Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on Space: 1999

Recently, I spotted a DVD set of the complete Space: 1999 series at my local library and borrowed it.

I was very into this series when I was a kid. It aired locally on WUAB Channel 43 when I was 8-10 years old. Indeed, I liked it better than Star Trek – mostly on the basis of Space: 1999’s superior visual effects and set design.
After its initial syndicated run, it seemed to disappear, and I didn’t see it again until the 1990s, when I spotted a marked down Laserdisc at a local mall. I bought it and was appalled at how bad the scripts were, how glacially paced the action was (and this was in the second season, which is generally faster than the first) and how poor the acting was – despite a rather prestigious cast. But, since the set at the library had many stories I hadn’t seen since Gerald Ford was President, I decided to give it another try.

For the uninitiated, Space: 1999 starts off in the year 1999 (astute viewers will immediately take notice that 1999 has come and gone, so the series now takes place in the past). The action is centered on Moonbase Alpha, which is located at the bottom of crater Plato on our moon. On September 13, 1999 (Friday the 13th, of course) a massive nuclear explosion on the far side of the moon sends the moon hurtling out of Earth’s orbit and on a journey into the great unknown.

Mutual fans invariably compare Space: 1999 with the first Star Trek series – even though the two have very little in common. Trek is primarily a plot-driven character drama which happens to be set in outer space – and is optimistic in tone. Space: 1999 is very pessimistic - to the extent that Moonbase Alpha owes its existence to mankind’s growing difficulties dealing with nuclear waste, and the characters don’t have much to do except respond to situations.

The science of Space: 1999 is a mix of the realistic and laughable. Certainly the design of Moonbase Alpha itself is eminently logical (despite the 1970s design of the furniture and uniforms): placing it at the bottom of a crater means it’s likely close to any remaining ice; the base appears to have been constructed of interconnecting modules, which is how a real base would be built; the landing pads for the Eagles are appropriately far from the center of the base – which provides safety in the event of a crash or from contamination; the whole base is connected by a pneumatic Travel Tube subway system that's rather like a futurized version of London's Underground

Much of the science doesn’t hold up under any rationalization. An explosion on the far side of the moon would send the moon crashing into the Earth, not out of orbit. (Not to mention that nuclear waste doesn’t explode, it emits radiation.) The moon encounters a new planet nearly every episode, but given the great distance between solar systems, that’s not possible with sublight travel. Fans will point out that Moonbase Alpha encountered a Black Hole in an early episode, but that doesn’t account for a new alien of the week. Fans will also counter that Trek had its fair share of bad science, and that is true as far as the Transporter is concerned. Warp drive, however, has been theorized.

As with Trek, the cast and characters are multi-ethnic and multi national. Commander John Koenig (note that unlike Trek, which uses Naval ranks, Commander outranks Captain here), portrayed by Martin Landau, is an unusually hotheaded leader. Minor crises send him into an eye-popping, nearly psychotic rage, to the extent that one wonders how such a person could be appointed into a leadership position. If you thought Shatner overacted, wait till you see Landau. (Both actors, incidentally, wear toupees.) Barbara Bain (Koenig’s then-wife in real life) is the cool Dr. Helena Russell. Barry Morse portrayed Victor Bergman, the 60-ish science officer and father figure. Alan Carter, played by Nick Tate, is the can-do Australian pilot.

Space: 1999’s two seasons were radically different from each other. Season one was cerebral, somber, and talky. There was little chemistry between the two main characters, despite the fact that the actors playing them were married in real life. Season Two represented an attempt by the new producer, Fred Freiberger, to make the show more popular with American audiences: Barry Morse’s Victor Bergman, arguably the most balanced, likeable character from the first season, was unceremoniously dumped and Maya, a sexy alien shape-shifter was introduced as the new science officer; Maya had a prolonged flirtation with second-in-command Tony Verdeshi (also a new character), who spent his off-hours brewing beer, which was invariably undrinkable; The romance between Koenig (whose wife was killed in World War III) and Helena Russell (whose husband died in space) is emphasized; Episodes now end with a laugh, as in the original Star Trek; The score, which was broadly symphonic in the first season, was replaced with a jazzy pop-synth score in season two; Pacing was tightened, but there were scenes which still dragged and seemed padded.

Some of the visual effects hold up well, particularly establishing shots of the base and other planets, and flying shots of the Eagles. Many of the alien makeups and costumes look downright silly. Watching the DVDs, I noticed wires suspending the Eagles during takeoff and landing sequences. In fairness to the producers, they were probably not visible on 1970s broadcast television. But high definition TV is very unforgiving.

Despite their differences, Space: 1999 owes a lot to Trek. Even their computer voices are similar, although 1999’s computer sounds like she needs Prozac. At least two episodes are blatant rip-offs of Trek stories: Guardian of Piri is based on This Side of Paradise, with a dash of The Naked Time thrown in; The Rules of Luton is lifted wholesale from Arena. In both cases, the Trek version is superior in content and execution. Trek and 1999 also share a flaw made in the name of dramatic license: The Captain/Commander is always on the Away Team – but in a real life scenario the leader would never be allowed to be put under such risk. (On occasion, this puts Victor Bergman in command, where he is easily more capable and professional than Koenig.)
As it turns out, later Trek incarnations owe a bit to Space: 1999 as well. The Next Generation episode The Child (itself adapted from a script for the aborted Phase II series) is obviously influenced by Space: 1999’s Alpha Child. Patrick Stewart as the warmly cerebral Captain Jean-Luc Picard is eerily similar to Victor Bergman, right down to their artificial hearts; and Dr. Beverly Crusher is obviously based on Helena Russell - her cool manner masking feelings for her Captain/Commander.

For all its weaknesses, the primary feeling I encountered while watching Space: 1999 was one of regret: humans have not even returned to the moon since the series was filmed, much less built a moon base. Humanity seems more mired in mediocrity than ever.

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