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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Space: Above and Beyond - The Complete Series
Space: Above and Beyond - The Complete Series
Fox // Unrated // November 8, 2005
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted September 24, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Show:
Having achieved such incredible success with The X-Files, in the Fall of 1995 the Fox television network debuted a new sci-fi series from X-Files producers Glen Morgan and James Wong. Hoping to target the Star Trek and Babylon 5 audience, Space: Above and Beyond promised rip-roaring deep space action and the latest in computer-generated special effects. Unfortunately, despite an aggressive advertising campaign, the show fizzled in the ratings and was cancelled after a single season. It did, however, gain a small but loyal fan base, and eventually built a cult following through reruns in cable syndication.

Set in the year 2063, the pilot episode opens with a group of human colonists celebrating their successful settlement of a distant planet. Their leader delivers a speech about how the past 150 years of space exploration has proven that mankind is alone in the universe. Now, I may not be a math genius or a history buff, but I'm fairly certain that not much space travel was going on back in 1913. Regardless, naturally enough that very night the colony is attacked and slaughtered by vicious space aliens, as if just to prove the stupid humans wrong. Later, after a second colonial expedition is also attacked, the United States government declares war and mobilizes the armed forces of Earth. Initial battles go very badly for the Earthlings, until a batch of fresh-faced young recruits in the Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry discovers that the enemy does have weaknesses and turns the tide of the war. Over the course of the season, the members of the 58th Squadron commanded by badass Col. McQueen will fight the evil Chig aliens on land, on sea, and in space, proving that extraterrestrial technological advancement is just no match for the good old fashioned American fighting spirit.

Space: Above and Beyond is more war movie than hard science fiction, and plays like a "straight" version of Paul Verhoeven's later Starship Troopers without the knowing irony or intentional satire. The pilot episode sets up the premise but is also one of the weakest entries in the entire series. Its corny melodrama, stiff acting, and bad dialogue are supported by lousy Playstation CGI effects, and probably turned off much of the audience so early that the show never had a chance at success. Fortunately, subsequent episodes do improve both in writing and acting quality. As the series progresses, we grow to know and bond with the characters as they face not only the horrors of war but frequent moral dilemmas and (as you might expect from X-Files writers) some intriguing political conspiracies. The fuzzy CGI never reaches feature film quality, but is at least tolerable through most of the episodes. Though borrowing heavily from Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, the space action scenes are fairly exciting, and the variety of planetary environments that the Marines must fight in keeps things interesting. The show also has a fascinating "mythology" backstory involving a race of genetically-engineered people called In-Vitros that face constant discrimination from regular human beings, and the fallout of a previous war with artificial intelligence androids called Silicates.

Cameo appearances from familiar faces such as R. Lee Ermey, French Stewart, Harriet Samson Harris (conniving agent Bebe from Frasier), Richard Kind, Adam Goldberg, Coolio, and David Duchovny pepper the season. Notable episodes include the particularly poetic and existential The River of Stars, in which the Marines lose control of their space transport and hurtle off into the void, Who Monitors the Birds?, a largely dialogue-less episode exploring the backstory of In-Vitro character Cooper Hawkes, and the very suspenseful "Chiggy von Richthofen" 2-parter of Never No More and The Angriest Angel. A couple of stinker episodes (Pearly and the truly egregious R&R) intrude into the latter half of the season, but things pick up again in the build toward the finale. Realizing that their struggling ratings would probably not lead to renewal, Morgan and Wong wrote a 2-part conclusion to the season that could serve as either a cliffhanger or a series finale. Obviously, it became the latter. It's something of a downer for an ending, but does provide a reasonable sense of closure for most of the major story arcs, which is more than most cancelled series ever get.

I wouldn't call Space: Above and Beyond a true classic, but it is better than its reputation as a cheesy flop would indicate. Sci-fi fans should give it a chance. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

Episodes included in this Complete Series box set are: Pilot, The Farthest Man from Home, The Dark Side of the Sun, Mutiny, Ray Butts, Eyes, The Enemy, Hostile Visit, Choice or Chance, Stay with the Dead, The River of Stars, Who Monitors the Birds?, Level of Necessity, Never No More, The Angriest Angel, Toy Soldiers, Dear Earth, Pearly, R&R, Stardust, Sugar Dirt, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest…, and …Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best.

The DVD:
Fox Home Entertainment presents all 23 episodes of Space: Above and Beyond – The Complete Series in a 5-disc box set. The discs are all double-sided, with the episodes spread unevenly among them. Some disc sides are single-layered and hold only two episodes, while other sides are double-layered and hold up to four episodes. All discs are stored in thin-pak cases within a cardboard slipcover box, similar to the Futurama or Family Guy DVDs also from Fox.

The box set was released initially as a Best Buy exclusive on 9/6/05 for $41.99, but will be expanded to general retail on 11/8/05 with an MSRP of $49.98 (though many stores will undoubtedly offer it cheaper). From all indications, the wider release should be identical to the Best Buy versions.

Viewers in many different states have reported that some Best Buy copies show physical defects on the discs that manifest in glitchy playback. Not every copy has this problem, but if this is a concern it might be best to wait for the next batch of discs to see if only the first production run was affected.

The series episodes are presented in their original 4:3 broadcast aspect ratio. The discs appear to be transferred from the show's original 1995 broadcast masters. Picture quality is erratic. Some episodes such as the pilot are sharp and bright with excellent colors, while several others (especially Choice or Chance) look extremely dim and murky. Compression quality is only mediocre, with routine appearances of grain and shimmer, as well as occasional intrusions of color banding. Minor edge enhancement ringing pops up from time to time as well.

Most episodes are reasonably sharp, though the show's CGI effects were rendered at a low resolution and often look fuzzy. This is an artifact of the production, not the DVD.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack has a surprisingly aggressive surround mix for a television production. Spaceships zip around and explosions routinely boom from the rear speakers. Dolby ProLogic II decoding creates a convincing stereo soundstage across the back of the room, including occasional directional effects and pans.

That said, the pilot episode sounds rather poor. Fidelity is thin, lacking in body or bass, and the episode has many cheeseball videogame sound effects. Subsequent episodes sound much better, but are still only comparable with other TV soundtracks that Fox has issued on DVD with low bit-rate 192 kb/s encoding. They are generally adequate but not as full-bodied as they could be.

French and Spanish dub tracks are also available in Dolby 2.0 Surround. English and Spanish subtitles have been provided.

12 TV spots are all we get for supplements. They showcase just how lame and inadequate the Fox marketing effort for the show was, at times making desperate pleas directly to X-Files fans to please give the show a chance. Other spots try to play up the "non-stop action and mind-blowing special effects".

The discs have bland static menus that bizarrely include an image of the Babylon 5 space station on every screen. This is especially perplexing considering that Babylon 5 is a Warner Bros. property. (Note that I make this observation based on the Best Buy exclusive discs. The menu screens may or may not be corrected for the general release).

No ROM supplements have been included.

Final Thoughts:
Aside from The X-Files, the Fox network has really not had much ratings success with science fiction programming. Nonetheless, from Harsh Realm to John Doe to Firefly, the network keeps developing promising new series and cancelling them before they have a chance to sufficiently develop to their potential. Space: Above and Beyond was another such casualty. Now, ten years later, the show's fans finally have a chance to revisit their favorite episodes, and new sci-fi buffs can discover the series fresh. The DVDs are nothing special in terms of picture, sound, or bonus features, but the show itself is worth a look. Recommended.

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