by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall
“Space: Above and Beyond” has clearly gotten its feet under it at last. Sunday’s episode, “Ray Butts”, was some fine television: intense, dramatic, and soulful. Morgan and Wong got a good cure on this batch, with the right blend of character development, action, and visuals. Charles Martin Smith shows a fine hand at directing, too, getting top notch performances out of all the major players on this episode. A lone and crippled ship is picked up by the Saratoga, the 58th Squadron’s home ship. Overriding the ship’s security systems, it docks and unloads its occupant, the cynical, obnoxious and possibly deranged Colonel Ray Butts. After antagonizing not only McQueen but the 58th with his insults and his “tests”, he reveals his secret orders allowing him to take the 58th away from McQueen on a secret mission deep in enemy territory. The rest of the hour follows their mission and the revelation of Butts’ true objectives behind the Chig lines.
The dialogue was crisp and military, the visuals engaging and believable, and the story line develops well. Military stories are usually straight-ahead combat sequences interspersed with reflective pauses, with few twists and turns. Morgan and Wong incorporated a couple of twists very neatly into the story while maintaining the integrity of the main story, the response of the 58th to a new and unpopular commander. We learn that Butts is more human than he first allows, and that there is a very human and very passionate reason behind his arrogant actions. About five minutes after we meet Ray Butts, I was thinking, “This guy’s gonna get fragged.” But by the end of the tale we have learned a lot about Ray Butts, war, and leadership from a complicated and very courageous man.
I cannot say enough about the acting in this episode. James Morrison somehow manages to top himself every week as the tightly wound but deeply emotional McQueen. Steve Rankin, playing the maverick Colonel Butts, was by turns irritating, smug, and sympathetic. We got to see more depth in characters we are less familiar with, such as Wang and Damphousse. Lanei Chapman, as always, gives us a cool and cultured Damphy; so when Colonel Butts irritates the unflappable Lt. Damphousse, I know he’s in real trouble. Joel de la Fuentes shot some real sparks in the Shakespeare video scene: not many jarheads harbor a love of the Scottish play, certainly not enough to stand up to a senior officer and tell him off.
And I cannot praise too highly the high caliber of the writing in “Ray Butts”. Often, the kind of speechmaking the characters engage in here, such as the graveside speech of Colonel Butts, is stagy and out of place. Not here; it was appropriate and poetic. Morgan and Wong show their skill once again in letting the little details tell us more than the big speeches: the seemingly inapt Johnny Cash soundtrack acquires real poignancy when we learn why Butts is so attached to it. The pancakes floating out into space were a superb final tribute, a quiet little salute to a departed hero. We got some realistic military dialogue in this episode, from the bridge to the training session to the parachute drop. Real military dialogue is virtually unintelligible to the uninitiated, with its shorthand, its acronyms, and its jargon. Morgan and Wong struck a nice balance: enough to let us understand and enough to help us believe in this scenario.
The black hole sequence, with the distorted soundtrack as time bounced back on itself, the blurring of the light lines, and the final disintegration of the ship (which will go on forever) caught me up in the horror and awe of a lonely, unimaginable end. The graphics continue to amaze and delight me. I did find the paint-ball training sequence a little weird, perhaps a little clumsy; there could have been other ways to show Butts testing his “recruits” than having sight gags with cooks. But the bridge sequences, the debriefing between Butts and McQueen, and the final self-sacrifice of Butts, where he redeems his guilt at leaving his men by saving the 58th, all made for a tight, well-crafted story and a hell of a good show.
Somehow the great stories always get the shortest reviews. How many times can I say, “Excellent”? This one gets five pancakes out of five, with extra syrup for the final image of the floating pancakes.