The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Space: 1939

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was a leading science fiction magazine, published monthly from 1949. It aimed at a more mature market than competing fiction magazines, with a regular science article by Isaac Asimov and film reviews by Baird Searles from 1970 to 1984. Searles (1934-1993) was a science fiction author and critic.

Space: 1949 Part 1

by Baird Searles

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume 50 Number 2 (Feb 1976) p62

The most eagerly awaited science fiction series since Star Trek, that was this season's Space: 1999. Noisy fanfares of publicity, guest appearances on TV by the stars, and a great deal of jockeying for position by the stations that bought it (it is a syndicated program, not a network offering) preceded its premiere; all this served to raise hopes even in those viewers soured by an endless stream of turkeys such as Lost in Space and Planet Of the Apes.

This review is written on the basis of two episodes; I had hoped to get in more, but scheduling problems preclude, Also, I have just seen episode two and have a strong smell of Thanksgiving dinner in my nostrils — I won't say I've lost all hope, but there will have to be an extraordinary change for me to reconsider what I'm about to say. However, let me hedge a little and say that I will keep watching and report faithfully any charges in attitude.

In episode 1 ("Breakaway"), a radioactive waste disposal area on the Moon runs amuck due to unforeseen changes in the magnetic fields; this forces the Moon to be "pushed out of Earth's orbit" (not to mention its own; I don't think they knew it had one). Going along for the ride, willy or nilly, are the 311 men and women residing in Moonbase Alpha, an international settlement of scientists. For some reason, despite tons of interplanetary hardware to hand, they can't get off, though there's some hope that they can make a jump for Meta, some planet or other which just happened to be wandering through the Solar System at the time.

Episode two ("Dragon's Domain") opens 877 days later, and apparently Meta was a bust, because nobody mentions it. They are, in fact, in "intergalactic" space -that must have been one hell of a garbage dump. Flashback. In 1994, there had been an "Uitraprobe" which was not a new toothpaste, but a manned probe of a newly discovered trans-Plutonian planet called "Ultra," from which only one man returned. He had run into a monster - with tentacles, yet - in a graveyard of lost ships on the other side of Ultra.

Meanwhile, back in 1999 (or I guess its's 2000 by now) and intergalactic space, that same astronaut starts twitching, and, by golly, they run into that very graveyard and that very monster, tentacles and all. Needless to say, it is done in, and the Moon and its unwilling passengers are off to another episode.

Are we discouraged? Yes!

Now one of the hardest things to take -for me - is the s/f fan that demands absolute scientific verisimilitude. I believe that there can be some license in the field, a little dramatic give, as it were. After all, the coincidences in Shakespeare's works defy the laws of chance, don't they, but that doesn't lessen our enjoyment of them. And the nit-picker that has to have every sprocket, rocket, pocket and locket scientifically justified to 15 decimal points is just ruining his own enjoyment of some good writers.

But one of the skills of the good s/f writer is simply to make us suspend our disbelief - OK, maybe by a little fudging or subtle semantic gobbledy-gook, or maybe just with a story so good that we don't want to pick nits. But there's a lower limit of scientific simplemindedness that even I won't buy, particularly when accompanied by simple-minded stories. Space: 1999, as you can tell from the above synopses, hits that lower limit.

There's dramatic simple-mindedness, also, alas, present here. The mere fact that they must rely on a flashback device for the second episode indicates a poverty of invention. Hell, I'd go along with the Moon travelling at intergalactic speeds if I were offered a story that was interesting enough (to make the last paragraph's point from the other side).

With some notable exceptions, s/f on film and TV has always been about 25 years behind the literary genre; Space 1999 would not have been out of place in one of the less sophisticated magazines of the late '40s, say Amazing Stories. Now this is because TV /films s/f is made by outsiders to the genre; the results are what usually happens when a writer from outside the genre attempts it, i.e. a work that is typical of what the general public thinks science fiction is rather than one containing the traditions of coherence and intelligence (generally) that the field has built up within itself. In other words, there is a sort of culture lag between inside and outside, and I, for one, place a positive value on the inside view, if only because from the outside we get idiocies such as this show.

(This whole question of genre ghetto or contrariwise is a big one, which I have only touched on here. But it is not as simple as some authors who have publicly moaned about being ghettoized would make it; I feel their moaning is prompted by lack of fame and money - not necessarily in that order - and valid so far as that goes.)

I may have digressed because I'm more interested in the above question than I am in the show to hand, but in all fairness, is there anything positive to say? Well, the show looks good, though almost entirely derived visually from 2001; sometimes embarrassingly so, as in the space shuttle scene. Probably my favourite aspect is the costumes. The Alpha uniforms are the basic tee shirt and tights that seem obligatory for video s/f, but are neatly individualized by being asymmetrical; one sleeve a different colour (presumably denoting rank) and a zipper from wrist to neck on one side only, which must make getting into them an interesting problem in contortionism.

