Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Space: 1999

Last week I watched a few episodes from the first season of Space: 1999 on DVD. I'm guessing it may have been the first time in over twenty years that I had seen any episode of the series. I watched the show loyally when I was a teenager. KRCG aired it on Saturday nights, right before Star Trek, for many years. For those of you who don't know, Space: 1999 was a British series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, famous for such Supermarionation series as Fireball XL-5, Thunderbirds Are Go, and Stingray (for those of you wondering what Supermarionation is, I can only point you to the recent movie Team America: World Police). Space: 1999 was a live action series in which the moon had been ripped out of its orbit by nuclear explosions. The moon, and with it Moonbase Alpha, was sent hurling through space, where the people of Moonbase Alpha would encounter both strange civilisations and strange phenomena. It debuted in September 1975.

Space: 1999 grew out of the Andersons' first live action series, an alien invasion show called UFO. Ratings dropped off for that series in America during its first and only season, leading to its cancellation. Despite the failure of UFO to win the hearts of viewers, Lord Lew Grade believed that another sci-fi series could be a hit. He then contacted Gerry and Sylvia Anderson about creating another science fiction show. Financing was provided by ITC (Incorporated Television Company) and the Italian network RAI. The Andersons already had a script for a pilot called Zero-G. Their first script consultant, George Bellak, reworked this script into The Void Ahead--this would eventually become the pilot episode "Breakaway." In the process, however, Gerry Anderson and Bellak found themselves constantly at odds. Eventually, Bellak was fired. Christopher Penfold took over as script consultant. He appointed American writer Johnny Byrne as story editor.

From the outset it was decided that Space: 1999 would be designed to appeal to Americans. American actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (both from the popular series Mission: Impossible) were cast in the lead roles of Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell respectively. American writers, such as Johnny Byrne and Art Wallace, were brought onboard the project. Even many of the series' directors were American, such as Lee H. Katzin. The goal was for the Americans to provide an American viewpoint, thus insuring that the show would be poplular in the United States.

As to the show's budget, Space: 1999 would be the most expensive series of its sort ever produced up to that time. Its average episode cost $300,000. Indeed, the episode "War Games" was for a time the most expensive single episode ever produced for a TV series. In terms of producton, Space: 1999 got only the very best. Brian Johnson provided the show's special effects. Johnson had provided FX for many of the Hammer films, inlcuding Phanton of the Opera, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Moon Zero Two. He was also an effects assistant on 2001: a Space Odyssey and did FX for The Dirty Dozen and A Clockwork Orange. With regards to television, he had worked on several of the Andersons' series (Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds are Go among them). Eventually he would do the special effects for Alien, Aliens, Legend, and other big budget sci-fi/fantasy movies of the Eighties. The sets looked functonal and realistic in a way that those on Star Trek and even Star Trek: the Next Generation never did.

Unfortunately, for a time it appeared that all of this could have been for naught. American sales were necessary to the survival of Space: 1999 and none of the American networks (at the time, NBC, CBS, and ABC) had expressed interest in the series. Fortunately, ITC arrived at the novel approach of selling Space: 1999 directly to American TV stations through syndication. ITC then launched what could have been the most extensive advertising campaign to sell a series to local television stations in the United States. ITC salesmen went forth armed with a print of the pilot episode "Breakaway" and an extensive brochure on the series. The campaign worked. Space: 1999 was sold to 155 markets in the United States. Some of these stations even aired it in primetime pre-empting network shows. Ultimately, Space: 1999 would reach 96% of all American homes with television.

The campaign to sell Space: 1999 to stations was followed by a campaign to sell it to the American viewing public. Special screenings were shown across the United States in September 1975. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain made a tour of various American cities, where they screened the series for the press and answered questions. TV stations were provided with some of the slickest commercials ever made to promote a TV show. The commercials were shown fairly often, at least on KRCG and the other Missouri stations that aired the show. With the amount of promotion given the series, it should be no surprise that it was initially a hit. Space: 1990 did very well in many markets across the United States. Its ratings were fairly high for a syndicated series at the beginning.

