by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
In a week when the President of the United States is telling the nation that he intends to send American troops to Bosnia, the question posed throughout the two part “Space: Above and Beyond” which concluded Sunday night acquires an unintentional immediacy: who are you willing to die for? McQueen asks it of West, Hawkes asks it of Vansen and McQueen, and Elroy El asks it of WangPaul (excuse me, Paul Wang). It’s a question more easily answered when survival is at stake, as it is in “Hostile Visit” (by Payton Webb) and “Choice or Chance” (Doc Johnson), but still valid when all it involves are “vital interests”.
A lucky break delivers an enemy warship into the hands of the 58th just as war fever is ebbing both on the Saratoga and at home. To boost morale, McQueen (James Morrison) proposes taking the ship into Chig territory to strike directly at the enemy’s heart, a la Jimmy Doolittle in the bombing of Tokyo. He must argue not only with the Commodore (Tucker Smallwood) but with the mysterious Sewell–a soft-spoken, mild mannered and very secretive agent of AeroTech Corporation, who wants to disassemble the vessel and study it. McQueen prevails, however, and asks for volunteers for what will probably be a suicide mission. Naturally, all the Wild Cards volunteer. The next step is to figure out how to fly the darn thing, and while they are still puzzling this one out, they learn that their launch window is closing and they must launch before they are ready. Although they manage to get through enemy lines, they fail to bomb their target and are shot down. Part II, “Choice or Chance”, begins with McQueen and Hawkes escaping the wreckage as the rest are taken prisoner by AIs working with the enemy. Separated, tortured, and deceived, each of the young lieutenants faces a crisis of conscience as well as the possibility of death.
Dramatically, “Hostile Visit” is a weak opening to this story. After the first few thrilling minutes, we are treated to a lot of sonorous speeches but little real action. The pace drags until the last few minutes, when the 58th embarks on the mission–and then the pace seems rushed. Payton Webb and Director Thomas Wright needed to integrate the “character development” storyline more completely with the action sequences. We learn about character in drama through what they do, not what they say. Which is not a knock at the wonderful poetry suffusing this story. Vansen’s monologue on autumn was particularly nice. However, I just went cold when McQueen read a kamikaze poem from the Second World War. I was born long after that war ended, but I am not ready to elevate suicide bombers into the ranks of heroes to be emulated. A more appropriate selection might have been from the works of warrior poets like Sir Philip Sydney or Siegfried Sassoon. All in all, there was just too much of it. After the first few scenes where characters stand and recite at one another, I started to get restless. And while I stand second to none in my admiration of James Morrison’s delivery (as a longtime Doors fan, I get goosebumps when a guy named James Morrison recites poetry in a voice like that), not even his commanding baritone can redeem lines like “It’s a good day to die”. Puh-leeze. The kind of sensitive and poetic writing we have seen heretofore in this series is darned hard to pull off, and when forced it sounds contrived and self-conscious. Less is more, particularly in poetry quotations.
The second half, “Choice or Chance”, is superior in terms of pacing and content. Doc Johnson gives the moral questions center stage, and adds a layer of complexity to the story. Kristen Cloke and Lanei Chapman did a very good job of showing the bond between Vansen and Damphousse. Their bickering and their teamwork worked well over the subtext of female bonding. Morgan Weisser is showing us a more solid, more mature Nathan West in the last few weeks. Adding humor to his character opens him up wonderfully; I about died laughing when he was inserting his hand into the alien control valve and said, “If I feel anything like a prostate, I’m outta here.” West has been, at times, a too-serious, joyless prig, and a sprinkling of humor humanizes him very effectively.
Doug Hutchison, as Elroy El, creates an indelible character as the seductively demonic torturer. He reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor–seemingly so reasonable, so cultured, so sympathetic. With a really bad scalp condition and a voice that would charm a nun out of her chastity vows, he personifies the torturer who uses not only pain but psychology to break his victims, setting up a love/hate relationship wherein the victim comes to depend on, and eventually identify with, his tormentor. It is clear by the time Lt. Wang says, “I feel shame” that Elroy El has carved his initials in Wang’s soul, if not his hide. It’s a bravura performance, equaled only by Joel de la Fuente’s Lt. Wang, who goes from self-confident cockiness in “Hostile Visit” (with his hilarious satire on McQueen) to the haunted, broken man who returns to the Saratoga a hundred years older than when he left it.
Wang has been emerging slowly from the background in the last few weeks, as we learn that his sardonic wit covers a scarred heart, hurt by an impoverished childhood. I liked the touches of vulnerability de la Fuente brought to Wang: his honest approach to a young and pretty lieutenant (Melissa Bowen) the raw anguish in his eyes when he stood unarmed in the AI/Marine crossfire, hoping to die. It was especially pitiful watching Wang clutch at the shreds of his self, with no greater bulwark to put his back against than a Cubs “dream team”. Of course he broke–he has no interior resources to fall back on. My congratulations to de la Fuente for a fine characterization.
However, top honors still go to James Morrison, who will surely retire the trophy. His scenes with the estimable Tucker Smallwood (whose Commander Ross always gives me the urge to salute something) were some of the high points of this story arc. Whoever put a guitar into Commodore Ross’ hands is a genius, and the addition of smoky blues to an otherwise pedestrian soundtrack was inspired. Morrison’s remark about tanks knowing so little about love because they get few opportunities to either get it or give it really underscored the misery of this unhappy man; I’m a sucker for this sort of pathos.
I loved McQueen in combat. Tough, competent, the essence of macho, he completely obliterated everyone else onscreen by his presence. Military men with this level of charisma have changed the course of nations: Julius Caesar and Napoleon come to mind. The scene where McQueen takes out an AI sentry and uses its motherboard to signal the Saratoga was a revelation: for some reason, McQueen was on the verge of a smile throughout, even when telling Hawkes about being tortured during the AI wars. Perhaps he was just happy to get back in the field.
The direction in these episodes was a little confusing at times, particularly in “Choice or Chance”. As in “Eyes”, Felix Alcala can put some perplexing images onscreen: there were scenes in the second episode so dark I frankly could not make out what was going on. A sense of confusion is one thing, but complete bewilderment is another. However, most of the time the imagery was as good as we have come to expect from “Space”; the computer graphics were believable and the effects realistic. Although we take these things for granted, it should still be noted that without them, this story would have died. The Chig ship, in particular, although poorly lit, was intriguing.
Nobody had to die in this story, but some values got clarified. We are now more reassured that the Nathan West who hared off on a private rescue mission earlier this year is now cognizant of his responsibilities, and is willing to fight for, perhaps die for, his sisters and brothers of the 58th. Vansen showed a little jealousy, of a healthy kind, when she acknowledged the matrix of friends and family that Damphousse has, and she does not–Vansen admits by her actions that she misses those things, as much as she would miss autumn. McQueen fights, and is willing to die for, the dignity of in-vitros and their place in society. And Lt. Wang, I suspect, will be willing to die for a chance to redeem himself in his own eyes, and restore his good name to himself.
Which leaves us with Cooper Hawkes. Since “Mutiny”, I have been looking for that wonderful young man who took a brave step into manhood when he bent to inevitable necessity and said good-bye to his sister. Where did he go? So far we have had a duped assassin, a video games master, a bewildered child, and a half-grown cub tagging along at McQueen’s heels. Hawkes is fading in and out of focus for me; I hope some density can be brought to this character soon. I like Rodney Rowland’s work, and I think he needs more challenge in this role. Some moments, notably Hawkes’ childlike wonder (“It spooged me!” “Cool!”) are enchanting; other times he seems so lost I wonder if he wandered into the wrong story.
And one more thing I liked–I was glad to see, in the scene where the 58th learns how to start the ship, that Mulder and Scully’s flashlights survive into the 21st century. All in all, this arc had a weak beginning, a sluggish middle, and a dynamite ending. Characterizations were good overall, and the writing, although tending towards purple prose from time to time, was exciting and vital. The story suffered, however, from some mediocre directing and plain bad lighting. For the sake of Elroy El, Lt. Wang, and McQueen alone, however, it rates four guitar picks out of five.