Space: 1999 (When Past Future Becomes Past Past)

Today is the birthday of Martin Landau (b. 1928). Landau is one of those actors who’s worked constantly but sort of at a low profile, with periodic tent pole moments (usually one per decade) where he enjoyed greater limelight: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the series Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s been in much more of course, but these are highlights.

Space: 1999 has fallen by the wayside I feel, but at the time when it was made it was culturally crucial. It filled a void, and was transitional in aesthetics. The American science fiction series Star Trek had ceased production in 1969. The original Star Wars film came out in 1977. Space: 1999 lives at the center to connect them and draws from much else besides. It was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, best known today as the creators of The Thunderbirds, and this show proved to be the culmination of their careers. Space: 1999 was the most expensive British series ever produced up until that point. Still, despite that, with its extensive use of miniature sets and flying model rockets, one can’t help seeing it as an exercise in their patented technique of “Supermarionation”, ironically cheesy looking by modern standards.

Converting this into a toy will be an easy matter

On the other hand, the look of the sets clearly draws from the realistic technological speculations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The series is set on a lunar outpost called Moonbase Alpha; scenes in the Kubrick film had been set on a similar base. The environment on the tv show is similar. But the time frame on both 2001 and Space: 1999 in retrospect proves to have been laughably optimistic. The U.S. was in the process of cancelling its lunar exploration program just as the series was getting under way. By the time 1999 rolled around, manned space exploration had consisted of nothing but brief excursions into low earth orbit for a quarter century.

The show is much closer to fantasy than science fiction, anyway. The entire premise, that an explosion causes the moon to leave the earth’s orbit intact and begin sailing around the universe on a series of adventures is so implausible that the word implausible hardly seems sufficient. The fact that the heroes constantly encounter humanoid aliens is equally fantastic. While this also happened on Star Trek and Lost in Space, those shows are set farther in the future and much farther away from earth. In Space: 1999, the heroes leave the earth’s orbit and five minutes later begin encountering weirdness. This aspect of the show, to my mind, aligns it closer to something like Dr. Who, which was still going strong at the time in its original incarnation (with its fourth Doctor, Tom Baker). Like Dr. Who, Space: 1999 seems much more about magic than science. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is more than okay. Just go with it. After all, the characters sure seem to!

Hey! You! Get offa my cloud!

To bolster American ratings, ITC’s Sir Lew Grade insisted on the casting of husband-wife acting team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both fresh off the hot U.S. show Mission: Impossible as the leads Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell. But while a logical move and a laudable instinct, that gesture was hardly sufficient to make Space:1999 a smash hit in the U.S. Among other things, as a syndicated program it would never get prime time slots here nor be vigorously hyped by networks. I seem to recall it airing on Sundays, probably somewhere around 6pm. I was between the ages of ten and 13 when it ran here — of course I watched it faithfully every week. But it distinctly lacked the flash that American network tv shows had. I remember tons of excitement about The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter. But excitement was not a word I would use for how we felt about Space: 1999. It was sort of…quietly in our lives. Part of that was marketing but part was also the show itself. The idea that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain would make an American hit show is the kind of amusing, but understandable miscalculation a British producer would make. Silly man! You can’t just hire a “recognizable, competent American acting professional” to carry your series! That’s how they do things in Britain! In America we are looking for gimmicks and phenomena. At that time the American audience was looking for the next Fonzie, the next Baretta…a Farrah Fawcett-Majors, an Incredible Hulk. By contrast, Space:1999 seemed very low-key and subdued. Lots of drab and dull people brooding and worrying all the time. Though undeniably beautiful, Bain in particular was a snooze-o-rama. Landau could occasionally get worked up and interesting. With Bain, it’s almost like you’re looking for some sort of knob on your TV to turn HER up.

Hello! We’re ready for our action figures!

In their second season, the show tried to address this somewhat, replacing the mildly amusing science officer (Barry Morse) with an alien woman (Catherine Schnell) and throwing in more humor and action. But that was both inorganic and insufficient. Expensive to produce, the show was cancelled.

We were delighted to discover the other day that the whole series is available to watch on Hulu, so I looked at some episodes after an interval of four decades. And it was a gas. From the melodramatic, disco-tinged theme music, to the bell-bottomed polyester uniforms, long hair and mustaches (we just don’t see our action heroes sporting those styles any more. It looks like they’re all getting ready to go dancing). Many of the props are hilariously antiquated and were wrong for a space station environment even at the time. Drinking out of a breakable glass? Writing on pieces of paper on clipboards? Clocks with faces and hands? And science fiction set design has gotten so much better, so much more specific since then. What does that unmarked button DO? There are all these vague buttons and flashing lights all over the place and it’s obvious their only function is atmosphere.

But yet again, much of it made me nostalgic. There are video screens and electronic monitors of one sort or another all over the place on the show, yet they are SEVENTIES screens and monitors and signals. They were the height of modernity at the time; now they look like my youth, when video tech was in its infancy. In its way it’s like looking at an old radio cabinet:

Landau was very dissatisfied with Space: 1999, particularly its second season, and was only too glad to be done with it. But, really, since the next phase of his career was characterized by stuff like Meteor (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), perhaps he began to find himself a little homesick for Moonbase Alpha.

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One Response to “Space: 1999 (When Past Future Becomes Past Past)”

  1. Big fan as a kid myself…the world of science fiction and actual moon landings made the future seem so exciting to a young kid (born in 1963) back then…I fear that kid would be very disappointed in what has transpired since in that area…

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