Fleet Week heads to space

Fleet Week wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t show some love for those magnificent bastards in the United States Marine Corps. For today’s installment, we depart from the high seas and leap ahead to the future for a battle beyond the stars. During the early and mid-’90s, there was spate of high concept science-fiction shows on broadcast television, likely capitalizing on the popularity of Star Trek: The Next Generation. One of the more grounded and harder-edged programs from that era was the short lived Fox series Space: Above & Beyond. The show was cancelled after only one season, lost to history save for a small but passionate number of devotees. However, there are fascinating concepts, exhilarating action, and a true respect for the Corps and military service packed within its 23 episodes that should be remembered.

Above & Beyond begins its story in the year 2063, when a deadly and mysterious alien force attacks intergalactic travelers from Earth on their newly colonized planet. The “Chigs” – dubbed so by the humans because of their resemblance to chiggers, the parasitic mites- overpower and decimate the fleets of Earth defense ships sent their way, the ongoing battles leaving the human race in dire straits. The show focuses on the Marines of the fictional 58th Squadron, “The Wildcards”, a crew of young fighter pilots aboard the space-faring aircraft carrier USS Saratoga thrown into a baptism by fire. The squadron quickly becomes battle hardened veterans in the cold black of outer-space combat and the blood shed via boots on the ground combat in their planet-hopping expeditions.

The show is filled to the brim with the tropes of classic war movies: inexperienced young officers facing tests of leadership, soldiers in  hopeless situations facing a crisis of loyalty, hard-nosed commanding officers facing impossible decisions that risk thousands of lives, war crimes and the use of torture or other nefarious means to achieve victory, and the camaraderie and brotherhood forged in the fires of combat. Though the first few episodes feel somewhat rough and derivative, the show picks up its stride during its later episodes with increasingly poignant ruminations on the nature of war.

The show also established a healthy amount of lore and world building, using its futuristic setting to address grander thematic territory beyond a typical war story. It is established that prior to the alien attack, the people of earth were engaged in a war with Silicates, AI android servant-soldiers of their own making that gained sentience and rebelled against their makers. To counter this insurrection, scientists instead turned their efforts towards the creation of artificially gestated human clone soldiers known as In Vitroes. As the plot unfolds, it is learned that the Silicates may be conspiring with the Chigs to defeat their former masters. Meanwhile, the In Vitroes have to contend with their status as a sub-class of humans while vying for recognition of their significant contributions to the war effort.

The great strength of Above & Beyond lies in its re-contextualization of real world military history and tradition in a future setting, while also delving into social and philosophical concepts befitting of hard sci-fi. In doing so, the show is eventually able to carve out its on place in the pantheon of military science fiction and produce some unique iconography all its own. Historical battles and real world anecdotes of wars past are often directly referenced by the characters or are used as the framework for a given episode’s plot.

In the episode “Sugar and Dirt”, the Wildcards are stranded on enemy territory as their fleet redirects towards a substantial strategic opportunity, the mission recalling the Battle of Guadalcanal in the WWII Pacific theater, where thousands of Marines were left to fend for themselves as the US fleet took new Guinea. The squadron, left beleaguered and destitute, resolve to have their last meal and face death before dishonor together, a small packet of sugar to share between them. In the two-parter episodes “Never No More/The Angriest Angel”, the Saratoga encounters a powerfully advanced enemy fighter ship which is invisible to radar and able to destroy entire squadrons. The crew nickname the enemy ace “Chiggy Von Richtoven”, referring to the legendary WWI German fighter pilot known the world over as The Red Baron. The Sqaudron commander, himself an ace pilot and former member of an elite fighter squadron, sets out alone to face Chiggy in a one-on-one duel that yields one of the best fighter combat sequences in modern fiction.

Thanks to the great character work of the cast, this interplay of fantasy and gritty realism truly shines. CPT Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) is a prodigy legacy Marine, haunted by the murder of her parents at the hands of Silicates. 1LT Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) originally sought to be a colonist along with his girlfriend, but now fights in the desperate hopes of finding her after the Chig attack. 1LT Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) is a brilliant engineer and technician whose difficulties with those back home represent the pain and heartbreak endured by all Marines and their separation from loved ones. 1LT Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) is an In Vitro who escaped his indoctrination but faced harsh circumstances and persecution, given the ultimatum of military service or jail time and ultimately proving himself to be an integral part of the team. 1LT Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) displays a wry sense of humor, but his wisecracks belies significant trauma he suffered both at home growing up and the humiliating pain inflicted upon him at the hands of the Silicates. The squadron commander LTC T.C. McQueen (James Morrison) is a brilliant tactician and warrior philosopher In Vitro soldier who has dedicated his life to the Corps, particularly after being unsuccessful in his attempts to find his place as a “normal” human in the world.

Above & Beyond had a notably diverse cast, with a commendable number of female leads and actors of color on its roster holding positions of authority and narrative significance in its stories. It wasn’t afraid to use its setting to address themes of prejudice, racism, sexism, and discrimination head on. In both theme and composition, it wore its influences on its sleeves. It shared much in common with Sci-Fi works such as the novel Starship Troopers and the James Cameron blockbuster film Aliens. Although it didn’t have nearly the same impact as those seminal works, Above & Beyond was bold and ambitious enough to stand on its own. In some ways, its own influence can be felt in contemporary military science fiction such as the rebooted television series Battlestar Galactica or the popular video game series Halo, which lean into darker thematic territory and grim aesthetics.

The concept of the Space Marine in might seem passe and overdone, but the device still has the potential for interesting and provocative storytelling if managed properly. Space: Above & Beyond manages to achieve this goal through a reverence for military history combined with well though out explorations of classic science fiction ideas. I for one am grateful to have enjoyed such a bold program, always faithful to its own vision.