It’s weird to think that 1999 CE is over two decades in the past now. There are certain years in the last century and this one which have a kind of cachet of being futuristic about them, including 1984, 1990, 1999, 2000 and 2001. The PET 2001 computer, released in 1977, clearly exploited this, as of course did the film ‘2001’. Wordstar 2000, the word processor, was published in 1984. Then, when the years in question come and go, many things labelled with those years acquire an instant patina of zeerust, with the unfortunate exception of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, of which the Burkiss Way once said “if you missed any of that, there’s another chance to see it by looking out of the window”.
‘Space 1999’ is of course one of these. Some people take the approach with SF set in what used to be the future but is now the past, so to speak, that it’s actually alternate history. Like ‘UFO‘, this is another Gerry Anderson offering, which in its early stages of planning was originally going to be the second series of that programme. I have only rather vague memories of its first transmission, and missed a lot of episodes because it seems to have been blocked against ‘Doctor Who’. It’s notable that the serials of the latter I can’t recall are accompanied by episodes of the former which I can, and I don’t know if Gerry Anderson himself planned it as a competitor but it does appear that ITC and ITV both treated it as such, and for me apparently it did compete. This was a pretty normal thing for BBC and ITV to do at the time. We were primarily a BBC household despite my father’s big-C Conservatism, and my general impression of ITV as a child was that it seemed to consist of brash, cheap knock-offs of BBC TV programmes, with some exceptions such as ‘Coronation Street’, which at the time had no licence-funded equivalent. In fact I still feel this to some extent even today, and I can’t tell if it’s deep-seated atavistic prejudice or actually true.
I think it was Lew Grade who objected to ‘UFO’ on the grounds that it seemed to be about people “taking tea in the Midlands”. I would disagree with that. I think they probably did it in the Thames Valley, and in one case in County Galway. I’ve posted a long screed about ‘UFO’ already so I won’t repeat myself too much, but to me, one of the appeals of the earlier series was that it focussed to some extent on the human relations involved in Ed Straker in particular having to run a secret organisation which was saving Earth from alien invasion but was never allowed to tell anyone about it, which for example broke up his marriage. It’s also been described as “adventures in Human Resources”, which is spot-on for many of the episodes, and that’s part of the appeal. It makes it more universal and relatable. However, apparently Lew Grade, or whoever it was, didn’t like this at all and wanted the second series to be more about space, and avoid any scenes set on Earth. Gerry Anderson responded rather startlingly by offering to blow up the world in the pilot. This is, well, two things. Firstly, it fits in quite well with his general keenness on making things explode, which is seen all the way through ‘Thunderbirds’, for example. Secondly, it sounds like he was annoyed with whomever suggested this to him and was being sarcastic. Of course, at the time there was a certain other writer who used to keep blowing up the world and went on to make a hugely successful SF series out of it, but that was still in the future at the time. However, Douglas Adams’s motivation for doing that was more to do with getting rid of the threat of aliens invading Earth or ending the world as something which tended to hang over stories at the time. It does seem likely that ‘Space 1999’ was trying to do something similar: get the threat to Earth out of the picture and concentrate on space.
‘UFO”s ratings unexpectedly fell later in the series, leading to the idea of a second season being shelved, but by that time so much work had been done on it that it would’ve been a waste to abandon the project, and it was re-designed and turned into an entirely new series which made no attempt to maintain continuity with the previous one. Having said that, many fans and others have made the minimal effort required to link the two and there’s nothing on-screen to contradict the idea that it is a continuation of sorts. One published version of this is that SHADO succeeded in ending the alien threat and extended Moonbase, using it as a place to dump nuclear waste. This also explains why the Alphans are never surprised at the fact of alien existence. They presumably realised there were around twenty years previously during the SHADO era. Moreover, there are similarities between both Moonbases, in that they are established for a pressing need but then used for other purposes. There has to be a financial justification for them being there in the first place.
