Back in the 1980’s, John Craven’s Newsround reported on a mysterious and potentially deadly find at the bottom of a garden… Tiny containers emblazoned with a familiar yellow and black warning symbol, confirmed underneath with the phrase ‘Danger ! Waste Material’.
But even when John Craven (or maybe it was Howard Stapleford) tried to put the kiddie’s minds at rest, I was already one step ahead. It wasn’t because they were the size of a fingernail, nor that they weren’t containers at all, but hollow plastic surrounds that lessened their threat. It was because I recognised them as part of a Dinky toy I owned as a kid. Dinky had gone beyond mere re-creations of Bodie and Doyle’s Capri or Starsky and Hutch’s Ford Torino. This was the latest in their range of scifi crafts that had previously included Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlett. This was one of the insect-headed spaceships known as ‘Eagles’ from the 70’s sci-fi series Space 1999.
Space 1999 has recently hit the headlines with the announcement that Jace Hall (responsible for the recent remake of the 80’s series V) is developing a new version, currently titled “Space 2099″, for ITV. When I commented on the classic show on Twitter, I was warned that it hadn’t aged well and doesn’t stand up. But, in spite of that, it has once again become the focus of my Saturday evening viewing. This time, beautifully restored in High Definition, as part of Network’s superb Blu-Ray releases. But would that be enough? Or would I end up agreeing with the Tweet? Cue the EastEnders duff duffers !
So, a bit of background… Here’s the science bit: Space 1999 may have come from the same stable as the afore-mentioned shows by Gerry Anderson, but it wasn’t made in ‘Supermarination’. Nor was it his first foray into life-action either. That was UFO, a show with a secret base hidden inside a film studio, (which would later become Grange Hill, before eventually ending up as TV’s fictional hospital Holby City)… But when Lew Grade, head of ATV felt that it needed to change its format and have a more sci-fi appeal. It became UFO 1999… That was short-lived when ratings fell and the concept became a whole new project instead. Space 1999 was born.
In 1999’s idea of the future, the dark side of the moon has become an intergalactic nuclear rubbish dump. When things go horribly wrong (cue nuclear explosions ahoy) the whole moon and its base (called Moonbase Alpha) is blown out of the earth’s orbit and sent into deep space… Look, my math and science and physics may be crap, but even I admit it does sound a little shaky as a concept… Anyways. You can keep your Enterprises and Liberators, this show’s Jupiter 2 is an entire planet moving through the universe!
Re-watching the show I’d forgotten just what a fan I must have been. I had the bubble gum cards, the Alpha toy gun, the action figures, annuals and four of the spaceship Eagles. Lew Grade knew what to do for mass appeal and mass worldwide sales, long before George Lucas.
So, let’s get to the nitty gritty. But being only mid through my weekly trip to the moon in HD, I can’t do a full episode by episode guide (maybe at a later date). However, I can report that the rumours of its inability to hold up over the years have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, you could argue that some of the tone/length/pace of the stories may leave a little to be desired and in spite of the very high production values, some elements still falter in this crisp HD print, not least of all, the FX. Indeed one fan who works in the industry has taken it upon himself to do something about it with his project (also named Space 2099). He plans to upgrade the FX shots and promises to sharpen the pace and story too. Examples of the work can be found online:
But the original show had extremely high production values and still looks amazing with or without such efforts. The set and costume design all sell the glossy idea of the series and kudos goes to SFX designer Brian Johnson and Martin Bower for the now iconic designs and model work. Every part of the show, from the story, to the design and direction clearly has love and money behind it. Guest stars included the likes of Ian McShane, Joan Collins, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, whilst the very savvy casting choice of Martin Landau and then wife Barbara Bain (famous for Mission: Impossible) as the shows leads Commander John Koenig and Doctor Helena Russell helped the profile of the show in the US.
There are echoes of Battlestar Galactica and Lost In Space with the Alphan’s mission to find earth again. There are plenty of threats to cast doubt on their quest, all of which play out well during the series and create good tension and adventure. But the key to any good story is character and in Space 1999 there is real warmth and chemistry. Even Prentis Hancock’s surly and gruff Paul has a nice and usual love story with Zeina Merton’s Sandra, which nicely counterpoints the same feelings between Koenig and Russell. Meanwhile, the all-out Aussie action hero and Eagle pilot Alan Carter played by Nick Tate gave us a strong dependable friend (as well as providing a bit of 1970’s David Soul-like eye candy for the girls watching).
