The CatacombsCatacombs Reference Library
Marcus Berkmann on Space 1999

Marcus Berkmann

DreamWatch Issue 35, July 1997, p74

Marcus Berkmann is a journalist and writer, best known for his writing on cricket, including the humorous book Rain Men (1995). His book Set Phasers to Stun: 50 Years of Star Trek was published in 2016. In 1996 he was television critic for the Daily Mail, and started a regular back-page column for monthly DreamWatch magazine on television science fiction. For those who didn't live in 1970s Britain, Texan bars were a Nestle chocolate bar, and Chopper Harris was a footballer.

Texan Bars, Chopper Harris and... Space: 1999

There's nothing like a good readers' survey to get the juices flowing, and last month's in Dreamwatch was no exception.

The eclipse of The X-Files by Babylon 5 was as unexpected as it was merited, for we telefantasy fans are a cruel bunch, always demanding to be thrilled and entertained when producers would just prefer to churn out the same old rubbish over and over again. Have you noticed that even the repeats of The X-Files aren't as much fun as you thought they would be? My shelves continue to groan with video-recorded episodes of the show, but when will I get round to watching them again? This year? Next year? Sometime? Never?

Anyway, congratulations to Joe Straczynski and his team, who must have wondered whether anyone would ever notice what they were up to. If only Warner Bros noticed what they are up to, they might start getting somewhere.

But enough of these glossy, up-to- the-minute productions, for something else caught my eye, rather further down the list of Readers' All-Time Faves. Yes, roaring in at 17th place with 36 points, and a sparkling 6 first placings, was none other than Space: 1999, one of my own favourite shows. I was bold enough to confess to this when I first started this column - a grave mistake, as it turned out. I received letters that would curl your hair, curdle your blood, iron your trousers and brush your teeth. The depth of readers' loathing for the show was astonishing. Then I remembered that in 1975, when it first appeared on British TV, it had been scheduled directly opposite Doctor Who, and that at school most of us divided, apparently randomly, into Doctor Who supporters and Space: 1999 supporters. Could it be that, 20 years on, the Doctor Who supporters had neither forgotten nor forgiven?

Not that I really care, because Space: 1999 was as important a part of my childhood as Texan bars, Chopper Harris and the Sunday chart show on Radio 1. We had waited a long time for a show like this, a show that had the scope and ambition of Star Trek (if not its imaginative flair) and hadn't already been shown 2,000 times.

The production values were hugely impressive, the spaceships superb and the explosions magnificent. Say what you like about Gerry Anderson, but he certainly knew how to blow things up. The destruction of the great mother ship in War Games was discussed at my school for several weeks.

What really distinguished Space: 1999, though, was its sheer grandeur, a quality that particularly appealed to the gloomy adolescent I was just about to turn into. The best episodes of that first season - the Ian McShane one, the one with Christopher Lee in a long white wig and, best of all, the awesome Dragon's Domain - had a cinematic, almost mythic quality to them, far beyond anything we had seen before on TV. The huge sets, the classical music, the fantastically pompous credit sequence... People said it was humourless. They were right. People said that Commander John Koenig and Dr Helena Russell didn't actually have characters. Spot on. You didn't need characters out there in deep space, just a certain jut of jaw and a travel tube to Main Mission.

Silliness is an occupational hazard in science fiction. Space: 1999 was scientifically inept and at times almost laughably pretentious. But at least it tried to do something different, and it did it with what at the time was a colossal amount of money. It could afford grandeur, so it went for it wholesale. I speak, of course, only of the first series of 24 episodes, made in 1974.

The second series was produced by that notorious talent-free zone Fred Freiberger, who had clearly learned nothing from his calamitous tenure at Star Trek and once again rejigged a show that didn't need rejigging. Genuine ideas were replaced by monsters of the week, Barry Morse left and half the Moonbase Alpha personnel were changed, although where all the new people were supposed to have been during the first series was never adequately explained. Baby went out with bathwater, and even I stopped watching.

That first year, though, was something special. My guess is that it was probably more influential than it has been given credit for. The crew of the Next Generation Enterprise would not have been out of place on Moonbase Alpha, while the series' mythic pretensions would later be echoed in Babylon 5. We have moved on, for sure, but I stand by my original opinion: Space: 1999 (series one) was a terrific show which has been unfairly neglected. Fortunately, at least six people agree with me. Launch Eagle One...

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment