The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
The future just isn't
what it used to be


January 7, 1999
By Franklin Harris

Is it just me, or is the future not quite what you expected?

Back in 1975, 1999 looked a lot different. It held the promise of a city on the moon, hand-held laser pistols and unisex, bell-bottomed jumpsuits for everyone.

Back then, the future was "Space: 1999."

Now almost forgotten by everyone other than science fiction aficionados and its own, small cult of fans, "Space: 1999" (1975-77) was a phenomenon in its own time.

To quote Roger Fulton and John Betancourt's "Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction," "Stylishly and extravagantly filmed, it devoured a fortune in special effects, took two years to plan, 15 months to make and should have been one of TV's most exhilarating adult space odysseys."

But after only 48 episodes, "Space: 1999" ended a failure.

At $275,000 per episode, "Space: 1999" was the most expensive television program to date, and it showed.

Producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson provided their creation with lavish special effects and a big-name cast that included the then husband-and-wife team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, both of "Mission Impossible."

Although rejected by NBC, CBS and ABC, "Space: 1999" was syndicated in 196 cities, largely on network-affiliated stations. Some of those affiliates preempted network programs like "Happy Days," "Good Times" and "Rhoda" to make room for "Space: 1999" on their prime-time schedules.

Started with a bang

"Space: 1999" also started with a bang -- literally.

As recapped each week during the show's opening credits, on Sept. 13, 1999, a massive lunar explosion blasted the moon out of the earth's orbit and into deep space, leaving Commander John Koenig (Landau), Dr. Helena Russell (Bain) and 311 astronauts, scientists and technicians -- ahem! -- lost in space.

Each episode, the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha were forced to fight for survival in a strange, unknowable universe. And as the moon traveled ever deeper into the cosmos, the Alphans confronted god-like beings, hostile aliens and the occasional strange, new world.

The first season was cerebral, drawing its inspiration largely from "2001: A Space Odyssey." The acting was, for the most part, understated, and the plots were philosophical.

"Space: 1999" was also a darker brand of science fiction than that to which most people were accustomed. During its first season, it exhibited none of the can-do optimism of "Star Trek" and the sci-fi serials of the '40s and '50s.

After audiences reacted negatively to the bleak, near-Lovecraftian atmosphere of season one, former "Star Trek" producer Fred Freiberger came aboard to "Americanize" the show, which was a British production filmed at London's Pinewood Studios. As a result, season two was filled with action, major cast changes and romantic interludes.

Co-star Barry Morse's character, Victor Bergman, gave way to sexy Catherine Schell's character, Maya. And, ironically, the romantic tension between Koenig and Russell heated up just as Landau and Bain's real-life marriage was getting frosty.

Unfortunately, season two's changes couldn't save the show, which went from bang to whimper in two short years.

While "Space: 1999" performed fairly well around the world, including in the United States, its native Britain virtually ignored it. When the time came to commission a third season, ITC, the show's production company, passed.

"Space: 1999" faded into obscurity.

Renewed interest

Recently, however, interest in "Space: 1999" has revived somewhat, spurred on, no doubt, by the coming of the year 1999.

Columbia House has released about half of the show's episodes on videotape, and vintage "Space: 1999" toys and models from the '70s can fetch hundreds of dollars at auction.

In 1997, John Kenneth Muir published a book, "Exploring 'Space: 1999,'" defending the program from its detractors.

As Muir notes, some of the show's more fantastic scientific sins (of which there were many) were also committed by "Star Trek" and subsequent SF programs, while others were explained away, at least partially, as the series progressed.

Muir's book also is a pretty good history of "Space: 1999," and it includes a painstakingly detailed episode guide.

Muir's only shortcoming is that he doesn't know nearly as much about other SF shows as he does about "Space: 1999," as is evident when he writes about "Babylon 5," for example.

Of course, now that 1999 is here, it's interesting to see how poorly "Space: 1999" performed as prophecy.

Obviously, we have neither a base on the moon nor (thankfully!) unisex jumpsuits. We're also a long way from laser pistols and spaceships as advanced as the Alphans' Eagle transporters.

On the other hand, we do have powerful, inexpensive personal computers, while the folks on Moonbase Alpha were stuck with one huge, clunky mainframe that was prone to malfunction when plots dictated.

The moonbase computer probably wasn't even Y2K compliant.

As is too typical in sci-fi, the creators of "Space: 1999" tended to overestimate advances in big-ticket gadgets like weapons and spaceships (the sorts of things usually built by the government) and to underestimate advances in consumer technology.

Still, "Space: 1999" deserves better than it has gotten so far. It may not have worked as prediction and may have stretched scientific credulity, but its vision of a dark, foreboding universe is almost unique in SF television. And its is a vision that can give us some much-needed perspective when we think of just how small we are and how big the rest of the universe is.

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