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Space 1999 - The Complete Series 2

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Martin Landau
Barbara Bain
Catherine Schell
Tony Anholt
Nick Tate
Bottom Line: 

To appropriate a standard ‘go to’ plot device utilised often in 1970s episodes of “Space: 1999” by story supervisor Christopher Penfold and the diverse group of TV writers associated with what was to be Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s final weekly live action SF outing for TV, season Two of the series turned into very much the zestier, more dynamic and somewhat crazier mirror image twin of its elder, brooding, more psychologically aloof and complex sibling, season One. The show had originally been conceived back in 1972 as a sort of Moon-set spin-off of the Andersons’ previous ITC-produced SF series “UFO”, reconvening the Keith Wilson sets originally expensively commissioned and designed for series two of that project on what was to become, in its first season, a glossily mounted filmed series marrying American and European science fiction sensibilities in often interesting ways: a high concept SF show, ostensibly British in approach but with American leads and Italian extras, filmed at Pinewood and former Hammer home Bray Studios, about a group of Moon colonisers in the near future who become trapped in their ultra-modern base when the Earth is separated from its orbiting satellite by a nuclear blast that sends the Moon hurtling into uncharted and previously undreamt of regions of outer space. This leads to the blandly egalitarian inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha encountering all sorts of perception-challenging and mind-expanding alien phenomena in their subsequent years of strange travels through the outer reaches of the Universe.

 Under the strained patronage of the New York offices of Sir Lew Grade’s international production powerhouse ITC, season One looked as good as any big screen sci-fi movie of the early 1970s, with the experienced behind-the-scenes team of supervisor Brian Johnson providing superior special-effects and miniature model work from a workshop and studio space at Bray that was the equal of anything  Johnson’s ground-breaking innovations for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” had presented for cinema audiences seven years previously (George Lucas also wanted Johnson to work on “Star Wars” after seeing this first season of "Space: 1999", but the effects  maestro was already contractually committed to season Two by then), and which, in combination with Wilson’s functional, minimalist, but from a modern perspective agreeably retro-futuristic, set designs, provided the series with its defining mix of traditional Anderson high-tech vehicle fetishism (Brian Johnson had also worked on the creation of the model rescue craft whose docking procedures and stately manoeuvres were so lovingly relished each week in the episodes of Gerry Anderson’s ‘60s puppet series, “Thunderbirds”) and an icy Kubrickian design aesthetic that still makes it stand out amongst its SF peers as a quality result of the era’s methods of filmed television series production.

But it seems that some strange, insidious sort of alien virus must have silently crept into the Moonbase and distributed itself amongst the inhabitants during the gap between the end of season One and the start of this second run of episodes (which began filming in 1976 and aired, in various regions around the world, between ’76 and 1978) which are now collected together in marvellous HD for Network Distribution’s latest entertainingly nostalgic six-disc box set Blu-ray collection, recently released in the UK. it’s  a virus whose existence, throughout the season of 24 episodes that follow, goes quite unsuspected by Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau), Dr Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), or any of the other 300 Alphans residing on Moonbase, but which drastically alters some of the most notable stylistic aspects of the first series and effects a curious transformation in the nature of the show’s approach to its  subject matter: indeed, this virus’s effects can be gleaned from many small, individually inconsequential details, which together add up to a noticeable change in personality that, overnight, transforms the entire character of Moonbase Alpha.

 For one thing, the Alphans suddenly develop a taste for individual fashion: the dull beige of the Alphans’ ubiquitous jumpsuit uniform is suddenly enlivened by different coloured jackets or colourful arm-sleeve stripes denoting occupation or rank; and there’s even a departure from the unisex one-style-fits-all dress code of yore, with some of the female denizens of Moonbase now even allowed to wear – shock, horror – skirts! When things get particularly hot after the Moon is bombarded with mysterious heat rays in one episode, they’re not at all averse to sashaying about the corridors in skimpy bikinis either, looking like contestants from a 1970s Miss World competition. (Even the men are happy to let it all hang out, and before the end of the episode have stripped down to their colourful array of vests!). In general, there appears to be a very much more informal attitude that extends even to those who occupy key positions of authority on Alpha: Commander Koenig and Dr Helena Russell, for instance, have had a particularly far-reaching personality transplant between series: where before Dr Russell had been a robotic, nervy ice maiden drone almost devoid of all character, and any potential for romance between herself and the Commander had been shrunken into merely the occasional longing glance, now they can’t seem to keep their hands off each other! Dr Russell has suddenly become a warm, emotionally engaged, often smiling, caring individual; while no situation is too serious that the Commander can’t look back upon it later with a joke and a piano-key-wide grin for the benefit of his colleagues in the Command Centre. Alien contamination is surely the only viable answer to such a radical personal transformation?        

