Space: Above and Beyond: “Mutiny”

The Pilgrim Soul

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall

I do not remember the last time I finished watching an episode of series television with tears in my eyes. The last five minutes of “Mutiny” are surely some of the most moving I have watched in a long time. A thread begun in the teaser, when a dying Marine calls for his wife, rises through themes of family, connection, and loyalty to culminate in a terrible sacrifice for Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland), making him, so far, the most heroic member of the 58th Squadron.

In “Mutiny”, Sunday’s episode of “Space: Above and Beyond”, writer Stephen Zito and director Stephen Cragg combine to bring us a story of real courage and real discovery, set in an episode of tightening anxiety and danger. Trapped in a lumbering cargo freighter, the 58th faces an enemy within and an enemy without. Their ship is under attack, the power is down, and the only way to get the weapons systems back on-line is to cut power to some of the hundreds of people suspended in cryogenic containers. Who chooses the sacrifice? The captain orders a cargo hold full of in-vitro units destroyed; the tank crew refuses and mounts a mutiny. Hawkes and Lt. Col. McQueen (James Morrison), caught in the middle, are torn by divided loyalties.

The motif running through this story, tying together the disparate characters and the inner and outer conflicts, is the question: what makes us human? Cooper Hawkes, only a few years out of the tanks, is a babe in the woods. Neither man nor child, he continually commits social gaffes that embarrass his companions, such as demanding to see the cargo manifests that list the in-vitros’ identities while he is sitting at the captain’s table. He cannot relate well to other people, especially non-tanks, and suffers their insults and prejudice with smoldering defiance (and I have to say that when Rodney Rowland smolders, my living room drapes start to smoke). Like a child, he must ask his “elders” for guidance in making emotional connections, as when he asks McQueen (who is writing a letter of condolence to a dead Marine’s family) if compassion is “in the regs”. He still doesn’t feel much kinship with non-tanks: “I don’t feel that stuff”, yet he is human enough to feel the lack of it. And always, he is haunted by the need to know what a family would be like. He needs to know where he came from before he can know who he is.

We are defined by our past, which places us in the matrix we move through in our lives. Without family to give us that past (ancestors, memories, stories about Grandma as a child, birthday parties, heirlooms to recall the dead who gave us life), we can have no context, no place, no anchor from which to cast a line to others. McQueen is dead wrong when he says, “Hunting for a past you never lived will only get you hurt.” Not hunting for it will keep Hawkes just shy of human for the rest of his life. Realizing this, he tells McQueen, “it’s part of being human.” McQueen can only retort, “Who said you were human?” Throughout the rest of the episode, we see Cooper Hawkes define for himself what every man must define for himself–what it is to be a man, and not a child.

Every scene with Hawkes and McQueen sizzles with suppressed energy. The sparks crackle between them as McQueen continually challenges Hawkes to commit his loyalty to the Corps, to the group, to the greater good. Hawkes is tugged in the other direction by the discovery that he has a sister in the Number 46 personnel hold, among the Unborn in-vitros held in suspension in the tanks. The underlying pain of the tanks’ existence is drawn out in brief but powerful scenes between Hawkes and the tank engineer, Keats (played by Calvin Levels in an earthy Kris Kristofferson growl), who sympathizes with Hawkes’ search because he’s been looking for his own genetic siblings for ten years. (I love it that he quotes the DNA sequence for black hair as the identifying clan tartan of his people.)

Where does Hawkes belong? Over and over in this episode we hear the catch-phrase, “your own people”. Who are his people? His father-figure colonel tells him it is the Corps. The other tanks claim him for their own. Somewhere in the shrouded depths of Bay 46 is someone who truly can claim to be “his people”. So when it comes to a life or death situation and his only sister’s life is on the line, Hawkes faces a grim decision. It is the same decision we have seen posed over and over again in the short life of this series: who do you commit to, the group or the individual? We have seen Nathan West desert the group on a personal quest, and seen Shane Vansen hare off on a personal hunt for her parents’ killers. But in “Mutiny”, Cooper Hawkes stays loyal to the greater group, and finally destroys his one hope of family. Hawkes becomes a human, and a man, when he tells McQueen, “There are no sides, Colonel, just right and wrong.” Although Shane Vansen tells Wang that “humans are only highly evolved animals”, she misses the point: any chimpanzee or wolf can be loyal to his own siblings, his own pack, but only humans can rise above intertribal loyalties to serve the greater, more abstract good. In taking responsibility for his own sister’s death in order that others might live, Hawkes steps into the burden and freedom of true humanity, a moral burden many members of his own team are not yet ready to bear. Even McQueen has never allowed himself enough vulnerability to risk what Hawkes risks. The final exchange between Hawkes and McQueen absolutely nails the difference between the two men:

Hawkes: “What would you know of sorrow?”

