THE (RETRO) FUTURE IS FANTASTIC! THE ‘SPACE: 1999’ MOVIES

Warp Factor examines overlooked or nearly-forgotten science-fiction artifacts from the recent past with a 21st Century perspective. In this inaugural entry, the journey of Space: 1999, from being an original TV production to becoming a series of theatrical films, is analyzed. Can science-fiction television make the transition to the silver screen?

Why is it that most science-fiction films of the past 40 years have largely been influenced by Star Wars? I’m not denigrating George Lucas’ brash ‘70s space fantasy, but it feels like Hollywood is rarely interested in original science-fiction ideas. Star Wars, and its TV antecedent, Star Trek, are usually the two science-fiction archetypes influencing modern-day, science-fiction cinema, despite the recent efforts of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Alex Garland, and Denis Villaneuve (not to mention those foppish malcontents across the pond who have been keeping Dr. Who alive for more than six decades—how many doctors have there been?).

Since Star Wars demolished box-office records in 1977, Hollywood has chased the space-opera model with varying levels of success, but the subsequent decades are marked with fewer original sci-fi concepts than Star Wars knockoffs. Some of the aforementioned filmmakers pursue dreams of creating the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as their films have sizeable budgets and tight profit margins, Hollywood greenlights their pet projects reluctantly, unless there’s “franchise” potential (who knew Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune adaptation is ripe for toy merchandising?).

Science-fiction cinema can be an expensive enterprise, so film studios balk at exorbitant budgets for underperforming films (as acclaimed as Bladerunner 2049 and Annihilation are, they haven’t been very profitable), so they continue to look for the next Star Wars knockoff or established science-fiction property to exploit (a third version of Battlestar Galactica, itself a Star Wars imitation in 1978 before being revamped brilliantly by Star Trek alumnus Ronald D. Moore in 2003, has been announced as a film and TV series). But once, long ago, there was a science-fiction property that succeeded Star Trek and preceded Star Wars, carving its own genre niche before being reissued as a series of movies in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to bank on the Star Wars craze. Space: 1999, an anachronistically-titled British TV series by 21st Century standards, was an international sensation when it premiered in 1975, renowned for its originality and visual splendor; it languishes today as a nearly-forgotten, cult science-fiction artifact.

On September 13, 1999, the nuclear waste stored on “the dark side” of the moon generates a massive explosion that hurls the moon out of Earth orbit and into outer space, trapping the 300 men and women of Moonbase Alpha, a self-sustaining scientific lunar outpost. As the moon travels uncontrollably through outer space, the Alphans search for a habitable planet to colonize.

That’s the premise of Space: 1999 and though it jettisons scientific laws for the sake of entertainment, it’s a blast to watch. Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the creative forces behind fondly-remembered ‘60s “supermarionation” TV shows like Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and Thunderbirds (if “Thunderbirds are go!” isn’t in your lexicon, I don’t want to know you), Space: 1999 is an epic science-fiction production, replete with gorgeous visual effects, lavish sets, and fantastic miniature work created by Brian Johnson (Alien, Empire Strikes Back), including the series’ primary spacecraft, the insect-like Eagle transporter (the inspiration for Han Solo’s iconic spaceship—George Lucas visited the series’ effects shop on a regular basis).

One of the most divisive elements of Space: 1999 is the emphasis of very surreal plots in its first season. Led by stolid Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), the Alphans encounter all kinds of cosmic crises: pulsating space brains, black holes, tentacled space monsters straight out of Cthulu, erudite-yet-cannibalistic aliens, vengeful human spirits conjured by a hydroponic séance (!), scantily-clad, sexy robots who can freeze time, and a planetary mist that reverts the crew to Neanderthals.

The series favors mysticism over science (I imagine the writers’ room to have been a very lively place with plenty of English tea and biscuits and communal handfuls of hallucinogenic mushrooms). However, the intentional disregard for science is refreshing, creating plenty of dread and discomfort, as the unknown dangers of space mean that a lot of the beleaguered Alphans die in grisly ways (all while wearing the base’s standard-issue, unisex jumpsuits with flares and platform boots). Very few stories in the first season end happily–20 years ago, I likened the first season as “Star Trek on acid”.

While the series was popular all over the world, Americans scratched their heads at the heady, metaphysical stories, the bleak, ponderous tone, and a cast that seemed to have taken heavy doses of valium. The British studio, ITC, best known for producing ‘60s spy/adventure TV shows (Danger Man aka Secret Agent in North America, The Saint, The Prisoner, etc.), needed American sales, so veteran American TV producer Fred Freiberger, the man who ran Star Trek’s less-than-admired final season (two words: space hippies), was hired to change the focus in the second season to a more traditional science-fiction adventure series.

