The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Is `Space 1999' More Fi Than Sci?
by Isaac Asimov

This is the first article by the Isaac Asimov (the second was published in Cue magazine.) Most of the comments are surprisingly positive- the scientific errors are largely "dramatic necessity".

Is `Space 1999' More Fi Than Sci?

New York Times, Sect. 2, pg 1, Sunday, Sept. 28, 1975
By Isaac Asimov

A science-fiction television show ought to be reviewed, it seems to me, not only for its dramatic quality, the acting, the plot, but especially for scientific accuracy. Why? Well, simply because television is a powerful educational influence. Why should it contribute unnecessarily to the raising of a misinformed generation?

There are three possible sources of scientific errors in a television show --errors made out of dramatic necessity, which one can be lenient with; errors made out of commercial necessity, which one can sigh over; and errors made out of ignorance, which are intolerable.

Suppose we consider each type of error in connection with Space: 1999, a new hour-long series that premiered last Sunday on Channel 11 [Sept. 21, 1975 on WPIX, NYC]. It deals with a colony of human beings on the moon who are permanently marooned there when the moon leaves its orbit and goes drifting up into space.

One dramatic fact about the moon is that its surface gravity is one-sixth that of the earth. For a given muscular effort you could lift your centre of gravity six times as high on the moon and you could lift six times the weight you can here on earth. Also, you would rise more slowly when you jumped, and fall back more slowly, too.

In Space: 1999, the surface gravity effects on the moon are captured perfectly. The characters move with a slow long-stepping high-bounding grace. When one man must throw another, he does so with astonishing ease, and the thrown man describes the proper parabola. (Slow motion filming and, I suspect, the ingenious use of wires are responsible for these effects). I have never seen anywhere, so precise a simulation of low gravity. I marvelled and enjoyed the sight. (Other special effects were taken care of with equal care.)

So far, there is no error. Within the lunar base, however --indoors, so to speak-- it was clear that everyone was operating under normal earth gravity. There was some passing reference to artificial gravity --which, of we accept the general theory of relativity, is not theoretically possible, but never mind, for it is an error forced by dramatic necessity. You just can't have your characters moving slow motion throughout the show and throughout all future shows in the series.

A more serious error involves the methods by which the moon is blasted out of orbit. On the show, nuclear wastes apparently stored on the moon somehow heat up and explode. The reasons for this are not made luminously clear. (Although nuclear wastes can heat up and melt, they can't possibly be involved in a nuclear explosion.) Still, there is enough talk of magnetic field to give the explosion a certain surface plausibility. But having exploded, the show's nuclear waste canisters act as rockets, blowing off exhausts in one direction, and driving the moon in the other.

The problem here is that the mass of the moon is being underestimated. If all the nuclear waste the earth were to produce in the next 24 years were placed in one spot, and if it were all to explode (assuming it could explode) it would not budge the moon much or alter its orbit very noticeably -- let alone accelerate it to such a degree that the people of the lunar base would be pinned immovably to the ground. But that's an error out of dramatic necessity, too, and I'm willing to let it go. The moon has to be gotten out of orbit somehow, and at least a scientific principle was correctly, if exaggeratedly, used for the purpose.

What about errors out of commercial necessity? There is one in the very title Space: 1999. The series begins in A.D. 1999, 24 years from now. There is no reasonable possibility that we will have a lunar base so large, so advanced, and so self-contained in a mere 24 years. It would have been more plausible to call the show "Space 2049" and allow another half-century.

I suspect, though, that the title arose out of a conviction on the part of those who thought of the series as a potential money-maker that the viewing audience is so egocentric, so limited in its perception of the universe, that it would not watch anything it thought would not happen in its own lifetime. Furthermore, the very successful picture 2001 was probably in everyone's mind --and it would be one- upped by "1999."

And mistakes out of ignorance? Are there any? Alas, yes.

There are a number of references, for instance, to the "dark side of the moon." The show opens with a caption reading "Dark Side of the Moon" and it is on the "dark side" that the nuclear wastes are stored and where they explode.

Yet there is no dark side of the moon. A dark side of any world is the side that faces permanently away from the sun. One side of the moon does indeed face permanently away from the earth, but not from the sun, and every part of the moon gets both day and night in two-week alternations. The side of the moon that is permanently turned away from the earth is the FAR SIDE, not the dark side.

Even if this misuse of a phrase makes no difference, why not be right just for the fun of it? But there is a difference. Why should a popular TV show mislead youngsters into thinking that half the moon is a land of perennial night --which it isn't?

Incidentally, of the big nuclear explosions took place on the far side of the moon, the rocket action would serve to drive the moon toward the earth, something the program doesn't mention. The moon's original orbital motion would keep it from hitting the earth, but it would skim by at an abnormally close distance (how close would depend on the force of the explosion) and would create disastrous tidal effects. [In the episode, it is mentioned that the Earth suffers geological disruption consistent with this]

Sometimes one can't be sure whether an error is produced out of dramatic necessity or out of ignorance. For example, mention was made on several occasions during the initial program ["Breakaway"] of a new planet named "Meta." It is supposed to be close enough to the moon to be seen clearly through telescopes as a large sphere. It has an atmosphere; it is sending out space signals; it seems to bear intelligent life. The mean of the lunar base are preparing to send out a manned probe to the planet.

But where did Meta come from? If Meta is the planet of another sun, where is that sun? If it is as near to earth and the moon as Meta seems to be, then the earth and the moon are being baked to death.

If Meta isn't circling a sun, but just invaded our solar system on its own, then it must be frozen solid through all the eons of its interstellar journey and hence is very unlikely to bear our kind of life. [The episode does not make it clear, but Meta is supposed to be a interstellar planet entering the solar system. Large planets like Jupiter ("gas giants") generate most of their heat themselves, and would not be frozen in deep space.]

If on the other hand, it has been a member of our solar system all along, if we can see it in 1999, then we should also be able to see it in 1975 --but, of course we don't. As a matter of fact, any planet that could be close enough to the earth in 1999 to invite a manned expedition of exploration must be close enough right now in 1975 to be seen by astronomers.

Well, then, is Meta there out of dramatic necessity? Will our heroes and heroines be interacting with it in the next episode because the effect of the nuclear explosion is sure to send the moon, by sheer coincidence, right in the direction of Meta?

Or do those who are producing Space: 1999 simply not know or not care what the structure of the universe is like? For instance, will they have the moon drifting through space and visiting different planets in each instalment? Now that would be too ignorant a view of the universe to be tolerated even in the name of dramatic necessity.

Suppose that the moon were to be hurled out of its orbit with such force that it ended up drifting out of the solar system and through interstellar space at 1000 miles per second. (This is flatly inconceivable, but let us suppose it.) It would then take the moon something like 800 years to reach the nearest star IF it were aimed in the right direction. To have it constantly involved with worlds and alien intelligences is too much to swallow by several thousand cubic miles. [Later episodes propose random "space warps" which shift the Moon through space.]

To be sure, the spaceship Enterprise on Star Trek did it, but the Enterprise was not merely drifting. It was a ship under powered flight; it could be accelerated --and could, we were informed, go faster than light.

But perhaps I need not be pessimistic. Space: 1999 may yet avoid too many errors of ignorance. I hope so, for its special effects are remarkable and I want very much for the show to succeed.