Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Space 1999


Orbit-uaries

Space 1999
UK/Italy Aired 1975-1977 (differing from region to region)
Two Series Network Blu Ray Zone B


I used to like Space 1999 as a kid but I’d not seen anything near to even half the episodes. Partially this was because the scheduling was absolutely bonkers (the second series was split between two years with a big hiatus in the middle) and partially because it often clashed with the latest episode of Doctor Who. I wasn’t what you would call a ‘follower’ of the show but, although I never had any of the Mego action figures, I did have the smaller, cheaper of the two toy versions of the unique ray guns they used in the series and I also had one of the die cast Dinky Eagle spacecraft. For those who are interested and remember these, I had the green one with the passenger pod as opposed to the blue one with the cargo pod. I could never figure out why they were those colours however, when all the ones in the show were so clearly just white. I also had some of the British branded bubble gum cards but, like other British produced confectionary cards of the time, these were far inferior to the American made Topps cards being much smaller, not very well designed and having an absolutely terrible tasting piece of bubble gum with them. I remember, on occasion, biting into a Space 1999 ice lolly with great delight though.

However, with Network doing a nice Blu Ray combination set of both series on Blu Ray, I thought it was finally time to sit down and look at these things properly. It was certainly an interesting watch...

The show was definitely a show of two halves with famed TV producer and Supermarionation guru Gerry Anderson firing and then divorcing his wife and co-show runner Sylvia at the end of the first season. When Fred Frieberger was brought in to replace her... well, I don’t want to say he totally managed to ruin the show but there was certainly a lot of change in the look and feel of the series and, for the most part, not change for the better. That being said, I can totally understand why some of those changes were made... after all, they were trying to be more popular and capture the American market too... but I certainly don’t agree with most of them.

So the plot is very simple. It was set in the 'far future' of 1999 and the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are mortified when an accident with a nuclear explosion blasts the moon out of orbit and sends it hurtling through space like an out of control starship, so the characters could encounter new threats every week, the deeper they got into space... and explore nearby planets when they came into range to see if they could evacuate and colonise a nice looking one. So, yeah, it was a bit like Star Trek but with a moon base and the accompanying Eagle rocket ships housed within, instead.

The main leads, Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell were played by (then) husband and wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. They were supplemented by a crew of around 300, mostly nameless and unseen, characters populating the base which included such Series One regulars as Barry Morse (playing Professor Victor Bergman), Prentis Hancock (playing Paul), Nick Tate (playing Eagle commander Alan Carter) and Zienia Merton (playing Sandra). Now I always liked Barry Morse as the old professor in this but this shows up one of the possible problems of the series... not for the audience but for the producers... in that the top three characters were all in their 40s or 50s... which was unusual for the time. This wasn’t a young show although you did have Nick Tate’s Carter... who seemed to get knocked unconscious more or less every week... and the gorgeous Zienia Merton, who I fancied quite a bit.

But I certainly never noticed the age thing or saw it as a minus. The show was quite off beat though, particularly the first season... it never really got dull in that first fling. There wasn’t a heck of a lot of action in the first series as the shows writers dealt with more philosophical problems and dilemmas which, of course, is what science fiction is all about. There are often unasked questions at the end of the stories and a real cue for the audience to think things over for themselves. It’s also quite bleak and dramatic for the first season and this is not to its detriment at all.

I also like that, for the first season at least, the main hero figure of Commander Koenig can often be seen to falter, change his mind or make wrong decisions. It sometimes leaves a lot to be desired in a lead character but, at the same time, it lends a touch of realism and depth to the performance which is worth the trade off, I reckon. Although, like a lot of TV shows made before the 1980s, it seems to take delight in sending out the most important and irreplaceable characters, such as the base commander, on the most lethal missions. Seriously guys, when a dangerous and probably hostile alien is in the neighbourhood, why would you send the guy in charge, the most irreplaceable person on the base, in to deal with it? I can never understand this.

Depending on who is working on the show there’s also some nice cinematography and shot designs to be found. Some of the special effects are quite good and... some of it quite ropy. I love all the ‘miniatures work’ but 90% of the time you see any of the crew journeying across the lunar surface in a moon buggy, for example, it is obvious they are just tiny, static models. It’s almost as telling as some of the faces on the so-called ‘stunt doubles’ at times.

