When Space: 1999 premiered in 1975 it was during a time when there was a famine on quality science fiction. Gerry Anderson, master of the supermarionation series took another shot at live action sci-fi following his trippy 1970 series UFO, this time with a series that dealt with the mysteries of space.
On the moon a dump site has been set up to hold all of Earth’s radioactive waste. However, a new, previously undetected form of radiation is detected (magnetic radiation), and when it reaches critical mass a massive thermonuclear explosion takes place that blasts the moon out of its orbit around the Earth and sends it hurtling into space. The scientific team that has been stationed on the moon (known as Moonbase Alpha) now has to find a way to survive under these new conditions, while looking for either a method to get back to Earth, or at least a new world that they’ll be able to call home. During the interim they must manage to survive the myriad of mysterious encounters and phenomena that greets them as the moon sails further and further into deep space.
When the series first premiered, Anderson had the idea of presenting space as simply weird. US television already had two earlier shows that dealt with space travel and/or being lost and unable to get home. The first of that was Lost In Space on CBS, then came Star Trek on NBC. While Lost In Space sort of took a more “imaginative” approach to what was in space, Anderson wanted to take things even further and not just make space scientifically unexplainable, but also psychologically unexplainable. This gave birth to episodes that ranged from weird to just downright baffling. However, during this time there was a sense that the series was at least trying to be something different in tackling episodes that might not have been scientifically accurate, but were at the very least metaphysically controversial.
The pilot episode “Breakaway” gave us an episode that was very linear in its storytelling and very high in the action. The character development was peculiar, especially in regards to the new Commander of the base, John Koenig (Martin Landau) and the base’s new Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Helena Russell. It was interesting that this (at the time) married acting couple would come off as antagonistic towards one another, although there would be a later episode that viewers might be able to gleem a reason towards their hostility. In any case, the pilot not only gave us a thrilling ride, but the production values for a pilot were quite high. The set design showed that this series was going to spare no expense, as well as the series taking risks when it came to camera angles and lighting. The result was that “Breakaway” came off as an outstanding pilot and gave sci-fi fans a lot of hope for the future of the series.
However, later episodes started to betray Anderson’s true designs, and that is the aforementioned mysteries of space. Not all of them would come off this way, but this first series of episodes did have quite a few standouts. “Matter of Life and Death” introduced us to Dr. Russell’s first husband, astronaut Lee Russell who was presumed lost during an exploration mission. Now he has shown up on a mysterious world with an equally mysterious condition. He reverts to anti-matter, and the world that the moon has started to approach is also made of anti-matter. Of course scientifically none of this makes sense, for instead of massive annihilation when Koenig and Dr. Russell land on the planet, it at first seems like paradise, when suddenly a massively violent storm kicks up that kills Koenig and Dr. Russell sees the moon suddenly explode. It is at this point that Lee shows up and tells her that she will see things as she wishes to see them, to which she sees Koenig alive and the moon is back. From there they leave because they realize that this world is not meant for them. This is a clear example of Anderson trying to present a series where deep space will show worlds and lifeforms that make absolutely no sense, and we are to take that at face value. Instead of trying to explain what is going on, the episode simply poses the notion that we accept this mystery with a cavalier and carefree approach without at least trying to seek understanding with the mysterious encounter of the week.
Then there is the episode “Black Sun.” The premise is simple. The moon is on a path that will have it devoured by what they call a black sun, but what we know to correctly be a black hole. The base is partially evacuated, and the remaining personnel, including Commander Koenig and his Science Officer Victor Bergman (who comes off as more anti-science and pro-philosophy) remain on the moon with the full expectation of being killed. Instead the moon enters the black hole, and in a moment of the strangest time distortion, they converse with God who happens to be a benevolent female voice. She doesn’t tell them much, except that now with the time being stretched because of the black hole are they now finally able to hear her, and that she has been watching over them during their entire journey through space. Once the moon “exits” back into normal space they rendezvous with the evacuated crew, suggesting that perhaps God engineered their return. Again, we have an episode that is absolutely baffling to the viewer. Instead of getting science fiction, the series presented us with space spirituality.
Lastly there was “Dragon’s Domain,” that shows us a Sargasso Sea of wrecked ships, and among them is one where a hideous monster resides. People who go onboard that ship are devoured in a rather gruesome manner, but the monster doesn’t register and has a habit of appearing and then disappearing. Only when someone pokes the one eye of the monster does it appear to die and permenantly disappear. Again, not sci-fi, but this episode took a big risk and chose to go pure horror (which I greatly appreciated). These are just a few episodes of a first series that dared to act as if the viewer was on some sort of hallucinogenic. The episodes were uneven at best, but it did command some respect from die-hard fans for at least attempting to tell stories that had never been attempted before. Then came series two…
When the series came back after its hiatus fans were greeted with a number of changes. The moonbase didn’t look quite so sterile, the set design for the Command Center had been changed, and the series introduced everyone to a shape-shifting alien named Maya (Catherine Schell) . Sadly the quality of the stories also changed. Instead of giving us some challenging philosophical stories about life in the universe, it became a cheap “shoot-em up” episode of the week. It was almost as if the writers were told that this show’s audience was made up of 10 year old boys without any sense of science fiction sophistication.
For example, in the episode “The Rules of Luton,” whilst on a planet both Koenig and Maya manage to “pick” the local flora, which angers all of the plant like life there. They then have to endure a sentence where they are to combat against another group of aliens for the same reason. Then there is “Space Warp,” which was produced solely as an excuse to see more aliens for Maya to turn into. However, if even those stories sound mediocre there was also “The Seance Spectre,” which saw a group of people headed by one scientist who now claims to be having visions about the myriad of planets the moon has flown by that all should have supported life, but Koenig refused to leave because he was enjoying his role as Commander too much. While these episodes may not sound too bad, they lack any original thought. The second season just became an average sci-fi show with lots of poorly thought out action, and badly regurgitated story ideas as the basis for these episodes.
While sci-fi fans may find Space: 1999 a questionable series, I would suggest that perhaps they watch the pilot, then immediately jump to the 2nd season and watch all the way through those before tackling the 1st season episodes. It is possible that this series suffered the same redirection that UFO had to go through when the studio executives found those early episodes like “having tea in the midlands.” Then UFO was re-tooled to have more action because the executives felt that’s what audiences responded to, and sadly it seems that Space:1999 suffered from the same fate, which undoubtedly played a huge part in its dwindling popularity and subsequent cancellation. Unfortunately, even though this series was from ITV in England, the show’s ratings drop couldn’t have come at a worse time. During a period when studio heads were convinced that science fiction was never a viable genre for either the TV or the cinema, merely reinforced that false notion into people’s heads. It would take many more years before studio and network executives would finally learn what a good sci-fi TV formula would look like. As for Space: 1999, there would be attempts to resurrect the show. There was even a plan to spin-off Maya into her own series since she was something of a breakout star for the show. Of course with the cancellation of the series also came a change of heart regarding that show.
Space: 1999 is a series that has definitely carved a place for itself in science fiction television, but whether or not it deserves to be there is up for debate. While the series ended up as a poor excuse for sci-fi pablum, it can be acknowledged that at least for its first season it had the courage to try to be different. It may not have always succeeded, but better to attempt at being something new and unusual than to lower the bar so much to where it would be nothing more than pathetic, recycled garbage.
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