War is hell. Making a sci-fi series about war can be even worse.
Glen Morgan and James Wong, creators and executive producers of Fox's Space:Above and
Beyond, sit in Morgan's office solemnly pondering the latest ratings. First the good news: Their
series about a troop of Marine Corps top-gunners fighting an alien war in the year 2063 has
proven to be a real contender on Sunday nights at 7 P.M.--a time slot historically owned by 60
Minutes. Dozens of other shows have failed here, but Space is smack even with 60 Minutes
among adults 18-49 and has improved Fox's ratings in this Sunday-night
dead zone by 24 percent.
Even more surprising, Space is pulling bigger audiences than the sci-fi giant Star Trek:Voyager
on UPN; it's also beating the syndicated Star Trek:Deep Space Nine. Buzz on the Internet is
intense, with a number of sci-fi fans saying they prefer Space's gritty, gutsy vision of the future
to what they regard as the wholesome, we-shall-overcome approach taken by the Trek shows.
(Some fans also think the bigger-than-Trek budget-some $2 million per episode-delivers more
special-effects bang for the buck.) Space even has a breakout heartthrob, Rodney Rowland, who
is causing the same fuss William Shatner did his Captain Kirk salad days.
But while Space seems to have many of the makings of a hit, it's still in the bottom third of the
Nielsens. And because of the show's expense, those ratings might not be good enough.
Whether the show becomes a lucrative, Trek-like phenomenon or a Battlestar Galactica fade-out
may be decided over the next several months. "I think we have a good show--I know we do,"
says Morgan. "We can't help but wish our work was seen by more people."
Media analysts keeping a close eye on the Space case suspect it will be. "This show is doing
extremely well in the demographic groups advertisers want," says Steve Sternber, senior partner
with BJK&E Media. "It has the same audience share that The X-Files did its first season, and it
could evolve into the same kind of bona fide hit."
Right now, though, producers Morgan and Wong are worried about the show's early-evening
time period. When it made its debut in early fall, Space competed against baseball; then its
starting time was often delayed by Fox's own football telecasts. Some network exec believe the
post football time slot is ideal for luring male viewers, but it can also backfire. "Starting at 7:42
P.M., like Space sometimes does, is a problem," says analyst Bill Carroll, v.p. of Katz
Television. "It causes the viewers tuning in just for you to go somewhere else and sample."
The time slot has brought Space head-to-head with another formidable foe--Fox's broadcast
standards department. Originally envisioned by Morgan and Wong to air in an 8 or 9 P.M. slot,
Space is often considered too intense, both in language and in violence, for family viewing.
"That's a real problem with a show about a bunch of tough Marines at war," says Wong. "In
combat, people get show, people die--but we're not allowed to show the impact of a weapon."
Adds Morgan: "We can't even verbally refer to certain violent acts. My biggest fear is that, if
you can't show a how horrible war is, it may start looking like a great adventure."
John Matoian, president of Fox Entertainment Group, says, "The big question is whether this
show is too complex for Sundays at 7. Despite all the technology and spaceware, it hasn't really
garnered a kid and teen audience. If we begin to see [after football season] that Space is having
trouble, we'll try another time slot."
Everyone from Fox executive to onliners expected great things from Morgan and Wong, who
had been responsible for some of the most popular episodes of Chris Carter's cult-hit series, The
X-Files. "But that's a show that comes along once in a decade," says Morgan. "Space can't be
The X-Files." And it definitely doesn't want to be Star Trek. "This show gives the audience
much more than they get from Star Trek--something people can relate to," says Tony Palmieri,
the show's former directory of photography, who was responsible for setting the show's
moodiness. "Trek is very clean and proper and politically correct. There's no atmosphere."
Adds Space production designer Bernard Hides: "Other space shows are extremely bright. No
shadows. No character. We want the audience to feel the sweat and see the grit. Even our
aliens' architecture has the grime you'd associate with the backstreets of a ghetto." (Star Trek
staffers politely decline to fire back.)
