Monday, January 14, 2019

Space: Above and Beyond #3

Space: Above and Beyond #3

From X-Files scribes, something poorly acted this way comes

"Whatever It Takes, Part Three”
Writer – Roy Thomas
Pencils – Yanick Paquette
Inks – Armando Gil
Letterer – John Costanza
Colorist – Digital Chameleon
Editor – Len Browsn
Associate Editor – Jonathan Michael Baylis
March 1996

It should have been easy. For show runners Glen Morgan and James Wong, handling the writing of a great TV show was second nature by this point. The pair had been working together since high school, writing scripts for 21 Jump Street, The Commish and long run of success on The X-files.

That last part was instrumental in landing the space war drama Space: Above And Beyond, which the much younger and hopelessly addicted to X-Files me put a lot of hope into. The show followed the adventures of a squad of Space Aviators codenamed “Wildcards” as they graduated from the academy and fought their personal demons while battling against an alien space fleet called “the Chig.” It sounds like a winning combination of elements, but for me something didn’t gel.

If you watch the first episode (sorry about the crummy audio), you’ll perhaps see why. The two-hour pilot is filled with every war movie cliché you can think of and the characters come off more as lists of stock plots than they do real people. 

Take West, our young male lead. He only joins after being bumped from his place beside the love of his life on a space colony trip. But joining the space aviators means a chance for payback too, as the alien Chig attack the colony ship before it reaches its destination, abducting twenty-three people and killing the rest. With West, we have a driven young man wanting revenge.

And not just on the aliens, either. West was bumped from that colony ship because the government gave equal rights to clones grown in vats. His seat was taken by one of these clones due to a government edict. So he's kind of hacked off at them too.

The clones were created as warriors. Seems we had some problems with some androids we created that went rogue. These baddies were called Silicates and after attaining sentience they went all Terminator on us. Our leaders decided to swell the ranks fighting them by growing an army of artificially gestated humans. Identified by a belly button on the back of the neck, these cloned beings are termed “Tanks”, "Nipple-Necks", or “In Vitroes.” After the war, they were treated less than fairly by humans, being subject to racism and prejudice.

And since West hates them more than most for taking away his chance to die beside his girlfriend, Wong and Morgan throw in a Tank as part of the squadron. But not just ANY Tank. Nope, Hawkes (above) has to be the most mavericky and undisciplined rogue you’ve even seen. Of course, the pair has to overcome their mutual distain for each other and learn to work as a team. Oh, and Hawkes has to learn to trust his teammates to have his back, which he does only after one of them pledges loyalty to him and then is killed by an alien.

Our leader in this mess of young aviators is Vansen, a woman who watched her parents get killed by silicates when she was just a kid. She was forced to hide in an attic crawlspace with her two siblings when the androids burst in. She still bears the scars on her palms where her sisters bit her while trying to scream.

Maybe all of this sounds okay to you, but it is pretty clear after painstakingly watching the two-hour premier that this was dreck. The acting by most of the young leads was wooden, especially Morgan Weisser’s West. The direction is uneven, as if it was filmed by someone watching Starship Troopers and not understanding it was satire. Examples would be things like when the premier aviator squad gets toasted in battle with the aliens, our young cadets rush over to watch the injured rolled in on stretchers while other med-techs casually toss full body bags on the curb for pickup. it comes off as too on the nose.

And some parts feel forced. Vansen has to show herself to be worthy of being in command, so Wong and Morgan have her team of green recruits go on a mission to Mars of “critical importance” with no seasoned commander. The only reason for this is to give Vansen the opportunity to lead and make good decisions, which she does by capturing an alien whose ship crashes near the relay they are fixing. An alien that they accidentally murder by giving it a drink of water in the gills along its neck.

The show didn’t work for me. Back in 1996, I tuned out right about that alien death part and didn’t see the end until just Saturday while writing this review. Sure, the show has R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant Major Bougus and he does his standard heart of iron training montage stuff. But it is awkward to hear him read lines like “In space no one can hear you scream unless it is the battle cry of the United States Marines.” And when he pronounces the made up name of the space ships…sheesh, so embarrassing. He is clearly better than this entire production.

And I'm not kidding when I say it contains every war movie scene they could shoehorn in. Flag draped coffin funeral ceremony complete with weeping mother being handed the folded flag? Check! Scene of maverick character vowing to be a better solider over grave of dead comrade? Check! Scene of nubes being blown off by experienced aviators in bar causing bar brawl? Check! Scene of experienced aviators being brought back in body bags in front of nube aviators? Check! Scene of explosions in the sky/on TV while aviators are on leave with their family prompting them to be called back to base for active duty? Check! The maverick screwing up a training mission, so the drill sergeant can yell that the squad doesn’t need to worry about the enemy, just the maverick? Check!

The pilot is like EVERY war movie rolled into a pile and sprinkled with ample amounts of space dust.

And while it did garner two Emmy and one Saturn nomination, the show was cancelled after one season of 23 episodes. It has since ranked as number 50 on IGN’s top 50 Sci-Fi TV Shows, but I’m not certain what the writers and editors of IGN were smoking. I dumped out after the first episode and didn’t look back.

That didn’t stop Topps comics from taking the license and turning out a three-issue comic that retold the pilot and a two issue follow up subtitled The Gauntlet.

What I hold my hot little hands here is issue number three of the retelling of the pilot, at the part where the show gets past all the training and melodrama and jumps right into what sold most of us on the show in the first place: spaceship shootouts. No less a talent than Roy Thomas gives his all writing it (from Wong and Morgan’s script). Yanic Paquette and Armando Gil illustrate with more flair than your standard tie-in. As a tv show remake issue it ends up BETTER than the show it comes from, primarily because the actors and director are not in any way involved.

