The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Criticism
Trek Times

BLACK HOLES IN SPACE: 1999

by Patrick Daniel O'Neill

Trek Times 9/10, 1976

Trek Times cover

September 13, 1999: The moon is blasted out of orbit by the explosion of nuclear wastes on the dark side of its surface. ("..there is no dark side of the moon.. One side of the moon does indeed face permanently away from the earth, but not from the sun. ---Isaac Asimov, New York Times, Sept. 28, 1975--and he oughta know.)

There you have it--the basic premise for the most popular SF series in production and what its creators call "the most expensive television series ever filmed"--and the science is screwed up from the word go. And it's not just the "dark side; far side" foul-up. The problems go on from there. But don't take my word for it--Dr. Asimov explains a good deal of it very nicely:

"nuclear wastes apparently stored on the moon somehow heat up and explode. The reasons for this are not luminously clear. (Although nuclear wastes can heat up and melt, they can't possibly be involved in nuclear explosion.)"

Dr. Asimov is willing to let that faux pas be passed off as an error of dramatic necessity--the moon had to be gotten out of orbit somehow if the series was ever going to get started. He does mention one of the other minor problems however:

"...if the...explosion took place on the far side of the moon, the rocket action would serve to drive the moon, toward the earth..." (emphasis added)

In other words, the moon left orbit in the wrong direction!

In his Times article, Asimov brings up three kinds of errors--those dramatic necessity (the moon going out of orbit), those of commercial necessity (the possibility of our having a moon base of that size in this century is extremely slim), and those of outright ignorance (here is the far side-dark side thing, among many). At the, end of that article, Dr. Asimov expresses the hopes of most science fiction fans--that Gerry Anderson and ITC will have avoided most of the errors of the third kind. No such luck.

By late December of 1975 Asimov had seen those errors had merely proliferated. In an article in Cue Magazine dated Dec. 26, the good doctor writes:

"In this episode, Alpha...passed through a black hole. It took the experienced astronauts of Alpha a long time to recognize the object as a black hole... (although) when the great scientist and his great computer finally worked out the problem, the object was called a "black sun."

"The only conclusion is that the makers of "Space 1999" are chemically free of all traces of scientific knowledge."

Asimov brings up what some might call nit-picking as well, but it points out the total lack of common sense that Anderson his staff applied to the details of this venture. They insist on showing a lighted, crescent shaped or semi-circular moon. If the former Terran satellite is no longer within the vicinity Sol, where in heaven's name is all that light coming from?

However, not all of the critics who have written on Space have been detractors. In an article in the Wall Street Journal for November 11, 1975, writer Benjamin Stein calls Space the "most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV. Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug." Ah, but that's the point, Benjamin. Science fiction (good SF that it) is meant to be enjoyed in a fully conscious and aware state, meant to expand the mind with thought, not colour and clap trap. Obviously then, Space is not very good science fiction. [The 1960s science fiction New Wave movement is strongly associated with hallucinogens and experimental, impressionistic fiction.]

Actually, though, Stein is not the only person to appreciate Space for its special effects and splash. Science fiction writer Jacqueline Lichtenberg (author of House of Zeor and co-author of Star Trek Lives!) has also admitted to watching the show---with the sound turned down. Apparently no real writer can take all that horrid dialogue.

And that brings us to the real point of this article. By now, we've all read lots of criticism of Space's scientific accuracy (or lack thereof). Very little has been written of its dramatic and story virtues (or lack thereof).

The essence of all good stories, and science fiction especially, is consistency and logic. This is what Space lacks most.

If I write a story and say that my characters live in a world that has never developed the automobile, then I cannot logically give them aircraft powered by internal combustion engines--one develops out of the other. In the same way, if Gerry Anderson says that Alpha has, say eleven Eagles, he cannot logically have three or four utterly destroyed, once a week-- eventually he will run out of Eagles. It has been suggested that there is a recycling plant in the Alpha complex. Recycling can do wonders--but it cannot rebuild an Eagle that was blasted to atoms. [Mining raw materials and fabricating parts were seen in the series, suggesting new Eagles could be manufactured.]

Consistency falls apart on other ways, too. In the course of twenty four episodes of a series, the viewer, should get to know the lead characters well enough to be able to predict (within reason), what they would do when faced with a particular situation. The viewer extrapolates from the situations he has seen the characters faced with before comparing them and making a choice. After viewing all 24 episodes we are unable to predict the reactions of Alpha Commander John Koenig. Faced with an attack by unknown aliens, we have seen him welcome them with open arms one time and on another occasion send out Eagles to blast them first and ask questions later. Either the man is a virulent xenophobe, or he isn't. One minor consistency point- it's nit-picking, but it sticks in my craw. How does one pronounce the Commander's surname? Half the cast says it with the proper German accent -roughly Kayr-nig, and the other half anglicizes it--ko-nig. It doesn't take much for a producer or director to get all his actors to pronounce a name the same way. [It is arguably more realistic that individuals use different pronunciations. Generally Koenig does project a recognizable personality, but there is a major inconsistency between his actions in War Games and Last Enemy.]