As for that least important of TV qualities, the acting, the less said, the better. I can only note that Barbara Bain's expression is exactly the same under 10Gs as it is in Lunar G - absolutely blank. I will, indeed, continue to watch this show; depending on what results, this review may be ...

continued next month

Space: 1949 Part 2

by Baird Searles

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume 50 Number 3 (March 1976) p126-128

The major part of this month's column will again be devoted to the series, Space: 1999. Has my negative opinion of last month changed after seeing five more episodes? Has the series gotten into some sort of stride? Will it be another Star Trek? No, no, and no.

Why then am I wasting time on it? "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," as Thumper said in Bambi. Well, that is fine for normal civilized people, but critics are not bound to be civilized, particularly if they care about the field in which they are reviewing. I've been feeling rather good about science fiction lately. It's been maturing rapidly from within, and gaining respectful and sensible attention from without; I've felt the defensive and sometimes derogatory attitudes held by some fairly big names in the field, on being associated with that "Buck Rogers stuff," were old fashioned and unjustified.

Space: 1999, at this point, seems well on its way to being a hit (which may partially be accounted for by the dreariest TV season ever). If it is a major success, it will be a force in shaping the public image of s/f, just as much as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon did in the mass medium (the comic strips) of their day. I don't particularly want to start a crusade, but I think those of us with high standards better start marshalling our arguments for when we start being accused of liking that "Space: 1999 stuff."

Last month, on the basis of two episodes, I made the point (s) that the show made no attempt to logically justify any of its speculative elements (the moon has been "blown out of Earth's orbit" into "intergalactic space" with a lunar colony aboard); that it was equally sloppy dramatically (the inter-relationship in s/f between basic concept and plot/dramatic structure is subtle, but very strong); that the show looked damn good, particularly in the hardware, special effects, and costume departments.

All of this has held through seven episodes now. Trans-Piutonian or "intergalactic space" or wherever they are is just chock full of various planets (none of which seem to be attached to suns) and intelligences (who tend to turn up as blue balls of light - this seems to be the predominant shape of intelligent life in the universe). We have had the eternal life bit, with a crowd that started out just a few years before our bunch, but through a convenient "time warp" have lived 880 years since then. But, heavens to Betsy, they are - gasp - sterile (!). And there was the base member that gets hit by one of those blue balls and becomes a sort of were-refrigerator, i.e. periodically he turns pink and freezes everything and everybody he touches.

We have had the lotus land bit - a planet that looked like the universe's largest cotton field. That was admittedly pretty spectacular in a Ziegfeld Follies sort of way, complete with beautiful girl descending a staircase from a hole hanging in space. She turned out to be the messenger of the Guardian of the planet, and - gasp again - a robot, because the human population hadn't been perfect enough.

For stunning visual effects combined with absolute nonsense, though, the cake-taker episode had a beautiful, ageless, white haired lady in a cobweb-hung space ship who announced that she was "Ardra of Etheria" (or some such - I'm going by ear) and not even the fine actress Margaret Leighton could bring that off. Seems she wants our stalwart base commander to do something on faith or she'll hit Luna! Alpha with her planet, and he doesn't and she doesn't and the planet doesn't (it just disappears) and it was all so metaphysical you could smell it.

I'm sorry - I want clear and coherent concepts, both dramatic and speculative, and this show fails in both ways. Innumerable s/f writers have proved that they can do it in print, and Star Trek proved it could be done on TV. Lord knows, not every episode of that show was admirable, but enough were sufficiently intelligent to make this series, despite its superior production, look like the pulp fiction (in the worst sense) that it is.

As for other matters on the small screen this month, ABC came up with a minor but amusing winner in The New Original Wonder Woman (all the adjectives are because there was a disastrous TV movie last year that attempted to update the story and failed miserably). This one succeeded for several reasons. The mythological/fantasy elements were kept in- there was a long opening sequence on Paradise Island in which Doris Leachman nearly stole the show as WW's mum, the Queen of the Amazons. And the whole thing was done as straight and uncamped as the strip used to be, and with a fine sense of period. The brilliantined pompador of Lyle Waggoner as Steve Trevor was a sight to behold, as was the snood of the villainous spy, Marcia.

Literary (?) dept .... Speaking of Star Trek, Ballantine has got out a Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, which is the most amusing non-book of the year. It's full of schematic drawings and information on everything from anabolic protoplasers to the Romulan Star Empire peace treaty. While one might wish that this amount of creative imagination had been used for Heinlein's Space Patrol or Dickson's Dorsai, the source doesn't really matter. The reader is given a wealth of the sort of trivia of a created future universe that s/f fans (Trekky or not) love, and it's all grand fun.

