Space: Above and Beyond: “Who Monitors the Birds?”

Hawkes’ Eye View

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1996 by Sarah Stegall

Sometimes the simplest tales are the most revealing. In Friday night’s episode of “Space: Above and Beyond”, no complicated plots are needed to tell a beautiful, simple and elegant story about war and maturity and faith. The latest story from Morgan and Wong, “Who Monitors the Birds?”, is an artistic and technical tour de force, which uses itsĀ lackĀ of dialogue to allow the inarticulate and taciturn Cooper Hawkes to express the most fundamental facets of his personality. We cannot expect long-winded speeches from this man, but his few words are usually very telling. This entire episode is built around one phrase, the title line which in four short words signals Hawkes’ rebellion, curiosity, hope, and longing.

Cooper Hawkes, sentenced to service in the military by a judge, is offered an early honorable discharge in return for his participation in a military mission with little hope of success. Chosen for his expert marksmanship, he is forbidden to tell the rest of his squadron, the only people he cares about, what his mission is or even that he has one. He and one other operative are set down on Tigris, a Chig-held planet, with orders to assassinate a top officer in the enemy ranks and get out alive. The extreme danger of his situation is brought forcefully home to viewers by the silence (even the music is minimized) in which most of the episode is conducted–the slightest whisper could give away his position to the patrols hunting him and his partner, who is soon killed, leaving Hawkes alone and far from his extraction point. Forced to rely on his wit and instinct, Hawkes finds himself reliving his decanting at age eighteen in the in-vitro facilities, his education in the Orwellian institution under the tutelage of fascist “monitors”, and his last-ditch escape from the facility when they attempt to kill him, fearing his assertiveness and independence of mind.

Hawkes also finds himself hallucinating a lovely and terrifying vision of Death, who appears in the guise of the woman to whom he is deeply drawn, Shane Vansen. It is psychologically right that the sexually naive Hawkes, with the emotional experience of a child in the body of a full grown man, would comfort himself in a zero hour with the image of the woman he longs for in so many ways. In their final scene, she wrestles with him as Jacob wrestled with the angel, and likewise throws him to the ground. She promises, with lips bearing the scars of stitches, that they will meet again. The mixing of fear and desire in this vision is a wonderful and poetic touch, exactly the kind of deep metaphor we have come to expect of Morgan and Wong.

The other important metaphor is birds. Not only does a lone, soaring bird seen through the bars of his “training facility” speak to the pilgrim soul in Hawkes, but a flying reptile on Tigris provides an opportunity for Hawkes to share, albeit unknowingly, a common moment with an alien enemy as they admire the natural beauty of the world they are fighting over. From the bird whose freedom first ignites an echo in him, to the Hammerhead he flies, to the flapping dinosaur he recognizes, perhaps even to his own name, Hawkes is tied to the concepts of liberty and solitude iconized by birds.

From that moment on, Hawkes begins to break out of the killing-machine mold he has been forced into, eventually attempting a tentative truce with a Chig soldier whom he surprises. On the point of knifing him, Hawkes hesitates when the Chig makes one of the few truly universal human gestures — palm out, a plea to wait. Cautiously the two of them exchange tokens of cease-fire, if not friendship, and go their separate ways. When Hawkes later accidentally kills his new acquaintance, his despair and remorse triggers his last vision of Death, mocking his efforts to achieve some kind of peace in the midst of all this violence.

I commend not only Morgan and Wong, but director Winrich Kolbe, for keeping the story line clear and consistent while relying only on Rodney Rowland’s expression, the lonely sound of wind, or the dark landscape through which he struggles to tell this tale. I toss bouquets of roses to Rodney Rowland for an outstanding piece of work, a performance which never slipped or faltered. Born as a despised, rootless thing, named by strangers and raised without love, it is a wonder that this man has not become a suicide or a psychotic. There must be a warm heart indeed underneath that exterior, to have kept him from the cold of sociopathy all these years. Rowland showed us the innocence, pathos, courage and faith at the heart of Cooper Hawkes. Body language was his only means of communication throughout the episode, and he carried it off well. His poignant last look at the sleeping Shane Vansen was a real heartbreaker.

Some elements were confusing or distracting: I was aware at almost every battle scene that this was, if not Malibu Canyon, some place very like it. There seemed to be an inordinate number of nighttime explosions, and one or two vital story elements just did not come through: did Hawkes accomplish his mission or not? The stiffness of the opening recitation was a little jarring, especially segueing as it did into the marvelous double moon reflection on the surface of the pond, an image which brackets the episode. The guitar riff signature for the Death Crone was a little jarring, but somehow worked. And the use of the sound of wind to underscore Hawkes’ isolation was quite effective. All in all, this retelling of the oldest war story of all–the soldier who wants to get home–was a fine fable done with style and distinction. I give it five camo sticks out of five.