Let’s jump in and give it a look, shall we?

We begin with Nathan West painting the “Above and Beyond” on the side of his ship. Captain Vansen rushes up to him to tell him they’ve got their orders for a ship assignment, something they’ve been waiting on since they got back from their solo Mars mission and the attack they watched from his parent’s house. Look at that beautiful aircraft!

In the tv show this scene is cringe-worthy because West grins like it’s the happiest day of his life, not like he is grimly determined to mete out some justice on the aliens that killed his girlfriend and squadmate. It is an awkward choice the actor and director made to have him smile so wide. And after he does, West and Vansen run off-screen like happy school children only to come face-to-face with this…

Here it shortcuts to the horrors of war without showing us gleeful inductees glad to finally get into the fight only to suddenly face the grim reality in a very trite manner. The transition in the single panel moves directly to concern without that awkward smile on West’s face and it makes all the difference in how the scenes play. Also we don’t have someone tossing body bags of dead aviators on the sidewalk like they were laundry sacks going to a drycleaner. Instead we get a swarm of activity around the few survivors and West being strong armed out of the way. There are dead guys in the background, but they are being treated with the reverence you would expect of fallen war heroes.

The briefing of the plan plays out much like it did in the show…

…with West acting all indigent at not being one of the squadrons who are set to meet the enemy head-on. At least we shorten R. Lee’s salute scene to just the one as the “SA-43 Endo/Exo-Atmospheric Attack Jet” fighters take off. And yeah, that is a silly name and I almost spit-took when I heard R. Lee say it in the show. Nice of them to reduce it to “Hammerheads” later on.

And is it just me or do even the impressive space scenes look better in comic book form? This is the squad flying to their new space battleship and encountering a lone bogey…

…that they don’t catch. Just like with the downed ship they find on Mars, this ends up being a big “gotcha” later on. 

Wong and Morgan placed so much importance on this one group of pilots that it unbalances the story in my opinion. They are always in the right place at the right time. Of course, they find this out immediately after they dock with the carrier…

…and are rushed into an emergency briefing with their new commander, McQueen, who also happens to be a Tank like Hawkes.

And just like Hawkes, McQueen is a maverick who runs the show HIS way, typically by throwing around tables. Also by setting up incredibly dangerous traps for the enemy ships by stationing fighters in the middle of asteroid belts (which in this universe are extremely dangerous…as opposed to how they would be in reality!). However, if they do this risky thing…Payback time!

The scar-faced squadron commander wraps up his pep talk and we get shots of our two male leads almost wishing each other good luck.

And then it is "hide in the deadly asteroid field and scientific knowledge be damned" time. Too bad, Red-4! You were killed by people’s perceptions of how an asteroid field works.

Sadly, the enemy changes course at the last moment and it looks as all this hiding (not to mention Red-4’s sacrifice) will be for naught. The enemy will fly in the other direction. And that’s when Hawkes gets his chance to pull a stunt that would get anyone else court marshalled…

Putting on a little Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop”, which was wrongly attributed to Pink Floyd earlier in the show (as if these kids were unable to google things at leisure), Hawkes disobeys orders and makes like a decoy for the enemy ships.

And look at all those enemy ships! Paquette and Gil have a field day here and the overly dramatic showing comes off as impressive. Hawkes makes it back alive, of course...

…And he does so leading a large contingent of the enemy forces after him…

…But without some assistance from McQueen, Hawkes would be a smear on the side of a space rock. With the word “Downtown”…

…Vansen springs the trap on these fighters and we have some bright fun dogfights to watch.

While it is probably the most impressive thing on the tv show, the intensity of these scenes in the comic comes off better. The vibrant purple of the attacking craft and the graphics Paquette and Gil come up with are worth the book’s asking price.

In comic form, the script zings and we don’t have distractingly bad acting to detract from it. I am falling for Space: Above and Beyond as long as it is just graphic novels. 

As for the battle itself, our young heroes are acquitting themselves well right up until Shane is about to be blasted out of the sky and no one can get to her. 

Luckily someone draws a bead on the alien and squeezes, but it turns out not to be any of her Wildcards squadmates…

…but is instead a salvo from the inbound fleet of Earth carriers who have just passed through a wormhole behind the enemy. This tight pincher maneuver inflicts heavy causalities on the Chigs, eventually leading to their retreat.

So our young combat pilots are hailed as heroes…

… at least until they aren’t by their new squadron commander McQueen, who is still plenty sore at Hawkes.

Even thought he does send a toast back his way while West moons over the picture of his dead girlfriend…

…reciting the last words of his speech he wrote to her when they shipped out to the colony, but he got left behind. Something about how much he loved her and whatnot, while he tosses the medal away.

Morgan and Wong had five years of this series scripted out, but it wasn’t meant to be. The show came on Sundays, a horrid day for shows given that football can sometimes preempt them. Whatever the cause, by the end of season one it had dismal ratings. The last show was a cliffhanger with most of the cast either missing or apparently killed with only Hawkes and West remaining. It was written with the show cancellation hanging over its head.

I can’t say that I miss the actual show, but more Thomas, Paquette, and Gil Space comics would be much appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another great review! I actually really liked the T.V. series, but being a former Marine I always give a little more credit than what's due for anything Marine-related that manages to find it's way into pop culture. I think it deserves a reboot without the 90's-Tastic CGI, some less shaggy haircuts, and better casting. As far as the comics go, I did a Longbox Junk review of the follow up 2 issue mini (The Gauntlet, with the same creative team) and found it to be. . .okay. From your review, it looks like a bit more effort was put into the Pilot adaptation. Thanks again for your hard work!


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