Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Cult TV Flashback # 2: Space:1999's "Force of Life"

I’m posting Cult TV Friday Flashback on Wednesday this week because I’ll be out-of-town for the weekend, making presentations at the FantaSci Convention in Chesapeake and at the Williamsburg Regional Library. But I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to feature one of my all time favorite episodes of any cult TV show.

In 1975, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s epic space adventure Space:1999 aired in syndication in the United States and was a mega-hit in the ratings, causing networks to dump shows like William Shatner’s Barbary Coast, David McCallum’s The Invisible Man and others. The series was also a critical smash, at least before Star Trek fans and writers got their say in the burgeoning genre press (which in those days consisted mostly of Starlog). No less a source than Science Digest, in November of 1975, termed the Andersons' production "a visually-stunning space age morality play that chronicles the downfall of 20th-century technological man," while Newsweek noted on October 20, 1975 that "not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry." The Richmond Times commented that Space 1999 had "one foot in science and a range of special effects that would make even the emotionless Mr. Spock envious," and The Wall Street Journal enthused that it was "the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV. Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug." Even The New York Times (on October 19, 1975) reviewed the show positively, noting that it "has what no other TV science fiction program except Star Trek had - good stories and good special effects."

As these reviews make plain, Space:1999 was unlike any other sci-fi show ever produced, the model being much closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Trek or Lost in Space. It was a quantum leap forward for the genre, a pioneer. And as those who watch it will recall, the series had a whopper of a premise. The story involves the 311 denizens of Moonbase Alpha who, on September 13, 1999 are stranded there after the moon is blasted out of Earth orbit by a nuclear explosion. These stalwart scientists and astronauts are left to fend for themselves - drifting among the stars - as the moon encounters temporal anomalies, space warps, visiting aliens and the like.

The ninth episode of Space:1999, "Force of Life," written by Irish poet Johnny Byrne and directed by UFO and The Prisoner veteran David Tomblin, is probably the episode that really blew the whole Space:1999 controversy wide open for most viewers. Some people (like myself...) immediately fell in love with it, while others simply could not stand it. "Force of Life" was the dividing line between those who appreciate ambiguity in their drama, and those who prefer neat little wrap-ups and attempts at explanation.

To re-cap briefly, this episode of Space:1999 sees a mysterious ball of energy - an alien life-force - infiltrate Alpha. In particular, the alien focuses on Nuclear Generating Area Three and Technician Anton Zoref, played by Ian McShane (of HBO’s current hit, Deadwood.) Before long, to the dismay of Anton’s loving wife, Eva (Gay Hamilton), the technician begins to change. In particular, he can’t seem to stay warm. By seeming osmosis, he begins to drain all the heat from a lamp in his quarters, then a lighting panel in a corridor, and so forth...his appetite for energy and heat ever-increasing. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and his team, including Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) register the energy drops, but don’t yet realize Zoref is the cause. Before long, Zoref is seeking to stay alive (and warm...) by draining the heat from living human beings, his fellow Alphans. Koenig and the others catch on, but not before Zoref marches right into the Nuclear Generating Area and absorbs its heat...causing a tremendous explosion on Alpha. Out of the smoldering rubble of the devastated nuclear plant, the energy sphere re-emerges whole - stronger than before - and heads off into space, no doubt carrying elements of Zoref with it. There are no definite answers about the strange and dangerous alien encounter, but Professor Bergman speculates that the Alphans may have witnessed some kind of creative evolution, the birth stages of a star, perhaps...

And that’s it. The episode makes no bones about the fact that the Alphans don’t understand a lick about the alien that has come knocking on their doorstep. These are not the knowledgeable, highly-evolved humans featured on Star Trek: The Next Generation, who attempt to make peace with aliens and learn all about them through tricorder readings and techno-babble. Instead, the viewer is presented with a simple mystery. I love the episode’s haunting coda, wherein Dr. Helena Russell tries to comfort Anton’s wife, in mourning over the loss of her husband: "We’re living in deep space, there are so many things we don’t understand," she says. "We don’t know what that alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we’ve got to try to help each other understand..."

In other words, the episode perfectly reflects the essence of our human condition. There are things in this universe we don’t understand - fate, life, death, you name it - but what we can do is reach out to other humans; provide comfort and succor. For me that’s a very human and touching message in what is otherwise a spine-tingling episode with a hard-edge. For an example of the latter, I need only recommend you to the scene in which Astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) fires his laser at Zoref and chars his skin off. Completely. Yikes! (See photo above for a look at the charred Anton about to enter the nuclear generator...)

Some folks, including the late great Buster Crabbe, just didn’t like "Force of Life," and that’s certainly their right. Back when Space:1999 was on the air, he complained about the episode on a talk show in which the other guest was series star Martin Landau. Mr. Crabbe wanted to know what the alien was, what it represented, and what the whole episode meant. But of course, that would have spoiled the fun. Better, isn’t it, to leave some things unclear; to allow the viewer to fill in the gaps? (Think of Hitchcock's The Birds. Would any explanation really satisfy you as to the reason for the avian attack on humanity? The same holds true for "Force of Life.")

Over the years, I’ve had the honor to speak with Johnny Byrne, Space:1999's script editor, about many series episodes, including "Force of Life." This is what he told me about the episode in 2001:

"It was a process of a life force traveling through space, chrysalis into butterfly. That’s entirely all it was. Why can’t people see that? Just last night, I was watching this program about the universe, about the incredible ways life can survive. These scientists study these tiny microbes found on Mars, or learn how life can survive literally anywhere. It’s incredible. I didn’t know about these things when I wrote "Force of Life," but it is the same thing. The life force had its own agenda, and there were no philosophical discussions to be had. It couldn’t express itself verbally, because it was very different from the Alphans. I mean, was it going to pop in and say ‘charge me up and send me on my way’? That would have been ridiculous."

