“We’re trying, as we go along, to deal with what war is about. We’re looking at how our guys, as soldiers, see the war. They’re not really involved in the big happenings or decisions, but they get their orders and go about obeying them.”
–Glen Morgan, Co-Creator of Space: Above and Beyond
Mankind has always been a species of conflict. Wars have been fought for the noblest of reasons, and for the least worthy as well. But there’s a great deal of science fiction, both literary and televised, which posits a future where mankind has put aside its conflicts and joined together in a journey to the stars. A journey into Space: Above and Beyond.
Of course, since the essence of good storytelling is the drama of conflict, the obvious antagonists for a united planet are those we discover elsewhere. But just because there’s an external threat doesn’t mean that the only conflict has to be “us vs. them”. Sometimes, the best drama is found in discovering exactly how people will react when faced with something that threatens their very existence and the way of life they believe in. Will they find courage? Will they hide behind others? Or will they simply discover their own essence along the way? The people you never thought worthy might just be the wild cards you need to survive.
In the 1995 FOX series Space: Above and Beyond, viewers follow the members of the Fighting 58th Squadron of the US Marine Corps Space Aviator Calvary. In the year 2063, a united Earth has begun to colonize outside our own solar system, thanks to the discovery of predictable “wormholes” in space that let humanity travel great distances despite the lack of faster-than-light engines. When one of the colony ships is attacked by a previously unknown race, the Fighting 58th and their fellow “Space Marines” must protect both Earth and its colonies, and try to battle the unknown enemy.
Nicknamed the “Chigs”, these aliens, and their fights with our humans, form the backdrop for stories of heroism and doubt, bravery and cowardice. 1st Lt. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) was slated to be one of the crew of the attacked colony ship, where he and his beloved girlfriend were planning to start a new world together, literally. At the last minute, he was replaced on the mission, and decided to enlist with the Marines and pursue his only way to rejoin her. His motivation is purely for her, and when he has the chance to find her again, he goes AWOL for a brief time. While his initial priorities are not with his squadron, he soon learns to have their backs… just as they have his.
“Everyone–Grab the ass of the person to your right! Well now, isn’t that beautiful. Do you feel it? His ass is yours! Her ass is yours, and yours is theirs. You may fly in individual rockets, but you are a squadron! You are a team! And if you risk your ass, you risk the team. You people have been here six weeks now, and you still do not know how to work together! Well, you WILL learn to work together, or that fatty clump of flesh in your hand will be blown to the far corners of the universe–And yours will be right behind it!!!”
–Gunnery Sargeant Frank Bougus, instructor for the early training of the 58th
Capt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) is the leader of the squadron. While a youngster, she watched as her parents were killed by “Silicates”, an early version of Artificial Intelligence that rebelled against humanity (in a conflict known as the “metal wars”). Wanting to prove herself and driven by her past, she joins up to face her fears, and to (hopefully) become a member of the “Avenging Angels”, the best squad in the Marines… until that group is decimated in the first major Chig battle. Now, she’s got nothing but inexperienced people hoping to turn into soldiers, literally a set of “wild cards” that she hopes will be ready when called upon… but can she trust them with her life?
Because of the “Silicates”, mankind has a negative impression of any “non-human” creations, including the newer, more advanced “in vitros”. Biologically human, they were created rather than “born”, and their version of an umbilical cord is located in the back of their neck. Seen by some as second-class citizens, their own fight for recognition as “normal” is what led to Nathan West’s bumping off the colony flight… and the addition to their squadron of 1st Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland). Nicknamed “tanks”, Hawkes and his fellow “in vitros” are essentially “born” at age 18, and while their emotional growth is limited at best, their physiology is stronger and more durable than most humans. While some in the military see them as “disposable” pieces to be sent in to make the way for the “real” humans, the 58th (after a rough start) begin to see him as one of their own instead of just cannon fodder.
1st Lt. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) probably has the farthest to go to become a soldier, as early on his most endearing trait is being a screw-up. But when he’s captured and subjected to torture, he has to make a choice with consequences for the rest of his life. 1st Lt. Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) is his closest friend on the squad, and she’s also their tech expert. After leaving another relationship behind, she’s looking for a fresh start with the Marines, and may finally have found a group of people where she belongs… if they can all just stay alive.
