Saturday, November 30, 2013

X-aminations: Space: 1999

Space 1999 : Pilgrims Through The Void

(My apologies for the long spell, this required a lot of research, and outside circumstances, which I won’t go into, have delayed its completion. –MA) 

The ‘what if’ scenario of science fiction and man’s reaction to cataclysm was always remained prevalent in the genre, as well as the theme of adaptability and evolution, these ideas were explored in interesting ways during the first run of Space: 1999.

Often it seemed that Chris Carter would cast certain characters based on childhood shows that must of left an impact, and while it’s not especially surprising, the selection of acting talent was frequently revealing. While the casting of Darren McGavin as Arthur Dales in “Travelers” was pretty self evident due to his involvement with Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the casting of Roy Thinnes as Jeremiah Smith, was revealing when you consider Thinnes role in the seminal mid 60s series, The Invaders, a show that had elements that would be featured on The X-Files, conspiracies, covert alien colonization, and questions about identity. Another telling casting decision was Martin Landau as Alvin Kurtzweil in the first feature Fight The Future. While the casting decision might have been motivated by Landau’s role in Mission: Impossible, as well as the high caliber of his acting work, one also has to wonder if Landau’s work on Space: 1999, playing commander John Koenig, was another factor.

In the history of Science Fiction television, there seems to be a common thread, that Science Fiction that deals with metaphysics tends to resonate more with the public than programs that deal with hard science, and lean secular. The overall excellent first season of Space: 1999 explicitly dealt with metaphysics, with scenarios that constantly forced the characters to accept the other, and to accept and embrace intangibles. This does not mean the first season didn’t have it’s flaws, but the production values, the set design and the visual effects were fairly impeccable for it’s time, but the uneven scripts undermined the season.

Gerry Anderson has an interesting history, Born in April, 1929, Bloomsbury, London. His brother Lionel served in the Royal Air Force at the start of World War II, Lionel’s experiences in America influenced Gerry. He began his career in Photography, earning a traineeship with the British Colonial Film Unit after the war. In 1947, he was conscripted for national service with the RAF. After starting his career as an editor for Gainsborough Pictures, he moved into several projects in the mid 50s, utilizing his skills with puppets and miniatures, Once Gerry became involved with Sylvia Anderson in the early 60s, he had a series of hits, Supercar, Fireball XL5, and Stingray, the first British children’s television show in color. Thunderbirds would go on to be his greatest success, he followed this with another success Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

The early template for Space: 1999 could be found in Gerry Anderson’s 1969 film Doppelganger, also known in American as Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun, starring American actor Roy Thinnes, played an astronaut who travels to a newly discovered planet on the opposite side of the sun, which is revealed to be an exact mirror image of Earth A thoughtful and measured film that came right at the heals of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anderson followed this feature by developing UFO. While the premise has a few elements that reference the usual Abduction UFOlogy, - earth is visited and attacked by aliens from a dying planet and humans are covertly harvested for their organs, a military organization set up to combat the invaders, SHADO - But the show was more of a wild and wooly adventure, with a Thunderbirds flavor, than a series that seriously explored such esoteric subjects, that ran from 1970-1971.

Problems between Gerry’s wife, Sylvia, started to develop around this period, deciding to branch out on his own, Gerry Anderson’s next project was The Protectors, with Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter. In spite of the success of The Protectors, UFO experienced a drop in ratings both in the UK and US, due to Gerry’s ideas within UFO, to expand the SHADO moonbase, he wasn’t willing to let certain ideas die. Being that Sir Lew Grade had stipulated that UFO should primarily be based on the moon, and such episodes set on the moon had been the most popular during the series run. Anderson approached Grade’s number two man in the New York division, Abe Mandell, and proposed taking the research and development done for UFO, while Mandell was open to the idea, he stipulated he didn’t want any earth-bound settings.

The first attempt for the pilot script, “Zero-G” had some similar elements that could be found on UFO, but writer George Bellak would end up establishing many of the elements to be found in “Breakway”. A deal was arranged, Group Three Productions with a partnership with the Andersons and production executive Reg Hill would produce the series, ITC Entertainment and RAI would provide the funding. Grade, while aiming for a US network sale, insisted the series have American leads, and employ American writers, and directors. Hence writer Bellak was brought on board, as well as Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne. Several writers credit Bellak for setting up the writers guide to help define the three lead, the facilities for the moonbase, and potential storylines.

