Who Monitors The Birds? is structurally the most ambitious episode of Space: Above and Beyond to date. The dialogue is limited to only a few lines in only about three key flashback scenes, with the rest of the action following Hawkes as he struggles to stay one step ahead of the Chig patrols.
Rodney Rowland steps up to the challenge admirably. Just because he doesn’t have much dialogue doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to carry the show and his physical performance is excellent. Hawkes’ exhaustion, both physical and mental, is draining to watch and seeing a flashback to a younger version of Hawkes, stiff, emotionally stunted and naive, being brainwashed to fight for America, is deeply sinister.
Obviously, with dialogue scarcely a concern, it is the direction that must come to the fore, and Who Monitors The Birds? is a fascinating watch. My favourite bit of directorial craft is a moment where Hawkes, in desperation, leaps into a river to escape and the scene immediately cuts to a flashback of his birth, sliding out of the tube in a splash of fluid. It’s an easy connection to make, maybe, but it’s still a stylish choice.
Similar is a scene where Hawkes is distracted by a pteradactyl like creature in flight and flashes back to his similar amazement at seeing a bird in flight from the window of the education facility. The title is reflective of this, as he is amazed that the bird seems so free while his life is controlled by the sinister “monitors”, so he, quite innocently, asks that question, and gets into trouble for it. A Chig walks close by and Hawkes is about to fire before he sees that the alien, too, is fascinated by the creature, and lets it go on its way. I always appreciate the way Space tries to add layers of ambiguity to Chig behaviour and show common ground between the two sides. By this point in the series it is very clear that the Chigs are not by any means pure evil.
On this theme, there is a lovely scene where Hawkes has the better of a Chig and it surrenders, throwing up its four-fingered hands in a very human gesture. It offers Hawkes its dog-tag thing that it keeps on its chest-plate and he gives it a ring in exchange. In the next scene he is jumped by Chigs, kills them, and discovers this individual among them. Heartbroken he takes his ring back, returns the chest-panel and sinks to the ground.
Brave and effective are the moments where Hawkes, exhausted and dehydrated, starts hallucinating a sort of personification of death. This is represented by Vansen, but in a skimpy dress, with pale skin, yellow eyes, and bloody lips.
Almost no dialogue is exchanged in these scenes either, but the chemistry between the two is very well done, and Hawkes’ obvious attraction to Vansen is perverted effectively by his dire circumstances and mental state. She really does look nightmarish, and her appearances are heralded by eerie guitar licks that jar brilliantly with the rest of the orchestral soundtrack.
She saves Hawkes by pointing out Chig patrols a couple of times but ultimately he rejects her, casts her aside, and goes to the extraction point. “Until we meet again.” she says, mockingly. This is a great illustration of the way death is a constant part of a soldier’s life, either aiding him, by taking his enemies, or finally coming for him at the end. Hawkes kills a lot of Chigs, sometimes with Death by his side, but despite the near hopelessness of his situation he is able to ultimately reject her embrace and survive, for now.
The action is decent and we probably see more pyrotechnics here than in any other episode of Space thus far. There are extended sequences of Hawkes running from small arms fire, mortar fire, and fighting Chigs in hand to hand combat and all are tense and exciting.
Cooper Hawkes, sentenced to service in the military by a judge, is offered an early honorable discharge in return for his participation in a military mission with little hope of success. Chosen for his expert marksmanship, he is forbidden to tell the rest of his squadron, the only people he cares about, what his mission is or even that he has one. He and one other operative are set down on Tigris, a Chig-held planet, with orders to assassinate a top officer in the enemy ranks and get out alive. The extreme danger of his situation is brought forcefully home to viewers by the silence (even the music is minimized) in which most of the episode is conducted–the slightest whisper could give away his position to the patrols hunting him and his partner, who is soon killed, leaving Hawkes alone and far from his extraction point. Forced to rely on his wit and instinct, Hawkes finds himself reliving his decanting at age eighteen in the in-vitro facilities, his education in the Orwellian institution under the tutelage of fascist “monitors”, and his last-ditch escape from the facility when they attempt to kill him, fearing his assertiveness and independence of mind.
