complicated when his kid brother Neil (Marc Worden) joins the Corps.
The Saratoga is under command of stern, guitar-strumming Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood). Ross’ second-in-command is Marine Colonel Tyrus Cassius McQueen (James Morrison).
Col. McQueen is an invitro, but is as respected as any other high-ranking officer on the Saratoga. McQueen directly oversees the 58th, and acts as a father figure to them after losing his own squadron (the Angry Angels) in one of the first battles of the war, resulting in a condition that keeps him out of the fight through much of the series (“Hostile Visit” “Angriest Angel”).
The 58th Wild Cards are a tightly-knit and diverse bunch. In addition to the aforementioned Lt. West, we meet Lt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) a hard-bitten young woman who lost her parents years before in a deadly AI revolt by erratic, deadly humanoid androids known as “Silicates”. Her childhood trauma fuels her deep, personal loathing of the silicates (“Pilot” “Dark Side Of The Sun” “Choice Or Chance”). Vansen is also later unexpectedly promoted to captain (“Dear Earth”), right around the time she witnesses the birth of her niece via a shaky videophone connection.
The 58th also includes Lt. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente), a scrappy Chicago kid who likes Shakespeare, doing impressions of his commanding officer (“Hostile Visit”), and the Cubs. During the course of the show, Wang is captured by Silicates working for the Chigs, and is tortured into giving a ‘confession,’ much as real-life POWs of various wars are often forced to do on state television. Wang’s guilt for breaking under torture is ongoing (“Choice Or Chance” “Pearly”).
There is also Lt. Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman), a soft-spoken, sweet-natured, possibly psychic young woman (“Level of Necessity”) who has a family and a restauranteur boyfriend waiting for her back home (“Dear Earth”). She graduated from Caltech with highest honors in the hopes of being an engineer. Her engineering skills come in handy, particularly in the skillful operation of nuclear reactors (“Mutiny”).
The deck of Wild Cards is rounded out by another in-vitro named Lt. Hawkes Cooper (Rodney Rowland), a rebellious young ‘tank’ who comes to be a Marine after being sentenced by a judge to serve in the Corps for his many unlawful transgressions (“Pilot”). Cooper is an expert sharpshooter (“Who Monitors The Birds?”), but he is only six biological years old (and missed much formal training when he fled his conditioning center) he lacks the emotional sophistication of the other members of the 58th, or even his in-vitro commanding officer, McQueen (“R & R”). He and McQueen face an ongoing struggle to undo many of the prejudices surrounding tanks, namely that they’re both lazy and soulless (disparaging remarks often made to dehumanize nearly every race or ethnicity throughout human history).
It’s not surprising that in a series created by two of “The X-Files” core writers, Glen Morgan and James Wong, there would be a conspiracy or two afoot…
During the course of this show’s single season, we see the Wild Cards combat deadly Chigs, Silicates and, as if those weren’t enough, there is also the mysterious but powerful private space company Aerotech (today’s SpaceX on steroids), which financed the ill-fated Earth colonies but who also seems to have had advanced knowledge of the Chig’s sneak attack.
Aerotech is embodied in the untrustworthy executive Howard Sewell (Michael Mantell). Sadly, the series was cancelled before we could get to the core of Aerotech’s mysterious motives in withholding knowledge of the Chig prior to their attack.
We also learn that the Chig are not quite as ‘alien’ that they initially appear to be, either. In fact, they share common genetics with life on Earth.
The Chigs were created by panspermia; the very real process where genetic material is transported from one planetary body to another via meteorites created by impacts. In this case, the Chigs’ earliest amino acids hailed directly from Earth. This is revealed in the very last episode (“Tell Our Moms We Did Our Best”), when a sole Chig is unmasked and is revealed as a creature the Wild Cards mistook for a benign alien (“And If They Lay Us Down To Rest”).
SAAB’s balance of space war opera with intimate character drama would later be strongly echoed in Ronald D. Moore’s 2003-2009 reimagining of “Battlestar Galactica” (BSG). Like Moore’s edgier BSG (which came eight years later), “SAAB” was the very antithesis of the tidy, optimistic, future utopia envisioned in “Star Trek.” Both series would see space warfare in a much grittier, far less glamorous light than the fantasy precedent set in 1977 by “Star Wars.”
When Ron Moore decided to reinvent 1978’s campier “Battlestar Galactica” into a “Black Hawk Down” in space, one wonders if he might’ve been inspired (however unintentionally) by this lesser-known 1990s Fox space war saga that more or less accomplished the exact same thing.
Before my SAAB rewatch, I’d almost forgotten how much Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” (BSG) seemed to homage this series. The rogue AI “Silicates”, as well as the in-vitro “tanks”, were later merged into one race with BSG’s new humanoid Cylons. The low-tech gritty Marine carrier Saratoga would feel right at home in Galactica’s fleet. The 58th squadron themselves could easily be bunkmates with Lee Adama, Starbuck, Helo or Boomer.