Morgan and Wong patterned Space after their favorite World War II Films, including "Twelve
O'Clock High." Says Morgan with a laugh, "We did the show this way mostly because of my
dad. He's a sci-fi fan who likes the idea of Star Trek but can't get past the people with the big
ears. He's been our barometer." Space avoids anything too futuristic: The Marine Corps
uniforms, weaponry, virtual-reality training equipment, and lingo are all amazingly 1990s. Ditto
the civilian clothing (jeans, satin jackets, golf shirts).
"Showing what strange tunics we'll be wearing in 70 years was less important than making
viewers believe in the characters and situation," says Wong. "We love the intensity, the purity,
the cut-and-dried, life-and-death relationships between people in combat. We've copied the
composition and lighting of World War III movies because we want series to feel like they're
flying with us."
Even Space's three young leads--Morgan Weisser,
Rodney Rowland, and Kristen Cloke--were
picked for their old-Hollywood appeal. Randy Stone, senior v.p. of talent and casting at
Twentieth Century Fox Television, thinks Weisser
(who plays lovesick Space lieutenant Nathan West) is "a young Montgomery Clift and the
most talented young actor I've ever seen. I had to beg him to audition for Space."
Rowland, an ex-model Stone first spotted in the J. Crew catalogue, was cast as in vitro-bred
warrior Cooper Hawkes "because of his heroic, Errol Flynn quality and James Dean danger."
Stone says Cloke (who plays hard-nosed flyer Shane Vansen) "has the toughness of Susan
Hayward--she's one of the guys in an ingenue's body. People consider all three to be attractive,
but I didn't not care how they looked. As with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson--whom I
cast in The X-Files--no other actors could play these roles better."
Still, comparisons between Space and Fox's sexy, youth-appeal soap operas have become quite
"I find it offensive [the media] would call us Melrose Space," says Cloke. "It really sells us
short because we try hard not to be that. I'm proud of this show. It's intelligent. It has a lot to
offer." And it's not all glam. "I'm a mess in the episode we're shooting right now--cuts all over
my face, ragged clothes, dirt under my fingernails. Melrose, puh-leeze. I resent it. I have yet to
wear pumps on this show. It's a good day if they give me lip gloss."
She gets no argument from Rowland. "So Space has pretty people in their early 20s--every show
has a little bit of a TV formula," says the actor. "I'm not a fan of those soaps, so the comparison
bugs me. Nobody's saying it to encourage people to tune us in. They're saying it because it's a major cut-down."
Yep, this is one feisty squadron--on screen and off.
"We're all very different," says Lanei Chapman, who plays rookie pilot Vanessa Damphousse.
"We're close because of the experience, but I don't know how much we'd hang out together if it
weren't for the work. We fight--the kind of fights where you say, OK, I'm not taking to you for
the rest of the day, or at least for the next hour.' but, like family, we always work it out. We're
protective of each other."
And they're very protective of Space itself. "We're in awe of Glen and Jim's vision," says
Cloke. Adds Weisser: "For them,
this is not a sci-fi series, it's a military drama. They're in love
with the old values. They're bringing back hope, a sense of purpose, a belief in the system. It
might sometimes come off as corny or naive, but they really believe in this stuff--and we support
Joel de la Fuente (who plays Space's resident savant, Paul Wang) says, "All the distractions and
conflicts about what we can and can't do are just an extra challenge. It's forcing us to figure out
exactly what we want to show to be. We're discovering it together as we go along."
Even fan complaints are considered backhanded compliments. "We've come to realize that
griping is part of the sci-fi viewing experience," says Weisser. "The other day, a guy wrote, I
watched the latest episode for the fifth time, and so-and so's right thruster was not on.' You
want to say, Buddy, get a life!' But as long as they're watching, it doesn't matter. We're giving
'em something to talk about."