The Catacombs Space: 1999 Catacombs Series Guides
Science Of Fiction

A look at the science in Space: 1999 by Martin Willey

5. MEDICINE

Scanning and diagnosis

"Life support units" were placed over the chests of patients in many episodes (Breakaway, Missing Link, Alpha Child, Collision Course, Dragon's Domain and Mark Of Archanon). They were more visually attractive, if less realistic, than tubes and wires sticking into the patient. Remote techniques have been tested in medicine: photoplethysmography (PPG) measures blood flow and other properties, by analysing the absorption of light on the skin. Conventional probes are attached to parts of the body, and non-contact probes are also being researched. Sedative injections were not administered by a hypodermic syringe; the instrument required only skin contact and lit up as the dose was applied. Forcing the drug through the skin, rather than puncturing it to access the vein, obviates the risks of contamination from needles. All Alphans wear a wrist monitor which can immediately alert computer of medical emergencies, seen in Force Of Life, Guardian Of Piri, The Full Circle and Journey To Where. Thermographic scans, pictures showing the heat radiation from the body, were seen in Breakaway, Matter Of Life And Death, Another Time, Another Place, Ring Around The Moon, Missing Link, Force Of Life, Dorzak and Space Warp. As a primary diagnostic tool temperature is of limited practical use, although they do foreshadow sophisticated imaging techniques such as ultrasound, CT scans and nuclear magnetic resonance.

The Alphans had one scanner which could detect "life signs", even distinguishing intelligent human life. According to Dragon's Domain there is even a "life spectrum", although some life forms do not register on it. Other episodes in which it features are Earthbound, Alpha Child, All That Glisters, Mission Of The Darians, The Infernal Machine, The Metamorph and The Dorcons, plus others less explicit. Life does not radiate or reflect any particular radiations, so life scanners could not work. On a planet intelligent life could be detected by the waste heat and light from cities and industrial pollution, but this isn't quite the same thing.

Illness and treatment

The series presented many medical problems and procedures, from viral pneumonia (Journey To Where) and broken bones (Guardian Of Piri and The Beta Cloud) to different methods of creating immortality. The Moonbase must be prepared for certain conditions, such as radiation sickness (Breakaway, Collision Course). Radiation sickness commonly involves diarrhoea, vomiting, convulsions and hair loss, with death after a few days. If the central nervous system is affected, symptoms include alternating stupor and hyperactivity, much as seen in the Breakaway astronauts.

Psychological problems are also likely in the closed artificial environment of the Moonbase. In Seance Spectre we encounter "green sickness", which is treated by interminable pictures of green fields and forests (not quite the same thing as being in them). Helena uses the "old fashioned" technique of narcosynthesis in The Lambda Factor, talking to Koenig to make him confront his fears. Actually this is an old fashioned Freudian technique of "controlled exposure". Narcosynthesis involves the patient being injected with a narcotic to enable them to relax and verbalise easily in free association and dream recall. Over a number of later discussions the therapist uses this material to guide the patient to overcome their neurosis.

Defibrillation (applying electric shocks to correct a cardiac arrhythmia) was frequently employed (episodes include Matter Of Life And Death, Missing Link, Guardian Of Piri, Voyager's Return, The Exiles and All That Glisters). It is a common and effective treatment to severe heart attack, although some episodes tended to indicate they were reviving patients from a coma (defibrillation would only be appropriate if the cause was arrhythmia).

Viral pneumonia

In Journey To Where, Helena falls ill with viral pneumonia. Fortunately they are able to use a fungus to prepare a cure. It is true there is no cure for viral pneumonia (although there is a vaccine for influenza types A and B, which can cause it). Supportive treatment includes humidified air, increased fluids, and oxygen. Common viral infections that can cause pneumonia include respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza. Incubation periods are between 1 and 4 days (the Alphans are lost for 72 hours- just enough time for Helena to contract the virus and become symptomatic). The seriousness of the disease varies from mild to potentially fatal. Symptoms are cough, headache, stiffness and fever.

The barmycin range of drugs is fictional (although obviously inspired by penicillin, a group of antibiotics derived from the fungus Penicillium, identified in 1928 by Alexander Fleming). It seems unlikely that grinding up an unidentified fungus from a Scottish wall will kill the virus. Synthesising antibiotics from mold is not easy; after Fleming's discovery it took Chain and Florey ten years to concentrate it.

Antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial infections, but despite the common misconception, they are not generally effective against viruses. However, within the last decade or so science has developed anti-viral meds for some viral illnesses, including some pneumonias. These meds are usually prescribed only for the very ill, hospitalized or immunocompromised patient. Examples:

There is an entire group of 'bugs' called atypical bacteria that can cause pneumonia that can look just like a viral picture, but are successfully treated with antibiotics. Examples:

  1. mycoplasma species
  2. chlamydia species
  3. Rickettsia species (tick borne illnesses)
  4. erlichiosis

The above illnesses and many others can be treated with doxycycline and/or erythromycin-type drugs, the latter which sounds suspiciously similar to the 'barmycin' mentioned by Helena Russell in the episode.

Helena makes an odd claim: "After the germ free environment of Alpha, we've no resistance. A common cold could be as lethal as cholera or the Black Plague." Given that the Alphans spent most of their lives living on Earth, and most likely were exposed to common maladies, their immune systems should have 'memory' cells that would become active if challenged, not to mention new cells being constantly renewed to handle new bugs. But on the flip side, we know that bacterial antigens (little markers on the outside surface of a cell that the memory cells recognize) and drug sensitivities do drift with time and geography, so perhaps contracting an illness upon arriving in the distant past is not too unbelievable as all that.