Space: 1999’s Season One’s ethereal elements are replaced in Season Two (the Alphans now sporting groovy jackets, mock turtlenecks, and optional skirts) by recycled Star Trek concepts and silly-looking rubber aliens, but the inclusion of Catherine Schell as shapeshifting alien, Maya, is one of the few positive changes. Martin Landau’s Commander Koenig is now trigger happy (he fires a laser in the new opening credits!), romances real-life-wife Barbara Bain’s Helena Russell (who seems to have been given a shot of adrenaline after her somnambulistic performances in Season One), and battling sentient rockpiles and talking plants (“The Rules of Luton”, arguably the worst episode of the series, is written by Freiberger). Most of the supporting cast and composer Barry Gray’s majestic music have been replaced (Gray’s Season One theme, a mix of proto-disco and orchestral music with an electric guitar sting, is one of the coolest TV theme songs ever made) and budget cuts diminish the effectiveness of the sets and special effects.

While the ratings were still good and there were preliminary plans for a third season and a separate Maya spinoff series, ITC head Sir Lew Grade canceled the series, allocating its considerable budget to his dream film project, Raise the Titanic (a would-be blockbuster that grossed $7 million on a $40 million budget). As Space: 1999 aired its last episode in the spring of 1977, Star Wars was becoming a cultural phenomenon–Grade and ITC were too late to see the series’ potential as an established science-fiction property for rabid Star Wars enthusiasts craving additional sci-fi excitement.

The studio slapped together four movies, compiled from specific episodes from both seasons, for international theatrical distribution: Destination Moonbase Alpha (1978), Alien Attack (1979), Journey Through the Black Sun (1982), and Cosmic Princess (1982). The film posters mimic Star Wars, featuring Landau and Bain prominently, with lasers, planets, and spaceships in the background. For audiences unfamiliar with the TV series, the compilation films are awkward, shoddily-edited presentations, but not without their charms. They’re prime examples of how studios fed audiences with science-fiction content, but without forethought as to how the material ought to be presented.

Destination Moonbase Alpha (1978)

“It is better to live as your own man than a fool in someone else’s dream.”

The first compilation film is taken from Season Two’s only two-parter, “The Bringers of Wonder,” and there’s even a Star Wars-like prologue crawl explaining Moonbase Alpha’s predicament. Destination Moonbase Alpha is all about action and B-movie sensibilities, as Alpha is under attack from aliens from another dimension! The opening narration describes Moonbase Alpha and its mission–curiously, the year is now 2100, not 1999. The tall, shaggy aliens look ridiculous, like piles of shambling spaghetti compost (they look like rejected designs from the assorted Sid and Marty Krofft puppet shows), but they have superior mental abilities, so they trick the Alphans into thinking they’re members of a rescue ship from Earth. Nobody but Koenig seems to suspect anything, as the entire rescue team knows somebody on Alpha—what a coincidence! Koenig and Maya try to stop them from detonating the remaining nuclear waste, the aliens’ only source of sustenance. It’s a nice call-back to the series’ initial premise, but between action sequences very little happens, hardly justifying its feature-length running time (or being a two-part episode). The scenes of Alphans, such as hotheaded Aussie Eagle pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate), enjoying a warm welcome on Earth, when in reality, they’re in spacesuits, contributing to their own destruction unknowingly, is suitably eerie. For a series that once relished a somber tone, Martin Landau reacting violently at the sight of the aliens, brandishing a staple-gun laser is jarring, but it can still be enjoyable if one is intoxicated sufficiently.

Alien Attack (1979)

“A giant leap for mankind…it’s more like a stumble in the dark.”

Taken from two Season One episodes, “Breakaway” (the pilot episode) and “War Games,” Alien Attack is one of the best of the four compilation films. Several scenes, filmed for the theatrical release, provide additional context needlessly, as several Earth bureaucrats sit around a cheap-looking boardroom, commenting on the events the viewers are already watching! The moon doesn’t break free of its Earth orbit until the halfway mark, as newly-appointed commander John Koenig arrives at Moonbase Alpha to ensure that the manned Meta space-probe mission launches without delay. Unfortunately, the nuclear-waste storage units on the lunar surface detonate from a buildup of magnetic energy, propelling the moon away from the Earth–even in the future, a lack of foresight ensures humanity’s doom. The Alphans don’t have time to commiserate the loss of their home when alien spaceships begin attacking the base. The aliens don’t respond to Koenig’s pleas that they’re peaceful, so he and Dr. Russell take an Eagle to their planet, hoping to appeal to mercy. Unfortunately, the aliens reject their plea, destroying Moonbase Alpha; or do they?

