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In the year 2063 mankind has started to reach out into the stars, lacking faster than light travel ships, the explorers are sent great distances via wormholes. After one hundred and fifty years of searching, man has concluded that he is alone and is the only form of intelligent life that the universe has given birth to. Alone in the night, mankind starts to establish colonies. Without warning a new race appears, the Chigs, who decimate man’s first colony and destroy a second colony ship whilst it is trying to land. With a full scale war in progress the Earth is reduced to throwing in its most inexperienced pilots to try and stop the tide of Chig victories, pilots like those of the 58th, the ‘Wildcards’...
Space Above and Beyond (SAAB), originally aired between 24 September 1995 - 02 June 1996. It was a single season, short lived, science fiction action show, with the basic premise of marines in space. The show was created by Glen Morgan and James Wong to be a grittier version of space than that presented in the often antiseptic Star Trek. The episodes are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio with a surround sound audio track. There are no subtitles. The picture is a little soft, but given the age of the show it has held up remarkably well.
Designed to be character based, the show followed the central characters through a truncated boot camp and into the war with the Chigs, the main adversary. The Chigs never name themselves and the title is attributed to them as a form of insult.
The initial central character was that of Nathen West (Morgan Weisser), originally he was to be a colonist, on the second ship, alongside his partner, Kylen Celina (Amanda Douge), but when he was made to give up his seat to an In vitro, Kylen’s ship is shot down and she is taken captive by the Chigs. Nathan's only opportunity to get into space to find her is to join the space marines.
Certain decisions, which were made at the start of the season, almost guaranteed its cancellation - the worst being the West and Celina story arc. Rightly or wrongly it would appear that certain elements are introduced to shows to appeal to specific demographics. Romance is often included to increase your female audience, whilst violence usually attracts the younger males. There is nothing wrong with romance in science fiction, the John Sheridan and Delenn story worked well in Babylon 5 (1993-1998) and Galactica (2004-2009) dipped in and out of most of its characters love lives.
The main difference why it worked in the latter two shows was that both parties were present on the screen, where they could interact. By having Nathan's love interest disappear before we have even got to the point of caring, left the show with little more than seemingly endless sequences of West looking forlorn, playing the one recording of her voice which he still has. This behaviour soon becomes tiresome, a point not lost on the show's makers, who half way through the show turned their attention to more interesting characters and had Celina rescued, ending the plot arc.
The first In Vitro that we meet is Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland). The In Vitroes are artificially created humans, bred in tanks; they are all born aged eighteen. Hawkes is, thankfully, no poor man’s Data, wishing to be human. Unlike Nathan Cooper he is drafted into the marines, to do exactly what he was bred for - to be cannon fodder. As this happens only a few years after his birth, Hawkes is mature in body, but still very much a resentful child in his mind. Over the course of the season his relationship with Nathan and their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Tyrus Cassius McQueen, also an In Vitro, help him to grow. The character of Hawkes and McQueen are also used to explore the recurring theme of racism.
With the character of Hawkes becoming increasingly irritating to audiences, the central attention shifted to Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke). Where Hawkes joins for love and Cooper is drafted, Vansen joins to follow in her parents military footsteps. She also joins out of anger following the murder of her parents by the Silicates, the artificial life forms which preceded the In Vitroes as humanity’s slave class. They rose up and revolted, killing any and all who stood in their way, stealing ships and disappearing into the stars. The creation of the Silicates would come back to haunt mankind when the form an alliance with the Chigs against Earth.
One of the more interesting characters in the 58th is Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) who starts his arc as the usual fish out of water, with a sunny disposition. This all changes when he is captured by Silicates and under torture films a confession accusing the Earth of war crimes. His rescues and journey back to recovery contains some of the most convincingly harrowing scenes in the show. The last member of the 58th is Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman), whilst, not exactly cannon fodder, they were disposed of in the pilot episode, the writers clearly struggled to find her a place in the various story arcs, which left her characters as the most ill-defined.
The show ran for a total of twenty-four, forty-five minute episodes; the pilot consisted of two episodes. These have been released in a six disc DVD set. When thinking of SAAB, I’m constantly flicking between by memories of the show and the picture in front of me.
For its time the CGI was more than adequate for television, the dog fights were well choreographed and there was a minimum of repetition in the shots, something which was a real problem with the original Battlestar Galactica (1978), they also compared fairly well with the contemporary Babylon 5 (B5), even though SAAB’s version of space was so desaturated of colour to be almost black and white. Today, however, my eyes have been rather spoiled; even so, the shots still look pretty good for their age. The overall look of the show is military functionalism, so the sets have lots of exposed ducting and tubes, more Nostromo, less Enterprise. They did build one full sized ‘Hammerhead’, the space fighter, which is used in external shots to very good effect.
Budgetary restriction did make the war appear less epic that it should. For the most part the greatest number of Chigs was usually six, against our five heroes. The show does what it can and certainly uses the space battle scenes to give the show greater depth, but there's still a feeling that there are not enough figures on screen to really get over that this is other than one small skirmish after another.
Disc one contains the first two episodes which make up the pilot (1 hr, 27 min) and the documentary Beyond and Back (1 hr, 14 min, 21 sec), which looks at the making of the show with contributions from all the cast and the most important crew members. It’s a fair balance between hard information and self-congratulations, for Wong and Morgan, a lot of the same information appears here as in the full length commentary. The documentary looks at the difficulties in making the show and a fairly honest appraisal of why it was cancelled.
Disc two contains the episodes two to six, The Furthest Man from Home, The Dark Side of the Sun (with full length commentary), Mutiny, Ray Butts and Eyes. By the second episode the show has placed the 58th on the carrier the USS Saratoga (one of the CGI effects which has aged the worse). The various story arcs have their genesis in these first stories, although there is also a little repetition in the set ups, so the first sees the 58th being sent out only to get into a battle; story two sees Nathan going AWOL in search of his girlfriend, only for the wildcard to follow him, thereby getting into a fight. Well, you get the idea. Silicates turn up in Dark Side and the value of the In Vitroes are brought to the fore, in Mutiny, when a captain wants to dump his cargo of In Vitroes to save his ship.
The last episode, Eyes, introduce the audience to the wider context of the war, when we discover that the authorities may have known the Chigs were out there before they sent out the colonists, with both Aero-Tech and the UN implicated. Aero-Tech starts to become a shadowy influence on many of the stories, many displaying ambivalence by Aero-tech about their motives, think Psi Corps and the Earth government in B5. Each story has a synopsis on the disc.
Disc three holds episodes seven to eleven, The Enemy, Hostile Visit, Choice or Chance, Stay with the Dead and The River of Stars. Although generally a mixed bag of episodes, Choice or Chance, where Wang is captured and broken by Silicates, is one of the better ones. River of Stars sees the show starting to fall back on stories which have been told before, as the 58th are stranded on a damaged APC and have to use a passing comet to get home. There are no commentary tracks on any of the episodes.
Disc four has episodes twelve to sixteen, Who Monitors the Birds? (with commentary), Level of Necessity, Never No More, The Angriest Angel (with commentary) and Toy Soldiers. Birds sees the show obviously taking stock of falling audience numbers and cranking up the story telling. It’s brave because there is almost no dialogue in the show except in a few flashbacks of Copper's time in the In Vitro training camp. Episode fourteen and fifteen have the gang go up against an alien ace, one Chiggy von Richthofen, which scores low for story, but high for action. The disc closes with an episode dealing with Nathan’s younger brother arriving on the Saratoga having volunteered for the war.
The penultimate disc has episodes seventeen to twenty-one, Dear Earth, Pearly, R&R, Stardust and Sugar Dirt. There are the usual run of war stories with the 58th getting to drive around in a tank, having a bit of a rest on a pleasure ship and finally finding themselves left in the real poo, when the Saratoga abandons them on a planet full of Chigs.
The last disc holds episodes twenty-two to twenty-three, And If They Lay Us Down To Rest and …Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best. The two strangely epitomise what was so great about the show and what was so wrong. The 58th are sent to a moon of the Chigs home world, where they encounter an alien guarding a nursery, going all mushy they decided to tell the alien about the planned attack, even though its air gills are in exactly the same position as the armoured Chig they encountered in the pilot episode, Doh! Somehow, even after all the repetition and some of their stupid character traits, the last episode remains very moving and stands as a good end to a series which was finally found its feet in the second half of the season.
The last disc also has a number of extras. Designs for a Future War (20 min, 31 sec) which looks at the design and effect of the show, Cast Publicity Interviews (14 min, 21 sec) is exactly what it sounds like, the quality is VHS and consists more of sound bites rather than any incisive analysis. There are five Deleted/Alternative Scenes, TV spots and three Photo Galleries, one for the Chigs, one for the Earth forces and one related to the episodes.
It may seem that I have been quite harsh about the show, but as a first season the initial hiccups were ironed out by the close and the show should have looked forward to a stronger, more focused second season, but sadly this was not to be, although, the gritty look of the show would go on to influence Galactica.