Space: 1999, Series 1

Anything can happen in the next 1,339 words. There will be fist-fights, aliens, explosions, spaceships, laser guns shaped like staple-guns, and cosmic psychedelia, all bookended by what may be the third best SF theme music ever (after, of course, Doctor Who and Star Trek), which, like the show itself, is a mix of somewhat slow profundity (grandiose strings) and sudden bursts of pulpy shock (wah-wah’ed guitar). But is Space: 1999 the third best SF TV show (after, of course, Doctor Who and Star Trek)? Perhaps not to anyone who didn’t grow up with it. Only, Space: 1999 wasn’t really a show I grew up with. I saw it when I was about five or six (perhaps when series 1 came out in 1975, or maybe via later repeats), but then it disappeared, lingering only as a few fragmentary memories, till I watched it again recently on Network’s excellent Blu-Ray box-set. As far as I could remember, it was something like Star Trek (a militaristic journey through the depths of space, with a new planet/alien spacecraft/floating disembodied god-like entity each week), only a little more transatlantic, neither entirely British (no wobbly sets) nor entirely American. The most tellingly British detail: whereas Trek’s Captain Kirk solved the unsolvable Kobayashi Maru training exercise, Space: 1999’s Commander Koenig breaks the five-hour Moonbase Alpha jigsaw puzzle record… No, what Space: 1999 actually was, as I discovered on this re-watch, was a much stranger beast.

Space 1999 Title

Launched a year or more before the game-changing Star Wars, Space: 1999 seems far more rooted in Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — in fact, it’s more of an odyssey than 2001, due to its never-ending journey from space-island to space-island, meeting god-like cosmic entities, psychic-powered sorcerers, and the constant risk of lotus-eating lures at each new potential home. Whereas a Trek episode would most likely peak in Kirk having a fist-fight with his latest adversary, Space: 1999 usually culminates in a psychedelic sequence that packs the ultimate meaning of the episode. Kirk & co. were on a mission, a sort of UN-like reaching out to the many peoples of the universe; Koenig & co. are scrabbling for survival in a universe that’s not only hostile, but incomprehensible, full of powers much greater, and much stranger, than anything our constantly wonder-struck heroes could ever be prepared for. Even though Trek’s crew met their share of god-like entities, it never caused them to question their fundamental place in the universe. With Space: 1999, a sort of awestruck humility before the vastness and weirdness of space is the whole point. What other SF show would feature lines such as these:

‘Every star is just a cell in the brain of the universe.’

‘The line between science and mysticism is just a line.’

‘Eva, we’re living in deep space. There’s so many things we don’t understand.’

‘We have learned many things. But above all, we have learned that we still have much to learn.’

Whereas in Trek the survival of the crew of the Enterprise always comes down to one of its members’ superior skills (Spock’s logic, McCoy finding a cure, Kirk punching or kissing someone), the people of Moonbase Alpha can only watch in helpless awe as they pass through a black hole, or are toyed with by inhuman ultra-powerful forces, and come through on luck alone.

Or is it luck? ‘Something brought us home,’ is a line from the third episode, ‘Black Sun’, in which our wandering moon passes through the titular (and then-highly-speculative) astronomical entity — a very strange episode, and even stranger as a third episode. In any other series, it would come much later in the run, as it’s the sort of story that shows us a different side to what ought to be long-familiar characters, testing them to helplessness in the face of utter annihilation. It’s odd, then, to have it happen when we’ve hardly got to know these characters.


But that’s another thing about Space: 1999. The characters. Or, the lack of them. With Kirk & co., as with the Doctor and his feisty young TARDIS companion, we’re dealing with charismatic leads, clashing and bonding in the face of alien menaces and science fictional adventure. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, playing Commander Koenig and Doctor Helena Russell, were the stars of Space: 1999, whose presence made the show US-money-friendly, but they play their roles in such a muted, almost deliberately bland way, it brings to mind another 2001 comparison: Koenig and Russell speak in such hushed, overly-reasonable tones, they remind me of HAL at his most murderous. To be nice, I’d say the people of Moonbase Alpha are meant to be everymen and -women, representatives of humanity itself, trying to survive in the weird, black void of space. But being more honest, I have to say it’s perhaps Space: 1999’s major failing that there’s no real interplay between any of the characters outside of their operative function on the base. They’re not people, but roles. Koenig is the commander: his role is to worry and command. Russell is the medical officer: her role is to worry and deliver medical advice. The others (Ziena Merton as Sandra — the most memorable face, for me — Nick Tate as gung-ho Alan Carter, Clifton Jones as David, the Computer operator, Prentis Hancock as Paul) have no scripted character, and need the actors’ natural charisma to bring them to life.