But there are other even more mysterious results of the stealthy invasion, such as the uncommented upon disappearances among key personnel in the base’s command structure, like science advisor Professor Bergman and no-nonsense second-in-command Paul Marrow; neither are mentioned by anyone throughout this second batch of episodes, despite Marrow having previously shared a season-long romance with data analyst Sandra Bern (Zienia Merton), who now appears entirely indifferent to his not being around at all this series, as though he never existed. She herself disappears without comment midway through the series; then comes back again for the second half of it! There are equally unexplained promotions of previously unsighted individuals, such as the base’s dashing new security officer Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt), who appears from nowhere to take a lead role in proceedings during most of the episodes of the second season while also assuming Marrow’s second-in-command responsibilities as chief back-up to Koenig. Even more curiously, though, the layout of the base itself seems to have changed drastically: the expansive open plan control centre we saw in season one is now a cramped, bunker-like command room where a handful of Alphans sit at computer banks, clustered before a screen which projects an image of the Moon’s trajectory through outer space.  

But the first concrete indications of the changes to come make themselves felt to the viewer during the newly minted opening series titles: previously, long-term Gerry Anderson musical collaborator Barry Gray’s orchestral fanfare opening led into an electric lead guitar-driven prog rock riff accompanying a selection of scenes from each week’s episode and setting the stage for the first season’s unusual combination of delight at the clinical surface textures of the imagined future and the very ‘70s nature of storylines that mined the ruminative philosophical outlook and sense of spirituality associated with Tarkovsky’s film “Solaris”, for quantum-referencing plots soaked in voguish New Age mysticism and Jungian symbolism. The new opening credit sequence is a fairly generic collage of action sequences that introduce the three leads (Landau and Bain now being joined by Catherine Schell as a high profile addition to the cast) in the standard fashion of that era’s US TV drama, set to a catchy up-tempo new theme written by jazz musician Derek Wadsworth, that incorporates a synthesizer melody line into a memorable, driving piece of action music that echoes the tonal character of the many 1970s American cop show themes then in circulation, while maintaining its ‘Gerry Anderson’ vibe. This development was in line with the action-adventure format this second series had been deliberately angled towards by new series producer and show-runner Fred Freiberger, who joined the production after Sylvia Anderson separated from Gerry and thus was no longer available to take any role in the series. Freiberger had previously been responsible for producing the third season of “Star Trek”, often considered the moment when that show started to go off the boil in terms of quality. But “Space 1999” was at this point suffering from many of the same problems as later “Star Trek” and, indeed, had effectively been cancelled by Lew Grade after a late drop off in American viewing figures during the first series. The previous failure of the series to attract syndication in the States had already made ITC nervous enough to insist on Freiberger’s appointment, but with the threat of imminent cancellation he and Anderson effectively pitched an entirely new concept for the show to Grade, emphasising elements they thought would be more successful with an American audience in order to try and keep it alive, and essentially basing their pitch around the addition to the regular weekly cast of a Spock-like alien character called Maya.

Played by the Hungarian-born Catherine Schell (a regular player of small character parts on British TV, and also the female lead in the then-recent “The Return of the Pink Panther”), Maya was a shape-shifting Metamorph from the planet Psychon, introduced in the first episode of series Two where she’s daughter to the duplicitous Mentor, played by the inimitable Brian Blessed. Both Blessed and Schell had already been guest stars in different series One episodes, but after being rescued by Koenig from Psychon before its destruction, Maya is quickly assimilated into the crew of Moonbase Alpha as its logically-minded science advisor. Her make-up and styling pitch her very much as a female Mr Spock; but Freiberger also emphasises her femininity, giving her an on-going flirtatious romance with security officer Tony Verdeschi. Her alien past also drives several plot lines, such as the episodes “Dorzak” and “The Dorcons”, and it also informs one of dual plot-lines in the episode “The Space Warp” -- where Maya is stricken with an illness that causes her to lose control of her Metamorph abilities during a fever, and run rampaging through the base in hairy monster form!

Maya’s ability to take on the semblance of any organic being whether plant or animal (at one stage she turns into a creeping vine plant on-board a ship with a malfunctioning life support unit, in order to provide a crewmate with a supply of oxygen by way of the light capturing mechanisms of photosynthesis!)  is a quirk that also provides many episodes with some of the retooled show’s most bizarre moments, but is sometimes also played deliberately for laughs as well; indeed humorous interludes now become a regular occurrence on the show, in stark contrast to the relentless seriousness of the previous season. The problem is that the humour is almost always pretty inane; quite a lot of it is based around a recurring joke about Tony’s hapless efforts to brew his own organic beer in space. But there are also now whole episodes that are, essentially, for most of their run time, grounded in comedy -- notable among them being the episodes “The Taybor” (an eccentric intergalactic space trader played by Willoughby Goddard tries to kidnap Maya) and “Brian the Brain”, in which Bernard Cribbins plays the voice of a sentient ship’s computer and also appears as its inventor, in a story that is essentially a comedic take on the HAL 9000 mad computer section of “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

