Review – Ray Butts

Ray Butts is a collection of familiar war movie clichés.

Space: Above and Beyond is effectively a gigantic Second World War movie in space, and Ray Butts allows creators Glen Morgan and James Wong to roll two of the most instantly recognisable war movie archetypes into a single character. The eponymous officer is at once a soldier traumatised by his past experiences and a tough new commander for a young unit. He is a source of friction on the show, kept ambiguous and mysterious for most of the episode’s runtime.

Ray Butts piles on the questions. The show doesn’t reveal his orders for quite a while, asking the audience to decide whether they trust the orders – let alone the man assigned to carry them out. The show also plays up questions around Butts himself; is Butts a man trying work through his own issues in his own way, or simply a risk-taking and borderline incompetent commanding officer? Ray Butts doesn’t have too many surprises, but it works because Morgan and Wong know how to structure an episode of television.

After the misfiring ambition of The Dark Side of the Sun, it feels almost like Ray Butts puts Morgan and Wong back in their element.
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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.

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Review – The Dark Side of the Sun

Space: Above and Beyond is half-way between an epic space opera and a wartime saga.

The Dark Side of the Sun confirms something suggested as early as The Pilot. While creators Glen Morgan and James Wong have a firm grasp of the war story aspect of the show, they are a bit less comfortable with the science-fiction elements. While The Farthest Man From Home was a solid old-fashioned “love in wartime” epic, The Dark Side of the Sun is steeped in stock science-fiction elements and interesting ideas, but seems to falter in the execution.

It feels very much like Morgan and Wong are trying to push the show’s science-fiction elements to the fore, but aren’t entirely comfortable with those elements. The result is a curious little episode, one that does a decent amount of character and world-building, while also baking some intriguing ideas and concepts into this potential future for mankind. At the same time, there’s an awkwardness to it all, as if The Dark Side of the Sun is trying to establish the show’s sci-fi credentials and can’t quite figure how everything fits together.

The Dark Side of the Sun is a show that feels like it could have used a bit more time and another draft or two, perhaps a reminder that Morgan and Wong are still relatively new at this sort of thing.

In interviews about the show, Glen Morgan tended to play up the war aspect of Space: Above and Beyond, emphasising the debt that the show owed to classic war stories and media:

Jim and I see this not so much as a SF piece as kind of a WW II movie or a war piece in space. We’re drawing, as I said, from All Quiet on the Western Front, but also from Twelve O’Clock High, Guadalcanal Diary, and Air Force. So, our look is much darker than you’ll see on some other shows. Our people sweat and bleed and their hair is messed up. The vehicles they fly in are very cramped and, just like an aircraft, hot and sweaty. We’ll probably be much more action-oriented than some shows, but we don’t want to do action just for action’s sake. It should tell you something about the characters as it happens. We have a great deal of respect for all of the other shows out there and we’ve watched them and said, ‘Well this is what they do’ let’s not rip them off or copy them. How can we be different?’ That was what dictated our choices.

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Space: Above and Beyond – The Farthest Man From Home (Review)

Due to network anxiety about the investment in Space: Above and Beyond, The Pilot had a very clear three-act structure building to a very explicit resolution. Not only did The Pilot figure the beginning of the war with the aliens, it also featured a crucial moral-boosting victory. It ended with the squad fully-formed and ready for action. It packed a lot of stuff in, and worked quite well as its own self-contained story; even if it left a host of broad narrative threads for the rest of the series to follow.

The Farthest Man From Home is pretty solid as far as first standalone episodes go. Free from the constraints of having to work as a potential movie-of-the-week, The Farthest Man From Home is free to do a little development and foreshadowing, but doesn’t have to wrap up everything in a neat bow by the time that the closing credits role. It’s also spared a lot of the exposition that made The Pilot feel so heavy – Hawkes’ status as an InVitro is fleetingly mentioned, and the Silicates don’t come up.

Instead, The Farthest Man From Home is free to focus on the story that it wants to tell, and in marking out narrative space  for the development of both the larger war arc and West’s own personal journey. The Farthest Man From Home is a rather loose episode, but it’s loose in a way that makes sense for a second episode. It eases the audience into the world of Space: Above and Beyond a lot more fluidly than The Pilot did.
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