Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade had a long standing professional relationship of success. After years of working with puppets, Anderson earned a live action production with the startling and impressive UFO, a program that was as hard-hitting as it was fantastic, dealing as it did with a secret internationally funded organization designed to fend off mysterious alien invaders from a dying world looking to extend their lives by stealing human organs. Following the success of UFO first year, Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade planned an even more ambitious second series that would take the fight against the organ harvesting aliens to a new level with the advent of a moon base from which the Interceptors would engage the enemy. Alas, this was not to be when Grade and the suits had a change of heart and decided to scrap the notion. But it would be such a shame to abandon all the hard work begun on the second year of UFO. Work began on what would become Space: 1999, a science fiction epic that found its own cult following and continues to find new fans today.
The series starred husband and wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain who were coming off of Mission Impossible, a wildly successful series in the US and UK. The notion was that with them signed on as the leads, the program was a guaranteed hit. The budget was tremendous and the ambitions high on what still looks like a lavish TV production. Imagine Kubrick’s 2001 translated into a weekly TV series and you have the beginnings of an idea what this looked like. With designer clothing, furniture and sets, it remains one of the most eye catching TV programs of its era. Following in the footsteps of Star Trek, Space: 1999 is a much more polished and professional looking series at times, yet it is also so cerebral that it can easily leave the viewer in the lurch.
The pilot involves a roving planet called Meta and the desperate attempt to launch an expedition there from Moonbase Alpha. Commander John Koenig (Landau) is sent up to take control of the situation, but finds that the conditions are far worse than he was led to believe. Radioactive waste has been shipped to the moon for some time and carefully monitored, yet the astronauts piloting the Eagle Transports across the lunar surface are coming down with what appears to be radiation poisoning. The cover story is that they are sick but recovering however, John soon discovers from Doctor Helena Russell (Bain) that this is not the case. The astronauts who are afflicted are seen to deteriorate rapidly as their body functions slow and their brain functions halt altogether.
Koenig makes the difficult decision to stop everything from the waste shipments to the Meta probe launch preparations while the cause of these deaths is identified and stopped. He is aided by Professor Victor Bergman (played by the brilliant Barry Morse) and soon realizes that the problem involves the magnetic properties of the moon as well as the radioactive waste. Moonbase Alpha is essentially a time bomb. Before they can manage to ‘defuse’ the bomb, it erupts and catapults the moon out of orbit and into space. Rather than plot a path back home (where no doubt untold cataclysms are occurring thanks to the loss of the moon), Koenig informs the crew that they will venture forth on a bold adventure into the unknown, looking for a new home.
Like many guys my age, I was vaguely aware of Space: 1999 from syndication, but mainly episodes from the second series that saw the loss of Morse as well as the more soulful and cerebral plots from people like George Bellak, Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne. I was lucky enough to find a rare out of print edition of the first series put out by Network in high definition with polished picture quality and shocking sound levels. I cannot imagine watching a program as dense and lush as Space: 1999 on a small TV screen in the kitchen over a Hungry Man TV Dinner (as most likely did). The scope is just so vast and the reach of the production staff impressive.
The plot of Breakaway is awkward and veers from idea to idea, not a great way to open a new series as the focus shifts from introducing this new world to the discovery of Meta to the deaths and radiation scare in just one installment before everything goes to pot and our heroes become reluctant castaways on a giant desert isle (if you will). All that said, it is immensely impressive.
The plotting of the pilot ran to two hours and had to be trimmed back to 45 minutes after the studio saw it just did not work. The filming process was incredibly difficult with the first scene seemingly refusing to get shot in the studio. Space: 1999 was a tense production and it shows, the actors struggle to find their way just as the plot choppily makes its way to completion. Several times during my first time through this one I kept asking myself ‘who was this made for?’ but then I kind of broke through a barrier and realized that I was the ideal audience.
There is very little excitement or action. In fact, aside from the destruction of a couple of Eagle transports and thew zapping of an astronaut gone mad, not much happens. But the tone is very adult and sophisticated with the dead-faced irradiated victims lit in the ghostly greens and blues of the sick bay until Dr Russell pulls the plug making a specific impact. It’s also complex as Koenig must deal with the concerns of bureaucrat while the death toll rises and Earth command seems anxious to keep the situation secret and contained. This is not the perfect society of Star Trek nor is it the intergalactic ghetto of Star Wars… it’s much more multifaceted than either and as a result it will either grab you or it won’t.
Recently released on Blu-ray, Space: 1999 is making a bit of a splash on the home video market as fans of other sci fi programs are eager to add variety to their library. That’s great because this is not only a very intelligent and thought-provoking series but it is also a visually experimental program that at times threatens to blow the viewers mind. It is also very human with more fully developed characters than viewers were used to. Prentis Hancock as Controller Paul Morrow (I’m actually quite fond of Prentis Hancock and really enjoy his performances here), Zienia Merton as Sandra Benes, Nick Tate as Captain Alan Carter and Lon Satton as Benjamin Ouma are just some of the supporting cast members that breath life into these episodes with their presence.
Although why the great Philip Madoc was only in a scant two minutes tops as the outgoing Lunar Base Commander I cannot figure out.
If you missed out the first time, this could be the ideal year to take a trip to the moon with Space 1999 and see just how far out TV sci-fi could get once upon a time.