A ‘monster of the week’ format was introduced by Freiberger, but unfortunately one of the areas in which the reduced budget is most visible is in the naff monster suits worn by burly stunt men such as Darth Vader himself, David Prowse (“Blake’s 7” actor David Jackson also dons one or two rubber suits during the course of the season, and frequently provides sonorous-sounding alien voices too). Compare the kind of monster designs that were being seen regularly on “Doctor Who” around the mid ‘70s, with the pitiful efforts glimpsed here, in spite of the apparent slickness of the production and the vastly inflated budgets in play in comparison to what the BBC could afford,  and there is simply no contest when it comes to which show was the most successful. Thus, an episode such as “The Space Warp” ricochets between the sublime and the ridiculous: Brian Johnson’s models and effects achieve astonishing movie-level sequences like the one in which Maya (in the form of an alien creature) loses control of an Eagle spaceship in the docking bay and turns it into a raging inferno; while most of the rest of the episode consists of oafish shots of stunt men having to engage in lumberingly inept fight scenes whilst wearing a succession of rubbish monster suits, with the daftness quotient is helped little from it all being set to the strains of Wadsworth’s most hysterically over-determined funked up TV ‘action music’.

Certain elements of the show, particularly in this season, have of course dated more than others … although there is a camp charm in seeing the likes of Billie Whitelaw or future “Blue Peter” presenter Peter Duncan having to keep a straight face through some of the most ludicrous plot developments, while (in Duncan’s case) being ensconced in a one-piece Spandex Lycra jumpsuit. Other notable guest starts include Nicholas Young (“The Tomorrow People”), Patrick Troughton (“Doctor Who”) Lynne Frederick (“Schizo”) and Carolyn Seymour (Abby Grant in the original Terry Nation version of “Survivors”). Directors include the likes of Hammer veteran Val Guest, Ealing’s Charles Crichton, Ray Austin and Kevin Conner, just coming off of his stint with Amicus; while among the regular writers one can also find such august names as Terrence Dicks and husband and wife writing partnership Pip and Jane Baker, both better known for their involvement with “Doctor Who”.

There is plenty of the camp factor to be enjoyed in episodes such as “Devil’s Planet” (alien female dominatrix colonists turn their menfolk into work slaves and then kill them when they’ve worn them out in a Most Dangerous Game-type hunt, and their leader wants to turn Commander Koenig into her personal sex slave!) and “The AB Chrysalis" (naked female aliens have to be negotiated with and persuaded not be destroy Moonbase Alpha by a game Commander Koenig!) and there are stories (such as “Catacombs of the Moon”) that seem somehow half-formed, perhaps because of a rushed schedule that sees some episodes ‘double banked’ by splitting the cast so that two episodes can be filmed at once. However, I’ll always love this series simply for the two-part story “The Bringers of Wonder”, written by Terence Feely and directed by Tom Clegg, on which the simplistic crappiness of the monster suits achieves a strange kind of genius and the cheesiness of the story somehow transcends itself, with both elements coming together so that the sublime and the ridiculous becomes a unique species of the sublimely ridiculous. In this story, Commander Koenig crashes an Eagle under a malign alien influence and has to have his brain ‘massaged’ by Dr Russell’s latest piece of medical technology back at the medical centre. When the rest of Alpha is telepathically brainwashed by a race of gooey, pulsating, one-eyed jelly-like creatures into thinking that they have been rescued by a ship bearing a crew made up of all their most cherished loved ones and relatives, Koenig is the only one who can see the hideous, shuffling monstrosities who have actually invaded the base for what they really are. Unfortunately they are so disgusting to him that he completely loses his cool and goes uncharacteristically mental in the manner of a protagonist in a HP Lovecraft tale (Landau proves here he can do ‘over the top’ when required like the best of them!), which leads him to be stripped of command because his colleagues think he’s had a complete breakdown. Everything about these two episodes is hilariously naff and utterly brilliant. They were the only two episodes of this series I could actually remember vividly from back when I was seven-years-old. The final act of episode two, in which Koenig has to fight a brainwashed Alan Carter (who by now thinks he’s on some Californian buggy holiday with a bevvy of hot chicks when he’s really about to unleash nuclear catastrophe on the base at the behest of the radiation-loving jelly creatures) is hysterically hyperbolic in its attempts to generate suspense. 

All 24 episodes of season two are included her in stunningly pristine HD across five Blu-ray discs, with a sixth disc of extras consisting of archived interviews, on-set audio tracks for five episodes and various other bits and bobs, like stock archive footage and a behind-the-scenes film made by some film students who managed to get access to the cast and some of the crew for their film school project during the filming at Pinewood of one of the episodes of series Two. It also includes a very clever fan-made French animation called “Cosmos: 1999” in which various Action Man and Sindy dolls are transformed into the inhabitants of a miniature Moonbase Alpha for a stop-motion animation with a plot that isn’t two dissimilar from that of the film “Alien”! Music only soundtracks and image galleries are included for each episode, and, notwithstanding the set's lack of any extensive ‘Making Of’ analysis or retrospective appreciation of the show's merits or faults, this is an essential purchase for anyone who remembers watching this series, or who is at all interested in the world of Gerry Anderson.

Now then, how about a Blu-ray set of “UFO”, Network?

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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