The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Criticism
SF Failures

SF Failures: Space: 1999 & Battlestar

SCI FI TV From Twilight Zone to Deep Space Nine by James Van Hise (Pioneer, 1993)

Chapter 13, p151-156. James Van Hise had previously looked at the series in the fanzine RBCC in 1977.

Science fiction on television fills a very narrow spectrum, never better exemplified than by Space: 1999 and Battlestar: Galactica. The shows are what producers often believe science fiction to be.

The early Seventies was a pretty bleak period for science fiction on television. With the exception of the occasional TV movie done by Gene Roddenberry in an effort to prove that he had a creative life after Star Trek, not a lot was happening. It wasn't until Star Wars was released in 1977 that television producers practically tripped over each other dying to duplicate that success on television-and none of them ever did. The reason none of them ever succeeded was readily presented in Space: 1999. While the only thing television producers tend to learn from other people's mistakes is how to repeat them, they almost never learn from anyone's success, except how to imitate the most superficial elements. When Battlestar: Galactica came along a few years later, this was all too readily demonstrated. They just didn't get it.

Prior to Space: 1999, producers Gerry & Sylvia Anderson (a husband and wife team) had made a successful career of producing children's action adventure shows in which the characters were all played by marionettes and extensive use was made of special effects miniatures. These shows included Supercar, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray and Fireball XL5. All of these were produced in the Sixties on small budgets but were modest successes. Thunderbirds was successful enough to spawn two motion pictures, although none of the other series matched the Thunderbirds in popularity.

But the Andersons grew increasingly tired of producing puppet shows for children and wanted to graduate into live action. They did this first with the syndicated series UFO, a show about a secret British government project to track and combat flying saucers which are landing on Earth and kidnapping human beings for nefarious purposes. Although uneven, the series had its moments and its 26 episode first season seemed destined to move into a second. But instead, the producers decided to develop a new series called Space Journey 1999. Previous titles considered for the series include Journey Into Space, Space Intruders and Space Probe. As of 1973 it still had the form of a spin-off from UFO, using the moonbase common to both shows as the starting point.

The Start

Originally "Moon City" existed as pan of an early warning system against alien attack, just as the moon base did in UFO. Moon City, according to an early premise, was 20 miles square and included for defence two different types of vehicles. One was the Interceptor (as seen on UFO), and the others were Lunarmobiles which were equipped with ground-to-ground missiles to deal with ufo's which landed on the surface of the Moon. On the non-defence side was a Moonship shuttle (for forerunner of the Eagle spacecraft ultimately used on Space: 1999). There were even Moonbuggies for exploring the surface. Whereas UFO had starred all British actors [apart from the lead, who was American], the Andersons decided to go for a gold and produce a series which they could sell directly to American network television. The Sixties British series The Avengers had managed to graduate to success in American prime time, along with The Prisoner, and the Andersons hoped to use that interest in British adventure television to gain themselves admittance to American prime time.

They cast the show with actors familiar to American audiences. Initially the parts of John Koenig and Helena Russell were conceived for Robert Culp and Katherine Ross, who were both fairly well known from film and television in the early Seventies [Katherine Ross was not considered for the part]. But ultimately Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (who had appeared on the first two years of Mission: Impossible) were cast as the leads. Barry Morse, well known from his recurring role on the highly popular Sixties series The Fugitive, played Professor Victor Bergman.

In a supporting role as Alan Carter, Moonbase Alpha's chief Eagle pilot, was Nick Tate. An Australian actor, Tate had appeared in many TV shows down under before deciding to relocate to England in the early Seventies. Initially he was cast as Alan Carter's co-pilot [incorrect, he was cast as Collins, another pilot] and was signed for only the pilot, but then was asked to do five more. The character worked out so well that Tate was signed for the rest of the season and was retained for year two as well. During the time that season two was in production, Tate was asked his opinion of the first season, and the actor stated, "I think I agree with the general public that there wasn't enough emotion and humour in the first season. This year that's been rectified. I always wanted to see development of the secondary characters, which has happened. I think we were all very much aware of the series' faults. but we weren't aware of them when the show started. It was something that became apparent as the series wore on. But then, there wasn't very much we could do about it because the format and style were set. The only way we could do anything was to start a second season.

Full Speed Ahead

The Andersons wanted to go all out on Space 1999 and ATV (Associated Television) under Sir Lew Grade, approved a suitable budget, which according to some reports may have been as high as $300,000 per episode. Subsequent information revealed that the budgets were considerably less. When you're trying to sell a major series to a network, you don't brag about how cheap it is. But in spite of the producers' track record, the three major networks at that time (ABC, NBC & CBS) turned the show down. In that time the advent of cable television, the only alternative left was syndication. Abe Mandell, the president of ITC (a subsidiary of ATV [incorrect, ITC and ATV were subsidiaries of Lew Grade's ACC]) sold the show directly to American television stations, city by city, until they managed to sell to 155 stations. Out of that number, 88 of them actually pre-empted regular network programming with the series. The series premiered in September 1975 to initial enthusiasm which was quickly met with disappointment. Unlike UFO, which had occasional scenes in outer space involving a Moonbase, Space: 1999 (shortened from the earlier much longer title) was set entirely in outer space with the Moon being the base of operations.

