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Review – Mutiny

Nothing says “this is a militaristic science-fiction show!” quite like a mutiny episode.

When producing a show like Space: Above and Beyond, doing a show based around a mutiny in wartime is a given. It’s no surprise that Mutiny is the third regular episode of the show. Indeed, when Battlestar Galactica – a show that owes a sizeable debt to Space: Above and Beyond – wanted to establish its own militaristic science-fiction credentials, it produced Bastille Day as the third episode of its first season – another story about an uprising on a spaceship in a time of crisis.

Mutiny is also notable as the first episode of the season not credited to the creative team of Glen Morgan and James Wong. Of course, as executive producers, Morgan and Wong would have had a massive impact on the development and the writing of Mutiny. Stephen Zito is credited as the writer on the show. Zito is a veteran television writer and producer, working in the industry since the late eighties. He departed Space: Above and Beyond halfway through the first season, moving on to a long run on J.A.G.

Mutiny is far from perfect – indeed, it is often quite clunky in places. At the same time, it is a lot more comfortable in its skin than The Dark Side of the Sun was.

The mid-nineties were an incredibly racially-charged time in Los Angeles. The city was still coming to terms with the riots from 1992, after four police officers were acquitted following a video-taped assault on Rodney King. The riots were a pretty harrowing experience for the city, exposing a lot of the underlying racial tension that had been bubbling beneath the surface for so long. Those wounds still ached, years after the events in question.

The trial of O.J. Simpson in 1994 and 1995 only served to bring the issue of race in Los Angeles to the fore. The athlete and movie star was accused of murdering Nicole Brown. However, the trial inevitably got tied up in discussions of race in law enforcement. Some of the trial’s key moments focused on institutionalised racism in the Los Angeles Police Department, particularly around Detective Mark Fuhrman, who faced considerable scrutiny.

The trial of O.J. Simpson was a televised spectacle of the highest order, one that captured the attention of the nation. In the Beyond and Back documentary, actor James Morrison remembers shooting a scene of Space: Above and Beyond only to realise that the crew had all left to watch the O.J. Simpson verdict. Delivered on 10am on 3rd October, 1995, the verdict was watched by three-quarters of American adults. That is a phenomenal statistic.

It does not seem a coincidence that Mutiny aired the following week, any more than it might be a coincidence that The X-Files aired The List on the Friday after that. The issue of race had been bubbling through the American popular consciousness throughout 1994 and into 1995. It was inevitable that it would find expression in popular culture as it does here and as it does in The List. Science-fiction and genre television is the perfect forum for these sorts of explorations.

A nice example of Space: Above and Beyond and The X-Files overlapping, both Mutiny and The List are about race, but never explicitly and heavy-handedly so. The List never broaches the issue of race, even as it puts it front and centre. Mutiny is even more subtle. Looking at the cast of Space: Above and Beyond, it seems almost subversive that two of the three white male actors in the cast are playing members of a minority within the context of the story.

To be fair, the idea of InVitroes as an oppressed minority comes baked into the show. The Pilot introduced us to Hawkes during his attempted lynching; it also gave us a nice scene where McQueen argued that InVitroes could affect social change through loyal service and devotion to duty – a scene that evoked the history of oppressed and victimised minorities that had served their country during times of war for centuries, only to discover that loyalty and devotion brought no measurable advance in status or respect.

Mutiny makes the comparison even more heavily. It is quite clear that the InVitroes are being compared to minorities – particularly African Americans – who served the United States during conflicts like the Second World War and Vietnam. Space: Above and Beyond draws heavily from the Second World War, but also from other notable American conflicts. While it is generally positive in its portrayal of those giving their lives in service of a higher ideal, the show remains cynical about those in authority.

Despite their service to Earth, McQueen and Hawkes remain victims of prejudice. Touring a cargo ship taking the squad for some rest-and-relaxation, Hawkes finds that the InVitroes have been relegated to work in the engine room, near the radioactive reactors. It is thankless and dangerous work, not unlike the experience of African Americans in the military forces during the Second World War. Between 1932 and 1942, African American soldiers were only admitted to the messmen’s branch of the United States Navy.

As Natalie Kimbrough notes in Equality Or Discrimination?, the sort of prejudice experience by African Americans during and after the Second World War ran counter to the traditional historical narrative of the event:

African Americans fought World War II under the premise of the ‘Double V’: Victory against racism and fascism abroad and at home. This turned out to be a major disappointment for the participants. Despite the victory abroad their situation at home did not improve. Discrimination and racism continued unhindered. The jobs stateside that African American men had women had finally been able to fill when white workers left for the military went back to the returning veterans. This left African Americans jobless or discouraged in lower positions once again. They had gained nothing from their hard work in support of the war effort. Equality remained an apparently unreachable goal in spite of the completion of patriotic duties and the promises of war propaganda.

The armed forces were largely quite racist during the thirties and forties. In 1941, the Navy had pointedly refused to play an integrated lacrosse game at Harvard.

