What is “Space: Above and Beyond”?
You *could* be forgiven if you had never heard of Space: Above and Beyond (AKA “Space: 2063") given its limited run back on FOX stations back 1995-1996 and reruns on SyFy Channel. Created by two X-Files veterans, James Wong and Glen Morgan, the show was envisioned as a throwback to World War II combat dramas, classic Military SF books like The Forever War, and classic WWII books that had the 21st-century space-based conflict rooted in the grim realities of war. At the time, it was one of the most expensive shows on network TV, with episodes costing between $1.5 and $2.4 million. The one-season show took place in 2063-2064 detailing the actions and lives of the 58th space aviator squadron, the “Wild Cards”, of the US Marine Corps during the Chig War.
Making the case for Space
There are the core six characters of SAAB that all of the action revolves around and while the showrunners original envisioned Lt. Nathan West’s quest to find his girlfriend that was taken by the Chigs, abut ll of the cast grew to make SAAB richer and much more compelling. All of them are written as real people with strengths, weaknesses, vices, and virtues that all add to the richness of the show. I grew to love the 58th and when the show ended and some died, I took it personally. While many of the other runners-up to the title of best MSF show have compelling and beloved characters, they are more sci-fi cardboard when compared to SAAB or BSG…maybe it’s because our flaws make our fictional characters more true and relatable than others that are too perfect and polished.
Many, even at the time, pointed out that casting and writing brought out the best in the material and the world of 2063/2064. It was also a show that allowed their characters to be three dimensional that can be seen in Col. McQueen and Cpt. Shane Vansen. McQueen is a true warrior was created to fight for natural-born in the AI Rebellion, and he struggled with the loss of family and bitter racism before being reborn into an elite space marine pilot of the 126th. Just when you think you know McQueen, you discover another side. That was the case with Vansen, who appears to be a more typical wounded tough chick trope character...but then you discover her love of pool and just everything packed into the episode "Never No More".
Realistic War in Space
Just taking a sample of SAAB episodes allows you to see the hard reality that the 58th and the rest of the cast live under. during the war The war in space is brutal with Earth losing for the first six months against a truly alien enemy. However, it is not all bullets and funerals, there are poker games with colorful drinks that are designed to distance yourself from the next mission briefing. Above it all, you have your buddies that watch your six as you watch theirs. I was impressed by the other touches of projecting the realities of war in outer space that drawn from common issues expressed by soldiers since the Roman Legions: bad food, the quest for good toilet paper, trying to keep up with Football and events back home, good luck charms, and Christmas far away. This made the show just that more human and real in a way that most other MSF shows save for maybe BSG, could not replicate. This came from the frame-of-reference that Glen Morgan and James Wong were using to create the mood of the war in 2063/2064 via the actual historical account of war and noted military science fiction literature. It also helps that the creators used the war in the Pacific as a template for the Chig War.
The Mystery of the Chigs and AeroTech
A mystery is an important component in any fiction setting, especially in sci-fi. I can still remember the mystery of Borg, the shadowy motivations of the conspiracy in the X-Files, the Fremen, what the ship at the bottom of the ocean was in Sphere. Given the X-Files DNA in Space: Above and Beyond along with being on the same network, there were several mysteries built into the central story and even some characters. The two largest were the megacorporation of AeroTech’s motivations for starting a war between the Chigs and the Earth along with just who the hell the Chigs were. These were nice additions to the standard science fiction model and it made SAAB just that richer when the payoff came, which was pretty good. It was also cool when Millennium used AeroTech as well and connected them to Operation: ODESSA.
Real Honest Emotions and Actions
While I am a reformed Trekkie, I would be lying to you if I thought that the majority of Star Trek characters were remotely realistic or even honest in their emotions/humanity most of the time. When those more real moments came in Trek, they are often compelling, especially when it is Captain Picard (seriously how great of an actor is Patrick Steward?). SAAB was packed with humans being humans, and it made the emotional impact just that much more real than most other sci-fi stories. While there were spaceships, FLT, and alien worlds, when Shane brutally stabs a AI soldiers with her combat knife over and over for the truth of why her parents were murdered, that is the real meat of the series. Most of us would do the same thing and that reflects the honest motivations and actions of the characters. As Colonel McQueen asks: “Who Am I”? And that is the most human of all questions, especially a soldier during wartime.
