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Space: 1999 When the Moon was made of cheese

March 15, 2016

I suppose you have to be a certain type of geek to remember Space: 1999. It was atrikingly ambitious and unquestionably silly British series internationally syndicated for two vastly different seasons in the early 1970s. It had the best special effects ever seen on television, starred Martin Landau and took place on the Moon as it shot aimlessly through space. In 1999. Hence the title.

For an adolescent sci-fi nerd too lazy to read books, Earth: 1975 was a sad place. Pretty much all we had Star Trek reruns on Channel 50. Plus Lost in Space reruns, but that of course was disdained by Trekkies for its childishness (though looking back, the special effects were better and the Doctor Smith/Will Robinson/Robot love triangle was waaaaay ahead of its time). I don't think Doctor Who had even made it across the ocean yet, though I wasn't that into it when it did. Other than that, in the years before Star Wars years the outlook for geek entertainment was as barren as William Shatner’s contemporary career prospects.

 

So when I heard about Space: 1999 I liked it sight unseen, just cuz. Which is good, because it's ultimately a pretty dopey show. The premise is simple and nuts: in 1999 there's a big research base on the Moon. On the far side is a big dump where humans store nuclear waste. One day, those wastes erupt with the previously-unknown forces of "magnetic energy" and explode, shooting old Luna off into deep space, where the hapless humans encounter all manner of alien life while looking for a home. In short: Star Trek meets a pinball machine.

To be sure, swallowing that premise required suspending no small amount of disbelief. A seething Isaac Asimov penned a critique pointing out some of the more glaring issues with it for The New York Times...like that it would take the Moon thousands of years to reach any other star, much less with planets, much less if it were aimed. But like Donald Trump, Space: 1999 forged ahead blissfully oblivious of its inconsistencies, and people jumped aboard.

I. Genesis
Probably the only reason it got off the ground was that the producers (the husband-and-wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson) had been knocking out hits like Fireball XL5 for British teevee for over a decade, Their shows all starred puppets (or as the Andersons called it, Supermarionation!) And yes, this stuff is where Team America took its cue. 

 

I vaguely remember watching one or another of these shows as a kid and thinking the rockets were cool but the puppets were creepy. I have since skimmed them on YouTube (if there are differences between them they’re not readily apparent). The rockets are still cool and the puppets are still creepy. Things move veeerrrrryyyy ssslllooowwllyy and don't make a lot of logical sense. If you're curious, you're probably better off watching Team America.

 

Then the Andersons took the bold step of doing a show with human actors. But it was frankly hard to tell the difference. UFO was set in the far-flung 1980s and followed the secret government organization charged with mitigating alien incursions.

 

Like the puppet shows it has nice visuals, with the lost art of little models on little sets. But like the puppet shows it seems the great visuals were paid for with money they saved on scriptwriters. It's dull. I would doubtless have been into the show if I'd seen it as a pup, but on YouTube I can't sit through a whole episode. It does have this going for it:

  • Nice special effects

  • A moonbase where there are two hot babes with purple hair who could totally have been an 80s band

  • People smoke, even in spaceships

  • Instead of saying “U-F-O” everybody says “You-Foe,” which just makes it funny, like you’re protecting the Earth from them and no one told you how to pronounce it??

Production on season two, which would have shown more of the moonbase, was just getting underway when someone apparently went "naaaaah." But Gerry Anderson suggested hey, since you sort of wanted to do it, why don't we do a new show just about the moonbase? And the money people were like, "okay. But you're not allowed to ever show the Earth."

 

II: Over the Moon

Not only did they buy it, they actually gave it a massive budget. As the premise might suggest, this money did not go into the scripts. But it did fund a massive and sexy Moonbase Alpha set that looked like the cleanest shopping mall you ever saw, plus some really lovely alien worlds and all manner of spaceships and models. Even the uniforms were designed by the guy who invented the bikini.

They also invested in two American leads in the hope of selling it to a U.S. network. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain had rocked the early seasons of Mission: Impossible, and apparently they figured a show with a colon in the title must be the good luck charm. Which it wasn’t, at least in the sense that all three networks passed on it, meaning it got syndicated (and meaning I was stuck watching it on fuzzy Channel 9 out of Ontario).

 
It also featured a half-dozen regular characters who evoked Trek in their ethnic diversity, including Barry Morse as a resident scientist who combined male-pattern baldness with 70s coiffure in a way I have never seen before or since. But, as with UFO, none of these folks were given much to do aside from kick the plot forward. Nor were a range of guest stars including Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Brian Blessed and even Joan Collins.

Comparisons to Star Trek were inevitable, and it was inevitably disappointing. Visually, was ahead of or just about anything on the small screen; but in terms of plot and character it was light years behind.

