Sep 13, 2013
Space: 1999: A Series Review
When I put together my first Space: 1999 recap, I guess I was taking a lot for granted. I was assuming everyone was familiar with Space: 1999, and knew how bad of a show it was. And for that, I apologize. So I thought that before I post my next video review concerning a season two episode, I’d provide a bit of background regarding who created the series, how it came about, and why season two is so unlike season one in terms of look and tone.
Gerry Anderson was a successful television producer, director, and writer who created several children’s TV shows during the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s, most of which used a process called “Supermarionation”. Supermarionation was the use of puppets with built-in solenoids that would respond to an actor’s voice, causing the lips to move. It gave the marionettes a bit more of a lifelike quality.
In the late ‘50s, Gerry met Sylvia Thamm. The two hit it off, fell in love, and Gerry presumably felt he had met his soul mate, because he soon divorced his wife to marry Sylvia.
Sylvia became a true partner of Gerry, and between them they created some of the most memorable British children’s TV programming of the ‘60s, among them Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stingray, and their biggest hit:
Part of the success of these shows was the merchandising. I myself once owned a Thunderbird 2, having never, ever seen a single episode of the show. But damn it, the thing was so cool I had to have it!
Look at it. It’s… beautiful. Now I’m wondering where it is. It’s either in the crawlspace under my parents’ house, or my dad sold it on eBay.
Thunderbirds was so successful as a TV series that they actually made two movies: Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6. The Andersons produced more shows in this vein, including Captain Scarlet, The Secret Service, and Joe 90. It was then that in 1970 the Andersons developed a live-action show called UFO.
The series took place in the far flung year of 1980, where aliens secretly invaded Earth and an equally secret organization called S.H.A.D.O. engaged in a, well, shadowy war against them. Personally, I think it’s a fantastic series. Sure, it looks a bit dated, and it’s funny seeing how some people thought the near future would look, but the idea of aliens invading Earth and using human beings for spare body parts was pretty chilling.
Around this time, Gerry was producer of a movie called Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, also known as Doppelgänger. It didn’t do very well at the box office, which might be why the Andersons stuck to television. I saw the movie way back when, and I admit it’s a little weird. Later, Gerry Anderson produced the half-hour adventure series The Protectors with Man From U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn as the lead.
In addition to the Andersons, there was Reg Hill, who worked with the pair as a model and set designer on their shows. Over the years, Reg had successfully taken on other roles as director, producer, and executive producer.
And then there was Brian Johnson—
No, not that Brian Johnson. I mean Academy Award-winning special effects wizard Brian Johnson. Although in a perfect world, the two would have been the same guy, and he would also have been a world-renowned brain surgeon. It would have been like if Buckaroo Banzai existed in real life.
The point is, by the time this bunch tackled Space: 1999, they inarguably had plenty of experience in all the various fields of TV and motion picture production. They had no doubt learned from both their successes and failures what worked and didn’t work when it came to contemporary science fiction and TV programming for children and adults. So when I sat down to watch Space: 1999’s first season, I was truly baffled at how they had gotten so much wrong.
To sum up what Space: 1999 is about: In the far flung year of 1999 (the show’s pilot was filmed in ’75—why the Andersons felt a need to place this show so close to the present day when Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet all take place a century in the future baffles me. Was it just because they liked the name?), Earth has united into one world government (see the problem with basing this show a mere 24 years in the future? The Andersons must have been incredible optimists). Earth has constructed a base on the moon, and dumped all its nuclear waste there. Why didn’t they just launch it all into the sun? It’s pretty sad when Superman IV makes more sense than this show’s premise.
All that nuclear waste achieves critical mass and spontaneously explodes, hurling the moon into deep space, which means the 311 men and women of Moonbase Alpha must now engage in a daily struggle for survival.
Like I said in my first recap, the show is a mess when it comes to its delivery. You had episodes where things happen after long stretches of nothing happening, and no one bothers to explain why or how the thing that happened just… um… happened. It’s like the Andersons watched 2001 and decided that they didn’t have to explain anything, as long as the sets looked awesome and the special effects were cool. Sorry, but Stanley Kubrick you guys ain’t.
