Space 1999: Aliens Are Jerks

The short-lived television program Space: 1999 taught us many things about our depressing universe. Chief among its concerns: reminding us every week that our fellow inhabitants of the galaxy are at least as awful as we are, only with magic powers.

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.

But despite a vast sense of lonesomeness and isolation, loss and exile, the inability to steer the moon, the universe of Space: 1999 is remarkably populated. The crew of Moonbase Alpha are frequently faced with ageless alien intelligences of tremendous power.  And somehow, possibly the Valium, the Alphans are untroubled by them. Aliens are taken for granted. That said, I do appreciate a show that doesn’t have humans freak out because of the epistemological threat aliens pose. In the more action-packed and colorful season two, they even take in Maya, a Psychon, telling her, as her world explodes, essentially, “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met.” Maya is smart, playful, and, best of all, she can transform into alien creatures and monsters—and not just the same three monsters over the course of the season. She turns into all kinds of creatures as often and as playfully as she can. Which, I must warn all of you, I would also do if I could.  But Moonbase Alpha should be concerned about the aliens they encounter, because most of the aliens, even other Psychons, are jerks.

See the thing about Space: 1999 is not that space is a dangerous place indifferent to human concerns or needs; it’s that space is filled with malevolent, inconsiderate jerks and those jerks are usually aliens. This is not something I say lightly. Usually, I am on the aliens’ side in television shows and movies. But in Space: 1999 malevolence is just part of being inconceivably advanced and far beyond human comprehension. In fact, most aliens are tremendously long-lived, if not immortal, and they usually have psychic powers of one kind or another. You could argue that malevolent aliens toying with humanity reflects anxiety, dread and guilt around the fear that aliens will treat humans as Empire treated the people it encountered. Or you could take at face value that everything everywhere is terrible; that the only choice you might have in your life is between a vast, lonesome isolation in the eternal void or the company of cruel, immortal jerks; and the best you can do is remain calm as the antidepressants are piped through Alpha’s environmental controls and soak in the soothing taupe of the retro-future as you wait for inevitable extinction. Maybe crack open that jigsaw puzzle for station-wide puzzle night.

As with the people of Moonbase Alpha, the aliens of Space: 1999 are frequently lonely and often recovering from genocide or eternal imprisonment. Human concerns are of no more significant to them than those of ants are to us, or so I am sure at least one alien telephathically informed Commander Koenig or Dr. Russell. Their hobbies are mental domination and good old-fashioned irony (“Your fear will destroy you”). Ageless intelligences test Moonbase Alpha and Moonbase Alpha is always found wanting. Aliens regret to inform Moon Base Alpha that humans were not welcome on their groovy alien world as long as humans are filled with embarrassing, unevolved messiness like emotions and mobility. They can’t be bothered to not accidentally destroy the moon with the rays their planet automatically emits, which they could totally turn off, because they’re kind of busy sleeping right now, but if you leave a message, they’ll be sure to get back to you later (“The AB Chrysalis”). They regret that humans must die to save their giant eyeball planet even though that planet turns out to be a collective alien delusion after all (“Ring Around the Moon”). Aliens use Alpha and/or Alphans to jumpstart their own species (“Force of Life”; “All That Glisters”; “Seed of Destruction”). Alien scientists are annoyed that humans resist and love whoever they feel like during the aliens’ very cool experiments in paradisical terraria (“Missing Link”; “New Adam, New Eve”). And, in the first season, there is a lot of negative alien impact on human optic nerves. Aliens use the moon as a platform to shoot at those other aliens they hate and can’t quite get on their own (“The Last Enemy”). Aliens use mind control to disguise themselves as friends and loved ones of the Alphans to gain access to valuable nuclear waste, though they don’t really seem to regret that humankind must die (“The Bringers of Wonder”). Lonely, immortal computers demand company and, horrifically, one is willing to resort to unspeakable comic relief to get it (“The Infernal Machine”; “Brian the Brain”).

