Flying The Nest
By Kevin Stevens. Reprinted without permission. ©Sci Fi Universe September 199

How Space's `Who Monitors the Birds?' set the new benchmark for the fledgling series and proved silence truly can be golden.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN: Rodney Rowland as Tank Cooper Hawkes, who's offered a chance to get out of the military in Who Monitors The Birds?Creators Glen Morgan and James Wong deliberately set out to play with television's tried-and-true formulas in Space: Above and Beyond. Their most successful experiment saw the series' most eloquent statement being made in an episode notably lacking in dialogue.

In Who Monitors the Birds?, rebellious in-vitro Cooper Hawkes is offered an honorable discharge from the Marines in exchange for his services during a dangerous commando mission. While the character is forced to confront one of his darkest demons during the episode, the writers were able to realize one of their fondest dreams in it - producing an hour of prime-time series television with only minimal dialogue.

"Glen is the one who came to me and said, `Let's do a show with no dialogue'," says Wong. "And I think my reaction was the same as anybody else's, which was `Huh?'"

But soon Wong recognized the possibilities. "At first I went, `What' but then you start thinking about it, and it's a way to give yourself another challenge. Television is a format we know so well, but this was something totally different."

Neither was worried that Twentieth Television or Fox might disapprove. "I think because we work in television at this level now, we have a great deal of leeway with the studio, because we have their trust - but they let us do it."

Morgan says his desire to attempt such a bold experiment began when he saw Steven Speilberg's television movie Duel, a dialogue-light thriller that put the director's career into high gear. "When I was a kid, I just loved that movie so much, so I think in your subconscious, you're carrying that around," he says.

In Duel, Dennis Weaver is an unwitting motorist who finds himself the prey of a maniacal, driverless truck. It was a simple story that stressed action over psychological depth.

With Who Monitors the Birds?, Morgan wanted to do a story that worked on several levels. There's Hawkes' mission on the hostile alien world and the flashbacks used to set up that story, but Morgan and Wong also saw the opportunity during the hour to explore the character's backstory in depth,

"That was the function of working out the story," says Wong. "We were dealing with Cooper, and he's going to be in danger, so the idea was, when you're alone what do you think about?"

"You reflect on your life," answers Morgan.

So, while fighting to survive until he can be extracted from the planet, Hawkes is drawn into a reverie that sends him back to the in-vitro training facility where his early education takes place. "It was an opportunity to explain what happens to an in-vitro without being obvious," says Wong.

For actor Rodney Rowland, the episode represented an enormous challenge with little preparation time. "When I read the script, I knew it was special, and I knew it was going to take longer than any other show to shoot," he says. "But I only had about a week to get ready."

Adds Rowland, "The hardest part was playing him as a six-month old, but luckily I'd studied a long time with an acting coach who had us do these weird things, like get into our `child', so I had good access to that level of innocence, to that energy. You just try to somehow find a throughline to make the scenes compelling without using words. I had to do so many notes about each moment in each scene. On one page, there'd be ten of these moments."

Glen Morgan was certain Rowland would rise to meet any challenges in the script. "He's grown so much so fast in this character," says Morgan. Still, he wanted to keep the actor somewhat off-balance. "There are elements that you explain to him so that he feels comfortable, and yet there's stuff you keep from him, so the character comes across as unsure of himself," says Morgan. "Rodney really prepares so much, sometimes I think he drives himself crazy."

To direct the episode, Morgan and Wong discovered Star Trek veteran Winrich Kolbe. "I didn't know much about Rick Kolbe," admits Morgan, "but we saw at the [Universe Readers' Choice] Awards show that he's probably pretty good, so we hired him."

Kolbe was nominated for Best Director of a Genre Television Episode or Telefilm Universe Readers' Choice award for the Voyager premiere, Caretaker. Says Wong, "He was very open and had a lot of really great ideas."

In the episode, Morgan also explored a theme he'd wanted to use in the series from the beginning. Even before the series' pilot had aired, he had told Universe, "One scene we really want to do is that one in All Quiet on the Western Front when the German and the Frenchman are in the foxhole. The Frenchman's dead, and he pulls out his wallet and he's not this horrible monster. He's got a family. He's got kids."

Morgan used this very scene in Who Monitors the Birds, simply substituting Hawkes and a Chig for the World War II soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front. Hawkes saves the Chig, but is later forced to kill him.

Wong and Morgan felt that Hawkes' character was the right one to use in this emotional storyline. "There's a certain level of innocence to him," says Wong. "There's a vulnerability that you're surprised to find in somebody who looks so good."

Fortunately, Rowland was not so vulnerable that he couldn't endure the demanding filming of the episode. "I went to the hospital twice during the shoot just out of exhaustion," says Rowland. "It was ten days. It was thirty degree weather - all night - and I had to be soaked down with water. There'd be frost on the ground, and I'm running around all night avoiding bomb after bomb. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, physically and psychologically. I was freezing to the bone. I had incredible asthma."

Adds Rowland, "I just knew that Glen and Jim were giving me something special. It was their dream to do an episode with no dialogue, and they used me to do it. If nothing else happens from this show, I have that."

Of course, the episode did have nominal scenes that had to include dialogue - including a briefing scene that explains his mission to Hawkes, and to the audience. But Morgan and Wong wanted to use as few of these scenes as possible. "The first cut of it, the one I like best, has the mission briefing in the second act," says Wong, "but the studio was adamant that we put the mission briefing in the first act."

As Hawkes' ordeal grows more intense, and he inches ever closer toward death, he sees an apparition: the Whore of Death, a mysterious, erotic figure whose seductive advances Hawkes must resist.

"The concept originally came from reading William Manchester's Goodbye Darkness," says Morgan, "but then you do some research, and you find it's actually a common kind of phenomenon among soldiers, a vision that combines that eroticism with death."

"In Manchester's book, the vision he saw was so horrid, but it was dressed like a New England prep school girl," adds Morgan, who decided along with Wong that Hawkes' death-vision should appear to him as Shane.

"There's just a whole other level for Cooper by having Shane there," says Wong.

"Part of it was also a joke," says Morgan. "Kristen had been saying to us that she wanted to wear a dress on the show, so it was kind of a good news/bad news thing. You're going to get the dress, but you're going to look like a corpse wearing it."

But once Cloke arrived on the location as the unearthly Whore of Death, Morgan and Wong discovered their creation had perhaps more relevance than they first realized.

Says Morgan, "Dale Dye, who played Jack Colquitt, the guy who goes on the mission with Cooper, came up to Kristen after she was all made up, and he looked at her and said, `I've seen you before - when I was in Vietnam.'"
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Space: Above And Beyond are legal property of James Wong and Glen Morgan, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Television. No copyright infringement intended.
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