The series is kind of delicately poised between being complete rubbish and really good in a peculiar way. At the time, it was the most expensive British TV series ever made, or rather the first season was. It’s also the first Gerry Anderson series to have more than one season, although ‘UFO’ I think was sometimes transmitted in two blocks. It definitely shows visually that a lot of money was thrown at it, and in many respects it just looks so nice that I’m tempted just to bask in the futuristic spaciness of the whole thing and be done with it. However, before the advent of reality TV and the landscape channel, fictional telly was expected to have plots, and those – hmm, not so much. The general high quality of the special effects and the sets, and to a lesser extent the costumes, which I’ll be coming back to, is to some extent also quite frustrating because of the low production values elsewhere in TV SF, such as ‘Doctor Who’, and if you wanted spacy stuff, the choice at that time was exceedingly limited. Apart from this and Who there was ‘The Tomorrow People’, and that may have been it. Nothing else springs to mind in that specific sub-genre until a couple of years later when, boosted by the popularity of the astronomically-budgeted ‘Star Wars’ (another quote from ‘The Burkiss Way’: “special effects so expensive it would’ve been cheaper to build real spaceships!”) ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Buck Rogers In The Twenty-Fifth Century’ came along. Another issue with this is that it seems very much to be style over substance, and it’s a sad waste that the lavish production wasn’t accompanied by good storylines. If ‘Star Trek Phase II’ had happened, it probably would’ve looked like this but with better writing.
Taking a bird’s eye view of the proceedings, the general tone of the series was clearly to emphasise the sheer mysteriousness of space. The denizens of Moonbase Alpha don’t know what they’re going to come across next, and when they do come across it they frequently finish the story hardly any the wiser. As such, this is fine. However, it’s difficult to push it far without it becoming absurd and silly. A particular issue with the entire series is that it is unusually far, even for television science fiction, from scientific plausibility or accuracy, probably even more so than ‘Doctor Who’. It’s hard even to know where to begin with this, there are so many problems. Neutrinos travel thousands of times faster than light, all the aliens speak English, most of the aliens are humanoid except that unlike ‘Star Trek’ their hair rather than their noses are funny, and for some reason black holes are referred to as “black suns”. “Constellation” is used in a way which makes zero sense, as is the word “galaxy”. I suspect you cannot watch this if you have even a CSE in physics without seeing massive problems with the so-called “science” and in the end you just have to ignore it. However, I don’t want to let it off quite that easily. The main “scientist” in Year One (and that’s another thing I need to discuss) is Victor Bergman, who comes across as more of a mystic. There is some emphasis on the idea that faith trumps science most of the way through, whereas there are other examples of TV space opera which are more about the importance of both acting together. There are other ways of looking at it which accord quite well with ‘UFO’, which is that it isn’t so much science fiction as space horror. I’ve mentioned Alan Frank’s ‘Galactic Aliens’ many times in this blog as a good example of that, and one episode in particular, ‘Dragon’s Domain’, is an especially good space horror story. Gerry Anderson’s work has had a valuable rôle in introducing children to engineering and science, and many of them have been inspired to follow careers in it as a result, so although their primary purpose is of course entertainment, and not particularly cerebral entertainment at that, it’s still quite worrying when a programme of this type pays so little attention to scientific accuracy, because impressionable young minds are receiving those data and a lot of them do not compute. I did, though, learn the cloud top temperature of Uranus from ‘Death’s Other Dominion’ and that was accurate based on the astronomical information available at that time, so it isn’t a total loss. Isaac Asimov famously criticised the whole premise of the show, which is that exploding nuclear waste pushed Cynthia, which they of course call the Moon because they’re relatively sane in that respect, out of orbit, when in reality an explosion of such violence would have destroyed it without even shifting its path much. Gerry Anderson felt it was much maligned because other implausible space shows and films didn’t bear the brunt of much criticism for their inaccuracy. It is notable that the most prolific writers, Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne, were not primarily SF writers, but in the case of television it’s entirely normal for individual writers to write for a wide variety of series. Hence the issue might be that they didn’t, for whatever reason, have a scientific advisor.