The first episode, 'Breakaway," opens in September 1999 when John Koenig is named the new commander of Moonbase Alpha, just as a signals are picked up from a previously unknown planet named Meta. There is pressure on to launch a deep space probe shortly after Koenig's arrival. But Koenig argues against this until he can determine the source of mysterious ailments striking various members of the moonbase colony which he believes deserve more immediate attention. The moonbase is part of a project to oversee a dumping ground for nuclear waste on the dark side of the moon. Many nations from Earth contribute nuclear waste to the dump and so there is political pressure to insure that this extraterrestrial disposal area for hazardous waste remain viable as no nation on Earth will tolerate the radioactive waste being stored in their borders.

Moonbase Alpha is meant to be self-sustaining as it engages in various research projects, including keeping a watchful eye on the nuclear dump. The problems are soon traced to the dump, which creates political problems because Earth needs that dump to dispose of its nuclear waste. Koenig is pressured to launch the probe by his superior, Commissioner Simmonds, in spite of reports on problems at the dump. But while they're arguing over .what to do, a chain reaction occurs in the dump causing a massive discharge of magnetic radiation. The explosion is of such magnitude that the Moon is hurled out of orbit into space. The vehicles they have on Moonbase, called Eagles, are built for short runs only and at any rate would not be able to evacuate all of the Moonbase Alpha personnel back to Earth. The last transmission that Moonbase Alpha receives from Earth indicates that the Earth has been rocked by disasters and cannot render any aid.

Physics 101

The premise was shaky from the start since an explosion so powerful that it would have actually ripped the moon out of orbit would have shattered the moon and done only slightly less damage to the Earth as the moon's own gravity affects earth as well. Had the moon broken up and Moonbase Alpha been hurled away on a fragment, that would have been much more believable [not really...]. But even a thin, unbelievable premise can be accepted if the series produces stories worth telling and which are well told. sadly, Space: 1999 could never have been accused of that.

The problem with Space: 1999, and with many other television shows born in the Seventies, is that it was decided by someone, somewhere that a storyline should be simple enough so that even if someone tunes in halfway through there'll be no trouble following what's going on. The other side of this is that people who tuned in at the beginning of the episode will become bored by the lack of story movement. Even within those narrow confines the stories were overly simplistic, and as Isaac Asimov put it at the time, the show was 'scientifically preposterous." In an article he wrote for the New York Times, Asimov maintained that the errors were made not for dramatic effect, which could be forgiven, but out of sheer ignorance.

An example of the story-telling deficiencies is the episode "Force Of Life." We never find out what the "Force Of Life" of the title is or what its purpose is in invading Moonbase Alpha and wrecking havoc as it steals energy before moving off back into space at the end of the episode. Oddly enough, back in the mid-Seventies Martin Landau appeared on a talk show while Space: 1999 was still in its original run, and another guest on the talk show, actor Buster Crabbe (who played Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 1930s), asked Landau about this particular episode of Space: 1999. Crabbe wanted to know what it been all about and why the alien entity was there and what it had wanted Landau had no idea what the story had meant, and readily admitted it.

Space: 1999 met with its harshest criticism from two fronts- -hard core science fiction fans and Star Trek fans. The hard core SF fans recognized the scientific implausibilities and became incensed over the continuous violations of science and physics in the first episode alone. Star Trek fans turned away from the show because they'd been spoiled by Star Trek. After seeing each episode over and over again, they were certain that any new science fiction series with an outer space setting would have to follow some of the precepts established so well by Star Trek. But Space:1999 ignored them. Star Trek's strengths lay in its scripts and in its well defined characters, of which Space: 1999 offered neither. In 1975 the chances of Star Trek ever being revived seemed remote at best. So fans were looking for the "next" Star Trek. They were willing to give any new SF series a chance. All it had to do was meet them halfway.

Crash Landing

By the end of the first year, Space: 1999 was in ratings trouble. So what did they do? They hired one of the producers who worked on Star Trek. This was also done because Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's marriage was breaking up and so she stepped down from her role as producer. Fred Freiberger, who replaced Gene Roddenberry as the line producer on the third year of Star Trek in 1968-69, was hired to revamp the show and try to make it more appealing to American audiences. The fact that Freiberger was universally regarded as making Star Trek less appealing in its final season was a fact that Gerry Anderson was apparently unaware of. But Freiberger had other credits, including producing or otherwise contributing to such series as The Wild Wild West, Petrocelli and Starsky And Hutch.

The revamping of the third year included an emphasis on action/adventure storylines and the addition of Catherine Schell to the cast as Maya, a shape-shifting alien. In order to address some of the criticism they had received, the second season premiere, "Metamorph," included a Moonbase Alpha log entry which explained that shortly after the Moon had been hurled out of Earth's orbit, it entered a time warp which spit the Moon out light years way in uncharted space. Thus the mysterious alien worlds they kept encountering were explained.

