August 21, 2018

In Defense of Space: 1999

An Eagle, ready for launch.

Credit: ITC Entertainment.

Remember the 1970s? We recently found a vein of free episodes on ye ole YouTube of one of our childhood favorites: Space:1999.

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, let me explain the good old/bad old days of science fiction and the vast intellectual desert of the 1970s era. It always seemed like movies (and television in particular) could only support at most one scifi franchise at a time. Space: 1999 occupied that curious niche of the mid- 1970s between Star Trek reruns and the summer of 1977, when Star Wars changed the game for good (it’s still weird to think there was an era before Star Wars).

The good stuff in terms of scifi was all in books in those days, though it was hard to imagine much of it making it to the big screen… though 2001: A Space Odyssey did show us that this was at least possible.

In a broader sense, this was also true of TV in general. Thinking man’s television was limited to M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and of course, Star Trek. Space:1999 extended that feel, and several Star Trek writers actually worked on the second and last season of the short-lived series.

Of course, the central conceit of the show was terrible: an accident at a nuclear waste dump on the Moon blows it out of Earth orbit, sending it careening through space, and somehow, encountering a new alien planet every week. Even my seven year old brain realized how impossible this was, as the narrative routinely confused scale in terms of the Solar System, the galaxy and the Universe (lots of scifi was and still occasionally is guilty of this).

The sets of Space: 1999 were amazing for the time. Heck, the Eagle spacecraft still to this day looks like something we’d use to live and work of the Moon… much of the futuristic set design had a direct lineage from 2001: A Space Odyssey that would be paid forward to Star Wars.

Like Star Trek, the show also suffered from uneven writing and to typical plot tropes of the day: Space:1999 had its own plague of temporary red shirt characters, folks who were simply introduced to die by the end of the episode. The good episodes were really good, but when they were bad, they were terrible. There’s an endless parade of monsters running lose in Moonbase Alpha, something the directors seemed to think the audience just had to have. And of course, their laser weapons never work against the bad guys, another Trek trope that always guarantees they’ll have to outwit the bad guys, instead of using brute force.

Even the actors admitted in interviews that they thought the main characters acted out of character and complained to the writers. It’s worth watching the two part Space :1999 documentary for context:

Season 2 gave the show a serious overhaul, with mixed results. It introduced a few new characters, including the shape-shifting alien Maya played by Catherine Schell (fun fact: Maya was popular enough as a breakout character that she was seriously considered for her own spin off series).

The campy feel of the show was amplified in Season 2, though we got some actual character depth and development, another rarity in the 1970s. I remember managing to catch the second season on Canadian television, and liking it better than the first… that was also the school yard consensus of the day, the only place where opinion really matters when it comes to nerd cred in scifidom.

But for all its cringe-worthy flaws, Space:1999 gave us hope, and dared us to look beyond post-Vietnam Cold War America. Here’s a shiny white future awaiting us in adulthood just two decades away, a place where humans live on the Moon and use science and tech to solve problems.

The show could, I think, be worthy of a reboot. There was a proposal a few years ago to do just that. There’s just one request we have though for any would be ‘Space: 2099‘: keep the drama in our solar system. There’s enough amazing things to see and places to go, right here under our own Sun. Maybe you could even say the initial “breakaway” that drives the plot could be a figurative rather than a literal one… maybe, say, there’s a war for independence between human colonies in the solar system and the Earth, and Moonbase Alpha is the flash point. Plenty of “aliens” could be had via cybernetically/genetically modified humans, life on the seas on Europa, Enceladus, etc… this would also drive home what was fun about Space: 1999 in the first place: it would show a new generation a preview real worlds next door in the solar system that we might soon be exploring, in this century (I’m available for screenwriting).

Today, of course, there’s a torrent of scifi out there, all vying for our ever dwindling attention. We can afford to be choosy. I think it’s amusing looking back today at all admonitions from the media powers in the 1980s, saying that cable and the evil VCR would destroy quality TV and movies ( with such enlightening shows as Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels) which never really did come to pass.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. It’s 2018: where’s the Moonbase Alpha that I was promised by TV as a kid?

 

Comments

  1. Pat Agnew says:

    David: I was born in 1961, and think we watched the same TV shows. Space: 1999 and so, of course, UFO. Would add to that “The Magician” with Bill Bixby, which I can’t seem to find anywhere.

    I blame it all on “Thunderbirds”! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfIAKj3Gl1E

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