Years ago, my friend Chuck summed up Space: 1999 pretty well: it’s like Star Trek, except the entire cast is Spock. You can see it in Barry Morse’s line delivery, Martin Landau’s dour scowls, and Barbara Bain’s blank stare. It was as if the Andersons told the cast, “Don’t emote, don’t act, be super-serious all the time.” It’s an exaggeration, I know, but not by much.
The characterization was particularly strange when you consider that for all their scientific knowledge, our heroes usually ended up standing around as helpless bystanders in the face of a universe that was inexplicably, indefinably weird. From episodes where the moon punches through a space brain like a bullet, to another where a woman acquires two brains that can both somehow fit in her skull, to members of the cast becoming cavemen by passing through some mist, to a man being haunted by his deceased future self, the writers and producers seemed to think their target audience would probably be too stoned to care.
The Spock similarities are the first of what I feel are unavoidable comparisons to Star Trek: the stories seem like rejected Trek scripts, the Bergman/Koenig/Russell dynamic mirrored Spock/Kirk/McCoy, and just like Star Trek, there was a supporting cast that was largely ill-defined and underused.
For a show that should have been focusing on the hardships of being stranded and lost in hostile space without any means of outside aid, they never seemed to have a problem having enough food or power. Hell, they blew through more Eagles in two seasons than Voyager did shuttles in seven. For example, take the episode “Alpha Child”. I’m supposed to be wondering how this kid goes from being a baby to being almost instantly five…
…and I’m instead wondering where they got his clothes.
I don’t think it comes as any surprise that after season one, Space: 1999 was in danger of being cancelled. Also at this point, Gerry and Sylvia’s marriage had deteriorated and they were now separated. I don’t know if the show’s failure to catch on was in any way responsible for the marriage breaking down, but it surely couldn’t have helped.
Gerry needed help, and he turned to veteran TV producer Fred Freiberger. Freiberger’s name is often preceded by the words “series killer” by Star Trek fans, because he was producer during that show’s third and final season. Here’s my take on Freiberger: rather than see him as a man who killed TV shows, I see him instead as a guy who managed to squeeze one more season out of a series destined for the chopping block. Star Trek was doomed to fail because Gene Roddenberry had largely given up and NBC both put the show in a deadly time slot and slashed its budget. And Space: 1999 wouldn’t have gotten a second season at all if Gerry Anderson and Freiberger hadn’t pitched some drastic changes.
So here’s how things were different in the second season: Barry Morse, who played Professor Bergman, was gone, although why is not exactly known. It looks like it may have been over salary issues, or it could have been he was dissatisfied with the series. Likewise, they got rid of Prentiss Hancock, who played Paul Morrow, and Clifton Jones, who played computer expert David Kano. But to be brutally honest, nothing was being done with those characters anyway. Two actors were brought in to replace the three who left. The first was Tony Anholt, who had worked with Gerry on The Protectors. Tony was hired to play Chief of Security Tony Verdeschi, basically the Major West to Landau’s Doctor Robinson.
The other new cast member was…
…Okay, growing up, I had four TV crushes. Star Trek’s Uhura…
Joy from The Bugaloos…
(Don’t laugh, goddammit! If grown men can have crushes on cartoon ponies, then a five year old can have a thing for a live girl with fake wings!)
…And my fourth crush was Catherine Schell as Maya.
Maya filled in the roles of computer expert and all-around science nerd quite nicely, as well as possessing the added bonus of the comic book-like power of shape-shifting. And based on the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Maya and Tony, these two characters were obviously brought on to add an element of sex appeal to the show. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, if handled properly. Catherine Schell doesn’t appear to be exploited; Maya is smart and tough, in arguments she gives as well as she gets, and she rescues the men as much as she herself needs rescuing. And frankly, when they sexed her up, the result was a lot classier than sticking her in a skintight jumpsuit.
Maya was brought aboard Moonbase Alpha in the first episode of the second season, but where Tony had been all this time, and where the departing characters went is never explained.
The next changes to the show were the sets. Gone was the massive, brightly-lit Main Mission with its second level and adjoining ready room.