Their commanding officer is Lt. Col. T.C. McQueen (James Morrison), formerly the leader of the “Avenging Angels” and the only survivor of their run-in with the Chigs. He’s an “in vitro” as well, and while he understands the feelings some have for his kind, he also knows the military, and sometimes men and women are ordered to lay down their lives for their comrades in arms. He realizes that those decisions have absolutely nothing to do with who you’ve been or how you were born.
“Courage. Honor. Dedication. Sacrifice. These are just the words they used to get you here. Now the only word that means a damn to you is Life. Yours. Your buddy’s. The one certainty in war is that, in an hour, maybe two, you’ll either still be alive, or you’ll be dead.”
–McQueen’s opening speech to the 58th, his new command
The military is a completely different life from that which the rest of us lead. Personal identity is often subsumed in the quest for preparedness and the immediate obeying of orders, with no questions asked. The job of a soldier is to do what he is told, and not to question those who outrank him or her. Many believe that the military is wrong in eliminating, at least initially, that which makes each of us unique. But the goal is not to eliminate the person, it is simply to eliminate the doubt, not just in each other but in each person themselves.
There is duty, honor, and tradition in the service, but those things are earned, and earned with the hard work of all. It’s a long and difficult road to travel, even in the best of times. And the universe presented in Space: Above and Beyond was far from ideal for all its soldiers. Racism reared its ugly head in the perception of both the alien Chigs (about which we knew very little) and the “in vitros” (which were simply a different type of human). Situations were faced by the crew with little or no information, and sometimes misinformation (which was even worse). And yet, one of the most important questions is asked by one of the characters in the pilot episode, one which every soldier has to answer to his own satisfaction. We all have something to live for. But for soldiers, the question is also “What would you die for?”
Most people never even think about such a thing. I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve never had to realistically face death in my life. Injury, yes, multiple times. Emotional pain and sorrow I wouldn’t wish on anyone else, of course. But to come to terms with a person’s own death is something beyond my ken. And yet, a soldier has to ask themselves that question every day, and come up with an answer that allows them to keep going, to work and endure a harder life than most can imagine, especially during wartime, and still be expected to be as human as the rest of us.
The amazing part is that most succeed, and come home to us all safe and sound. Some suffer, and some valiantly end up sacrificed so that the rest of us can go on, never having to even ask the question of ourselves. But we should all be thankful for their service, both in peace and in war, for making it safe enough for the fellow humans to, hopefully, continue to strive for ourselves and those we love in other ways. Someone has to make the choice so many others do not, and for those people we should be more than grateful.
The stories of Space: Above and Beyond were set in a future with spaceships and aliens, but at the series core was an examination of what it takes to be a soldier, to answer those questions no one else in society really dares to ask, and to find a way to live through the worst. Just like the title of the “Avenging Angels”, the men and women of the 58th got a nickname for their group as well. It was, as you’ve likely already guessed, “Wild Cards”, due to their unpredictability and their own natures. And, even though it was never explicitly stated for all of them, the name was probably also due to their own answers to the question “What would you die for?” They each had an answer for themselves, and that was part of their journey as Marines. Capt. Shane Vansen said it best:
“Even if we are trained to die, we have got to believe that we’re going to live.”
The Fighting 58th were well and truly “Wild Cards” to the end.
MORGAN WEISSER (Nathan West) guested in numerous series, including The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Alias, and NCIS. Born to an acting family, his father started multiple theatre groups in Los Angeles, and Morgan has been active on both the television screen, in movies, and on stage.
KRISTEN CLOKE (Shane Vansen) appeared on numerous episodes of Millennium, plus was seen on Quantum Leap, The X-Files, Felicity, and Men of a Certain Age. She gained more than most out of Space: Above and Beyond, as she became happily married to producer/creator Glen Morgan after the series, and they’ve produced two children, along with her two step-children.