Another is lack of explanation. This goes from very minor generalities--what do the different color sleeves represent anyway?--to major plot discrepancies. In one episode, Koenig and Russell are lost in a black void. There they are communicated to by a disembodied female voice which displays a startling omniscience. Russell asks the voice: "Are you--God?" A moment later, the Commander and the doctor are back in Alpha's main mission--and for the remaining five to ten minutes of the episode, no further mention is made of Russell's question or its lack of reply. Are we to believe that the Alphans are so lacking in curiosity they don't want to know the truth behind this fantastic occurrence? [The episode is Black Sun, and Bergman asks the question, not Russell. Koenig and Bergman continue to reflect on the encounter for the remainder of the episode.]

The worst case of unexplained references occurs right at the start of the first episode. We are told that a rogue planet Meta has entered our solar system. Unfortunately, that's the last we ever hear of it. By the end of the episode, the Alphans are off scooting around the galaxy on their loose moon, and no one on the base is the least interested in this intriguing phenomenon of a rogue planet. The question becomes--why did the writer bring it up in the first place? Wild SF concepts are fun to play with--but they aren't meant to be dropped into storyline for the hell of it, and then forgotten.

Unfortunately, these incidents are not uncommon. In all too many episodes of Space, strange things happen, which are not only not explained when they happen, but are never explained in the entire episode. It is never good writing to leave your viewer with unanswered questions regarding major plot devices. Continuing plot threads are one thing, loose ends left dangling after many weeks are another. By now, there are so many untied plots floating around Alpha it's a wonder the moonbase staff isn't tripping over them!

Space apologists are quick to defend the series by calling it something other than science fiction. "Its space opera," they say. "It's a fantasy world out there, baby..." says George Nobbe, writing in the rock mag Creem. Fine, but even space opera and fantasy have consistency. In the space opera novel series "Lensmen", the acknowledged master of the form, E.E. Smith, never violates his own universe. His inertial-less space drive and mind-reading lenses work the same way all the time- even if that makes solving the heroes problem a little harder.

On a more hypothetical level, if I write a story where magic doesn't work on people with red hair , I'd better keep it that way all the time--or I have violated my own concepts. Apparently, concept violation is a way of life at ITC. [Consistency and continuity were not strong points of Space 1999. However, the writers were deliberately not explaining and resolving every aspects of the plots.]

This summer, about 900 people at the STAR TREK oriented August Party convention in Maryland got to meet Nick Tate, who plays pilot Alan Carter in Space ( a hell of a nice guy, by the way), and also to see a sneak preview of the first episode of Space's second season which of course has already been aired. The episode is the first produced by the new team--headed by Fred Freiberger, who also produced the third season of STAR TREK. Several problems of the series are relieved judging by this episode, several are aggravated.

The science research has not noticeably improved. As part of the plot, the Alphans are searching for titanium for their life support systems. Why they need titanium for that is not quite clear, but to any informed high school student, the search is ridiculous--30% of the moon's mass is titanium. [It is much less than this, but is more common on the Moon than Earth.]

A new character is introduced--Maya. Played by Catherine Schell, she is an intriguing alien who can alter her shape to any form. In the course of the episode's climax, she becomes falcon, a German shepherd, and a gorilla. She is one of the good points.

Unfortunately, one of the bad points is the reverse corollary. Several characters are dropped. As Nick Tate explains it the current episodes of Space started filming this past January Thus, almost a full year has passed between seasons, Several actors, notably Prentice Hancock (Paul Morrow) and Clifton Jones (David Kano), were no longer available when filming began for the new season. In addition, Barry Morse who played scientist Victor Bergman, is no longer in the cast. No explanation is given as to where these characters went. This wouldn't be too bad if it weren't for their prominence. Bergman, of course, was part of the triumvirate that really seemed to run Alpha. Morrow on the head of main mission, appeared to be second-in-command of the base. Kano was apparently the only one who really understood how the computer worked. On a loose moon, careening wildly through space, exactly how does one get rid of characters of this prominence? Were they shoved out an airlock for insubordination?

The characterizations of the remaining players has been improved--they seem less like escapees from Futureworld and more like living, breathing, humans trapped in an alien environment. Romance and humour are now an important part of the series. Perhaps we can even look for some real character development in the new season.

One last gripe. One of the best things about the first season was Barry Gray's excellent score. Unfortunately, Gerry Anderson and Freiberger must not feel the same way. Someone by the name of Derek Wadsworth has completely re-scored the show, and I must state it is not an improvement.

And one last compliment. Gerry Anderson is obviously not afraid of challenges. Space has been one of the big successes of an otherwise disappointing television season. But, in an effort to satisfy the complaints from his audience, Anderson willing to alter his show's format and stars. Such courage a rare thing in television producing.

PUBLISHERS NOTE: The above article was written prior to the airing of the second season of SPACE 1999.


Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment