Looking Back At SPACE: 1999 - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At SPACE: 1999

Tony’s over the moon.
Space:1999 works.

It feels oddly necessary to point that out, because anytime a reviewer looks back on Space:1999, it’s inevitable that they dwell at least a little on the behind-the-scenes difficulties and the staggering differences of tone and cast and storytelling between Series 1 of the show and Series 2.

To be sure, those difficulties – which we’ll come to in a moment, because we did say it was inevitable – made for what feels like a disjointed show, but, and we can’t say this loud enough, Space:1999 really works.

Here’s the thing: The Original Series of Star Trek had run from 1966-69. The franchise would be back on a bigger screen than ever before in 1979, ten years after it stopped being made as a first-run show on American and British TV screens.

Star Trek: The Next Generation would not hit TV screens until 1987. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 not until 1993.

Both The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 feel, tonally, like they owe as much to the legacy of Space:1999, broadcast between 1975-77, as they do to the original series of Star Trek.

You should feel free to fight us on this if you like.

During the 1960s and early 70s, Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia had been making consistent, character-driven, humour-tinged puppet shows that had elevated the state of the art beyond all recognition. When it came to both puppetry and the telling of comic-book, Saturday serial style adventure stories to a young audience, the Andersons together were stunningly impressive.

From the likes of early, less ambitious successes like Twizzle and Torchy The Battery Boy, through more hardcore hits like Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet, the Andersons redefined the Saturday morning adventure serial – a longstanding draw of children’s movie experiences – as a thing that was available through the medium of TV, with puppet performers, impressive sets and vehicles, set pieces of drama for which the audience would wait and cheer, and a voice cast that managed to give individual life and personality to the characters the audiences loved.

By 1975, the creative and personal relationship of the Andersons was breaking down, but Space:1999 in and of itself took the impressive record of the ‘Supermarionation’ shows forward with a live-action series with a much more serious hook.

By the year 1999, the show posited, humanity would not only have a base on the moon, with regular shuttles back and forth, the moon would act as our solution to a growing earthbound problem – what to do with all the nuclear waste we produced to power our society. We would dump it on the far side of the moon, as far away from mainstream humanity as possible, and leave it to radioactively decay for as long as it needed.
While the Andersons had always been powerfully imaginative when looking to the future in their puppet shows, this had a whole new tone to it – tackling real world issues with science fiction solutions. There was an extra underlining of the folly of such head-in-the-sand solutions too, when the nuclear waste dumps exploded, sending both Earth’s moon, and its Moonbase Alpha, hurtling out of orbit.

What followed was something that had a vaguely Star Trek vibe, inasmuch as it was a small crew of humans (originally 311) heading out into the universe to encounter whatever was out there. But it also had a dark side underscoring it – these weren’t necessarily happy explorers and adventurers, they were more or less refugees, isolated and alone in a potentially hostile cosmos.

While it was rarely if ever specified, the darkness was deeper even than that – ripping the moon out of orbit probably meant that human life on Earth became gradually unsustainable, so in a real sense, the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha went from being workaday civil servants in space to being the last human beings alive, flung out into the galaxy to sink or swim.

Supercar, this was not.
In terms of its characters and characterisations, though, it was years ahead of its time. Real life acting couple Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were Commander John Koenig and Dr Helena Russell, Head of Medical. They nailed the ‘serious leader afflicted with the burden of command’/‘medical genius maintaining her role at the top of a stereotypically male field’ tension, both professional and ultimately personal, long before Jean-Luc Picard and Beverley Crusher were a twinkle in the cosmos’ eye. Rugged ‘action man’ as Second-in-Command? Prentis Hancock was nailing that to the screen as Main Mission Controller Paul Morrow long before Jonathan Frakes broke out a cheeky grin as Will Riker. It’s true that Original Series Star Trek had broken the mold on multi-racial, multi-national, multi-gender, and even multi-species space crews, and Space:1999 followed this immensely foresighted suit with actors of the calibre of Zienia Merton as Sandra Benes and Anton Philips as Bob Matthias, deputy to Dr Russell.

But whereas, for instance, the crew of the Enterprise were all Star Fleet’s finest, practically hand-picked for their expertise at dealing with the challenges of purposeful space exploration, the crew of Moonbase Alpha were, when you got right down to it, little more than civil servants. Highly specialized civil servants, certainly, who got to work in a space environment, but neither their base nor their purpose was initially glamorous. They were a crew not born to exploration and greatness. They were a crew of fairly ordinary human beings forced to step up to greatness, both by their sudden ambassadorial status on behalf of the human race, and by the fact that that there was nobody left to be great on their behalf.
It's also worth taking a moment to appreciate the visuals of Space:1999 – when it was made, it was the most expensive show ever made for British TV, and both in the Moonbase Alpha interiors and exteriors, and the hugely iconic (then and now!) Eagle spaceships, it broke new ground in British sci-fi cool. Series 1 looks like it’s had money spent on it (the result of a co-funding gig with an Italian TV station) and for various reasons, Series 2 looks like it’s missing that gloss, veering a little towards Original Series Trek in terms of garishness to patch over the budget-holes.

If you wanted to excuse Space:1999 its issues, there is more than one way of doing it. You could glibly say that Series 1 was about ideas, and Series 2 was about people and relationships, and weirdly enough, while being entirely glib, that would also be valid. If you wanted to justify the wildly variant tones of the two series, you could even do it ‘within-universe,’ in that Series 1 deals (more or less like Star Trek: Voyager, Series 1), with disparate people in severe shock, their lives changed utterly, as they deal with issue after issue and crisis after crisis, with little time for their own personal affairs, and Series 2 deals with (at least some of) the same people once they’ve gotten used to their strange new lives, and are able to think more about personal relationships and cracking the occasional smile.

There is of course no disguising the fact that the two series of Space:1999 are staggeringly different entities, barely seeming to even talk to one another. What had seemed like an automatic renewal for Series 2 was dangled and dawdled while the fate of the show hung in the balance. Documents were written up about how to change the show so it would get series buy-in from networks in the States. And Fred Frieberger, producer for the third and final series of the original Star Trek, was brought in to change the show’s dynamic. His ‘solutions’ were driven by a certain market logic, and included a merciless cull of existing characters without satisfying in-universe reasons. He also introduction new characters to boost the on-screen personality of the show (Tony Anholt taking over from Prentis Hancock as new Second-in-Command, Tony Verdeschi, and Catherine Schell coming in as clever, funny, hot alien science officer Maya, a mixture of Mr Spock and the genie from I Dream Of Genie, being the most notable of these new characters. He instigated a radical shift away from the expansive sets of Series 1 to more cluttered, crowded and awkward-to-frame sets for Series 2. And, through dubious contract decisions, he phased out some previously consistent characters.
He also demanded more love and romance, and more humour on the Moonbase, while the funding was significantly reduced when the Italian company pulled its money. All of this accounts for the less philosophical, more personal, and arguably in the long run less satisfying science fiction vibe of the second series.

But as we said at the start, you can say all this about Space:1999, and you can find people who love each series. The idea-driven, plot-centred stories of Series 1 appeal to more hardcore science fiction fans, while the more popcorn science-fiction of the second Series appeals to those who, for instance, prefer the Original Series of Star Trek to its often slightly more hard-hitting Next Generation variant.

The point is, it feels oddly unlikely that the Original Series of Star Trek would ever have become the Next Generation without Space:1999 and its like coming somewhere in between. John Koenig was much less the space cowboy captain than Kirk, much more the gruffly competent administrator of the Picard and Sisko eras of Trek. The original formula of Space:1999 was significantly ahead of its day and perhaps just a little too popcorn-free for some audiences, while still maintaining that sense of Saturday morning serial adventure from the Andersons’ puppeteering heyday.

Space:1999 still works to this day, albeit you need to understand there’s a gear shift between the two series. Given a troubled production process, the personal issues of its producers, sudden budget cuts, cast culls, tonal shifts and set-constriction, it’s a miracle it works as well as it does. A miracle, and a testament to both the thoughtful, downbeat original premise and the more mass audience science-fiction that was popular in the Seventies, and which still has plenty of retro fans today.

Watch Space: 1999 today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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