CULT TV FLASHBACK # 110: Space:1999: "Mission of the Darians" (1975)
This series was the subject of my very first published book, 1997's Exploring Space: 1999 (McFarland and Company., Inc.), now available in Kindle Edition.
I've also featured over the years on this blog cult-tv flashbacks of the popular and scary 1999 episode "Dragon's Domain," as well as my own personal favorite installment, Johnny Byrne's "Force of Life."
Not long ago, I also posted an in-depth survey of Space: 1999's horror mythology.
Since one of the projects I'm working on right now is an officially licensed Space: 1999 novel (entitled "The Whispering Sea"), I've been pondering this classic series a great deal; and in particular the fashion in which talented writers Johnny Byrne and Christopher Penfold crafted meaningful and relevant drama out of real-life events, contemporary events.
Science Digest once aptly termed Space: 1999 "a visually stunning, space-age morality play that chronicles the downfall of 20th-Century technological man," and that quotation really gets to the crux of many of the series' mind-blowing narratives.
During Year One, author and script-editor Johnny Byrne penned an outstanding entry called "Mission of the Darians," the tale of the intrepid Alphans rendering help and assistance to a damaged space ark from the planet Daria.
What Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and his rescue team discover on the colossal, nearly-destroyed spaceship, however, is a real horror. Because of a nuclear accident on board the Ark generations earlier, the Darians have splintered into two societies, two classes.
Existing on one level of the damaged ship are primitive, mutated Darians, ones who have no technology, and worship a deity called "Neman." On another level are the technologically-advanced, genetically "pure" Darians. They are led by the likes of aristocratic Kara (Joan Collins) and Captain Neman, who exploit the unknowing primitives of Level 7 as a "resource." More specifically, the "pure breed" Darians manipulate the primitives' belief in God to abscond with body parts...for limb replacement surgery...and food.
Simply put, the Darians are cannibals. The upper class feeds on the lower class. Literally. Commander Koenig, Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) and Dr. Russell (Barbara Bain) learn about the Darian society up-close-and-personal, and Russell is herself almost used as "spare parts" in a Darian surgical theatre.
As Johnny Byrne noted on more than one occasion, the creative impetus for "Mission of the Darians" came from a real life, disco-decade story about human nature...and survival. On October 13, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 crashed in the inhospitable Andes mountains on the way to Santiago, Chile. Forty-five rugby team players were on board the doomed flight. Twelve people died in the crash, and another five expired from injuries sustained in the accident. With no medical supplies, no food, and no immediate possibility of help (the survivors learned from radio news broadcasts that the search for them had been called off...), the survivors resorted to cannibalism, to eating the flesh of their dead comrades.
On December 23, 1972, sixteen survivors were rescued from Flight 571, suffering from acute frost-bite, dehydration, malnutrition and altitude sickness. Their harrowing story was related in the best-seller, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974; J.B. Lippincott). Johnny Byrne later told TV Zone magazine, in relation to "Mission of the Darians" that
Later, Byrne informed me an in interview that his goal in crafting "Mission of the Darians" was not to make villains of the story's cannibals (or by extension, those who had resorted to cannibalism here on Earth.) "They had suffered a catastrophe and were trying to survive, and so the Darians weren't evil," Byrne explained to me. "Cannibalism happens. Flesh is flesh, whether it is human flesh or animal flesh. When I wrote that episode, it had just happened [in the Andes]..."
This idea of desperate times calling for desperate measures goes back to one of Space: 1999's most important and enduring "memes," what The Los Angeles Times' Dick Adler termed "limited options for survival" in a domain where resources are scarce.
The same writer also noted that where Star Trek had been "recklessly liberal," Space: 1999 was far more "realistic" in approach.
When I read Byrne this particular quote, he approved of Adler's observation, calling it "astute." "Space:1999 represents a very definite shift from the 1960s to the 1970s," Byrne elaborated. "It wasn't a hippie dream. It was the wake-up after the dream."
In Exploring Space:1999 I note that not one of the alien cultures encountered by the Alphans in Year One are technologically less advanced than the turn-of-the-century Alphans.
