The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Criticism
A Look At Space: 1999

Thanks to Paulo Jorge Morgado for scanning this article.

From Science Fiction Monthly Volume 3 Number 1 (1976); p4-5,8-9

ATV's most recent science fiction series is just coming to the end of its run. Will it return to our screens again in the same way as Star Trek and Dr. Who?

In this article JOHN BROSNAN takes a closer look at Space: 1999

A LOOK AT SPACE 1999 BY JOHN BROSNAN

Space: 1999 swings right out of any conventional sci-fi dimension, raves the ATV press release, at the same time taking advantage of all the scientific facts that are known, such as the existence of a phenomenon known as a "Black Sun", a mass of gaseous substance developing into an impenetrable ball from a burned-out asteroid, with such tremendous gravitation that it pulls everything into it, even fight. Anything near it simply disappears. It upsets all theories of existence, even time. This provides the background to one episode. Time ceases to have any meaning. The players find themselves in eternity, with the sudden conviction that the whole Universe is a living thought.

Yes, and no doubt contained in the mind of Sir Lew Grade. The above waffle unfortunately gives a true insight into the sort of fuzzy thinking that was behind Space: 1999. Anyone hoping that the producers might make even a small attempt to be scientifically accurate would have been immediately brought down to Earth (sorry) after reading all that about a 'black sun'. Now, I've heard of neutron stars and black holes but a burnt-out asteroid? Out of which science text book did they get that one, I wonder.

Space is full of unexpected objects, continues the press release unashamedly. There is always the risk of collision with asteroids and other planets. Every day brings new and frightening danger. (Quick, duck! Here comes Jupiter! Whew, just missed us!) And there is drama on the moon itself, between the people on it, with the birth of the first baby in space and the human relationships. These are real people, not puppets there simply to provide the elements for gripping science fiction adventures. Moon Base Alpha is no small complex. It is a colony of its own, consisting of 300 men and women who have been working on scientific tasks. This provides a deep well of characters who need to be seen in only one episode. And there are beautiful girls by the score to fulfil the various tasks from nursing to control operators. Wow, not only characters but beautiful girls as well! But the key sentence there is the one about them being real people and not puppets-a less than subtle attempt to persuade the reader that the producers have put their-puppet days well and truly behind them and are now concerned with human relations. The producers of Space: 1999 are, of course, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the husband -and wife team that made all those successful puppet series like Supercar and Thunderbirds.

Gerry Anderson originally started in the film industry as a cutting-room assistant before progressing to a television director. During this period he became interested in puppets and decided that great advances were possible in the field of puppet films. After fifteen years in the industry he formed his own company A P Films and began making puppet films for television utilising a host of sophisticated electronic techniques, including the synchronisation of puppets' lip movements with the dialogue. It was at this stage that Sylvia joined the company as a general assistant and her tasks soon included helping to write the scripts, providing the voices for many of the characters and directing the dialogue. She was eventually promoted to Company Director and then became Mrs Gerry Anderson. The company produced several series of puppet films, such as Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90, The Secret Service and their best known show, Thunderbirds, all of which were financially successful. The shows were always technically impressive but tended to be rather bland in their scripts and lacked that charming eccentricity that is usually present in so many British children's programmes. One reason for this was that the Andersons, aiming at the American TV market as well as the British, were forced to keep the stories palatable for overseas consumption (it also meant that the puppets always spoke with grating pseudo-American accents).

In 1969 the Andersons made Dopplegänger, a live action sf film full of fine special effects but with a weak script and poor characterisation, defects which were to be repeated in their first live action tv series, UFO. In the latter it almost seemed as if the actors were deliberately made up and costumed to resemble puppets as closely as possible and at times you could swear you saw strings. Unfortunately, despite their protestations to the contrary, they still haven't been able to create any real flesh-and-blood characters for Space: 1999, or at least they haven't in the few episodes I've seen at the time of writing, despite having the services of a much better group of actors.

The three principal characters are John Koenig, the commander of Moon Base Alpha, played by Martin Landau; Dr Helena Russell, chief of the medical section, played by Barbara Bain; and Professor Bergman played by Barry Morse. Describing Koenig the press release says: As a man, it might be said, there are two streaks in him. One is his computer-like mind, highly efficient and tending to be ruthless. The other is an introspective strain which is apt to make him moody. He has been married but devotion to duty has led to the break-up of his marriage, a scar that still has searing moments for him and affects his cautious relationship with women. Well, I've been keeping a close watch for one of those 'searing moments' but so far no luck. Perhaps they're saving them up for later in the series. Actually I have a sneaking suspicion that with Koenig they were trying to produce a Mr Spock-type character, what with his computer-like mind and so on, and in fact Landau was probably cast in the role because of his slight resemblance to Leonard Nimoy.

Dr Russell, according to the press release, is also something of an emotional cripple. Of her it says: She has been married but her husband, whom ship met at medical school and who also became involved in space medicine, has disappeared on a space mission. Nothing has been heard of him again and she is, to all intents and purposes, a widow. Emotionally, she has retired into the womb of her job but is still nevertheless very feminine... Armed with this exclusive information, I've also watched Miss Bain closely to see how she-is going to convey this womb-retreat plus femininity situation, but again I've watched in vain.

