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Christopher Penfold - Writing: 1999

Christopher Penfold - Writing: 1999
TV Zone, Number 45, August 1993
by Richard Houldsworth
Article and text input provided by Brian Dowling

British television has never really understood science fiction.

So says Christopher Penfold, a writer who believes passionately in the genre's place in broadcasting. As story consultant on Space: 1999, he helped steer the show through a turbulent creative process to a successful first series of "thinking science fiction" stories, and has since provided scripts for The Tripods.

"Like a lot of writers I wanted to be a poet," Penfold explains. "I did a lot between the age of thirteen and twenty-three and then got involved with broadcasting. I started off in radio production, then television, and began writing my own shows."

With the exception of the science fiction he had read, Space: 1999 was Penfold's first experience of the genre.

"I didn't really know a lot about it when Gerry Anderson approached me, but I very quickly got interested. Gerry was at Elstree studios making The Protectors and I was in production there with a series called Pathfinders, which everybody expected to fold due to lack of scripts. I joined as script editor a few weeks before the first day of shooting and by virtue of living in a caravan on the lot the scripts emerged. I think that was the quality that Gerry respected."


Christopher Penfold was awarded the job of Story Consultant on Anderson's new project, a role which involved far more than the title suggests. "Originally I did all the development work with Gerry and Sylvia when they were going to make another series of UFO. As a result of the interest of Abe Mandell [who was the head of ITC in New York] the impetus was to move the second series of UFO away from Earth and into space following opportunistically on the success of the early Star Trek. The idea emerged to blast the moon out of orbit and make a space fiction series. I have been interested in the uses and abuses of nuclear energy for many years, and I think it was my idea to have this nuclear waste dump on the Moon go out of control."

Since most of the investment money actually came from the United States through ITC, the first thing that they wanted to have was an American story editor on board and to include a large number of scripts from American writers. Gerry and Sylvia went off to find an appropriate script editor in the States, and found George Bellak."

"Principally George and myself created the characters in conjunction with Gerry, and Sylvia had some input in the early stages. George left the series quite early on as he didn't get on very well with Gerry, so the ball was back in my court. It meant I had the responsibility for finding the writers, talking about ideas for individual episodes, commissioning them, and doing the normal script editing jobs, and eventually writing a fair number of the scripts myself. George had written the first episode, which was eventually entitled Breakaway, but I actually re-wrote it after he had left, and most of it is my work."

Writing Problems

Interviewed in issue 38 of TV Zone, actress Barbara Bain (who played Doctor Helena Russell) stated that there had been problems with some of the British writers on the series. This was not an issue that Penfold had perceived.

"The problems were more with the American writers working with us. It was actually a silly idea to try and conduct script conferences over the telephone with people who were living and working in the United States; and after awhile it became unworkable and we stopped. The only American input that we continued to have was through an American writer living in England at the time, Edward Di Lorenzo. He became another script editor on the series, and wrote a couple of episodes himself."

Both Bain and husband Martin Landau (Commander John Koenig) had a substantial input during script conferences. "They had a very serious interest in the scripts, not unnaturally being the stars of the show, and they were at pains to ensure that the large roles were written for them. Beyond that they had a very intelligent input into the kinds of stories that we were writing, and into the way individual scripts went. I enjoyed story meetings with them."

Were there many script ideas that had to be abandoned because they were unworkable? "There might have been one or two. If scripts weren't working I had both Johnny Byrne and Edward Di Lorenzo with me as script editors, and quite a lot of the episodes they and I were credited with were rescue operations. We'd perhaps given an idea to a writer and it hadn't worked out, so we would abandon that script and rewrite it ourselves. There was an episode called Black Sun, which was an idea of David Weir's, although most of what is there I actually wrote. It was a very technical business writing for Space: 1999; understanding the requirements of that strange mixture of studio and special effects, and quite a lot of writers didn't really get hold of it."

Penfold's Plots

One of the most celebrated stories of the entire series is Penfold's Dragon's Domain- the only first season episode to feature a "bug-eyed monster". "That was an attempt to take on the whole issue of monsters in what I hope was a fairly creative and constructive way. I saw that episode for the first time recently, and I felt quite pleased with it. It treats monsters in quite a philosophical way. The special effects in view of what we have seen in Alien and Star Wars now look laughable, but in a way it didn't matter."

Unusually it largely ignores the established regulars in order to concentrate on Tony Cellini and his crew. "We were under some constraint to include a role for the Italian actor, and since he was only going to appear in one episode we had to invent a past for him."

An episode that he would like to see again is Guardian Of Piri: "Last year I met a group of ex-Central [School of St Martin's] fashion design students who now make extremely expensive gear, mostly for American pop stars, using Space: 1999 as their inspiration! When they met me they were certain that we were all on acid, which in my case certainly wasn't true! Piri was the episode they cited with the most evidence of that; I'd certainly like to find out what they are driving at." Penfold also scripted The Last Sunset, a bizarre tale in which an alien species creates an artificial atmosphere on the Moon. How did the concept come about? "One of the features of an open-ended journey was always the notion of an eventual return home. Seeing as we were never actually going to do that, it was an attempt to play with that idea and what that possibility might do to those people who had accepted that there would never be a homecoming."

Less successful was Space Brain, in which Moonbase Alpha becomes flooded with antibodies (in the form of fire fighting foam) from a huge brain. Was this a case of special effects inspiring a plot? "No. The idea springs to mind of space as being a macro brain. We also toyed with the idea of doing a micro story. The idea of the heavenly bodies as being macro brain cells is one that appealed to me and still does. What was achieved on the set with foam wasn't quite in line with that!"

When asked his opinion of the numerous directors who worked on the series, Penfold instantly leaps to the praise of Charles Crichton, who is now perhaps best known for the award-winning film A Fish Called Wanda. "Charles would probably not have thought of himself as a science fiction director until Gerry asked him to do the show. His experience and his devotion to detail and determination to get the scripts right put me on a vertical learning curve, and it was a wonderful working relationship that I look back on with a great deal of affection. Charles Crichton had an enormous influence on the success of the episodes he directed."

Moving On

Having overseen a successful run of stories, Penfold elected to leave the series towards the end of its first season. "The pressure to shift onto monster stories was already apparent, and I found I was publishing scripts that I didn't myself believe in one hundred percent. It became more and more impossible for me to stay there, and Gerry and Sylvia realized that. I've heard Gerry regret the way the influence affected the second series. At that point in the first series it was a sensible thing to do as far as the American investors were concerned; they wanted an American story editor who was more amenable to what they wanted to do."

Apparently, Freddie Freiberger, producer of the second year of Space: 1999, criticized the initial run because of its lack of humour. In retrospect, does Penfold feel he got it right? "What we wanted to do with the first series was to make it very believable in human terms- whatever the questionable physics of the whole premise. I think the influence of Fred Freiberger was to really jack up the input of the monsters and to go much more for space fantasy. He may have attempted to make the second series funnier too, but we had no sense in the first series that the situation was a funny one. I hope the individual episodes had an appropriate level of humour along the way, but we weren't making a comedy series. Looking back on the first series now, people refer to it as a kind of thinking person's science fiction. I'm very flattered by that. I wasn't interested in the monsters that came with the second series."


The writer returned to the show only once, providing the script for the second season's Dorzak. "I think Gerry asked Freddie to invite me to write that story. I offered the idea of Dorzak, enjoyed writing the script, and didn't enjoy much receiving an eventual production script through the post which bore little resemblance to what I had originally written." The episode is unique in that it lacks the presence of Martin Landau as John Koenig: "I imagine it coincided with a period when he was away on leave or something like that. By that stage I was not very interested in the way the second series was going."

Although he is currently committed to working on The Bill as script editor, Christopher Penfold is also making plans for a new science fiction series. "As a result of fans who have talked to me about Space: 1999 I feel there is a science fiction audience who look back with some longing for the kind of television which takes people out of the minutiae of everyday contemporary life."

What of his conviction that TV executives underrate the genre? "The BBC had Doctor Who for years without really understanding that there was an audience for it, and what the audience actually liked about it. Certainly the television executives were always rather bemused by it, even if they were delighted by its success. When I was working at the BBC a while ago Jonathan Powell asked me what it was about science fiction that audiences liked, and asked me to go away and create a series. I gave it some thought, but quite soon after that the BBC got involved in Star Cops, which probably put a nail or two in the coffin of science fiction on television for awhile. I certainly didn't enjoy that; whatever else science fiction is, it isn't cops and robbers in space."

"I like science fiction that extrapolates from Earth situations in such a way that allows us to understand our Earthly experience by looking back from outside. The driving force of my interest in the genre is it enables us to ask questions about where we are going now."

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