Victor Bergman, a central character in Year One, is completely absent from Year Two and no explanation is offered. He’s never mentioned, so far as I’ve noticed. This is fairly typical of the difference between the two seasons. It’s almost as if Year Two is a reboot, except that both depend on the premise established in the first episode, ‘Breakaway’. This is due to behind the scenes meddling, if that’s the right word. In a way, Year Two is to Year One as Year One is to ‘UFO’. There’s also major time inconsistency between the two. Year Two episodes begin with Helena Russell’s log, like the captain’s log in ‘Star Trek’, with number of days since ‘Breakaway’ replacing star dates. However, many of the episodes in Year One appear to be happening at the same subjective time as those in Year Two. As might be expected from a series at this time, there is very little continuity within seasons either, and not much like an arc. However, I’m not convinced this is really so. Serials were a normal part of television, such as ‘The Duchess Of Duke Street’, and ‘Doctor Who’ showed considerable continuity of course. However, both ‘Space 1999’ and ‘UFO’ have no official running order and the times in Year Two in particular jump back and forth, with some episodes apparently happening simultaneously. Hence you can only really watch most of it as isolated episodes which all press the reset button at the end. It’s kind of in the spirit of the other Anderson series that it does this because up until that point, each series had only had a single season by design. There were never any plans to make a second season of anything, not because they were unpopular – they were often real hits, such as ‘Thunderbirds’ – because they were trying out various ideas to sell to the American market. This is also why although all the series are British, many of them have an American feel to them, and also American actors and characters. Year Two, however, does come across as significantly more like slightly later series such as ‘Battlestar Galactica’, which is partly because it’s being run by Fred Freiberger rather than Sylvia Anderson. He was involved in the final series of ‘Star Trek’ TOS. The first season aspires to be more like ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ to the extent that it even has a year one different to 2000 in the title of the series, plus the word “space”, and it also seems to be aspiring to be intellectual and “deep” while missing the mark. Year Two puts it out of its misery by mainly becoming an action-based series, but that’s fine because previously it came across as having ideas above its station.
One of the implicit themes in the series, which is quite subtle but has been acknowledged to be present by those involved in it, is that from the start the Alphans (Moonbase Alpha inhabitants) are being guided in their adventures by what’s been referred to as a “Space God”. The explicit theme of a deity comes up twice. In Year One, they fall into a black hole and encounter an entity who seems to be a female God. In Year Two they encounter a fake God who seems to know everything about them and their history but turns out to be solar powered. This motif mitigates to some extent the apparently arbitrary amble of the Alphans across the Universe with a planet of the week, because Space God can be seen as guiding them. An oddity, which is necessary for the series to continue of course, is that they continually search for and encounter habitable planets with one flaw which they proceed to resolve over the course of the episode, making them ideal for settlement, and then abandon them. Thus it comes across as a parable against perfectionism.
The passage of time for the Alphans appears to be different than for those left back on Earth, which makes sense if they’re moving near the speed of light. In the early episode ‘Death’s Other Dominion’, which like one other episode has that actor whose name must always be written in capitals, BRIAN BLESSED, it’s been eight hundred years since the Uranus (pronounced “your anus” here) mission of 1986, but in the later ‘Journey To Where’, only ten dozen years have passed on Earth. Given the premise of having fallen through wormholes and the influence of the time dilation effect, the passage of eight hundred years in what may have been a few subjective months is not problematic, but if just over a century has passed considerably later, it’s more problematic. Incidentally, whereas you might expect the tradition of a Scottish episode in many Anderson series to be dropped for one apparently set outside the Galaxy, ‘Journey To Where’ is in fact just such a story!
Given the relative dreadfulness of much of the acting (so I’m told), the large number of plot holes and allowances a twenty-first century viewer must make for a series which is “of its time”, as the phrase goes, the continuing outstanding quality of the model scenes can be something of a relief. Although they tend to be quite short, they are at least as good as any of the 1960s series are. The Eagle spacecraft hold the distinction of being the only spacecraft I’ve ever dreamt about, and that’s decades after the series ended. Their design is extremely impressive, and the fact that they’re part of a range also including Swifts and Hawks is likewise well thought-through and a nice bit of world-building. I found myself not wanting the model bits to end because I knew I’d get plunged back into the general mediocrity of the rest of the programme. However, some of this is a mindset problem caused by the general prejudice against it. However, one issue with the models is that they occasionally include human figures in spacesuits which are rather unconvincing. On one occasion this was actually exploited positively when an apparently spacesuited person turned out to be empty and on an automatic rover aiming to blow up the enemy’s vessel, and it feels to me like this was suggested by that issue. I found the scenes of the Eagles more convincing than any preceding Anderson production with the possible exception of the rocket launch in ‘Doppelgänger’.
