Sunday, July 11, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 110: Space:1999: "Mission of the Darians" (1975)

Every now and then, I return here to my continuing exploration of Space: 1999, the landmark Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV space adventure from the mid-1970s....the era of Watergate, the Energy Crisis, and the War in Vietnam.

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
"
The Andean plane crash had happened, and I was struck by the fact that people had eaten each other to live." (David Richardson. TV Zone, Issue # 54: "Writing 1999: Johnny Byrne." Page 10, 1992.).

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.



8 comments:

  1. Personally - I always enjoy reading through the Space:1999 pieces as I truly don't have any contact with the show otherwise and it's something I'll definitely engage with when the opportunity permits it.

    Naysayers based on the age of a program? Well - they'll simply miss things, I suppose, which is a shame as there are some great stories out there. Just the other day in fact, something got me thinking on Blake's 7 - in particular the last few minutes of the 4th season ep 'Orbit' - and the chill that ran sharply down the spine at the simple, friendly utterance of a crewmate's name.

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  2. Hey woodchuckgod,

    Thank you for the supportive comment.

    It is silly to judge works of art based on dates that have passed, isn't it?

    I guess the same people who so casually deride Space:1999 today also dismiss Orwell's 1984 and Kubrick's 2001. It's short-sighted, I think.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the look back!

    best,
    John

    best,
    JKM

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  3. JKM
    You know Space:1999 has an extra special place in my science fiction heart.

    First, truly excited about the book you're writing. I still hope to finish reading the many others. At least I have them for when I do find the time.

    It was a treat to read your analysis of Mission Of The Darian. I look forward to writing about it myself my friend. You're inspiring me to get back to it. I loved your Alive references. Another book, which I found equally harrowing in its use of cannibalism, is Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex, a true story about a Nantucket whaling vessel that is crushed by a seemingly hell bent whale. The survival story of these fishermen is not for the squeamish. I pray they make a film someday, errr.. make that a really good film.

    I particularly enjoyed your insight on the various episodes and the running thread of "object lessons."

    I'm glad you mentioned the production values. Space:1999 looked amazing and this is a great example of that. Further, I loved your line about 1999 suggesting an expiration date. Simply not so and it really smacks of the kind of prejudices against the series that would reverberate forward today. Once again, your work continues to set the record straight on this fine series and its tales of the human condition.

    Exploring Space:1999 continues to be highly recommended and the only genuine resource for proper analysis.

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  4. Hi Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I don't know anything about the Whaleship Essex story (about to Google it...), so this is fascinating to me. Sounds very intriguing...and upsetting.

    Thank you for your kind comments about my book -- I know we both admire Space:1999 deeply -- and I can't wait to read your continuing series reviews (including "Mission of the Darians.")

    Best,
    John

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  5. Anonymous7:10 PM

    Your continued appreciation for Space:1999 (in 2010) is actually refreshing. Some critics and writers still ignore the program as if it never existed. A good example is the 2010 book "Fantastic Television" which ignores the show.

    "Mission of the Darians" probably stands out in many people's memories because it's such a visually spectacular example of 70's sci-fi tv. No other sci-fi show featured such elaborate miniatures (the Daria is still impressive in this CGI era). It also shares some of the same themes as other 70's sci-fi such as "The Starlost" and "SoylentGreen".

    It's almost impossible to think of Koenig's closing line coming from Captain Kirk.

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  6. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments and the continued appreciation of Space:1999. I appreciate the support. And I totally agree with you about Koenig's closing line in "Mission of the Darians!"

    best,
    John

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  7. I never gave this series a chance when it first aired for one simple reason.
    I couldn't accept this preposterous idea:how does a runaway Moon encounter one solar system after another. Is it traveling faster than the speed of light?
    Is space so crowded with alien intelligence,that a tiny planetoid is easily noticed in the vastness of space?
    No matter how good the episodes of a particular fantastic tv show are,one thing is required for me.
    The suspension of disbelief.
    The technological maguffin.The device.
    Time travel by twitching your nose.No thanks.

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  8. Hey Gordon,

    To each his own. I understand completely.

    On the other hand, as story editor Johnny Byrne noted to me during an interview, that weakness in the premise ultimately became the gateway for some amazing story telling, particularly in Year One.

    As the series progressed, the heroes began grappling with this premise themselves. How had they survived? Who or what was behind this? These issues were raised in episodes such as "Black Sun" and "The Testament of Arkadia."

    These questions opened up all sorts of questions about metaphysics and the like.

    Also, the moon wasn't encountering a new planet each week. That's something the press repeated ad nauseum...but wasn't actually true. Sometimes the episodes took place in deep space... isolated, without visiting alien worlds.

    And also, the first season originally accounted for over 877 days Alpha travel time, and "Space Warps," -- location altering phenomena (or were they beings?) ---were periodically encountered too.

    So the premise is a bit more believable (given the necessities of artistic expression/poetic license) than the popular reputation lets on. There were mitigating factors, in other words but to catch them, you do have to watch the episodes.

    But again, I can't and don't begrudge you your feelings or opinion. We all have our own personal taste and draw the line differently.

    Some people can't accept Spock as the product of two worlds, and two genetic blueprints, without the help of genetic engineering. How believable is it that an alien and a human would breed successfully?

    Others have a problem with V: the idea that aliens can travel to other solar systems but not produce their own water supply; they have to steal ours.

    It's just a matter of where you draw that - as you say -- line of suspension of disbelief.

    Thank you for the comment!

    best,
    John

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