War of the Worlds
While it’s easy to argue that the genre of science fiction is clearly divided into the era “BS” (Before Star Wars) and “AS” (After Star Wars), a more accurate assessment might be “before and after Space: 1999”. And we even get to keep the same initials.
Arriving on the scene two years before George Lucas’ business model changing effort, this British attempt at reviving the televised fortunes of serious speculation had an intriguing pedigree. It was created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, famous for their puppet-based fantasy efforts Supercar, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlett, among many others. It starred then husband and wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both of Mission: Impossible fame. And the show spared no expense, pushing the envelope of available special effects to give its weekly dose of intergalactic drama an appealing level of ersatz eye candy.
It’s no surprise, then, that a show that so readily coped the Star Trek style of high-minded, highly moralized storytelling would end up sharing the same fate as said series. Though international audiences appreciated the program’s literate approach to the subject matter, US networks weren’t buying. This forced Space: 1999 into syndication, where it languished, sometime in abhorrent, middle of the night-time slots, for over two years. If anything, the arrival of Star Wars guaranteed the fledgling series would both succeed and fail. Once you’ve given the audience wookies and womprats, how do you expect them to embrace more intellectualized extraterrestrial pursuits? While the massive mainstream blockbuster did shed some light on the show, it wasn’t enough to keep it from cancellation.
Then, of course, there were other issues outside the production that doomed the show. During its first year, the Andersons began a highly acrimonious divorce. Sylvia had never wanted Landau and Bain in the first place, and the strain began to take its toll. To fill her formidable shoes, ex-Trek-head Fred Freiberger was hired, and with him came a complete revamp of the program’s premise. Gone were major characters (written off in some cases without any explanation whatsoever), in was an emphasis on action, aliens, and other ancillary elements. This did not go over well with the stars. Landau had been a very vocal supporter of Space: 1999’s cerebral dynamic. To suddenly sink into the throngs of a typical laser-blasting Buck Rogers realm was the last thing he or his wife wanted. Begrudgingly, they went with the changes, and for a while, it seemed like the shift would change the series’ fortunes. While some countries, like Canada, embraced the new ideal (with associated ratings boasts), other regions rejected them outright.
Thus Space: 1999 never saw a third season (though one was planned, and even supported by the producers). And it’s not hard to see why. Such a schizophrenic approach was bound to alienate the original fans, while newcomers to the series were certainly going to wonder about the inconsistencies of what came before. The metaphor for what happened once Star Wars hit movie screens was also apparent. Prior to the popcorn phenom, audiences were willing to accept a talky, more metaphysical entertainment. For them, a masterpiece like 2001 remained the cosmos’ gold standard. But once motion control dogfights replaced intellectualized authenticity, anything brainy was belittled. Space: 1999 tried to compensate (Wars arrived smack in the middle of the second season), but as the original Battlestar Galactica proved, viewers wanted the big screen battles or nothing at all. This left the series in an interesting predicament. It was originally ahead of its time. Within one year, it was suddenly stuffy and old fashioned.
The premise was often cited as part of the problem. During a nuclear explosion on the surface of the moon, the Earth’s sole satellite is sent hurtling into deep space. Left on the outcast Moonbase Alpha are Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau), leader of the doomed docking station, along with Medical Section superior Dr. Helen Russell (Barbara Bain). Among the other survivors are Sandra Benes, data analyst, chief pilot Alan Carter, Mission Control leader Paul Morrow, and Tanya Alexander, base operations officer. Constantly butting heads with chief scientist Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), the cosmic castaways are desperate for supplies and constantly bickering over their interaction with alien life forms and civilizations. They also became important explorers in the vast, unknown reaches of distant space. It provided a perfect set-up expertly suited for various adventures and speculative storylines.
Don’t be misguided by the previously voiced disparities. There are and remain elements of Space: 1999 that work, and work exquisitely. The Andersons were well regarded for their attention to mechanical detail, and there are aspects of both the set design and special effects material that remains electrify and eclectic. It’s something inherent in the British production paradigm. A series like The Prisoner can look like a Carnaby Street cock-up, pop art psychedelia matched with twee technological inserts. And yet, when combined together, it creates the perfect future shock space, a reality so unlike our own it is indeed alien. Space: 1999 does the same thing, to a point. Sure, some of the costuming looks like rejects from Starlight Express, and the monsters can be mindnumbingly cartoonish (we humans are hard on extraterrestrial character configurations), but for the most part, this series shines as an example of style over seemingly inconsistent substance.
Packed onto 16 DVDs (the final disc contains some interesting added content), the 48 episodes that make up A&E’s 30th Anniversary Megaset pack an ever expanding universe of genre elements into each 52 minute installment. They’re also not afraid to fudge science to sustain an otherwise exemplary episode. “Black Sun” is a perfect example of this ideal. Based on the principles of imploding stars and black holes, the physics offered in the storyline are shaky at best. But because of the rest of the narrative elements – the clear camaraderie between the characters, the philosophical aspects discussed (some of the crew meet a God-like figure), and the solid emotional underpinning – the flaws don’t feel so substantive. It’s a reaction that’s relatively common when canvassing Season One. “Earthbound”, another excellent episode, relies on clever plotting and audience misperception to makes its points, while “Force of Life” piles on the unusual elements of dread and death. Faith and the forces of belief form the foundation of “Collision Course”, while other more menacing facets influence the stark tragedy of “Death’s Other Dominion”.