And aliens rarely even bother asking. They’re just rude. Even when they mean to be nice, they are jerks. Nameless aliens bestow an atmosphere and mushrooms that unfortunately induce a paranoid psychosis for food on Alpha, just to keep humans out of their yard (“The Last Sunset”). In “Mission of the Darians,” the Darians are also searching for a new habitable planet and invite the Alphans to join them. The Darians also invite the Alphans to get in on processing less respectable Darians into food. Not even Joan Collins in a festive centerpiece and the most beautiful sparkly and shiny pink space princess outfit four-year-old children can conceive of can convince Koenig that is right. Two separate aliens try to get Alphans to volunteer for an eternity of torture—by using torture (“End of Eternity”; . In fact, aliens pretty frequently offer humans immortality. Once Alphans were offered an opportunity to just sort of sit around and treat their affect disorder by staring at an artificial light forever (“The Guardian of Piri”). Another time, Helena is offered the chance to sit calmly in a clear plastic case forever and she isn’t even a specimen or an exhibit in a zoo (“War Games”). And that doesn’t even get into the time that her husband came back and he was made of antimatter (“Matter of Life and Death”). In fact, I’m just going to stop here, because otherwise I’ll list every episode except for that one where they almost fall into a black hole. Let’s just say that if Space: 1999 were a documentary about aliens, it would be narrated by Werner Herzog.

Of course, sometimes Alphans are the jerky aliens. The Alphans help out the Darian “mutants” and end up breaking the Darians’ library containing the entire genetic code of their people stored in Jolly Ranchers. In “Space Brain,” they hurtle through a giant space brain like a goddamn bullet. Sure, they try to steer out-of-the-way and sure, it’s really the result of faulty nuclear waste storage when the moon still orbited the earth, but still, come on. In “Earthbound,” Christopher Lee plays the nobly white-bewigged and glam face-painted Kaldorian Captain Zantor. Zantor is leading his people to a new life on earth—or a suicide pact if Earth won’t accept them, because this is Space: 1999. The Kaldorians, like all things good, have very flat affect. And they are remarkably understanding when the Alphans accidentally kill a Kaldorian by breaking the seal on the hibernation chamber that maintains Kaldorian freshness down to the cellular level. Zantor and his friends even kindly solve Alpha’s free-range, Machiavellian commissioner problem. World Space Commissioner Simmonds, having nothing much to do on Moonbase Alpha, dreams of the era of the Great Game and, towards that end, jacking the Kaldorian space ship and escaping Alpha with six other lucky humans. Zantor volunteers to be taken hostage and to take Simmonds to Earth with them. Unfortunately, Simmonds had not processed for his hibernation chamber and so connives himself into being sealed into a clear plastic box for seventy-five years.

Really, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Moonbase Alpha was somehow responsible for the destruction of Zantor’s planet, probably psychically, probably the result of some psychic experiment of the cheerfully Faustian Dr. Victor Bergman. But then the Kaldorians could be philosophical about having their friend’s freshness seal broken after three centuries’ worth of jerky aliens. Maybe good intentions mean a lot more after encountering an endless universe filled with bad intentions. Maybe this realization that anyone can be terrible sometimes helped the Alphans to be more philosophical as they encountered many malevolent aliens as they listlessly drifted through space. It’s not a bad lesson, and is a pretty good ground for compassion.

Because Space: 1999 aired in the wake of Star Trek, the shows are often compared. Where Captain Kirk is quite happy not to be reigned over in Eden and to travel by the light of the stars, exploring strange new worlds, the people of Space: 1999 have a much stronger sense of exile. Being hurled into space can do that, especially when one can’t steer. But, this vulnerability, this loss of control, this fear was a narrative choice. In that, Space: 1999 reminds me more of Farscape, a show in which human astronaut John Crichton passes through a wormhole and ends up stuck on a living ship with a crew full of escaped prisoners. Like Farscape, Space: 1999 has horror elements, though I didn’t remember them from my childhood viewing, other than a vaguely remembered malaise. As in Farscape, the Alphans are making the best out of their situation. And, as in Farscape, Koenig’s plans usually suck, and I mean that in the best possible way. Hopelessly outgunned and always outmaneuvered, Koenig and his people do the best they can. And that is a very human beauty.