The budget for the first year of Space: 1999 was reported as being $6,500,000. Although ITC sent out a publicity release reporting that the overall budget for the second season swelled to $7,200,000 (or $300,000 per episode), Fred Freiberger dismissed that as being just a lot of hype. The producer maintained that the true per episode budget was $185,000 which still enabled the company to obtain superior production values. This had to do with the fact that at the time the British pound was worth $1.80 American, plus below the line production costs are much less in England. A scene in which Maya leaps into the are and transforms into a black panther in mid-cap took all day to film and cost $5,000 compared to a cost of $50.000 to spend an entire day shooting in the United States on a major studio production.

Fred Tells It Like It Is

In the November 1980 issue of Starlog, Fred Freiberger was interviewed and related what he viewed as the problems of Space: 1999 when he was hired to revamp it. [source here]

"They were doing the show as an English show where there was no story, with the people standing around and talking. They had good concepts, they have wonderful characters, but they kept talking about the same thing and there was no plot development. 1999 opened extremely well in the United States and then went right down the tubes. There was nobody you cared about in the show. Nobody at all. The people themselves didn't care about each other. I did a whole thing where I at least had a scene where somebody said, 'My God! He's gonna be hurt! Is he dead? Is he alive?' They just didn't do that."

Freiberger felt that the British producers regarded action as meaning that they had to blow up another Eagle, which he curtailed in the second season. After the second series wound to a close, ITC still held out hope for bringing it back as a possible mid-season re-entry, assuming they could get enough American television stations to sign up for more episodes. Had they been able to accomplish this, they would have quickly reunited the cast and filmed an additional thirteen episodes. But this never happened. Space: 1999 ended its two year run with a total package of 48 episodes. While the second season was certainly different from first, the writing was only marginally better. Characterization at least existed, but the stories were on the level of Saturday morning kids shows and not the kind of science fiction stories people had found they could respect on Outer Limits, Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. [sic]

Time Will Tell

The mark of a good series is how well it stands up to the test of time. For a few years after the show's cancellation, an annual Space: 1999 convention was held in the United States. While at first attendance was strong, interest began to peter out. While the initial Space: 1999 conventions drew a couple thousand people, attendance at "Space Con 10" in Los Angeles in July 1992 was estimated to be about three hundred. Fans of Space: 1999 can contact Space Con at PO Box 2948, Beverly Hills, CA 90213.

In 1979 when Star Trek-The Motion Picture debuted, some of us had a running joke regarding it being Space: 1999 - The Motion Picture, because of how dull ST-TMP was and in too many ways it reminded one of Space: 1999. But today, with virtually any television series which had any sort of following being plundered for motion picture treatment (including Car 54, Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Brady Bunch), I wouldn't be at all surprised if eventually they got around to Space: 1999.

Battlestar Galactica

Back in 1978 the rumours and articles about the forthcoming ABC-TV series Battlestar: Galactica had been running wild in the press for months. It was to be the most expensive series ever made for television. Hopes were flying high. For the first time ever, TV was doing a science fiction series where the budget ballooned to meet the demands of the story rather than the story contracting to meet the demands of the budget. The sky was the limit. So how come the horizon turned out to be so bleak?

The three hours premiere on Sept. 17, 1978 was promising and often even effective. Using a Pearl Harbour premise in which a peace negotiation was just a mask for a wholesale attack, things were exciting and interesting, up to a point. Some fine moments were had when the Galactica returned to the home planet of Caprica only to find it in ruins.

Thereafter it has the "ragtag fleet" assembling. There's even a prolonged sequence consisting of clearing space mines. The mine- clearing sequence pointed up a problem with the series which was often repeated. The producers of the show didn't understand that in outer space, certain principles can be applied which wouldn't work on an earthbound show. For instance, you can detour around obstacles because of how vast space is. Fuel is expended only for manoeuvring, getting up to speed and slowing down. Inertia and the lack of friction handles the rest. Unlike in cars, boats and airplanes, fuel isn't being burnt the entire time the craft is moving. And yet the Galactica is constantly shown with its massive engines burning and firing as though it would stop if it wasn't doing this. They just didn't get it.

...

Why do producers return to this kind of science fiction over and over again with predictable regularity? Because they can understand it. It's not "too weird." They are basically just cop shows or westerns with an outer space setting. The problem is that they're written with little regard for this new setting, as though the far future or another planet is no different than down town Detroit. A prime example is the premiere episode of the 1993 series Space Rangers in which a shape-shifting alien is alien with bullet. The fact that a bullet would pass through a shape-shifter was apparently not understood by the filmmakers.

One aspect of The Next Generation which the actors found difficult to adjust to at first was the frequent use of science fiction jargon. Shows like Space 1999, Battlestar: Galactica and Space Rangers make no attempt to explore futuristic technology and its impacts on humanity, which at its core is what science fiction is essentially about. Technology affects how people live their lives and shapes our culture. Compare the culture of 1893 and 1993 and you'll see that it has been transformed by technology. By ignoring that simple truth, many science fiction television shows never actually seem to be set in the future at all.


Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment