Sci-Fi Storm

Retro Review: Space: 1999

by on Jul.30, 2011, under Video/DVD

This review is a long time coming…I’ve had the [asin=201]Space: 1999 Complete Series Megaset[/asin] for months now, ever since it became cheaper just to buy that than buy the remaining individual “sets” they used to sell it as (4 sets per season for 8 total sets) that I was slowly accumulating – and now the first season is also available on [asin=1078]Blu-ray[/asin] (Season 2 isn’t formally listed yet, but I’m hearing October.) But I wanted to re-watch the whole series – I grew up watching it, and was always fascinated by the design of the moonbase, the Eagles, etc. Sure, maybe it wasn’t sound science – but how many SF series actually have that? It treated the idea of being in space and on the moon as an important setting – and not ignored like on so many other things.

Space: 1999 was produced as two seasons of 24 episodes each by British studio ITV. It stars the then-married couple of Martin Landau (as Commander John Koenig, and who later went on to win an Oscar as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) and Barbara Bain (Dr. Helena Russell), who both previously appeared in Mission: Impossible. But the two seasons are part of a schismatic production. I’ll discuss the changes a bit later.

The show revolves around the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, an extensive research station as well as a facility for the transfer of nuclear waste from Earth, which gets stored at a site on the far side of the moon. While preparing for a historic mission to the planet Meta, which is approaching the solar system and is emitting a radio signal, Commander Koenig, having previously been stationed on the base as a pilot, takes command in order to investigate a mysterious disease that is affecting some of the pilots – including the selected pilots for the Meta probe. He finds old friend Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) on the base who is a visiting research scientist, and clashes with Dr. Helena Russell, the chief medical officer, who has no explanation for the sickness of the pilots (which was reported to him as a virus), as the pilots begin to die.

While investigating, nuclear dump site Area 1 (which had been closed to further nuclear waste) mysteriously explodes – and they realize that the current Area 2 is 140 times the size of Area 1! When they check it out they find the temperature and electromagnetic fields rising (the EM fields of Area 1 were the cause of the sickness) – and suddenly it explodes in such a cataclysmic event that it acts like a massive rocket motor, thrusting the moon out of Earth orbit – and into the unknown adventure of space!

Sure, the show is not a fine example of hard science – the moon somehow visits a new planetary system or strange phenomenon every episode with little explanation, for starters. And the Eagle ships – the multipurpose workhorse of the moonbase – still bank and turn like a plane in some cases – but the visuals seemed to provide something a little more real that Star Trek had several years earlier. The expansive moonbase, with landing pads, travel tubes, etc. was fascinating to me. Consistency was also not a strong suit of the show, such as there supposedly only being two nuclear waste dumps at the start, but in the second season two more become plot points, and reported “days since leaving Earth orbit” vary so wildly that some Season 2 episodes supposedly take place in the middle of Season 1.

The first season featured a number of additional regular characters – notably among them were Barry Morse (professor Victor Bergman), Nick Tate (Captain Alan Carter), Prentis Hancock (Paul Morrow), and Zienia Merton (Sandra Benes). It also featured stories that seemed very technical in nature.

Some notable episodes of the first season (not meant to be comprehensive, but more a matter of them being so memorable):

“Breakaway” – The pilot episode, which sets up the situation as described earlier. Interestingly, the end of the episode implies that they may try and reach the planet Meta – and then Meta is never ever mentioned again.

“Death’s Other Dominion” – The Alphans receive a message from some long lost humans – who welcome the Alphans to their ice planet, but not out of friendship. Featuring the booming Brian Blessed in one of two roles he played in the series, but also the somewhat laughable shaving cream snow! One of three first season episodes on the DVD set also given in a “remastered” version. It appears the video was cleaned up, except in scenes involving some special effects (likely rotoscoped) that couldn’t be cleaned without affecting the effects.

“Dragon’s Domain” – The moon reaches a region of space which starts to give Tony Cellini nightmares from a previous mission where he was the sole survivor. Put simply, this was one of the scariest things I saw as a kid. The creature in it gave me nightmares. But it also gives a look into the the recent past of Alpha, with Koenig as a pilot competing for the Ultra Probe mission, prior to becoming Commander. Also one of the remastered episodes, and includes commentary by writer Johnny Byrne and first season story editor Christopher Penfold.

“Matter of Life and Death” – The presumed dead husband of Dr. Russell appears on an Eagle returning from reconnaissance, with a dire warning message.

“Earthbound” – Aliens heading to Earth land on the moon as programmed, not realizing the moon was no longer in orbit. Features Christopher Lee and the return of Ray Dotrice as Commissioner Simmonds who wasn’t seen since the end of Breakaway, and also a somewhat creepy ending.

“Missing Link” – Koenig crashes in an Eagle and is in a coma – or is he on the planet Zenno, being studied by aliens as a possible missing link to their evolution? Features Peter Cushing, as well as a very memorable scary scene involving monsters with exposed brains…

“The Last Sunset” – Mysterious alien probes land on the moon – and give it a breathable atmosphere, but can the Alphans reclaim the surface…and why did it happen?

“The Testament of Arcadia” – A spiritual conclusion to the first season. The third of the remastered episodes, including commentary from Sylvia Anderson. Apparently her first choice for the lead role was Robert Culp…

What happened after the first season got interesting. The show was actually canceled after the first season by then ITV President Sir Lew Grade while preparations for the second season were in progress, reportedly due to a lack of a US network willing to buy it. Also at the time creator/producer Gerry Anderson and producer/wife Sylvia Anderson were separating, and ITV’s New York office wanted to bring in an American producer. In came Fred Freiberger – who over time became known (or infamous) as producing the last season of a number of series including Star Trek. Freiberger was able to sell Grade on a retooled second season, meant to a appeal to an American audience – and cheaper.

