Recently, I decided to re-watch an old sci-fi TV series I remembered from the 90’s. Space: Above and Beyond ran for only 1 season from 1995-1996, but, watching it again as an adult, I realized that this show was tragically underrated and far ahead of its time.
The high-level plot synopsis is standard sci-fi fare: ‘evil’ aliens attack humanity, and the humans must fight back. However, delving deeper into the show reveals a nuanced story that handles topics such as discrimination, the role of technology, and the military with aplomb. The writers weave in smaller plot lines that, had they been given the chance to develop over multiple seasons, could have been truly groundbreaking.
The show includes one character who is an ‘invetro’ – a human created from disparate genetic material that is grown in a lab. These people are bred to fulfill certain roles in society such as to provide manual labor and to serve in combat. Despite being fully human in every biological sense, these people are routinely discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. This serves as a not-so-subtle allegory to the situation many ethnic minorities face in contemporary America. The show, at various times, discusses the ‘invetro rights’ movement and government policies to extend legal protections to ‘invetros’. Given the recent backlash against affirmative action policies in our country despite growing inequality, the plot is more relevant today than ever.
Later on in the show, it reveals that the reason the ‘invetros’ were conceived in the first place was to help save humanity from the ‘AIs’. In the story, human-like androids were invented and used to help Earth colonize the solar system and galaxy. Much like the plot of Blade Runner, these robots were employed in the most dangerous occupations and were treated like tools and machines rather than sentient beings. It then follows that the ‘AIs’, after being programmed with a virus, rebelled against their human overlords. After a long, drawn-out war, the ‘AIs’ escape into space where they continue to exist as pirates.
Both of these factors lead to the third, and most interesting, innovation of the show: how it portrays the main characters in the military. While it is common for movies and TV to focus on career military people – officers and enlisted – or those who join for reasons such as furthering their education or gaining leadership experience, there was very little coverage at the time of people who joined the military for personal reasons. All of the main characters in the show are ‘broken’ in some way: all are seeking to escape some form of dark past or are desperate to attain something that they lost. The characters’ motivations to join the military are rooted in their personal travails versus patriotism or career ambition. However, what is fascinating is that the unit cohesion in the fictional squadron (the 58th) is centered around these challenges and each character takes on the others’ burdens as their own. For example, in one episode, one character disobeys orders to attempt to rescue his girlfriend, who is missing and presumed dead. Despite the decision being entirely selfish and putting the unit at risk, the other members of the squadron support this and assist him in his mission; seemingly, they see helping one of their own to escape their troubles is also the path to their personal salvation. This dynamic was very unique for the time and gave the show a bit of an edge that comparative shows lacked.
All of this is not to say that Space: Above and Beyond is without any flaws. The show suffers from “whitewash” that plagues many studio productions to this day: despite some racial and ethnic diversity in the cast, the show does not go far enough to express true diversity. Some of the episodes have extremely basic story lines that rehash old sci-fi tropes and the characters lack any form of dynamism and are seemingly unchanged from the end of the first episode to the last. Despite all of this, though, the show was very well done and presented unique story lines and perspectives that were far ahead of their time. Personally, I’d love to see the idea recycled into something updated for the 21st century – almost serving as a spiritual successor to the latest reboot of Battlestar: Galactica.