The first half of the film is a bit talky, as it’s setting up the series’ premise and characters, but the mystery of the magnetic-energy buildup is engaging, culminating in the exciting explosion that hurls our satellite into the wilderness of outer space. The sets are magnificent—the “Main Mission” set, the three-level brain center of Moonbase Alpha, is an intricate blend of computer banks, futuristic furniture with sleek, clean curves, and many windows looking out onto the lunar surface (reportedly it was very difficult to light quickly and effectively, so Main Mission was scrapped in Season Two for the more intimate—and less impressive—“Command Center” set). The second half of the film compensates for the lack of action in the first half, as the titular aliens display their superior might with plenty of laser beams and explosions—many Eagles are blown up and sections of Alpha destroyed. It’s remarkable that a TV series’ special effects could stand up to scrutiny on the big screen, which is one of the reasons “War Games” was selected for this film. Though Alien Attack does end on a sloppy deus ex machina moment, it does demonstrate the cosmic calamities in store for the people of our moon in future adventures.

Journey Through the Black Sun (1982)

“Everything is everything else. The whole universe is living thought.”

The second and final compilation film derived from Season One episodes (“Black Sun,” “Collision Course”), Journey Through the Black Sun is arguably the best of the four films, as it highlights Space: 1999’s obsession with cosmic mysticism, if not scientific accuracy. This time, the moon is on a collision course with the planet Atheria, which, according to its leader, Queen Arra (Margaret Leighton), has been prophesized for millennia, as the collision will allow the Atherians to ascend to the next stage of their evolution. Oookay. After that metaphysical crisis is resolved, the Alphans have to contend with a “black sun,” essentially a black hole, that will swallow the moon. Mr. Spock would raise an eyebrow in repressed disbelief, but these unlikely cosmic events illustrate the series’ desire to create surreal space narratives rather than straightforward, science-based space opera. Even chief scientist Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) spouts a lot of nonsense that’s more akin to mysticism than to science, as he and Koenig share a “final” vintage brandy as the moon enters the black sun (they talk to an unseen cosmic force—God? Another omnipotent being?–as chimes and ethereal musical notes are heard in the background). It’s very weird and not very plausible, but it’s delightful.

Cosmic Princess (1982)

“We’re all aliens, until we get to know one another.”

Derived from the Season Two premiere, “The Metamorph” and “Space Warp,” the changes in tone, style, and acting are immediately apparent from the beginning. As the moon nears the planet Psychon, Commander Koenig and his crew encounter a disturbed Psychon, Mentor (the always entertaining Brian Blessed), who seeks the Alphans’ brain energy to power his living computer to restore life to his planet. His daughter, Maya, shielded from her father’s treachery, agrees to help the Alphans and escapes with them when Psychon explodes. She’s now Moonbase Alpha’s chief scientist, but she quickly succumbs to a dangerous fever that forces her to change into dangerous alien creatures that damage Alpha extensively, as the moon enters a space warp (good lord, did any of the writers even look at a science textbook?). The highlight is Catherine Schell as Maya–she enticed Koenig (and TV audiences) as a sexy robot in Season One’s “Guardian of Piri,” but she fulfills the Mr. Spock role capably as Alpha’s lone alien, adding a necessary sense of humor and intelligence. The action set pieces are fun, if slight, but nobody ever accused Star Wars of being an intellectual odyssey either!

Space: 1999 is still remembered fondly by Gen-Xers and sci-fi enthusiasts, kept alive by physical media (the British Blu-rays are exquisite), streaming (Season One is on Amazon Prime), and recent original audio-drama productions (not to mention models and toys–if somebody wants to buy me a $269 set that includes the laser and comlock…). It started out as a distinctive science-fiction TV series big on ideas and style before being retooled to mimic Star Trek. While the compilation films aren’t the best way to experience the series, they’re still charming enough to entertain on a chilly winter’s night, highlighting the stark tonal differences of the two TV seasons. How many science-fiction franchises feature an Oscar winner as the lead character? Space: 1999 is a testament to filmmakers taking big risks–and spending a lot of money–to create an original and epic science-fiction artifact that’s still beloved after 41 years. Long may the moon drift listlessly in the cosmic ether!