Space: Above and Beyond: “River of Stars”

The River of Stars

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall

“The River of Stars”, the Christmas offering from “Space: Above and Beyond”, is hopelessly sentimental, awash in emotionalism, and framed in predictability. I loved every minute of it. The key to enjoyment of this show is to disengage the cerebral cortex and just throw your heart in gear. Morgan and Wong’s dramatic leanings are towards melodrama, not documentary, so the question in any episode of their series is not “Is the action/dialogue/computer graphics authentic?” but “Are the emotions on target?”. The inclusion of cliches like a star in the East and angelic guardians can kill a show built on this basis, but originality can lift if back out of the mire. “River of Stars” strings together well worn elements of other Christmas-themed shows, but its commitment to the truth of the characterizations, out of whom all drama flows, keeps it squarely on target. It pushes emotional buttons, rather obvious ones, but it does so honestly.

The 58th Squadron is knocked out of action and into a wild, out-of-control spin during a furious dogfight with the Chigs. Out of fuel, crippled, and mute, their craft tumbles toward enemy territory as the Saratoga, for the second episode in a row, gives them up for dead. But this time, Colonel McQueen stubbornly refuses to give up hope, and badgers the Commodore into authorizing a (very small) search-and-rescue mission. Over the next forty minutes, the 58th battles cold, fear, and a comet on a collision course as McQueen searches for them in the endless night of space. What better metaphor could there be for Hope, than McQueen’s broadcasts to empty space, confident that “his people”, by a miracle, are listening? And the void answers him, sending a mysterious code that leads McQueen’s search party to the 58th’s broken ship in time to rescue them.

Writer and story editor Marilyn Osborne skillfully wove some significant character development into this miracle play–Wang confronting his own skepticism as a way to work past his self-loathing, Hawkes’ search for understanding of the “Christmas spirit” in a hail of contradictory “explanations”, out of which he instinctively picks the true interpretation. Osborne set up the last “party” scene beautifully; I was laughing hard at the image of the Wild Cards drinking Aqua Velva.

Director Tucker Gates got in some lovely touches–McQueen counting the incoming ships, his final tally a fist against the stars; the marvelous “spin-out” on the personnel carrier; the icy atmosphere of the cooling ship. And not much in recent weeks can match the delight with which I greeted Ty McQueen’s relieved smile.

Joel de la Fuente dominated the acting this time around. I loved the way he balanced the despair and anguish of the guilt-ridden Paul Wang against the hope embodied in his little gestures, like crossing himself before a mission. His mad grin and tipsy “Hey-y-y-y!” at the Christmas party underscore the fact that Wang is a man who wants to be happy, who is not naturally a brooder like Hawkes, whose current bouts of depression and cynicism are a reaction to the inner turmoil set in motion in “Choice or Chance”.

And ever since “Stay with the Dead”, Nathan West has been a new character for me. Morgan Weisser’s searing portrait of West last week was a watershed, opening so powerful an insight into the character that it now permits him to show us more of West’s deepening maturity with small gestures rather than major scenery chewing. West’s quiet withdrawal from the group to consider Christmas without Kylen, his sympathetic avowal of faith in Wang embodied in the present of the picture ID he has idolized for so long, and his big-brother clueing in of Hawkes at the Christmas party showed an older, wiser, and considerably more likeable Nathan West than we saw a couple of months ago. If this character development was planned by Morgan and Wong, it is a master stroke. If not, or even if it is, bouquets are in order for Morgan Weisser for a highly professional and well sustained performance over the last few episodes.

Rodney Rowland continues to shift Hawkes between a fourteen year old boy and a man of his middle twenties. This again may be deliberate, keeping us off balance between the two sides of a person struggling to fit into an adult world with only a few years of actual adult experience. We get the ferocious warrior (“Bend over, Chiggie!”) and the social adolescent (“I gotta start remembering this stuff!”), a curious mix of boy and man. The killer with the heart of a child is hard to pull off, and it will be interesting to see how successful Rowland is during upcoming months. All in all, this was a good, solid adventure, whose resemblance to “Apollo 13” only enhanced the feeling of verisimilitude. No surprises, a couple of good laughs, some outstanding spacecraft sequences, a lullaby from the Commodore, and a smile from Top Cat McQueen–all wrapped up in khaki wrapping paper, just in time for Christmas. This episode gets a strong three ice-comets out of five.