Space: 1999 taught me two valuable lessons. The first is that space is depressing and best represented by the color taupe. The second is that, with few exceptions, aliens are jerks. At least in the first season, Space: 1999 captures malaise, chronic low-grade depression and inertia perfectly. Moon Base Alpha itself is unsteerable. It is filled with people who have survived mostly by evaluating their situation and accepting it. Charleton Heston would not last long on Alpha—he would blow up the moon when he attempted seize control of his destiny and the moon by attaching engines to it. As the moon exploded, Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell would silently turn to one another in a final affectless, unspoken admission of their love.
Other than the long wait since the end of season one, there was little in “The Metamorph,” the first episode of Space: 1999’s second season to clue you into just how much had gone wrong with the series, and how much more wrong was waiting on the horizon. Certainly, some things had changed. For starters, there’s a new theme song and someone must have found a box of colorful orange and blue jackets in a closet somewhere, because everyone has started wearing jackets. But you know how fashion trends are, and the sudden appearance of jackets is of no real concern (and I like to think inspired Jean-Luc Picard, who took five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation before he found a jacket). Alphans have also started wearing ID badges with their name and photo on them because…in a confined space for years with three-hundred or people or so, I am sure it was awkward for Koenig to still not know “that one guy’s name.” So he issued the command for “Hello My Name Is” tags to save everyone discomfort at parties.
The two Michaels. Way cooler and more obscure than making obvious, played out jokes about the two Coreys. Michael Beck and Michael Pare — these two guys were both pegged at the beginning of their respective careers as the next big thing. Both sported a brooding, introspective air of mystery and toughness much like James Dean. Both were good looking, but not too good looking. And they were both pretty good actors when they inhabited a certain type of character. Beck swaggered into national consciousness in 1978, clad in a leather vest and bopping his way through one gang after another as he tried to lead his Warriors back to their home turf at Coney Island. A few years later, in 1984, Michael Pare burst onto the scene in similar fashion as the mysterious 50s rocker Eddie, who may or may not have faked his own death to escape the harsh lights of fame.
Some years ago, a trio of colorful, contemplative, and sometimes a little bit absurd science fiction films from East German studio DEFA found their way onto home video in the United States. Of them, The Silent Star was the most beloved thanks to its combination of serious speculation and pop-art design, as well as the fact that it was familiar to many in its old dubbed and re-edited version, First Spaceship on Venus. In the Dust of the Stars was the most visually outrageous, combining the futurist aesthetic of the 1970s with the flared pleather jumpsuits and feathered mullets of the disco era. And Eolomea (which I reviewed as a guest writer for Die Danger Die Die Kill) was the most often ignored, with its more somber production design cribbed from Solaris and the message being less about the wonder and dangers of space travel and more about how boring and frustrating it can be. But even more ignored than Eolomea — so much so that it wasn’t even included in the set — was DEFA’s forgotten science fiction film, Signale — Ein Weltraumabenteuer.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
To the very limited extent that the German science fiction series Raumpatrouille Orion (full English title: Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Starship Orion) is known in my own United States, it tends to be the victim of a certain unfair association. On those pitifully rare occasions when it’s mentioned, it’s seldom without being compared unfavorably to Star Trek – and sometimes even referred to as “The German Star Trek“, usually in the dismissive tone reserved for inferior foreign copies of iconic American brands. That Raumpatrouille is an imitation of Star Trek is unlikely, given that the series made its debut on German television within just two weeks of Trek’s initial bow in America (and quite a few years before Captain Kirk and company would make it to the German airwaves). And while the series does share some striking similarities with Trek, those ultimately just serve to highlight some even more striking differences.
In addition to flying sports cars and a machine that mixes the perfect martini, one of the accoutrements of worldly masculine adulthood that impressionable young boys weaned on sixties pop culture grew up to expect is the ready availability of pliant female robots. What surprises me about this particular trope is not just how much it turned up in movies, TV shows and dime fiction throughout the decade, but how much it showed up in stories that were ostensibly set in the then present day. It’s as if the people who cooked up these ideas were somehow convinced that the technology already existed to create fembots, but that some self-appointed guardians of knowledge were conspiring to keep the discovery away from the general public–perhaps out of some misguided fear that people might use such an invention irresponsibly.
My latest Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, and my last there for 2013. What better way to close out my first (half) year with The Cultural Gutter than with one of the worst things around. From Bea Arthur torch songs to wookie porn, Death to Life Day spoils the holidays by reminding you of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
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.
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.