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.
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.