feat

Space: 1999 – The Future is Taupe

When British television production company ITC commissioned then changed their mind about a second season of producer Gerry Anderson’s science fiction adventure series UFO, Anderson wasn’t one to let all the hard work that went into pre-production design go to waste. He tweaked the scenario a little and gave the proposed series a new name: Menace in Space. This new take on the concept would feature the inhabitants of a moon base being hurtled out into space after a cataclysmic accident on Earth blows the moon out of orbit. Unfortunately, Anderson’s sleight of hand with his idea for UFO 2 didn’t fool ITC president Lew Grade, who remained unconvinced after the mediocre performance of UFO that a new Anderson science fiction series would be any more successful.

Still determined that his armload of sketches and plans would not end up in the rubbish bin, Anderson went to Lew’s partner at ITC America, a canny move given that ITC was in the business of producing British television aimed primarily at the American market. Here, Anderson found more success, though a few tweaks were proposed to the series. It had already been agreed upon that the series would be set on the moon (the moonbase episodes of UFO had been the most popular episodes during its US run), but ITC America head Abe Mandell didn’t want to see the earth, period. Not even in the background. “Then we’ll bow up the earth” in the first episode, Anderson exclaimed. Mandell thought maybe that was a little drastic and would prove too depressing for viewers. “Then we’ll blow up the moon!” Anderson countered, and though I doubt it was so, I can’t help but imagine him doing so with a carnival barker’s cigar clamped between his teeth.

space1999-1

Anderson’s initial script for the pilot bears little resemblance to the eventual first episode of the series. In his treatment, aiming for a half-hour episode, Commander Steven Maddox is the boss of WANDER, a space defense organization (not unlike SHADO from UFO) based on the moon. When deep space probes detect an advanced alien civilization, it attracts their attention to us as well. Maddox is kidnapped and scrutinized, and it is eventually determined that humanity is too belligerent, paranoid, and hostile to make good galactic citizens. The aliens intend to envelop earth with a field that will prevent humanity from venturing very far out into the universe. Maddox, however, they think is cool. They return him unharmed but then use a ray to weaken the Earth’s gravitational hold, sending the moon and the inhabitants of Moon city off into space.

In London, Lew Grade insisted that since this was an American-approved project, they should be allowed to control the series (or take the blame, if it tanked). The script by Gerry and Sylvia was put on ice, and a new writer, American George Bellak was called in to write a new pilot episode. Eventually, under Bellak’s guidance, the basics of the scenario were settled on: an explosion on the moon would send it spinning away from earth and into distant space, where the stranded crew would encounter an assortment of aliens and dangerous situations. Coming in the midst of grand contemplative works of science fiction like Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Anderson wanted the show to be more cerebral, more philosophical, and less about old Star Trek style action-adventure. Also in an attempt to garnish some 2001: A Space Odyssey respectability, the name of the show was changed. Several times in fact. Eventually they decided on Space: 1999.

Because America was going to be the primary market, ITC wanted American leads surrounded by British actors. Gerry Anderson pursued the real-life husband and wife acting team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, hot on American television thanks to several years of substantial success on the espionage series Mission: Impossible. Sylvia, however, did not want American leads, and if she had to settle for American leads, she did not want Landau and Bain. Her picks had been Robert Culp (I Spy) and Katherine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). When Landau and Bain, eager to put some distance between them and ending up typecast in spy shows, agreed to accept the parts, Sylvia’s suggestions became moot. By this time, the marriage between the two creative partners had become strained. Having her opinions on the casting of the new show dismissed only served to exacerbate the growing rift between her and her husband. By the time shooting for the first season was wrapping, George and Sylvia had divorced.

