- Vancouver, British Columbia -
In 1968, a landmark in science fiction was released in the form of 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Up to that point, most science fiction films featured mankind fighting alien menaces in fantastically corny situations. It would still be a few years before dystopic sci-fi would become the mainstream, but 2001 would actually be neither. Instead it was a movie that viewed space travel realistically and mysteriously, with heavy visuals and metaphysical implications. Initially reviews were mixed, but 2001 gained cult status and widespread notoriety as an important step in film history.
As such, when British distributor ITC Entertainment approached what would become Group Three Productions about doing a follow up to their popular program UFO, one of the main influences for this new television was clearly 2001. And even though 2001 had made serious waves in science fiction, there weren’t really too many shows that carried that psychedelic and cerebral tone. Most science fiction was action-oriented, because that was easier to sell to an audience (particularly an American one).
In the early 1970s production began on what would eventually become Space: 1999. ITC head Lew Grade insisted on having two American headliners, despite Group Three’s Sylvia Anderson’s very vocal objections, with her wanting an all-British cast (as they had in all their previous shows). Since ITC was footing most of the bill though, they won out and Martin Landau was brought on with his then-wife Barbara Bain. Both were fresh off of Mission: Impossible and were interested in a project of this scope. Landau in particular campaigned tirelessly to American networks to pick the show up. ITC needed some help with funding, so the Italian company RAI jumped in with some cash (they stipulated that there be some Italians cast, so if you’re watching the show and are wondering what the deal is with all those Italians, there you go). With all that money floating around, Space: 1999 became the most expensive television series up to that point (sorry Doctor Who – that’s where all the money went).
2001’s influence is everywhere in this show, and Group Three made no effort to hide it. There was a prevailing attitude that their productions were for kids, given the popularity they had with Thuderbirds, Captain Scarlet, and others. UFO, even though it contained many adult themes, was marketed as a show for kids with oodles of merchandise hitting the stores for them. Space: 1999 even started out conceptually as the second season of UFO. But because of that shadow hanging over them, Group Three wanted their look to be more mature. 2001 was an obvious source for this. Looking at the visuals, it’s no coincidence. The spacesuits, the orbiting relay station, the nuclear waste disposal facilities, and even Moonbase Alpha itself are a strong visual link. Even specific scenes, like Commander Koenig flying up to Alpha for the first time, mirror scenes in 2001. And the scene of an astronaut going mad at the waste facility bears strong resemblance to the scene in 2001 where the monolith blasts the astronauts with the radio transmission.
This is by no means a criticism – the story elements are unique enough, and the characters developed enough, to stand alone. But it’s interesting to see that even the title of the series owes tremendously to Kubrick’s masterpiece.
One of the most unique elements are the Eagles; the spacecraft that Moonbase Alpha uses for reconnaissance, defense, and transport. They have modules in the center of the ship that they can swap as a change in function. Ironically, even though Group Three intended for the show to be an adult series, the toy Eagles sold very well.
Another unique element is how close to the present the show was set. This was something Group Three had done for UFO (shot in the 1960s, but taking place in the 1980s), and the reasoning was that it was more relatable, as it was going to take place in the viewer’s lifetime. That generation had seen technology progress at amazing speeds already; think that in 1960, no one would have thought man would be on the moon in nine years. Unfortunately, it does date the production. Some of the technology is silly by today’s standard (particularly poor Computer), but some was a fairly accurate prediction (like the remote fobs the staff use).
This past month, I had committed myself to watching the entire first season of the show, all 24 episodes. There was a second season that followed, with some major cast changes (including the very popular metamorph character Maya), but the tone and look of the series changed between seasons, so I thought it fair to evaluate the first season entirely on its own merits. I had watched reruns of the show as a kid, but I must have been pretty young because I have very few memories of it, apart from the premise and some visuals. So when watching the first season, I took a look at the episode listing but found an interesting website that proposes an alternate episode listing with full explanations of why it makes more sense. It’s worth noting that the episodes almost rarely reference each other, and there are noticeable logic holes and inconsistencies with the episodes, so some fans have done a lot of work getting around this. It’s also worth noting that there are even some differing orders to the episodes officially. The production order, the televised order, and the listed order on VHS and DVD releases vary wildly at times.
