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Space 1999 - Series One (Blu-ray)

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Martin Landau
Barbara Bain
Barry Morse
Prentis Hancock
Nick Tate
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 Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s final live-action series for TV, “Space: 1999”, started its life as a high quality, high concept British-made science fiction show, produced in association with Sir Lew Grade’s ITC Network in 1975. Hoping to prosper from future sales to US Networks (a typical Lew Grade strategy), the series initially employed American writers and directors while enjoying the patronage of two high-profile American stars as its main leads, the husband and wife acting team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain -- both of whom had an extremely high profile in the states as two of the stars of “Mission: Impossible”.  The series endured a difficult route to the screen, though, thanks in part to production having commenced in the middle of Ted Heaths ‘three day week’ of 1973-4! The constant need to vet each script with ITC’s New York office, as well as the requirement to cast Italian actors in some of the supporting roles (because of a financial deal between the Andersons’ Group Three Productions and RAI) also ensured a protracted, often painful birth for what remains an interesting, if only occasionally successful, attempt to produce a different kind of ideas-based, weekly popular Sci Fi series from what was then the norm in the genre, with a much more adult approach to storytelling that often dealt with heavy-weight metaphysical themes. Almost inevitably, this ambitious project went down like a balloon with a lead weight inside it:  it proved to be a struggle to sell the show to the US networks, and once it was seen there, poor promotion in the UK and diminishing ratings across the Atlantic eventually led to the show having to retool itself in a much crasser, populist action-adventure vein in order to survive into series two, by which time Sylvia Anderson had left the production to be replaced by producer Fred Freiberger.

Watching a selection of episodes from series one again for the first time in years (all of them now immaculate and looking pin-sharp in new high definition transfers made by the BBC), in advance of its debut release on Blu-ray  by the UK’s Network Releasing, brings home just how incredibly cinematic the show was, especially in the first few episodes, when the production and wardrobe design, combined with the series’ high quality special effects, resulted in a very close approximation on a TV series budget to the visual style of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, as well as the stark look of Andrei Tarkovsky ‘s 1972 adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s novel “Solaris”. The first episode even starts with main star Landau as Commander John Koenig, setting out for Moonbase Alpha on a shuttle flight from Earth, and being served by a hostess in a sequence that looks very much like a similar one in Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece.

The series actually began as an attempt to salvage the money that had already been spent on the sets for a second series of Anderson’s previous live-action sci fi series, “UFO”, which was to have been entirely set on the Moon because audience research had shown that non-terrestrial based episodes got higher ratings in America. The new set had already largely been constructed when ratings suddenly dropped and ITC promptly abandoned the series. Anderson developed the concept of “Space: 1999” with the idea of reusing the same Moonbase set, pointing out to Lew Grade that the money had already been spent so they might as well make use of it. Because of the unpopularity of “UFO” episodes set on Earth, Anderson proposed that the Moon should be blown out of Earth’s orbit in the first episode, thereby reassuring a nervous ITC New York office that there definitely couldn’t be any episodes with an Earth setting later on. 

The pilot episode thus introduces us to the denizens of Moonbase Alpha – or ‘Alphans’ -- who seem like a rather bland, utilitarian bunch, and who dress in unisex beige jumpsuits while they oversee the depositing of Earth’s radioactive waste in a series of dumping operations on the far side of the Moon. The distinctive costumes were designed by German fashion designer Rudi Gernreich and like everything about Moonbase Alpha, they come across as starkly functional, displaying only a splash of colour down the left-hand sleeve -- and even that is simply a colour-coded method of indicating the job or rank of the wearer. Production, set and costume designer Keith Wilson was largely responsible for the general look of Moon City though, setting the series in a pristine world of beige connected by indistinguishable white-painted corridors and similarly stark-white, evenly lit medical rooms and living facilities. Wilson bypassed the usual expenses involved in having a large standing set on a TV show, by designing it as a series of panels that could be slotted together in different combinations to make a variety of different rooms, or be used as long stretches of corridor which could be filmed in an even light to give the appearance of a much larger facility.  It’s a daringly functional design for an on-going TV series and, indeed, as the series progresses, you do begin to notice that the lighting starts to get gradually lower and ‘moodier’ and the wall panels, which displayed previously just uniform white light, start to appear in a luminous palette of greens and oranges to break what eventually, over the weeks, must have come to stop seeming like a realistic portrayal of the functionality of life on a futuristic, moon-based radioactive dumping facility, and more like dull visual monotony. Nevertheless, as the weeks go by, the Main Mission control room does more and more start to take on the appearance of a slightly more futuristic open plan office in which the non-speaking Alphan extras try to make themselves look busy in the background by striding around with clipboards and handing each-other papers and files.