Not to beat a dead horse, but it might be pointed out that it's extremely dubious as to whether the universe of Space: 1999 has or ever will have the depth of concept to make an Alpha Technical Manual. [The Moonbase Alpha Technical Notebook came out the following year, 1977]

Space: 1939

by Baird Searles

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume 51 Number 6 (December 1976) p105

Alert readers will gather from the title of this piece that we are in for another season of Space: 1999. Steel yourselves; from here on up downhill the way, as Pogo used to say (or was it the other way around?).

Anywho, a whole new series has been produced in England ( coincidentally, production on "Year 2", as the publicists are calling it, didn't begin until was a sure thing that the series was a moneymaker in the U.S.). There have been highly publicised changes in the format of the show, so I sat down to watch the first episode with some curiosity.

Aha! There is a new, and somewhat handsomer logo. Then we are informed that Alpha (and Luna, too, we presume) is 342 days from leaving Earth orbit. (Funny. It's seemed like years.) They've survived another space warp, and are now 6 light years from home. (There's Barbara Bain and she has a newer, softer hairdo.)

They need titanium desperately, and so they drop in on a "nearby planet." (I begin to feel a slight sense of deja vu.) It's a messy place with lots of active volcanoes, but the Eagle scout reports that there is titanium, then heads home. It is followed off the surface by a glowing green ball. (By golly, that's new! All the glowing balls last year were blue!) The Eagle captured by the ball, and soon thereafter the screen on Alpha lights up, and what looks like a fugitive from Flash Gordon announces that he is "Mentor of Psychon." (Right here I begin to feel a definite sense of deja queasiness.)

Mentor lures a rescue party down to Psychon with a smooth manner and promises to play fair. He has a daughter, Maya, who can redo her molecular arrangement a good deal faster than most women can restyle their hair, and can therefore change into anything. It's not made clear whether this is a racial characteristic or her own peculiar talent. Whatever, she has an amazing repertory of Terran animals for somebody that's never heard of the place before. In human form, she wears a dress that continues her father's 30s theme; of silver lame to the floor, she has a maribou at the hem and down the arms (that's curly ostrich feathers, dummy) and looks like a Mae West reject for She Done Him Wrong. The dress disappears conveniently when Maya is gallivanting around as a lioness, or a dove, or a gorilla and, unfortunately for the randier members of the audience, reappears just as conveniently.

To make a long story short, John Koenig (according to the Space: 1999 "Official Handbook", his middle name is Robert, for those of you who really care) Dr. Russell & Co. escape from Mentor of Psychon's nefarious clutches. This is accomplished when Koenig smashes Psyche of Psychon to bits. Who's that? Psyche is a "biological computer" that looks like masses of tubes of boiling Kool Aid, and it was to Psyche that Mentor wanted to feed the human's life force or mental energy or some such (a minimal diet, in any case). But they do it with the aid of Maya, who is a good girl despite her Mae West dress and tendency to change into a gorilla at times.

After the planet blows up, they return to Alpha, with Maya in tow - she is to become their "resident alien" i.e. a regular on the show.

There also a subplot (and sub's the word, all right) about a newly married Alphan couple, the male part of which (of course) is on the captured Eagle scout, and the female part of which (of course) spends a good deal of time expressing anguish and fainting. They end up blowing kisses to each other through the view screen (they deserve each other).

Let's see - what else is new? I forgot to mention the BEMs. It was good to see a BEM again. They were almost as enthralling as the tentacles on last season's second show.

And we are promised a stronger love interest between Koenig and Dr. Russell (who is female, for those who don't know. No new ground broken in that direction). That should really be exciting- like watching two iguanas making eyes at each other.

There seem to be newer, softer costumes to match Miss Bain's new hair style (I miss the old ones), and large white spaces on Alpha. The handsome Alphan Paul is out, as is that old geezer, who spent all his time making suggestions that no one ever took up. (I can see why he left.) The lovely Eurasian Sandra is still in, though.

Now with all these major changes, I can see why they couldn't get around to a minor matter such as getting sensible writers (preferably those cognizant with s/f) who could put out stories that at least made a try at convincing speculative concepts.

But I must say the production as a whole is as spectacular as ever, and fun to watch in a mindless way. And I must say one thing on the writer's behalf. Obviously they have been instructed by the producers to stick to the old series classic episode format, a cliff hanger before every commercial; that is at least every ten minutes. It's like instructing a writer to write a short story with a climax to come every two pages exactly. It's hard to work sensibly within that kind of restriction.

But I'm afraid that Year 2 on Alpha looks about the same as Year 1; pretty rudimentary s/f.

Other SF magazines of the time were equally dismissive of the series. In Galaxy volume 38 number 7, September 1977, Spider Robinson's book review stated of the series: "As I write, Space 1999 (marked down, as they say, from 2001) is doing quite well, renewed for another quarter-mil-per-episode season, minus its only real actor and plus the first dea ex machina I'm aware of. (They no longer have to put Novocaine in Barbara Bain's face cream - constant exposure to electromagnetic-type radiation has taken its toll, and now she just naturally looks that way. I would too.)" (p123)