12 March 2018

The Masterworks: the Best of Military Science Fiction (TV)- SPACE: ABOVE and BEYOND (1995-1996)

During the 1990's, science fiction was increasingly popular on the American small screen and each major network (there were four at the time) was developing science fiction shows to feed the trend throughout the 1990's. The titan of sci-fi TV was Star Trek, but rapidly, FOX was catching up with the X-Files, Sliders, and Millennium. Then in 1995, FOX would green-light the military sci-fi plot from X-Files alumnus James Wong and Glen Morgan. That show, Space: Above and Beyond (SAAB) would only last one season out of a planned three to five seasons, but its impact would endure for years onward. We can see the DNA of SAAB, in HALO, BSG, and even my own writings. For this and many reasons that I will explore and explain why FWS has awarded the title of Best Military Science Fiction Television show to Space: Above and Beyond.

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.
The primary base-of-operations of the 58th was the US Navy space carrier, the Saratoga and they were under the command of Colonel T.C. McQueen. The show embraced an “X-Files” air framed with current USMC culture that did not avoid the tough topics associated with war, coupled with then cutting-edge CGI SFX. Over the course of the 24 episodes, we saw the 58th fight on ground across many exo-planets with various atmospheres and in the cockpits of the SA-43 Hammerhead endo/exo attack jets, along with piloting the ISSAPC tactical transports. As the war deepened and alter, so did the core characters with lasting impact for what happened to them. While some attempts were made to save the show, it was too little, too late causing SAAB not to be renewed for the second season and many of us to wonder about the cliffhanger. In 2005, a barebones DVD boxset was released with an expanded international DVD set being released in 2012 for Region 2 with a documentary.

Making the case for Space

The Characters
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
World building is one of the key most elements in science fiction and while SAAB had a rough time establishing some elements of their world, like FTL, the reason for the In-Vitros, and the lack of international military units; it was good once it gelled together. The use of classic Country & Western music, modern clothing, set design, classic literature, and pulling stories from military history was a masterstroke. The way all of these elements fit together to form a flavorful world of 2063/2064, even in the armored hull of the Space Carrier Saratoga, is just so organic and good that it impresses me each time to the point that I used it has an example for my own military sci-fi writing.

The Impact of SAAB
There was nothing like SAAB before it came onto the airwaves in 1995 and it became a primary inspiration for other science fiction works like HALO: Combat Evolved and the 2003 Reimaged Battlestar Galactica along with a number of creators in the genre. Often impact is due to the mastery of a work to inspirit others, and SAAB has been an influence to creators in vast ways along with being an example of how good military science fiction can be.

It's About the Soldiers, not the Captain, the Tech, or the Ship
Quite often the primary cast of characters in a science fiction show are the senior staff of the starship or space station with some characters from the local hangouts of the main characters thrown in. This followed up by the ship or space station has a primary character as well along with some sort of technical issue or some android searching for its inner humanity being a foundational element. These factors can muddy the waters of showing a future war in deep space and SAAB thankfully did not make this mistake. SAAB is not about the Saratoga space nuclear carrier, the space attack jets, or the senior staff of the 'Toga, but the Marines of the 58th squadron, who were just one of a dozen squadrons onboard the American warship. While the commander of the vessel was featured along with some important senior-level civilian and military personnel they were not the heart of the show, that belonged to the 58th was along with Colonel McQueen. Military organizations are vast entities with millions of people involved and all of them have stories to tell of their time in service and heroic deeds they did during times of war and peace. We only see hints of these service personnel in a few episodes of Trek like "Lower Decks".

The Runnings-Up

The 2003 Battlestar Galactica Series
There are many that would challenge SAAB’s award and importance with the 2003 masterful reboot of the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica, and I have to say that I nearly awarded Ronald D. Moore’s BSG with the title. Give the impact, production value, acting, scope, and compelling narrative; it was a hard choice. However, while the show is firmly centered on the Colonial military in all aspects and the Galactica, in some ways, the war between the 12 Colonies and the Cylons was over the moment the show began.
There are some rich space combat sequences that are some of the finest in military sci-fi, the show itself is about redemption, what it means to be human, the duality of being human, loyalty, and the forces at work behind the scenes in the universe. The show is brutal in tone and nearly unforgiving until the end. Unlike many, I actually really like the ending and respect the choice made by the survivors and the writers. When compared to SAAB, which was an influence on BSG, the show’s metaphysical aspects overrun the survivor’s tale and the quest for Earth and the internal drama of the characters spill over time and time again. It is so damn close to being the very best live-action military sci-fi show that it is nearly a shadow to SAAB.     

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.

Babylon 5
If there was a second runner-up to BSG, it would be B5. During my high school days and early college, I watched B5 from season 2 onwards and I loved it. While the other space station 90s sci-fi show, DS9 had superior special effects, bigger budget, and the name Trek behind it, B5 just outdid them when it came to showing war in space and having more charm and heart. There were many episodes that were solid sci-fi TV with true emotions and compelling events. When the show switches from the Shadow War and moves to the B5 crew attempting to liberate the Earth Alliance from Clark, there were some damn fine moments that have stayed with me. The TNT funded TV movie “In the Beginning” is the best military science fiction TV-movie by far and it is damn good television whatever the budget. However, they are not all stellar episodes, and when B5 wasn’t good, it was damn cheesy with plenty of unpolished elements. When comparing it to SAAB, it just cannot overcome that show and it is why it is a runner-up. 

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.
This TV night is known by many as the “graveyard” of timeslots and the bleed over from longer-running games caused the targeted audience to go elsewhere for their sci-fi entertainment. I was forced to tape SAAB on my VHS due to often working at MacDonald’s on Sunday nights due to my college schedule and often football would run over into my precious show and I would miss about a quarter of SAAB and FOX did not re-air the episodes to make up for the cut-ins. Seriously, I did not see the show complete until I bought the DVD set in 2005!
Adding to this was that some TV markets did not even air the episode or moved it around, losing even more fans because they simply could not find it. Given that this was the mid-90s, the internet could not overcome the jumping around of SAAB, causing the audience to not find their show, despite the positive reaction to sci-fi fans online. So, FOX gives a bad timeslot for much of the run of SAAB for the show die in and then couple the low rating with the massive expense of the show ($1.5-$2.4 million). FOX was displeased with their Space-Top-Gun- meets-the X-Files show not performing to the same level and it looked like the hangman’s noose for SAAB by March of 1996. Still, it wasn’t clear to the production that they would not be renewed, causing the cliffhanger never to be resolved at the time of filming.
For the last five episodes of SAAB, FOX switched the show from its 7pm timeslot to Fridays as a lead-in to the X-Files to evaluated if the show should be renewed or not. However, only two episodes were aired at the new timeslot and the last two episodes of the entire series were oddly switched, without notice or promotion, to Saturday evenings. It seems that FOX made the go-no-go call within those two episodes. There were rumors that the Sci-Fi Channel was eyeballing SAAB for themselves, but nothing came of it, and the show disappeared into the mists of time. There have been other rumors that Ronald D. Moore originally pitched to the SyFy Channel a rebooted of Space: Above and Beyond along with his vision of rebooted BSG and BSG got the call for a pilot.

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...
From much of early years of life, I wanted nothing more badly than to be an astronaut. I would have done nearly anything to be on a shuttle mission and it was a hard day when I realized in 4th grade that my math skills would never allow me to journey into space...never fully recovered from that childhood trauma. Being a social studies teacher and a lover of space, I very much enjoy the history of space flight and exploration including some conspiracy theories associated. So, next time we will be exploring 20 military space oddities and mysteries that are drawn from real history and conspiracy theories.












LINKS:

-FWS Own Forgotten Classics Blogpost:
http://futurewarstories.blogspot.com/2010/11/forgotten-classics-space-above-and.html

-Beyond the Bitter End:
http://spaceaboveandbeyond.tv/

-Space: 2063 Ready Room
http://www.space-readyroom.de/index_frame.html




8 comments:

  1. Yes, but...

    When SAAB came out, it was in direct competition with Babylon 5, and the latter won the rating wars. It didn't help that Fox did what they did too, but that's Fox for you.

    Secondly, the science was atrocious, and SAAB was called out on dehydrated water, as an example. I cringe every time I see a scene with packets labelled "dehydrated" water.

    Third, I liked the characters, but they're either pilots or grunts, not both. Another aspect that the show was called out on.

    But as always, a great piece. Keep up the good work.

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  2. Well to be honest I don't think DS9 was a war show it always crossed me as a western in space not a military show. Star Trek was written by a guy who though socialism was awesome, the military and money was the cause of all evil.

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    1. It was meant as Barbary Coast in space. The two seasons of wartime didn't really jive with the rest of the show.

      B5 did the Casablanca in Space far more explicitly and skillfully. War and conflict baked into its existence. It also helped that B5 had a long term narrative planned from the outset.

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  3. I never watched SAAB because of the title. I didn't see any detail about it, but I knew a show was coming out called "Space: Above and Beyond," which was just such a cheesy title that it was obviously going to be some stupid Lost in Space dreck or such. Oh, I think I had the vague idea that it was space cadets (literally)--learning to be pilots, having ridiculous adventures, and so on.

    Maybe you can explain if the title actually has some meaning. It sure didn't have any poetry. I mean, "The X-Files" just *sounded* mysterious. SAAB didn't tell me what the show was about *at all*, except that it was science fiction-related.

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  4. I remember when it came out, my family was really into the X-Files. Once they saw what it was, my parents weren't interested, but I watched it. I also bought the DVD set, it really is a good show.

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  5. Watched SAAB as a kid and was a big fan of the show.

    Some story elements haven't aged well over the years (the foot soldier/pilot thing mentioned above) and has plenty of 90's cheese (Episode 18, Pearly: I wont ask why the British guy is still wearing that stupid cap but did he need to shout "Tally Ho" five times? He's British, we get it)

    Still, a very well made show with most of the short sighted flaws being attributed to the time it was made (yes, typing that makes me feel old) The characters are very likable, the designs of the ships and Hammerhead fighters are still very sharp looking and the combat scenes hold up allot better than many other TV shows then and now.

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    1. My money for best episode of the series is "Sugar Dirt". A homage to the Guadalcanal campaign explicitly stated in the opening of the episode and referenced by McQueen diagetically.

      It is the only episode which gives an excuse why pilots are acting like ground pounders (their spacecraft were destroyed on the runway) It also plays up the need for ritual to keep unit cohesion and the hand wringing of commanders who are forced to sacrifice troops for strategic objectives.

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  6. Ah SAAB, you were one of my more anticipated Sunday shows back in my childhood. I don't recall all the events of all the episodes but I do recall watching most, if not all of those episodes. The initial pilot, the In-Vitro befriending and then accidentally killing a Chig comrade while on a solo mission behind enemy lines, the Pancake cowboy guy who got sucked into a black hole and the wild cards paying tribute to him by throwing the aforementioned dish out into space, Chiggy von Richthofen and the duel with the Colonel, not to mention the reveal of the Chig origins and that cliffhanger ending, they all stuck to me even after all these years and especially my (apparent) ill-fortuned task of finding that DVD Boxset for my own enjoyment and ownership. Wasn't too much of an X-Files fan since, well, even "Are you Afraid of the Dark?" freaked me out back then, yet alone that series. Heck, I don't even recall myself actively knowing that it had ties with X-Files or Millenium, only that it was a Sci-Fi war.

    And for Chits 'n' Things question about the title. It took me years and a few documentaries but the title "Above and Beyond" refers to when a soldier, marine, sailor or similar has performed above and beyond the call of duty that it was worthy of a medal, in particular the Congressional Metal of Honor. And since the show is basically about marines in space, the title makes sense since a good chunk of the characters have done above and beyond the call of duty during a mission just to simply survive. Well, at least that's my take.

    While we're on the subject of 90s nostalgia at hand, anyone else want to take a stab at the old children's sci-fi show "Hypernauts?" Never saw beyond the first season myself before it was cancelled.

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