Drugs

The series invented some exotic sounding drugs such as metrazine (Matter Of Life And Death), mezadrine (The Troubled Spirit), somnol (Mark Of Archanon), dexetrol (One Moment Of Humanity), ionethermyecin and tymoxin (both in The Beta Cloud). One commercial reason for constructing a Moonbase is to produce drugs in low gravity conditions, which would explain their well stacked pharmacy. In The Bringers Of Wonder Helena claims she sometimes uses a sonic anaesthetic instead of drugs, called white noise. White noise is actually like white light, the combination of all frequencies of audible sound. It is not an anaesthetic.

Experimental medicine

Experimental medical equipment was also seen. The Ellendorf Quadrographic Brain Complex in The Bringers Of Wonder is supposed to administer an "electronic brain massage", directly altering the wave patterns in the brain. In Catacombs Of The Moon we see a heart replacement performed, using a "Dorfman artificial heart" with tiranium coated valves. In appearance, the artificial heart looks like a pacemaker. In several episodes it is mentioned that Victor Bergman has an artificial heart (Black Sun, Guardian Of Piri, Force Of Life and The Infernal Machine). The first artificial heart was implanted in 1982, but the success of using donor hearts has curtailed research in this area. Series publicity suggested that Bergman's regular heart beat lessened his emotional responses, although pacemakers can alter their rate according to other stimuli, and while emotions change heart beat, heart beat does not affect emotions.

Immortality

Alien medical technology was often very advanced, and a few had even conquered death. Mission Of The Darians and The Dorcons both used transplant surgery to achieve immortality. Many organs can be replaced when they fail or are damaged. The most serious problem is no longer the body rejecting the foreign tissue (now treated by drugs and ensuring the donor is compatible). It is the shortage of donors, a situation that has led to an illegal trade of organs obtained from unwilling or desperately poor donors in the third world. The scenario of Mission Of The Darians has horrific accuracy. Perhaps the only organ that cannot be replaced is the brain, the seat of the mind and identity. The Dorcons envisages the replacement of the brain stem, sited at the top of the spinal cord and controlling reflex activities such as respiration and heart beat. Apart from the problem of replacing a vital organ with one from a different species evolved on a distant planet, it is hard to see how this transplant confers immortality.

Balor in End Of Eternity solved the problem in a different way, by accelerating cell growth. The detail is sketchy, but the mechanism is plausible based on a number of biological processes. Many normal cells have a limited number of divisions, like a biological clock which eventually stops. By contrast, cancer cells overcome this limitation and grow uncontrollably. Balor's cells would have to ignore the clock, but reproduce in a controlled way. In many simple animals, undifferentiated cells can migrate to wounds, where they specialise into replacement organs. To heal his own wounds, Balor must have genetically reprogrammed his cells to perform a similar process. The same cell mechanism could explain the immortal Thulians in Death's Other Dominion, although the cause could be alien enzymes in their diet or other contaminants on the planet.

Experimental treatment

Genetics was very important for some alien species. The aliens in Alpha Child and Mission Of The Darians imposed rigorous genetic conformity. Magus in New Adam, New Eve created mutants from his bungled eugenics and genetic experiments. Evidently he wants to understand the processes of reproduction, although the episode also suggests he wants to understand how life is created in order to create life himself, in which case he should be looking at primordial oceans, or for a female of his own race.

Suspended animation is another method to lengthen life, by keeping the subjects in hibernation. In The Exiles the technique involved freezing the body at cryonic temperatures. Much research has been invested in cryobiology, in the hope that cells and organs can be stored for later use. It has also been used for storing dead people in the remote expectation that they may be revived sometime in the future. The main problems have been in preventing ice crystals damaging cells and the effects of high salt concentrations which occur during freezing. The Golos aliens have a plastic membrane covering their skin, but we are not told how this works, or enables them to breathe, drink and eat, or why its breakage causes them to age (and grow a beard in seconds). The Golos exiles had been preserved for 300 years, while the Kaldorians in Earthbound were in suspended animation for 350 years. They had rejected cryogenics, preferring a method that preserves the cells in "stasis" at ambient temperatures. The Archanons and the Crotons also use stasis, as seen in The Mark Of Archanon and Dorzak. The Archanons had survived for 1000 years, but the Crotons were only using the technique to keep a criminal in deep sleep. Stasis is never explained, but it is evidently a method of slowing metabolic rate, much as animals do during hibernation.

The plants in The Rules Of Luton were capable of remarkable biological engineering. One alien was given immense strength, which would require a new skeleton and musculature. One alien had the ability to become invisible, which is pure fantasy. A third alien could transport themselves instantly to distant locations (see matter transportation).

CONCLUSION

Science fiction doesn't have a lot to do with science fact. But Space: 1999 often used science as a basis for stories, sometimes imaginatively, occasionally incorrectly, a few times implausibly. So how realistic is the science in Space: 1999 overall? Most of the "science" is portrayed in fairly vague terms. What is shown is a mixture of broadly accurate science (black holes, cell regeneration and organ transplants, radiation sickness), some speculative science (space warps, computers achieving consciousness), and a large quantity of standard science-fiction fantasy (laser weapons, forcefields, artificial gravity, matter transmission, psychic powers). Finally there was some pretty ludicrous pseudo-science: Maya's transformations, the lunar atmosphere is The Last Sunset, the portrayal of antimatter in A Matter of Balance, and the intelligent plants in Rules Of Luton and rocks in All That Glisters. Apart from these, which largely spoil individual episodes, the science in Space: 1999 is generally credible.


Contents copyright Martin Willey
Thanks to Meredith Girard