Sunday, September 13, 2015

Nostalgia Theater: Space: 1999 Gets Mooned!

L-R: Catherine Schell, Barbara Bain, Martin Landau
Space: 1999 is one of those fandoms that kind of passed me by. Airing for two seasons from 1975 to 1977, it had already come and gone well before I even made my entrée onto this mortal coil. And by the time I was old enough to have an awareness of such things, I'd pretty much set my fanboy compass for Star Trek and Star Wars (and Planet of the Apes, natch). Nonetheless, I've gotten plenty of requests to cover the show here in Nostalgia Theater, and given that this is "Breakaway Day" -- I'll explain in a second -- I figured what better time than now:

(Man, can you tell this is from the '70s or what?)

Created for British production house ITC, Space: 1999 was the brainchild of the late Gerry Anderson and his then-wife Sylvia, who had previously made their mark on British TV in the 1960s with such children's series as Thunderbirds and Fireball XL-5, both of which were sci-fi show that were performed out by super-marionettes. And by "super-marionettes," I mean puppets, but, y'know, super. If that sounds ridiculous to you, yes, it is. It absolutely is.

Anyway, by the '70s, they'd begun branching out into live action fare, starting with the short-lived alien invasion series UFO in 1970, which is what brings us to the start of our tale. When UFO was cancelled after one season, development had already begun on a second year that would have been set primarily on a swanky new moon base. Not wanting all that development work go to waste, the Andersons quickly got to work fashioning a new series from whole cloth that would take advantage of their big moonbase plans.

After a torturous development process that lasted several years, the Andersons recruited Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, the husband-and-wife team that had previously found considerable fandom as superspies Rollin Hand and Cinammon Carter on the first three seasons of Mission: Impossible, to anchor their show (and also make it appeal to American auds). The newly-titled Space: 1999 finally premiered in the UK on September 4, 1975 (it played in syndication stateside).

The premise: In the far-flung future of 1999 (the world of tomorrow!), a nuclear accident dislodges the moon from its orbit on September 13 (there's that Breakaway Day I was talking about), sending it careening through space (with nary a reference beyond the pilot to how extraordinarily bad for the Earth such an event would be). Landau was John Koenig, erstwhile station commander. Bain was Helena Russell, chief medical officer. Every week, Moonbase Alpha would encounter the usual array of phenomena that decades of sci-fi TV had prepped us for: alien beings, ancient civilizations, space viruses, etc.

With a big budget to match its big stars, Space: 1999 was clearly indebted to the aesthetic of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, but it suffered for what it wasn't: Star Trek. By now the original Trek had pretty much become the default setting for how to "do" sci-fi right on TV. As such, warranted or not, the comparisons there, and in those comparisons, Space: 1999 couldn't help but fall short. The characters were cold. The uniforms were dull. The stories were silly. Still, despite the fact that ratings weren't great, the show managed a last-second renewal for a second year:

(Note that they ditched the highfalutin season one credits for something more functional.)

At this point, the Andersons went all-in on the Star Trek angle, adding Catherine Schell to the cast as comely alien Maya, who would provide detached commentary on human foibles (She-Spock, basically), and bringing in Fred Freiberger, who famously presided over Trek's third (and worst) season, as showrunner. Needless to say, things went exactly as badly you'd expect. Scripts suffered, the stars quickly became disenchanted, and most importantly ratings remained in the toilet.

By the time Space: 1999 was cancelled at the end of its second year, it was pretty much a mercy killing. Through forty-eight episodes, it never quite measured up to the potential that the premise, production values, and cast signaled. All the same, Space: 1999 retains a devoted fanbase almost forty years after its finish, with new fiction still being published. All this even though we're now sixteen years past 1999, and as far as I know the moon is still in its orbit.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Getting to the Core of Filmation's Journey to the Center of the Earth

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Lois & Clark Turns 20!

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Rediscovering The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

No comments: