Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Space: Above and Beyond”

Dear Frank,

space above and beyond posterEvery once in a while, there’s the occasional question of how much longer the LTFWHI project can be sustained — we’re coming up on three years now, Frank, and well over 150 entries. (Not to mention two books!) That’s an awful lot of telling, right there.

But before this blog ever turns in its gun and badge, there are certain frontiers we have yet to explore. Certain things I have promised to tell you about that you should never be denied. Space: Above and Beyond is one of them.

Frank, as we’ve long since established, if you were a science fiction show made in the 1990s, I at least watched one or two episodes of you. And if you aired on Fox, I probably watched the full damn season you were allowed to air before getting canceled.

Pile on top of all that the fact that Space: Above and Beyond was created by X-Files producers Glen Morgan and James Wong, and I was SIGNED UP. Attractive young space marines dogfighting aliens in space? SOUNDS GOOD TO ME.

Cut to over 15 years later, 15 years which have left my brain very very fuzzy on the details. Fortunately, my good buddy Jay just so happens to own the complete series on DVD. So let’s see what the pilot has in store for us!

First off: We have some attractive young space marines-to-be to meet! Based primarily on screen time, the closest thing to a main character is this guy Nathan. (It’s easy to remember his name — he just… LOOKS like a Nathan, you know? I don’t know what it is about Nathans, but they’re just so… Nathan-y.)

Nathan’s supposed to be going on a civilian space expedition with this pretty blond girlfriend, and they are very excited about it! Oh, pretty blond girlfriend, your tentative martyrdom is so tragically imminent.

Now let’s meet Rodney Rowland, AKA the only one of our hot-shot pilots-to-be to really do anything after this show, who’s being chased by a gang that literally attempts to lynch him for being a “tank” — an artificially conceived human. In the year 2063, it seems, we have apparently cured racism by substituting it with hating “nipple-necks” (their navels are located on the back of their necks). Way to go, us!

Nathan (ugh, Nathan) joins the ranks of the tank-haters when he gets bumped from his space expedition to make room for one of the afore-mentioned tanks, because of politics or whatever. His girlfriend has to go to space without him. It’s sad! And Nathan’s really whiny about it!

Oh, and there’s a lot of backstory talk about “the A.I. wars,” during which apparently humanity had to fight robots. The robots killed the family of this pouty brunette pilot-to-be named Shane Vansen, which is a name I wanted to type just to see if I could do it with a straight face.

(I did not succeed. SHANE VANSEN.)

Anyways, after about 20 minutes of setting up backstory for the white people on this show, our attractive, young, ethnically diverse and mixed gender space marines-to-be finally hop the bus to basic training.

 This screenshot is from later in the episode, but I think it does a nice job of visually representing how the two minority series regulars are treated in comparison to their white co-stars.

This screenshot is from later in the episode, but it does a nice job of visually representing how the two minority series regulars are treated in comparison to their white co-stars.

Waiting for them at basic is R. Lee Emery (yes, the real drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket — “spared no expense”), who shouts a lot and makes the attractive young people do push-ups. This scene is so rote that it almost doesn’t exist; it is like a black hole of screen time. Everyone is very good at doing push-ups, though.

All the cliches of basic training — the unit struggling to work together, bar fights in the base saloon, more R. Lee Emery shouting — are covered relatively quickly to make time for the announcement that the mission that Nathan’s girlfriend is on got blown up by aliens. “We are at war!” R. Lee Emery shouts! Nathan is mad about his girlfriend! Oh, Nathan.

War, for our attractive young space marines, turns out to mean a training mission to Mars to check on a rover or something; there, they encounter one of the evil aliens, who gets in at least one kill before being captured.

There is this HILARIOUS scene where the attractive young space marines debate giving the alien some water — Nathan, who pretty much hates everything, says no, but overly-empathetic Damphousse (the token black lady who is a series regular but doesn’t really get to be a character for a few more episodes yet) waits for Nathan to storm out, then decides to jam some water inside the alien’s exosuit.

The result of her humane gesture? The alien chokes to death on the water, gushing green slime. AAHAHAHAAHA.



Training mission over, the attractive young space marines head back to Earth, where there’s a lull while the most elite space marine unit takes on the aliens — and of course are slaughtered. So now it’s up to the plucky attractive young space marine rookies!

And they totally don’t die! PEW PEW PEW! “GO RED LEADER!” “HOO-RAH!” Way to go, guys!

The aliens get fought off briefly, the attractive young space marines graduate from space marine school, just in time to fight a whole bunch more war! A whole season’s worth! (Well, apparently it was supposed to be five seasons, but you can’t always get what you want.)

It’s not really fair to make fun of S:AAB for its cliches, as the whole point was to emulate the jingoistic dogfighting movies of yesteryear. Also, the problem with being vaguely ahead of its time is that everything which comes afterwards (and arguably improves dramatically on the formula) will make the original feel like a copycat but backwards.

Would something as excellent as Battlestar Galactica exist without S:AAB? Maybe, maybe not. But every little thing helps move the football forward.

It’s also not really fair to make fun of the show’s visual effects, because it was the year 1995 — okay, well, maybe let’s make a little fun:

It's really hard to capture how bad this CGI is with just one screenshot, but suffice it to say that it makes "Babylon 5" look good.

It’s really hard to capture how bad this CGI is with just one screenshot, but suffice it to say that it makes “Babylon 5” look good.

Oh, 1995. You did your best.

Life is short and 23 episodes is a lot of episodes, Frank. But I did watch two other episodes after watching the pilot, Frank. One was “Ray Butts,” an early-season episode that I wanted to watch mostly because of its ending, which I remember quite well — a surreal combination of Johnny Cash, CGI pancakes and a black hole that weirdly held up. (I mean, the CGI pancakes looked terrible, but that’s S:AAB for you.)

The other episode I watched was episode 19, “R&R,” and NO, Frank, not JUST because David Duchovny has an uncredited cameo as a sexy pool-playing robot, and not JUST because Coolio (It’s the year 1995! Coolio!) plays “The Host,” and not JUST because everyone goes and parties on Space Vegas for 48 hours, but because I always love it when people in uniforms get out of their uniforms and wear fancy clothes, and the episode is an interesting look at the long-term effects of battle stress on a unit.

Okay, also, David Duchovny has an uncredited cameo as a sexy pool-playing robot.

David Duchovny's monotone has gotten a lot less monotone over the years, but that doesn't make his casting as a sexy pool-playing robot any less funny.

David Duchovny’s monotone has gotten a lot less monotone over the years, but that doesn’t make his casting as a sexy pool-playing robot any less funny.

So I only took a limited sample of the series, but S:AAB‘s charms have not diminished for me over the years — even when Nathan’s being a real Nathan.

Sure, it’s very much a product of its time, but its time was a fascinating period for television, full of bold experiments that would give birth to arguably better television. In short, the sort of stuff I enjoy telling you about, Frank. Which is why there’s still plenty of life left in this blog.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on August 20, 2013, in Some Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I loved that show. I was heartbroken when it was cancelled, but delighted to see those actors pop up in episodes of ‘the X-Files’, or in Final Destination, or more recently, ‘Hemlock Grove’. Which you should cover, even though I know you said you couldn’t be paid to watch it.

    • Good point — I’m pretty sure EVERYONE from S:AAB ended up on X-Files eventually. And I remain unconvinced on the Hemlock Grove front, but will bear it in mind. 🙂

      • I’m not saying it’s good…I’m not saying it’s good. But! It’s so weird and unpredictable/predictable that I think you’d get a really great entry out of it. I wish I had watched it with someone so I could’ve shared my open-mouthed confusion/wtf-ness.

  2. S:AAB was a truly great sci-fi drama that was scuttled by the vagueries of corporate TV …. By a network that seemed to not know how to handle a hit show! History repeated itself about a decade later when the same corporate nitwits screwed up and cancelled what was arguably one of the most unique sci-fi shows to ever come along; “Firefly” which became an even larger cult-hit than S:AAB!!!! It makes one wonder how the Fox TV Network manages to survive, plodding along without any intelligent leadership!

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