It’s interesting to note that in 1966, several effects crew members working on Thunderbirds were convinced to defect the show and work on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and one could note the eventual influence. As a key figure in the development and influence of the first season, Penfold wrote 16 of the 24 episodes. Born the son of a vicar in Bristol, educated at Cambridge, Chris Penfold joined Australia’s ABC, becoming a writer and producer in radio and television. He eventually returned to England to work in industrial documentaries, before becoming story editor on the series The Pathfinder. Penfold commented in a 1997 interview:

"I was certainly interested in the idea of making popular the kind of science fiction which dealt unashamedly with metaphysical ideas, And in the first series of Space: 1999 a lot of the episodes, not all of them, but a lot of them, confronted those issues head on. I think they make very good programmes."

Penfold elaborated in a 2002 interview.

"Space fiction stories are mainly thought of as action adventure. What we were engaged in [with] Space: 1999 was of course action adventure, but it was also ideas adventure. We weren’t afraid of big ideas in series one, it was what drove us on day to day, it gave us a huge sense of excitement."

This explicit metaphysics was one of the strengths of the first season, and one could argue that each episode acted as an initiation rite for the moonbase crew, as they were headed into something transformative.

Episode summations

“It’s the struggle for survival that makes monsters of us all.” – Dorzak, season two

The premise is established in the pilot, newly appointed to Moonbase Alpha at the end of the 90s, Commander John Koenig heads the team, with Paul Morrow the second in command. Doctor Helena Russell is the head of the medical section, and a long time associate of Koenig, Victor Bergman is the science advisor, Alan Carter is the third in command and heads the massive squadron of Eagles that operate on the base. Sandra Benes is the data analyst. David Kano is the computer operations officer, and doctor Bob Mathias is Doctor Russell’s deputy. The following sequence is not based on broadcast air dates, but production dates. Yet I tend to feel this sequence makes sense in revealing the progression and development of these characters as they condition and accept the situations they find themselves in.

In “Breakaway”, Commander Koenig is sent to Moonbase Alpha to insure that a deep space probe ship to readied to send to a planet that has sent an intelligent signal to earth, Meta. But an unstable nuclear disposal area explodes and blasts the moon out of earth’s orbit. In “Force of Life”, A form of alien energy enters Moonbase Alpha, and inhabits a crew member, the force needs heat to survive, and starts to kill crew members, this type of story is frequent to the first season, and I’ll explore in a moment. In “Collision Course” The Alphan’s, after destroying an asteroid that is in their path, discover a massive planet, Koenig, on an interception, meets an alien embarsary from the planet who convinces him to do nothing to stop the collision, but the alpha crew challenges him, a test of faith. In “War Games”, an episode that would be re-cut into a feature, The alphans are tested from an alien planet they cross paths into believing they are under attack, but the attacks are projections to test their fear. Koenig and Helena visit the planet, learn about the race, and have to make a choice. The next episode featured Brian Blessed, “Deaths Other Dominion”, where the Alpha team come across a frozen planet, and meet fellow Earthmen, a team living under the planet that were part of a Uranus probe mission from 1986. But there is a price on Ultma Thewley, all of the humans are immortal, impotent, and can only remain that way if they stay on the planet.

The next episode seems to be a commentary on Colonial expansionism and the unforeseen genocide of native Americans due to exposure to diseases, In “Voyage’s Return”, The Moonbase Alpha team encounter one of the Voyager probes, but the probes drive system is destructive, yet the original inventor of the drive system is on Alpha. . A fleet of ships, the Arkons, have been tracking Voyager, and threaten to destroy Alpha and eventually Earth, due to the drive technology of Voyager destroying two worlds. The next episode which featured Julian Glover, “Alpha Child”, dealt with the first male baby is born in Alpha, and who is taken over by an alien entity named Jarek, a fleet of ships arrive, as the baby rapidly grows to five years old, before growing to adulthood. Jerek’s people intend to take over the souls of the Alpha crew, until another alien ship arrives to deal with Jerek and his people who are renegades. The next episode, A modern day retelling of the fable of George and the Dragon, has been written about by John Kenneth Muir, “Dragon’s Domain”, As recounted by Helena, an alpha crew member who is a friend of John Koenig and Victor, had encountered, on a deep space probe mission to an earth like planet in 1996, a graveyard of ships and an alien space dragon that killed the crew for blood. The Alpha crew find the same graveyard, that same crew member confronts the alien beast. In the next episode, which featured Joan Collins, “Mission of the Darians”, The Alphans encounter a massive space city, a kind of Ark for the Darians, whose planet died off ages ago. The Darians were split into a distinct class system after nuclear explosions destroyed parts of the space ark, a small circle of elites survived, and the rest were mutants, nine hundred years later, The Alphans discover the truth, the elites uses mutants and primitive humans as food to survive.