Here’s the website with the episode order I followed. I found it to be quite useful and it made watching the series more consistent. The website is a pretty concise one, so I’ll try to avoid overlapping with the content on there, but I agree with pretty much everything this fellow Andrew Kearley says (as he’s invested way more thought into it than I have). I’ll reiterate his biggest point though, in that the first season of Space: 1999 is meant to be a metaphysical journey outside the normal realm of physics and science as we understand them here on Earth. Many phenomena aren’t explained because the Alphans can’t explain it; they can only cope and survive. Their journey is meant to be one of destiny, with an unknown force putting them through trials to prepare them. This is space travel as an experience, not as exploration. It’s about more than survival; it’s about the human condition.
You may be wondering at this point what the series (or at least, the first season) is actually about. There are spoilers ahead, so if you’re intrigued enough to watch the show, go do that first. The season opens with “Breakaway,” where Commander Koenig has just been assigned as replacement Commander on Moonbase Alpha, on the moon orbiting the Earth. The moon has been used to dispose nuclear waste, as nuclear energy is the most abundant power source on Earth. A mysterious plague has been driving some of the Alphans insane, and eventually killing them. A lot of this information has been suppressed, as the World Space Commission can not afford the bad publicity at this time, as a rogue planet called Meta is passing through the solar system, and the Commission intends on sending a space probe to investigate the strange signals the planet is giving off.
While Koenig is surveying one of the disposal sites, an astronaut he is with goes mad and attempts to kill them. He seems to be exhibiting symptoms of radiation sickness, but there’s no radiation. Dr. Helena Russell, the CMO played by Barbara Bain, has no explanation for the madness that is killing the crew. After some investigation, they discover a new type of magnetic energy that the nuclear waste is giving off that is acting like radiation (or something). Unfortunately, now that they’re able to scan for it, they also can see it’s having a cascade reaction leading to meltdown. They attempt to disperse the waste, but it’s too late: an explosion sets off all the waste on the moon. The chain reaction creates an explosion so immense that the moon is blasted out of the Earth’s orbit and Moonbase Alpha is trapped on the high-speed projectile flying through space.
Early in the series (in all the episode guides), there’s an episode called “Black Sun,” where the moon approached a black hole and the Alphans are sure they are doomed to die. Luckily, it turns out to be a wormhole, and they are flung to the distant reaches of the universe – but not before they have strange contact with a voice telling them they are part of some destiny.
Most of the episodes follow one of two formats from that point on: there’s a strange space phenomenon, or they come across a planet that they’d like to settle on but something goes wrong. That can be a bit tedious if you watch a bunch of one format in a row, but the episode guide I listed above takes that into account, so they’re spaced apart.
Backing up a little, I had also seen a release years ago called Alien Attack, which was part of a project where some of the episodes were bundled up as mini-movies, and reformatted a little. Alien Attack took the first episode, and a later episode called “War Games” and put them together. At the time, I thought it was the pilot, and was kind of disappointed. “War Games” takes place later in the series and involves Alpha being approached by alien ships who aren’t responding to hails. Koenig decides to attack, and the aliens wipe the floor with them, demolishing the base and killing half of the 300+ crew. Koenig and Russell go down to the planet, some big headed aliens admonish them with mumbo-jumbo, there’s explosions, Russell gets all heady-trippy with them, Koenig shoots his gun and witnesses destruction and then WHAMMO, the episode is right back to right before Koenig gave the order to attack. Now he’s like “Oh man, I better not do that again!” and orders the Eagles to stand down. The aliens appear and they’re like “Yeah, good choice. That whole thing was illusion, because you’re violent, so piss off.” And Koenig’s like “D’awww…” Apparently, this episode is a fan favourite, but this and “Matter of Life and Death” both have what is called ‘Oh Henry Endings’, which are tremendously unsatisfying. “It never really happened! It was a dream! Time was rewound! Magic!” So I was pretty glad to find out that Alien Attack wasn’t the pilot, just a strange collage of episodes…I wonder who thought that was a good idea.