BSG featured an episode (“You Can’t Go Home Again”) which saw a crashed Starbuck learning to fly a bio-mechanical Cylon fightership by crawling inside of its living guts to gain control of it. The first part of a two-part SAAB story (“Hostile Visit”) saw the Wild Cards learning to fly a very similar biomechanical Chig spacecraft, including a scene of the marines putting their bare arms deep inside of a living, stomach-like apparatus in order to pilot the Chig ship.
A traitor-in-our-midst story titled “Eyes” bears elements of BSG’s “Litmus” and “Colonial Day” (as well as “The Manchurian Candidate”; there’s even a “Blade Runner”-style Voigt-Kampff like polygraph test for in-vitros). SAAB’s “Never No More” is an overt “Red Baron”-story, with a rogue Chig fightership nicknamed “Chiggy Von Richthofen” (after the infamous WW1 German fighter pilot himself) which also bears much resemblance to the BSG episode “Scar.” Until recently, it’d been years since I’d seen some of these SAAB episodes, and I’d forgotten just how similar they were to their later BSG counterparts. In fairness, this might also be a result of inevitable lines that get crossed in attempting to do a variety of gritty, realistic war stories within a science fiction format.
War is Hell.
There are times when SAAB lays on the jingoism a bit thick (lots of hard salutes, many repetitive speeches about duty, sacrifice, honor, etc). But the series also balances this tendency by showing viewers the horrors of war, as well as its enduring traumas. Like the doctors and nurses of “MASH”, we feel the Marines’ angst at their separation from loved ones, or lack of loved ones, back home (“Dear Earth”). We also see them driven to sheer exhaustion, and even drug addiction, in an attempt to keep their energy up (“R & R”).
Our heroes often suffer survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder (“Stay With The Dead”), and devastating personal losses (“Toy Soldiers”). In fact, most of the Wild Cards (Damphousse, Vansen and Wang) wind up dead by the end of the season (“Tell Our Moms We Did Our Best”). The finale is one of the most shocking first season enders I’ve ever seen. Even if the show returned for a second year, it would (by necessity) have been almost entirely recast.
There was also an ongoing subplot dealing with Wang’s guilt for breaking under the torture administered by a sadistic Silicate in “Choice Or Chance” (he later meets this same Silicate in “Pearly”). In short, SAAB is NOT a recruitment poster for Trump’s future Space Force. In balance, the series is much more “All Quiet On The Western Front” than “Top Gun.”
Product Of Its Time.
While there are many dead giveaways of the series’ mid-1990s origins (early CGI effects work, bulky CRT TV monitors everywhere, dated hairstyles, cinematography, etc), the stories are still very solid, and arguably have more relevance today (post 9/11, the Afghani/Iraqi wars) than they ever did in the mid-1990s.
SAAB also featured a few surprising guest stars in that single season as well. “Full Metal Jacket”‘s memorable drill sergeant, the late R. Lee Ermy, homages that very role as a loudly barking Marine Corps instructor in the pilot.
The episode “R & R”, which takes place aboard a pleasure palace space station called “Bacchus”(a Las Vegas in Space) also featured rapper Coolio, as well as “X-Files” star David Duchovny (I see what you did there, Fox…). The episode is a rare break from the war, yet still manages to work in a subplot about the dangers of drug addiction, a condition which in-vitros like Cooper are especially susceptible. To the show’s credit, the message isn’t delivered in some typically cloying, condescending “just say no”-way, either (take that, “Diff’rent Strokes”).
While not a big name guest star per se, actor Steve Rankin has a very memorable guest starring role as the angry, hostile, less-than-forthcoming Lt. Colonel Raymond Thomas Butts in the appropriately (and somewhat unfortunately) titled episode, “Ray Butts.” A rare one-man show where the series regulars are taken along for the ride (literally) like guest stars in their own series. This is not to disparage the series’ regulars, but Rankin is so nasty and memorable in the role that he pulls the rug out from under everybody. His character gets a glorious sendoff as he’s swallowed up by a quantum singularity while playing Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” in his cockpit.
SAAB will probably never see a future Blu Ray release, since its CGI effects (while quite advanced for 1995) were rendered entirely in standard definition format, and would have to be entirely remade for a 1080p or 4K release. The cost alone would be very prohibitive, especially for such a relatively (and undeservedly) obscure TV series. A genuine shame… this series truly deserves better, especially with its 25th anniversary approaching. However, the DVD set is readily available on Amazon or eBay. A good story is a good story… whether you read it as an e-book, paperback or collector’s hardback, right?
With the current and apparently ceaseless barrage of remakes, reboots and resurrections, this is one space franchise that deserves a second look, or perhaps a sequel miniseries set in the same universe. I could easily imagine surviving Wild Cards Nathan West and Hawkes Cooper commanding a new group of recruits, with their past traumas informing their current judgments, much as we saw with their own commanding officer, Col. McQueen.
With ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) wars in the Middle East and future conflicts always looming, perhaps we civilians need a healthy reality check, even in our science fiction, to remind us of the cost.
Special thanks to spaceaboveandbeyond.org for their terrific library of screencaps; https://gallery.spaceaboveandbeyond.org/index.php?cat=2