All of the characters feel real, compassionate and very human. Even though they are initially thrown together, they remain a steadfast and close unit when faced with their plight. Top of my list has to be Barry Morse’s Victor Bergman’s thoughtful intelligent friendship with Commander Koenig. The Commander’s resolve and leadership makes the team who they are. He finds himself continually tested and his own flaws and emotions (which can often get in the way) make him a very worthy successor to Star Trek’s Kirk.
In the show’s second season, it was all change. The loss of Victor was jarring and Paul’s departure deprived us of a conclusion to his story with Sandra. But his replacement was the young handsome hero and ex-Protector Tony Anholt (as Tony Verdeschi). Like Paul, he too was to be central to a blossoming romance, this time with a new alien character Maya, who was adopted by the Alphans in the season two opener (also included in the BD set). Maya, played by Catherine Schell (known to Who fans as Count Scarlioni’s partner in crime in ‘City of Death’) had a knack of morphing into other creatures, animals or people at whim. It was a great concept and the whole ‘who will she be this week’ provided a great get out jail macguffin to boot.
In fact, Maya was so popular, had the show made it beyond that second year, she was to get her own spin off series. Quite why that was abandoned with the show is a mystery. Mind you, we all remember Manimal, so maybe it was for the best! The re-worked ‘more action’ approach of the second series robbed us of some of the supporting characters, but also one of the funkiest TV themes ever created (and some may argue the most inappropriate too). You decide. Season One:
In the 1970’s and with regional ITV at its height, this meant that the show was scheduled all over the place. I recall its initial outings, and the later early Saturday morning slot repeats nestled before Mike Mansfield’s Supersonic (a pop show which I swear had Gary Glitter on every week) anchored by Sally James (pre-Tiswas). I even remember attempting to win the Space 1999 gun offered in a competition by Commander Koenig one week (sadly it was not to be)! Equally, season two had showings at one point on a Sunday afternoon slot. Another perfect, post Sunday roast family must watch. But its screening was two years after season one had been aired!
The stories were led by Showrunner Christopher Penfold (who later would be key in the ever-popular All Creatures Great and Small and more recently Midsomer Murders). Amongst the other writers, several would be instantly recognisable to a Who fan worth their salt… Jonny Byrne (later known for stories in the 1980’s ‘Keeper of Traken’, ‘Arc of Infinity’ and ‘Warriors of the Deep’) scripted several stories. Jon Pertwee’s Script Editor and regular contributor Terence Dicks also wrote for Space 1999, as did the husband and wife writing partnership partly responsible for the death of the Sixth Doctor (that’s if you believe a teenage Chris Chibnall): Pip and Jane Baker. But don’t let that put you off
Space 1999 is a product of its time and like a lot of sci-fi of that generation (Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man, Silent Running or 2001), the series isn’t afraid to ponder the deeper emotional and philosophical questions within its narrative. It’s made me realise why I prefer these types of stories, and why even now I lean towards shows like LOST. This was the sort of television I grew up on. Sure, the show does use real science in its concepts, but it also embraces the other word within the genre too (namely the ‘fi’ part or ‘fiction’). Okay, some of it feels a little familiar and ideas may feel a little slow and stretched. But you have to admire the bigger picture and what it was trying to do. So, if you are the sort of fan pedant who enjoys real hard science and accuracy in your science fiction then I suspect moments of Space 1999 will have you writing in to complain (if there was anybody to write to that is), but hopefully not too much.
As I mentioned earlier, the show never made it to a third season, some reports say it was down to scheduling and reception, whilst Martin Landau openly criticised Lew Grade, citing his attempts to move into feature films with Raise The Titanic as instrumental. However, apart from the afore-mentioned reduxed Space 2099 project, a smaller Johnny Byrne scripted short brought back Sandra and the Alphans to explain the events beyond the last screened televised episodes in ‘A Message From Moonbase Alpha’.
The set and costumes are amazingly accurate (apparently fan made and shot in a mansion house). It rekindles the series very well and acts as a nice epilogue. Whilst another fan-made tribute offered an alternative to the throwaway line explaining Victor Bergman’s fate that never made it to the screen. This film splices reactions from actual series footage with a message from Barry Morse reprising the role one final time.
So, with the development of Space 2099 and the second season of the original due on Blu-ray soon, it appears we haven’t heard the last of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha. I can’t deny the show has its flaws and is of its time. But what remains, especially in this beautiful HD transfer (thanks RT) is a really enjoyable, big budget glossy yarn that I cannot recommend a re-watch highly enough.
HUMAN DECISION REQUIRED!