One of the unintended consequences of the unprecedented level of clarity now evident in these beautiful new high definition transfers, is that one can now see quite clearly that many of the controls on the flight deck of the Eagle spaceships or on the control room computer (which, rather charmingly, takes up the whole side of a wall with its massive memory banks, and spits out its information on strips of paper that look like cash register receipts!) have simply been drawn on – often rather crudely. It’s the kind of cost-cutting measure that probably wouldn’t have been such an issue at the time, particularly on small 1970s-sized TV screens, but it stands out like a sore thumb now -- especially in a series that otherwise looks so glossy and cinematic.

The main cast of characters all seem strangely bland and remote during the initial few episodes, with Barbara Bain coming over as particularly icy and restrained as the head of the Base’s Medical section, Dr Helena Russell. It seems to me that this was in line with the heavyweight film influences to which the series was attempting to remain true. But the fact remains it’s not an easy way to hook an audience’s attention quickly to perpetuate such an aloof atmosphere. It also adds to the initial feeling that this is a typical Gerry Anderson production in which the actors are simply being moved around like marionettes inside a life-sized puppets’ set. Landau and Bain even look like “Thunderbirds” puppets in the series’ impressively memorable opening title sequence. Have any two starring actors ever been announced on screen to such a momentous sense of importance and grandeur? It’s almost as if you can hear Anderson (or Lew Grade) thinking, we’ve spent a lot of money getting these two – we’re gonna make damn sure people know about it!

By far the biggest factor in giving the series this ambience of a Gerry Anderson puppet-based show come to life is the use of music by Anderson’s long-time musical collaborator Barry Gray. Gray composed about five complete scores for the same number of episodes, which then have their cues recycled endlessly throughout the remaining nineteen episodes in various permutations; this in combination with the mining of cues directly lifted from Anderson’s puppet shows from the sixties, “Stingray” and “Thunderbirds” and many other previous Anderson-produced shows as well. It’s hardly surprising then that the series retains that familiar Anderson feel, wonderfully dramatic and evocative though Gray’s work consistently is.

In contrast to the stately seriousness of the show itself, the opening theme music and the accompanying title sequence is a masterwork of expansive orchestral score combined with groovy ‘70s rock swagger set to a punchy series of flash-cut edits from that week’s upcoming episode (a device also used recently in the “Battlestar Galactica” remake). Gray worked in collaboration with musician Vic Elms (who also provided a complete score for one episode: “Ring Around the Moon”) to produce one of the most catchy of 1970s TV themes (in an era replete with catchy themes), which moves from grandiose orchestral fanfare to an enjoyable progressive rock guitar wig-out, before ending on a typically Thunderbirdsy triumphal flourish.

If there is a genuine link between the puppet-based adventurism of Anderson’s past output and the bona fide intention to move into more serious-minded material with “Space:1999” then that link is probably the programme’s special effects director Brian Johnson.  He’d previously worked on “Thunderbirds” and had been an assistant in the special effects department on “2001: A Space Odyssey”. He would go on to work on Ridley Scott’s “Alien” where he was a special effects supervisor. Although Blu-ray clarity once again reveals the drawbacks of trying to create a realistic alien surface on the soundstage of a studio (the painted backcloths are often disarmingly apparent now – but that is also the case in certain places even in a film like “2001”), the general look and feel of the sets and the spacecraft are pretty convincing. The Alphans’ Eagle spacecraft, rather than super-slick and streamlined, are functional and believable; they were ostensibly intended for moving canisters of nuclear waste about on the lunar surface, after all! It’s still an attractive design though, also allowing for the typical prolonged Anderson fetish shots of ships preparing for vertical take-off while they’re being slowly raised from underground flight bunkers on a hydraulic take-off pad. These ubiquitous take-off and landings shots are accompanied by the usual recognisable sound library of thruster sound effects taken from the “Thunderbirds” catalogue though!