A Breed Apart from Trek and Wars
At the time of SAAB’s television run, Star Trek dominated the airwaves and other networks were building shows to capitalize on the sci-fi trend and even news was leaking about a big screen adaptation of Starship Troopers. For most sci-fi fans, they framed SAAB under the Trek and Wars perspective and SAAB was not them nor was it designed to be so. The studio wanted a cross between the X-Files and Top Gun, and Morgan and Wong packaged SAAB to appeal to parts of this request. The show was nothing like any sci-fi on at the time, even X-Files, and it made the THREE Trek shows seem totally lacking and stiff and to me, SAAB was just a breed apart and compelling as hell when the gritty portrayal of a future war that is fought in the alien mud.
The 2063/2064 World of SAAB
The Impact of SAAB
It's About the Soldiers, not the Captain, the Tech, or the Ship
The 2003 Battlestar Galactica Series
Deep Space 9
That are those that claim that DS9 is the best Trek show, and they could be right, but others have claimed it is the best Military SF show…and they are wrong. While DS9 broke all kinds of new ground when came to Trek, it was lacking in its ability to showcase a military sci-fi storyline. While DS9 dealt with a brief Klingon War and the bloody Dominion War, Trek seemed unable to bring a reality to the war and the involvement of the Wormhole aliens was just too much along with Sisko’s breakdown. I grew tired of the storyline and the drama has been sucked out. While it was a brave attempt, it failed to live up to the promise. I decided to compare several episodes of DS9 and several of SAAB…and there was no real comparison. The cardboard characters of DS9, the shallow emotion impact of the combat, and the “reality” of life during wartime all pale in comparison to SAAB. I never felt it, never believe it, and while some scenes were cool, especially for Trek, it could not equal what SAAB was laying down and it seems hollow. To me, Enterprise did a much better job of a “Trek War” scenario than DS9 with the Xindi story arch.
Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis
The longest-running and most successful military science fiction TV show of all time is undoubtedly Stargate SG-1 and it has been told me over and over again that it is the best MSF television show. I’ll be honest here, I’ve never seen much of SG-1 until the invasion of the Ori and I have never been a big fan of the original 1994 film. While I respect SG-1 and have liked some of the episodes I’ve seen, it is not serious enough in tone for the title of best live-action military sci-fi television show. One of the elements I respect the most is how they took the best pieces of the film and used them to establish a new universe of SG-1 that was much better than the original film, which is very rare in TV shows based on films.
One of the measures of that success was that SG-1 forged a loyal fan (Gaters) base that was every bit as dedicated as Trekkies and that cannot be dismissed. I’m a little odd in that I watched much more of Atlantis than SG-1, and I’m a bigger fan of the Atlantis than SG-1 due to the setting, the core characters, and stories...maybe not the Wraith space vampires though. Much like my take on why SG-1 does not rank above BSG or SAAB, Atlantis is just too similar to SG-1 for Atlantis to achieve breakaway velocity for its parent work to be more than a runner-up in itself.
If SAAB Was So Great Then Why was it Cancelled?!
Every runner-up TV show that was under consideration for the Award of "Best of Military SF television show" had one major advantage over SAAB: they ran for more than one season and that begs the question: if SAAB was so great, than why was it canceled? Time and money is the simplestlist answer to that question. FOX was hoping to replicate the mega-success of the X-Files and take advantage of the popularity of sci-fi TV with a series of shows and FOX is not patience especially with shows costing them a ton of money show. FOX had wrapped a great of these collective hopes and goals into SAAB. The television and sci-fi press did a number of articles on the show and there was positive feedback from the critics, the fans, and some good ratings…but it was not to the level that FOX needed to justify the cost. To their credit, FOX pour a great deal of money in SAAB and the show looked great, but FOX crippled the show by fitting it into the post-Football Sunday night time slot.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH SAAB
This show came at a critical time in my life. 1995-1996 were turbulent years and I can say that SAAB got me through some of those trying times. During my last year in high school, I was enrolled part-time in college at the same time, taking Jeet Kune Do, working at MacDonald’s, and watching my father’s business implode along with parents’ relationship. Science fiction and my friends got me through these events, and I credit the realistic nature of SAAB of helping. At the time of SAAB’s run, I also became involved with a co-worker going into the Army, and she was just as brassy and ballsy as Vansen.
Being aware of the show since the teaser trailers on FOX during the X-Files, I could not wait to see the fulfillment of what “Space: Above and Beyond” was. Within the first two episodes, I was hooked and I became my favorite show of that time. I would re-watch the episodes over and over, rapidly becoming a major influence on my life and writing. I fully understand that this influence has colored my view of the show and its impact, but I cannot choose anything else than SAAB for the best live-action military science fiction TV show. I still watch the series from time-to-time on the basic DVD boxset and each time, I am drawn back into the world of the Chig War and the 58th. Always faithful, my friends.
Next Time on FWS...
-FWS Own Forgotten Classics Blogpost:
-Beyond the Bitter End:
-Space: 2063 Ready Room