A&E // 1975 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // April 6th, 2001
An adventure as big as the universe!
It is amusing to look back at science fiction from the past and see just how much advancement was expected in a short period of time. In 1936, Things to Come predicted massive underground cities by the then-distant 1970s. In the '60s, Star Trek posited a future where the Eugenics Wars would rage and Khan would flee Earth by 1996. First launched in 1975, Space: 1999 has similarly advanced expectations, predicting an established, permanent moon base by 1999, complete with regular deep space probes to other planets or even other solar systems, and disposal of large amounts of nuclear waste on the moon's surface.
Produced at the Pinewood Studios facility famous for the James Bond films, at a cost of approximately $250,000 per episode, Space: 1999 was the most expensive and lavishly produced science fiction series of its day, and represents an important step in the history of science fiction as depicted both on television and in the movies.
The first box set of Space: 1999 to come from A&E contains the following episodes:
"Breakaway." The first episode of the series, "Breakaway" serves to introduce the characters and their unique situation. Commander John Koenig (Bela Lug...er, I mean, Martin Landau) is assigned to take command of Moonbase Alpha in September, 1999. His main task is to get the delayed launch of a deep space probe back on track. His progress is hindered by the mysterious madness and death of a number of crewmembers. With the help of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), he discovers that the illness is linked to instability in the massive nuclear waste dumps on the dark side of the moon. Soon, all thought of launching the probe is gone, as the instability in the nuclear dumps builds to a critical level. This triggers a massive nuclear explosion that hurls the moon out of Earth's orbit and starts it on a journey across the cosmos, thus providing the premise for the rest of the series.
"Matter of Life and Death." Short on supplies, the rogue moon and its inhabitants stumble across a planet that looks inhabitable. Commander Koenig orders a reconnaissance mission to determine if it could provide a new home for the weary "Alphans." As the recon ship returns to base, an unexpected visitor appears. He is Dr. Russell's husband Lee (Richard Johnson), who was lost and presumed dead as part of the ill-fated Astro 7 mission 5 years previous. He looks normal, but the station's medical instruments are unable to detect his vital signs. He brings a warning: stay away from the planet or be destroyed.
"Black Sun." When an incoming asteroid changes course suddenly and veers off, the Alpha crew is tipped off to the existence of a major gravitational anomaly close by. It is a "black sun," a place where not even light can escape. Soon the moon and its inhabitants are being drawn into the "black sun," and Commander Koenig orders a survival ship launched with a few chosen crewmembers to try to escape. As the moon is drawn closer and closer to the "black sun," Professor Bergman comes up with a plan to use the station's gravity generators to create an anti-gravity screen to protect them on their way through. As they close in, they pass into a bizarre other-universe, where time has no meaning, the lines between science and mysticism blur, and Commander Koenig and Professor Bergman age several decades during the course of a conversation.
"Ring Around the Moon." The nomadic moon is trapped in a blaze of yellow light by a probe from the planet Triton. A crewman is taken over by a strange alien energy, but soon dies. Dr. Russell is abducted, and when she returns it is apparent that she has been taken over by the aliens as well, and is serving as a link to their craft, relaying important information. Commander Koenig hatches a dangerous plan to penetrate the alien forcefield, and inform them that their planet was destroyed when its sun exploded.
"Earthbound." As the episode opens, Commander Koenig is adjourning a command meeting. Commissioner Simmons wants them to focus their efforts on finding a way to return to Earth, which Koenig sees as a pointless waste of time and resources. When a vessel manned by unknown, humanoid aliens makes an emergency landing, Koenig grants them aid and rest. The whole station is shocked to find that the aliens are on their way to Earth. In return for Koenig's hospitality, their leader Captain Zandor (Christopher Lee) offers to take one Alphan with them. Simmons is obsessed with being the one to go, but his efforts to hitch a ride home do not exactly go as planned, ending with a delicious "Twilight Zone" twist.
"Another Time, Another Place." The moon is sucked in to some sort of space-time anomaly, which opens a gateway to an "alternate universe" version of the moon and Alpha's crew. Soon the Alphans find themselves arriving in orbit around Earth once again, but it is not the Earth they know. This Earth has suffered some sort of worldwide catastrophe, and there is only one inhabitable area left. This Earth already has a moon, complete with its own version of Moonbase Alpha. Comander Koenig and Pilot Alan Carter fly to the alternate moon to investigate, and find the station completely derelict and deserted. The alternate Alphans have resettled on the planet below. Koenig wants to resettle his crew there as well, but it becomes evident that the "original" Alphans and the altnernate Alphans cannot exist together. Soon it appears that the only chance for the Alphans' survival is to return to "their" moon and face what seems like certain death.
What jumps out immediately about Space: 1999 is the consistently high production values and attention to detail. The sets, models, and costumes are all designed to look as believable as could be expected in 1975. The sets are very clean, modern, and clinical, in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Andromeda Strain, and appear to have had a major influence on 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The models are very realistic; in particular, the Eagle scout ships look like something that a space program might actually develop as a logical descendant of the Apollo lunar modules. The special effects are unprecedented for the time, and rival the effects in major theatrical releases from that period; the special effects revolution brought about with the release of Star Wars was still two years away when the show first aired. Brian Johnson handled these remarkable special effects, and went on to handle similar chores for Alien and The Empire Strikes Back.
