As has become the recent pattern with A&E Home Video's complete series megasets, the cult sci-fi show Space: 1999 (1975-77) has been repackaged into a more affordable, less cumbersome item. The original megaset, released in September 2002, retailed at $199.95 and took up a heck of a lot of shelf space, more than 16 standard-size DVD cases (with a 17th "bonus disc" crammed somewhere inside). This new release includes the same number of discs retooled into thin-packs and about one-fourth the space while carrying a new SRP of $99.95. With standard discounts, interested parties can enjoy both seasons, some forty-eight 52-minute episodes in all, plus all the extras for between $65-75.
The show itself is a curiously mixed bag of still-impressive production values and visual effects and generally uncompelling characters and situations. The creation of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (who'd bitterly divorce between seasons, with Sylvia leaving the show), the series is an amalgam of influences, from a look (and title) and other elements clearly patterned after both Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and TV's Mission: Impossible (1966-73), with certain story types (and a producer) culled from TV's Star Trek (1966-69). In all fairness, mainly it represents the final step of a creative evolution in the Anderson's own shows. In some respects it was a real triumph of television production, but many of the flaws inherent in their earlier programs are present here as well.
The series was produced, mainly, by Britain's ITC. The firm was notably lavish with its programs: Danger Man, The Prisoner, and the Anderson's earlier shows are all extremely well-produced, like mini-movies. Even a series as relatively awful as The Persuaders has a slickness that in turn helped sell ITC's slate overseas. The Anderson's Thunderbirds was popular worldwide, so the money lavished on Space: 1999 was not unreasonable given their track record.
Surely another incentive for the series was the phenomenal success of Star Trek, not in its original network run but in syndication, where it reemerged as a monster hit. ITC may have originally hoped to sell the show to an American network, but in any case eventually they clearly emulated Star Trek's success and when the series was new it generally aired on the same local channels and in similar time slots as Gene Roddenberry's series.
The first season was co-produced with an Italian television production company, RAI, and the show's international cast of continuing characters was another obvious but dramatically justified means to help sell the show abroad, especially with its established American leads.
The show takes place on Moonbase Alpha, an expansive high-tech scientific base on the moon. The first episode, "Breakaway," establishes the series' outrageous conceit, one that immediately turned off some: on September 13, 1999, a massive nuclear explosion on the moon sends Earth's satellite shooting like a bullet out of the solar system and into deep space. (What's that - you don't remember? It was in all the papers.) Though it provided the means in which Space: 1999's characters could encounter alien worlds on a weekly basis, this disregard for basic scientific logic (the moon more likely would have shattered into a billion pieces and showered the earth) immediately created a rift with hard-core Star Trek fans, who preferred that show's efforts to rationally explain fantastic elements scientifically, even though it just as often crossed the line into pure fantasy.
Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, married at the time, star as Alpha Commander John Koenig and moonbase Dr. Helena Russell. Both, of course, had starred in the critically-acclaimed and hugely popular Mission: Impossible but left at the peak of its popularity, likely over a salary dispute. As with that series, there's something more than a hint at a romantic relationship between their characters, though on both shows it's underplayed. And like Mission: Impossible, the first season of Space: 1999 opens with titles that in quick cuts preview the episode to follow. (The Andersons didn't steal this device, however; they had been opening their own shows this way at least as far back as Thunderbirds in 1965, the year before Mission: Impossible debuted.) Though these exciting, fast-paced titles undoubtedly hooked viewers, it was probably detrimental in the end, as the shows themselves almost never matched the excitement promised in their opening montages.
Sylvia Anderson reportedly was vehemently against the casting of Landau and Bain, though there's no denying the couple's commercial appeal at the time, and possibly Gerry Anderson and/or ITC believed their underplayed style would contrast nicely to Star Trek's more theatrical approach (e.g., William Shatner's sometimes broad emoting). In Landau's case this was largely successful. He's much more down to earth, much more the ordinary everyman trying to hold Alpha together through various crises. A superb actor undervalued in the middle-1970s, he also sells the occasionally ridiculous situations the characters often find themselves in. Bain, on the other hand, seems utterly lost in the genre as a whole. Saddled with reams of medical jargon (to explain the almost weekly assault of bizarre phenomenon: physical metamorphoses, alien possessions, etc.), she reads her lines with little conviction and throughout the run of the show barely speaks above a whisper, as if afraid to wake the baby in the room next door. Where she was smooth and sexy on Mission: Impossible, on Space: 1999 she's stiff and matronly. Unwisely, the producers tried to carry over Cinnamon Carter's (from Mission) smoldering sexuality, but Bain was already in her forties and Rudi Gernreich's costumes for the actress are singularly unflattering.
The larger problem, however, is the general absence of truly original or challenging teleplays or even familiar but character-driven stories. Many of the first season's scripts aim for a 2001-like mystical ambiguity, but instead these frequently only come off as pretentious and humorless or, worse, as unimaginative cheats. In what seems like just about every show, the moon drifts into some alien world where its inhabitants have extraordinary, almost unlimited extra-sensory powers which they use to dominate Alpha like a sadist plucking the legs off a grasshopper. Because these guest aliens (played by such familiar British actors as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Brian Blessed, and Billie Whitelaw) have seemingly unlimited power over the human characters, this "anything goes" approach has the effect of deflating the drama rather than enhancing the tension.
Though populated with close to a dozen regular and semi-regular characters, because of the tepid scripts most are pretty interchangeable, and this is particularly obvious in the way the one is often singled out to, without much motivation, flip out during a crisis and challenge Commander Koenig's authority. There's not enough back story for the regular characters to work from, nor are they given much opportunity to change over each season's run.
From a production standpoint, however, Space: 1999 is extremely impressive. In sharp contrast to some of the scripts, the set design and props successfully emulate the general look and scientific plausibility of 2001. By weekly series standards Space: 1999 production design is in many ways unsurpassed; it's more expansively lavish than any of the Star Trek shows that preceded and followed it, visually attractive yet logically functional in most ways. All shows are cut and photographed with impressive artistry; episodes in both seasons were helmed by such talent as Charles Crichton, Peter Medak, and Val Guest. Similarly, the superbly detailed miniature and imaginative optical effects of the Anderson's earlier shows are refined even further here, and unquestionably was the best work done in this field up to then and for several decades after. In both set design and in terms of its special effects Space: 1999 is less successful with its aliens and alien worlds, some of which were pretty silly even when the show was new. On the other hand, many of the designs are highly and wildly imaginative, quite unlike anything else on TV.
In its second season, Space: 1999 underwent several major changes. New but equally impressive titles and theme music were created and first season co-star Barry Morse left the show, replaced by exotically beautiful Catherine Schell as shape-shifting alien Maya, an obvious but successful Mr. Spock knock-off. (Morse's character, along with several others, simply vanishes without so much as an explanation.) The sets and costumes were also overhauled, the most notable difference being the show's command center. Season one's was a soundstage-sized behemoth that resembled a shopping mall's food court; for season two the cast moved into notably more cramped quarters, populated by far fewer extras. (Undoubtedly, this was a budget-driven move.) Fred Freiberger, a prolific television-writer producer blamed somewhat unjustly for "ruining" Star Trek as its third season producer, came aboard to replace the departing Sylvia Anderson. Freiberger made some definite improvements, implementing a clearer romantic relationship between Landau's and Bain's characters, and the welcome addition of some much-needed humor. The end result was more a standard action-oriented sci-fi tone which helped and hurt the show simultaneously; the second season is more hackneyed and unambitious but also less pseudo-mystical and boring.
Slick production values and state-of-the-art special effects do not a series make, but Space: 1999 eventually grows on patient genre fans willing to stick with it. Its many failures are relative: it aims high and doesn't really succeed, but it's also light years ahead of, say, any of Irwin Allen's or Glen A. Larson's dopey sci-fi shows.
Video & Audio
Space: 1999 is presented in its original full frame format in generally good transfers from the original 35mm elements. The first season is a bit softer than year two, which is exceptionally sharp, but both seasons have notably good color. Most discs offer three 52-minute shows per single-sided disc. An alternate Spanish-language track complements the okay English mono, remixed to faux stereo.
Included are lots of supplements of varying degrees of value and interest. There are photo galleries for each episode, along with hum-drum promo spots. There are also scads of promos for season two featuring Landau and Bain created for individual stations: "The new Space: 1999 is more exciting than ever!" with Maya, that "wonder woman of science fiction!" Viewers will enjoy looking for their local stations in these segments: "Saturdays at 5:00 (six o'clock mountain time) right here on Q-6 Alive!"
A Year Two Behind-the-Scenes Featurette is nothing more than a TV industry convention film with a single shot of Brian Johnson and his crew on the special effects stage, but he returns on a later disc providing new audio commentary over 6-plus minutes of raw behind-the-scenes footage, discussing the use of high-speed Mitchell cameras, in-camera opticals and the like. There are theatrical trailers for two feature film releases, Destination Moonbase-Alpha (1976) culled from a two season two-parter, "The Bringers of Wonder" and released theatrically to markets not airing the show; and Alien Attack (1976), adapted from the first season's "Breakaway" and "War Games."
There's a BBC Horizon segment running 2 1/2 minutes and again focusing on the special effects, along with a TV commercial for "Icy Lolly" with a Space: 1999 tie-in, as well as a Space City piece of film used in a Blackpool amusement park exhibit.
Landau, Bain, Schell, Gerry Anderson, and Fred Freiberger appear in Vintage Interviews promoting year two; each runs about two minutes, with Landau and Bain smoking on camera (and the latter appearing far more relaxed that she ever did on the show) and Anderson looking nervous and fidgety, almost like Philip Stone's "Dad" in A Clockwork Orange. Most everyone concedes the first year's shortcomings but talks about the upcoming season with a renewed enthusiasm.
A 17th "Bonus Disc" includes three episodes with audio commentaries: "Testament of Arkadia" with co-creator Sylvia Anderson (who discusses early production problems; the series started shooting in 1973 but didn't air until 1975); "Dragon's Domain" with writer Johnny Byrne and story consultant Christopher Penfold; and "Death's Other Dominion" with series expert Scott Michael Bosco.
Also included is Message from Moonbase Alpha, a well-made fan film featuring series regular Zienia Merton in new footage that attempts to bring closure to the heretofore unresolved series. There's another vintage interview, this time with set designer Keith Wilson, and alternate sequences from key episodes, though it's not clear why there are alternate cuts. Finally, peppered throughout are additional galleries containing pre-production artwork, production stills, and sundry memorabilia.
Though you may find yourself occasionally nodding off more than once during the Space: 1999 - 30th Anniversary Edition Megaset's duller shows, if you're a fan of TV science fiction, the program will likely grow on you. It's flawed in major ways but also has a lot to offer. It's only too bad its teleplays aren't anywhere near the high caliber of its production. Still, it's recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.