To rub salt into the wound, the new series would not turn to her for sartorial advice, despite the fact that she’d done amazing work as costume designer and style consultant on UFO. Instead, the new series turned to Austrian-born designer Rudi Gernreich, a choice with which I have no issue really, as much as I love Sylvia’s work. He was an early financial supporter of gay rights groups like the Mattachine Society (though he kept both this and his own homosexuality private) and healthy nudism. He even invented the topless monokini, a design that eventually ushered in a fad for topless nightclubs. For Gernreich, the popular notion of nudity as somehow dirty, perverse, or shameful was abhorrent. The Austrian culture in which he’d grown up boasted an enlightened, positive attitude toward these things — a trend that was suppressed and outlawed by the Nazis. With his mother, he escaped Nazi Austria and settled in Los Angeles, where he worked as a dancer and choreographer, though by his own admission he was a terrible dancer. He also got involved with costume design and, by extension, fashion.

Gernreich’s design work reflected his Austrian “physical culture” attitude, and were frequently shocking to American sensibilities, where nudity and sex were inextricably linked and shamed. Many of his creations were see-through, including the sheer bra or “no bra” bra. He used unconventional materials and is generally regarded as the designer who brought androgyny to modern fashion (a claim I think is loaded, as androgyny was quite in style during the 1920s). Androgyny seems to have been the guiding principle behind his work on Space: 1999, with which he became involved because he was friends with Barbara Bain. Where Sylvia’s work had indulged the excesses of 1960s pop art, Gernreich’s designs matched the more somber 2001influenced new series. And unlike Sylvia’s designs, which were still fond of mini-skirts and go-go boots for some of the female characters, Gernreich dressed both men and women on Moonbase Alpha identically (oh, to have seen Paul Foster in Gay Ellis’ silver mini…). The costumes were drab, dull almost, but Gernreich’s fondness for recalling nudity can still be found in the palette, which is almost uniformly taupe. At the same time, the uniforms intentionally de-sexualize the body — forecasting by a decade plus the similar “pajamas for all (except Troi)!” uniform design of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Behind the scenes of the show, things were as rocky as they were in the Anderson’s marriage. Bellak and Gerry Anderson clashed over creative differences, resulting in Bellak leaving the series before filming even begin. ITC scrambled and hired Edward di Lorenzo and Johnny Byrne, who reworked the pilot episode script yet again, finally giving us what would become the first episode of Space: 1999: “Breakaway.” But the troubles were only just beginning. ITC had hired director Lee Katzin to helm the series, but he proved to be a nightmare on set, demanding retake after retake, shooting entire scenes multiple times often for the most inconsequential of reasons. After going over schedule and over budget, the episode Katzin delivered to Abe Mandell and ITC was deemed utterly unusable. Anderson himself scrambled to rewrite and reshoot several scenes, while Katzin’s second episode, “Black Sun,” also ran over time and budget. The temperamental perfectionist was not asked back for a third episode.

Problems were being generated as well by the curious set-up of production occurring in England but the shots being called in New York. Scripts had to be sent to New York for approval, and mandates, sometimes contradictory, would come trickling back to England, often with no time left to do a quality job on rewrites. Byrne complained that it made it impossible to polish potentially great scripts while forcing them to spend inordinate amounts of time rewriting obviously bad ones. Because studio execs were involved, the demands were often tone-deaf, insuring that Space: 1999 would be plagued by the same sort of mood and character schizophrenia as was seen in UFO. From the start, Anderson and his writers had wanted a more cerebral show, but it was a constant battle, often lost, between them and the ITC executives in New York. The endless back and forth and delays meant that Space: 1999 was often a jumble of half-baked ideas and dime store philosophy — less 2001, more stoner watching 2001.

Finally, after nearly two years in production, filming on the first season wrapped. But no one got to take a breather. It turned out that the deal Abe Mandell had made to sell the series to a network had fallen through. Now Anderson had a finished season of one of the most lavish and expensive science fiction shows in British (or American, for that matter) history in his lap, and no one wanted to air it. American networks were hesitant to buy a complete series, one in which they’d had no input. ITC, Anderson, and even Martin Landau himself had to go old school and do road shows, pitching syndication directly to local television stations. Among the stations that bought the syndication package was a relatively new, scrappy little channel run out of a garage near Louisville, Kentucky. WDRB-TV 41 was perhaps the greatest television channel that ever existed. Low on funds and desperate to fill their air time, they would buy all sorts of weird stuff on the cheap. It’s thanks to them that little Keith Allison got to watch Ultraman, Godzilla movies, their incredible horror movie program Fright Night (which was packed with low-budget American films as well as weird Euro-horror — I saw my first Paul Naschy movie on that program).