McQueen: “I never had the courage to look for my family, not because I was afraid of what I might find, but because I was afraid of what I might feel.”

What an abyss of despair is revealed by that confession. Morrison’s portrayal of McQueen continues to dominate this show. A coiled spring of a man, he plays McQueen as a slow-motion explosion, a banked fire of repression and contradiction that threatens to detonate–but never does. Like all good actors, Morrison reveals McQueen by what he suppresses. McQueen says, “I don’t know if there’s a hell, but if there is, I’ve been there.” Many actors could mangle that line into parody, but with Morrison’s megawatt glare behind it, it is bedrock believable.

Rodney Rowland invests the lanky Cooper Hawkes with what I can only call an innocent surliness, a haunted look that speaks of profound loneliness, pride and confusion. He is out of his depth among most humans, like a man in a foreign country who barely speaks the language. The humans share common experiences, memories, cultural norms that he can know only out of a book, not in the heart. He knows the tune but cannot dance, and is deeply ashamed to admit it. But when Rowland strips away the sullen mask from Hawkes in the final scene, with his whispered, heartbreaking “I’m sorry” to his dead sister, he shows us just how human Cooper Hawkes has become. In the pilot, Vansen asked him, “Have you ever lost someone close?” From now on, Hawkes can share the pain of losing a loved one, a sorrow McQueen does not know but which many humans, including his bunkmates, do.

The rest of the 58th Squadron did not exactly linger in the shadows in “Mutiny”. Kristen Cloke’s earthy Shane Vansen reveals the core of bitterness lying at the heart of the tough little fighter, and Lania Chapman showed us a cool and serenely competent Damphousse, steady and reliable. Joel de la Fuentes added humor and warmth to Lt. Paul Wang, whose “space-net” romance makes him the target not only of Vansen’s teasing but of her poetry (okay, Yeats’ poetry). I was glad to see him give as good as he got when she starts in on him: “Is that a question or a confession?” For all Vansen’s brash assertiveness, Wang is the one with a deep connection to someone outside himself, and like Damphousse it gives him an anchor that steadies him. Is is coincidence that, so far, only Damphousse and Wang have had enough connection to the rest of humanity to never breach orders?

Not all was perfect in this episode. I continue to see technical problems that could have been avoided with minimal research. For example, it is pointless to go to the trouble and expense of shipping living humans (or tanks) to a “plutonium” mine, when the ship has a light water reactor right on board: just raise a couple more rods and cook that uranium into plutonium. McQueen twice calls for the helmsman to give a hard right rudder, as if they were steering a ship. Would he not call for thrusters instead? I swear I saw an ambulance from the M*A*S*H 4077th in the background in the teaser. The football jokes were fun, but they are becoming a cliche (Dan Faust again?).

Mistakes like this can put the final nail in the coffin of a bad episode, but in a good one they are merely annoyances to be shrugged off. They are easily dismissed when compared to scenes like the fire in the generator room, when Hawkes defiantly walks into live steam to show a bigot what real manhood is, by risking his life for another. The final ship battle sequence was beautifully set up, with good visuals and pacing. The claustrophobic miles of piping, the cramped bridge, and the cold gray impersonality of the cargo bays pointed up the isolation and interdependence of tanks and humans, Marine and civilian in the hostile environment they faced. I loved the barge-like cargo ship slogging into a halo of double suns in Blood Alley.

But most of all, I keep coming back to that final, haunting image, of Hawkes taking a last look at the sister he has found and then forfeited. Maybe his buddies will never know about his sister. Maybe Hawkes will never be this close to another human being again. He knew what he risked, and he made his choice. He is man enough to do it, and man enough to mourn it. That scene will haunt me for a long, long time.

I wish Zito had finished the poem Vansen quoted to Wang:

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

(W.B.Yeats, “When You Are Old”)

This episode gets a crowd of stars–five out of five.