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Space: 1999 – A Galaxy of Stars

Sandwiched in between the final episode of Star Trek and the 1977 release of Star Wars, Space: 1999 occupies an odd bit of historical real estate and has an even odder tone of voice, though it’s easier to make sense of if you understand where science fiction was when Space: 1999 debuted. It might help explain why a group of rambunctious young sprouts, such as my friends and I were at the time, were so tolerant of what was a rather morose, talky, slow-moving show. But that’s how science fiction was at the time. The original Trek was colorful and had it’s fair share of action, but much like football, if you timed the actual action against the scenes of people sitting around saying stuff, there was far less jumping around and exploding than people recall. And post 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction really shed its pulp trappings and entered a period of pretty trippy, contemplative mood. This was science fiction as I knew it: sort of melancholy, a lot to do with environmental catastrophe, and not really centered on “action.” It’s why we could watch Silent Running at a birthday party and love it. and It’s why we could become obsessed with a show that seemed to feature a lot of Martin Landau frowning and speaking in a hushed monotone.

A lot of the criticism of the show — and there is plenty — tends to exaggerate many of the shows perceived flaws. Even I in this series of articles have vastly overstated the “nothing happens” claim. In fact, in most episodes, quite a bit happens. It’s just that not all of it is jumping around and exploding control panels. From the outset, Space: 1999 wanted to tackle deep philosophical questions. Often, through some combination of time limits, script rewrites, and perhaps an inconsistent quality of writing in the first place, the aspirations of Space: 1999 far exceeded its reality. But this, to me, is not a flaw. To see a story that strives for profundity and only achieves a clumsy sort of half-baked mysticism still says to me that there was a group of people who were really shooting for something more, and I can garner a lot of enjoyment out of that ambition, even when it fails to come to fruition.

Another of the common criticisms is aimed at the science of the show. Despite the “hard” sci-fi look of the show (by the standards of the time), most of the plots and much of the science surrounding them was pretty absurd. But again, this doesn’t bug me. The “science” is there in the service of the plot. Space: 1999 wasn’t meant to be particularly realistic, and it wasn’t meant to be an hour-long educational program. What education was going on was more of the philosophical musing variety than it was a lesson in physics. Complaining about the inaccurate science in Space: 1999 is like doing the same for, well, Star Trek or any of many, many other beloved sci-fi classics. Why Space: 1999 was suddenly savaged for its lack of scientific accuracy probably has to do with the fact that it modeled its look after 2001: A Space Odyssey (considered a very no-nonsense and largely realistic look at something that did not yet exist) and it aired at a time when launching space stations and missions to the moon was common, so we all knew a little more about space than we had a decade before.

But I don’t care about that. To me, Space: 1999 is about human philosophy and morality, not about scientific accuracy. I mean, an explosion on the moon sends it hurtling into space at faster than light speeds, except when they need to have an encounter, in which case the moon seems to stop for however long they need to resolve that week’s plot. It’s not as if the show isn’t being honest with its science from the very beginning. I think the fact that the show is played so deadpan, with such furrowed-brow earnestness, and such an air of serious melancholy, that people expect every aspect of it, including the science, to be as serious as the rest.

In revisiting the show, I found that the flaws that were not apparent to me as a kid are glaringly obvious. I also found that they don’t really matter. They are something to make a joke about, but it’s a joke made with warm regard for the source material. It certainly has its quirks, and some of them are of such a nature that I’m never really puzzled when someone says they don’t like the show. It works so hard to me adult, to mean something, but also operate within the confines of Saturday afternoon kids’ fare. That’s a dubious razor’s edge to try to balance, and I think the show succeeds most of the time. It’s a very depressing show to be aimed at kids, and one that breaks from traditional science fiction about space exploration.

The Alphans are not well-trained military officers prepared to face the unknown. They are just people, totally out of their league and struggling to deal with a situation none of them could have ever conceived. For them, space is a place of wonder, but it also a place of incredible danger and uncertainty — very much a reflection of feelings about the real world at the time. Star Trek faced its fair share of incredible alien threats, but they always did it with the bright, gung-ho energy of a positive thinking force with no doubts about itself. The Alphans, by contrast, are constantly wracked with self-doubt. The excitement of exploration is tempered by the fact that none of them are explorers, and none of them are trained for the things they will now face on a weekly basis. The optimism of Star Trek has given way to the uncertainty that come from an era of Vietnam War fallout, terrorism, gas rationing, and upheaval. If we as kids wanted to be Captain Kirk, it was more likely in the end that we would actually be Commander Koenig.

One of the other things I love about revisiting the show is seeing so many faces that are now familiar but were, in 1979 or 1980 or so, unknown to me. Space: 1999 benefitted it seemed from the collapse of the British film industry in the 1970s. This collapse left a lot of A-list actors scrambling for work, and that means that a show like Space: 1999 was suddenly able to afford to hire some of the most recognizable faces in British cinema. I thought, by way of exploring the show a little more, I might concentrate on some of the first season episodes featuring the most notable guest stars. And the first episode, of course, because it’s the first episode.

Breakaway

Despite its lack of an alien menace, everything you need to know about the tone of the series can be gleaned from the pilot episode. It’s a slow-moving mystery episode characterized by an almost drab appearance — the sort of outer space that looks like people live in it, rather than the shiny candy-colored future of Star Trek (which itself would show the influence of Space: 1999 a couple of years later, when the first Trek movie debuted and featured a Starship Enterprise and Federation uniforms that were much more monochromatic and drab than the ones we’d last seen on television). Although the concept of “lived in” outer space as an artistic trend in science fiction is often attributed to Alien, Space: 1999 played a role in developing that aesthetic (and was itself doubtless influenced by Solaris, with its littered space station and astronauts sitting around in their underwear).

“Breakway” introduced us to our principals: Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and Prof. Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), sort of the Kirk, Spock, and Bones of the show; and the second level Sulu/Scotty/Chekov in Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock), Alan Carter (Nick Tate), and Sandra Benes (Zienia Merton). Although the show would become know for a series of strange alien antagonists, for the pilot episode the primary thorn in the side of the Moonbase Alpha crew is an inexplicable, deadly disease and a totally explicable, obnoxious visiting politician (Roy Dotrice as Commissioner Simmonds). Eventually, the disease is traced to a faulty nuclear waste dump, and Koenig and the Alphans must scramble to repair it before it results in something disastrous. As was often the case in Space: 1999’s predecessor, UFO, and as would also frequently be the case for Moonbase Alpha, they do not succeed.

A slow burn mystery for much of the run time, but full of more than enough cool special effects and 2001-inspired space stuff to keep one’s eyes occupied. Rather than feeling adventurous and vast, Moonbase Alpha feels claustrophobic and fragile — a tiny bubble of safety stranded in the harshest of environments. The acting is indeed understated, but it’s not bad at all. It’s actually a welcome breath of fresh air to return to a series that speaks in a soft tone, now that we live in an era where science fiction shots rather than speaks, and seems constantly to be banging pots and pans together like an attention-starved child. I like Simmonds as the scummy, self-serving politician — something else you would not have seen on Star Trek but makes perfect sense for a show that grew out of the Watergate era, when faith in the institutions of government and authority was shattered. It’s a pretty good start to the series.

Earthbound

Guest Star: Christopher Lee

Because Space: 1999 aired in syndication, the original intended order of episodes bore no resemblance to the order in which they aired on individual local stations. “Earthbound” would often show up in the middle of the series, which made little sense since it features a main character from the pilot episode (the selfish politician Simmonds) who only appears in “Breakaway” and this episode. So for some, a main character was introduced, then promptly disappeared, only to resurface out of nowhere to once again become a main character. “Earthbound” makes perfect sense as a follow-up episode tot he pilot, however, or at least one set very close.

At the end of “Breakaway,” Koenig solemnly announced that there was no hope of ever returning to to Earth, and that the moon and Moonbase Alpha’s three-hundred or so inhabitants were fated to be forever wanderers with no control over their destination. As we pick up the story in this episode, everyone is pretty depressed about that — at least until they encounter an alien spaceship. First contact is handled well, with a perfect mix of apprehensive dread and excited wonder. Koenig and his away team find a small group of aliens, seemingly dead, inside pods. But they’re not dead at all, actually, at least they aren’t until the clumsy poking around of the humans ends up killing one of the sleeping aliens. The other aliens revive, and though things threaten to get nasty when they discover the humans, cooler heads prevail and the death is chalked up to unfortunate misunderstanding.

It turns out that the aliens, the Kaldorians, are refugees from a dying planet. They have determined that, in all the galaxy, Earth is the most compatible world for them. So using suspended animation technology, the small band (led by their captain, Zantor — Christopher Lee, at his most solemn)of survivors set out in hopes they might be able to peacefully settle down on Earth. It also turns out that the hibernation pods are compatible with human physiology, though some preparatory work is required beforehand. This is good news for the frayed nerves of the Alphans, who suddenly have a chance to return home. Except that, Zantor regretfully explains, his ship is tiny. The unfortunate death of a crewmember means one slot is open, but only one. Who among the Alphans should be chosen to accompany Zantor and the Kaldorians on the sojourn to Earth?

