November 16, 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?

 

Review: The Man Who Sold the Moon & Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

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This week, we return to “Lessons from Science Fiction 101,” with a look at a master of scifi.

We’re talking, of course, about American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. One of the “Big 3” next to Clarke and Asimov when it comes to golden age science fiction, no one was better a weaving in sociological issues into their future mythology. [Read more...]

Review: Assignment in Eternity by Robert Heinlein

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Why read old scifi? We’ve often heard this question kicked around in the darkened corners of science fiction conventions and on ye’ ole cyber webs. Hey, it’s true that we now live in an age where such red-letter sci-fi dates as 2001 and 1984 have come and gone… and even The Terminator’s Skynet was to have been long since operational by now. [Read more...]

Review: The Man-Kzin Wars Created by Larry Niven: the 25th Anniversary Edition

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I love Niven’s Known Universe saga.  I was first introduced to this hard sci-fi future world via his landmark novel, Ringworld, still one of my all-time faves.

One enduring race in the Known Universe tales is the Kzinti, an intelligent and aggressive cat-like species. The Kzinti (or Kzin) are one of the most fascinating alien races in all of science fiction. I remember eagerly picking up and reading the very first installment of The Man-Kzin Wars series as a young Airman while stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

And it’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years. This week’s review is The Man-Kzin Wars: the 25th Anniversary Edition created by Larry Niven. This new edition, out from Baen Books includes a new forward by the author and an introduction by series cover illustrator Stephen Hickman. The series is one of the longest running serializations in science fiction, and has cranked out thirteen volumes thus far. Number fourteen is due out in December of this year.

Niven reminiscences that he was at first reluctant to hand over the keys to the Known Space universe, but is now glad that he did. The first volume features two short stories and one novelette; The Warriors, by Larry Niven, Iron by Poul Anderson, & Cathouse by Dean Ing.

The Warriors is the original introductory tale by Niven himself outlining the fateful first contact between Man and Kzin. This comes at a time when humans have forsaken conflict for centuries, and have virtually no weaponry. The imperial Kzinti, however, are taken aback by a key piece of our technology, which, in turn, saves our primate hides. I always love how Niven’s stories are grounded in hard science and astrophysics— he’s the Clarke of his generation. Niven himself also notes in the new intro that he “doesn’t do war stories…” Perhaps it was for the best that he allowed other writers to create a new take on the Kzinti universe.

Poul Anderson was a wise choice for Iron, a tale of humans and Kzin clashing over a lost technology. Anderson’s style is much like Niven’s, in that he can paint a convincing planet-scape. The Kzin, while aggressive, have actually co-opted much of their space-faring technology from other races, much like the alien invaders in Niven’s Footfall.

Cathouse by Dean Ing rounds out the book with a fascinating look at the often bypassed female Kzin. As unveiled in the Ringworld saga, contact and war with humanity has also forced the Kzin to evolve as well.

It’s also a small wonder that Niven’s novels (especially Ringworld) have never made it to the big screen.  Perhaps this is actually a good thing, as special effects technology is just now reaching the point where it can finally do justice to Niven’s vision. Fun-filled fact: did you know that the Kzinti were animated in the Star Trek universe of the early 1970’s?

Be sure to check out the anniversary edition of the book that started it all… expect more Man-Kzin Wars reviews on this site soon!

 

Review: Sixth Column by Robert Heinlein.

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Heinlein is one of the greats, an American Science fiction master on par with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  I grew up reading such works by the seminal great at Space Cadet, Farmer in the Sky, and Friday. To date, die-hard fans still rave about his Starship Troopers as “Star Wars before there was a Star Wars” and lament its 1997 movie adaptation. And with his naval background, Heinlein can arguably be called the grandfather of military sci-fi to boot. [Read more...]

Review: Alpha Centauri by William Barton and Michael Capobianco.

A Science Fiction Classic!

This week, we here at Astroguyz are taking a break from bringing you the cutting edge commentary on up and coming science fiction and groundbreaking works of science that you’ve come to know and love and are instead reaching into our way back machine and reviewing a tale from our copious shelves. This week’s offering is Alpha Centauri by William Barton and Capobianco. Alpha Centauri is a tale of the first interstellar mission to the nearest star system, a mission that departs a desperately over-crowded and socially collapsing solar system. [Read more...]

Review: A World Out of Time by Larry Niven.

A Hard Sci-Fi Classic!

This week, we want to take you forward in time via an often overlooked science fiction classic. In the modern era of cyber-punk and sword and sorcery that masquerades as Sci-Fi, author Larry Niven gives us tales that are still rooted in hard science. I like to think of writers of this ilk as counter-revolutionaries, or authors that meld today’s science with the sensibilities of a Clarke or an Asimov. Ringworld put him on the map, and other tales such as The Mote in God’s Eye or Footfall are like manna from heaven for those of us who like our science fiction with a splash of Sagan’s Cosmos. [Read more...]

Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Hitchhikers’ Guide fills in a much needed void in Sci-Fi; that of the long form comedy.

[Read more...]