The exception, for me, is Barry Morse’s Professor Victor Bergman. Described by Morse as ‘a kind of space uncle’, he’s the exact opposite of the emotionally controlled Spock. Bergman is about the only person on Moonbase Alpha to have a personality. He delivers scientific — or, more often, pseudo-scientific, if not outrightly mystical — speculation with a shrug and a smile, even when he’s saying this may be the end of the human race, or that they may be facing forces beyond their comprehension, or that this might be a space-time-ghost so we should hold a scientific exorcism. He’s the source of most (if not all) of those quotes above.


Space: 1999 is a much more thoughtful show than either Trek or Who, but this is hardly the sort of praise to win over the network executives, let alone regular viewers. What is it that brings you back to a show? The characters. With SF or fantasy, it may be the world as well — the wonders, the action, the adventure — but it’s rarely the themes, the thoughtfulness. Those ought to be there, but as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. With Space: 1999, the things that linger are the look (still good), and the weirdness.

But Space: 1999 wasn’t afraid to try things out. The penultimate episode of the first series — usually when you can expect a 24-episode run to be feeling a little tired — shocked the hell out of me. Suddenly, in a show that had so far been mostly staid and quietly psychedelic, in ‘Dragon’s Domain’ we have outright horror, with a multi-tentacled, single-eyed space-spider sucking in its hypnotised victims and spitting out their smoking, desiccated corpses, not once but three times in a row, in an extended, horrific sequence. In the same episode we get the first substantial flashback to pre-1999 Earth (as well as the first scene of actual emoting from Koenig and Russell — he gets angry at her, then makes up and she gives him a kiss, even if just on the cheek). Only Space: 1999 would make a show featuring so horrific a space-monster mainly about whether it existed in reality or merely in the mind of the man who survived it, but that just makes the episode even more interesting.


Space: 1999 changed in its second series. It lost the title music (why?!), it lost Victor Bergman (why?!!), it changed its set to one a lot less sparse and more seventies-coloured (why?!!). It did gain a shape-changing metamorph (dotty-eyebrowed Maya), but I’ll have to wait till Network release series 2 on Blu-Ray (hopefully later this year) before finding out how (or if) the stories themselves changed.



Captain’s log, supplemental.

I’ve now worked my way through the whole of Star Trek‘s first season, and have watched the first episode of the second season. The thing I like most about the show — the first time around and this — has to be Spock. He is, aside from the obvious technological trappings (the Enterprise, phasers, “warp factor eight”, “beam me up”) the most science-fictional aspect of the show, being its only regular alien. The alien as unemotional, wholly logical entity was surely a bit of cliché even by the mid-sixties, but the fact that Spock was a main character meant it was something that could be explored in a bit more depth, and so you quickly go beyond the cliché. (Thanks in great part, of course, to Leonard Nimoy’s acting, which lends Spock a great deal of dignity, even managing to withstand the increasingly regular habit of Kirk & co. to end each episode with a joke at Spock’s expense. If it’s not his relentless logic, it’s his pointy ears.)

But Spock gets some of the best jokes. His way of distracting a guard prior to giving him the Vulcan nerve-grip, for instance: “Sir, you have a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.” I remembered that from the first time I saw the series, and it was a little joy to rediscover. Also, when McCoy breaks off an argument with Spock to ask, “Shouldn’t you be working on your calculations?” and Spock says, coolly, “I am.” (One more Spock joke for the road. “You never told me if you had another name, Mr Spock.” “You couldn’t pronounce it.”)

The interesting thing about Spock, as a character, is how he is basically characterised in relation to the people around him. You could imagine a show featuring only Kirk — in fact we get several episodes where Kirk is isolated and has to work on his own — but it’s impossible to imagine a show with only Spock in it. Spock, on his own, would be dull. It would be just him looking into his readout device, occasionally nodding to himself, occasionally raising an eyebrow. He only comes to life, as a character, when his unemotional, logical nature is brought into contrast with the emotional, irrational nature of humans. This is an extreme example of what story guru Robert McKee calls “cast design” — where aspects of a character are brought out only by having other (usually minor) characters act as contrasts to them.