Actually, some of the worst but highly entertaining moments are when various characters are having a fist fight on the moon and they don’t notice that the visor on their space helmet has just popped up. But, what the heck, they just keep on breathing and hurling fists anyway so, what the heck? I guess they must also notice some of the space backgrounds have creases in the canvass too.

It’s generally nice to look at though and it has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, most of that changed with Series Two.

The first thing you notice here is that half the regular cast are missing. Either fired or walked away while the walking was good. And there’s never any reference made as to why either. Victor Bergman, my favourite character, is nowhere to be seen. Ditto for the back up guy who was always left in charge when Koenig went exploring... Paul is just gone, even though he was Sandra’s potential love interest. Sandra is kinda in it, then not, then back in it again and then... hmm... you never know if Sandra’s going to be around or not but in most of the episodes that she isn’t in for the second season, she is replaced by an actress called Yasuko Nagazumi... who I also fancied.

There were also some new kids on the block. As rival to Nick Tate for ‘young action guy to get beaten up, become an alien host or run about a lot’ you had Tony Anholt as Tony Verdeschi. He was okay although his off and on flirtations with another new character get a bit tiring and hollow after a while.

And you also get the one really good thing about the second season... screen actress Catherine Schell turns up as a new regular called Maya, an alien they pick up in the first episode of Series Two who can morph in to any animal, alien species or person at will, thus becoming the key person to get everyone out of trouble, more or less every week. Schell actually turned up as a different character for one episode in the prior series so she obviously got on well with the cast and crew, I’m guessing. The character was so popular with audiences, in fact, that the producers were going to do a spin off show just about her before the main show was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the second season.

This second series is much more action oriented than the first and it’s like Commander Koenig has had a personality transplant, suddenly becoming the confident, unflappable hero you would expect him to have been in the first series but, losing some of the edge of the character in the process. Out goes the philosophical and more thoughtful questions posed by the stories in the first series and in comes the fist fights, air battles and dodgy aliens to emphasise a show more about action than anything else. Some of this second series is quite dull because of this attitude and rather than leaving viewers with questions about the story mechanics and moral dilemmas of what they had just seen, the second season was more likely to leave them contemplating the loose ends in the plot and wondering what the heck just happened.

If anything, the second ‘year’ is even more like watching an episode of Star Trek... one of the not very well made ones. As well as the deluge of boring action sequences, we have Doctor Helena Russell updating us at the start of each week in a kind of ‘voice over’ log entry... although the dating of this is completely inconsistent and nonsensical, it has to be said. And as far as the episode called The Rules Of Luton goes, it’s literally another remake of the Star Trek episode Arena, based on the much used short story by Fredric Brown.

The music pays a huge part in the reception of both series too, I believe. The first season was scored by Gerry Anderson’s regular musical collaborator Barry Gray and... it’s nice stuff. The opening music is cool and, though a lot of it is retracked in for later episodes quite often, much of the score quotes the main theme in different guises. Derek Wadsworth scored the ‘dynamic’ second season and, though it makes for a really great stand alone listen, in the context of the show it mostly sounds like a mid-1970s porn film and really does nothing to enhance the action... quite the opposite in fact. Which is a shame because the CDs of both these series are pretty great on their own. As is the Ennio Morricone score CD for the Italian dub of the show... would like to hear that in context with the actual visuals sometime.

Still, this Blu Ray set is actually pretty good, despite the inadequacies of the second season and, although possibly a little light on good extras, the show itself more than makes up for it in terms of the amount of guest stars throughout the run of the show. From established ones like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, Shane Rimmer, Brian Blessed, Patrick Troughton, Patrick Mower, Peter Bowles and Julian Glover to some of those who are much more a name now than they were then... such as Ian McShane, for example. There’s even an episode in the second series where a photographic still of young model and actress Caroline Munro is pictured on the view screen in two shots in the last minute of the story. I wonder if she even knows her photo was once used in Space 1999? If there’s an opportunity in a post-Covid 19 world, I shall have to ask her at a signing.

So there you go... Space 1999 was definitely ‘of its time’ but, if you are of a certain age and were growing up with this kind of show in the 1970s, then you’re onto a winner with the Network Blu Ray set. Especially in terms of the first year.

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