Space: 1999 frequently featured hostile or inscrutable aliens, but here we have perfectly friendly aliens who want to help out. The threat for this episode comes from Alpha itself, and the emotions of the crew confined to a hopeless fate that suddenly have an out. Koenig is determined that the base computer will analyze prospective candidates and make the final decision, but not everyone is happy with that. Characters we know to be otherwise decent are suddenly motivated by desperation — or by hope — to behave erratically, even selfishly, but with very understandable motivation. However, no one is more of an asshole about it than Commissioner Simmonds, who bullies everyone, blusters, and in the end is willing to put the entire station at risk in order to make sure he is the one to accompany the Kaldonians.

“Earthbound” is a pretty intense episode, no less for the very good twist at the end. Space: 1999, like UFO before it, does not shy away from portraying its protagonists as flawed, and this episode really brings that to the forefront while still maintaining sympathy for everyone. Well, almost everyone. Simmonds is just a horrible human being. As Zantor, Christopher Lee has little to do but solemnly announce his lines and look somewhere between regal and utterly ridiculous in the get-up they have him wear. But then, Christopher Lee was no stranger to silly costumes. Although relatively reserved, he still brings his usual air of confidence to the role, a stark juxtaposition to the nerve-wracked, confused, and sometimes selfish Alphans. New age crystals and silly silver wigs aside, it’s quite a good episode with a really biting final scene.

Missing Link

Guest Star: Peter Cushing

Having had their brush with Dracula, it was time for the Alphans to meet up with Dr. Frankenstein. Peter Cushing stars as Raan, a scientist from an advanced alien civilization that lives in a city that looks like something mustachio’d Alan Paul might airbrush onto the side of his custom Eagle, the one with the waterbed and sweet hi-fi that he uses to try and seduce Sandra. An accident with one of the Moonbase ships leaves Koenig in a coma, and while Helena and Victor debate over whether to keep him alive on a machine or let him pass away, we know that his consciousness is really being held prisoner by the curious Raan, who thinks that humans might be some sort of missing link in the evolution of his own people.

To prove this hypothesis, Raan subjects Koenig to a battery of strange hallucinations and tests that, frankly, don’t seem to have anything to do with proving Raan’s point. While in this strange parallel dream world, Koenig meets and, through sheer force of his blandness, charms Raan’s daughter, who is distressed by the increasingly dangerous tests through which her father wants to run Koenig. Meanwhile, back on Alpha, tempers flare over the fate of Koenig’s body, with Helena wanting to put the poor man out of his misery while Eagle pilot Alan is ready to punch anyone who tries to turn Koenig’s breathing machine off.

Although Raan seems to be a pretty terrible scientist, Peter Cushing is a very good actor, even under gold face paint and a silly quilted cap. He plays the alien scientist with the same sort of amorality he brought to Frankenstein in the Hammer horror movies. Raan isn’t evil. He simply thinks in a way that is totally incomprehensible to humans. The things that are important to humans are not important to him, and he cannot understand why Koenig would object to his new role as an abused lab rat. Where as Christopher Lee played the role of Zantor with a regal reserve, Cushing is equal parts charming and menacing, friendly and deadly.

One thing Space: 1999 tried to do with a lot of its aliens is break away from the notion that they are basically humans but with weird faces. They conceived of everything as we did, however. Space: 1999 frequently tried to write aliens that had entirely alien ways of thinking, ways that brought them into conflict with the Alphans not because one side was good or evil, or right or wrong, but simply because they were so different — something we see even today between cultures that conflict. Peter Cushing’s Raan is one of their bigger successes, and I think that’s partly because Cushing was familiar with the type of role. The subplot, in which everyone fights over whether or not to unplug Koenig, is less successful because the motivations and decisions seem to flare up out of nowhere. But that’s easy to ignore since the bulk of the episode is so good. Heck, Koenig’s psychedelic hallucination sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

Death’s Other Dominion

Guest Star: Brian Blessed

Ahh, Brian Blessed. Or maybe I should say BRIAN BLESSED!!! He’s an actor best known for the fact that his whispering voice is a barrel-chested bellow. He roared and rumbled his way into the hearts of cult film fans thanks to his role as the boisterous Voltan, prince of the Hawkmen in the lavishly campy Flash Gordon, and as King Richard in the first season of Blackadder. I was anxious to see how a man best known for his inability to do anything but shout would fare wrapped amid the substantially more reserved style of Space: 1999. Sure, people would yell at each other on occasion, but for the most part, Moonbase Alpha maintained the “shhhh” of a moderate size library.