Even Spock having one of his emotional episodes — this being the main surprise his character is capable of, and so is, as a result, something that happens quite regularly — only makes sense when he has something to feel about, which means other characters. The archetypal episode in this sense is “Amok Time”, the opener of the second season. This has to be my favourite episode so far (and a better one, in my opinion, than the episode usually slated as the best Star Trek ever, Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever“). Here, we get Spock as a teenager, moodily refusing to explain what’s making him so miserable, then retreating to his cabin to pluck disconsolately on his Vulcanian harp. “Amok Time” was written by Theodore Sturgeon, one of my favourite writers (it is, in fact, the second of two episodes he wrote for Star Trek, the first being “Shore Leave”, a much less characteristic episode). “Amok Time” is, it seems to me (unversed in Star Trek fandom as I am) something of an equivalent to Doctor Who‘s “Deadly Assassin“, where we finally get to see the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, and as a result the mythology of the whole programme moves up a gear. In fact, I’d say “Amok Time” had an effect not only on the way subsequent Star Treks built their universe of alien races, but how other (mostly US) TV SF programmes define their alien cultures, too. “Amok Time” gives us not only Spock’s famous split-fingered salute (“Live long and prosper”), but hints at the existence of an entire, ancient culture through one of its key rites of passage. This is something you see time and time again in subsequent SF TV — the Taurons’ gangsterish tattooing and coming-of-age get-togethers in the recent Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica, for instance. I have to admit, this approach usually irritates me, as it seems a bit superficial. In Caprica, the Taurons’ invented rituals just seemed to have been lifted from other, existing cultures — Yakuza tattooing, Jewish bar mitzvahs — and modified a bit to make them alien, but in “Amok Time”, the ritual is linked to a specific aspect of Vulcan biology. It has a reason; it’s not merely striving for an effect. As a result, it works.

The most character-defining moment in “Amok Time”, though, is not the rite of passage, or Spock’s adolescent moodiness beforehand, it’s the moment he realises he hasn’t killed Kirk at all, and is, for a second, genuinely happy. He quickly collects himself, but from then on you know that, beneath all the illogicality and decorum, Spock is, really, just one of us. And no doubt part of his personality is down to the role he sees himself as playing as part of the Enterprise’s family — he consciously defines himself as “the one who’s not human”, and does his best to act that way. Cast design, then, is a two-way process.

But I bet he enjoys those jokes at the expense of his ears as much as the rest of the crew.


Star Trek

Borag Thung, Earthlets! Sometime in the early, early eighties, the BBC showed what seemed like an endless rerun of the original Star Trek series. I watched every episode (they seemed to be on each weekday, at an appropriately post-school hour), but if you’d asked me at the time whether I liked Star Trek, I’d have replied with a definite no.

Why? Because I was a Doctor Who fan, of course! In my near-teens, it was a question of Catholic/Protestant proportions. If nothing else, Star Trek was US, Doctor Who was Brit. (And there was a general US invasion of British TV at the time, most of it rubbish — probably slightly better rubbish than our rubbish, but that wasn’t the point.) On a more practical level, BBC2 were showing whole weekdays-worth of original Star Trek, but no Doctor Who! And this was at a time when, thanks to collecting the Target novelisations and faithfully buying every issue of Doctor Who Weekly (then Monthly), I was desperate to see some of the old Doctor Who’s that I’d read so much about, and seen so many tantalising photos of — actually, in those pre-video days, I’d have been just as happy to see repeats of stories I’d already seen. Anything for more Doctor Who! Instead, what I got was endless Star Trek.

But, really, I enjoyed them, and it only occurred to me a few weeks ago that I’d never seen any of the original Star Trek episodes since those early eighties repeats — and certainly I’d never watched any of them while actually allowing myself to like them. So I bought the first season on DVD, and have started watching it. (I never got into the spinoffs. They seemed a bit too self-conscious of the weight of the tradition they were following; they lacked the sheer wackiness and innocence of the original series. Perhaps TV SF will never be as free again, simply because it’s become successful.)