There is a radical change of tone between season one and season two. More emotions. More Koenig fightin’ action. More collars. More colors. More piping, both in space track suit jackets and in secret stripes on the uniforms. And no trousers for ladies anymore. But Koenig’s new salmon-colored safari jacket aside, the highlight of season two for me is Maya. She first appears in “The Metamorph,” the first episode of the second season. Maya is the titular “metamoph,” having learned “the art of molecular control” from her father, Mentor, played by Brian Blessed in one of his two Space: 1999 roles. (He also plays an immortal dude on an ice planet who promises to share immortality with Alpha if they don’t mind overlooking his roomful of creepy zombies from his previous failed experiments in “Death’s Other Dominion.” Victor thinks this is great and doesn’t understand why they don’t move in right now). Maya herself is super-intelligent and probably incredibly long-lived, but, unlike most of the aliens Alpha encounters, she is not a jerk.

While Mentor was not telepathic, he does have a very powerful machine that runs on mental energies and a group of intriguingly dressed leathermen to enforce his will. Mentor asks Alpha’s help in saving Psychon from imminent destruction. But while he is committed to the task of saving his planet, he is, like so many aliens, up to no good. Mentor wears a brown and blue ombre cloak, which Brian Blessed swirls with masterful swirlings. They are the swirlings of a man who very likely lies to passing travelers, captures them, sucks their mental energies into his scary yet fizzy super computer and then puts their mindless bodies to work in his mines. The mines make Mentor the most Ming The Merciless of Space:1999‘s antagonists, marking a big departure from the previous season’s attempts to instill malaise by capturing a sense of human insignificance in the face of a vast and indifferent yet malevolent universe. Mentor’s bellowings and swirlings also distract Maya as Mentor tells her that all these space travelers are willingly helping, and mentions nothing about juicing people’s minds. Deceiving Maya isn’t so difficult, because, based on her feathered evening attire, she is far more caught up in her nightclub career. And who really thinks their dad is sucking out people’s mental energies to power his mad science soda fountain super computer?

Luring Alpha to its doom with the promise of large deposits of titanium, Mentor captures one of Alpha’s Eagle spacecraft, and juices the crew. If you were wondering, your mental energies are liquid, colorful, foamy and carbonated. I don’t know. Do I look like an ageless alien intelligence who has sat in a lucite box for eternities meditating on things beyond your ken until we have come to this foreordained moment and now I shall reveal all unto you? Mentor then tells Alpha there’s been a terrible accident and that they should all come over immediately. Anyway, after almost a year of being hijacked, deceived, tortured, possessed, declared dead, having his home used as an orbital weapons platform and such like, Koenig, while still compassionate and calm by contemporary standards, has become dangerously emotional and active—even Kirk-like—by the standards of Space: 1999. When Mentor suggests Koenig fly over to Psychon and pick up the lost Eagle’s crew, Koenig suggests they meet each other halfway. Koenig even brings extra thruster rockets to ensure a quick getaway. But Mentor is too cunning, even for extra thruster rockets, and has a computer that can do nearly anything. Mentor’s computer creates a fake ship and then transforms that into energy that forces Koenig’s eagle down into Psychon’s picturesque rocket graveyard. Alpha has one computer that can do some things, and only if Kano, the computer officer and computer’s best friend, programs all kinds of data into it. (I assume Kano speaks Cobol fluently). So Alpha relies on Koenig.