As the show develops across this first season of twenty-four episodes, it soon becomes apparent to the viewer that although it has the trappings of a “Star Trek”-style adventure/sci-fi space opera, the kinds of themes and stories “Space: 1999” was intent on exploring were often of a vastly more ambitious nature than the usual action-oriented, formula-written plots of most popular programming.  It’s not just the visual realism of Kubrick and Tarkovsky that Anderson and his team were trying to bring to the screen. Head writer and story consultant Christopher Penfold, along with writer Johnny Byrne (who seems to have been responsible for most of the series’ most fundamental thematic ideas), draw on very contemporary New Age ‘70s concerns with mysticism and metaphysical speculation. All the usual Ancient Astronaut flim-flam crops up here eventually, along with the old ‘three per cent myth’ about the extent of the human brain’s capacity; not to mention the popular tendency to conflate quantum theory with mysticism -- an absolute godsend for a programme such as this.

 On the surface, it might seem odd that a show which, visually at least, appears to be a hymn to science-based futurism and technology, would spend more time emphasising the unknowable nature of the Universe, or in trying to present altered states of consciousness as a viable route to the attainment of enlightenment, than it does in furnishing us with the usual adventure among outlandish alien races, a la “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”. But the influence of “Solaris” and the last twenty minutes of “2001”: A Space Odyssey” becomes very obvious early on in that regard. And the idea of the Moon thrusting into unknown regions of space with a community of people on-board who have only inadequate Earth-derived modes of knowledge and belief to guide them, becomes an excellent metaphor (if a scientifically illiterate one – as Isaac Asimov was only too keen to point out at the time!) for what the first season is really all about.

In the first episode, the Base is readying to launch a full mission to a newly discovered planet, but is already suffering the effects of an unknown’ radiation’ which turns out to be caused by the amassing of large amounts of nuclear waste on the Moon, causing a previously unheard-of magnetic effect which eventually leads to the massive explosion which affects the Moon’s gravitational field and sends it hurtling out of Earth’s orbit. This little lesson -- that we should always expect the unexpected when dealing with the unknown -- is just the starter as, from now on each week, the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha find themselves exploring previously uncharted regions of the Universe where the normal rules of logic and science don’t seem to apply.

 The second episode, “A Matter of Life and Death”, demonstrates this with an obvious riff on the plot of “Solaris”, when Dr Russell discovers an anti-matter version of her husband inside a reconnaissance ship sent to explore the suitability of an Earth-like planet for colonisation by the Alphans. The trouble is, he died five years previously on a mission many thousands of light years away! The third episode is probably the key one in terms of establishing the kinds of ideas that the series would go on to explore on a regular basis. The Moon finds itself about to be drawn into a “Black Sun” (or Black Hole as we would term it nowadays) and is faced with certain destruction. However, after the base’s science adviser Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse – the only other regular cast member to get star billing in the show’s title credits) comes up with an ingenious shield device that uses the gravitational phenomenon’s devastating power to reinforce itself, the Moon passes through the Black Sun unharmed and is catapulted into a region of the Universe far beyond the previous reach of mankind. The main focus of the story, though, is on the Alphans preparing for what they believe to be certain death. There’s next to no action; instead the screenplay indulges in lots of reflective analysis of the Alphans’ situation as they consider their lives and wait for their end. It’s an extreme change of pace from the usual TV drama of the period, with far more emphasis on character. Once the Moon does enter the Black Hole, the Alphans experience a weird altered state which briefly makes Commander Koenig and Professor Berman into shadowy ghost-like apparitions and leads to their encountering a higher being, perhaps even God --an experience which leads Bergman to suggest that there is an ordained reason for their situation and an omnipotent hand guiding their fates. The fact that this kind of thing comes from the chief science advisor, a character who increasingly comes to resemble more a priest or a wise soothsayer than he does a hard-headed science man, kind of sums up the show’s attitude and approach.

Other episodes see the community encounter all sorts of weird phenomena such as a strange rift which splits the Moon and its inhabitants into two parallel versions, each living out a different existence in isolation – until they unexpectedly encounter each other, that is (“Another Time, Another Place”); or they fall into a timeslip on the surface of a prehistoric planet which regresses them to their fur-clad cave man ancestry (“The Full Circle”). When the Alphans do actually encounter humanoid alien races, they invariably look like hippy flower children and have agendas which aren’t always explainable in human terms: even Christopher Lee gets togged up in flowing robes, a long white wig and pretty face make-up for the episode “Eathbound”; amusingly, a few episodes later, Peter Cushing also turns up wearing what looks like exactly the same wig. There are some strong guest artist performances dotted among the cast regulars each week, among them, Brian Blessed, Ian McShane, Julian Glover and, in a particularly noteworthy performance, Judy Geeson, who plays the link between two parallel worlds in “Another Time, another Place”. A scanty clad Catherine Schell appear as an alien intelligence in one episode, “The Guardian of Piri”; she would become a regular cast member in series two, where she played the popular character Maya.

Perhaps the difficulty with the series’ high concept approach was that the intrinsically unknowable nature of the effects and phenomena which the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha encounter week after week means that the stories are often left with large areas of plot unresolved or seem to have large gaps in explanatory information, meaning that the audience is often left as much in the dark as the characters themselves. There are a few instances where the approach comes into its own though: “The Troubled Spirit” is a rare attempt to tell a ghost story within the science fiction genre and provides one of the series’ several stand-out creepy images in the form of a mutilated spectral apparition, out to avenge a death that has yet to occur. I remember this episode as being one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen on television as a kid. The mutilated apparition is far more extreme than anything that appeared on “Doctor Who” and is just one instance of an occasional foray into tea-time horror; other instances include Ian McShane becoming a walking charred skeleton with glowing eyes and Brian Blessed turning into putrefying corpse when he tries to leave his ice planet: all terrifying images. “Alpha Child” on the other hand, goes from the sublime to the ridiculous when the first child to be born on Moonbase Alpha is taken over by an alien energy which accelerates his growth so that he becomes a five-year-old in a few hours. After a few days he becomes Julian Glover wearing tiny silver shorts!

All in all, the series is an enjoyable hit-and-miss affair, which, despite its initial attempts to appeal to an American audience, feels intrinsically British in its defiantly unusual approach. After the first attempts to employ American writers and directors, the show soon fell back on reliable UK TV directors such as Charles Crichton, though, and saw ex stunt coordinator (for shows such as “The Avengers”) Ray Austin afforded the opportunity to further develop his directorial talents. As the episodes go on, some of the secondary cast members begin to take on more prominence, with a tentative relationship mooted between Prentis Hancock’s second in command, Paul Morrow and his Main Mission colleague, Sandra Benes, played by Zienia Merton (neither character appeared in the second series though); while one of the more popular characters emerges as quick-tempered Eagle chief-pilot Alan Carter, played by Australian actor Nick Tate.

“Space: 1999” looks absolutely amazing on Blu-ray and the digitally restored high definition transfers are pin-sharp and perfect (apart from Barbara Bain’s soft-focus close-ups, that is!) The original mono audio tracks are included for purists as well as the newly mixed 5.1 Dolby audio for each episode. There are also ‘music only’ audio tracks available for every episode except “Breakaway” and the set includes a newly restored print of episode one from series Two, “The Metamorph” as an exclusive extra

The seven disc set comes with the following extras:

Gerry Anderson commentary on “Breakaway”

Alien Attack – trailer

Journey Through the Black Sun – Trailer

Series One textless generic titles

Barry Gray’s theme demo

Alternative opening and closing titles

Martin Landau and Barbara Bain US Premier intro and outro

SFX plates and deleted SFX scenes – with music track

“Concept and Creation” featurette starring Gerry Anderson, Christopher Penfold, Barry Morse, Brian Johnson and Keith Wilson

Special effects and design featurette

“These Episodes” featurettes – Selected individual episode analysis featuring Gerry Anderson, Johnny Byrne, Christopher Penfold, David Lane and Zienia Merton

Text episode commentaries on “The Last Sunset” and “Space Brain”

“Clapperboard” two-part special on the work of Gerry Anderson from 1975

“Guardian of Piri” Remembered – Catherine Schell remembers her time working on this series one episode

A specially-priced limited edition with a range of rare packaging limited to 19999 copies will be available from while stocks last, after which the set will only be available in its standard shop packaging.

It was enjoyable to see this series again for the first time in years, and it now looks amazing in high definition. Highly recommended.

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