As far as I can tell, there are two specific types of individuals likely reading this review right now; those who remember Space: 1999 in some capacity during it’s initial 1975 television broadest debut (simply looking to learn more about the A&E DVD release) and those (like me) who knew next to nothing about the show. I wasn’t yet around to enjoy the Gerry Anderson show, but being a fan of most things space science fiction, found myself attracted to this rich box set (thanks in no small part to Amazon’s continued recommendation after my having purchased some vintage Star Trek sets).
Gerry Anderson, as I would learn, was the man responsible for dozens of bizarre but well-respected franchises, not the least of which made use entirely of puppet characters (like Thunderbirds, Terrahawks, Captain Scarlet and so on). However, his transition into live-action entertainment included several feature films in the late 1960’s and was cemented with a live-action television series in 1969 called UFO. Space: 1999 came into being a few years later (1973) when a proposed second series of UFO was shelved by the networks.
The underlying storyline of Space: 1999 follows the ongoing predicament of the human inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha following a nuclear catastrophe on September 13 1999.
A massive nuclear waste depository on the far side of the Moon accidentally detonates in a massive, initiated by the buildup of magnetic radiation and causes a nuclear chain reaction far larger than any ever-encountered in Earth’s history. The force of the explosion sends the Moon hurtling out of Earth orbit and deep into the farthest reaches of space.
Not only do the 311 members of Moon Base Alpha find themselves stranded, they are also in effect traveling on board a spacecraft of which they have absolutely no control over. Still, despite their lack of navigation control, the humans manage to encounter a wide array of alien civilizations, dystopian societies, and strange naturally occurring phenomena during their inadvertent interstellar journey.
The DVD set manages to pack an awful lot of material into it’s small form factor and consists of 17 DVDs which span 9 thin packs within a cardboard outer slipcase (two DVDs per case/ 1 bonus DVD). Runtime comes in at whopping 41 hours, 36 minutes and that excludes the bonus material, which in this case includes behind-the-scenes photographs on each and every disc, and a 17th disc loaded with goodies: Year 2 Behind the Scenes Featurette, BBC’s Behind the Scenes featurette, original theatrical trailers, special effects featurette with Brian Johnson, vintage interviews and rare exhibit clip, interview with set designer Keith Wilson, 3-complete digitally remastered episodes with full length audio commentary tracks, a fan produced ending to the series, and some alternate sequences from a few key episodes (phew).
Now let’s talk about the show itself, shall we? Space: 1999 approaches “hard science” fiction classification with heavy tones of drama laced with just enough scientific accuracy to suspend disbelief. What strikes me as most odd throughout the journey of Moon Base Alpha is the sheer inconsistency of the scientific core used as the catalyst to weave the tale. Some argue that I’m expecting too much from an era of television making best suited for slapstick and sitcoms and perhaps this is the case, but make no mistake, my complaints have nothing to do with the visuals or special effects contained within.
In fact, and coming in as someone with no past experience with the program prior to having picked up this DVD collection, my initial reaction was one of awe at the quality of the visual effects. Truly the methodology and technique behind Space: 1999’s visual appeal was the driving force, perhaps even the benchmark ambition, of many scifi television shows that followed.
In any event, I was saying that the scientific base is strangely incoherent and there is proof of this nearly everywhere you look: Merely the idea of the moon blasting out of not only earth but the sun’s orbit as well is truly one of the biggest curiosities off hand. Would not it have been far more logical to simply have the Moon Base itself jettisoned into the far reaches of space as a result of a nuclear incident as opposed to the idea of the moon being an interstellar space vessel for the hapless residents? Then there are the distances. Occasionally the show goes to great lengths to establish fairly realistic travel times between celestial bodies only to follow up with the itinerant moon’s ability to traverse entire galaxies in a seeming matter of hours. Same thing applies with radio wave communications: sometimes craft are realistically out of range, other times distance and orbit paths have little baring in the ability for the cast to chat with one an other.
Perhaps my biggest pet peeve though comes from the vast majority of life forms our unintentional explorers encounter on an episodic basis. There are apparently, at least according to Gerry Anderson anyway, no shortage of English-speaking malevolent alien beings in the void of space seeking only to leverage John Koenig (who they all seem to know of ahead of time somehow) with their cunning. Say what you will about Star Trek but after a few episodes of Space: 1999, you may find yourself begging for an explanation as hokey as the universal translator.
This trend was far more forgivable the first season through as ignoring the “treacherous alien villain” wasn’t too much to ask in exchange for a pretty solidly written plot conclusion (often times one which would have its viewer puzzling how they’ll possibly tie it all together by the end). By the second season, the shift in dynamic is just enough to hint to the way of things to come in 1970’s science fiction: an alien on cast (Maya: a pretty woman shape shifter no less), a bit more over the top action sequences, and a penchant for closing out episodes with some witty banter between regulars. Of course this isn’t to insinuate a comparison to Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon directly, the second (and final) season of Space: 1999 simply often feels a bit more “par for the course” with what is typically associated with 70’s science fiction.
The first season, on the other hand, somehow manages to sidestep many such pitfalls either by design or otherwise. Strange scientific reasoning notwithstanding, some of the show’s most memorable and well-executed episodes began falling into order about ¾ through the first season.
By then the show had firmly established its deliberately methodic pacing, the likes of which would perhaps seem more appropriate in a multi-hour feature film than a 51-minute television serial. However, once acclimated, expect to notice a format that began to build off itself to the point where the production crew managed to fit an awful lot of material into a relatively short time slot. The special effects were definitely more modest the first season through but in a sense that seemed to force the writers into relying more heavily on clever scenarios and even more intelligent resolutions. Among the notable episodes that play out like a well-oiled machine of the process: Testament of Akardia, Dragon’s Domain and The Infernal Machine.
The second season, like many shows of the era and even contemporarily as well, suffered greatly by some cast changes. Perhaps the most distressing of which was the lack of the Professor Victor Bergman character; the soothing scientific persona played masterfully by the late Barry Morse that offered the perfect counterpoint to John Koenig’s (Martin Landau) point. Where Koenig was passion and fire, Bergman was reason and composure. Truly the dynamic was never balanced properly throughout the entire second season in Bergman’s absence.
Further complicating things, Gerry Anderson and wife Sylvia got divorced between the two seasons, which resulted in the crew having to bring in American Fred Freiberger to replace Sylvia Anderson as producer when the second season went into production in 1976. Not to discount Freiberger’s techniques, it is clear in retrospect that he didn’t possess quite an intimate passion for the material as did the original co-creator as indicated by his influence in emphasizing fluffy action and adventure stories as opposed to the metaphysical themes explored in the first season.
In all, Space: 1999 with all of its peculiarities and peccadilloes is a commendable piece of science fiction history. Whereas many such properties from the decade best known for roller derby, disco, and exposed chest hair suffer from an abundance of campy corniness, Space: 1999 is one of few that never allowed the over exuberance of the era to strip away it’s original purity. I can’t go as far as to say it’s for everyone mostly on account of what could very well be it’s most unique trait- it’s pacing that specialized in taking the long way around. Viewers, even hardcore science fiction aficionados, with short attention spans need not apply as Space: 1999 walked the line between drama and action without distraction or discrimination.
At the end of the day, you come away from this collection, like most A&E DVD releases, quite satisfied with the amount of material contained within and an undeniable respect for what it was Gerry Anderson set out to accomplish nearly 40 years ago. Truthfully, it’s a shame that A&E (or any DVD company for that matter), has deemed Gerry Anderson’s most recent live-action space drama, 1994’s Space Precinct 2040, unworthy of a domestic DVD release. The show, much like the universally adored series Farscape that would follow five-years later, combined live action elements with puppets to the space setting. Here’s hoping!
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Space: 1999 is a British science-fiction television series that originally aired from 1975 to 1977. In the opening installment, nuclear waste from Earth stored on the Moon's far side explodes in a catastrophic accident on 13 September 1999, knocking the Moon out of orbit and sending it and the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha hurtling uncontrollably into space. The series was the last produced by the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, famous for the TV series Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Fireball XL5, and UFO.