Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From the Archive: Space:1999 "Dragon's Domain" (1975)

In so many ways, this remarkable episode of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson sci-fi spectacular (written by Christopher Penfold) feels like a direct precursor to 1979's Alien, and some shots even foreshadow the opening moments of Aliens 1986) with the Narcissus shuttle.

The important thing, however, is that the installment remains incredibly horrific even today. I guarantee you, if you watch it in the dark you'll be creeped out.  In addition -- and on a personal note --  I credit this particular episode of Space:1999 with spawning my lifelong interest in horror.

Although "Dragon's Domain" was the penultimate episode produced for Space:1999's Year One, by some quirk of syndication, my local station -- WPIX in New York -- actually aired it as the second episode of twenty-four. In some senses that's how I'll always remember it: I tuned in to Space:1999 the second time it was ever broadcast in my area and got the shit scared out of me.


I was five years old.

"Dragon's Domain" is an episode recounted by Moonbase Alpha's chief medical officer, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain). She reports in voice-over narration (a storytelling device that would become a regular feature in Year Two...) that her tale occurs on the errant moon's "877th" day wandering in deep space, when the lost natural satellite is "between galaxies" and "three months eagle's flight time from the nearest solar system." It was during this span that one astronaut, Tony Cellini (Gianno Garko) began to feel convinced that "he was closing for a second time" on his "mortal enemy."

In flashbacks, the episode further reveals the details of Tony's first encounter with this unusual nemesis. In years past, he led a (doomed...) space mission to a newly discovered planet named Ultra, on the fringes of the solar system. Upon nearing the planet, Tony and his crew pinpointed several unexpected metallic contacts at one orbital reference point. These turned out to be ancient but highly advanced derelict and alien spaceships trapped in a cosmic graveyard. After docking with one vessel, Tony and his crew opened an airlock and encountered a flurry of "wind, noise," and "light."

Then something much, much worse appeared aboard their vessel: a cyclopean, tentacled alien creature; one which didn't register at all on their instruments. This monstrous, screeching thing materialized on the Ultra Probe and killed Tony's three crew members, first by hypnotizing them and then by dragging them into its grotesque, orange-hued gullet and rapidly devouring them. After eating the astronauts alive, the monster then quickly regurgitated their steaming, dessicated skeletons.

This macabre image -- of steaming, skeletal astronaut corpses sliding across a pristine spaceship floor -- is one that I have never in all my years forgotten.

Back in the present, Tony is convinced the monster of Ultra is again nearby, and when that Sargasso Sea in Space re-appears, he steals an Eagle to face the dragon. Koenig pursues Cellini, but Tony suffers the same gruesome fate as his shipmates. Koenig ends the nightmare by planting a hatchet in the alien's glowing white eye. The thing just fades away to nothingness, the light in its eye dimming ever so slowly. Afterwards, a stunned Helena remains concerned: "According to our criteria, it was never really alive," she notes in her voice-over, "...so how could we be sure it was dead?"

On a recent re-watching of this episode, I found that "Dragon's Domain" holds up remarkable well. My friend, the late Johnny Byrne served as script consultant for Year One and once told me that viewers should consider Space:1999 not in terms of a tale necessarily concerning the technological future (like for example, Star Trek), but rather as an ancient "origin myth" for a displaced people, the Alphans, replete with inexplicable happenings, divine intervention, and strange lore. You can clearly detect that conceit playing out in "Dragon's Domain."

In the episode's coda, for instance, Helena notes that if the Alphans are to find a new home on another world, they'll require a "new mythology," and that the story of Tony Cellini and the monster will ultimately become part of that foundation. Helena furthermore compares the events of "Dragon's Domain" explicitly to the mythological (and religious) story of St. George and the Dragon.

Given this leitmotif, much of "Dragon's Domain" involves disparate elements found in our collective mythology and literature. Tony Cellini is the man obsessed with a monster, not entirely unlike Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851). Like Ahab, Cellini has faced the monster before, been injured by it, and is itching to face it again. The second encounter -- also like Ahab's final encounter with the white whale -- is one that neither character survives.

Cellini's long battle for survival on the command module of the Ultra Probe after escaping his original battle with the monster, also seems reflective of Moby Dick, in an Ishmael-ish "And I alone survived to tell thee..." sort of way. There are resonances of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea here as well, with the "monster" serving the same function as the giant squid in that classic. In both cases, heroes battle the tentacled beast with a hatchet. Why, there's even a little touch of Robinson Crusoe (1719) here, in Cellini's long, lonely trip home (to Earth)!