It often felt to me like certain issues could’ve been easily resolved if the Alphans had shown less enmity, which was apparently there to drive the drama. Maybe this is true of most dramatic situations and it certainly would’ve made for a more boring series. Even so, there are many situations I felt were unexplored. The Alphans were previously on tours of duty and therefore none of them were initially invested for the long run. Nor were they trained space explorers in most cases. The strains became apparent in some episodes, which was well-done. For instance, one episode covers a mental health issue called Green Sickness, where people in a close-knit group develop a kind of collective delusion based on wishful thinking that the commander, John Koenig, is hiding hospitable planets from them and rebel against him. I found this particular idea very psychologically convincing, and the way the leader of the group was portrayed seemed quite realistic too. But one thing which was missed was depicting what happens when Earthly authority disappears and only three hundred people are left. Presumably money has also disappeared in any meaningful sense, for example, and Koenig is, as his name suggests, effectively King because there is no higher authority available to anyone except when aliens interfere. Incidentally, Koenig’s rôle is strongly influenced by the fact that Martin Landau, his actor, basically had something in his contract which meant he always had to “win”, although there were also a couple of “Koenig-lite” episodes as they’d be called nowadays, which helped to be honest. This has a couple of undesirable consequences for the plots. It means, for example, that he seems to micro-manage, because it always has to be him who does crucial things, and other characters tend to be shown as incompetent so that he can shine. This is all rather clumsy. However, it may also be realistic because, as already observed, these people have been thrust out into deep space against their will and were never cut out to do these jobs. This is quite refreshing compared to many other TV series, SF or not, where too many characters are shown to be unrealistically omnicompetent, diligent and dedicated. Doctor Helena Russell, Koenig’s love interest, is a particularly incompetent physician, which is rather unfortunate, but luckily there is another one who is more adept, but not the head of department. The Peter Principle?
The introduction of Maya, played by Catherine Schell, at the start of Year Two as a replacement for Bergman, since she’s a scientist, supposèdly, is clearly “something for the dads”. She has the same rôle as Leela in ‘Doctor Who’, and was similar enough to a Vulcan physically that at the age of nine I used to mix the two up. Her function is not, however, just eye candy. She’s also a bit of a deus ex machina in that she’s a shape-shifter – she can become anything organic, apparently including an organic mineral. This raises certain issues because her mass varies as appropriate for her size and clothes tend to appear and disappear even if they weren’t created by her during the metamorphosis. A couple of positive things about her appearance, though, are that she’s able to introduce life forms who can breathe chlorine or survive in a vacuum. She’s also a lot more personable and relatable than most of the other actors, and has a warmth to her which is lacking elsewhere. Her father is also played by BRIAN BLESSED. There’s also a fake BRIAN BLESSED later on whom she morphs into when she has a fever.
Doctor Helena Russell is unfortunately not played very well by Barbara Bain, whose performance is rather wooden. A relationship is developed between her and John Koenig which is far from convincing, which is weird because the people who played them were married in real life. Her use of medical terminology reminds me of this Mitchell And Webb sketch:
At one point she calls EEG a “brain pulse”!
I get the impression that the writers forgot the basis of the show in Year Two. This may be down to the influence of the ‘Star Trek’ guy, because it started to be about visiting the planet of the week with only a little lip service paid to the idea of settling anywhere. Many years later, a video was produced which I haven’t seen which tied up the series. The Alphans found a hospitable planet they called Terra Alpha which they settled on. Although this was never on the cards, it would’ve been nice to see them settle and experience the problems of trying to survive and thrive on a new planet. It’s also not resolved how Earth managed without a satellite. ‘Journey To Where’ shows a devastated planet with frequent earthquakes and everyone living in domed cities to protect themselves from the environment, but through much of the series it isn’t clear that the planet itself hasn’t succumbed to the disaster, which would mean the Alphans are the only humans left, which suggests it’s rather imperative that they make the decision whether to have children and how. I understand that in the Big Finish audio version of Breakaway, children are trapped on Moonbase Alpha as well as adults, which would be useful.
As well as models, there are impressive sets and interesting costumes. The sets are somewhat reminiscent of ‘2001’ and also ‘Silent Running’. They pre-date the dark period which seems to start with ‘Alien’ a few years later and was emphasised further by ‘Blade Runner’. At this point space bases and travel are in bright, antiseptic-looking environments, all white and pastel with geometric shapes. Computers are still mainly of the blinkenlights persuasion. There are lots of doors which go “shwish”. In Year One there are windows in Main Mission which in one episode where an atmosphere is temporarily acquired turn out to have catches on them for some reason, but in Year Two the base is underground (“sublunar”?) and has no windows in the control room, and we also see caves which are used for various purposes, referred to as catacombs. The Anderson tradition of moving people around in sliding contraptions continues with the horizontal tubes which act as a kind of railway around the base and deliver people to the Eagles without the need to build extra sets. Many of the actors, props and sets were reused for the intermediate film and attempted pilot ‘Into Infinity – The Day After Tomorrow’, a personal favourite of mine at the time which redeems the scientific illiteracy of the series itself by being thoroughly educational and science-based. It also has BRIAN BLESSED in it.
