February 10th, 2007

Did it work?

Space: Above and Beyond? More Like Space: 1995!

In 1995, I began watching three shows, fell in love with all three, and managed to cancel them all with the sheer power of my love. The three shows were Space: Above and Beyond, American Gothic, and VR.5. While the last one is not available on DVD, the first two are, and I now own them for nostalgic value. I have just finished rewatching Space: Above and Beyond to see if it holds up.

It doesn't.

It was a fascinating and maddening experience to watch this series that my fourteen-year-old self was apparently quite fond of. Because now, over ten years later, I could identify so many of the elements of a great show that would have appealed to me. A diverse ensemble cast focusing on teamwork and The Family You Make for Yourself. Spaceships blowing each other up. Plot continuity, both subtle and arc-wise. A shady conspiracy. The occasional moral and ethical dilemma. Episodes spotlighting particular characters and illuminating their backstories. A tertiary character slowly being built up in importance until her moment comes.

But for some reason, the execution is off every time. You can see Glen Morgan and James Wong, veterans of my beloved X-Files, trying so hard to make a great show. The ambition is there, and I appreciate that, but it's almost embarrassing how badly it fails, sometimes.

Space: Above and Beyond tells the story of a ragtag group of pilots struggling for their survival in a war precipitated by an unprovoked massacre by a foreign race, but it's more of a militaristic human drama than a sci-fi show. Sound familiar? Yeah, let me tell you, watching this show made me appreciate how great Battlestar Galactica really is.

Around the time I decided Jake 2.0 had a great cast, I decided this show did not have a great cast, which was one problem. There are some standouts. Rod Rowland, who was one reason I thought it would be fun to watch the show, does deliver as Cooper Hawkes. He's entirely different from Liam Fitzpatrick, far more confused and vulnerable about being a black person an in vitro, an artificially created human. I also really liked Joel de la Fuentes as Lt. Wang, for some reason. I'm not sure why, but he was just very likable, even though his one character note of Sports Fan was annoying at times. James Morrison as Lt. McQueen is pretty much the reason to watch, as he's always on, even when the writing isn't up to par, which is most of the time. And Tucker Smallwood as Commodore Ross was similarly consistently good. But Morgan Weisser has zero charisma as the star of the show. Kristen Cloke feigns toughness, but it just never quite works. And Lanei Chapman isn't particularly bad, but she doesn't really bring anything to the table either. The actors all have good chemistry together, but they're not strong enough to overcome the bad writing. Of which there is much. Oh my God.

This may be the most heavy-handed show I have ever seen, which may be appropriate in a show where the ships are called Hammerheads. Key themes are repeated not once, not twice, but at least three times through the course of the episode. Parallels to our modern times are made painfully obvious. Sentiment is worn on sleeves. The music tells you what to feel. And characters have these great moments of supposed development...and return to normal in the next episode. There's almost no character continuity at all. Which I suppose makes it good that the show basically has no 'ships at all, either.

Another thing that bugged me was that a show set in 2063 kept making constant references to things in our century, as if they barely had any history of their own besides the A.I. War (the show has Silicates, which are basically Cylons in that they're artificially intelligent humanoid models). Basically every single fucking move they make is predicated on some military tactic in WWI or WWII. They magically import some "antique" music from our era as well, and I don't care how realistic it may be in the grand scheme of things, it just doesn't work. I know that, hey, we still talk about the damn Trojan Horse (and, hey, guess what: so does the show!), but it was just jarring to hear them talk about WWII heroes (or Laurence Olivier, or W.C. Fields, etc.) as if they were the only touchstone they had.

Also, it's tacky to complain about this in a show from 1995, but the CGI blows. It looks like something a ten-year-old made on his Amiga. (Yet, still better than the CGI in Gryphon.)

The last four episodes are undoubtedly the best, but by that I mean that the show makes the leap from mediocre to pretty decent. I did find myself becoming emotionally invested, which had only happened in a handful of other episodes. Maybe I retained such a fondness because the show went out strong. But, really, I was fourteen, and I didn't know any better.

It's just sad, really. The show could have been really good, but it's just...not. So, for the first time in the history of new show squee, I am not recommending you watch this show, though you are certainly welcome to if you wish, since it's not completely without merit. Did anyone else watch it back in the day? I wouldn't give it a rewatch unless you want your happy memories shattered.

I'm hoping American Gothic doesn't let me down. I don't think it will, as I have much stronger memories of it. I think it was ahead of its time. And, really, so was Space: Above and Beyond. It was trying to be Battlestar Galactica ten years too soon.