As a kid in the 1970s, I watched Space: 1999 fairly religiously. And perhaps not entirely unpredictably, I didn’t remember a thing about it other than the uniforms and the Eagle spaceships, the giant toy of which a friend owned and would pit in battle against my Micronauts Hornetroid. As to the actual content of any one episode, however, I drew a persistent blank despite the hours I’d logged watching it during one of its many syndicated Saturday afternoon broadcasts. I had a vague sense of it being sort of heavy, and maybe a little profound, or what passed for profound before the eyes of an eight year old. Despite being a member of the so-branded Star Wars generation, I had as a child and still have as a grown man a deep appreciation for science fiction at its most ponderous, heavy-handed, self-important, earnest, and weird. So when I had a chance, through the magic of an affordable DVD release of the series, to go back and revisit the series — or more accurately, visit it again for the first time, such as the case may be — I was quite excited.
Space: 1999 began life as a different series, the delayed second season of creator Gerry Anderson’s occasionally popular UFO. Anderson, who began his career in film and television production as an editor, was and is best known for a series of science fiction and adventure shows starring puppets and marionettes. These “supermarionation” shows became his calling card but were never his passion. Rather, he fell into it in much the same way an employee at any job suddenly inherits for life some new project: he was the guy who was around. He’d been hoping for a chance to move out of editing and into production and directing. He got that chance in 1957, when he was hired to direct a children’s puppet show called The Adventures of Twizzle, about the adventures of a group of lost toys.
He parlayed the experience into forming his own production company, along with colleagues Arthur Provis, Reg Hill, John Reed, and a woman named Sylvia Thamm, who would later become Sylvia Anderson, Gerry’s wife and the guiding visionary behind the distinctive look and fashion that highlights many of their shows. Their first production, and Anderson’s second in the driver’s seat, was 1960’s Torchy the Battery Boy. Torchy was Anderson’s first foray into science fiction, with a main character who traveled through space in a rocket and hung out with yet more sentient abandoned and lost toys. That same year, Anderson and his production company made Four Feather Falls, a Western with a rootin’ tootin’ sheriff who wrangled the unruly residents of a small Kansas town with the help of his talking horse and dog. The show was a major success, and before Anderson knew it, he was the puppet show guy.
It wasn’t bad, really. Anderson’s AP Films signed a deal with Lew Grade, president of Incorporated Television Company (ITC), whose specialty was producing British television shows with eye on distributing them internationally. Marginal success at home didn’t mean much as long as they reaped larger profits abroad. In partnership with ITC, Anderson began to work on a steady stream of science fiction supermarionette shows throughout the sixties, including Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Joe 90, and his two best known series: Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. It was during the production of Captain Scarlet that AP Films changed its name to Century 21 Productions.
In each case, with the promise of overseas money thanks to ITC’s many deals, Anderson shot the episodes on film, as if for the movies or an American television show. This was in sharp contrast to the more common practice at the BBC of shooting on video, as was done with the science fiction juggernaut Doctor Who. Additionally, since the shows were made with an eye toward the American market more than the domestic British market, they were structured more in line with American television standards: twenty-five or fifty minute total run times and self-contained, non-serialized episodes. Again, this was in contrast to the example set by Doctor Who, where a single story could run through multiple episodes or an entire season. The end result of this style was a very high-end looking production, something ITC would implement with almost all of their series. Episodes of The Avengers or The Prisoner or the many Gerry Anderson shows looked more like movies than they did cheap British television shows.
As much as the marionette “actors,’ Anderson became known for his obsession with miniature and models special effects, designing elaborate (and often utterly impractical) vehicles, bases, and weapons systems. Although quaint when looked at with modern eyes, and not as ambitious as similar effects work being done by Eiji Tsuburaya in Japan, Anderson’s attention to detail was obvious in both the quality and quantity of miniatures and futuristic sets that were designed for the APF/Century 21 properties. Combined with the shot-on-film approach and international distribution, the plentiful effects work soon meant that ITC was making some of the highest end, highest profile, most sophisticated entertainment in Britain, competing less with the British television market and more with British film.
“What do we really know about UFOs?”
Although successful, Anderson was getting restless and feeling trapped in the ghetto of made-for-kids marionette shows. There had often been a hint of slightly darker and more mature content in his shows — Captain Scarlet begins with the titular hero accidentally annihilating an alien city — but Anderson wanted to break free entirely from the world of puppets and Penelope. He finally got his chance in 1969. It came not in the form of a television show, but as a feature film. Doppleganger — released as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in the United States — is a dark, live-action science fiction drama about astronauts who discover a duplicate but slightly off-kilter second Earth orbiting the opposite side of the sun. It is a contemplative, slow-moving, and somewhat pessimistic film that ends in the failure and death of the main character. It also proved to Lew Grade that Gerry Anderson could handle serious, adult science fiction and live action. With Doppleganger under his belt, Anderson was given the green light on his first live action science fiction series: UFO.
You can’t really blame viewers who sat down to watch the first episode of UFO for expecting it to be pretty much the same as everything else Gerry Anderson had done, only with live actors instead of puppets. Those misconceptions about the show were quickly dispelled. UFO has the sort of high concept that sounds like typical Anderson: a secret organization called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) is fighting a clandestine war with mysterious invaders from outer space, trying to protect the earth both from destruction and from any knowledge at all that these aliens exist and that we are at war with them. Heading up SHADO, and disguised as motion picture mogul, is platinum blonde Ed Straker (American actor Ed Bishop), and decorating this futuristic world in which humanity now lives is Sylvia Anderson, unfettered by the need to cater to marionette limitations and free to indulge the most candy-colored extremes of pop-art futurism and swingin’ London style.
