Space: Above and Beyond: “Dark Side of the Sun”

This Band of Brothers

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall

Go tell them at Athens, you who pass by,

That here obedient to her laws we lie.

–Simonides (480 BC)

from the epitaph for the 100 Spartans at Thermopylae


For a thousand generations, the story of the one hundred Spartans who died to the last man at the battle of Thermopylae in the fifth century BC has served as a model of military heroism. “Obedient to her laws”, the Spartans followed orders and held the pass long enough for the Greeks to rally their forces against the invading Persians. Their faithfulness to their mission cost them their lives and saved the Greeks. While following orders is not, in and of itself, an heroic act, the voluntary subjugation of one’s own will to the survival of the group is. The soldier follows orders not because a distant general is brandishing his authority, but because the welfare of the larger group–the army, the nation, the race–depends on his doing so. This tradition is honored because it has worked from Roman times to Desert Storm. To flaunt it is not just foolish but traitorous, and to be asked to identify sympathetically with a “hero” who abandons the ancient and time-honored principle of self-sacrifice is dishonest.

In Sunday’s episode, the 58th Squadron is ordered on a mission to secure and guard a strategically vital mine producing materials necessary to the success of the war effort. Naturally, our hero Nathan West objects and has to have the importance of this mission explained to him in words of one syllable. When McQueen appoints Shane Vansen the leader of the mission (now there is an interesting new military tradition), she reluctantly accepts even though she feels apprehensive. McQueen gives her an eloquent and effective buck-em-up speech in a few terse lines. The squadron arrive at their destination after an encounter with an indeterminate object that may or may not be an enemy vessel, in a firefight in which video game technology is realistically and capably incorporated into the battle strategy. Unnerved by the absence of the miners, the squadron begins their patrol and are surprised by a band of AIs, the artificial intelligences (‘droids by any other name) who are still at war with human beings.

Vansen, troubled by nightmares about the deaths of her Marine Corps officer parents at the hands of AIs, cuts loose on a personal mission to track down and interrogate an AI. Apparently all of these beings are part of a group mind, with each unit knowing what all the others know, so that no information is lost. Therefore any AI will be able to play back the incident in which her parents are killed. Vansen succeeds in cornering an AI and essentially beating a confession out of him, in which she discovers that the AIs flipped a coin to see which house they would attack–and her family lost. Fortune, not strategy, determined her parents’ death. There is a fine moment when the AI plays back the scene, and Vansen hears her mother’s voice again. The idea of the AIs sharing memories, the group mind, is intriguing, and makes the creatures potentially more dangerous to humans than the aliens. But one central question overshadows all these considerations: what the hell does Shane think she is doing?

She is committed to a blood feud, on a mission of revenge. She thinks she wants answers, she thinks she wants justice, but that is a transparent device: her parents died because they were military officers who fell into enemy hands. Why do their deaths puzzle her? So the tracking down of the “story” behind her parents’ deaths is no story at all–what do we learn that we did not already guess for ourselves? That the AIs like to gamble? This introduction of a supposed ‘take a chance’ mentality to the AIs does not work. It is poorly thought out. The risk-taking mentality cannot simply be implanted like a chip. And the gambling motif is not well illustrated anyway. When the chief “silicate”, played by Kimberly Patton, agrees to a gambling showdown with Hawkes, we are reminded of the gripping sequence in “The Deer Hunter” where Michael (Robert DeNiro) ups the ante in a game of Russian roulette in a VietCong concentration camp, and turns it into a brilliant escape attempt. But Hawkes fails–he stands on a sixteen against the dealer’s nine (which is contrary to basic Blackjack strategy) and loses. His death is forestalled only by the arrival of Vansen and West. These guys are luckier thanĀ Chance Harper.

“Dark Side of the Sun” is the third episode in “Space: Above and Beyond” in which a member of the band of “heroes” who form the core of this series has flouted not only orders but common sense in pursuit of some personal agenda. As I said last week, to disobey a military order in the service of a higher goal can be excused, at least for dramatic purposes. But there is NO excuse for abandoning one’s comrades to die a slow, choking death in an airless trap, as Shane Vansen does in tonight’s episode, merely to satisfy her personal vendetta against the AIs. I might almost have been willing to accept her rogue behavior if she had undergone some epiphany in the end, in which she realized how wrong her behavior was. Not only did she not learn a lesson in self-sacrifice, she compounded her error by going against Nathan’s advice and blowing an ore freighter out of the sky.

Once again we get great art design, high production values, and some pretty good acting out of the ensemble players. I continue to admire Kristen Cloke’s excellent Shane Vansen, and James Morrison’s McQueen is taut, authoritative, and solid. He is a dynamite character. The writing continues to show heart and character, and to promise a great deal in the way of fine storytelling. There is no reason a military theme cannot be matched to great writing–poets from Homer to Shakespeare have made reputations on it. However, one must also be true to the traditions of storytelling: believable motivations, coherent plot, and intelligent structure. I kept asking, ‘What’s the story here? Shane? What is she looking for? Information or revenge?” Pretty lights and fine words cannot hide the corruption at the heart of this story–that one’s personal needs take precedence over the survival of the group. This is rankest anarchy, and makes fools not only of the characters but those of us who so deeply desire that this show succeed. It cannot do this if it devolves into Melrose Space.

“Space: Above and Beyond” has the potential to revive a nearly dead genre: the military drama. “JAG” is basically a whodunit on salt water; “Space” can be “Twelve O’Clock High” in hard vacuum. All the ingredients for a great epic are here: young, eager heroes, a do-or-die mission, the icy vastness of space, highlighting the claustrophobia of spaceships and space stations. Morgan and Wong are well able to give us stories with great moral and spiritual depth—their episodes for “The X-Files” proved that with “Beyond the Sea” and “One Breath“. I therefore am pleading that this show start getting its feet under it very, very soon. We need heroes we can identify with. We need believable military behavior. We need plots that do not depend every week on someone’s personal emotional crisis. The history of drama is replete with heroic epics that thrilled and entertained without involving the hero’s private angst, that uplifted us or brought us to tears through the sacrifice of the hero or the hard-won battle. I want to believe in “Space: Above and Beyond”, but after this episode it is getting harder all the time.

I rate this one at one hammerhead out of five.