In “Black Sun”, Moonbase Alpha encounters a Black Hole, and has to initially create a reverse shield to protect the base. It soon becomes apparent the odds are slim and a survival ship is loaded with a crew of six, three men, three women including Helena. Ultimately, the episode deals with mortality and faith, and the thin line between science and metaphysics. The next episode featured Catherine Sheel who would go on to play Maya in the second season, The episode, “Guardians of Piri”, has been argued by some to be a retelling of the story of the Island of the Lotus Eaters, with Koenig cast in the role of Odysseus. The Alphans encounter a strange, surreal planet, Piri, where it’s main computer created an idyllic life, which led to the extinction of it’s people through apathy. Koenig must fight to save Alpha and his people from the same fate. There’s a minor subplot with Kano, whom had electrodes implanted in his brain years before, due to an experiment on Earth, predating VR, and the premise of the film, The Matrix.

In “End of Eternity”, a fairly weak entry, the tone of which is similar to “Force of Life”, a horror tale. The Alpha team come across an asteroid they discover is hollow, blasting the inner chambers open they release an immortal alien named Balor, whom was shunned from his home world for being a sadist and psychotic, Balor’s ultimatum is to control the Alphans for his own experiments. In “Matter of Life and Death”, Helena’s presumed dead husband, Lee Russell, reappears during a reconnaissance mission to a passing planet that the alphan’s believe could be a new home. But Lee Russell is an anti-matter copy of her husband, it’s presumed, a spirit to warn the base to not colonize the planet, after the copy dies, the warning is ignored with disastrous results, and Helena is given a choice. The episode plays as a parable about humans reentering Eden, the paradise that men were expelled from. In “Earthbound”, a crew of Alien pacifists, with a ship that is programmed to be bound for Earth, crash lands on Alpha, the crew greet and support the aliens, except for Commissioner Simmons (From “Breakaway”) who sees their vessel as a means to return home. Simmons blackmails the base and get’s his just deserts, featuring the great Christopher Lee.

In “The Full Circle”, A very sub par episode, the Moon passes an earth-like planet, dense with jungles, a strange mist causes a number of reconnaissance crew members to disappear, crews lead by Bergman, discover the mist transforms Alphans to a Nethanderthal state. The episodes feels like an excuse for the production team to shoot on location, and there’s an overall feeling of slumming it, in spite of an attempt to comment on man’s primal allows Sondra to play the victim. In “Another Time, Another place”, A distortion in time produces two separate moons with two separate alphans from different eras, one female crew member seems connected to the two eras, and tries to warn of danger when Alpha discovers the ruins of Earth. A slow, and somewhat interesting philosophical episode, that takes a nod to the spirit of Rod Serling.

In “The Infernal Machine”, An all-powerful spaceship visits the Alphans, it’s inhabitant Delmer Plebus Powells Gwent is an old man, and the ship is an extension of his genius and ego. After luring Koenig, Russell, and Bergman onto the ship, a militarized cat and mouse game ensues with the ship demanding supplies and companions. Leo Mckern delivers a sympathetic performance as the old genius who had placed his worst traits into the machine. The episode touches on another on going theme using reason and compassion as opposed to using military offense when dealing with the unknown. The episode thematically is similar to the V’Ger plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a sentient machine that has the development of a child. Similar plot points are also found in the next episode, “Ring Around The Moon”, where a crew member is possessed by an orange glow, which ultimately kills him, it transpires it comes from a giant energy probe originally sent from the planet Triton, the probe which captures the Alphans and insists that Helena should become the eyes of Triton. To rescue her, Koenig must convince the probe that it’s home has long been destroyed and it’s mission to collect data serves no purpose.

