by Isaac Asimov; Cue, December 20, 1975
Just the other day I watched another episode of Space: 1999, television's new, and visually excellent, science fiction show. In this episode, Alpha (the name given to the base on the Earth's moon after the moon had been blasted away from the Earth by a miracle of scientific illiteracy) passed through a black hole.
It took the experienced astronauts of Alpha a long time to recognise the object as a black hole, though any 1975 viewer with a smattering of contemporary astronomy would have seen it for what it was at once. Then, when the great scientist and his great computer finally worked out the problem, the object was called a "black sun".
The point is that the accepted astronomical term is "black hole". The expression "hole" describes its most dramatic property, that what falls in can't come out again. The use of "sun" in this connection is completely misleading. Nor was the misnomer required by the plot in any way. The only conclusion is that the makers of Space: 1999 are chemically free of all traces of scientific knowledge.
Here is another example. Alpha is somewhere in the vastness of interstellar space, presumably far from any star. Its surface should therefore be totally dark except where it is illuminated by artificial lighting. Nevertheless, when seen from space it is always clearly visible. Very well, that's a dramatic necessity. Showing a black TV screen in the interests of accuracy won't go over. [Actually what is seen is a ring of stars outlining the black sun. The effect is consistent with the distortion of light caused by a black hole, and is thus a fairly accurate portrayal.]
However, Alpha is often given the appearance of a semi-circle or a crescent. No one responsible for Space: 1999 seems to be aware that the moon shows phases only because it reflects the light of a luminous body. They seem to think that the Moon (in its new state as Alpha) is intrinsically light and dark. [The intention was to show the Moon illuminated by nearby stars, although for visual variety the phases shown were not always consistent.]
Such ignorance would never be permitted in any field outside science. Any program which referred to the British Queen as Isabella would hear it at once from a billion ignorant citizens- yet a royal name is trivial, and scientific knowledge is the key to the salvation or destruction of the world. Are we to fill the minds of the audience with garbage because the producers of a television show are too haughty to hire a science consultant or too foolish to listen to him once hired?
This was not the case with Star Trek. That program had Gene Roddenberry, who is scientifically literate himself, and who insisted on the same for the writing of the show. Science might be bent for the sake of advancing the plot, but never just because someone didn't have a sixth grade education, or didn't care.
Nor is it science only. It never is. A program that purports to be science fiction, and either scorns science or fails to understand it, can scarcely be intelligent in other directions.
The plots and characterisation on Space: 1999 have been primitive. All the events that take place are science fiction clichés. By the time the commander has frowned, and the scientist has raised his eyebrows, and the medical officer has flared her nostrils, they are all spent forces. They may be good actors, but no one has any lines of consequence to say, any deeds of interest to do. They are not characters, but stuffed scarecrows.
Again the situation is enormously different in the case of Star Trek where great effort was put into building believable characters who interacted with events and with each other in characteristic fashions. We could expect Captain Kirk to make hard decisions and to temper forcefulness with humour. We were always ready for First Officer Spock's cool calm, his rationality and his sense of ethics. We could count on Dr McCoy's dedication, emotionality and short temper. Every other regular had quirks that grew familiar.
Most of all there was a consistent streak of humour in Star Trek and an obvious affection of the characters for each other. Neither humour, affection, nor any other human characteristic has so far been visible on Space: 1999.
The Star Trek cult is based, in my opinion, on four things:
If Space: 1999 aspires to the development of a similar cult, it has the first requirement, for it is not only science fiction but a program that gives great care to its purely special effects. In all other respects, however, in scientific background, in plot, and in characterisation, it falls abysmally short.