Monday, October 16, 2006

Space: Above and Beyond

I watched Space: Above and Beyond over the last few months. It's a sci-fi / military TV show set in the year 2063, and it revolves around a Marine Corps squadron called the "Wildcards" during an interplanetary war with a hostile alien species. Only one season was made before the show was cancelled, which is a shame. While not a tragic cancellation, it wasn't half bad and showed signs of improving.

The show goes for a dark and gritty feel for the most part, and begins with the protagonists joining the military, each for their own reasons. A hostile alien species is encountered at the site of a new earth colony and war breaks out, causing our heroes to be drafted in sooner than anticipated. Throughout the 24 episodes, they become an elite unit called in for critical missions. The episodes consist of arc based and stand alone episodes that touch on various themes and range from large scale stories to more personal ones.

The characters are well rounded - both flawed and heroic and you really get to know them over the course of the show's run, but at some level it's hard to buy them as hardened marines, and their speedy transition into veterans rings false. The universe created has some depth and believability, and mixes elements of politics, military trappings, and corporate scheming together with sci-fi elements like (socially stigmatized) artificially gestated humans, robotic AI beings, and planetary colonization.

Unfortunately, there's a clear lack of focus on what type of show this was intended to be (that, or the suits tried to mix things up because of poor ratings), with the focus shifting jarringly from one aspect to another or one character to another without a strong sense of cohesion. This lack of consistency also results in many things being unclear and lacking context - we are never presented with a broad enough picture of how the war is playing out, for instance, and the political and corporate shenanigans aren't interwoven into the show. Contrast this with the likes of Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica (the new one), which do such a brilliant job of bringing disparate elements together and making the viewer believe that elements introduced into the storylines are always in existence, even when they are not the focus of a given story.

Another annoyance is that while sci-fi elements are incorporated into the show, they are presented in ill conceived ways. Newtonian physics is seemingly ignored, and the sheer vastness of space and the difficulties of space travel are facts that are never addressed and often blatantly contradicted. The AI beings are another example of dubious logic, of which there are several more that I shall not waste time going into.

The acting is a strong point of the show; while the 'tough guy' attitude is occasionally overblown (maybe that's how it really is in the military, but I doubt it), the protagonists come across as real people. There are several wonderfully written and acted character moments, especially in the latter half of the series. The production values are excellent (apparently this was one expensive show), but the old school CGI effects are mostly bland and the space action sequences uninteresting. I have to confess one thing though - the pompous theme music really grew on me!

If it had lasted longer, Space: Above and Beyond may have found its footing, as the last batch of episodes seemed to be more consistent and played to the shows strengths - a war drama in space, with less emphasis on poorly implemented sci-fi elements. As it stands, it's an interesting show that is entertaining and engaging while being frustrating at the same time. Worth watching for dedicated sci-fi fans. I found it to be interesting as a precursor to Battestar Galactica, which has all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses.

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