I was at first disappointed to find that, as well as being remastered, the original show had had as many effects shots as possible replaced by computer-generated digital sequences. I was prepared to be outraged. But, having watched a few — and though I do miss those endless shots of the Enterprise orbiting a different-coloured but otherwise identical swirly-atmosphered planet each episode — I have to admit the new effects don’t at all stand out like the fistful of sore thumbs I was expecting. They fit right in. (The important thing is that those studio-bound planet sets are still there — so much a part of the feel of the original series, just as the studio-bound alien landscapes of Doctor Who’s like “The Brain of Morbius” or “Planet of Evil” are. I don’t care about their lack of realism, I even quite like their obvious theatricality.)

It’s been strange seeing the show after a gap of — eek! — almost thirty years. No doubt because of the age I was when I first watched it, I remembered the show begin quite different. I thought it was all action and sci-fi fantasy, but now I’m seeing a lot more character stuff than I ever was aware of at ten or eleven. Also, genuine SF-style ideas! Not every episode, but the one I’ve just watched (“The Enemy Within”) does present its theory of what makes a hero a hero, a captain a captain, with its story of Kirk’s tussle with his darker side. (An episode written by Richard Matheson, I note. That’s one thing I was never aware of when I saw the series originally: the fact that there were some big SF names involved. But then again, I’d never heard of Harlan Ellison or Richard Matheson when I saw Star Trek the first time.)

One question I had to answer was what order to watch the episodes. There seem to be so many options — by stardate (internal chronology), by production date, or by original broadcast date. I went with original broadcast date, and my initial reaction, on watching the first, “The Man Trap”, was to wonder how anyone watching it could have understood it. There was no effort at introducing the characters, let alone the SF ideas — transporters, phasers — that the show relied on. But obviously it worked.

The next thing that struck me was how every one of the five episodes I’ve watched so far — the first five to be broadcast — were about some sort of enemy within, or an enemy masquerading as a human. The Enterprise may have had its mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations, but its first five stories are really all about the invasion of the Enterprise itself. (Well, as Nietzsche said, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”.) We have a shape-changing alien, two lots of humans transformed into monsters by the acquisition of super powers, and then two lots of strange influences that cause the crew of the Enterprise to become a danger to itself. Just when I thought this had to end, episode five was entitled “The Enemy Within”! Was this all post-McCarthy communist witch-hunt aftershocks? Or pre-shocks of the coming flower-power revolution? (The show seems to have one foot planted in the fifties — in Forbidden Planet rocket-power and spaceward-ho optimism — and another in sixties introspection, self-exploration and far-out-ness. The episode “Charlie X”, for instance, gives us a teen very much in the bryl-haired fifties mould, still innocent enough at the age of 17 to have some respect for authority, while the crew’s women are, generally, very much of the hive-hairdoed, cone-bra’d fifties type; while “The Naked Time” seems almost explicitly to be about the coming drop-out generation’s “let it all hang out” philosophy — and its use of LSD — alongside fears of society’s fragmentation as a result. The Enterprise is on a five-year trip, man.)

One obvious difference between Star Trek and Doctor Who is that the main characters in Star Trek all wear uniforms. They’re integrated parts of an established (and admirably inclusive) society. The Doctor, on the other hand, is not just an individual, he’s an outcast, an outsider, one who has rejected his originating society. This isn’t by any means a criticism of Star Trek, but it is something that makes these “enemy within” style stories possible, perhaps even necessary. Doctor Who has done something similar (right near the beginning, with the TARDIS-bound paranoia-fest, “The Edge of Destruction”), but certainly not on the scale of Star Trek. Star Trek is about a society venturing into space, facing the unknown; Doctor Who is about an individual (or a small, disparate gang) bumming around, turning up at random, doing good on principle rather than by mandate. Star Trek, which really seems more rooted in Forbidden Planet than merely its use of Commander John J Adam and crew’s mission to other planets, is much more about facing “the Monster from the Id”, and that whole Freudian idea that man can never truly live as himself in a well-ordered society, but must suppress his wilder, weirder, more alien, impulses. Doctor Who (which, if it has a single story-seed, would of course be The Time Machine, with the Thals and Daleks as its Eloi and Morlocks), though it has of course battled with its own “Monsters from the Id” (in “Planet of Evil”, it’s own Forbidden Planet rip-off), is less Freudian and perhaps more Jungian, with the Doctor’s impulse to explore the universe more along the lines of the sort of quest for individuation Jung saw as the prime psychological motive for us doing what we do.

But enough amateur psychology, I’m off to enjoy another episode.

Live long and prosper!

(Oh, and talking of Forbidden Planet, I’m really looking forward to this coming out.)