Cult Culture Archive: Space: 1999, Series One
From the archives…a review of the first season Space:1999 DVD boxset.
Now that A&E has been good enough to produce the bonus disc they promised several years ago, I feel a little better about reviewing the series. Since I love to ramble drunkenly about bikini-clad women being gored by green plant-aliens, I’ll split the Space:1999 review into two sections. Part one will cover the gloriously gothic, dark and moody first season. The second part will cover the doomed ship of the second season, the final episodes of which you watch out of a sort of pity.
The lights come up. It’s 20 years later with original co-star Zienia Merton addressing the fans, sending a final message from Moonbase Alpha and finally giving us a conclusion to the journey. This is the power of the show – not only to maintain a fan base for so long, but to enjoy short fan-produced films. There is talk of reviving the program and, depending on the success of Battlestar Galactica later this year, we’ll see what happens.
Staring Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Barry Morse (season one) and Catherine Schell (season two), and with guest stars that included Joan Collins, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Leo McKern and other acting giants, Space: 1999 was a sci-fi departure, for the time. 1975-1976, it was the logical good daughter of Star Trek and Lost in Space. Yes, it’s a road traveled, but with a new twist. This crew of 311 souls is not ready for the journey, and they come from an Earth that hasn’t yet encountered alien life and has only once before left the solar system, and that mission was unsuccessful.
Even in 2003, it has a fun element that can lend enjoyment to your gin soaked evenings now that your significant other has left you for her yoga instructor. Unlike the Star Trek franchise and other sci-fi shows, there’s no refuge for this crew. No way out, very little experience and a clumsy sort of paranoia that assumes every encounter to be potentially lethal. Oh, and need I mention the best opening sequence in Sci-Fi? 70’s guitar funk, with each title sequence featuring the most exciting clips from the episode. It’s gets the blood pumping.
Created and produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (who brought us Thunderbirds, soon to be a major motion picture), Space: 1999 had a rocky beginning. The entire first season was filmed in 73-74 and sold to the studio as a set, which was probably the only thing that kept season one as cohesive and enjoyable as it was. In fact, I rather believe season two was destroyed by the studio out of spite. They had no power over the pre-filmed first season, no ability to change anything in the 24 episodes sold to them. The show also sold on the power of husband and wife team Landau and Bain, who were fresh off of the original Mission: Impossible. Based on the strengths of past hits, the Andersons sort of bluffed their way into our prime time living rooms. Selling a new sci-fi series in the mid-70’s was no easy task, especially if you were going to deviate from the base formula.
The story begins on Earth’s first moonbase, Alpha, where a very young world government akin to the U.N. is disposing of hazardous materials, most especially nuclear waste. A strange madness is affecting some astronauts assigned to the moonbase, a sickness that has delayed the second interstellar mission – a probe designed to follow a recently detected artificial signal. Though the pilot episode throws the moon on the same course as this signal, the story arc is immediately dropped in favor of Space Warps R Us, tell me more of this human thing called kissing, I am Chuck the Brain and I’ll destroy you with giant antibodies.
Though often criticized as lacking a human element, the opposite seems true to me. Knocked out of Earth’s orbit by a massive nuclear explosion in one of the poorly maintained radioactive waste dumping fields, the moon is hurtled through space at an incredible velocity, causing cataclysmic damage to Earth in the process. The Alphans have no way back, no hope of returning, and so they face a journey through unknown space. My favorite twist on the old story is that this is an unwilling crew, not bound by family or the military. These are scientists and technicians, none of whom are used to the idea of being under the thumb of a commander, let alone cut off from Earth forever. Martin Landau’s authority is repeatedly called into question and the crew often bucks the system, giving us a few episodes where mutinous crew members do insane things. The psychological toll is briefly explored, with people going quietly insane here and there. The crazy crewmember episodes are the most entertaining. But audiences in the mid 70’s wanted fuzzy space aliens who laughed heartily then stole your women. They still want that, I suppose. Space: 1999 was one of the few sci-fi shows that actually took the time to have crew-related episodes, and not just so they could be nameless fatalities on Bizarro World. Maybe I’m the crazy one, but I think having your top officers stranded on Bizarro World threatened by nothing other than Crazy Bill from Reactor Room 2 who misses his wife on Earth is a great story line. No groovy aliens, just Crazy Bill and a rifle. Goddamn you, Commander! I said I wanted more mustard for Ham Sandwich Thursday’s and you said we couldn’t afford the strain on the food processing units! AAAAHHH!!
There’s your human factor.