These sorts of tensions inevitably flared, resulting in bloody and horrific events. In 1942, the situation in Townsville, Australia, got so bad that African American troops mutinied. Reports of this mutiny were suppressed and buried for seventy years. In 1944, unsafe working conditions at Port Chicago resulted in a horrific explosion that killed over 300 people and injured almost 400 others. 258 African American soldiers working at Port Chicago refused to go back to work unless proper safety procedures were implemented.

Indeed, the Port Chicago Disaster would be integrated into McQueen’s back story, cementing the link between the InVitroes of Space: Above and Beyond and African Americans who served during the Second World War. The episode Dear Earth would reveal that McQueen had been present at a similar tragic event years earlier. Still, the show had already established that connection long before Dear Earth aired.

This sort of instituationalised racism and friction continued even after the Second World War. Mutiny seems to draw rather heavily on the high-profile mutinies of African American soldiers that occurred during the Vietnam War. As Mickey R. Dansby, James B. Stewart and Schuyler C. Webb recount in Introduction to Managing Diversity in the Military:

Historically, the Navy has had the smallest percentage of African Americans in the Armed Services, but it was in the Navy that some of the most dramatic race riots occurred. In October 1972, race riots on two aircraft carriers, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation, were of such magnitude that they became national issues, commanding the attention of top-level personnel. Four days later, racial turmoil resulted in the cancellation of a training exercise on the Constellation and forced the ship to return to port. Within a month of these incidents, race riots were reported aboard the USS Sumpter and USS Hassaympa. Shore commands, including Midway Island and Norfolk, also experienced race riots.

Incidents like these underscore how complex race relations were in the United States were. Even though sizeable steps had been made towards equality since the end of the Second World War, abuse and institutionalised racism still existed. It’s interesting to contrast this reality with the popular narratives of armed service and the ideals that the United States often claimed to defend.

Mutiny acknowledges this divide between equality as written in legal theory and the reality as it actually exists. The InVitroes are no longer slaves. However, they are victims of prejudice and exploitation, have never achieved substantive equality with humanity. Captain Lewelyn may be technically correct when he asserts that “the World Federation banned indentured servitude”, but McQueen has a point. “You have a cargo of unborn, Captain. What did they sign on for?”

That is the thing about equality. As much as equality might exist in law and theory, inevitably people are products of their environment. It is very difficult for somebody to take advantage of that technical or legal equality if they come into existence in circumstances created by centuries of exploitation and prejudice. This historical abuse cannot be rectified immediately by the stroke of a pen, the effects ripple long after the stone has hit the bottom of the lake.

Mutiny opts for the familiar twist of having current oppressors portrayed as members of ethnic and racial groups that would have historically been victims of oppression. The ship’s most vehemently racist senior officer is First Mate Potter, an African-American officer. This is a classic twist on science-fiction racism, but it is so common because it works very well; it’s an effective and biting commentary on cycles of oppression and prejudice, and how they reinforce themselves.

That said, Mutiny does lay the clichés on pretty heavy at various points. Although nowhere near as thirsty for red shirt blood as The Dark Side of the Sun was, Mutiny features a minor guest character who is introduced in the opening scene talking about how he hasn’t seen his wife back home since the war started. Although he stops just short of passing around a picture, no points for guessing that he doesn’t make it through the opening credits.

It’s a very stock plotting element, one that feels more than a little bit lazy – it plays like a parody of war movie clichés. As Saul Monk lays dying following an attack by a Chig sniper, he gasps, “Call my wife. I don’t mind going, except for her. She was my life.” It is a little heavy-handed, and arguably sets the tone for the episode. Mutiny may have some interesting things to say about the realities of the Second World War, but it is not subtle.

As with The Farthest Man From Home and The Dark Side of the Sun before it, Mutiny lays its themes on pretty heavy. The script asks a whole host of big philosophical and existential questions about the bonds that people feel, even with people they have never met. As Hawkes seeks out a sister he never knew, Damphousse reflects to West, “Love isn’t earned, Nathan. It just is.” It’s a very romantic idea of love – the idea that people are tied together by intangible bonds even beyond time and space.

Again, Mutiny is not subtle. While hardly as on-the-nose as the thematic exposition in The Dark Side of the Sun, Mutiny is crystal clear in articulating its themes. So, in a thematically appropriate B-story, Vansen and Wang also discuss love unseen. “How can you fall in love with a woman that you met on SpaceNet?” Vansen asks. “You don’t believe in the soul?” Wang retorts. “In spiritual connection?”

Mutiny is very much the show’s first real focus on Hawkes. Early on, it seemed Space: Above and Beyond had a very clear cast hierarchy, and that hierarchy was reinforced by the episodes that aired. The Farthest Man From Home made sure that West was the first character to get his own episode. The Dark Side of the Sun focused on Vansen. Mutiny is about Hawkes. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that this was the same order that the trio appeared in the opening credits, suggesting that the show had a clear idea of the relative importance of various characters.

The three episodes following The Pilot all follow a similar structure. The focal character confronts their past, and eventually accepts that their fellow marines are their new family. Here, Hawkes confronts the fact that he has no family of which to speak. When Hawkes wonders how McQueen deals with the fact that he has no family back home, McQueen replies, “The Corps is my family, Hawkes. The men and women I served with will know what to say.” Ultimately, Hawkes doesn’t go along with the InVitro mutiny, and sacrifices the sister he never knew to save the ship.

At the same time, Space: Above and Beyond seems to be a bit looser than it was in the pilot, evolving a bit. Mutiny gives the supporting cast more to do than they had in shows like The Farthest Man From Home or The Dark Side of the Sun, giving small character beats to Damphousse or Wang. Hawkes’ character also seems to be evolving away from the bad boy rebel introduced in the pilot, and more towards an innocent six-year-old child in the body of a twenty-four-year-old man. This is a much more interesting take on the character than stereotypical rebel without a cause.

As actor Rodney Rowland quips in the Beyond and Back documentary:

They wanted the part kinda a classic bad boy, you know what I mean? I wanted it to be interesting and weird, and not that typical TV cool kid. He was cool in the pilot. You know, he had it, in the pilot, going on. He became uncool.

The show develops Hawkes’ endearingly child-like innocence over the course of the season.

Mutiny is structured as an episode centring on Rodney Rowland’s Hawkes. , James Morrison C.T. McQueen gets to steal the show. It is Hawkes’ quest to find a relation that provides an emotional window into the plight of the InVitroes. It is Hawkes who manages to peacefully resolve the mutiny. It is Hawkes who gets the big moments of sacrifice over the course of the episode – risking his life to save the ship, and being willing to lose the sister he never knew for the greater good.

This isn’t to dismiss Rowland’s work. Although the veteran male model had a fairly short filmography when he joined the cast, he handled himself very well in a role that wasn’t the easiest to play. While the other members of the squad fall into broad archetypes, Hawkes begins moving away from his “rebel” archetype almost immediately, and Rowland shepherds that transition. After all, it is Rowland who is tasked with carrying the show’s mostly-dialogue-less masterpiece, Who Monitors the Birds?

And yet, despite that, it is James Morrison who makes the biggest impression. Morrison was perhaps the most perfectly cast member of the ensemble. His solid-as-a-rock and heavily internalised no-nonsense performance style made him feel like a character from one of those duty-and-honour Second World War Two melodramas that were clearly a heavy influence on the development of the show.

In many respects, Morrison’s performance style evokes that of Tommy Lee Jones. He is an actor who tends to find a centre quite easily, and who works very well as an anchor to an ensemble. (It also makes it interesting when Morrison does pivot or play a character off-balance – it’s unsettling in a way that watching a less grounded actor would not be. It recalls Stephen King’s criticism around the casting of Jack Nicholson in The Shining; to the audience, there was no suspense about if Nicholson would snap, only when.)

At this point in the show, we know little about McQueen beyond the fact that he is a good soldier who survived an attack that slaughtered his squadron, and that he is subject to a great deal of prejudice despite his hard work. That’s a fairly broad character, and Morrison cleverly doesn’t try to introduce ambiguity or nuance to it. He doesn’t suggest that there’s more to McQueen waiting to be revealed. Instead, he owns the empty space around the character. As played by Morrison, what you see with McQueen is exactly what you get.

And that – the fact that this is all there is to his life – makes him an intriguing character. Morgan and Wong would come to realise this. It’s telling that there’s a much greater focus on McQueen towards the back end of the season, once the writers have had a chance to incorporate Morrison’s vision of the character into their own. Morrison’s McQueen is a lot like Mitch Pileggi’s Skinner. He is a very archetypal character, but one portrayed with incredible dignity and integrity. Had the show lasted a few more seasons, Morrison may garnered a lot of attention for his work here.

Mutiny also provides an opportunity for some nice arc-building. In a small touch, McQueen and West get to provide some measure of follow-up to the events of The Farthest Man From Home. Here, McQueen confiscates West’s memento of Kylen, and West apologises for his behaviour in The Farthest Man From Home. It’s a small scene, but a nice one. It suggests that the show will not adhere rigidly to the episodic format, and is willing to give space to threads from earlier episodes in need of resolution.

All that said, Mutiny is a bit of a clunky episode. It feels like the episode takes a while to get going, and that the actual mutiny itself isn’t as tense as it needs to be. The situation is resolved fairly conveniently. Even though McQueen assures us that that the InVitroes involved will face the consequences of their actions, it doesn’t feel like Mutiny carries as much weight as it should. The idea of an uprising on a space ship never anchors the episode in the way that it should.

Still, Space: Above and Beyond is still a young show. Mutiny is the first episode not credited to Glen Morgan and James Wong. There are bounds to be bumps in the road. Still, as with the episodes around it, Mutiny demonstrates a great deal of potential – even if it doesn’t quite live up to it.



Written by Ariane