As "advanced" peoples, these alien cultures thus prove examples (or teachers) for the humans of Alpha to either emulate or reject. For instance, In "The Guardian of Piri," Koenig rejects the Pirian manner of "perfection" because it robs humanity of its impetus to achieve. In "Missing Link," Koenig likewise rejects the Zennite way of life because it values intellect entirely over emotions, and Koenig still believes it is "more important to feel" than to dispassionately reason. In Byrne's "Voyager's Return," the Alphans reject a society that has found purpose only in vengeance, the Sidons. And on "The Last Enemy," the Alphans encounter two humanoid races that have fallen into a state of everlasting war, and reject that outcome as well.
If, as viewers, we are to believe that the Alphans are, perhaps, being "guided" to a particular destiny (as Byrne's Year One denouement, "The Testament of Arkadia" indicates) then these particular planetary stops (Piri, Delta, Zenno, etc.) along the way are, essentially, object lessons for a species that seeks a second chance in space (after the destruction of the Earth's environment/civilization following the premiere episode, "Breakaway.")
In "Mission of the Darians," the Alphans receive another object lesson about survival in outer space. In particular, they are confronted with a terrible "what if" scenario that mirrors, in many ways, their own forseeable future. Without resources, and facing a long trip to a destination planet or "home," the humanoid Darians have fed on themselves, on their people, and on their people's hopes. They've even fed on their people's spiritual beliefs to assure continued survival. This "what if" situation is put into explicit perspective for John Koenig by a final question from Alan Carter.
The pilot asks his commander: "If the same thing happened on Alpha, would you have chosen differently?"
Notably, Koenig doesn't answer the question directly. "Remind me to tell you sometime," he quips, deflecting the query.
I asked Byrne specifically about this exchange, and he told me that Koenig's deliberate non-answer is particularly important. Koenig could not have chosen differently, Byrne explained, because ultimately survival is the name of the game for mankind. Even the humane John Koenig, -- if trapped in a desperate situation -- would act...desperately.
What makes "Mission of the Darians" such a powerful and enduring episode of this 1970s series, I submit, is that Byrne offered a very clever space-age parallel for the Andes story, on virtually all fronts.
For instance, the survivors of the plane crash who resorted to cannibalism sometimes likened the process of eating the dead to Christianity's sacred "Holy Communion."
Likewise, Byrne's fictional Darian society -- which uses a "God" Neman and angels (men in space suits) to abduct healthy, non-contaminated members of the society as food stuffs and replacement "parts" -- incorporates this spiritual, religious angle in its narrative; though in an entirely futuristic/space-age setting.
Byrne also inventively and imaginatively takes the idea of "cannibalism" to the next level here. In "Mission of the Darians" cannibalism is not just eating the dead but harnessing the dead for personal (and species) immortality; and in a very real sense, feeding on the "hopes" and "dreams" of a people in the process. Cannibalism in "Mission of the Darians" is thus literal and metaphorical.
A very strong example of the long-lived "space ark" sub-genre of science fiction (last seen in the effective sci-fi horror pic Pandorum), Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians" is also distinguishable as one of the program's most lavishly-designed and executed stories. The episode features impressive miniatures, gorgeous matte-paintings of the S.S. Daria, and several new live-action sets.
Byrne also remembered the episode's production values as "simply astounding," and credited director Ray Austin for his visualization of the narrative.
"Just the way it played out, I was amazed how one three-minute sequence featuring Barbara Bain and the Darian 'vetting' procedure so completely explained the bizarre food-chain of the devastated environment," Byrne told me.
This is no surprise, but occasionally, I get ribbed or fisked for my continued appreciation of Space: 1999 in the Year 2010. It's very easy for people who have never watched the series to laugh at the year 1999 in the title; which they mistkanely perceive to be some kind of expiration date. Without ever having seen the program consistently, these naysayers choose to deride it as campy because it was made in the 1970s and reflects several 1970s conventions in terms of fashion, hairstyles, and mode of communication.
Yet Space:1999 retains tremendous currency today, in the Era of Peak Oil and limited planetary resources. All of Space:1999's action, for instance, predicated on an accident...an atomic explosion on a lunar dump. With the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, we've certainly seen that such massive catastrophes are possible...and boast unforseen impact.
Anyway, a regular blog reader recently sent me a great link showing that, yep, NASA still has Space:1999 on the brain too.
In particular, the Agency has launched an Online Game called -- you guessed it -- Moonbase Alpha. The game deals with survival in a difficult environment and with limited resources...the lunar surface. Check it out here.