It turns out that Brian Blessed is actually a classically trained actor who, despite thunderous gusto being his trademark, is capable of playing it subtle when he needs to, or at least subtle for Brian Blessed — which brings an extra energy to his character, a sort of barely contained energy that translates into a charisma and electricity that is to the benefit of the episode. When Alpha detects a signal from a passing ice planet, Koenig leads a woefully ill-prepared landing party to the surface to investigate. After wandering aimlessly for a few minutes in Arctic conditions, everyone is just about dead until they are rescued by some locals. The locals, it turns out, are led by Dr. Cabot Rowland (Blessed). They are remnants of an old Earth exploration ship that crashed. Oh, and they are immortal.

Once safe in the ice caves of the planet, called Ultima Thule, Koenig and his team start thinking this might be an OK place to settle. Because somehow, living in a small ice cave on a nightmarish planet of cold, constantly being badgered by a loud crazy guy who capers about and recites bad poetry (John Shrapnel as mad Jack Tanner), is better than staying on Alpha where they at least have temperature control and no mad Jacks. But, as would frequently be the case with the series, the episode tries to sell us this hellhole as some sort of paradise, especially since everyone lives forever. Victor, who is supposed to be a man of science, almost instantly buys everything the burly Dr. Cabot Rowland sells him, but Koenig is suspicious that there might be something more to this immortality business, something sinister. He’s correct of course.

“Death’s Other Dominion” is meant to be an adaptation of the novel Lost Horizon, in which the survivors of a plane wreck discover the lost city of Shangri La and it’s advanced, immortal inhabitants. It’s a pretty good version of the story (certainly better than the 1970s movie Lost Horizon), and as with “Missing Link,” it succeeds largely thanks to the force of its guest star. Blessed exudes a weird combination of warmth and menace, and it’s easy to understand how the weary Alphans might be swayed or subtly threatened into going along with his scheme, which includes a newly immortal human race fanning out across the galaxy to become and spread enlightenment. If there is a flaw to this episode, it is how intensely irritating Jack Tanner can be. I kept hoping Alan would show up out of nowhere just to punch the guy in the face. Overall, though, it’s a great episode with another good melancholy twist at the end.

Mission of the Darians

Guest Star: Joan Collins

Coming near the end of season one, “Mission of the Darians” is an ambitious, big episode with less of a claustrophobic feel but still plenty of hopeless melancholy, as if the vacuum of space itself was actually woven from pensive sighs and a sullen vampire teenager’s LiveJournal. When Alpha picks up a distress call from a gigantic spaceship, Koenig and the usual bunch (Victor, Alan, Paul, Helena,and a guy we’ve never really seen before, so we have someone to kill) hop in an Eagle to go investigate. After gaining interest to the ship, they find it seemingly derelict, strewn with trash and, oddly, overgrown with weeds and vines. Helena and the random cannon fodder guy stay behind while everyone else goes out exploring. And then things get really strange.

Helena and the other guy (I think his name is Bill) do a little snooping of their own and soon discover a group of what appear to be stone age dwarfs. Further snooping leads to Helena and Bill being captured by an entire stone-age gang, complete with loincloths and a tendency to make human sacrifices of nameless Alphans who just showed up for their first (and last) episode. Meanwhile, the rest of the Alphans get split up, with some being pursued by someone in a big silver spacesuit while Koenig meets a bunch of people in the requisite shimmering robes and Ziegfeld Follies headwear that symbolizes an advanced alien race. The are the Darians, and among them is their sort of princess, Joan Collins.

It turns out the Darians are the last survivors of a cataclysm that devastated their city-ship. the distress signal was actually centuries old. We, of course, know the Darians are lying, since Helena is already hanging out with other survivors, who have taken her taupe unisex onesie and put her in a leggy cavewoman number. And Alan is himself running wild through the station, jumping through doors and punching or shooting anything that comes near him. Koenig, meanwhile, finds that the Darians’ story of their survival collapses pretty quickly. They are a sterile race, with their DNA stored on what looks to be a Connect Five full of Jolly Ranchers. They play the role of gods to the stone age brutes elsewhere ont heship. Oh, and they have a pretty sinister diet.