The season closes out with an episode called “The Testament of Arkadia” (which really seems to be indisputably the last episode) where the moon comes to a sudden halt around a planet called Arkadia, and Alpha suffers a tremendous power loss. Koenig takes a team down to the planet to investigate and discovers a dead world, destroyed by a holocaust. In a cave, there are skeletons and an inscription on the wall written in Sanskrit, much to their surprise. The translation reads that a ship of Arkadians left to colonize another world while escaping their doomed world, and the Alphans realize that they must have colonized Earth – that people from Earth are actually Arkadians. This is supported by the mummified remains of oak and cedar trees around. Two of the team, an Italian and some chick, are witness to an unexplained supernatural event, and are possessed by the world. They steal supplies from Alpha and explain that they must rebuild this world. The force that has guided them from Earth is linked to this world and it is their destiny to stay. Only the two guest stars opt to stay on Arkadia, while Koenig and the rest of Moonbase Alpha prefer to remain on the base. With the new Italian Adam and Eve on Arkadia, the moon suddenly regains both its momentum in space and its power.
First off, I love Martin Landau. He’s amazing. The man can take a line like “Maybe it IS a space monster!” and read it with such conviction. He owns this role. Perhaps he owned it a little too much, as apparently he would get uppity if he didn’t get enough screen time, but nonetheless he brings a strong presence to the role. He’s very obviously a military man at times, but he has a tremendous heart and he weighs decisions carefully. His primarily goal is always the survival of his people. His actions are sometimes a little rash, like pre-emptive strikes, but they’re understandable. He’s in a hostile and completely alien universe.
I’m also a big fan of Nick Tate cast as astronaut Alan Carter, the third in command. He’s an amazingly dedicated and charming addition, featured in every episode as the go-to guy for dangerous missions. I also really like Barry Morse as Dr. Victor Bergman. He’s a comical guy who seems to have a strange twist where the more stressful a situation is, the more jovial he becomes. Not to an annoying level, but enough to be noticeable. Sadly, he didn’t return for the next season.
The special effects are great, even when not used. A strange compliment but let me explain. The shots of the Eagles, the moon, and Alpha all look amazing and as such get a lot of screen time. The use of the laser guns doesn’t look as convincing, and as such is rarely used. This is a smart choice, really. It also means that we as audience understand the desperation of a situation when the base security has to resort to their side arms – at that point, it really is a last resort. Less can be more.
On a similar note, this series has balls. There’s a lot of death, and more often than not it’s pretty gruesome. I think maybe three of the 24 episodes didn’t feature someone dying in some horrible way. But it’s not gratuitous (strangely enough), as every death serves the plot in some way.
Continuing that thought, there are some genuinely horrifying concepts in this series. The vampire-like episode “Force of Life” features a poor guest star possessed by a strange lifeform that needs heat and energy and kills people to get it. In the end, Koenig is forced to have the guy fried with their guns. A charred corpse hits the ground, but then the eyes glow and up the abomination comes to continue on its way. In “The Troubled Spirit,” an Italian is haunted by his own ghost, who has come from the future and kills members of the crew when he starts to get emotional. The climax has the man grappling with his own apparition, with both of them in a psychotic fit, finishing when the man is killed by electrocution, causing the whole cycle.
And the ending to “Earthbound” is so disturbing and tragic, I can’t spoil it for you in good conscience.
I like how the computer, named Computer (imagine that), is handled in this series. Instead of being a simple machine that spews out facts when asked, Computer is more like an Oracle, with David Kano as the medium. Computer rarely speaks directly (thankfully) and unlike Star Trek can be enigmatic. In “Earthbound,” Koenig asks Computer to randomly select one of the personnel to go home, and Computer gives him three options because it doesn’t want the final decision to be on its head (Koenig then tells Computer to man up and do its damn job).
The set is fantastic. They did some tricks with making it seem like they had more sets than they actually did (something about having the wall panels able to be combined in different ways), and they’re fairly convincing. The look is one of a military base, not a traditional ship.