As for Professor Bergman well he's pretty straightforward compared with the others. He is to some degree the father-figure of the key personnel on Moon Base Alpha. To some extent, he is very much the proverbial professor, He has a brilliant mind which has been responsible for a number of developments in space science, but he is unworldly in many practical matters. Apart from that his main problem is that he has a mechanical heart which... because it responds more slowly to nervous stimuli than does a normal human heart; reduces his reactions to most emotional stresses. Whatever the situation, he is almost entirely physically immune from panic. Just as the script writers are almost entirely immune from logic. If anyone can explain to me how a sluggish heart is going to prevent its owner from experiencing panic I would like to hear from them. The adrenaline might not be pumped through the system so quickly but I would imagine that the only way you could prevent the brain from experiencing fear or panic would be to shut off the blood supply completely- which wouldn't make for a very lively character.

OK. I know Space: 1999 is supposed to be a children's show and that to expect it to have three-dimensional characters would be somewhat naive, but Dr Who is also a children's show and while its characters are only two dimensional at best, they at least possess a certain amount of charm and warmth -ingredients that have always been lacking in any Anderson production.

So much for the characters; what about the stories? Well, so far I've only seen three episodes and the first one was obviously an exception as it had to establish the characters, the settings and the situation all at once as well as show off many of the special effects. The effects, which I shall discuss in more detail later, were extremely good and often up to the standards of those in 2001: A Space Odyssey. However unlike the makers of 2001 they didn't have the services of an Arthur C Clarke to point out scientific inaccuracies, with the result that anyone who knows anything at all about science would have winced several times during the proceedings.

The first episode concerned the detonation of atomic waste dumped on the dark side of the moon which acted as a rocket motor and sent the moon hurtling out of its orbit around Earth and into deep space. All very impressive and spectacular but there were a few small flaws in the scenario; the first one being why there would be atomic waste dumped on the moon in the first place. Obviously, if one is going to the trouble and expense of putting it in a rocket and blasting it off the Earth, it would be more logical, and cheaper, simply to leave it in outer space rather than burn up more expensive fuel by landing it on the moon where it would remain a threat to human life. Nor, of course, would any sensible group of scientists store it in such quantities that it would be possible for it to reach critical mass and explode, Not that the stuff exploded in the normal way-the writers skirted around a lot of tricky questions by having the Moon Base scientists unable to detect, the build-up of radiation because it manifested itself in a magnetic form. Sneaky stuff, this atomic waste! Anyway, after it exploded it sent the moon hurtling into space so fast that the base personnel were actually pinned to the floor by the acceleration. Not only that, but radio contact was soon lost with Earth, which gives you some idea of just how fast old luna was supposed to be travelling. At least the script writers were clued-up enough to mention that the mother planet experienced a few twinges of physical remorse, such as earthquakes and floods, as the moon zoomed away at a rate of knots.

Anyway, the first episode ended with the bewildered Moon Base personnel realising that they had begun what appeared to be a long journey and that from now on they would be all on their own, apart from that 'deep well' of guest stars hidden away somewhere and all those beautiful girls by the score. So I expected the second episode to spend some time showing how the various characters were facing up to the situation and how they were learning to adapt to the knowledge that they would never be able to return to Earth, but no, all this was completely ignored. Instead it was straight into a new story without any apparent link between the two episodes. This second episode produced one of the first guest stars from that deep well, Ian McShane. He played an unfortunate technician who was impregnated by a mysterious, glowing force from Out There which turned him into a total-heat absorber, freezing to death anyone he touched. After some futile attempts at assistance, Koenig and his men were finally forced to blast him with their ray guns, which had the effect of' turning poor McShane into something resembling a roast potato on legs. Despite this setback he still managed to enter one of the atomic reactors and blow. it, and himself, sky-high (or I should say space-high). The glowing force then rose from the ruins and wafted its way heavenward. No one had any idea what the thing could have possibly been but Professor Bergman made the curious suggestion that they may have witnessed the birth of a new star! So that's how those things get started.

As an SF plot it was an old one, but then most SF plots are these days. Unfortunately it wasn't handled with any originality though I did like the scene where McShane was walking along a corridor and causing the lights to wink out eerily as he passed by. Actually, it could have been any episode of Star Trek, albeit a rather lavish one. The third episode, however, was something different and took Space: 1999 out of the realm of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook and into that of pseudo - mystical gobbledegook. It started off conventionally enough with our wandering moon being threatened by an asteroid which the Moon Base personnel were obliged to destroy with a number of atomic bombs. But the resulting cloud of atomic dust obscured the approach of a large planet until it was almost too late (that's the trouble with outer space, you never know when a planet is going to sneak up on you). As it was too large to blow up Koenig and his crew decided to lay out a string of atomic bombs in the area between the two worlds in the hope that the shock waves from the explosions would act as a buffer (shock waves in outer space? Once again the mind boggles). But before the bombs could be detonated Koenig's ship was swallowed (yes, swallowed) by a larger one from the mystery planet. Inside it Koenig found himself face to face with Margaret Leighton, in a black veil, who informed him that she was queen -of the planet below and that he must stop the planned explosions. She also told him that their meeting together had been determined aeons ago far up the backwaters of eternity and that the moon and her world were fated to collide but no harm would come to the Moon Base inhabitants. Well, Koenig swallowed all of that without too much trouble (so much for his "computer-like" mind) and returned to the Base to pass on the bizarre information to his companions. Quite understandably they were not too impressed by what he had to tell them and decided that he had flipped his wig. After pretending to follow his orders they put him under sedation but the old Queen managed to warn him telepathically about what was going on. Koenig then succeeded in preventing the bombs from being detonated with the result that the two worlds got closer and closer until they touched. But instead of the expected collision the mystery planet then just simply disappeared (poof!) leaving the moon untouched. The episode ended with the Moon Base people looking awed and mystified by it all, while the viewer was left simply mystified. Even Star Trek at its silliest never got that silly.

