Thursday, June 30, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #137: Space:1999 "Voyager's Return" (1975)

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) certainly took more than its share of critical brickbats regarding the scientific accuracy of the series premise, which saw Earth's moon blasted into deep space by a colossal explosion (in the year 1999.)

And yet the undeniably wonderful aspect about that very far-out concept is that it permits contemporary man rather than future man the opportunity to engage with and confront the mysteries of the cosmos. 

As I wrote in my book about the series, Exploring Space:1999 (1997) the powerful central notion of Space: 1999 is that it is us -- our generation, right now -- up there reckoning with the awe and terror of the unknown. 

As many 1970s articles described this idea, the Alphans of Space:1999 are "technologically and psychologically" unprepared for a space journey of any kind, and so have much to reckon with and learn about on their unplanned odyssey.

An illuminating comparison involves Star Trek.  In that (wonderful) franchise, man is the master of his destiny and master of the stars as well.  In Space:1999, man is scraping to get by, to survive in a universe he isn't equipped to truly understand or countenance.

Space:1999 was thus at its finest when the writers remembered their central conceit regarding the characters; that contemporary man, with all of his flaws and foibles, is at the core of all the storytelling

One impressive installment that plainly remembers this idea is Johnny Byrne's "Voyager's Return," directed by Bob Kellett.

In "Voyager's Return," Moonbase Alpha encounters a technological terror of human design when the errant moon crosses paths with a Terran space probe launched in the year 1985.  That probe, Voyager One, makes use of a dangerous interstellar drive called "The Queller Drive."  The drive spews "fast neutrons" into space, and destroys all life that it comes in contact with.

The Queller Drive has a spotted history.  It kicked in too early during the launch of Voyager 2 (when standard chemical rockets should have been employed...) and the probe immediately killed two hundred people, including Paul Morrow's (Prentis Hancock's) father. 

Now, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) must decide if he should destroy Voyager One and the Queller Drive outright, or attempt to commandeer the probe for its black box, which contains valuable data about the star systems the craft has visited.

Ultimately, Koenig sides with Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), over the objections of Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Paul, and sets about to tamper with the Voyager One so as to retrieve the crucial data. 

When Bergman's efforts fail, a scientist on Moonbase Alpha steps forward and reveals that he is, in fact, Ernst Queller (Jeremy Kemp), the despised and derided inventor of the dangerous drive system. 

Queller believes that he can right the wrongs of long ago, and commandeer Voyager One before it endangers Alpha.

Unfortunately, the Queller Drive has malfunctioned again.  Voyager One recently passed into the territory of a race called the Sidons.  There, the Queller Drive rendered lifeless two inhabited planets and now the Sidons are in pursuit of the "primitive" craft seeking their own brand of justice. 

Worse, the Sidons intend to destroy Moonbase Alpha and Earth as well, for the crime of genocide...

At the heart of "Voyager's Return" are the issues of atonement, redemption, and even revenge.  Dr. Queller desperately wants to make amends for the Voyager 2 accident, and contribute something positive as his legacy. 

Meanwhile, those around him -- again, examples of contemporary man -- judge him with harshness and anger.  Morrow won't forgive him, or even accept his presence.  And Queller's assistant, Jim Haines, lost two parents during the Voyager 2 accident.  Jim physically assaults Queller at an inopportune moment, and his impulsive actions nearly cause the destruction of the base. 

Again, future man may be more evolved and peaceful, but contemporary man is passionate and irrational even when common sense indicates he should be otherwise.

Writer Johnny Byrne described for me during an interview in 2001 his feelings on this issue of contemporary man and his use/mis-use of technology as it pertains to this adventure: 

"We take a number of lessons from this episode. And one of them is that we are all governed by a universal principle: that our technology develops faster than our wisdom. Let me go back. I think this is a universal principle: the rate of a life form’s biological development is out of key with the rate of technological development. In a hundred years, we’ve advanced enormously in terms of technology, but we’re essentially the same fearful, passionate, mistake-ridden, aggressive, greedy, ego-driven creature. And there is nothing materially different in recorded history going right back to the Greeks. We are governed by the same kind of incoherent tribulations today as we were then. We really haven’t progressed."

Again, this is a very realistic (as opposed to idealistic) view of mankind, and one of the things that, actually, makes us root so strongly for the denizens of Moonbase Alpha.  They weren't born into paradise and prosperity.  They don't possess an endless supply of resources.  They haven't colonized a thousand worlds. Instead, they are people -- just like us -- attempting to do their best in a difficult situation.  That is innately heroic, even if the Alphans don't always live up to the best aspects of their nature.  And in "Voyager's Return," Jim Haines' impulsive violence is ultimately matched by his capacity to forgive and accept Queller.  This is a triumph of the human spirit.

As I've written before, Johnny Byrne often penned Space:1999 episodes based on the events and people he saw in the world around him.  In writing "Mission of the Darians" he subtly re-parsed the details of a news story about a soccer team's struggle to survive in the Andes.  For "Voyager's Return," Byrne based Ernst Queller on a very well-known man.

"Dr. Queller was Werner Von Braun, or someone like him," Byrne informed me. "He created something he believed was good, but it had catastrophic effects. In that sense, he was like all those scientists who created the V-1 and V-2 rockets…his work was used or wicked purposes."

Archivist Martin Willey at the impressive Space:1999 site The Catacombs also notes that "Queller was named after Edward Teller, the Hungarian-American scientist known as 'the father of the H-Bomb.'"

These 20th century men brought terrifying new technologies into the world, and yet Space:1999 evokes sympathy for them as men; as human beings who saw their work perverted.  In "Voyager's Return," Queller is a man saddled with incredible guilt and shame, and yet when he has an opportunity for redemption...he takes it.

"It was redemption delayed, but redemption nonetheless," Byrne told me. 

Again, it's a point worth belaboring: a perfect future man doesn't often require redemption...because he doesn't make mistakes.  Space:1999's "Voyager's Return" reveals modern man making a mistake on a galactic scale, and shows how his soul pays the price.

The Sidons make for an interesting and pointed counterpoint to Queller in "Voyager's Return."  They have clearly suffered and have been wronged, and yet their need for "justice" blinds them to the fact that they have set out to murder innocent beings; to commit the very crime of genocide that they accuse the Alphans of. 

In contrast, Queller set out to kill no one.  His engine malfunctioned and people died.  The Sidons -- enraged by what they perceive as an attack -- plan to lash out at the innocent and guilty alike with no mercy, and with no sense of reflection about their deeds.  Where Queller is haunted by his conscience, the Sidon leader, Aarchon is at peace with his decision to commit murder, and hides behind the letter of the law to do so.

Today, "Voyager's Return" remains very dramatic and affecting, in part because of Johnny Byrne's sense of our common humanity but also because of his wicked sense of humor.  The episode's teaser is chilling, and amusing, at least in a macabre fashion.  Voyager One destroys a manned Eagle in flight, and then announces -- ignorant of an act of murder -- "Greetings, from the people of the planet Earth."

This is our greeting to the universe?  Fast neutrons spit into space, creating a giant wake of destruction?  The moment represents fine gallows humor, but also strongly transmits Byrne's thematic point about technology outpacing human evolution...much to our detriment.

"Voyager's Return" isn't often listed as a "best" or "favorite" episode of Space:1999, and it's easy to see why that's the case.  It does not feature the mind-blowing alien vistas and cultures of such episodes as "Guardian of Piri," nor the show-stopping special effects of an episode such as "War Games."  The episode is not as overtly frightening or Gothic as "Dragon's Domain," nor a chapter in the series' larger story arc (involving the mysterious unknown force). 

Instead, with real dedication and intelligence, the episode focuses strongly and simply on issues of the human heart.  On rage.  On desperation.  On shame.  On forgiveness.  These aren't the emotions of a "fantastic future" so much as they are the emotions of today, and such qualities make the program well-worth remembering, even if the less-imaginative among us insist that Space: 1999 is past its expiration date. 

"Voyager's Return" proves that it isn't.


  1. Brian6:00 AM

    Good timing, John: I happened to watch Voyager's Return just yesterday. And it *is* one of my favorite episodes of the series.