I guess I have to give props to the concept alone. Even though logically, we can safely say that an explosion that would throw the moon out of orbit would probably destroy both it and the Earth, it’s a concept we haven’t really seen before or since (although apparently its being remade as Space: 2099 – I’m not joking). These aren’t people who wanted to travel or explore the cosmos; they were a relay station on the moon and now fate has taken them on an amazing ride. They even acknowledge the Earth might have been destroyed with their departure. Koenig’s mission of survival takes on more weight when your crew of 300 might actually be the last humans alive.
I also like the starting sequence. Although the music is pretty dated, it combines orchestral with 1970s funk, which is pretty groovy at times. It also gives flashes of what scenes you’ll see in the upcoming episode, but then flashed back to the date SEPTEMBER 9 1999 and shows the moon being blasted out of Earth orbit (just in case you’re tuning in for the first time, I guess).
Big one: Barbara Bain. Yeah, I’ve heard the argument that her character of Dr. Russell is just one of cool professionalism, but I’m very much of the opinion that she’s just awful in this role. Strangely detached most of the time, but teary-eyed all the bloody time. With this, the budding romance between her and Koenig can seem a little forced.
I already mentioned the episodes that trick you up with their endings, but I’ll mention just one more time that I’m not a fan of that stupid plot device.
The costumes are pretty drab, and they get an upgrade for the next season. That’s a relief. Alpha looks a bit sterile sometimes because of how colorless some of the sets are with those costumes set against them.
I’ve also noticed that the glass shatters way too easily on Alpha. Even in “Breakaway,” an astronaut gone bonkers starts hammering at a window with his helmet and it shatters! I was like “What?!? I’m sure they had thick paned glass or even plexiglass in the 1970s.” Or hell, they could have made something up like other sci-fi series (eg. Transparent aluminum)
Sometimes the physics get a little too wonky for us as viewers to ignore. In “The Full Circle,” members of an exploration party go through some magic mist that turns them all into cavemen – clothes, weapons, everything is regressed. But…when one turns up dead, the autopsy reveals he has caps on his teeth, which is what leads them to figure out that he’s not a caveman. So…caps don’t go back in time but laser guns do? And…magic mist? I don’t know, it was just a little too silly.
Finally, I want to mention “Dragon’s Domain,” the episode with the horrible giant tentacle monster. An Italian is haunted by the specter of this beast and finally gets to confront it. Now, I’m not going to attack the look of it, or the obvious use of wires. My problem is that the script was originally written as a character piece for Carter. Landau got a little miffed that a story would revolve around a dude other than him, so demanded it be rewritten for a guest star. That’s too bad really. I love you Marty, but come on.
And finally, I understand why they did it, but how pleased was RAI really with the casting of the Italians? They all die horrible deaths! One of the messages I got from this series was “Don’t be an Italian in space.”
Some Final Thoughts
Science fiction is an amazingly difficult genre to write, let alone produce. Space: 1999 was almost completely canceled but Gerry Anderson Productions promised to retool it to be more marketable. This meant some casting changes, costume upgrades, a change in tone to the series to be more action-oriented, and a new kickass theme tune (seriously…so much better).
The tragedy is that Space: 1999 wasn’t fully the show it wanted to be. The show was aiming to be cerebral, dark, and challenging. But the American side of ITC was constantly putting pressure on the writers for directional changes to be more like the sci-fi people were used to, to the point of frustrating a couple into quitting.
That being said, the series mostly succeeds. There are a lot of cerebral episodes and the actors all do a fine job (except for maybe Bain) of portraying real people trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances. They avoid a lot of sci-fi stereotypes, like a robot character or an annoying teen prodigy, and instead stick to a tight cast.
It’s an interesting thing to me that Koenig muses at the end of “Breakaway” that they’ll head to Meta and perhaps settle there, but never again is Meta mentioned in the series. I know that, on the one hand, they clearly blasted out of the solar system pretty quickly, but it’s no coincidence that the world was called Meta. For the pursuit of meta, a new understanding of existence, is what this first season is ultimately about.