And then I saw Space: 1999

[To be continued]

6 thoughts on “Space: 1999 – The Future is Taupe”

  1. I’m going to be fascinated to read part 2, because I’ve been trying to like Space:1999 for the better part of 20 years now, and if anyone can find an ‘in’ for me, it’s going to be Teleport City intelligence division. It’s one of those programmes that’s always grated against my nerves, and I would, at least, like to be able to put a finger on why.

    Promised this: it’s not anything partisan on my part, nothing to do with ‘American influences’ or anything like that. If anything, it’s just that this was a particularly unfortunate time to be trying to do Hard Science Fiction, and the target medium (broadcast TV) meant that you couldn’t do all of the eurotrash stuff that makes ‘Star Crash’ and things so much fun. And I think it really, really misses Sylvia’s input.

    And I’m sorry….but ‘Austrian Physical Culture’ just makes me thing of Nitzer Ebb or Einsturtzende Neubaten promo clips from 1989. Would Space: 1999 have been improved by a soundtrack featuring a Roland TB-606 and a sample of Al Jourgensen shouting “motherfucker” or “satan” every three seconds? Not nearly as much as it would have been improved by Gabrielle Drake in a silver PVC mini skirt, I’ll tell you that much.

  2. I first encountered Space: 1999 on Suday afternoons sometime in the early 80s (because of bizarre scheduling reasons, the second season wasn’t picked up in some UK regions until as late as 1984). I would generally see it at my grandparents’ house after lunch, and the episodes were an odd assortment from the second season. This, as fans will know, is when Star Trek-killer Fred Freiberger came aboard, the designs were tweaked and the cast changed, with the scripts being lightened up and featuring more whackadoo monsters and whatnot. As I recall, most episodes now ended with a freeze on the main characters laughing as Tony Verdeschi’s latest attempt to synthesize beer went wrong, or alien shapeshifter Maya (the gorgeous Catherine Schell, who the producers decided would look more exotically alien with the bizarre addition of muttonchops) would turn into something funny.

    When I finally saw season 1 in repeats, I had no idea why everyone was so serious and nobody was allowed to call the commander by his first name.

  3. Dave: You and I must have watched the same set of transmissions. I, also at my Grandparents’ house. These were followed by another repeat run of ‘Thunderbirds’ (at least in the West Midlands), which means that I now have a Pavlovian association between Gerry Anderson theme tunes and the smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

    The bizzarre scheduling was also to do with the renegotiation of the ITV franchises – ATV changing to Central, things like that.

  4. Ah yes. I remember this in the mid 70s being broadcast from my local UHF station in KCMO, usually on a sunday afternoon, opposite pro football. The only thing I really remember was the utter illogic of the whole thing. The moon going faster than light because of a nuclear waste blowing up! WTF

  5. Really excellent piece! I was in that generation of SF fan weaned on the earliest STAR TREK reruns circa 1971 – 1973. So I was so stoked for S:1999 and wanted to like it so much. OY! I don’t think it ever got any better as it went along just changed tone. The second season reshuffling and Freiberger probably made it worse. I did, however, watch every episode, first run. It wasn’t bad enough to NOT watch it. I still remember a lot of episodes of the show fairly well. It left some small impression on me I guess (I think I liked that first season “dragon” story the best – wish I could get get those Ultima Thule bozos out of my mind though). I haven’t seen it since. I guess I was interested in it enough to read the “making of” book by Tim Held a few years later. Looking forward to your fresh observations of 1999.

  6. On reflection, I think the costume design is one of the things that pushes the show furthest from the Star Trek rip-off that it might have looked like.

    I too saw this show in the UK, though a few years earlier than Dave T and the Professor — it was still broadcast as a shuffled assortment of second-season episodes even in the late 1970s. For a not terribly discriminating science fiction fan, it was great stuff. But that will wait for the next part…

Comments are closed.