The other important metaphor is birds. Not only does a lone, soaring bird seen through the bars of his “training facility” speak to the pilgrim soul in Hawkes, but a flying reptile on Tigris provides an opportunity for Hawkes to share, albeit unknowingly, a common moment with an alien enemy as they admire the natural beauty of the world they are fighting over. From the bird whose freedom first ignites an echo in him, to the Hammerhead he flies, to the flapping dinosaur he recognizes, perhaps even to his own name, Hawkes is tied to the concepts of liberty and solitude iconized by birds.
From that moment on, Hawkes begins to break out of the killing-machine mold he has been forced into, eventually attempting a tentative truce with a Chig soldier whom he surprises. On the point of knifing him, Hawkes hesitates when the Chig makes one of the few truly universal human gestures — palm out, a plea to wait. Cautiously the two of them exchange tokens of cease-fire, if not friendship, and go their separate ways. When Hawkes later accidentally kills his new acquaintance, his despair and remorse triggers his last vision of Death, mocking his efforts to achieve some kind of peace in the midst of all this violence.
I commend not only Morgan and Wong, but director Winrich Kolbe, for keeping the story line clear and consistent while relying only on Rodney Rowland’s expression, the lonely sound of wind, or the dark landscape through which he struggles to tell this tale. I toss bouquets of roses to Rodney Rowland for an outstanding piece of work, a performance which never slipped or faltered. Born as a despised, rootless thing, named by strangers and raised without love, it is a wonder that this man has not become a suicide or a psychotic. There must be a warm heart indeed underneath that exterior, to have kept him from the cold of sociopathy all these years. Rowland showed us the innocence, pathos, courage and faith at the heart of Cooper Hawkes. Body language was his only means of communication throughout the episode, and he carried it off well. His poignant last look at the sleeping Shane Vansen was a real heartbreaker.
The Philadelphia Facility
The building is old and shabby, a drab, cheerless place with bars on the windows. It is here that In-Vitros are instructed in how to take their place in society. We can guess that the training encompasses everything from the basics like walking, talking, personal hygiene and table manners, to the more traditional classroom lessons. They have obviously learned to read (because they are comprehending the words appearing on the screen in front of them), to write (as evidenced by the pads and pens that lay in front of them) and to understand mathematics (or Hawkes wouldn’t have been able to understand the formulas needed to fly the alien vessel in “Hostile Visit.”)
However, much of their formal, classroom education goes beyond the traditional, and is clearly aimed at producing efficient soldiers who won’t try to think for themselves, a role they will probably be expected to fulfill upon “graduation.”
All the knowledge that In-Vitros gain is carefully controlled and structured by the Monitors, Natural Borns who serve as instructors and as guards, supervising every aspect of the lives of their charges.
“The Monitors are pleased with you.”
The In-Vitros congregate in a classroom setting, silently watching messages flash on the wall in front of them.
“To be monitored is to be free.”
“Spared the agony of decision.”
“Released from the burden of choice.”
“In-Vitros need only react. To react as America wants you to react.”
“America loves you.”
“One day you will return her love . . . ”
“And defeat those trying to harm her.”
“There are 687 methods of killing a human being.”
This particular class has been here eight months, presumably being indoctrinated in just this way, day after day; constantly being told what to do, how to do it and what to think. The In-Vitros learn to do what they are told by the Monitors without questioning anything, and it amounts to nothing less than brainwashing.
“Who monitors the birds?”
While sitting through yet another class, Hawkes raises his hand hesitantly, as if knowing that questions will be frowned upon.
“Monitor, who monitors the birds?” he asks curiously, having watched the birds flying free outside his barracks window.
“I monitor the birds,” he’s told sternly.
“Who monitors you?” is Hawkes’ next, perfectly natural question, but he’s met with silence and a frown. A dangerous look passes between this Monitor and another at the back of the room, which does not bode well for Hawkes.
Why should watching a flying bird cause Hawkes to ask this question? After eight months of brainwashing, it seems a daring and unusual thing to do.
“You are considered defective.”
Hawkes finds a note under the pillow of his bunk in the sleeping dormitory. It’s from a fellow In-Vitro who overheard the guards discussing him.
“You are considered defective,” the note says ominously. “You are to be erased.”
Hawkes appears to have begun to think for himself, which is evidently viewed as a flaw, and he must be eliminated.