Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Space:1999 (1975)

Space: 1999

Debut: September 4, 1975 (UK)
Created by Gerry Anderson, Sylvia Anderson
Starring: Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Nick Tate, Zienia Merton, Catherine Schell
Synopsis: In the year 1999, the crew of Moonbase Alpha must struggle to survive when a nuclear explosion throws the Moon from orbit into deep space.

Trey: Space: 1999 was a British series that ran for two seasons on ITV from 1975 to 1977. Attempts to sell the series to a U.S. network failed, so it aired in syndication starting in 1975. It was the last production by the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and was the most expensive series produced for British television up to that time.

In a series of events that will be familiar to Star Trek fans, the series was almost cancelled at the end of season (or series) one in part due to the fact no American network had picked it up. Fred Freiberger (known from season 3 of Star Trek and part of season 1 of Wild Wild West) was brought on board and the show was remolded into a bit more of a--well, Star Trek direction.

In the end, this didn't save it, and season 2 was to be the last.

Jason: In an interview Gerry Anderson made explicit mention of the tensions between the UK and American members of the production partnership, and was (unsurprisingly) put out by Freiberger's attempts to make the show more palatable for US audiences. The differences between season 1 and 2 of the series are stark. Right from the jump, the killer theme music from season one credits sequence is jettisoned in favor of an anemic re-imagining. 

Trey: Well, we watched season 2 episode 1, "The Metamorph" on Freevee. The Moonbase Alpha crew comes upon a planet that has the titanium they need to make repairs to their systems. The apparently lone inhabitant of the planet Psychon, Mentor, offers to make an exchange with them, but secretly plans to trap them and use their mental energy to restore the matter-transforming computer that can repair his world.

 So, I'll come clean: I chose this episode for us to watch due to the presence of Brian Blessed as Mentor.

Jason: I'm glad you did! It's a restrained performance for Blessed in this instance. He could've gone way bigger, given the outrageous events at play. He looks great, with his spray-painted faux hawk and dashing take on the traditional wizard's robes and high collar cape. Like a lot of other elements in this episode (and perhaps the series in general), the considerable visual appeal is the best thing going here. 

Trey: Is it just me or is this episode (like Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah") another loose riff on The Tempest?

Jason: I'd say that was a bullseye. Who's Caliban? Koenig?

Trey: Mentor's goons that dress like MOTU's Zodac by way of the iPod aesthetic!

But speaking of Koenig, how did you find Landau as the intrepid commander? He's a great actor, of course, but I thought he was a bit miscast here. At the very least, I feel like it would have been better to have a "Riker" to his "Picard."

Jason: Yeah, I feel the same way. It's a bummer because Landau is great as you say, but it just doesn't seem to work. His Koenig seems like a leader prone to sudden rages who would be quite a polarizing figure among his crew, by which I mean I could see a mutiny down the road.

Trey: The show definitely looks expensive. I found myself wishing Star Trek had included extensive use of models. It definitely is a "transitional form" between Lost in Space and Star Trek in the 60s and Star Wars.

Jason: It sure does look great. As a visual feast of model-making, set design, and planet-scapes, Space: 1999 delivers. Again, the disparity between seasons is notable here. While the first season is very much inspired by the austere and realistic aesthetic of Kubrick's 2001, this second season is more colorful and outlandish in design.   

Trey: Other than the model-based sets and ships, though, I have to say the show seems inferior to Star Trek in just about every other way.

Jason: I think that's true, but I also think Space: 1999 is a very different animal. It is more impressionistic, less naturalistic, and despite attempts to make the characters a greater part of the show's appeal, not that interested in the characters. To me it feels pulpy in a particularly British way but with a non-rational, liminal quality perhaps only available in the post-psychedelia 1970s. It's clearly not Science Fiction in any real sense, but more an attempt at psychological fantasy with SF trappings, at least in the first season. By the second season, it's a bit more action-oriented but, if this first episode is any indication, also more bananas.  

I've always admired Gerry Anderson's contributions to fantastic media, but from afar. His shows, all featuring marionettes until UFO, Space: 1999's immediate predecessor, impress with their toyetic designs and devotion of screen time to effects sequences, but I haven't yet been able to get into the Uncanny Valleys they occupy. The addition of actual human actors to the equation, unfortunately, takes this show into a weirdly Unpleasant Valley. 

Trey: I believe those are super-marionettes with powers and abilities far beyond those of regular marionettes. 

Jason: Yes, well, they still reside in the same Uncanny Valley. A side note: I'm curious to have a look at writer Johnny Byrne's short story contributions to the UK SF magazine Science Fantasy.  

Trey: That could prove interesting. We should hunt it up!

Jason: Alright. Verdict time: I enjoyed watching this episode and am curious to dip my toe further into the series' two very distinct seasons. Will I? I don't know when!

Trey: I thought it was interesting, but I feel like it would take a lot to make me love it. Even perhaps the mild affection for the eccentric relative as I feel for Lost in Space.

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