by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
Fox could not have picked worse timing for a show about a diplomatic peace initiative cut short by an assassination. Of course they didn’t know Yitzak Rabin would be shot the day before they aired “Eyes”, but it still lent a certain undertone to my appreciation of it that was unintended. “Eyes” is the most overtly political episode of “Space: Above and Beyond” to date, and touches on some really hot buttons. Loyalty, betrayal, and commitment are all appropriate themes for a war show, but the legacy of both Vietnam and the Gulf War flavor this take on militarism. We are once again given hints of a dark conspiracy behind the conduct of the war–high officials are concealing some guilty secret that affects the outcome of the war. The 58th, like most people, resent being asked to die for a hidden agenda, and find themselves torn between their loyalty to their country (planet? solar system? the boundaries of their fealty are as yet poorly defined) and their self interest. This was not the kind of problem our fathers faced in Europe and Asia in the Forties, and places “Space: Above and Beyond” squarely in the realm of modern warfare. In this, it succeeds in reaching an audience better than “Star Wars”, which was based on war stories a generation old and already superseded by modern technology and strategy.
When a diplomat is assassinated before an important conference, the Saratoga takes on overtones of “Babylon 5” as it becomes the site of a hastily called meeting to determine the new leader. Hostile factions represented by secessionist France (whoa! anyone here from Quebec?) in the person of Ambassador Chaput (George Delhoyo) and by Ambassador Hayden (Harriet Harris) of the United States jockey for the allegiance of various members of the ship’s crew while intruding their political powerplays into the lives of the 58th Squadron. McQueen and Hawkes are targets of a pogrom being conducted against tanks, forcing them to submit to humiliating “loyalty tests”. I remember loyalty oaths from junior high school, and the concept does not improve with age. During the commercial breaks, I wanted to go dig out my old peace sign.
Writers Morgan and Wong (genuflection) dig into some still smoldering memories of the Second World War and the Cold War for this one. The references to the Gestapo and the KGB were clear, from the witch-hunts with lie detectors (eye detectors? these things remind anyone else of “Blade Runner”?) to the modified swastika design on Chaput’s party button. But the real fathers of the political purge are not Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering but Josef Stalin and Joseph McCarthy, who force us to incriminate ourselves. The tactic is by now well known: silence implies guilt. McQueen’s courageous refusal to answer an outrageous question is a risky move; back in the Fifties, refusal to answer Joe McCarthy’s Inquisition could get you a jail term. Who knows what the stakes are for McQueen in the 21st Century?
One of the best characters to pop up on Space so far is Ambassador Hayden. Her defense of the American Indians massacring settlers was as good an apologia as I have heard from anyone, and her speech lauding McQueen’s sacrifice of his own dignity for a higher cause was outstanding. I am going to start collecting these speeches. The ambiguity of this character–did she stage her own assassination attempt or not, and is she behind the plot to kill Chaput?–keeps us off balance. I want to like her as a champion of tank rights, but I don’t trust her. What a perfect picture of a politician. I hope to see this character again. She lends real depth to the behind-the-scenes manipulations of this war. And even as Hayden’s characterization is in shades of grey rather than black and white, so McQueen the martyr to human rights caves in and takes the loyalty test as soon as he suspects something may have happened to Hawkes. Hawkes’ behavior is erratic at best, so maybe it takes another tank to know when he is behaving oddly and when he is not. Nevertheless, the chilling moment when Hawkes’ speaks words clearly not his own, and McQueen recognizes brainwashing when it stands before him, is very well done. McQueen’s most human feature is his fierce loyalty to his people, and it was so well played here I wondered for a moment if Hawkes was being used to set up McQueen by playing on his faith.
We got some really satisfying moments in this episode: McQueen reminding Vansen in no uncertain terms that she is to obey orders, West arresting the conspirator who tried to suborn him, West confronting the woman whose life he saved and demanding to know the truth about the government’s involvement with aliens prior to the war. That final scene, where West trades a meaningless medal for a chance to ask an honest question, the ambassador fumbling in her shock as she turns away without answering, is pure gold. Commodore Ross (Tucker Smallwood) made my day: I haven’t had as much fun watching a man throw a creep out of his office (or off his ship) since Walter Skinner threw the Cigarette-Smoking Man out of his office on “The X-Files” a year ago.
Some of Felix Alcala’s direction in the action sequences was unclear: I was almost convinced that Lt. Cwrko was not in the Hammerhead that blew up. The exposition via TV soundbites at the beginning was a little forced. Also, I find it hard to believe that a flagship the size of the Saratoga would not have at least one red carpet to roll out for diplomats, visiting admirals, and your odd USO tour now and then. The presence of Felicity AI (Kimberly Patton) was unclear and confusing. The heavy-handed irony in having a black man (Commodore Ross) enforce apartheid on his own ship was a tad much.
I’d like to put in a word about characterization: I am getting all confused about Shane Vansen. She seemed the epitome of level-headed common sense in the pilot, and in several episodes since, but last night she almost threatened a mutiny to the Commodore’s very face. Also, Hawkes seems to have gotten younger in the last week–what’s with the constant video gaming? He acts like a teenager, and last week he was acting like a man. Finally, I would very much like to see more of Damphousse and Wang, please. Lanei Chapman’s portrayal of the delicate and refined Damphousse intrigues me, and I’m still trying to figure out why Lt. Wang joined the marines instead of winning a university scholarship or two. These two are the least fully developed characters on the series, and I would like to find out more about them.
Overall, this was a good, solid episode with some really memorable speechifying–nothing brilliant in terms of plot, but a heckuva good story with enough mystery to keep me intrigued. I give it four shiny new medals out of five