In “Missing Link”, While on a recon mission to an alien world, Koenig and crewmates are on an Eagle that is destabilized, the Eagle crashes back on the moon and Koenig appears to be dying, his spirit is captured and scrutinized by an resident alien and his daughter on Zenno, due to the fact that humans appear to be the Zenno’s missing link. Pensive and psychological, although a little uneven in the characterization, it features Peter Cushing. In “The Last Sunset”, While Eagle’s do another recon mission to an oxygen rich planet they are heading into orbit, a probe attaches itself to the lead eagle. Back on Moonbase Alpha, while studying, the probe unleashes a gas, followed by a fleet of probes that gives the moon an atmosphere, and a weather cycle, but the develop causes a new set or problems for the crew, and it’s more than bargained for.

In “Space Brain”, The moon crosses paths with a massive space brain, a recon ship is destroyed, reduced to a rock as the brain emits anti-bodies. The brain tries to communicate with the alpha’s with massive amounts of data the crew can’t understand, on a second recon mission, a crew member is used as a conduit between the brain and the bases computer. A solution must be found or both the moon and the brain could be destroyed. “The Troubled Spirit”, A botanical scientist in the middle of an experiment has triggered and unexplained event. A psychic entity appears and kills a couple of crew members close to the scientist, but the entity might or might not be the future spirit of the scientists demise. The crew has to make a choice. This is in essence a ghost tale with an O’Henry twist.

By the next episode, the alpha crew seems to have learned the lessons from “War Games”; In “The Last Enemy”, The moon crosses paths with a sun with two worlds on opposing sides of the sun, both worlds and it’s alien races are involved in a age old war, and moon base alpha are caught in the middle as the moon is the perfect tactical location for both sides, the base has to stay neutral or face destruction from either planet. In the season closer, “The Testament of Arkadia”, The Moon is mysteriously locked into orbit around a dead, alien planet, and the power reserves of Moonbase Alpha mysteriously start to drain away, the crew must visit the planet Arkadia to discover the mystery, where they find the mummified remains of humans, and after finding Sanskrit writing learn of an alien holocaust and that earth are the decedents of this planet. A choice must be made, to create a new Adam and Eve, or face death with a dying moonbase.

Missed Opportunities

Leading into the second season, several shake-ups would change the nature of the series original intent. The break up of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, factored into some of the changes, when ratings for the first season dropped in the United States in the Autumn months, Lew Grade canceled production for further work on season two, Gerry Anderson and Fred Freiberger were able to rallied the situation and do a re-pitch with the alien Maya. arguing that the dynamic would shake up the interaction of the characters, and re-spark viewer interest in the states. But it also in essence helped to dumb down the series. Setting aside the criticism of the scientific implausibility of the pilot episode, regarding how the moon blasted out of Earth’s orbit, a point that Isaac Asimov was highly critical of, there is also the missed opportunity of having a more compelling, biblical story arc. If the event of the breakaway had had to do with a massive commit or meteor has struck the earth, with something to the effect of shattering the planet in two, and causing a blast wave that broke the Moon from it’s fixed orbit, then you eliminate any hope of ever getting back to earth, and the Moon and Moonbase Alpha becomes a kind of Noah’s ark, with the survivors searching and waiting to find a new home. Certainly, the scale of the moonbase, suggests a city and miniature society. If the bio-chambers, envisioned as bio-domes, featured a range of animal life, this would reinforce the Noah’s ark meme.

When considering the civilian aspect of this society, unless one assumes this base was strictly a military industrial operation, then the lack of a civilian vs. military hierarchy, then the lack of development with Commissioner Simmons, who only appears in “Breakaway” and “Earthbound”, is another missed opportunity as far as a recurring character. A dynamic between Commander Koenig and the Commissioner could have been set-up; a tension between civilian and military needs. Such dynamics were put to great effect with Ron Moore’s Battlestar: Galactica, between Adama and President.Roslin

Writer Christopher Penfold was able cast some light on the inconsistent quality within the first season, in an interview from 1997:

"As the series developed, the increasing concerns of ITC for a kind of science fiction which I felt very alien to me began to have the effect of undermining the scripts which were being written. We had very good scripts which had to go back to the drawing board to meet a requirement which had come from Abe Mandell, who didn’t appear to have any understanding that if you take one strand out of a script, it effects everything else in the script. So a lot of rewriting, needless rewriting, went on and this had the effect of bringing the scripts further and further behind schedule. The difficulties came to a head and Gerry asked me to leave the series. I don’t remember having any severe falling out with him, but I realized the way the wind was blowing as far as story content was concerned and I was, at that point, utterly exhausted anyway."

