Space 1999 #1: Breakaway

The new commander of Moonbase Alpha's investigation of a mysterious disease uncovers the evidence of a far greater looming disaster. 
WHEN: The episode takes place between Sept.9 and Sept.13 1999. It first aired on Sept.4 1975. In our time line, the Moon didn't go spinning off on September 13th 1999, leaving earthquakes and devastation in its wake. Taiwan did suffer a terrible earthquake on Sept.17, though.

A note on the order of episodes: Like many programs of its era, Space 1999's episodes are meant to be stand-alone and could, for the most part, be aired in any order, especially season 1, so long as you start with the pilot. The DVDs present the episodes in production order, which is not at all the same as the airing order. Truth be told, neither is especially convincing. The production would have Matter of Life and Death second, an episode that features a visit to an alien planet that ISN'T Moonbase Alpha's first alien planet(!), while the broadcast order put Force of Life in the second spot, a bizarre encounter in "deep space". After the disappointments associated with the terrible airing order of Crusade (during my Babylon 5 reviews), I've decided to mix things up a little bit. I've chosen Andrew Kearley's well-researched and well-justified preferred order as suggested by his article Order from Chaos, which uses references about Earth, among other things, to draw up a more plausible time line. If you're planning on following along, you may want to grab that link.

OH THE NOSTALGIA! One of the reasons I wanted to cover Space 1999 is nostalgia. I watched the hell out of this show during my childhood and though I have no illusions about its quality - I fully expect to be disappointed - it remains iconic to me. In this section, I'll mention recollections and impressions from that time, when they occur (which will be rarely). One of the things to remember is that I exclusively watched these in French translation. The show was called Cosmos 1999, which is still how I tend to refer to it today. So it's very weird to hear all the British accents on the show - especially Sandra's "Asian"(?) one - because in French, they all spoke Standard Translation French. Breakaway was titled "À la dérive", which literally means Adrift. Another show I watched a lot of in French translation at the time was Mission: Impossible, which Space 1999 shares some strands of DNA with, most notably, its two leads, power couple Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (and I remember my parents specifically telling me these two were married in real life). I'm pretty sure that to my young mind, Cosmos 1999 was a sequel to M:I, and that Rollin Hand and Cinnamon Carter were destined for the stars.

REVIEW: As we head for the Moon's accidental breakaway from its orbit to become a giant spaceship, the pilot's main concern is presenting Moonbase Alpha and its personnel, and showing off Gerry Anderson's ability to pull off such a program. Everything his production company has done to date - UFO, all the Supermarionation shows - have led to this. Anderson's fingerprints are all over this, from the sharp model work and huge sets, to the focus on ground control chatter, pulp science and what many have called wooden marionette acting. The last bit is harsh, but there's an awful lot of staring at screens, and poor Barbara Bain seems to look on, sadly, a lot. I don't believe the problem is with the actors however, since they've proven their worth elsewhere, but rather with the way the show is edited. There's a lot of air in most scenes, air which might have been clipped out to make conversations faster and sharper. But make no mistake, Space 1999 was made in the shadow of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the film's future section even starts in 1999), with a similar visual aesthetic, a procedural quality, a Moonbase, lots of models, a shuttle sequence, people going crazy for a mysterious reason (no monolith though), and yes, a more naturalistic rhythm in the characters' speech patterns, including a lot of pauses.

In terms of design, the show looks modern. The lighting is atmospheric. The space action is described over speakers before it's eventually allowed to be spectacle, selling the reality of the setting. The uniforms, while drab, look functional (what is it with the giant shoulder zippers though?) and will be poached by Star Trek: The Motion Picture soon enough. The base is only slightly dated by the cathode-tube screens. The Moon surface action is believable, the slow motion standing in for low gravity. The Eagles - a reference to the very first Moon lander more than the bird - are iconic and functional-looking, and crash real nice. The grip guns live in my memory too. And the violence has some punch to it.  Only the Moon model itself disappoints. The program's best herald is its opening credits sequence, however, and everything seems a little dull by comparison. It features one of the great SF TV themes, at once 70s funky and sweeping orchestral; I've always loved it. It's also got a percussive "this episode" trailer that's another reference to Mission: Impossible, which doesn't feel spoilery, a technique stolen by the new Battlestar Galactica which does owe something to this series.

Breakaway isn't particularly character-driven, however. The three main characters are well served, but not given much emotion or back story. Commander Koenig shows resolve, Dr. Russell worry, and Prof. Bergman gentle humor, but that's about it. The rest of the cast are jobs and accents. The plot is caught somewhere between hard SF (ground control checks, the real dangers of working in a vacuum, etc.) and gonzo science fantasy (magnetic radiation that makes people go insane, the planet Meta which is "passing close" somehow), which is awkward, but then, this is a show about the Moon spinning off its axis and flying through the universe for two seasons. What are we expecting exactly? But the Moon's being used as a nuclear waste dump, and it's causing all sorts of problems of the EMP category (you can almost believe it if you cross your eyes when you look at it), until it blows and off Starship Luna goes (again, real physics would just prevent the show from happening). The episode manages some thrills (explosions and people getting hurled through glass) and real body horror (the way the affected astronauts scratch at their eyes). After the accident, Earth is in trouble, but we still leave it behind, a news report on the disaster the last transmission Moonbase Alpha gets before monitors go dark. Koenig inputs the problem in the computer, but is told "HUMAN DECISION REQUIRED", which speaks to a highly automated universe where these people, some 133 in number (the official number if CNN was informed of the loss of a couple pilots in the accident), will have to show a self-reliance perhaps missing from humanity as a whole in this era. That decision is not to try to get back to Earth, something that might be possible for just a few crammed in the remaining Eagles, but not for the rest of the base staff. Stuck with them is Commissioner Simmonds, who seems set to be a resident antagonist. And perhaps the planet Meta, with its potential for life, and so close somehow, could be their destination instead, and their new home. Sadly, Meta is never mentioned again, the apparently victim of going from pilot to series.

HEY, ISN'T THAT... Taking a page from the true completist's guide series to Doctor Who, About Time, I'll mention any prominent guest-stars I recognize. Filmed in the U.K., there's a certain amount of crossover between actors on Space 1999 and other British shows I like, most notably Doctor Who. In Breakaway, for example, that's Philip Madoc as Commander Gorski, Koenig's predecessor. Madoc is a famous repeat guest-star on Who, his most iconic role probably that of Solon in "The Brain of Morbius", but also that of the War Lord in "The War Games". Looking at the regular cast, Zienia Merton (Sandra Benes) was Ping-Cho on that same series in the Hartnell days, way back in Marco Polo. Prentis Hancock (Paul Morrow) had several roles in 70s Doctor Who as well (in The Ribos Operation, Planet of Evil, and Planet of the Daleks). Barry Morse (Dr. Victor Bergman) played Lt. Philip Gerard, the cop who hounded The Fugitive. Landau and Bain presumably don't need me to go on about them. Roy Dotrice as Commissioner Simmonds will also be immediately recognizable from a variety of TV projects, perhaps most notably, Beauty and the Beast and Game of Thrones.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Cool designs, a strong-looking cast, and the kind of model action Gerry Anderson is known for, but geez, does this thing ever need a tighter edit!


Shining Knight said...

Gerry Anderson didn't have anything to do with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Time Tunnel. Are you confusing him with Irwin Allen?

Siskoid said...

I totally am. Thanks for catching it! I'm blaming New Year's Eve fatigue!

Anonymous said...

And Roy Dotrice on B5 at the end of season 2, advising Sheridan that apologizing to the Centauri would guarantee "peace in our time" without any irony or historical awareness.

It may interest you to know that "Space: 1999" is actually based on the work of an ancestor of Gerry Anderson's; you can really see the similarities by season 2:

Siskoid said...

Haha very amusing. You actually made me wonder if Anderson was somehow related to Hans Christian and that there was a little mermaid-type episode down the line.

LiamKav said...

I've only ever watched 10 minutes of Space: 1999 in my life, so there's not a huge amount I'll be adding. I will be reading with interest, though.

One thought about bad airing order... I get the idea behind serialised TV, but in some cases it seems crazy what TV shows will use for their initial episodes. Not just the TV Tropes "early installement weirdness", but things like having your second ever episode be the cast all acting out of character (TNG). Or how the very first appearance of the Riddler in the very first episode Batman '66 is in an episode where he's trying to convince people that he's reformed. Or having the clothes and sets of your show change for the third ever episode, and then change back an episode later.

Siskoid said...

Series like this were meant to be sold abroad and run in any order. And they really meant it.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Oh this is going to be fun! I loved this series, but have not rewatched any episodes since I first saw them.

Siskoid said...

I think so, yes. I basically haven't seen them since their originally aired in French, so I'm really discovering it for the first time all over again.


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