It was replaced by the more intimate Command Center. Likely it was much easier and cheaper to take care of, but on the show, the reason for moving to the Command Center is also never explained.
Costumes were changed as well, with the inclusion of field jackets and sweaters, and everyone getting turtlenecks now, instead of just Commander Koenig.
The fabric of the costumes changed as well, seeming to be thicker, so we didn’t have to see Martin Landau’s nipples anymore. There were also other costumes, like brightly-colored utility jumpsuits and nurses’ uniforms. The women also had a skirt variant. But where the new uniforms came from is (say it with me) never explained.
Finally, the biggest change came in the scripts. One of the big problems with season one was the high body count. At the rate people died, Moonbase Alpha would have been depopulated in a matter of a couple of years. And then there were the loss of so many Eagles. I’m not saying people didn’t die during season two, or that they didn’t wreck any spacecraft. It just seemed that Freiberger felt the loss of life was not always necessary to sell drama. You can see this attitude in the third season of Star Trek, in which you had 26 deaths in season one, 20 in season two, and only ten in Freiberger’s season three.
Freiberger also decided it was time that Koenig and Russell’s relationship became less of a tease. I think Barbara Bain must have liked this because she’s actually, you know, acting in season two, whereas in season one she’s sleepwalking through most of her scenes.
Finally, the show became just a bit more lighthearted and action-oriented, with less of an emphasis on scripts that left you scratching your head and wondering what the hell you just watched. Or worse, wondering why you had watched it in the first place.
So with new cast members, new sets, new costumes, new scripts, and a new attitude, was the show any better? Well, yeah, a little bit. I think Space: 1999 could have been so much more, had the producers shown a bit more foresight and daring. For example, there are only 311 people on Moonbase Alpha, and a whole lot less by the time season two begins. They should have started off with a thousand, so they could handle the high body count more easily. Or at the very least, suggest that with every death, that meant more food and air for everyone else.
The depletion of resources should have always been an issue, from medical supplies to fuel for their Eagles to life support to food, but these problems were hardly ever seriously addressed. In the final episode of season one, “The Testament of Arkadia” (a ridiculous episode where we discover Moonbase Alpha has a specialist in dead languages. Why would the moon need a dead language specialist?), Koenig is forced to leave behind a huge chunk of Alpha’s supplies with two people on a dead world. But when season two begins, rather than the Alphans being reduced to cannibalism, they…
Wait a minute… Maybe that’s what happened to the three missing characters. Mystery solved!
In the second season episode “Catacombs of the Moon” (one of the show’s head-scratchers) , there’s a plot thread involving a woman in need of an artificial heart. Dr. Russell requires a rare element to build it, but Koenig—off-base through most of the story—says they don’t have enough of it because it’s critical for their life support. When they lose communications, Tony tells Helena to go ahead and use it. Is Tony punished for disobeying Koenig’s wishes? Is Koenig angry? Are their life support systems in any way threatened? Naaaww. It’s all good.
You know what would have made this a powerful episode? Koenig saying “no”, the woman dying, and the point being driven home about the precariousness of the Alphans’ existence. Make this a real issue regarding the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, and whether or not the value of the few is worth it. Or, what if an impromptu ballot is taken, and overwhelmingly the Alphans decide they would rather give up the element than stand by and watch a woman die so they can breathe for a few extra months? Instead, it’s an episode about the husband having visions of his wife in bed, surrounded by a ring of fire.
I think the producers (and probably Martin Landau himself) were afraid of making Koenig out as a bad guy. But hey, at least we got to see Catherine Schell all hot and sweaty, hair deliciously mussed.
Sorry, got distracted there for a bit.
It wasn’t until more than two decades later that you saw shows that addressed these issues with more daring. Series like the re-envisioned Battlestar Galactica, Stargate: Universe, and even Farscape all had desperate characters making hard choices. Space: 1999 was trying to be Star Trek, The Original Series, and wound up looking more like a blueprint for Star Trek: Voyager, with predictably shitty results.
Next month, I’ll be back with a recap of one of the better season two episodes. Stay tuned!