Unfortunately, the show did produce many critics, particularly in the science fiction community. Perhaps the most obvious criticism was that its concept was preposterous. Even someone with the tiniest bit of knowledge of science would know that the moon could not be blasted out of its orbit around the earth to go hurling through space at speeds faster than light. Various pundits in the sci-fi community also levelled charges that the shaky science of Space: 1999 did not end with the unbelievable basis for the show. They pointed out that in the series sound travelled in a vacuum (in reality it doesn't) and parsec was being used as a measurement of velocity rather than a measurement of distance. More serious criticisms of the series emerged from both those within and without the sci-fi community. Perhaps the most common was that its lead characters were wooden, little more than the stock characters found in any poorly done sci-fi movie. Another criticism was that the scripts were poorly written. Many derided the scripts for lacking humour or even good pacing.

Whether because of the show's various crtics or because the novelty of the series simply wore off, Space: 1999 faltered in the ratings as its first season wore on. For that reason it was decided that changes would be made with the second season. American producer Fred Freiberger was brought in to retool the series. Among the changes Freiberger made was the introduction of two new characters. One was Security Chief Tony Verdeschi. The other was Maya, an alien from the planet Psychon who was capable of changing her shape. Freiberger dismissed some of the original cast. Barry Morse (who played local science expert Professor Bergman) would leave due to a salary dispute. Main Mission, which had served as the nerve centre for Moonbase Alpha, was replaced by the new Command Centre. New uniforms were also provided to the crew. Perhaps the biggest change was in the emphasis of the episodes. Where the show once explored metaphysics and the human equation, it was now a straight forward adventure series. Indeed, it became much lighter in tone. Whereas once the Alphans were constantly seeking a way home, now they seemed content to battle the latest aliens to menace them.

The changes won over none of the show's original critics, who simply charged that the new episodes were simply mediocre adventure stories. What was worse, even the show's original, most ardent supporters were not pleased. Nearly everyone pointed out the obvious lapses in continuity. Tony Verdeschi had never appeared in the first season and had never even been referred to. No explanation was given for Professor Bergman no longer being on Alpha. How did they get the material for new uniforms in the middle of deep space? And how did they get the material to build the new Command Centre? With the second season even some of the show's biggest fans stopped watching it. It should be no surprise that it fell drastically in the ratings. As a result, syndication sales in America for a proposed third season were much lower than hand been hoped for. For that reason, Space: 1999 ended with its third season.

Since that time very little has been seen of Space: 1999. The show's reruns continued for a time in syndication. I think KRCG here in mid-Missouri may have shown it until 1980. Unfortunately, ITC decided to cull various episodes for release as telefilms, some of which were shown in theatres overseas. Destination: Moonbase Alpha was essentially a re-editing of the two part episode from the second season "Bringers of Wonder." Alien Attack combined "Breakaway" with "War Games." Journey Through the Black Sun blended "Collision Course" with "Black Sun."Finally, Cosmic Princess combined "The Metamorph (the episode that introduced Maya)" with "Space Warp." These episodes were pulled from the syndication package, reducing the series' to a 40 episode run and making it less attractive to TV stations. This could largely explain why it hasn't been seen much in the United States since the Eighties.

Although largely off the air here in the United States, Space: 1999 has maintained a base of loyal fans. In many countries it has even developed a cult following. Eventually episodes would be released on VHS and still later on DVD. This might seem strange for a show that had come heavily under fire from critics in its initial run. As I see it, however, while the series was not well received on its debut, Space: 1999 was not at all a bad show. I think much of the criticism emerged from the fact that the critics were looking at Space: 1999 as a science fiction series. From that point of view, the idea of the moon careening out of orbit at hyperlight speeds is totally unbelievable. It is my thought, however, that the series was not a science fiction series at all, but instead a fantasy series with the trappings of a sci-fi show. It must be pointed out that in its first season the show concentrated heavily on metaphysics and even questions about human existence--science simply wasn't a focus of the show. Keeping this in mind, many of the series' episodes become quite enjoyable. In fact, many of the episodes of Space: 1999 can even be considered good from this viewpoint. At least in its first season, there were episodes that made observations on human psychology, religious issues, social issues, and moral issues. In many ways, Space: 1999 could be considered a metaphor for human existence--being adrift in the cosmos with only ourselves to insure that we survive. As to the other common criticism levelled at Space: 1999, that its characters were dull and wooden, I have to disagree. Barry Morse gives a delightful performance as Professor Bergman, a man with a dry sense of humour who sometimes seems like he would be more at home in a Victorian laboratory. I also believe that Nick Tate did a very fine job as chief pilot Alan Carter, a strong willed man who always seemed on the edge of insubordination. As to Martin Landau, I think he was quite acceptable as Commander Koenig, a man on whose shoulders rest the survival of Alpha. Of the leads, I think only Barbara Bain gave less than stellar performances. Dr. Carter is either too stoic or too emotional depending on the circumstances.

I do have my own criticisms to level at Space: 1999, even though after seeing it again I must confess that I still like the show. With regards to the scripts, it seems to me that many of them would begin quite well only to descend into incomprehensible metaphysics at the end. Sometimes I think that they were trying too hard to be 2001: a Space Odyssey. Many of the secondary characters were also never allowed to develop. We never really learn much about data coordinator Sandra Benes or Main Mission Controller Paul Morrow. Of course, when it comes to the second season, I have to be more critical of Space: 1999. Even as a teenager I found it hard to forgive the lapses in continuity (Tony Verdeschi appears out of nowhere, new uniforms, Bergman disappears and no one notices). It seems to me that the scripts also declined drastically in quality--I think the accusation that many of the second season episodes were simply mediocre adventure stories is legitimate. In fact, it seems to me that most of the second season episodes can be summed up as "some monster or alien wants to kill the Alphans...." I suspect that the reason many of the second season scripts are not as good as those of the first season is the fact that Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne wrote a plurality of the first season scripts. It was these two writers who gave the show its flavour. They wrote far less for the second season, which could explain why many of its episodes were not up to par.

Many have blamed second season producer Fred Freiberger for the series' decline in quality in its second season, but I think one must be careful not to hold him too much to blame. Despite what many Star Trek fans believe, Freiberger was not a hack. In the case of Star Trek, it must be kept in mind that he was brought in at the last minute and never really had a chance to get a grasp of a series that, in truth, had been in decline since producer Gene Coon left. In truth, Freiberger was an experienced writer who had sold scripts to such series as Have Gun Will Travel and Bonanza He produced the best run of The Wild Wild West (it was on his watch that archvillain Dr. Miguelito Loveless was introduced). I rather suspect the reason he did not do well on Space: 1999 is simply that he was not compatible with the series. It seems to me his strongpoint was adventure (like The Wild Wild West) and Space: 1999 simply was not an adventure series.

Today I rather suspect that the general public has forgotten Space: 1999. In fact, I dare say most young people in the United States have probably never seen an episode of the series. Regardless, I do believe it has its place in television history. First, it was the first large scale genre series launched since Star Trek ended its original run. After a fashion, then, it can be considered a forerunner to other large scale genre shows, such as Star Trek: the Next Generation and Babylon 5. Second, it was the first major, original series with continuing characters to be widely syndicated since the Sixties. Space: 1999 can then be considered to have paved the way for other original series in syndication that prospered in the Eighties and Nineties (Star Trek: the Next Generation, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, and so on).

Regardless of whether it is remembered and regardless of its shortcomings, Space: 1999 is still a show that I do enjoy very much. And it seems that I am not alone in this, as the show still has a following around the world. I am not sure that it could ever be termed a "classic." I am not sure that given its occasional flaws it can be considered necessarily a good show at times. But I must say that I have always found it entertaining.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your note. I remember watching at 10:15 on Saturday nights (the news was only 15 minutes). The first episode and I was hooked (I was 14 at the time). At 49 I am still a fan!

Unknown said...

Great article. My brother and I watched it every weekend on KRCG-13 during it's original run. I was only 7-8 years old and I loved the show. In adulthood I purchased VHS copies, then all the Laserdiscs, and now I own the 2 Blu-Ray sets that I enjoy quite a bit. I actually never cared about any criticism of the show......I thought it was just fun to watch and imagine things about the universe. Thanks SPACE:1999 !