Space: 1999 “Breakaway” (part 1 of 6)
Everything was really looking up for science fiction in the 1960s. All of the very silly bucking and rogering and flashing and gordoning had finally given way to more thoughtful entertainment. The first science fiction series that didn’t completely suck debuted in 1966 and it was friggin’ cool, if kind of nuts.
At the same time, Stanley Kubrick directed the most serious science fiction movie of all time. Was it any good? Nope. The New York Times wrote that it was “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Fortunately, “hypnotic and immensely boring” was exactly the type of experience that drug-addled hippies in 1968 wanted from their movies. It became an instant classic.
As Star Trek grew in syndicated success and 2001 grew in critical acclaim, it was only a matter of time before somebody asked the fateful question, “How can this crap be combined?” Was it possible to blend the cokehead scientific insanity of one with the pothead philosophical insanity of the other?
Oh, yes. It was. Space: 1999 proved it.
The first episode is titled “Breakaway”. An explosion blasts the moon and its 300 or so inhabitants out of earth orbit and towards unknown regions of space. It’s all very exciting, or at least it would be, if done at all competently.
The show opens with the logo for ITC, the British production company. This series was originally filmed in England in 1973 in partnership with RAI, the Italian state-owned broadcaster. Yes, Italy, the country, invested in Space: 1999. I’d love to have the notes from that meeting. “It’s an English-language Star Trek rip-off? Throw money at it!”
The show starts with a shot of the moon, earth, and sun. It’s fake. I can tell it’s fake because, even though the moon and earth are about the same size in the shot, Australia isn’t being ripped completely off the earth’s crust.
But that’s nothing compared to the complete snow crash that is the opening chyron. “The dark side of the moon, September 9, 1999.”
Forget the fact that there is no dark side of the moon. Even though there’s about 40% of the moon that can never be seen from earth, it all gets equal sunlight. That’s a mistake everybody makes. The amazing thing to me is that this show was set eleven years ago. Do you have any idea how long ago that was?
Dissolve to the brightly lit “Nuclear Waste Disposal Area Two” on the moon. Yes, in 1999, we were disposing our nuclear waste on the moon.
The disposal area looks like a parking lot in the shape of a cross. And I have no problem with this. The exterior models on 1999 were amazing. They really look expensive. They don’t look in any way real, but they look expensive.
Two space-suited astronauts drive up to a gate in a little golf cart, and one of the astronauts takes out a remote control and pushes a button. A red light on a pylon turns green, and the astronauts are able to drive into the parking lot.
That’s right, there’s a security fence. On the moon. Is theft a big problem up there? Vandalism? Do teenagers break in and get high a lot? “Dude, I totally know where we can smoke this! Do you have a spaceship?”
The astronauts call in to “Professor Bergman” to tell him they’re getting ready to check the radiation seals. Back at the moon base, Bergman is watching them on a hilariously old black and white CRT television, and he tells them he’ll be monitoring them closely.
You may be wondering, what exactly is Bergman a professor of? According to the show, everything. Whatever needs sciencing, Bergman’s your guy. There are a lot of people on the moon—enough so that they have to engage in actual crime prevention—but there’s only one person who knows how anything works.
Barry Morse, who plays Bergman, exemplifies just about everything that was wrong with Space: 1999. First, he’s already 55 years old in the pilot. Patrick Stewart was younger than that when his show ended. Second, he’s the beneficiary of a rich British tradition of putting people on television who aren’t particularly good looking. And last but not least, he is very boring. He talks slowly and likes to lean on things. Time actually stands still when he’s on screen. You can actually see the air molecules just hanging there.
But really, that’s Space: 1999 for you. Somehow, they made blowing the moon through a black hole look old, British, and stuffy.
Morse is also the embodiment of an important historical phenomenon: At some point in the 1970s, people lost all control of their facial hair.
Out at Nuclear Waste Disposal Area Two, the astronauts start futzing around with the radioactive waste cover. Back at base, Bergman watches them while standing next to a wax dummy. The mannequin starts moving and… no, actually, it’s Barbara Bain.
Bain is playing Dr. Helena Russell, the base’s chief medical officer. Actually, “playing” might be too strong a word. She just stands there, speaking in a whisper without any inflection or emotion in her voice whatsoever. And I’m not talking about this one scene. She goes through the entire series like this.
Bain won three Emmys for another series with a colon in it, but you’d need an Enigma machine to figure out how. She cannot act at all. To her credit, I guess, she doesn’t even try. Then how’d she get this part? That’s easy. She was married to the show’s male lead, Martin Landau.
I realize she’s still alive, but sometimes I wonder if Barbara Bain died sometime in 1971 and Landau simply had her shellacked. And then demanded that she costar with him on his new show, and everybody was too afraid to point out that she was already deceased. So they just propped her up and hid a tape recorder out of sight. Sometimes, I swear you can see the tape recorder.
Dr. Russell is intensely studying what she claims are the astronauts’ brain waves. She’s using that old science fiction workhorse, an oscilloscope. If you ever need a futuristic-looking thing with knobs and switches all over the place that can be forced to work on camera, an oscilloscope’s for you. Over the course of this series—hell, over the course of this episode—this oscilloscope is going to be used for an astonishing array of things it cannot actually do.
At the moment, the oscilloscope is showing two flat lines. Russell interprets this as good, proving that she’s about as competent at doctoring as she is at emoting. So, in this nonsense universe, a flat line somehow means the astronauts are not dead? What would the line be doing if they actually were dead?
The next shot is of an Eagle shuttlecraft flying away from the earth. If you’ve read anything positive about Space: 1999, chances are it included praise for the Eagle shuttles. And rightly so. Whatever might be wrong with this show, the Eagles were no part of it. They are things of beauty: ugly, utilitarian, and scientifically accurate. If in 1973, NASA had to build a fleet of lunar shuttles, and they had eleventy billion dollars to do it, this is the ship they would have designed.
By the way, I’m only referring to the exterior of the shuttle. Unless you like oscilloscopes, the interior is about as wrong as the marriage between Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.
The inside of the Eagle looks like a really trendy hotel lobby from the 1960s. All of the seats are nice and cushiony, and for some reason they all have really low backs that end below the shoulders. That really can’t be safe. This appears to be a future with a lot of whiplash lawsuits.
A stewardess comes in with a tray for the shuttle’s one passenger. This reminds me of something. The decor, the stewardess, the whiplash chairs… I guess it’s kind of like 2001. And when I say, “kind of like 2001”, I mean “exactly like 2001”. It’s not even an homage. The entire scene is stolen directly from 2001. Hell, the reused footage in Space Mutiny was more subtle.
The shuttle’s one passenger is Dr. Heywood Floyd. Wait, sorry, the shuttle’s one passenger is Commander John Koenig, played by Martin Landau. I’ve got nothing but love for Martin Landau. I enjoyed The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island as much as the next guy. But what I’m loving most right now is the fact that he’s an American actor and this is a British show.
Consider this: the English, making a show with their own money and a couple of bucks they scammed from the Italians, put an American and his wife in the two lead roles. And at the time, they had no commitment from any American network to ever air it. In fact, they never got a network deal. America is so powerful that we can make other countries hire our actors for their shows in the deluded hope that we in the U.S. might someday consider watching it for a couple of minutes. Think about that the next time somebody tells you we’re letting the terrorists win.