“Space: Above and Beyond”

I believe I’ve mentioned this once or twice before, but I’ll say it again:  I’m a HUGE sci-fi nerd.  My parents (my mom especially) were big fans and raised me on both the Trek and Wars.  Where many people are ardent followers of either Roddenberry or Lucas, I am fans of both and don’t see any reason why we all can’t get along (and also invite the Whedonites to join in the party).  Anyway, what I want to talk about today is a different, almost forgotten Sci-Fi show from the mid 1990s: Space: Above and Beyond.  This show only aired for one season, 1995-96, on, you guessed it, the FOX network (though unlike Firefly they didn’t cancel it mid-season).

A few years ago, the show was released on DVD and when I heard, I quickly scooped up the set.  As a teen, I had watched the show and remember enjoying it, though parts of it were conflated in my head with another short-lived 90s show, Space Rangers (which lasted only 6 episodes back in 1993 on CBS). A few weeks ago I pulled the DVDs back off the shelf and started re-watching the series and was surprised to see in the credits that a well-known name to me scored the show: Shirley Walker (the same Shirley Walker that was behind most of the music of Batman: The Animated Series).  As soon as I saw that credit, my ears immediately perked up.  I hadn’t remembered much about the score for years before, except that it was very heavily scored with orchestral sounds, but this time through the series (of which I still need to finish watching the final 6 episodes), I paid very close attention.  What I heard was a show that not only made use of normal Sci-Fi orchestral scoring conventions, but in a few episodes showed a brilliant use of music, not only orchestral, but also diegetic songs played by characters.  I would like to briefly discuss two episodes: Episode 3 – “The Dark Side of the Sun” and Episode 5 – “Ray Butts.”

The basic plot of the show is that in the near-future (2063) mankind is engaged in a interstellar war against a foe known as the “Chigs.”  Our show follows a group of raw Marine recruits who, by the end of the 2 hour pilot, are out of accelerated basic training and thrown into the front line (these Marines not only fight on ground, but also fly space fighters in WWII style dogfights).  If you’re interested in reading more, check out the Wikipedia article.  “The Dark Side of the Sun” is an early episode where our heroes are sent to protect a remote mining facility shipment, but as soon as they get there they discover that the place has been overrun by Silicates, intelligent robots who years ago had rebelled against their human creators (ya…basically the Cylons).  And in this rebellion had killed the parents of one of our main characters, Shane Vansen.  The episode opens with Vansen recounting the recurring nightmare of her death and the death of her parents.  It is underscored by a minor theme with a string ostinato, and changes slightly as she wakes up (the strings change to a legato patten), but the ostinato comes back in as she gazes out a porthole at the sun, which in her dream had exploded.  The camera zooms out on Vansen as the theme reaches a sort of climax and the credits begin.

This minor theme becomes a leitmotif for Vansen and her unresolved issues surrounding her parents death and reoccurs throughout the episode as she tries to deal with these issues while facing down the enemy that killed her parents.  Many times this theme doesn’t resolve, leaving the viewer with much the same feelings that Vansen has.  This usage also includes the very end of the episode, which while reaching a sort of climax and cadence, emphasis the minor key, and ends with only the bass instruments playing.  In this way, wallowing in the dark feelings that Vansen has had through the episode and informing the viewer that despite receiving an answer as to why the Silicates attacked her house that night and killed her parents, that answer did not satisfy her.

In the second episode I will discuss, “Ray Butts,” I’ll talk about how it uses diegetic music to inform about a character.  S:AaB would do this many times (the use of the music of Patsy Cline in “Never No More” and the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Third Symphony in “The Angriest Angel” are two great examples), but “Ray Butts” was the first episode to do this, and it used the music of Johnny Cash.  In episodes using diegetic music this way, they will very early pair the music and character together, usually before the credits.  “Ray Butts” opens with a lone plane flying toward the carrier Saratoga (where our heroes are based), and landing without clearance.  After landing, the cockpit is opened and we are greeted with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” as the formerly unconscious pilot wakes up and proceeds to disarm the entire compliment of security guards.  In a piece of cute editing, the first lyric we hear, as we see the guns trained on the pilot, Lt. Col. Raymond T. Butts, is “don’t ever play with guns.”

The plot of the episode is that Butts takes our heroes on a secret rescue/retrieval mission to a planet behind enemy lines.  In a scene where he takes command of the squad away from Col. McQueen, we hear him listening another Cash song, “Walk the Line.”  A third song is playing when Vansen confronts Butts, “So Doggone Lonesome,” whose third verse, which involves Cash observing that time moves slower while your waiting, proves to have a subtle connection to the one of the last scenes in the episode.  The viewer takes these musical association with Johnny Cash as information as to the personality of Butts: a hard edged man who has seen too much, “The Man in Black,” which the disc taken out of his plane is labeled.  But in a wonderful turn, towards the end of the episode, after the true nature of the mission is revealed, we learn that Butts actually hates Johnny Cash.  He is honoring the memory of one of the men lost under his command, whose perferred way of going out was to be listening Cash while falling into a Black Hole.  Towards the end of the episode, Butts actually sacrifices himself to save the squad, and as his plane is pulled into a Black Hole, he turns on the disc and listens to “Walk the Line.”  He is thus fulfilling the prophecy that had been implict throughout the episode every time we heard Butts listening to Cash.

As to the show itself, it starts out quite good, but towards the middle, falls into a weekly routine of how are our heroes going to get in trouble this week, almost die, and miraculously escape alive.  As the season drew to a close and it was clear that the show would most likely be cancelled, it started to get good again.  Alas, it was too late, though, and another Sci-Fi show that could of been something was killed.  And a show with a quality orchestral score by Shirley Walker also met it’s end.  The show is worth checking out for the variety of music (both diegetic and non-diegetic) used.  Walker crafts a unique score almost every week, and it is also of top quality week in and week out.  Other episodes worth checking out, besides the ones already mentions, is the episode “Who Monitors the Birds,” which goes for long periods of time with no dialogue and relies heavily on her scoring.

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