Barry Morse (Lt. Gerard from the original Fugitive series) is the brain, a brilliant scientist doomed to be replaced by Catherine Schell in the second season, who was a shape-changing alien scientist with cleavage. Barbara Bain played the chief medical officer and Martin Landau’s love interest (a story arc that played out very well, no doubt due to her real life marriage with Landau and despite her hideous wooden acting). Surrounded by strong supporting stars that you’ve seen in tons of bit parts, the show will easily take a hold on you once you sit down and get into the groove.
The tone for the first season was dark, with gothic episodes and internalized tales about Alpha crewmembers gone wrong. It had alien babies, parallel universes, guitar solos, crashing spaceships, warriors from distant stars, scary old women in robes and nude supermodels. It had exploding doors, gods and devils, power failures and sickening zoom work on flashing red alert screens.
The Alphans, while traveling through the unknown, have one mission – to find a new home and to leave their dead moon behind. But no matter what, they would always encounter an intelligence greater than their own or, ultimately, fuck everything up and miss their chance. Another undeveloped story arc was the idea that Humanity came from a highly advanced, doomed civilization. As the series progresses, we get a snoot-load of hints that Humanity’s role in the universe is more than we imagine. The first season concludes with an episode exploring Mankind’s ancient homeworld – Arkadia. Thanks to the actions of Moonbase Alpha, several ancient races are allowed to ascend to a higher plane and new races are given birth. By the second season, our reputation precedes us.
Again, though, the Humanity as a once great interstellar race (and now returning to their old power) story arc is dropped for the second season.
Though flawed, the series ranks high on my list of quality sci-fi. It’s daring stuff that you don’t often see today. Many modern sci-fi critics will begrudgingly admit that, when the Star Trek franchise was revived by The Next Generation, it borrowed more from Space: 1999 than the original Star Trek series. This is a series that aimed high and, on several occasions, fell short… But when you get a show that’s smart and tries to push the envelope, you can forgive the failures.
Your episode list:
The two hour pilot is mostly people saying “What are you doing? Are you crazy! NO! Don’t shoot the window! You fool, you –” WHOOSH! The pilot also introduces evil Commissioner Simmonds, who could have been the Dr. Smith of the series…again, a story arc not developed. Simmonds reappears in a later episode, but only to suffer a terrible death that would have meant more if he had been a recurring bad guy. Also, the Moon heading towards the alien signal story arc is dropped. Now, if you’re making the show before selling it and shooting all the episodes together, why would you purposely build in story arcs and then “forget” about them the next day? Oh well…it’s a beginning.
Matter of Life and Death
Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) had a husband, lost on a mission to Jupiter. Now, in unknown space, he reappears. Except he’s an anti matter alien dude and everyone’s going to die unless Barbara Bain can save the day. Can she do it? Will she survive being caught in a romantic love triangle with her commander and her dead husband? Will Alpha survive?
Yes, they will. But only to face a black hole that will not only propel them halfway across the universe, but give them a chance to meet a being that may or may not be our creator. (A woman, by the way. Try and find another female God in 1975 prime time TV.) Keeping with the mystical, metaphysical attitude of the first season, this episode is the first step towards the idea that Mankind is something more than we think, something far more powerful. It’s also a much needed character development story, which is what you should do before you introduce dead husbands and love triangles.
Ring around the Moon
Hi, remember Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Good, you’ll recognize this story, then. An alien Voyager probe takes the moon hostage, possesses people and attempts to download files from the computer. In what should have been a half hour episode, Martin Landau has to convince the probe that its masters are dead and its mission is meaningless. Will he succeed? Will they survive? Oh my god! I don’t – oh, okay, everything’s okay now. (Insane Voyager probes get a second script this season, as well. Guess ideas are tough to come by when you’re taking Quaaludes.)
Christopher Lee and the last survivors of his race, the Kaldorians, are headed to Earth for refuge (you and I know why, because I’ve just spent 20 pages telling you how Mankind turns out to be a superior, ancient race). They have room for one Alphan, though their journey will take thousands of years. Evil Commissioner Simmonds returns (I guess he’s been asleep for the months that the moon has been traveling in space) and hijacks the ship, forcing the Kaldorians to take him along. Ho, ho, ho. Joke’s on Simmonds, and his unrealized character is written out horrifically.
Another Time, Another Place
A rift in space returns the Moon to Earth’s orbit – along with a second Moon! It’s a parallel universe, bitch, and the Earth is a wasteland. The other Alpha crew has resettled on the now barren Earth, and the parallel Alphans can either live with each other or await their death when the two Moons collide. Or will the collision return our Moon to the normal dimension? Yeah, that sounds like a better plan. Who wants to live on a wasteland with only our parallel selves for company, let’s get back to bashing some alien heads! An accomplished episode in terms of spooky atmosphere (exploring the ruins of parallel Alpha).
After his ship crashes, Martin Landau’s soul is stolen by a curious anthropologist who wants to study him… Which is fine, except Martin is too busy fucking his daughter. So, tell me more about this Human thing called – What? WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!
Guardian of Piri
Note to self: Piri doesn’t like visitors.
Force of Life
Classic first season gothic horror story stuff. A technician is possessed by an angry spirit and kills women in skimpy bikinis. Creepy murder spree in space? Oh, yes.
In a plot line that Star Trek: TNG copied almost word for word, we got ourselves an evil alien reborn in the body of the first child delivered on Alpha. He ages 30 years in a few hours, turns his mother into a host for his long dead lover and plans to take over the rest of Alpha because, of course, it’s just about time to destroy the universe.
The Last Sunset
Aliens fearing the Alphans give the moon an artificial atmosphere in the hopes that they’ll stay the fuck away. Unfortunately, that means Alpha’s going to corrode and the Alphans will lose their ability to make enough food to survive, so the aliens send psychedelic mushrooms to eat. Our co-stars all go on a bad trip as the moon drifts away from the alien planet, the inhabitants of which apologize for causing such a ruckus.
The now insane Voyager probe returns to find its master. The big problem is that its star drive uses a fuel that’s killed everything it’s came across. Voyager has inadvertently wiped out countless civilizations, the survivors of which are now in hot pursuit to find and destroy the Human race. To make matters worse, the creator of the star drive is on Moonbase Alpha. Oh, he doesn’t handle the idea that he’s responsible for the deaths of billions of innocents very well.
The Moon is going to collide with a planet. Doing so would allow for the ascension of an ancient race, as was predicted millions of years ago. Nobody believes Martin Landau after a creepy witch woman gives him the scoop.
Death’s Other Dominion
The missing astronauts from a mission to Uranus are alive and well on a distant ice planet…and they’re insane!
The Full Circle
Sylvia Anderson: “We will not have people turning into monsters.”
Full Circle plot: The Alphans turn into cavemen.
End of Eternity
Peter Bowles guests as an immortal blood drinking ass fucking demon that the Alphans discover entombed within an asteroid, which they gleefully cut open.
Everyone is killed by aliens who think Humans are a universal plague, and Alpha is a vanguard force. But, it’s okay, it’s all a dream. OR IS IT? No, it is. OR IS IT?
The Last Enemy
The Moon passes between two worlds at war. One world is populated by women and the other by men. So each world lands an atomic launch vessel on Alpha. Comedy ensues.
The Troubled Spirit
A high class gothic horror tale that leans more on the crewman guest stars and puts the main characters in a secondary role. The frenetic, powerful guitar music that fills this unusual episode always gives me chills. A group of crewmen raise a vengeful spirit during a seance – a spirit bent on avenging a murder that has not yet taken place.
The Moon passes through a giant brain. Barry Morse and Martin Landau do battle with antibodies or, to be more accurate, soap suds.
The Infernal Machine
Leo McKern guest stars. Note to self: An immortal, sentient computer with a strange fixation on your girlfriend makes for a bad dinner companion.
Mission of the Darians
Joan Collins is among the last survivors of an advanced species on a city-sized spaceship, adrift these 500 years. The ship is plagued by stone age freaks…who come from the same species. Something went wrong, and the two groups of survivors evolved into a Doctor Who episode! Obviously, the stone aged folks are the bad guys! I mean, as long as we don’t discover that the advanced survivors are cannibals. Ha, ha, ha! That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? Come on, it’s not true, is it Joan? Why are you looking at me like that?
The story of our first interstellar mission to a habitable world, doomed with only one half-mad survivor returning. His madness returns as Alpha drifts towards the space graveyard where the main ship was lost, years ago. He must again face the giant spider that ate his crew in one of my favorite episodes – genuinely frightening, even today. The spider is a goofy monster with a bright light for an eye, but it’s still damned scary. Anything like that which gives you chills, 25 years later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon is a sign of quality.
The Testament of Arkadia
The final episode has Alpha locating Mankind’s ancient homeworld – Arkadia. Our once almighty ancestors destroyed themselves and sent the seed of life off to Earth. Now, two humans have been chosen to bring life back to our original home.
The end of the series left us on cool note – the answer to the purpose of our existence. Oh, but the second season would get raped. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson divorced, and a new production team took over command. Many of the supporting characters, as well as Barry Morse, were canned and the expansive sets would be changed for tighter sets. So, next time, we’ll visit doomed season two.
Nacho’s gin rating: Space 1999 rocks my boxers. It makes my socks roll up and down. If you haven’t suffered through 24 hours of madness like me, then you must do it! Or else I’ll free the violent, ass fucking demon that your people imprisoned 3000 years ago. See if I don’t!