Most people, when they reference their memory of the series will recall Catherine Sheel’s Maya from the second season, but I have found myself always underwhelmed by season two, and often found it inferior. Some of the reasons for the poor quality have everything to do with significant cast changes that changed the tone of the series. Barry Morse apparently had grown dissatisfied with the treatment of his character, Victor Bergman, and opted to not return. Undermining the trifecta of Koenig, Russell, and Bergman - a set of character arcs that shared similarities to Kirk, Spock, McCoy from Star Trek, or Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the Potter series. If the writers had allowed Bergman’s character to be more developed in season two, and progressed his arc to something more satisfying, and allowed for his demise at the end in the second season – he was an older man with an artificial heart – it could have resonated. The inclusion for Maya for a third season would have made sense other than the abrupt change at the start of the second season.

The other baffling change was the absence of the second in command Paul Morrow, and the appearance of Tony Verdeschi as the second in command, as well as the eventual love interest for Maya in the second season. Being that Tony never appears in the first season, it is a complete break from continuity, we are left to assume he was deep in the bowels of the moonbase, and moves up in rank with no explanation. It would be revealed that Fred Freiberger held a certain dismissive attitude about certain characters in later years, but many of the inconsistencies in the second season would merely help to diminish the reputation of the show. Fred Freiberger became notorious for cutting corners with the production, the look of the sets and costume design. Martin landau has commented:

"They changed it because a bunch of American minds got into the act and they decided to do many things they felt were commercial. Fred Freiberger helped in some respects, but, overall, I don't think he helped the show, I think he brought a much more ordinary, mundane approach to the series."

Critics of the first season often comment on the scientific implausibility of many episodes, yet they fail to recognize the season one series might not be realistic, it works in terms of it’s dream imagery – touching on some very primal psyche issues – the show, and each episode seems to act as an initiation rite, compelling the characters to accept, adapt, and transform from their accepted understanding of the universe, consciously or not, the series works within the purpose of alchemy. But another aspect that is referenced in the episode “Dragon’s Domain” when Helena Russell observes about the crew ‘inventing their own mythology’ in the closing moments, touches on the idea of mythologies reinventing themselves anew as our complicated understanding of our existence evolves.

All of this makes the first season worth more of an reexamination then some might have assumed. Some of these retellings like in “Guardians of Piri”, are interesting in context. In Odyssey IX, Odysseus describes the tale of the Lotus-eaters thusly:

"I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."

The theme of the tale can be seen as a comment on man’s nature to be easily distracted away from our true purpose. Certain conclusions can be drawn by the origin of the “Dragon’s Domain” episode – George and the Dragon. Of course the way that the tale is retold is interesting when you take into account the known variations of St. George. In the earliest account, the Golden legend, the king is forced to sacrifice his daughter from a lottery to appease the dragon, when livestock offerings fail. St. George passed by the lake per chance where the Dragon dwelled, after wounding the beast, the princess helps George subdue the beast, George persuaded the city folk of Silene to convert to Christianity with the promise the slay the beast, which he did. In later accounts based in Libya, a poor hermit tells George of the beast that has ravaged the country, and this leads to his quest, not by chance, but by choice. Another alternative version from Essex tells of St. George losing the battle with the dragon early on in the encounter. St. George retreats, and wanders down the river, prays over his challenges, removes his armor to melt it down and forges it into a metal box. He places his fears, doubts and lack of faith into the box, faces the dragon again with no armor and then slays the beast. This leaves a curious comment about the meaning of “Dragon’s Domain”, is Tony Cellini’s demise due to a lack of faith or an inability to overcome his personal demons from the first encounter? Regardless, like St. George, Cellini manages to convert them into the idea of believing in ‘belief.’

Christopher Penford wrote both “Guardians of Piri” and “Dragon’s Domain”, and he certainly pointed a way to reexamine classic mythologies and religious allegories and present them in a contemporary setting, which the why the abandonment of these memes all the more baffling. It has been rumored that a new series is being developed, Space: 2099. If this version comes to pass, and if the producers take pages from Ron Moore’s approach, perhaps some of the promise and potential of the idea can be fulfilled. Nevertheless, the first season is worth examining as it represented a time when the Science Fiction genre on television was allowed to intelligently explore the subject of metaphysics. We might not see the allowance of such subjects, or it’s like, for a long spell.

Special thanks to John Kenneth Muir, and Harry Craft for their insights.