Sunday, 1 March 2015

Space: 1999, season one (1975)

Space: 1999 was the most ambitious of all Gerry Anderson’s science fiction television series, and is in some ways the most controversial. Hardcore Gerry Anderson fans are somewhat divided on its merits and the division is even more marked in relation to the second series. The series, which went to air from 1975 to 1977,  had a troubled and rather unhappy production history and even its most ardent fans accept that it failed to achieve its full potential.

It’s a series that Anderson had never planned to do. He was all set to do a further season of UFO and had exciting plans for the series when Lew Grade dropped the bombshell that he was cancelling the show. Anderson, typically, did some quick thinking and came up with a concept for an all-new show that would utilise some of the ideas he’d been working on for the projected but ultimately abortive new season of UFO which was to have been set largely on the Moon (and was to have been called UFO: 1999). The visual design of Space: 1999 incorporated many of the ideas that had been intended for UFO: 1999.

He sold Lew Grade on his ideas and got the go-ahead to do Space: 1999. It would be a very big-budget production indeed - the most expensive TV series yet made in Britain (in fact the most expensive science fiction made anywhere up to that point). That naturally meant that it absolutely had to do well in the US and as a result Anderson found himself forced to cast Americans in the two lead roles. That proved to be a fateful decision. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain saw the series as a starring vehicle for themselves and the contracts they negotiated guaranteed that they would dominate the series. This meant that the supporting actors were pushed into the background and their characters became mere ciphers. Landau (who had turned down the role of Spock in Star Trek) was a fine actor so the focus on his character wasn’t too much of a problem but Barbara Bain’s slightly lifeless performance was a definite drawback. To be fair Landau and Bain did work extremely hard to promote the series.

Signing Barry Morse to play the show’s resident scientist was another unfortunate decision. Morse hated the series and he particularly hated Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Morse clearly wanted the series to be more character-driven and he seemed unable to understand that given their track record Gerry and Sylvia Anderson might actually have known more about making a successful science fiction series than he did.

Despite these behind-the-scenes troubles Space: 1999 did have some very strong things going for it. Anderson’s technical people had plenty of experience in TV science fiction and this time they had serious money to play with. The production values are extremely high, the special effects and the miniatures work are superb and the large amount of money spent on the show paid dividends. Forty years later it still looks terrific.

The sets are very impressive, and for a 1970s series the costume design holds up fairly well. Moonbase Alpha looks convincing and the Eagle transporters are very cool.

The opening episode, Breakaway, sets things up very effectively. Moonbase Alpha is to launch the first manned space mission to a distant planet. Planning for the mission has been disrupted by a series of mysterious deaths. Moonbase Alpha’s new commander, John Koenig (Martin Landau), is determined not to give the go-ahead to launch until these deaths can be explained. The base’s chief medical officer Dr Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) is puzzled and worried. Chief scientific officer Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) is equally mystified. The cause is finally determined to be magnetic disturbances caused by radioactive waste dumps, but the big problem is that the entire Moon is now a gigantic bomb. Moonbase Alpha faces destruction but its actual fate turns out to be much stranger as the Moon is hurled out of Earth orbit into space. The tension is built up with great skill and the forceful but charismatic personality of John Koenig is immediately established. He’s the sort of man who will face any crisis without flinching.

In Matter of Life and Death it appears that the crew of Moonbase Alpha may have found  new home, an Earth-like planet on which they can settle. Of course things turn out to be more complicated. The scenes on the planet surface, while obviously filmed on a sound stage, look pretty good by the standards of alien planets in television series.

These two episodes establish the series as a sort of cross between Star Trek, with encounters with strange new worlds and alien life forms, and a more serious version of Lost in Space with its theme of the search for an alternative home. The latter theme seemed to become less prominent in Year 2.

Space: 1999 was certainly prepared to tackle big philosophical questions, with the episode Black Sun being clearly very influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Death’s Other Dominion is another fine episode that deals with big concepts - immortality for the individual versus survival of the species. Ring Around the Moon, with its ambiguous alien intelligence, was also typical of the bold approach of season one. Aliens were often dangerous not because they were overtly hostile or monstrous but simply because they had their own agenda and were indifferent to humanity’s fate.

There’s also a faint hint that science alone may not the answer to everything and that there may be a purpose to the universe, although a purpose that is mysterious and inscrutable.

Brian Johnson’s special effects quite rightly attracted a lot of praise. Production designer Keith Wilson also did a fine job although his original concepts for Moonbase Alpha (which was to have been called Moon City) were rather more stark and austere than than the final version we saw on screen.

Season one tried very hard not to get locked into a battles in space formula and on the whole it probably deserved to be taken more seriously than it was. It was an odd mix of often very silly pseudoscience and serious philosophical speculation. It stands up surprisingly well today. It’s certainly a must-see for sci-fi fans and if you have fond memories of this show you will find it’s worth taking another look at it. Highly recommended.

3 comments:

  1. This was one of my favorite TV shows when I was young in the 70s...

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  2. At the time but especially watching repeats a few decades later I felt it tried too hard to be mystical & artistic, mostly by being vague & pompous. So much show-biz psuedo-science that I didn't feel it deserved to be called science fiction, and yet not only the production values but the design of the technology was quite convincing.

    But definitely worth sampling if you are interested in "Sci-Fi" TV or TV from that time period. Given Sci-Fi wasn't generally mainstream show biz until "Star Wars", I suspect this was probably one of the most watched "Sci-Fi" TV series up till then (if not as popular as "Thunderbirds")

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  3. A generally fair assessment - but I'd disagree about Barry Morse being a casting mistake, or that Morse's drive for more character-driven scripts worked against good science fiction. The show was at its best when character was brought forth (e.g. Black Sun, Dragon's Domain) if even briefly; and Morse added humanity and gravitas to every scene in which he appeared.

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