Koenig, Helena, Alan Carter and a man IMDb tells me was named, “Picard,” all leave the ship and enter a passage that lead them to the mines, and here is where Space: 1999 really demonstrates that season two is a whole different deal than season one. Where the first season felt very isolated and lonesome, adrift and alone in space, even when they encountered aliens, who were, more often than not, imprisoned, exiled, the last survivors of a dead civilization or wandering themselves, there is a passel of aliens of multiple species working the mine. It is positively lively for a roomful of people whose minds have been drained away. While the first season of Space 1999’s universe feels tremendously empty, the second season feels more like Alpha is on the margins of a populous universe with relationships and rules unknown to them. In fact, I would even say, “beyond their ken.” The first season often feels like it’s after hours in the universe and everything is closed. At most you run into cops, raccoons, people headed home and people up to no good. The second season, the universe is open for business. However you want to see it, that roomful of miners is diverse and they find the Alphan pilot schlepping rocks alongside all kinds of people, including some sort of skunk person. And it’s when you see that Mentor messed with a skunk person that you know that he fears nothing.

The Alphans shoot a leatherman guard and he turns into a pillar of rock. Which, well, don’t ask me. I took courses on bioethics and the history of science and don’t know freaky mad science involving juicers, mental hydraulics and molecular transmutation. So, yeah, I’ll say space alchemy or some kind of allergic reaction. Mentor appears in a hologram and gives the Alphans a talk. He offers Koenig a deal: Get all the Alphans to come to Psychon to have their juice squeezed, and Mentor will let Koenig and his friends live. Instead, James Tiberius Koenig gives new character and Security Officer Tony Verdescchi a coded command to destroy Mentor’s compound. Because as in Farscape, Alpha’s plans suck, the plan fails. Koenig goes with Moonbase Alpha’s second season Plan B: sending Koenig over somewhere and hoping he’ll figure something out. Which I think is actually realistic in the sense of how things would play out in the real world and a pretty good metaphor for adulthood.

Fortunately, Maya happens by. She wants to meet the Alphans who have agreed to help save her planet, but they are rude and say terrible things about Mentor. Koenig begs her to go see the mines for herself and discover what her father has really been doing. Maya transforms herself into a dove to spy on the miners. She takes Koenig to Mentor, asking only that he not kill her father. Koenig promises he’ll try not to. He does smash the machine, though. And the highly flammable mind-juices cause everything to catch fire. Maya turns into an eagle and tries to get away from Koenig. Koenig holds on to her legs while Mentor bellows, “Hold on to her, Koenig!” Then Mentor dies as he had lived, bellowing.

On the ship to Alpha, a grieving Maya tells Helena and Koenig that she is all alone, that she is the only one of her kind saying that she will be an alien anywhere but Psychon. They tell her, “We’re all aliens until we get to know one another.” It’s corny, but I appreciate the sentiment. I’d like to get back to these kinds of stories, rather than ones where, well, she’s the daughter of an enemy or she’s an enemy and she deserves what she gets. Getting back to Star Trek, my biggest disappointment with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek was the ending in which Kirk and Spock don’t beam Nero and his crew over anyway. Instead, after a half-hearted offer to beam him and his crew over, they shrug off the horror of Nero and his people being sucked into a black hole. But a gesture towards the right thing is not the same as doing the right thing. Koenig and Helena comfort Maya and take her in. They don’t tell her what a horrible man her father is. They urge Maya to do the right thing, and then they try to do it themselves.

Unfortunately, of the three Psychons we meet, Maya is the only one who doesn’t do terrible things. In a later episode, “Dorzak,” a famous Psychon poet becomes a cruel dictator who uses mental domination to control a planet of space ladies. In fact, he is such a big jerk that the space ladies have designed a brain implant to protect themselves from his mental control. By the time we reach the last episode of the series, “The Dorcons,” it’s hard to feel bad for the Psychons in general. But when the Dorcons kidnap Maya, Koenig hurries over to the Dorcon ship save her. And not just because she isn’t horrible. Where the other Psychons we meet juiced sentient beings to run their creepy transmutation machine or mentally dominate a planet of stylish, pacifist space ladies, the Dorcons use Psychon brain stems to give themselves immortality. I’m sure it made Alpha long for the days of a very empty, lonely universe.