  2. Hi Brian,

    That is serendipitous timing! We must be on the same wavelength, then. Glad to here I'm not alone in my appreciation for "Voyager's Return." It's a really great installment of the show, I think, revealing what Space:1999 could accomplish in human terms and in characterization.

    All my best,

  3. Anonymous6:57 PM

    Very nice summary and great insights, as always. I'll admit it's not one of my favorite Y1 episodes, but it is one that is well worth re-watching given the pathos of the situation. It's also one of the rare episodes where we actually learn some character background (Paul's father's fate), and for that alone it is highly watchable.


  4. Hi Meredith,

    Great comment. I agree with you that "Voyager's Return" is somehow overlooked, in some way. I often overlook it myself. But when I watched it the other day I saw just how sturdy and powerful (and passionate!) it is. A remarkable episode in so many ways.

    You're also absolutely right that this is one of the rare eps of 1999 that shows us character history (Paul's father) and background. Highly watchable is right.

    Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend.


  5. Well done as usual JKM. Watching this as an adult, I get a kick out of seeing some water drip out of Voyager's rocket in one of the closeups. If anyone's interested, there is a great interview with the real Voyager's chief scientist from June 17th on NPR's Science Friday site. Thanks for the flashback and have a great holiday weekend.

  6. jdigriz:

    Thank you for the kind words. I remember that particular shot that you're talking about (of Voyager's rocket dripping water...)! And I would very much like to listen to NPR's interview with the "real" Ernst Queller! :)

    I hope you have a great holiday weekend as well, my friend. Take care and be safe.


  7. Another Space:1999 homerun.

    I loved your very deep analysis of man and the points about our wisdom lagging behind our technological development.

    That last paragraph John is poetic. It's sad to see Space:1999 as science fiction's whipping boy, but the intelligent fans out there understood its strengths and its potential and were open to it. Many examples from the series prove that out. This being one of them.

    In fact, science fiction television rarely reaches ambitiously for the stars like this series did.

    It's great to see you continue to keep its memory alive here. all the best, sff

  8. I've always loved the Lenny Bruce line on von Braun, Lenny was talking about von Braun's book "I Shoot for the Stars." He added, it should be subtitled "but sometimes I hit London."

    I have to rewatch 1999 at some point...haven't seen it in years. Have a great weekend!!!

  9. I agree with indianhoop about needing to rewatch the series. So I grabbed a copy of a set of the series from my library and hope to watch it soon, perhaps introduce my wife to it.

    I look forward to seeing this episode. I think I've seen this one once. I definitely want to check out the 'dripping water' from the rocket nozzle; I think that could be the visualization of the 'malfunction' (well, it's not like the 1999 effects team had CGI available to work with...LOL).

    Your line about our 'greeting to the universe' reminded me strongly of the Voyager episode, Friendship One. In that one, an Earth probe was sent out to the stars (with an antimatter early generation warp drive). It carried with it antimatter technology. A race found the probe--Friendship One--and managed to create antimatter weapons with it, which were used to destroyed the civilization. Then, years later, the USS Voyager shows up, and the surviving descendants are understandably bitter and want vengeance against the crew of Voyager. I haven't seen the episode since it first aired, but I strongly suspect that it had dialog discussing that same irony. One wonders if the writer had chanced to catch an airing of Voyager's Return. There is a chance for redemption in the Voyager episode, too.

    It's very interesting to compare and contrast the different Voyager programs in the 1999verse and in the Trekverse. Whereas in 1999, the heroes caught up to Trek, Voyager caught up to the heroes when Voyager 6 returned to Earth as V'ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Interestingly, V'ger was destroying planets and ships and people indiscriminately, simply following its programming without worrying about the fate of the living beings: just like the Sidonians wanting to follow the letter of their law for vengeance without thinking of the potentially innocent life destroyed. (Luckily, nobody followed V'ger to Earth wanting to destroy the humans who had originally sent out Voyager Six...)