The creature itself could be a beast straight out of H.P. Lovecraft by way of Homer's The Odyssey (which also featured a cyclops...). The monster of "Dragon's Domain" is a mysterious, hideous thing, an ancient killer -- an Old One -- that ensnares aliens of all races in a trap that resembles a "spider's web" (in Victor Bergman's words). It can't be quantified by our science, and it seems to breach our reality by transporting in and out of it by will. The creepy thing about it is indeed the very thing upon which Helena hinges in the finale: we don't know where it originated, what it is, or anything about it's life-cycle...

Watching "Dragon's Domain" this time, around with Johnny Byrne's description of the series as a futuristic "origin tale" and Penfold's idea of a "new mythology" in mind, I detected how the episode stresses the classical nature of its hero, Cellini. He is described in the teleplay as a "poet," "a renaissance man" and an "all-rounder" at various points, and his quarters on Alpha are a testament to Cellini's appreciation of the past and man's heroic endeavors. He keeps ceremonial axes on his walls, for example, along with an artistic illustration of an elephant herd on a grassy plain.

These images create the impression of a man who is a throwback in the antiseptic world imagined by Space:1999, but also an authentic hero, the equivalent of a modern knight (an astronaut) who could conceivably slay a dragon. I love the final image of the episode's teaser: an ancient ceremonial tomahawk blade buried deep in the controls of one of Alpha's ubiquitous comm-posts. This is a purposeful conjunction of the more "colorful" (literary and mythic) past with the futuristic, minimalist, ultra-realistic world of the moon base.

The battle between the real and the mythic repeats again and again in this episode. Commissioner Dixon, Cellini's superior on Earth, is grounded in the former, lamenting the failure of the Ultra Probe mission. "The reality of space adventuring is that it's terribly expensive," he says, deciding to cast blame on Tony to avoid a PR disaster.

By contrast, Cellini argues the side of belief, of lore. "I want all of you to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real. You have to abandon reason. You must believe that I...have stood face-to-face with the dragon." As man goes into space, the episode seems to tell us, we must be prepared to open our mind to extreme possibilities, to crib a phrase from The X-Files. Here -- in space...there be dragons.

If you remember the specifics of the story of St. George and the Dragon, St. George saved an imperiled town from the monster, but in doing so, made the citizens promise to convert to Christianity (which they ultimately did). In "Dragon's Domain," Cellini also makes "true believers" or converts out of the skeptical Helena, uncertain Victor and Koenig himself. No, he doesn't make them explicitly Christians...but he makes them all believe in "belief" itself, in a world of monsters and dragons and myth. That's the subject of Koenig and Helena's final dialogue.

I remember reading The New York Times review of "Dragon's Domain" and Space:1999. The paper's TV critic, John Leonard. wrote the following: "It [1999] has what no other TV science-fiction program except Star Trek had - good stories and good special effects. The test of good science fiction is its ability to imagine alien life...A recent Space:1999 ["Dragon's Domain"] not only presented a persuasive alien-like form, but played with it lightly...Nice stuff."

Nice stuff? Or the very stuff nightmares are made of, in this case.

6 comments:

  1. If only the series continued in the vein of season 1.

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  2. Hi davidfullam:

    I love the character of Maya, and Catherine Schell's performances, but I agree with you that I would have preferred the "atmosphere" of Year One to continue. Definitely!

    best,
    John

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  3. Anonymous3:06 PM

    John, excellent post. My favorite season 1 episode, I agree with you on this:

    "DRAGON'S DOMAIN" After escaping the Ultra Probe(creature onboard), Cellini survives in Ultra Probe Command Module until he is recovered..then returns to confront the monster and prove it existed.

    ALIEN(1979) After destructing the Nostromo, Ripley survives in Narcissus Shuttle until she is recovered....then returns to confront the monster and prove it existed in ALIENS(1986).

    SGB

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  4. I may have to add this ep to my Halloween film fest. Thanks again for your insights into this series. Also, regarding the tech post, aren't we getting closer to comlocks with the advent of the smartphone?

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  5. Hi SGB: I love the Aliens films, but I have to agree. There's a real taste of Dragon's Domain in them. No doubt about it. The same 70s creepy vibe; the same mix of futurism with monster myths, etc. I've always felt the Alien films owe a huge debt to this episode, and also Johnny Byrne's "End of Eternity" (which culminated with the monster being ejected through an airlock because he was unkillable...)

    jdigriz: You'll love "Dragon's Domain." It's a great show, and actually works as a movie/production on all its own, separate from the TV show. And I couldn't agree with you more regarding the commlocks and smartphones. Only thing, I actually want a smart phone that looks like the commlock! :)

    best to all
    John

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  6. Well, let's not forget that "Alien" was directly descended from the visual design of "SP:1999" in the form of Brian Johnson, so it certainly makes sense. I saw this episode as a 7-8 year-old and it scared the pants off me. The monster also appeared prominently on the SP:1999 lunchbox, which I wish I'd kept!

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