Can one say anything good about the series at all? Yes, thank goodness. The special effects, as I mentioned earlier, are very impressive thanks mainly to Brian Johnson, the effects designer. Johnson started in special effects in 1958 when he joined Les Bowie, one of Britain's top effects men, as an assistant. After a two-year stint in the Air Force from 1959 to 1961 Johnson rejoined Bowie who by that time had formed his own company, Bowie Films, which specialised in effects work. Bowie Films was basically a group of freelance effects men working together and according to Johnson nearly three quarters of all the British experts were involved at one time or another. - In the mid-sixties, when freelance work became scarce, Johnson left Bowie Films to work with the Andersons' company which at that time was starting work on Thunderbirds. During this period Johnson became involved with the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey and spent almost two years working on various aspects of the effects as part of the large team of effects men under the supervision of experts Wally Veevers, Con Pederson, Tom Howard and Douglas Trumbull. The influence of 2001 is more than evident in the design of both the sets and models used in Space: 1999 but, of course, the vast difference in budgets and available time has meant that the methods used in creating the effects have also differed greatly. Johnson feels that some of the shots in Space: 1999 stand up to 2001 in quality but he admits that a few of the shots are 'absolutely diabolical' (so far I haven't noticed any of these). Actually, despite Space: 1999 looking much more impressive than the Andersons' previous live action series UFO, the budget for the effects on the present series is much less and Johnson's team of twelve men is also only a fraction of the number that worked on UFO. Yet Johnson and his men have succeeded in producing some of the best special effects ever seen on television, and as far as televised SF is concerned, their work is certainly a huge improvement on that which appeared in Star Trek.

Talking of that series, Johnson said: In that the basic model of the starship Enterprise was fourteen feet long but when you see the material they got, they might as well have used one only three feet long. I like Star Trek but when you watch the re-runs A obvious that many of their effects were cheaply done and now seem dated. Unlike 2001 which employed a model spaceship over fifty feet long, the largest model ship in Space: 1999 is only four feet long. The Moon Base itself is twenty-four feet wide which is really quite small for such a detailed model and one that is supposed to represent an area two miles in diameter. In filming small models the rule is to film as fast as possible otherwise they will seem to move jerkily. The models in Space: 1999 are filmed at 120 frames a second using high-speed Mitchell cameras. This is five times normal speed but even so Johnson doesn't think this is sufficient, if it wasn't so expensive (naturally you use up film five times as fast) he would like to film at much higher speeds. But he does believe that shooting models in an outer space setting is a big advantage. Against a totally black background, apart from the stars, models seem much more realistic than when they're photographed against a setting which includes blue sky, model trees and so on. There's also the big advantage that there's unlikely to be any water shots in space, something that always causes effects men to tear their hair in frustration as there is never any way one can miniaturise water for the camera. No matter how cleverly built the model is, the illusion is always spoilt by the floating droplets of water. That's one of the first things I said when I started on Space: 1999, said Johnson. Under no circumstances do we have any water.

The man who has the job of executing all of Johnson's effects designs is Nick Alider, who began his career as an assistant rostrum cameraman with a film company making commercials before he switched to special effects (some of the feature films he has since worked on include Khartoum,A Man for All Seasons, The Battle of Britain and The Music Lovers). Other important members of the Space: 1999 technical team are Cyril Forster, the special effects art director, and Keith Wilson, the art director for all the full-scale sets and also the costumes. The sleek, futuristic Moon Base sets were constructed on a modular principle so that they could be fitted together in an almost endless number of variations, with the result that the producers get a wide variety of sets for the price of one. It just seems a pity that this wealth of technical and artistic talent couldn't have been utilised for something rather more worthy than Space: 1999.

From the three episodes that I have so far seen I think one can form a fairly accurate picture of the series as a whole: competent actors, exceptional effects and impressive sets all wasted through weak scripts-though it's always possible that later episodes will prove me wrong. It's a shame that the producers couldn't have employed a genuine science fiction writer or, failing that, someone who knows something about science to act as a technical advisor (such as the way, that Dr Christopher Evans is the adviser for The Tomorrow People). As it is, a marvellous opportunity to produce an effective science fiction TV series has been apparently wasted.