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Lavish Blast Off

A Lavish Blast-Off Into Space: 1999

by Tom Shales
The Washington Post - August 29, 1975, pp. B1, B16


When the moon is knocked out of the earth's orbit early next month and wanders off into space, the television industry will be watching with more than casual interest. Breakaway is the first episode of Space: 1999, a lavish and lavishly promoted new science fiction series making its debut not on one of the three networks but on 146 local stations throughout the country.

Produced at a total cost of over $6.5 million by England's ATV Company, and distributed in the United States by its subsidiary, the Independent Television Corporation (ITC), Space: 1999 was turned down by the networks after they got a gander at its static, but spectacular $600,000 pilot. So Sir Lew Grade, ATV's millionaire chief, decided to peddle the show to local stations instead. The plan worked amazingly well.

Of the 146 stations to buy the series, all but four are network affiliates, and over half of those have elected to "bump" (preempt to other time periods) a scheduled network show so that Space can air in prime time.

The most frequently pushed aside shows so far, according to an ITC spokesman, are NBC's The Invisible Man, CBS's The Montefuscos and Fay and ABC's Barbary Coast- all new series the networks want their stations to show obediently at the appointed hour.

In Washington, Channel 7, which bought Space for this market, panned to air it Thursdays from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., which would require that the bump be applied to the new Mel Brooks farce, When Things Were Rotten, ITC claims Channel 7 changed its mind on that when ABC dispatched two executives from New York to threaten the station with loss of its network affiliation if it preempted Rotten. Channel 7 general manager Tom Cookerly says the story is "completely untrue" and that the plans were changed for other reasons. Space: 1999 will be shown on Channel 7 in the non-network time slot of 7 to 8 p.m. Saturdays, starting Sept. 13.

Space which also has been sold to run in 100 other countries (foreign language versions were prepared simultaneously) has a number of potentially profitable pluses: special effects by Brian (2001) Johnson that have been called the best ever done for television; snappy costumes designed by Rudi Gernreich; a large number of impressive sets; guest stars like Margaret Leighton and Christopher Lee; and as continuing leads, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, veterans of Mission: Impossible, the CBS series of such lasting appeal that reruns are still playing in dozens of United States cities and 69 other countries besides.

Why would the networks turn down such a seeming blockbuster? After all, it's been six long years since Star Trek ended its first-run voyage on NBC, and sci-fi buffs have had little to relish on TV since then- only quick-folding flops like the CBS Planet of the Apes, a syndicated cheapie called Starlost and such marginally effective fantasies as The $6 Million Man."

The reason says the ITC spokesman, is that the networks would not have had "enough control" over the series if they'd bought it. "It's all shot in England, far out of reach, and they didn't like that idea," the spokesman says. "Besides, they were afraid of Bain and Landau because of all the bad publicity when they left Paramount."

The exodus of Bain and Landau from Mission: Impossible had been messy, the air around it thick with charges and recriminations. In Washington recently to promote Space, the husband-wife acting team said they were not the difficult rebels it may have seemed from press accounts.

"For one thing," says Bain, "it was never, never a question of money. That is simply not true." Rather, said Landau, it was a question of attempts to cheapen the series, shoot it more quickly and generally cut corners. This led to repeated disagreements "and then," said Landau, "things really got ugly."

Local stations don't care so much about "control" over content or the past hijinks of Landau and Bain. They are just hoping for a ratings winner. Winner or not, they are stuck with the show: All have signed on for 24 new shows and 28 repeats, whether Space blasts off as hoped or fizzles on the launching pad.

There is talk in the industry that the show is what's commonly called a "stiff'- but that opinion may be based solely on the pilot, which is loaded down with introductions of characters, gadgets, and the basic premise: that because of disastrous explosions on the surface of the Moon, the heavenly body is knocked out of orbit and sails away, with the crew off 311 stationed on Moon Base Alpha suddenly finding themselves completely separated from the Earth and heading for uncharted space.

If the acting on the opener is stilted, the gadgetry is super. It makes Star Trek look like a tacky attic production. Space boasts a world of silently sliding doors, tiny TV-set communicators, laser-beam ray guns, mysterious maladies that turn eyeballs gray and skin blue, atomic waste that blows up photogenically, and a computer that answers vocally when you say "please" and occasionally cops out on its problem-solving tasks with the printed announcement "HUMAN DECISION REQUIRED."

Future shows will find the wayward moon colony encountering a planet of ice, a land of antimatter, an immortal alien on a "rampage of death," a "living machine" named Gwent, a 350-year-old space traveler and a return from Cro-Magnon cave dwellers of 40,000 years ago.

Landau was asked if there will be monsters out there. "The only monster show is about a man who thinks he's seen a monster, but he can't convince anybody else that it exists," Landau said. "Then it turns out the monster is real. It's a credibility show."

The pilot cost $600,000 to produce partly because it was made during an energy crisis in England, and this show requires lots of electricity. "We were unplugged from the national grid and had to run on generators," said Bain. "The actors and crew were fine, but the machinery just went bananas."

Naturally there were other technical problems. One scene in a latter episode called for a room to be filled with foam. "The director wasn't getting what he wanted and he asked them to stop the foam," said Landau. "But the crew couldn't hear him and the foam kept coming. Soon it was up to our ears and the director waded right into it, all the while yelling, Stop the foam! Stop the bloody foam!'"

Conclusive ratings on Space will be available in November. At that point, a decision will be made whether to embark on another year's worth of shows. But if the show's a hit, the stations that bought it this year may not get another chance at it.

Says the ITC spokesman, "Frankly, we're hoping for a network to pick up the show for a second season. Of course, that can only happen if it really goes through the roof."

Photos:


Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Thanks to Robert Ruiz