Something about “Mission of the Darians” makes it feel bigger than other episodes. The sets, while cheap, convey a much more mammoth environment than we are used to seeing on Space: 1999, and a huge world-ship with multiple societies gives the episode a more sprawling feel. We have, once again, an alien race that is not evil so much as it is desperate and confused. And we get a much more active Alphan mission than is often the case, thanks largely to Paul and Alan just going ape and cold shooting and punching anyone and everyone and leading revolutions (provided you define a revolution as a small group of people walking determinedly down a hall). It’s also another episode that explores the very real emotions of the Alphan crew. Rather than being generically stoic or brave when she’s about to be sacrificed by a bunch of space cavemen, Helena is terrified. She cries. She whimpers. She acts pretty much like anyone would, which is not the sort of thing, again, people were used to seeing in science fiction.

As the Darian Kara, Joan Collins has little to do besides look beautiful and ornately dressed, but she carries herself with the royal haughtiness for which she is known, and that works so well for a character who is part of a group that is so sure of their own superiority that it never even occurs to them they might be evil. She’s also one of the few people to have done time as a major character on both Space: 1999 and Star Trek (the classic “City on the Edge of Forever”). Script writer Johnny Byrne said he was inspired to write this episode (his favorite of the series) by the then-recent story of the plane crash of the Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes Mountains, most famous for the grisly bit about survivors turning to cannibalism. Also at plays are themes of eugenics and a “master race (it’s not an accident that Darians rhymes with Aryans). I agree with Byrne. It’s one of the strongest episodes of the entire series, and for my money, one of the best hour of science fiction television we’ve had. And man, does Koenig get mad!

Beyond the Stars

Space: 1999 had a rocky season one, plagued by an awkward production split between New York and England. By the time the show eked out a place for itself on television in the United States, Gerry Anderson was enthusiastic about beginning work on the second season. But a second season was no guaranteed thing. The failure of ITC to successfully sell the first season to a national broadcaster meant ratings were not what they could have been. And while Space: 1999 toys found their way into the rooms of many kids, the series just hadn’t caught on the way its producers had hoped. Plus, the turmoil between Gerry and Sylvia Anderson came to a head as the first season finished filming. Sylvia, who had been instrumental in the production, design, and writing of every series for which Gerry was known, left both Space: 1999 and her husband once the season wrapped. But Gerry kept at it, and in the end, he won a second season for the show. However, he — and fans — would soon discover that the second season was to be very different indeed from the first…

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7 thoughts on “Space: 1999 – A Galaxy of Stars”

  1. One of my favorites TV Shows. Talking about stars, if you look closely, you can recognize the lovely Valerie Leon (from Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb) as one of the girls in the planet of Death´s Other Dominion. Sadly, she has no speaking part, is only one more in the group…

  2. I’m a little disappointed you didn’t discuss ‘Dragon’s Domain’. For my childhood self, it was the standout of the season, if by ‘standout’ you mean weeks of nightmares.

  3. Don’t worry –we’re not done with Space: 1999 episodes by a logn shot. Dragon’s Domain will probably get it’s own review sooner rather than later

  4. Nice. My parents said I watched Space: 1999 religiously ( I even got the Eagle toy) but Dragon’s Domain and The Beta Cloud are the only ones I could remember seeing. Dragon’s Domain traumatically so, but it left an indelible impression, one that helped shape my genre preferences ever since.
    I’ve caught some on Youtube and found Earthbound and Space Brain enjoyable (the revelation of what happened to Eagle 1 in the latter was creepy), but felt Peter Cushing’s talents were quite wasted in Missing Link. His few scenes were well done but overshadowed by the Rana love-plot, and his surfacing jealously and fear for her falling for Koenig seemed a rehash of Forbidden Planet.

  5. I think the reason people object to the bad science is because of the things that are got right: the Eagles, especially, look much more plausibly like actual working spacecraft than most of their counterparts in other series. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the toys were wildly popular; it’s a superb piece of design.) With a show that looks like actual sciency SF, it’s more of a disappointment when it turns into fantasy.

    Also, to be fair, Star Wars and Star Trek at least admitted they had problems — you need a warp/hyperdrive to go faster than light, and you need to go faster than light to get to other solar systems. In Space, it just sort of happens and nobody worries about it.

  6. I loved this show as a kid. A few years ago, I tried watching it again and only made it through the first episode and “Dragon’s Domain” before deciding that I’d rather it stayed a wonderful memory. Those two episodes still had great parts to them. I just don’t have the same patience I had as a kid. Your enthusiastic reviews remind me of what I enjoyed about the series.

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