"The Alphans didn’t understand the process," Byrne continues, "but remember, we weren’t dealing with super smart space jockeys, we were dealing with near-future people caught in a very un-Earth-like situation. But the process was purely that of the caterpillar transforming into something else."

Beyond the interesting story, "Force of Life," is worthy of spotlighting because of its startling visualizations. I’ve always loved Space:1999 because it is a TV series that adroitly manipulates film grammar (i.e. mise-en-scene, camera angles), and in the process cogently transmit its themes. It is a visual masterpiece first and foremost, and almost everything else (including characterization...) is secondary to the mind-blowing imagery. David Tomblin directs "Force of Life" with a quiver full of stylish film techniques including a tracking camera, slow-motion photography, distortion lenses, and most famously of all, a slow turn of the camera into an inverted position.

The aforementioned upside-down camera turn, the final shot of the episode’s shocking teaser is efficacious because it symbolically (and visually) suggests that Moonbase Alpha will be turned on its head by the alien energy force. Even more effectively, the use of extensive slow-motion photography in the chase sequences prolongs the terror of Zoref’s victims, and heightens audience suspense. The menacing low-angle shots of the technician stalking his prey also contribute to the episode’s overall feeling of dread and paranoia. These moments - which fill the screen with the imposing image of the homicidal, starving Zoref - depict strength and the invincible nature of this alien intruder. The color and focus shifts on Zoref’s face further reflect that this human is in the grip of an alien force by alternating dramatically from blue to red (symbolically cold to hot...) as Zoref drains his victims. All of these remarkable and stylish touches make "Force of Life" appear more like a full-fledged feature than a mereTV show. As in the best of productions, form reflects content. This isn’t just a pretty melange of master-shots/close-ups, but a clearly-thought out tapestry that carries distinct visual meaning and thus thematic weight.

"The way it looked took some thought," acknowledges Byrne, "and was beautifully expressed by David [Tomblin]. I don’t understand why people don’t get it..."

I must say, I also like the little in-joke about Zoref’s name, which Byrne insists was unintentional. Jumble the letters around a bit and you spell the word...froze. Nice touch.

The essence and driving concept of Space:1999 is always that outer space is a realm both frightening and wondrous, so unlike the series' detractors, I believe it totally unnecessary to explain where the alien in "Force of Life" originated, how it thinks, why it selected Zoref, where it’s headed, and so forth. If all those questions had been addressed, the mystery would vanish, murdered in the rush to find an authentic-sounding scientific explanation or some pat psychological motivation for something that - to the Alphans - should remain inexplicable. There would be no room for horror, no space for awe, and thus no sense that the Alphans are strangers in a strange land - the very thesis of the program.

So today, I wholeheartedly champion Space:1999's ninth episode, "Force of Life." It credits the viewer with intelligence, and doesn’t rush to spoon-feed us every last detail. In its deliberate ambiguity and impressive technical skill, it represents a remarkable installment of an often misunderstood or underestimated TV series. After you watch it, you might look up at the stars and shiver. There are things up there we can’t even imagine, and every now and then, science fiction TV programming has a duty to look beyond laser duels, tales of good vs. evil, or metaphors for our political world, and focus instead on the universe of mystery inherent in the cosmos. That’s precisely what "Force of Life" accomplishes, and the genre is stronger for it.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:47 PM

    Wow, I never knew that Buster Crabbe watched Space:1999!

    I appreciate your comments on this show. It's nice to see that the show is appreciated! "Force of Life" is a good example of a Space:1999 ep that I react differently to as an adult than as a child (when the show was initially broadcast). Back then, the episode was a bit cold (no pun intended) to me. As with most first season eps, it seemed gloomy and a bit dull. I prefered the more colorful and action-packed second season (plus, who couldn't love the beautiful Maya!). As an adult, the first season now holds more appeal. I prefer the more serious and philosophical approach. Y2's rubber monsters are definately less impressive and interesting now.

    I totally agree about the stunning direction and camera work in the ep. This ep is different than most other 70's tv, and it's all the better for it. As a kid, the images of the charred Zoref were downright frightening, and the ep left a bad after-taste. I prefered the more up-beat Year 2 eps. One thing that can't be disputed are the huge sets of the first year episodes. They're the most impressive of any 70's sci-fi show. The Nuclear Generating Area set is magnificent. That brings to mind another issue. When watching both seasons on DVD, it becomes very evident that there was a dramatic nose-dive in production values in the second year specifically concerning the sets. I'm not just talking about the excessive revamping of sets in Year 2 (such as Psychon corriders becoming Vegan, Entran, and Dorcon corriders). I would have to point to such examples as the "hole-in-the-wall" viewscreens in eps such as "The Metamorph", "The Taybor", and "The Dorcon's". I've never seen any other sci-fi show resort to the cheesy trick of having people behind holes in the sets to represent "viewscreens". Production values had not only fallen in the second season, in such instances, they became downright pathetic. No wonder my brothers used to laugh at the show sometimes. I couldn't come up with any defense for such shoddiness.

    One thing that I really like about this ep is that the exact nature of the alien force is left a mystery. Not everthing should be overexplained as in Star Trek:The Next Generation eps.

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