The costumes, by contrast with ‘UFO’ where Sylvia Anderson was responsible, were created by a gay male fashion designer called Rudi Gernreich, who attempted to make them fairly unisex. Their most noticeable detail is the zips on their left sleeves and trouser legs, and yes they are wearing flares. This at the time reminded me of those jumpers little children used to wear with buttons on the shoulders, and I found them disconcerting, partly because I can’t stand asymmetrical clothing. The zips are also oversized because they were on the TV – they’re Talon rather than YKK. Another feature is that the colour of the left sleeve indicates rank and function, which makes sense but is rather made a nonsense of by the introduction of long-sleeved jackets on top in Year Two. Aliens are usually stereotypically “roby”. In one rather questionable episode there’s a prison planet with all-female prison guards in scarlet catsuits carrying whips, which all seems rather unnecessary but I expect they were quite comfortable at least. The spacesuits are orange with white zips and usually metal helmets with an unfortunate revealing tendency to have their visors flip up. Gernreich was firmly opposed to the sexualisation of the human body as well as the idea that nakedness was shameful, and this was the basis of his philosophy, and saw his task as to heal society of its screwed-upness about sex. Letting him lose on a futuristic show allowed him full rein here and regardless of its ropiness in other respects, the viewer gets to appreciate this.
Finally, a few famous faces and names turn up. Pamela Stephenson, as in ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’, is a guest star in one episode, Bernard Cribbins kind of reprises his spoon purveyor character Mr Hutchinson as a robot in ‘Brian The Brain’. It was a shade reminiscent of that awful Twiki from ‘Buck Rogers In The Twenty-Fifth Century’. There seems to have been a period in the 1970s and early ’80s when comedy robots were compulsory, perhaps due to R2D2 except that in this case it precedes ‘Star Wars’. Patrick Troughton also appears in the final episode, playing an emperor who is having immortality foisted on him, and one episode is written by Terrance Dicks, who also wrote some ‘Doctor Who’ and numerous Target novelisations of the same.
I’d like to close by considering whether this shows a window into how science fiction in popular media was approached just before ‘Star Wars’ and disco came on the scene, and if it’s typical of attitudes towards science at the time. You certainly get the impression that TV companies just thought you could put any old crap on the telly provided it was pretty and had lots of explosions and action in it, particularly if it was supposed to be science fiction or space opera. Although it’s quite shockingly ignorant, I’m not sure how much this has changed. I’m hard-pressed to think of any TV show ever which is hard science fiction. This also shares with ‘UFO’ the idea of psychic powers being accepted by mainstream science and it’s also vitalist rather than mechanistic: the belief that there is a distinct life force not present in non-living things. My personal opinion on this particular issue is that there are at least emergent properties, but I don’t believe there could be such a thing as a “life sign” detector, which crops up here just as it does in ‘Star Trek’. I have the impression that you can put together various popular “science fictiony” things from the 1970s and arrive at a sloppy kind of vague, faulty and incomplete understanding of the nature of science, including the scientific method. There’s this, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Star Wars’ and perhaps also ‘Alien’, and in my experience Alan Frank’s work too, although that’s not well known. What worries me about this is a little like the way Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association were bothered about what they saw as too much sex and violence on television, but in a different direction (and for the record I had very little sympathy with her or her organisation). It concerns me that a large number of young, impressionable children sat down in front of this and other shows of their ilk and proceeded to receive a very inaccurate and misleading impression of the Universe and science, and in this show in particular you don’t really see “scientists” behaving like scientists at all. Of course people do know it’s all just pretend, but do they get a good impression of what science is actually about from it? For instance, would there be as much anti-vaxx and climate change denial around today were it not for the possibly insidious influence of this kind of thing? I don’t know. Maybe I’m taking it all more seriously than even children did at the time. Also, it might not have changed all that much.
All that said, it is true that the Universe is stranger than we can imagine, as Einstein said and as was quoted in ‘Into Infinity’, and one thing this series did manage to do was to portray a “WTF” Universe which was essentially weird and mysterious, and I commend it for that. It’s also stylistically very impressive, with the usual exception of monster costumes, and it also has Sanskrit in it!