It’s 1975 and British Producer Gerry Anderson, best known for his Supermarionation television series Thunderbirds, has just launched his newest project, Space: 1999, a live-action science fiction spectacular that would become the most expensive series of its time. Taking its cue more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than the then cult favorite Star Trek, Space: 1999 starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, fresh off their stints on the wildly popular Mission: Impossible; Barry Morse, much respected from his time on The Fugitive; and an impressive cast of British and Australian supporting actors including Prentis Hancock, Clifton Jones, Zienia Merton, Anton Phillips and Nick Tate.
The staff behind the scenes was impressive as well. Cambridge-educated writer Christopher Penfold would guide the series through its first sixteen episodes and, together with Irish poet and science fiction fabulist Johnny Byrne, would be largely responsible for capturing the epic feel of the series in those formative days. What appealed to Penfold was the storytelling possibilities of the premise. “We weren’t afraid of big ideas,” he explained in a 2002 interview. “It was what drove us on from day to day; it gave us a huge sense of excitement.”
Added to the mix were the best directors British television had in Charles Crichton, Raymond Austin, and David Tomblin, as well as an enviable guest cast of some of the finest British actors around: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Margaret Leighton, Joan Collins, Roy Dotrice and Judy Geeson.
With a budget of more than a quarter million dollars per episode and boasting special effects the likes of which had never been seen on the small screen (courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Brian Johnson), the series debuted to critical acclaim when it finally hit the small screen. Time Magazine declared that the series was “Ingenious…an Arthurian space fantasy,” and The Wall Street Journal stated “It is the most gorgeous, flashy sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV.” But the praise was short lived.
No less than Isaac Asimov very publically criticized the series for its central plot point: that a nuclear explosion would hurl the moon out of the Earth’s orbit rather than destroy it. Notwithstanding that science fiction has a long history of suspension of disbelief (it is fiction, after all, not fact) in order to propel a continuing series, the criticism only increased. Most interestingly, however, was that the most critical of comments seemed to center on the fact that Space: 1999 wasn’t Star Trek, the then lone-wolf of science fiction television. It didn’t matter that Space: 1999 was never designed to be like Trek. 1999 was about near-future, not the 23rd century and, unlike Trek, the residents of Moonbase Alpha were not in control of their own destiny: they had no ship for interstellar travels, no advanced weaponry, no five year mission to explore. The central point when comparing the two series seemed to be missed. They were as different as apples and oranges, really.
Ultimately, the heavy criticism seemed to prevail and when the series was prepped for second season, ITC Entertainment (the corporation syndicating the series) demanded massive changes. Trek producer Fred Freiberger was brought on board to help Americanize the show, and a large chunk of the supporting cast was unceremoniously jettisoned. Reaching back to his Trek roots, Freiberger created a resident Alien named Maya, portrayed by Catherine Schell, who unlike the stoic Spock, had a pixie-esque sense of humor and the ability to transform herself at will into any living creature. The focus would shift from the heady—almost metaphysical—science fiction stories of the first season to ones more focused on action and adventure.
While the changes were jarring (and largely unexplained), fans embraced the second season and the new additions to the cast, especially Schell’s infectious and sexy Maya. But when the numbers didn’t add up, the series was shuttered in 1977 despite fan outcry and a fervent campaign for a third season.
It 2012. It’s been almost 35 years since the series went off the air, but the fan base is still as loyal as ever. Starting in 1978 and continuing for the last three decades, devoted fans have gathered at conventions in order to celebrate the show, meet the stars and raise money for various charities. Over the years, a vibrant cottage industry of officially licensed merchandise has even taken root and flourished, bringing new canon to the 1999 world. For the last 10 years, Mateo Latosa’s Powys Media (http://www.powysmedia.com) has published a line of wildly successful novels based upon the series, and Drew Gaska’s Blam! Ventures (http://blamventures.com/space-1999/) is bringing the series into the graphic novel world with several highly-anticipated releases. In fact, Powys and Blam! both will be launching their latest projects at Alpha: 2012, (http://www.alpha2012.net) the latest in a long line of Space: 1999 convention to be held in Burbank, California on September 14-16 of this year.
Earlier this year, ITV, the current owner of the Space: 1999 franchise, took fans by surprise when it announced that the series would be re-imagined as Space: 2099, to be produced by American producer Jace Hall, the man responsible for ABC’s recent V remake. While Hall’s reticence to confirm whether the central premise of the series will be retained has caused massive concerns for fans, the announcement has certainly reignited interest in the series.
It is the year 1999 and the moon has become a waste dump for Earth’s spent nuclear fuel as well as a launch platform for various deep space missions, all of it coordinated from Moonbase Alpha, an impressive international science center constructed in the crater on the near side of Luna. The problem is, people are dying up there and no one seems to know why.
Enter Commander John Koenig (Landau), assigned by Earth politicians to find answers and clear up the mess while at the same time getting a highly anticipated (and political) deep-space mission off the ground. Guided by Dr. Helena Russell (Bain) and Professor Victor Bergman (Morse), Koenig decides to cut through the politics and solve the very serious issues facing him. But when the nuclear waste disposal areas explode in a freak nuclear accident, the moon is propelled out of the solar system, leaving a ragtag group of survivors to fend for themselves in the deepest reaches of space.
That was the launching point, the aspect of the series which managed to garner so much criticism. But like any sci-fi television show, it was a tool, used to facilitate the telling of some fantastic—and, often times, very dark—stories. Given the intense resurgence of interest in the original series, it seems an ideal time to reexamine the classic elements of Space: 1999, those aspects which helped garner such a devoted fan base. Despite the heavy criticism, the series does, in retrospect, seem ahead of its time, but with roots that can be traced back to some of the darker speculative fiction as well as classic science fiction television series like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.
In Earthbound, the third of the episodes to be broadcast, politician Commissioner Gerald Simmonds (Roy Dotrice, Game of Thrones) who had found himself inadvertently marooned on Moonbase Alpha meets a particularly gruesome ending, one which harkens all the way back to Poe.
When a ship enroute to earth lands on the moonbase, the Alphans discover a race of aliens in deep stasis, and, in their attempt to awaken the group, inadvertently kill one. The other pods, which are essentially see-through coffins, come to life, and when the leader of the alien race (horror staple Christopher Lee in a brilliantly restrained performance) rises from his bed, it is a very Dracula-esque moment. With Lee’s gravitas, those first moments of silence make us certain he will take retribution for the death of his comrade. But the writers take a more interesting approach, playing against Lee’s well-established horror “type.”
Lee and the rest of the Kaldorians hold no ill will, seeing the death for what it was: a terrible a mistake born of ignorance, nothing more. Rather, they are a pacifistic race on a long journey to Earth where they hope to be welcomed. Given that one of the aliens had been killed, Lee magnanimously explains, there is room for one of the Alphans to join the 75-year voyage.
The sniveling Simmonds takes this news to heart, suggesting to Koenig that they eliminate the Kaldorians so that more Alphans can return to Earth. It’s a nice switch for sci-fi: the alien race the pacifistic; a human, the evil aggressor. Koenig rejects Simmonds plan outright, deciding instead that the individual joining the aliens would be chosen by Main Computer.
Not content with his chances in a lottery, Simmonds takes hostages, including Lee, to ensure that he is the one to return to Earth. However, the good Commissioner does not give Lee enough time to attune the stasis pod to his human physiology (Lee isn’t particularly forthcoming, and, in some interpretations, rather devious in his omission). Simmonds falls into a deep slumber and the ship leaves Moonbase Alpha far behind.
Only a few hours later, however, Simmonds awakens thinking that he has come to the end of a 75 year journey. He tries to contact Earth through the portable communication device carried by all of the Alphans. Only when Earth does not respond does Simmonds realizes that not only is he nowhere near Earth but also he is trapped in the stasis chamber for the remainder of his life. The visual of him pounding against the sides of the coffin, like a moth in a bottle, is chilling; the horror for both Simmonds and the audience is jaw-dropping.
Back on the base, the Alphans hear Simmonds’ screams for help, knowing they can do nothing. In the end, it is revealed that Main Computer had indeed chosen Simmonds, the only person on Moonbase Alpha who did not serve a useful purpose.
Force of Life, written by Byrne, is essentially a zombie story; however, it is one with a humanistic twist. An amorphous alien entity infects Anton Zoref (Deadwood’s Ian McShane), a well-liked technician, who, after the encounter, finds himself desperately in need of warmth, of energy in any form. Unfortunately for his friends, some of this energy is found in their bodies, and when Zoref touches them, all the heat is drained from their bodies….
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