This meant a lot of changes. First was the cast. Freiberger wanted to sell to a younger audience, and as part of that Barry Morse was offered a smaller contract, which he refused and wasn’t able to come to a deal and left (I’ve heard stories that he also disliked the show). He was actually written out as having died due to a faulty spacesuit, but it was cut from the script so no explanation was ever given on screen. Also abruptly absent were Morrow and David Kano (computer specialist, played by Clifton Jones).

Introduced were two new characters – Tony Verdeschi (played by Tony Anholt), head of security and second in command replacing Morrow; and Maya (Catherine Schell), an alien and metamorph – she could change her form at will in to any life form she is familiar with (and throws conservation of mass, etc. out the window), and acts as the science officer. Secondary characters Carter and Benes return but in reduced roles. A lot of sources list Zienia Merton credited as “Sahn” in the second season as if it is a different name, but I believe this was just a shortening of Sandra.

Another major change is the main set. In the first season, “Main Mission” was an expansive set, with upper-level balconies and stairs, windows to the moon’s surface, wide open work area, and a large sliding door to a rather excessively large commander’s office (Moonbase Alpha was positively luxurious compared to other moonbase representations). That set was completely missing from the second season, replaced with a far smaller Command Centre, which appears to lack any windows at all and actually seems cramped. Eagles also seem to get a few additional enhancements, like booster rockets and a few more mission-specific modules.

The uniforms also received a few changes. The typical uniforms got some horizontal and vertical pinstriping in the office color (matching the sleeve and collar), with some minor style alterations such as fold-over collars on some women’s styles, and new skirts. The personnel also wear picture ID badges and various insignia that appear to define different research divisions or some such idea.

The main characters are also given two different style jackets – an office jacket often in red, bright blue or darker blue, plus the commander’s black, as well as mission jackets in orange or blue. In the first episode Koenig also had a radically different design in black and off-white, that for some reason reminds me of something out of Planet Of The Apes – it had the look of something almost religious like a priest’s stole, with these large wide over the shoulder “lapels”, for lack of a better term. It was not seen in later episodes.

Alien sets also showed heavy re-use of set elements. Consoles that are seen in one episode are seen in another, etc. They also tended to be very generic and abstract so they could be re-used as anything.

Also a number of the effects shots seemed radically simplified, like wide shots of Alpha no longer looked like a model, but of a photo being panned and zoomed.

And of course, the opening theme and credits were radically changed. There was no longer a teaser act – it opened right into the music and credits, the music of which seemed less “epic” and more “heavy action”, as was the style of the opening. And it no longer featured the “This Episode” “spoiler” scenes.

The stories of this season also seemed to shy away from the technical and more towards the human side. The characters have more developed relationships – Koenig and Russell show a definite romantic interest, while Verdeschi and Maya also have one, and the come in to play in several stories. However, several of the early episodes always start with the same premise – they are desperately searching for some mineral they need to repair some vital system.

Of the memorable episodes:

“The Metamorph” – The Alphans are lured to the volcanic planet of Psychon that appears to offer a needed mineral, but instead find a graveyard of ships, and the remaining Psychons seem to need the Alphans for an experiment. This is Brian Blessed’s second role, and also introduces the character of Maya.

“All That Glisters” – Another “find the mineral” episode, but memorable for the glowing, killer “mood” rock.

“Brian the Brain” – An Earth ship called a Swift lands on Alpha, but there is no crew – only a robot in control named Brian (a twist on “brain”, as he serves as the ships computer brain), which then kidnaps Koenig and Maya who he needs to secure fuel for himself. Brian is of an almost laughable design by modern standards, but we also get a glimpse at another Earth ship design (for yet another interstellar mission that predated “Breakaway”, when they had barely reach interplanetary missions). It also features a short appearance by Bernard Cribbins, who SF fans will more recently recognize as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who, appearing during David Tennant’s tenure.

“The Beta Cloud” – An Eagle thought to be lost days earlier returns when it shouldn’t even have fuel, but instead of the missing pilot, it holds a large monster who appears determined to take the Alphans life support system – and there seems to be nothing the Alphans can do to stop it.

“Bringers of Wonder” – A two-part story where a mission from Earth aboard the superluminal “Superswift” arrives, with an odd crew – all friends of people on Alpha. This episode featured some creepy looking aliens, but I noticed that in some scenes on the lunar surface which featured a lot of aliens, some of them were literally two-dimensional – as if they were made of wood.

“The Dorcons” – An alien ship shows up and appears friendly – except they want one thing – Maya. The final episode of the series, and also features Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor in Doctor Who), who I almost didn’t recognize, using a much raspier voice.

Overall, the second season didn’t work for me as well as the first. There were certainly good stories, like “Bringers of Wonder”, despite various issues. But the quality definitely seemed lower and that could be due both to the budget and Freiberger’s influence. Maya is often compared to Spock as far as her role as both the resident alien and science officer with the logical brain.

Still, I thing Space: 1999 overall was a great program with much better production (especially in special visual effects) than Anderson’s previous live-action attempt with UFO – which should be my next Retro Review.

I truly think that studios should look at this show as a potential reboot target, especially if they can keep/improve the original designs of the base and ships, and focus more on improved stories.


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