There was also a real attempt to make Space: 1999 an intelligent science fiction show, more than just an aliens-and-rayguns shoot-'em-up adventure. The characters are presented as very professional people of science, forced to face one crisis after another as they continue their uncontrollable journey. They are faced with genuine hardships and dangers, with no "magical" super-technology like transporters or replicators or holodecks or warp drives to save them.
Careful attention was paid to casting. The cast works well as an ensemble of characters from a wide variety of racial and national backgrounds. Landau and Bain (who were married at the time) were already well known from their work on "Mission: Impossible." (The pair later went on to do a number of TV movies together, including Steven Spielberg's Savage, and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island. They divorced in 1993, after almost 40 years of marriage.) However, by far the life of the cast is Barry Morse; his Professor Bergman stands out as the most lifelike, interesting character in the series, and the only one with any personality whatsoever in the first few episodes. Morse was a successful actor on the British stage and BBC radio and television before relocating to Canada in the 1950s, where he became such a fixture on television that he was jokingly referred to as "the CBC's test pattern." He is probably best known for his role as Lt. Gerard in the long-running US series "The Fugitive," where he earned the tongue-in-cheek appellation of "the most hated man in America." Morse portrays Bergman as a sort of Renaissance man, a highly skilled and professional scientist to be sure, but not afraid to ask deeper questions of philosophy or mysticism. He does all this with a sort of wry humor that would not seem out of place in a production of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," and indeed he bears more than a passing resemblance to Patrick Stewart in appearance, voice, and manner.
The video quality of these episodes is surprisingly good for a 25-year-old television series. These episodes have been digitally remastered from the original 35mm elements, and the results are impressive. For the most part the picture is sharp and crisp, although it is not without flaws. In a few places there is some noticeable yellowing and darkness that show the age of the film stock. Colors appear to be mostly accurate but do appear to be somewhat muted, except for blacks, which tend to look a bit oversaturated. There are some noticeable cases of edge enhancement and some very bad moire action in fine patterns such as air ducts. There are also some noticeable instances of flickering and shimmering, most frequently with white titles against the black of space. In some of the episodes there appear to be some digital problems with very fine textures such as Dr. Russell's blond hair, but it may have been just my eyes playing tricks on me. Overall, however, this is a very good video presentation and probably looks better than it ever did on broadcast television. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The audio is quite good for a mono track, with dialogue clear and easy to understand.
A&E has been somewhat inconsistent with their supplemental material in the past. Some discs, such as the Monty Python series box sets or the Horatio Hornblower box set, include a very nice selection of extra material. Others, such as the Longitude box set or the Life of Python set, are more limited in extra material. For Space: 1999 A&E has provided only a text screen of production credits and a photo gallery on each disc. The photo galleries feature on average six to eight pictures from each episode; most are stills from the episodes themselves, but there is an occasional behind the scenes shot. This is an extremely unimpressive effort for extra features, especially when we know what A&E is capable of when they put some effort into a disc.
While I understand the idea that Space: 1999 was meant to be a sober, serious show, and I understand that these characters are dedicated, professional scientists, I found the dialogue and acting to be far too reserved and clinical, at least through the first four episodes. Everyone is so calm, so professional, so detached that dialogue scenes (the bulk of most episodes) become almost hypnotic and tend to lull one to sleep. By the fifth episode Landau and some of the others loosened up a bit, and the series seemed to hit its stride. However, the same cannot be said for Barbara Bain; if she were any more wooden, they would have to build a bridge out of her. [Editor's Note: So, would that make her a witch?]
The direction also seemed to improve with the fifth and sixth episodes, with some more creative and imaginative camera angles than were employed in the first episodes of the series. The writing also seemed to take off at this point, creating a couple of intriguing episodes with interesting plot twists and more convincing human character interactions. However, as even Landau has noted, a lot of the motivations behind Koenig's decisions in "Another Time, Another Place" are hard to decipher and this detracts from the episode, as does the fact that the whole "alternate universe" concept has been done to death.
As stated above, there was a real attempt to make Space: 1999 a serious, "scientific" science fiction program. However, this is undermined to a great extent by plots that too often are resolved by means completely out of characters' control, rather than relying on their abilities. The cheesy mind-over-matter resolution to "Matter of Life and Death" stands out as the most egregious example. Even when the characters are forced to come up with a solution of their own, as in "Black Sun," it relies on a Star Trek-style technobabble solution that merely requires re-calibration of existing equipment to get it to do things it was never designed to do. There were also some continuity problems I noted. For example, if dwindling supplies were so critical in "Matter of Life and Death," how come we never hear any more about them after that? I also wondered just how many Eagle scout ships the Alpha base was supplied with; they appeared to go through them at an alarming rate, but always had plenty of backups.
As I noted earlier, A&E does a mixed but generally respectable job with their DVD releases, but they really dropped the ball in the area of extra content for Space: 1999. There really is no remedy for this, but if you want to learn more about the series I would recommend The Space: 1999 Catacombs as a great place to start.
While I understand and appreciate Space: 1999's place in the history of TV and movie science fiction, I find that the whole premise and many of the plots require just a bit too much suspension of disbelief for my tastes. Also, while I appreciate the desire to create an intelligent science fiction series that didn't rely on a lot of action or heroics, the show tried a little too hard to be cerebral, and wound up just a bit too dry and boring for me.
The crew of Moonbase Alpha appear to be destined to wander the galaxy forever, with no control over their travels and no expectation of ever going home; any punishment this court could mete out would be insignificant by comparison. A&E has given us a solid video and audio presentation of this series, but they are guilty of providing no meaningful extra content.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2001 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Credits
* Photo Galleries