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Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way

Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way

by Benjamin Stein
Wall Street Journal - November 7, 1975, p. 16

The relationship between humans and machines is getting closer all the time. A long time ago, people reacted towards machines with hostility because they believed that machines were taking away their jobs and changing their lives for the worse. They went around smashing machines. Then they were called Luddites. (Now they are called parking lot attendants.) But all that has changed. We are in the fullest bloom of the love affair between men and machine.

It is not hard to find out why. Columbia University psychotherapist Herbert Hendin reports in his new book, The Age of Sensation, that many students wish they were machines. They could then do their assigned tasks and not have to worry about hurt feelings or pain. Younger friends of mine still in school bear out Dr. Hendin's findings. (Those of us who are out of school already know about being machines.) Machines don't ever have girlfriends give them grief or suffering. They never get sick. They never are overweight. At worst, they are simply disconnected and still feel nothing. Small wonder that we people like them so much.

On television, this fascination with machines has had several manifestations. One is the cult of Star Trek, a TV show about the wanderings of the crew of the "Star Ship Enterprise" at some future date. A great deal of the interest of the show is the interesting machines that Captain Kirk and his crew have working for them and against them.

Star Trek caused an uproar when it was abruptly canceled as a network show, but it will play forever in syndicated reruns.

Another instance of the coming together of man and machine on TV recently was a National Geographic Special about the workings of the human body. It titled, more in hope than in truth, The Incredible Machine. The show was the highest rated Public Broadcasting Service Show ever and I believe the catchy title at least played a role in drawing the audience.

But the most spectacular love story between men and machines started this past fall. It is called Space: 1999. It would be facile to compare it with Star Trek, but nonetheless a helpful comparison. Star Trek provides a useful takeoff point for Space: 1999. But Space: 1999, is like a Star Trek shot full of methedrine. It is 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.

Space: 1999 is a syndicated show. For reasons known best to the networks, the networks decided not to pick up Space: 1999. Now the show plays, often on independent stations, at different times in about 150 markets, often outdrawing the network competition, which must make the network executives with that they were machines.

The story is that in the year 1999, there is a base of about 300 earthmen and earthwomen up there on the moon. The moon is being used primarily as a dumping ground for radioactive wastes from earth.

As Ralph Nader would have known, all that radioactive waste eventually explodes, sending the moon out of orbit and hurtling through space with its human cargo. It is thus a wandering space ship which can never return to earth. The inhabitants, under their commander, Martin Landau, and the chief doctor, Barbara Bain, search every week for a new planet to live on. The plots are fairly simple minded and unoriginal, but the special effects, especially of machines and explosions, fill up that gap.

Moon Base Alpha, you see, is not a gas station. It is an incredibly modern, self-sufficient environment. In every nook and cranny there are machines with different color light bulbs whirring and blinking on and off. Everyone is healthy and efficient and trim, just like the machines. The people on Moon Base Alpha are totally dependent on their nuclear generating plants, their solar generating plants, their artificial farms, their oxygen making equipment, and their computers. They love their machines and the machines take care of them.

It comes as quite a blow when the machines toss the ball back into the human's court. On the first show, Breakaway, after the explosion, the moon is flying away from earth. The commander asks the chief computer to tell them what to do. In short order, the computer visually displays all of the important factors in the decision, then says that because of excessive uncertainty, "HUMAN DECISION REQUIRED."

But in this very act of self-abnegation, the computer showed how important it was. The humans were obviously amazed and bewildered at having to make their own decisions.

In a recent episode called Guardian of Piri, the moon dwellers come to the planet Piri, which is run by an enormous and sophisticated computer called "the Guardian." "The Guardian" takes over the moon's computer and the moon's people and persuades them to come live on Piri. There they just lie around stoned, like students in college, with a beautiful woman talking babytalk to them. They are happy until Martin Landau convinces them that theirs is a living death, and smashed the beautiful woman with a blast form his gun, which reveals that she too is really a machine. After that, "The Guardian" starts blowing things up. (Almost every episode involves wonderful explosion scenes, at which ITC, maker of the series, is incredibly expert.)

The joker is that life lived under the rule of the machines really did look great, and we are left with the strong impression that Martin Landau was just reading lines which didn't make sense. Things were awfully good down there on Piri, with the machines.

On another planet in another episode, War Games, the Moon Base Alphans actually come up against a race of people who live inside a gigantic computer brain. They live in little glass showcases which are part of the machine's circuitry. They look happy.

Space: 1999 is worth watching, not for the plots or the acting, but for the special effects and the continuing story of a man and his machine. The machine has become courtier, friend, lover, parent, and child in Space: 1999. And the people on the show seem to like it pretty well.

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