Friday, September 16, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #141: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Visitor" (1995)


The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was one of authentic creative rejuvenation and rebirth for the series.  This sortie of episodes brought the addition of  actor Michael Dorn (Worf) to the ensemble cast, introduced a new Klingon-Federation conflict, and finally gave audiences a bald, bad-ass Captain Sisko (Avery Brook).  The season offered quite a few stunning episodes as well, including the epic "The Way of the Warrior" and my personal favorite Deep Space Nine episode of all time: "The Visitor."

Why do I enjoy this particular episode of Deep Space Nine so much?  In short, it concerns two topics that are near and dear to my heart: the father-son relationship, and...writing as a vocation.

Delightfully, the episode handles both subjects with flair, honesty and some real emotionality.  Where so many Star Trek shows are appropriately epic in scope, "The Visitor" is all about intimacy, and the intimacy of a tragic life-story -- shared between strangers -- on a  portentous, rainy night.

In "The Visitor,"  young Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) is hard at work trying to wrangle a recalcitrant short story when his dad, Captain Sisko (Brooks), asks him to join him aboard the Defiant to observe a twice-in-a-century phenomenon: wormhole "inversion" 

Jake reluctantly agrees to get his head out of his writing for a spell and does as his Dad asks. But on the mission, something goes terribly wrong.  The Defiant suffers a warp core breach and while repairing it, Captain Sisko is drawn into a realm of subspace beyond the reach of Federation science.  Although he re-appears infrequently, for all intents and purposes, Benjamin Sisko is lost...a ghost.

Jake mourns the loss of his father, and attempts to carry on with his life.  The years pass, and he marries a beautiful woman, and even becomes a successful, highly-respected author.  But still, Jake is scarred by what this episode tenderly and poetically terms "the worst thing that can happen to a young man:" the death of his father. 

Ultimately, Jake's driving obsession with rescuing his lost father drives away those that he loves.  He even abandons writing to focus on the problem of retrieving the captain.  When Sisko re-appears and finds that his now aged son (played with real sensitivity by Tony Todd) has given up everything -- companionship, happiness, life itself -- for his father, he is shattered by the knowledge.  Given a choice, Sisko would have wanted his boy  to live a complete life...a life with children and grandchildren...and love.  Jake tells his father that he did it for him, and "for the boy that I was."

Told from a late point of attack, with an aged Jake sharing his moving story to a young writing student, Melanie, "The Visitor" concerns the lengths we often go to to save the ones we love. 

And though I'm often a critic of latter day Star Trek's obsession with tongue-tied techno babble, I absolutely love how the tech talk is used in this particular segment. 

Like Kirk in "The Tholian Web," Sisko keeps reappearing as a ghost...or as a memory that just won't go away.  Jake discovers that there is an invisible "link" -- likened to an elastic cord --connecting the younger and elder Sisko to one another, and this description is a perfect metaphor for a familial connection.  We are all tethered to our loved ones by an invisible elastic cord, it seems like.  Life is the process of pulling that cord tight, giving it  some slack and finally...in loss...seeing it break.  And yet even in that loss, we feel like the connection is still present, even if we can't physically touch those who have left the mortal coil permanently.

I also admire how this episode frames the father-son dynamic.  Jake will stop at nothing to save his father.  And his father, Captain Sisko, simply wants Jake to live...to have a life worth living.  Their purposes are crossed, and every time they meet, they re-engage in this debate.  The captain wants grandchildren.  He wants his son's happiness.  Yet his son desires only one thing: the return of the guiding influence in his life; an overturning of the loss that his life could never sustain  or overcome. 

It's an emotional and beautiful dynamic, wonderfully portrayed by all the talents involved, and the story gets at another truth about family.  We all believe we know what is best for a child or parent, and we fight for that outcome.  Even if, importantly, that child or parent desires something else.  Again, this is just...the nature of family.  I'll be honest, every time I watch "The Visitor," my wife and I tear up. I believe this is so because we both know in our hearts that we would do anything -- even die -- for our beloved son; and we both know that our fathers and mothers have felt the same way about us.  The parent-child connection we see played out so dramatically in "The Visitor" is a universal one. 

It's icing on the cake for me, I suppose, that "The Visitor" also concerns the profession of writing, and more than that, gets its observations about a writing career spot-on accurate. 

Jake is portrayed here as a mysterious, Salinger-esque figure who only wrote one book and then disappeared; the weight of crisis too heavy in his life to continue as a public figure.  That's a nice bit of myth making, but other aspects of the tale are more realistic.

For example, I absolutely  love the moment in the episode when Jake's gorgeous Bajoran wife tries to lure him to bed (and sex...), but it's clear he would rather be writing his story.  As crazy as that image sounds, writing -- getting it down right -- can sometimes be just like that.  It consumes the mind, and when it's going well, you don't want to stop.  For anything.  Not even hot sex with a beautiful Bajoran soul mate.

But Jake's writing career fits into the story in another way as well.  Writing is a consuming passion, and as a career, it can be a cruel master.  Even a writing career as established as my own (some fourteen years since my first book was published, and two-dozen books behind me...) is one of severe ups and downs.  You have years where everything you publish turns to gold, and years where nothing sticks. Your book sales go up.  Your book sales go down.  There's no security or consistency to a writing career, and yet -- because you love writing -- you stick at it.  You absolutely cannot stop.  And at some point, this dedication does take a toll on your family life.  It's silly to insist that it doesn't.  I'm blessed to have the support of those I love, but I'm sure that sometimes my wife, Kathryn, feels like she must share me with the art of writing.  I'm lucky she puts up with me.

The point of this meditation is that in "The Visitor," Jake does the one thing that every writer absolutely dreads doing yet must, at some juncture, seriously consider.  He gives up writing.  He gives up writing to save his father, and studies to become an engineer instead.  This kind of transition is just absolutely murder for creative types.  I'm always being asked by well-meaning people: why don't you become a lawyer?  Or being informed that I'd be great at writing advertisements! 

As a writer, there's always that invisible but considerable gravitational pull to undertake a career that is more secure, or pays better than writing.  And yet I stubbornly cling to my chosen profession, to this crazy roller-coaster of a career.  So Jake bravely makes two supreme sacrifices for his family: both his writing career and his life.   And I would like to hope that if it came down to it, I would make the exact same decision for Joel and for Kathryn.

Star Trek is often about intergalactic politics, space battles, and adventures.  Occasionally, in episodes such as "The Visitor" or "The Inner Light," the franchise really gets down to the nitty gritty; about what it really and truly means to human; about the connections that make us who we are, and the things that we would do to preserve and protect them. 

In its meditation on fathers and sons, "The Visitor" is one of the most affecting Star Trek programs of any generation, and a real masterpiece of the canon.  I strongly identify with Sisko in this episode, because I understand his agony at seeing Jake age and suffer.   When your child's life doesn't go as you hope -- even on a small, day-to-day level -- you don't merely grieve...you feel real physical pain.  I see that pain in Avery Brooks' face and in his mannerisms too.   Yet "The Visitor" also reminds us Dads (and Moms) to live up to our child's image of us; to remember how large we loom in their imagination and psyche.   That's an ideal we must also seek to honor and cherish.

To read another writer's great retrospective on "The Visitor," I hope you will check out my friend Michael Alatorre's blog at It Rains...You Get Wet.  Michael also has some touching insights to share about fatherhood, family and Star Trek in his post.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week



"I haven't seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I'd been going all this time, I'd probably almost be cured by now. "

- Sleeper (1973)

Muir Book Wednesday: Horror Films of the 1990s



Very shortly now (in just days, I hope...), my book Horror Films of the 1990s will be published. If you've followed my work in print, you will realize that it is the long-awaited follow-up to my earlier texts, the award-winning Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and Horror Films of the 1980s (2007).

Like its two predecessors, Horror Films of the 1990s is a seven-hundred-or-so page survey of a wide swath of scary (and not-so-scary) films. Over three-hundred films are reviewed in detail in the book, and I also contribute a lengthy history about the decade and the particular events that shaped the genre cinema from the years 1990 - 1999.

Basically, the thesis of all my "Horror Films of..." books is that art universally mirrors life, and that you can better understand the horror films of any particular epoch by learning more about what was occurring in the culture at the time. In other words, I write a great deal about context. Therefore, Horror Films of the 1990s gazes at quite a few historical trends, and how those trends found voice, sometimes surprisingly, in the horror films of the day.

Two important nineties "Zeitgeist" touchstones involved the Human Genome Project and the Internet, for instance. Many films in the decade looked at this scintillating notion of a new Pandora's Box being opened, either in terms of genetic science or computers. Films such as Jurassic Park, Mimic, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Deep Blue Sea focused on Frankenstein-like genetic horror, while films such as The Lawnmower Man, Brainscan, and Ghost in the Machine reflected fears involving new technology. Both trends were really expressions of our culture's long-standing fear about "science run amok."

Horror Films of the 1990s remembers other trends in 1990s horror films too. Another notable shift from the 1980s involved the "morphing" of the famous faceless slashers (like Jason) into "Interlopers," murderous and dynamic individuals who insinuated themselves into the lives of average Americans and American families. Films such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The Guardian, The Temp, Single White Female and Cape Fear are notable examples of this particular trend.

This same decade was also very much about the "homogenization" of horror, as studios made genre films their A-products: beneficiaries of big budgets and more well-known casts. But with greater costs involved in production, horror films also had far less room to transgress, and that proved a problem for a genre based on the foundation of shattering moral decorum and tradition.

Another notable difference: In the 1970s, we saw films with titles such as I Spit on Your Grave and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the 1990s, we got films with generic-sounding titles such as Scream, Mimic or The Temp. So-called "brand name terrors were also produced with easy identification in mind, and for quick sale on the home video market.  The "Grim Fairy Tale" trend was one example of using famous historical myths or cultural icons (Leprechaun, Rumpelstiltskin, Uncle Sam, Jack Frost, etc...) to quickly and effectively capture audience attention.

In general, the 1990s aren't considered a particularly good time in horror film history. Many of the films produced in this era don't stand up well next to the films of the 1970s or 1980s, for instance.

And yet I came away from my experience writing the book appreciating the good horror films of the Clinton Era all the more, perhaps, since they were fewer and farther between than in the previous decades I'd investigated.

So if you're a fan or follower of this blog and my books, I hope you'll seek out Horror Films of the 1990s, and let me know what you think of the book.

You can order Horror Films of the 1990s at Amazon, or through the publisher, McFarland.  Also, if you get the chance, you can see me discussing Horror Films of the 1990s at my author's page on Mahalo, here.  

I appreciate all your support!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From the Archives: 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.

From the Archive: The Horror Mythology of Space:1999

"We're a long way from home, and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space."

-Professor Victor Bergman, Space: 1999; "Matter of Life and Death."


One important quality that differentiates Space: 1999 (1975-1977) from virtually any other outer space adventure ever created, even after thirty-five years, is its heavy accent on horror. Unlike Star Trek, wherein planets are joined peacefully across the ocean of space as part of a cosmic, political United Nations, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 presents the universe as a realm of incomprehensible and total, abject terror.

Because the heroes of Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) -- the 311 astronauts and scientists stationed on Moonbase Alpha -- are psychologically and technologically unprepared for their unexpected journey into deepest space (it's the result of an accident on the moon's surface...) even the most wonderful or harmless mechanisms of the cosmos appear frightening, foreboding and unknown to these inexperienced, contemporary travelers. It's a metaphor, perhaps, for the way our cave-men ancestors may have regarded thunder, fire, the sun or the moon -- as inexplicable, fearsome elements of existence.

Given this revolutionary and fascinating aspect of Space: 1999, I thought it might prove interesting today to make note of many of the horror myths, legends and concepts that Space: 1999 re-purposed during its two year, 48-episode run. Virtually all of these conceits, you will note, were given a technological sheen or update for the series, a polish well in keeping with an overarching theme that Science Digest's editor, Arielle Emmett termed "the downfall of 20th century technological man."

1. The Premature Burial: "Earthbound"
In the nineteenth century, one of the great human dreads involved being buried alive.

This fear was so widespread, in fact, that some people saw to it that they had emergency signalling devices installed in their coffins upon internment. Gothic author Edgar Allen Poe exploited this societal fear of being buried alive in The Fall of The House of Usher and his 1844 short story, The Premature Burial.

The horror trope of being buried alive has come to be associated with such concepts as claustrophobia (fear of being trapped in a coffin, in a confined space) and body paralysis, the inability to move or function within that confined space.  The primary setting of premature burial fears, of course, is the casket: the narrow, tight final resting place of the human form.   Modern films have also obsessed on the premature burial, namely Wes Craven's The Serpent and The Rainbow (1989) and The Vanishing (1993).

In Space:1999, an episode entitled "Earthbound" by Anthony Terpiloff culminated with a high-tech, futuristic variation on the premature burial conceit.  Earth's Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) becomes entombed in a suspended animation device aboard an alien spaceship for a 75-year journey to Earth.  A bully and an opportunist, Simmonds has resorted to extortion and black mail to get this coveted "slot" on Captain Zantor's (Christopher Lee) ship. He pays for his moral infraction, however, when -- just hours into the trip -- he awakens inside the transparent suspended animation chamber, the futuristic equivalent of a coffin..

Simmonds even has an emergency signalling device on his person, an Alphan communicator called a "commlock." He alerts Moonbase Alpha to his mortal plight, but the wandering moon is too far distant to come to his assistance. Simmonds is thus left behind -- alive and conscious -- in the claustrophobic container, without the possibility of help or rescue, a perfect metaphor for the terror inherent in the convention of the premature burial.


2. The Siren: "The Guardian of Piri"
Ancient Greek mythology gave the world the concept of Sirens: seductresses of the not-quite human variety who lured sailors to their isolated island with a tempting song, and then kept them trapped there for all eternity. The Sirens, uniquely, were temptresses of the mind or spirit, not the flesh, and boasted knowledge beyond the confines of linear time. Always depicted as females, the Sirens bore knowledge of both the past and future.


In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, sea captain and warrior Odysseus -- on his long journey home -- had himself physically strapped to the mast of his vessel so he could experience the Siren song for himself. Let's just say it drove him to distraction.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," written by Christopher Penfold, the wandering moon (also searching for "home,"much like Odysseus) falls under the tantalizing spell of "The Guardian" on an alien world.

The Guardian, like the mythical sirens of the Greeks, extends its purview beyond the linear progression of time. In fostering "perfection" in its captive wards it can actually freeze time, holding living life-forms in a permanent stasis. Space:1999's Odysseus surrogate, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), doesn't tie himself to the mast of Moonbase Alpha to resist the lure, but he is the only man on the installation able to resist the beguiling, female face of the Guardian, played by lovely Catherine Schell. Even Moonbase Alpha's oracle, Victor Bergman falls under the spell, describing, briefly, an "old man's fantasies." Finally, Computer itself is tempted by the Siren song and is "removed" to Piri.

3. The Midas Touch: "Force of Life"
In Greek mythology, there was also a man named King Midas of Phyrgia, a man who was gifted with the power to turn everything he touched to gold.

This frightful power soon became a curse, however, when his food and water turned to gold, and even his beloved daughter was transformed into a gold statue. In the end, King Midas returned his power to the Earth, by spreading into a running river. After doing so, Midas left behind his love of the material world and material wealth. He came to despise the gold he had once coveted.

Johnny Byrne's outstanding Space: 1999 episode "Force of Life" involves an Alphan technician, Anton Zoref (Ian McShane), who, because of an alien "gift," develops the terrifying ability to freeze objects and people on contact. The name Zoref is an anagram for FROZE, and Phyrgia even sounds a bit like Frigid. Likewise, when the tale climaxes, Zoref casts off his earthly life, becoming a power of pure energy. In his new form, Zoref, like Midas in a sense, leaves human concerns behind.

The Midas connection in "Force of Life" is perhaps more obscure than some of the other mythology in Space:1999 and story editor Johnny Byrne once described the episode as one in which a life-form "rises above human form." He told me. "The majesty of the creature (though unfortunate for Zoref) was that it was one step closer to attaining the next stage of existence."

4. The Midwich Cuckoos: "Alpha Child"
Our literary, cinematic and TV tradition is filled with examples of sinister, even demonic "changeling" children. John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos (made as the 1960 film Village of the Damned) featured otherworldy but human-appearing children who pursued an evil alien agenda against mankind.

The 1950s also gave the world sociopath Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed of novelist William March: a child without the empathy and innocence we associate with children. By the disco-decade of the 1970s, we were introduced to the demonically possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973) and little Damien, The Anti-Christ, in The Omen (1976).

Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" presents the tale of the first Alphan born in space, little Jackie Crawford, and the alien changeling (Jarak) who steals his place, possesses his body and accelerates his growth. This terrifying episode is dominated by unforgettable horrific imagery, including that of a child psychically torturing his mother, and a grown child trapped within the too-small confines of a baby incubator. That last visual is a sign of "horror" overcoming technology, an important idea in Space:1999.

5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "The Full Circle"

The dual, split-personality nature of the human being was observed and charted in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There, the crux of the story involved the separation of the "sinful" from "the moral" into two distinct beings, the savage Mr. Hyde and the civilized Dr. Jekyll.

Space:1999 also dramatizes a variation of this story, in Jesse Lasky Jr., and Pat Silver's "The Full Circle." Here, the Alphans explore a planet called Retha and soon encounter a tribe of primitive stone-age cavemen. Later, it is learned that the Alphans themselves were the cave-men, having passed through a strange, misty time-warp and regressed to a less-advanced state. This time-warp is beautifully realized as a kind of waterfall of mist in a primeval jungle.

Uniquely, this premise is explored in didactic terms: the Alphans have been separated not into sinful and moral versions of themselves like Jekyll/Hyde, but "primitive" and "technological" versions. And, ironically, it is the technological, modern model (personified by Alan Carter and Sandra Benes) who resort to physical violence.

At the end of the story, a bewildered Koenig notes that there no aliens on the planet to contend with...just flawed human nature. "Because we couldn't speak to each other, couldn't communicate, we misunderstood," Koenig notes. "Yet it was only us there..."

6. Faust: "End of Eternity"
As early as the 1500s, Germany presented the legend of a learned mortal, Johann Fausten, or Dr. Faust, who was willing to trade his immortal soul for knowledge beyond human ken. His partner-in -trade was no one less than Satan, the Devil.

A dissatisfied intellectual, Faust had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding, and went into the devil's bargain with his eyes wide open. Again, it's important: he was a man of science, a doctor.

In Space: 1999's chilling "End of Eternity" by Johnny Byrne, the Alphans free a man called Balor (think Baal), from his own personal Hell: an inescapable asteroid prison cell. Balor,like Faust, is a scientist who has discovered the secret to eternal life; the spontaneous regeneration of human tissue. But, this alien devil with the secret of immortality demands a high price of the Alphans if they are to share in his information wealth: eternal submission to his sadistic, violent, Devilish ways. At least one Alphan, a grounded pilot named Baxter, makes a Faustian deal with this alien Lucifer. Koenig, however, refuses to cooperate and in a David & Goliath-like conclusion (that pre-dates Ridley Scott's Alien [1979]) sends Balor hurtling out an airlock.


7. The Ghost: "The Troubled Spirit"

Space: 1999's Johnny Byrne here sought to "mix two things," and was stimulated by the idea of "combining horror and science fiction."

"The Troubled Spirit" is an out-and-out, up-front horror story, one involving a ghost that haunts the spirit of a living man, technician Dan Mateo. In fact, the ghost is Dan Mateo himself...a spirit from the future haunting his present, mortal self.


The Alphans, led by their oracle, Victor, must "exorcise" the murderous ghost, but in doing so, end up killing Dan Mateo and scarring him in the exact same fashion as his ghostly specter.

"The Troubled Spirit" also showcases one of the most lyrical, brilliantly-staged opening sequences in all of television history, as a supernatural "wind" blows through the high-tech, white-on-white halls of Moonbase Alpha. Another example of the supernatural or horrific over-powering the auspices of technology and science.

8. St. George vs. The Dragon: "Dragon's Domain"

Saint George was a Christian martyr who saved a king's daughter from being killed by a plague-bearing, giant dragon. George committed this act, however, only after a guarantee that the king's land would soon be converted to Christianity.

Christopher Penfold's outstanding Space: 1999 "Dragon's Domain" actually references the tale of St. George vs. The Dragon in its text.

Here, the paradigm has been updated: it's astronaut Tony Cellini (Gianno Giarko) versus a tentacled cyclops which haunts a spaceship graveyard. Tony is not able to slay this dragon (that act is left to Koenig, armed with a hatchet), and Tony never forces a conversion to Christianity.

However, Tony does aggressively push the Alphans, especially Helena Russell, to embrace, let's say, the philosophy of "extreme possibilities" and not cling to earthbound belief systems. "I want you all to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real....You must believe!" He insists, when faced with disbelievers.

At the end of the story, Koenig, Victor and Helena flee the spaceship graveyard (and the dead monster), essentially converted to Cellini's way of thinking. They have witnessed the impossible with their own eyes: a mesmeric alien creature which does not register on their instruments, and which devours human life forms. Helena brings up the example of Saint George and the Dragon, and suggests that Tony and the Monster will be a part of the new Alphan society's long-term mythology.

9. The Picture of Dorian Gray: "The Exiles"
Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray involved a handsome young man, Dorian Gray, who was beautiful, immoral and also a criminal. While he undertook his reign of terror, Gray's portrait -- in secret -- became aged and horrible, reflecting his morality, his vanity, and his sins.

As for Gray, he himself showed no physical or biological signs of his perversions and presented the appearance of remaining forever young.

In the second season Space: 1999 episode, "The Exiles," Moonbase Alpha encounters two apparently benign alien teenagers, Cantar (Peter Duncan) and Zova (Stacy Dorning). In fact, these innocent-seeming (and physically beautiful) youngsters are alien insurrectionists. They are centuries-old, but protected by a physical membrane that prevent physical degeneration and aging. At story's end, Helena scratches Cantar's protective membrane, and, like Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel, the weight of the decades lands upon the vain villain in seconds: he super-ages and dies in horrible, gruesome fashion.

10. The Zombie: "All That Glisters "

Before George Romero's stellar re-interpretation of the Zombie mythology in Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies were often simply mindless human beings; laborers working at the behest of an evil master. They were, in essence, unthinking henchmen in the White Zombie (1932) sense.

Space:1999's
episode "All That Glisters" resurrects this older interpretation of the zombie on a distant planet inhabited by sentient, silicon life-forms. These alien rocks murder Security Chief (Tony Verdeschi) and then re-animate him as a zombie, essentially, to serve as their arms and legs. The horror-overtones of this episode are also quite dramatic. Director Ray Austin deploys some tight-framing, dark-lighting and claustrophobic settings to express the horror of the situation.

Other episodes of Space: 1999 also dealt explicitly in horror tropes. "Mission of the Darians" concerned the taboo of cannibalism (a concept we see in literature such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). "Brian the Brain" was a Frankenstein story, with a renegade, technological monster (a murderous robot) murdering his creator/father, Captain Michael (Bernard Cribbins).

"Seed of Destruction" was a variation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" only with Koenig confronting an alien doppelganger, rather than a wizardly ancestor of identical physical characteristics. "Death's Other Dominion also involved scientific hubris and super-aging in its unforgettable climax, and "The Testament of Arkadia" highlighted a valley of death - a necropolis of sorts -- on an alien world, as well as ghostly force influencing the Alphans.

Of course, a relevant question is this: why create a technology-based, outer space series utilizing so many instances of horror in mythology, literature and even the movies. The answer lies in Penfold's and Byrne's unique concept of the series.

Specifically, Johnny Byrne once informed me that Space: 1999 "is a modern day (near future) origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space: 1999 took place in real time, not pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction, and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the series, and nobody seems to understand and accept that. In Space: 1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."

Now imagine that culture established, some two hundred years after the events of Space: 1999. The stories those "future" citizens might tell would involve terrifying tales of their founding: of the premature burial, of the encounter with sirens, of St. George and the Dragon, and so forth.

It is this mythic (and horrific) perspective, truly, which makes Space:1999 so unique a science fiction drama. The series repeatedly pinpoints high-tech corollaries for the ideas that have scared us throughout human history and then takes its characters on a mythic journey through that macabre realm of the unknown. Thrillingly, the series also includes amazing guest performances by horror icons including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Richard Johnson

If you're interested in learning more about Space:1999's futuristic "origin myth," don't forget to check out my critically-acclaimed book, Exploring Space:1999, now available on Kindle.

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.

From the Archive: Space: 1999 "Force of Life" (1975)


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 many 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."

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 the late 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.

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 quality, 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.  (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 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 filled with 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 changes 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 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.

From the Archive: Sci-Tech, Moonbase Alpha Edition


[Note: This post continues today's Breakaway Day celebration]

"Space: 1999" had a style, a feel, a look of its own." - Martin Landau (Lee Goldberg. Starlog: "Martin Landau Space-Age Hero." July 1986, page 45).

"...Space:1999 is like Star Trek shot full of methedrine.  It is 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. - Benjamin Stein. The Wall Street Journal: "Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way."

Though TV reviewers were often quick to criticize the storylines on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999, most nonetheless agreed that the visualizations of this classic series were unimpeachable. 

For example, TV/Radio columnist Charlie Hanna termed the sci-fi program a "visual feast," and The New York Times critic John J. O'Connor noted that the "visual lavishness is apparent from the dazzling array of electronic gadgets and hardware to the "moon city" costumes designed by Rudi Gerneich."

In the same vein, Newsweek observed that "Not since Stanley Kubrick's '2001' have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry."

I can add my own testimony to this effusive praise.  When I initially watched Space:1999 back in 1975, I was certain that this was indeed what the future would look like.  It just seemed right and appropriate that by the year 1999 we'd all be able to communicate across mini-tv screens thanks to devices such as the useful commlock.  And, of course, furniture and interior decoration would be immaculate, minimalist, and stream-lined by the eve of the 21st century, right?

Okay.  It didn't quite turn out that way, but you can't convince me that it shouldn't have turned out that way.

So for today, and my third installment of Sci-Tech, I want to present some of my favorite imagery of Moonbase Alpha from Space:1999.  As you may recall from my previous entries on Star Trek's "The Cage" and Land of the Lost's Altrusia, the mission of these infrequent Sci-Tech posts is to gaze at the technology/production design/effects work of popular cult-tv series.

The sets  for Space: 1999 were created by production designer Keith Wilson, and the exterior miniatures by special effects director Brian Johnson.   In both cases, these gentlemen did extraordinary work.  In short, they accomplished three critical things: 

First, they created believable technology with one foot in the future and one in the present.  In Space:1999, for instance, you'll see control rooms, nuclear generating plants, and high-tech medical units, but at the same time, you can note characters reading books, adjusting thermostats in their crew quarters, and even tanning themselves in a solarium ("Force of Life.") 

In practice, this is quite an extraordinary combination.  Despite the clean, minimal lines of Moonbase Alpha construction, crew quarters boast a sense of individuality and recognizable humanity ("Matter of Life and Death."), Areas of heavy use such as laboratories, as seen in "Breakaway" and "Voyager's Return," are cluttered and over-crowded.  In other words -- despite the immaculate white conception of Moonbase Alpha -- man will be man, even in the future.  He will use the "space" on the Moon in just the way he does here on Earth; and that way isn't always clean and austere...or even neat.  Victor Bergman's laboratory is another example of this design approach.

Secondly, the designers of Space:1999 didn't skimp on a sense of scope, meaning that the vistas and views of Moonbase Alpha appeared more legitimately cinematic and impressive than virtually any other sci-fi series sets in history up to 1978 including Star Trek, wherein the Enterprise bridge famously did not include a ceiling.  

The control center of Moonbase Alpha, Main Mission, is a perfect example of this aesthetic.  It is a vast, two-story affair replete with a ledge and observation area, as well as a kind of mission control pit where analysts toil on a regular basis.  Attached to Main Mission -- with a wall as a huge sliding door -- is the Commander's office.  For privacy, Commander Koenig can shut the door to Main Mission.  In cases of emergency, he can open the door, and his desk overlooks the Big Screen and his workers.    What must be noted about this is that both Main Mission and the Commander's office are vast.   The two (joined) sets present the appearance of a real life, sprawling complex.

Scope is sometimes achieved other ways on the series as well.  Miniatures do the trick to convey passage on the useful Travel Tube, and in rare instances, Space:1999 joins live-action footage with rear-projection footage of Eagles and their hangar bay.  Again, there's a powerful aura of a fully-operational Moonbase here.

Third, and equally important, the amazing technology and design of Alpha and the Eagles were merely the starting point of this adventure.  Week after week, our impressive views of Earth's high-tech turn-of-the-century moonbase were one-upped, essentially, by mind-blowing alien landscapes and worlds,  as featured in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link," "War Games," "The Last Enemy" and so on. 

After many of those trippy adventures, the high-tech environs of Moonbase Alpha felt not like a dazzling vision of a future age, but rather like "home," even fostering a sense of security. By creating alien worlds of such blazing distinction and originality, the makers of Space:1999 actually made their "future" Earth technology seem all the more believable (and desirable).

It would be impossible to write this post without commenting just a little on the Eagle, one of the most beloved spaceship designs of cult-televisions.  These craft are perfectly in keeping with Moonbase Alpha: as remarkable embodiments of "near future" technology.    No flying saucers or stream-lined nacelles in this world.  Rather, the utilitarian Eagles consist of interconnected modules, retro-rockets, landing pads and nose-cones.  All these facets are recognizable as dramatic extrapolations from the then-current Apollo program.  Again, Space:1999 had one foot in the future, and one in the present.
This is how Brian Johnson described the creation of the Eagles, in an interview with me almost a decade ago (on the advent of Space:1999's release on DVD):

"I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc...My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable."

Believability, scope, and then imagination. These are the sturdy foundations of Space:1999's set and model designs.   Below is a brief gallery showcasing Moonbase Alpha as it appeared in Year One.  Finally, I should add that these sets, models and designs look even more remarkable on Blu Ray.
Looking up to the Commander's office.

Gazing at Main Mission's "Big Screen."


Minimalism meets clutter: a fully functioning machine laboratory.

A Room with a view.  Note the globe of Earth cast in gray and black to match the rest of the set.


Clock, communicator and more: The comm-post.


Against a backdrop of stars: a repair-man with a tool kit.

Remote control flying an Eagle.

The travel tube

A nuclear power plant of the future.

The Solarium


Behind our heroes, a hanger bay filled with Eagles.

An Eagle spacecraft, with special module (from "Breakaway.")

Moonbase Alpha