Starring: Morgan Weisser, Kristen Cloke, Rodney Rowland, Lanei Chapman, Joel de le Fuente, James Morrison
Genre: Military SF
First Aired: 1995-96
Talk to a science fiction enthusiast for more than a few minutes and you’re likely to get into the topic of cancelled TV shows. Obviously the most commonly mentioned name is Firefly, but that got a film to finish its story. Others were less fortunate. Dark Matter‘s third season ends on an excruciating cliffhanger. Stargate Universe slipped quietly into the night without any resolution, Vagrant Queen‘s ten perfect episodes are all we’ll ever get. There are any number of reasons a show doesn’t get renewed. Budgetary concerns, executive decisions, poor viewership. Of course, some shows just never find their audience. Some are ahead of their time. Space: Above and Beyond, is one such show.
If Space: Above and Beyond had been released just a few years later, I’m convinced it would have been a massive hit. Just look at how successful the rebooted Battlestar Galactica was in the post 9/11 world. There’s a shared DNA between these two shows, but while Battlestar Galactica would pose philosophic and moral debates, Space: Above and Beyond doubles down on the horrors of war. There’s a lot of SF out there that dabbles with the military, and then there are shows like Stargate that largely show the military in a positive light as they shy away from the harsher aspects of life at war. Space: Above and Beyond shies away from nothing. It is without a doubt, the best military SF I have ever seen put to the screen.
Following the 58th United States Marines during the first year of Earth’s first war against an alien species, Space: Above and Beyond is filled to the brim with the grit and violence of war. The show walks a very fine line as it makes heroes of the soldiers, while never glorifying the war itself. The characters we follow are fighting for good, and for the survival of the human race, but they are not perfect, square-jawed supermen. Especially for the 90s, it has an impressively diverse cast, and manages to showcase all of them equally. It may be Lieutenant West that we follow at the show’s outset, but there isn’t really a main character. The whole squad takes an equal hand in leading the show, and with a twenty-three episode series, it never feels overcrowded. Each character has a unique perspective, and there’s not a bad performance in the batch.
Crowded it is not, but Space: Above and Beyond is stuffed to the brim with ideas. It reminds me of the first season of Babylon 5, in that while fully episodic, it’s doing a lot of worldbuilding in the background. In one episode we see the elections on Earth, where no candidate is clearly good or evil. In another we learn that psychic powers might be a real thing. And that’s not to mention the ongoing threads of rebellious synthetics who are obsessed with gambling, the rights of artificially grown human beings, and the war itself. Space: Above and Beyond is a show unafraid to throw us into the middle of a scenario and let us find our own way out. Episodes regularly begin in the middle of a fight, or the aftermath of a bitter defeat. One is interspersed with quotes from historical texts, while another is almost wholly without dialogue. It’s bold, experimental, and utterly brutal. Characters die. Battles are lost. There are betrayals and lost causes aplenty. But there’s also fun. Lighter moments such as a marine’s attempt to have strawberries for dinner, the banter between comrades. There’s even a truly bizarre cameo from David Duchovny as a pool-playing android. This is a show that takes risks, and every single one of them pays off.
Space: Above and Beyond is a show as tragic as its own fate. A show that got everything right except the timing of its release. One of the most haunting pieces of military SF I’ve ever come across, from the explosive opening to the sombre final moments, Space: Above and Beyond deserved so much more. Twenty-six years later, it still deserves to be seen.