Reviews

The Cerebral Sci Fi of 'Space: 1999'

Unlike most genre TV of the era, Space:1999 went high concept instead of high camp.


Space: 1999: 35th Anniversary Edition

Distributor: A&E
Cast: Martin Landau, Barbara Bain
Release date: 2010-11-30
Amazon

Revisiting the genre TV of one’s youth can be disconcerting. I loved Buck Rogers in the 21st Century. Today, it clearly appears as what it was: a stale space opera that tried to live like a parasite off of Star Wars mania. If Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica became a truly mythic saga, its '70s predecessor is mostly unwatchable and features an intensely annoying robot dog (a dagget, for you purists). Even the original iterations of Dr. Who, that many of us watched as young geeklets on late night PBS in the '70s and '80s, feel amateurish and just plain boring when viewed today.

In contrast, Space: 1999 is a pleasant, if not scintillating, surprise. Developed for British television by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, Space: 1999 starred Mission: Impossible alums Barbara Bain and Martin Landau. In the pilot episode "Breakaway", radioactive material explodes on the moon, sending it hurtling out of Earth’s orbit. The crew of Moonbase Alpha becomes unwilling travelers through space aboard their unlikely ship.

This is of course, in all respects, a ridiculous premise. The runaway moon becomes the astronauts primary mode of transportation and, rather than simply being destroyed by the unimaginable cosmic cataclysms such an event would entail, the Alphans travel through the universe and have adventures.

Cinematic storytelling, and a sometimes woodenly sober style, save the show from descending into sheer silliness. The Anderson’s decided to make this a show about ideas and, at least for the first season, Space:1999 eschewed the rock ‘em sock ‘em laser battles and space wars that would become standard for genre television by the '80s. In contrast, to most of the space fare being served in this decade, Space:1999 would go high concept instead of high camp.

The direction the show takes, and even its aesthetic, reveals the Anderson’s immense debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A transit ship in the pilot episode is an almost exact replica of Kubrick’s transport. The overall look of the Moonbase Alpha has the same Ikea meets midcentury atomic ranch style that gave Kubrick’s masterpiece such a distinctive look.

Space 1999 also borrowed Kubrick’s metaphysical speculation. In fact, their plot lines showed a fascination with the sci-fi sub-genre of mystical futurism so popular in the '70s. The second episode, "A Matter of Life and Death", is essentially Andre Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris with members of the crew finding a planet where they meet their dead loved ones. In this episode, for example, Dr. Russell (Barbara Bain) meets her long dead husband, who explains, in some detail, that he represents an anti-matter version of himself, a mirror image composed of the same energy as her dead husband, but transformed into something that is not exactly him.

Of course, not all viewers wanted a mystical exposition of the first law of thermodynamics in their outer space adventure. This was fairly heady stuff and not the sort of thing that would help the series break into the American market. The second season of the series would be far inferior, in large part due to efforts sex it up with regular returning alien characters and a lot more action.

The first season never lets go of the big ideas, even as it sometimes adopted a “monster of the week” approach. In the episode “Black Sun”, the Aplhans find themselves being pulled into a black hole that they assume will destroy them. Here the series writers are dealing with the obvious question: wouldn’t a moon flying through space just run into something? They turn this into a metaphysical speculation about quantum physics and Schrodinger’s paradox and even suggest that the Aplhans may have run into something like God in their journey through the rabbit hole.

Other key episodes include “Earthbound”, in which Christopher Lee shows up in a bizarre wig (Peter Cushing makes an appearance this season as well, right on the verge of trading in his recognizability as Dr. Frankenstein for an even higher profile as Grand Moff Tarkin). “A Troubled Spirit” tells a very creepy sci-fi ghost story. “Full Circle” deals with the nature of humanity’s less civilized impulses by regressing the Alphans to an earlier stage of human evolution.

The blu-ray transfer is absolutely beautiful and, in fact, pops much more than most transfers of older television and film. This release certainly compares favorably to the blu-ray transfer of the original Star Trek series, even with the latter’s enhanced effects. The high def treatment has the effect of helping us see through the illusion of the special effects. The ships and moon base Alpha itself are clearly revealed as miniatures. If you look closely, you’ll see that the various buttons and gauges in the Moonbase Alpha control room are painted and drawn. These effects would have worked on the televisions of 1975 and, on some level still work today. The miniatures are beautifully built and arguably represent more craftsmanship that the CGI illusions of the present.

One of the odder aspects of the series is the funkadelic opening soundtrack that contrasts sharply with the shows rather staid demeanor. This psychedelic groove plays over cut scenes of the episode you are about to watch, a conceit that Ronald Moore has acknowledged he borrowed for 2004’s Battlestar Galactica.

The extras give the series a proper 35 year commemoration. The opening episode features commentary from series creator Gerry Anderson. A whole host of original trailers are available. The set also includes a design and special effects featurette that is a pleasure to watch, giving as it does an opportunity to reacquaint the viewer with pre-CGI effects.

Space:1999 came from an interesting cultural moment. At a time when the first moon landing was a recent memory, there was every reason to assume that permanent settlement on the moon was a mere quarter century away. Coming before the rebirth of the space opera in 1977, it emerged from a sci-fi genre that was increasingly speculative and far from action-orientated. In some ways it feels today less like a relic than a symbol of a path not taken, both in scientific exploration and in pop culture.

Fans of old school genre TV who are unfamiliar with the series should be aware that this doesn’t have even close to as much adventure as Trek and includes characters that are as beige as their jumpsuit uniforms. You also wont find the campiness of the Lost in Space series. You will find a dose of cerebral sci fi with an appeal that goes beyond the nostalgic.

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