But beneath the shiny purple hair, silver space mini-skirts, and secret bases equipped with Scotch machines was a very different sort of tone than people expected from Anderson. Straker is a very flawed human being, often threatening and aloof, willing to kill even his own employees and acquaintances if they threaten the secrecy of SHADO. The organization itself is morally dubious, with the effort to keep humanity in the dark about this threat from outer space seemingly at odds with the concept of a free and open society. Although ostensibly about SHADO fighting the UFOs, most of the episodes are about personal conflict and psychological damage. In an early episode, the competency of moonbase commander Lt. Gay Ellis (Gabrielle Drake) is called into question when a computer determines that her affection for moonbase pilot Mark Bradley (Harry Baird) might be clouding her command judgment, and Straker puts them both through a gruelling range of tests. SHADO acquires one of its star members (Michael Billington’s Col. Paul Foster) when he accidentally discovers the organization and is given the choice to basically join up or be executed.
But the two most harrowing episodes both revolve around Straker. In “A Question of Priorities,” Straker’s discovers that his estranged ex-wife has remarried, and that her and Straker’s young son has been critically injured in an accident. Straker commits a slight abuse of power when he dispatches a SHADO airship to quickly retrieve life-saving medicine from the United States, but when a possible UFO is detected on Earth, he has to make a decision: divert the SHADO plane to investigate, thus dooming his son to death, or save his son’s life and betray his obligation to SHADO, possibly putting the entire planet at risk — but only possibly. In the second emotionally gutting episode, “Confetti Check A-OK,” we see the origin of SHADO and Straker’s role in it juxtaposed with the disintegration of his marriage.
The theme of one’s commitment to SHADO destroying one’s personal life is a common thread in the series, from the mangled relationship between Mark and Gay to Straker’s ruined family life to Paul’s crumbling romantic relationship. To say nothing of Straker’s inability to go more than a coupe episodes without shoving a gun in Paul Foster’s face. It’s thematic ground that would be mined later in a variety of spy films, and it’s an especially bitter pill even when wrapped in the candy color of UFO’s set and costume design. But it’s hardly the only strain of more “adult” content than people were prepared for from a Gerry Anderson show. Adultery, recreational drug use, and torture all play roles in episodes. Broadcasting in 1970s, amidst the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the collapse of the Summer of Love into a maelstrom of unrest and violence, and global social upheaval and distrust of authority, there is a very strong paranoid streak running through UFO. About the aliens, about one another, about SHADO itself.
Unfortunately, the show was plagued by behind-the-scenes chaos. Seventeen episodes into production, everything fell apart when MGM-British Studios went out of business, forcing Century 21 to scramble for a new home. It was five months before production could resume. When the show returned, it was with a slightly more oddball, almost psychedelic undertone (there’s even a ouija board episode). The show was also hampered by cast changes. Actor Harry Baird, whose character had been a major part of the first few episodes, left over contract disputes after filming his fourth episode. Other actors would disappear with noticeable abruptness, especially after the unplanned five-month break when the show lost Gabrielle Drake and, even more noticeably, George Sewell who had played Straker’s second in command, Col. Alec Freeman. The confused production resulted in episodes being aired out of order and an overall sense of disjointed schizophrenia in the show. The darker, more adult nature confused and surprised viewers, and the outrageous excesses of the production sometimes overwhelmed the more mature content.
For some, Anderson’s efforts to infuse the series with adult themes are in obvious conflict with his inability to come up with a more adultly logical set-up. There is much about UFO that should have been thought through with a little more care. Chief among these would be the entire set up on the Moon, Earth’s first line of defense against these organ-stealing space invaders. Moon base has three ships, and each one is armed with but a single weapon: one missile. Which means the aliens can defeat our first line of defense simply by send ing four guys. And yet the show never seem to thing this is anything but a perfectly acceptable military strategy. They also only have one jet to protect all of the earth, and for some reason it’s connected to a submarine, a submarine being possibly the least sensical vehicle you could spend money on as an organization dedicated to fighting spaceships. Overall, UFO is an awkward mix of ambitious and largely successful mature, emotional plots and less successful, childish decoration. It’s fine with me, but I love UFO. I can understand with no real problem how the show would just seem to unbalanced, neither fish nor fowl, to others.
After the initial run of twenty-six episodes, the series was canceled. At least for while. Two years later, the show was syndicated for broadcast in the United States and became enough of a hit that ITC called Anderson back and commissioned a second season, only with a few changes to better suit the American audiences. First, the moonbase-based episodes had been much more popular in the States than the ones set on Earth, so the new season should be set on the moon. No problem, Anderson said, and he soon presented a concept in which SHADO has greatly expanded its moonbase presence, building a vast complex and using it as their new headquarters. ITC liked the idea, but no sooner had they said, “We like that idea” than the US airing hit the weird final third of the first series. Ratings dropped, and ITC canceled the second series. Not one to let hard work on a promising idea go to waste, Anderson took the basic concept and designs for UFO 2, tweaked them a little, and presented ITC with a pitch for a new live-action science fiction series, one about the crew of a moonbase that is thrust into deep space when the destruction of the earth sends the moon hurtling off into the cosmos. Anderson called the new series…Menace in Space.