 

Which raises the whole question of why I’m even writing about it now. To be honest, I’m not sure. I think the key to its endearing hold on me is its 1970s version of the steampunk aesthetic, that stuff that seemed so futuristic then and looks so very quaint now. Its vision of the future is wonderful, simplistic, ironic, silly and still kind of cool. For instance:

  • Everything is always spotless and bright

  • There’s only one “computer,” which takes a specialist to operate it, and even though it sometimes talks it usually spits out its findings on little strips of paper that have to be read

  • All the monitors are black-and-white cathode ray tubes

  • There are workhorse spaceships (“Eagles”) that they use to get around, which are destroyed with such frequency you have to figure they were hoarding them

  • Scientific words are batted around with an utter disregard for science

And in spite of its narrative weakness, the show had a weird and pervasive darkness that went beyond the idea of the helpless humans shooting through the galaxy on an unaimed marble. The plots failed to make sense in ways that only emphasized their plight.

 

What holds up best are the visual effects, supervised by a guy named Brian Johnson, who had worked on 2001 and would go on to The Empire Strikes Back. Obviously they’re not your code-and-render easy-bake digital effects of today, where even the crappiest sitcom looks better than big-budget movies used to. You can tell they’re faking it, but like the original King Kong they’re kinda breathtaking when you think they really are little models that people put together and hung on strings in front of cameras. Most of the effects were done in-camera with multiple exposures rather than with optical printing, which aside from being expensive causes the image to degrade. So even though you could tell they were models, they looked more real than the Starship Enterprise.

Predictably, the best episodes are the most visual ones. Full disclosure: when I talk to friends about this show, there’s not a single episode where I go “okay, sit through this one and you’ll understand the appeal.” I haven’t even made me wife sit through one, even though I have to get even with her for making me watch Game of Thrones.

But if my descriptions have made it irresistible and you have to pick one I’d go with “War Games,” which features a really cool sequence where Alpha is basically destroyed by aliens, with people sucked out of windows in slow motion, all of which mercifully happens in the first twenty minutes before it goes on to make no sense. “” is kind of fun because the Moon inexplicably grows an atmosphere and everyone gets to run around outside. And “” is worth a look, for its vision of a mile-long space ark with Joan Collins on board.

And at any point in any episode you can raise your glass and go “HANG IN THERE MARTIN LANDAU! YOU’LL GET AN OSCAR IN TWENTY YEARS, I PROMISE!” Which is fun, even if you know in your heart you can’t tell him he has to do The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island first.

 

That was the first season. Like I say, not great but it definitely captured my imagination and I still go back for a peek sometimes. Then came the second season.

 

Since most of the criticisms revolved around it being weird and wooden and not as good as Star Trek, somebody brought in Fred Frieberger, an American producer who’d run Star Trek (the season it got cancelled). He pitched lots of changes to make it more like an American teevee show (specifically, Star Trek).

The first clue that things had changed was in the opening credits… first season episodes started with a teaser that was generally designed to set an eerie tone, then a rumbling drum segued into a funky, flashy sequence which previewed the episode and set the premise in quick, inexplicable shots accompanied by violins and electric guitar. It ‘s still impressive. But the second season just had a generic action theme with blaring horns and “RED ALERT” flashing and characters firing guns which seemed to say “okay, no more weirdness, just ACTION!”

Worse yet, almost all the supporting characters from the first season were gone and even though they’d never been given much to do, you had to miss them. There were new characters, but aside from the sexy alien who could change into anything for an hour they weren’t interesting and you have to wonder why no one asks where they were the whole last year. The main set had been reduced from a lovely cavernous thing to a boring little room, and even the uniforms were different. The writers apparently had a backstory explaining the changes, which for some reason they never shared with the audience, so it was like a Twilight Zone where everything is different and you’re the only one who remembers.

To his credit Frieberger did try to tackle the amazingly wooden interactions of the characters and beef up the characterization. But the episodes were even stupider, like one with a planet where the trees rule and put the humans on trial for plucking flowers…and it wasn’t even trees walking around like that giant carrot man on Lost in Space, they were just TREES. Though there were lots of monster costumes.

 

Let’s put it this way: I was a sci fi geek desperate for my own show and tired of the boomers claiming that Star Trek, like everything else in the 60s, was better than anything would ever be again. And I found the second season unwatchable.
 

Though obscure, Space: 1999 still has its fans. The model kits and toys have been reissued (like most model kits and toys, since nerds of my vintage either have kids of their own now they want to share childhood pleasures with, or they’re still living in their parents’ basements collecting toys and model kits).

They even had a convention on September 13, 1999. And put together a little clip with one of the few minor characters to appear in both seasons, in her uniform talking about how they’d found a planet and were heading there from Alpha. Before his death in 2008 somoeone got Barry Morse to do little speech, intercut with shots cobbled from Season Two, explaining his character’s disappearance as a coma brought on by problems with his artificial heart. It was all silly, but sweet.

I’ve even read there’s a reboot in development called Space: 2099, though the last update explaining how it’s been delayed but is still coming along is two years old.  But hey, the True Believers kept the Battlestar Galactica torch lit till it came back, so who knows…



 

 

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