RODNEY ROWLAND (Cooper Hawkes) started out as a fashion model before a colleague convinced him to try acting, and Space: Above and Beyond was one of his first roles. He also appeared on The X-Files (sensing a pattern here?) and was a regular on Pensacola: Wings of Gold. He’s most recently been a recurring character Veronica Mars and Weeds, both under his preferred name of Rod Rowland.
JOEL de la FUENTE (Paul Wang) starred in 100 Centre Street and High Incident, and has been featured in ER, All My Children, and Canterbury’s Law. He’s best known these days for his recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, on which he’s appeared occasionally for almost a decade.
LANEI CHAPMAN (Vanessa Damphousse) had already found her way into “space” previously, having appeared as an Ensign four times on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other roles included series such as The Pretender, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Cold Case. She’s changed her name slightly, so that her more recent roles list her as “Lanai” instead of “Lanei”.
JAMES MORRISON (T.C. McQueen) was ALSO on Quantum Leap, Millennium, and The X-Files (I told you there was a pattern here…) in addition to recurring roles in HawthoRNe, Private Practice, and 24. A many of almost too many talents, he’s a singer/songwriter, has written and directed award-winning stage plays, produced short films which have appeared in numerous festivals internationally, and is a certified yoga instructor (and still teaching both yoga and theatre currently).
“Had it been created in this era of cable channels and websites dedicated to science fiction, I wonder if it would have run for a hundred episodes.”
–Jesse Alexander, Producer and Writer on such series as Alias, Lost, and Heroes, when asked about Space: Above and Beyond a decade later.
The complete DVD set for Space: Above and Beyond was released in 2005, and although it contains no extras, you can still get all the series episodes, unedited, including the amazing finale. While the majority of the show is not found easily on the internet (as rights holders have been cleaning up youTube lately), the two-hour pilot (in hour episode form) can be streamed here. Although they haven’t been updated in a while, some of the best fan sites for the show are located here and here, and lots of information can be found about the adventures of the Fighting 58th. A number of novelizations were written based on episodes of the series, six in total, and there is also a small private company that makes custom resin model kits of many of the spaceships seen in the series, available for purchase.
“These characters are always facing what may happen in the last minutes of their lives. What do you say to the last face you may see before you die? What are you thinking at that moment? These characters experience those feelings a great deal on [Space: Above and Beyond], and facing them together, over and over again, makes them very close. So, it’s in those moments that everyone’s true colors are revealed.”
Some disagree on the necessity of war, and rightfully so. There are unjust wars, and unjust reasons for fighting them. But even if the true goal of humanity is peace, there are still those individuals who would prefer power over justice, and their own way for all over allowing people to choose their own path. When all else fails, these people must be confronted, for the good of the rest of us. Thankfully, there are those who believe that justice and choice are worthwhile values to be protected, even at the cost of their own lives, so that others can continue to live without threat of fear or oppression. While we can’t always agree on any particular fight, we must all surely give thanks for those who are willing to stand up, not for themselves, but for their loved ones, and for people they’ve never even met, in order to protect the ability to freely live. And the amazing thing is, most are willing to protect even those who disagree with them, just because it is the individual’s “right to choose” they are defending and not the actual choice.
While I wish this piece could have been posted a week ago on Veterans Day, it was these thoughts throughout that week that led me to Space: Above and Beyond and the ideas in this article. Veterans Day is a time to reflect, in whatever way appropriate, on what those who choose to serve have done, and what they continue to do. No single individual is perfect, and mistakes are made by the humans involved, both in real life and in the depictions of them on television. But that doesn’t make the idea any less proper, or any less worth the time and effort (and yes, sometimes sacrifice) those men and women make for all of us. Space: Above and Beyond may have only been a science-fiction television show, but it dramatized the type of people we all desperately need to be real. Because without them, we’d have already lost.
A two-hour pilot and 22 hour-long episodes — none unaired — all on DVD
First aired episode: September 24, 1995
Final aired episode: June 2, 1996
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Not initially. The show premiered on Sunday nights, but was promised a spring slot at Friday 8/7 Central for a steady run… which was promptly pre-empted by FOX anyway. Although it did well there, the Fighting 58th had already lost the war for viewers.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.