It’s not all good tries and above-average efforts, however. An episode like “Ring Around the Moon” (in which the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are systematically turned into human computer relay stations) has the stink of a subpar b-movie, while the awful “Alpha Child” is too simplistic to sustain a full length installment. A caveman concept destroys whatever validity “The Full Circle” could muster, and “Space Brain” is so silly you almost wonder if an entirely different production team stepped in to suddenly subvert the show. Yet the overall conclusion one comes to at the end of Season One is positive. Installments like “War Games”, “The Troubled Spirit”, “Dragons Domain”, and the acclaimed “Mission of the Darians” (with its emphasis on racism and class) suggest where the series could have continued going. It’s too bad then that the behind the scenes infighting forced the show into territory it was ill prepared to participate in.
It was not all doom and gloom, at least, not at the start. The first episode of the new series, “The Metamorph”, used the amplified added attraction of the mandated visual revamp to tell a compelling tell of a planet poised on the precipice of complete volcanic meltdown. With the new emphasis on spectacle, there were also the radical casting changes. Out was fan favorite Barry Morse, in was Catherine Schell as sexy ‘extraterrestrial observer’ Maya. Also gone were Command Center regulars Paul Murrow, David Kano, and Tanya Alexander. While the show tried to resolve their whereabouts, the new approach was obviously oblivious to their overnight disappearance. And for a while, it appeared to be working. The second installment in the series, “The Exiles”, maintained many of the first season’s tense and horrific happenings, and “One Moment for Humanity” continued the prospective promise of the overhaul. Then “All That Glisters” ruined it all. Beginning with a more or less plotless premise (the crew, while investigating a planet, comes across a killer rock…yes, a rock) and meandering through a series of senseless scenes, there remains a real Lost in Space sadness to the overall situation.
The comparison to the Irwin Allen camp fest is not too far off. In the case of the early ‘60s show, the attempted seriousness that the first season strove to maintain was mangled and manipulated in such dreadful ways that, by Season Three, giant vegetables where planning and plotting along with the Robinson Family. Oddly enough, it would be similarly silly facets within the interior of Space: 1999 that would signal its slow descent into irrelevance. The alien costumes created for “The Rules of Luton” were ridiculous and chintzy, while the casting in “New Adam and Eve” was equally hilarious (the goofy Guy Rolfe as a figure of formidable wisdom?). Budget cuts and other production woes were starting to take its toll, and for their part, Landau and Bain were continuously crabby. Space was supposed to be their signature statement, a way of breaking free from the everpresent cloud of espionage from Mission: Impossible to become their own intellectualized broadcast baby. Yet toward the end of the second series, there was no hope of salvaging their original intent.
It’s a sentiment that’s expressed several times during the course of the final bonus DVD. Three remastered episodes get the commentary touch – “Testament of Arkadia” by series co-creator Sylvia Anderson, “Dragon’s Domain” by writer James Byrne and story consultant Christopher Penfold, and “Death’s Other Dominion” from series “expert” (read: geeked out fan) Scott Michael Bosco. Anderson, naturally, is the most interesting, as she explains the long gestation of the series (in began production in 1973 and didn’t see the light of day until two years later) and other production problems. Oddly enough, she doesn’t address her vehement disapproval over Landau and Bain. As for the stars, they appear only in vintage promotional interviews, mostly scattered among the other discs. It’s ‘70s spin doctoring at its more hyperbolic. From all these discussions, we get the distinct impression that Space: 1999 had high hopes and even larger ambitions. Yet without an audience to support them, or a group of networks willing to foot the bill, the series was destined to die off.
Thus, Space: 1999 vanished, leaving behind an unbalanced reputation and a wealth of worthwhile episodes in its wake. In retrospect, Season Two is not really that bad. It’s just different, diving into science fiction storylines and ideas that the first season would have avoided. In addition, the chemistry between the cast was definitely corrupted by the abrupt character adjustment, but this able bodied band of actors found a way to compensate. And then there’s the assumed action and adventure. Oddly enough, very little of either exists. Most of the time, an episode consisted of characters conversing and complaining in a slick space right out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Indeed, most of the galaxy grandeur was relegated to sequences of the iconic Eagle starship taking off and landing. For the target audience – college kids and slightly more clever teens – none of that mattered. They took to the interstellar intrigue with great glee, and for a while, Space: 1999 merchandise was as popular as that of any other show on television.
Yet, as with most serious science fiction, a revisionist Japanese western reconfigured and restaged among the stars made anything remotely similar to Space: 1999 immaterial. Though a considered cult has grown up around the three decade old series (thanks, in large part, to the fan bonding ability of the Internet), it’s also been the subject of ridicule and outright rejection. Indeed, one of the first Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes ever to air (on a local Minnesota UHF channel back in 1989) featured something called Cosmic Princess. Turns out, it was a TV movie made up of “The Metamorph” and “Space Warp” episodes of Space edited together, and the ribbing it took at the hands of Joel Hodgson and his comedic robot pals was merciless. It illustrated the “BS”/”AS” notion of science fiction, and the ongoing debate over the influence of Luke Skywalker on the entire genre. Some will always embrace Space: 1999 as the last attempt at thoughtful sci-fi TV entertainment. Others will disagree. It’s a war of worlds , and words, that will probably never end.