Space: 1999 — 20/45 Years Later
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the loss of Moonbase Alpha. But if you don’t remember September 13, 1999, then you probably weren’t a child of the 1970s, and you didn’t watch Space: 1999.
Despite being the most expensive British television show of its time, Space: 1999 has never enjoyed the fame and long-term fortune of Doctor Who or Star Trek. It only ran for two years, with the second year under the command of the notorious American producer Fred Freiberger.
The show almost went out of its way not to ingratiate itself with viewers. Its characters were cool professionals rather than charismatic heroes. The plots focused on the problems facing the base more than the lives of its inhabitants. Even the color palette steered away from vibrant colors towards the whites, blacks, and grays of the Moon.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Space: 1999 is one of the few major science fiction TV series from that era that has never been revived. (Blake’s 7 is another notable exception, and would be even more timely today.) That’s too bad — because if you pull out some old DVDs, the series turns out to be a lot better than you may remember.
For starters, the model-based effects still look surprisingly good. They’re not flashy, of course, and you won’t get any fancy spaceship dogfights in the years before Lucasfilm. But the ships still have a visual weight and look surprisingly real.
Shirley Space: 1999 Isn’t Serious, Is It?
The acting also adds a lot to the stories. There’s not a lot of high-pitched drama in this cast — in fact, you could reasonably accuse them of underacting. But they play the most outrageous situations without a hint of jokiness or parody. Their serious but not overreacting approach makes suspension of disbelief easier.
At the same time, the show wasn’t afraid to swing for the fences with its stories. In “Collision Course”, Commander Koenig meets a dramatic precursor of Babylon 5’s Vorlons, a species on the cusp of ascending to a higher plane of existence. The episode turns on Koenig risking the base to ensure its survival and their transformation. The episode works because you can simultaneously buy in to both Koenig’s belief and his crew’s doubts.
The show is also comfortable with mysteries and near-defeats. In another early episode (“Force of Life”), a passing alien life form possesses a crew member and sucks energy out of the base before moving on. The characters barely survive and never quite understand what they were facing… and the show is okay with that.
There are plenty of bad episodes, of course — especially in the second season — and the less said about the science of the show the better. But if you can get over the show’s one big gimme of “the Moon goes on an interstellar voyage without turning everyone on it to jelly”, there are some thought-provoking stories to be had.
And then there’s the episode “Dragon’s Domain”, which frightened me so much as a child that I still don’t dare watch it today. (I wasn’t the only one, either.)
Return to Moonbase Alpha?
Today’s reality is a little more grim than Space: 1999’s fantasy. It’s 2019 and we don’t even have a moonbase. But the Moon is an iconic setting, and there’s still a lot of appeal in the idea of a small band of humans wandering the universe in an improvised spaceship.
With the right scientific handwaving, it would be a lot of fun to see Moonbase Alpha go spinning out of orbit again — either as a dramatic series or as a game. Anyone for Space: 2049?