Before Apollo and Starbuck began frakking and fighting in Battlestar Galactica, the Wildcards of Space: Above and Beyond were dogfighting in their Hammerheads, bar-brawling with in-vitro hating racists, and elbow-deep in martian mud as alien artillery screamed from the sky.
Though S:AB only ran for one season on the then fledgling FOX network, its impact on me was significant and profound. I often think about those 24 episodes, as both a fan compelled by its fiction, and a show creator challenged by the vision and talent of its craft.
When S:AB debuted, I watched the pilot with mixed emotions. Much of the story felt sampled from Full Metal Jacket, even using R. Lee Ermey in the role of drill instructor. The emotional hook of the show was a romance between immature colonists that I found difficult to connect with... But those Hammerhead spaceships sure looked awesome, and the way they maneuvered, spinning around in zero-g was something I hadn't seen before. The attractive cast seemed committed to what they were doing. And, back in '95, you were as likely to reel in a coelacanth while fishing off the Santa Monica Pier as find a science fiction show on television. So WTF, I kept watching.
I was rewarded with twenty-four compelling episodes about relatable, almost ordinary characters overcoming extraordinary challenges through teamwork and sacrifice. I watched a TV show find itself. Discovering what it was good at. Finding a way to balance action packed episodic narrative with serialized arcs long before Alias, 24, and Lost.
S:AB was also one of the first shows to treat high quality visual effects as just another narrative tool, not something to be lingered on 'til the pixelated jaggies shatters one's suspension of disbelief (Firefly, BSG, and District 9 have since iterated on this conceit). I watched an ensemble of young actors grow confident in their roles. Kristen Cloke's turn as Capt. Shane Vanson was particularly inspired; she was a strong woman with a traumatic past, constantly pushing herself toward excellence while struggling to keep her squadron mates alive. Cloke's dramatic chops sold rich emotions and heroic complexities amidst starfighter jargon and TV budget sets - I still get choked up as I think about her character's fate in the series finale. Rodney Rowland's portrayal of a vat-grown outsider trying to fit in, delivered on the poignancy of that premise with a commitment akin to Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty. Before the silence of Buffy's Hush episode, Rowland's Cooper Hawks was silently prowling the grass of an alien world in "Who Monitors The Birds?".
Gender and Ethnic diversity was another arena where S:AB broke television ground; The Space Marines of the show were strong women and sensitive men fighting side by side long before the war in Iraq made such things commonplace. Morgan Weisser's Lt. Nathan West arc'd over the season from immature boy into battle tested veteran – without losing his emo side. The show's African American leaders could also show they had a softer side. Lanei Chapman's Lt. Damphousse and Tucker Smallwood's CDRE Glen Van Ross were created sans stereotypes in all the best ways. Joel de la Fuente's Lt. Paul Wang was an Asian American hero who didn't always do the right thing – and proved all the more compelling for it.
Clearly I could wax on and on about Space: Above and Beyond. The more I think about the show, the more I realize how insanely great it was. 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. In this fractured media landscape, where a genre show can survive with only a few million viewers – would S:AB have found enough fans to protest its cancellation with decks of playing cards sent to the homes of Fox executives? We'll never know.
Part of me is glad S:AB wasn't renewed. Rather than adjust their tone or premise in a desperate beg for expanded viewership, creators Glen Morgan and James Wong ended the series on their own terms. I'm still haunted by that last episode, by the heart-breaking emotion and narrative ambiguity that demonstrated just how far the series had come from its pilot. Space: Above and Beyond went down with its passion blazing and its middle finger raised. We should all be so brave.
Semper Fi, Wildcards.
Jesse Alexander is creator and executive producer of NBC's Day One, and has worked on Alias, Lost and Heroes.