    That brings me to another point: there have been many references to both Space: 1999 and Star Trek: Voyager as being references to Lost in Space, although that's incredibly naive because both Space and Voyager were far better written (and I suspect the comedy is more intelligent, too!). I actually think that Voyager--and Deep Space Nine as well--probably rips off Space: 1999 far, far better than either Space or Voyager did to Lost in Space. In fact, that would make for a very interesting article; I've seen plenty doing the opposite since 1975 and showing how Space 'ripped off' Trek: TOS.

    Another point of comparison, Trek to 1999: 1999 had a very realistic and detailed space exploration program over the quarter century from when the series began production to the point it was actually supposed to take place in. Trek had some hints....but nothing detailed. They went to the Moon, they went to Mars (seen in, again, Voyager's episode about the Ares IV mission, One Small Step), to Saturn (the mission of Shaun Geoffrey Christoper, whose father was Colonel John Christopher, seen in the TOS episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday), and occasionally hinting elsewhere. (Intriguingly, One Small Step aired in November, 1999, after the Moon would have left Earth orbit.) But in Space: 1999, you had this really detailed space program: manned missions to Venus, Jupiter, the Ultra Probe, the Space Dock, the Eagles, Alpha itself, Voyager One, the Swifts, all part of a very cohesive history.

    Then there's the main reason for the base---monitoring the radioactive waste from Earth's planet-wide network of nuclear reactors. Pre-Fukushima, and even pre-Three Mile Island. But it was part of the same cohesive history.

    Gordon Long

  10. More excellent comments on Space:1999 and "Voyager's Return."

    SFF: I love how you described the series in your comment: "science fiction television rarely reaches ambitiously for the stars like this series did."

    That's it exactly. Some of the stories and themes are incredibly ambitious...and noble. That's one reason I continue to admire the series so deeply. I think writers such as Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne really had the goods in terms of blending great sci-fi concepts with stories that touched the human heart. Thank you for seeing it too, my friend...

    indianhoop: great comment, and excellent reference to that Bruce joke. A little gallows humor is good for the soul.

    PDXWiz: Hi Gordon, another wonderful comment. I love the detail you put into your thought, and here you've come up with an idea that is worth a blogpost all its own: the depiction of Voyager (and early space probes) in sci-fi TV. I might have to steal that idea from you. :)

    I also love how you point out Space:1999's chronology of human space flight, going from manned missions to Venus, Jupiter, the Ultra Probe, the Space Dock, the Eagles, Alpha itself, Voyager One, the Swifts. Very well-said. We get in the series a very condensed, very detailed chronology of man's first step to the stars. I appreciate that very much, and always wish we could have seen the 1999 franchise continue in further seasons and further series.

    All my best to you all,

  11. Thanks for the feedback on the idea of looking at the various Voyager programs in different sf franchises.

    I do have a STRONG interest in real-life early space program activity and its reflection in science fiction. So this kind of focus in Space: 1999 was extremely fascinating to me since I was a kid, and even more so today. The NASA-related aspects of Steve Austin's television career were among my favorite episodes. The brief mentions in Trek whetted my appetite, and of course I totally fell in love with 2001, which I saw on tv when I was very little.

    Other key introductions into this subset of science fiction included the serious films Marooned, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and Countdown; the tv-movie Stowaway To the Moon; a Jerry Lewis comedy film about a married US couple and a married Soviet couple on the moon in Way...Way Out; the failed tv pilot The Stranger, about a NASA astronaut trapped on a twin planet on the far side of the Sun; Capricorn One; the backdrop of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; the disaster films The Andromeda Strain, The Planet of the Apes, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes; the Big Little Book of the Major Matt Mason toyline (not having the toys as I was too young); and the lunar rovers and astronauts that came attached to jars of Tang. These ingredients I was exposed to from about 1973-ish to 1980 led me to a wonderful hobby, and...I'm planning to have a blog about this particular subject.

    Gordon Long

  12. Hi Gordon,

    That's one blog I would love to read. I totally understand your fascination with the space program from this era. The advances we were making seemed indicative of a future in which you and I could both be space travelers! I share your enjoyment in virtually all of those films and television series, and for the same reason.

    I really think a blog on that era and its impact on you (and our generation) is a terrific idea. Let me know when you get it launched, and I'll link to it here!!