Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Memory Bank: "Dragon's Domain"


Well, it’s turning into a Space: 1999 day here on the blog, I suppose you could say.  Nonetheless, this afternoon, I want to share some of the memories I cherish from my first viewing of “Dragon’s Domain” in the winter of 1975, when I was just shy of six years-old.

Now, I’ve reviewed “Dragon’s Domain” by Christopher Penfold on the blog before, here, so this isn’t a formal review of the installment’s visual and thematic merits, merely some of my recollections about the episode and how it affected me during that time in my life.

First of all, “Dragon’s Domain” is the Space: 1999 episode that casual watchers seem to most often remember from this Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series.  It’s easy to understand why.  We get to learn more about the main characters’ history on Earth (before “Breakaway”) and more importantly, the episode concerns…a monster.  And one hell of a memorable monster at that.

“Dragon’s Domain” is the story, in part, of the Ultra Probe, an Earth vessel captained by Tony Cellini (Gianni Giarko).  The story is told in flashback by Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we learn how Cellini’s ship – in 1996 -- encounters a grave yard of spaceships in orbit around the planet Ultra, and then loses his crew to a devouring, one-eyed monstrosity: a tentacled spider/dragon-type alien. 

Now traveling through a different area of space all together, the isolated Moonbase Alpha encounters the same space grave yard, and the same monster…thus validating Cellini’s “crazy” story.

On first blush, this Space: 1999 episode probably doesn’t sound far different from many familiar space “monster” stories of the cinema or pulp magazines, yet the presentation and implications of “Dragon’s Domain” have captured my imagination for thirty-five years now. 

In particular, I’ll never forget sitting on the sofa in my basement family room with my parents and watching on TV as the space monster – the dragon – wrapped his dark tentacles around helpless astronauts, male and female, and then drove them into his glowing orange maw. 

If this act of “feeding” wasn’t horrifying enough, then the very next moment surely fit the bill.  The steaming skeletons of the dead were spewed out onto the spaceship deck…human flesh (and internal organs...) totally consumed.

This was my first real experience with something so…horrific. I was a huge fan, even as a child, of King Kong and Godzilla, but this kind of death was something different.  It felt more personal, somehow.  The “Dragon’s Domain” monster had no noble of sympathetic qualities, and didn’t exist, seemingly, on a different scale…towering above us like a dinosaur.  Instead, it was inescapable, hungry, and something that could occupy the same room as any unlucky human soul.  It seemed more immediate, more real, and less fanciful than the other monsters I loved, somehow.

Thus I suspect that “Dragon’s Domain” is the very story that ignited my fascination with horror films, and with the powerful idea of mixing hard sci-fi tech (like spaceships and control rooms) with something more Gothic, or perhaps even Lovecraft-ian.  Before Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997) or Pandorum (2009) caught my eye, “Dragon’s Domain” sparked my curiosity about the darkest corners of the cosmos. 

What might await us out there, in the dark?

But “Dragon’s Domain” fascinated me for other reasons too, as a kid.  At that point, I had also been raised on stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robinson Crusoe, and even Moby Dick.  “Dragon’s Domain,” with its squid-like monster, man alone on a life boat, and central mission of vengeance (on the part of Cellini) tied in directly with these beloved literary tales and translated critical story elements, again, to the final frontier.  There’s something downright mythic about this tale, and even the teleplay acknowledges it, comparing Tony and his “monster” to St. George and the Dragon.

At five going on six, it probably goes without saying that I was really scared by “Dragon’s Domain.”  Yet I was equally tantalized by the things that went unspoken in the episode.  The “monster” didn’t register on any Alphan scanning devices, for instance, which meant that these 20th century, technological men couldn’t really quantify if it was truly dead at adventure’s end, a nice Twilight Zone twist to close out the hour.  This open-ended question tantalized me for weeks and months (and years and decades…). 

Could something exist out there in space that is so different from us that it doesn’t even register on our equipment?  That lives and dies by physical laws we can’t comprehend?

Even more intriguingly, the episode concerned that space grave yard.  Once more, there were a hundred untold stories there; stories of space farers who had come to that unpleasant and inexplicable end.  But where had they traveled from?  Who were they?  We might even ask the same questions of Ultra.  Was the monster from that world, or did the grave yard appear in orbit by coincidence?  What was the surface of that planet like?  Who lived there?  Had they too, been devoured by the dragon?

And speaking of coincidence, how could the space grave yard travel from Ultra to Alpha’s position between galaxies?  Was the monster somehow guiding its “web” to…follow Tony?  All these unanswered questions swirled in my mind, and my response at the time was to “make pretend” further 1999 adventures (with my Mattel Eagle…) that addressed some of these points. 

It was this impulse to understand and continue the story that I credit with my decision, finally, to become a writer.  “Dragon’s Domain” was so tantalizing a mystery, so engaging a tale, so psychologically intricate, that this episode of Space: 1999 evoked the creative, artistic impulse in me, even at six.   One of these days, I must remember to thank Christopher Penfold.

But as a kid, I wanted more; more stories that were open-ended, that offered hints – but not clear-cut answers – about the universe  This is the very thing that continues to draw me to Space: 1999, and to works of art like Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Prometheus (2012).   

In works such as these, there’s the tantalizing opportunity to go deep, to explore possibilities and ideas not spelled out or spoon-fed.  I don't consider a lack of explanation cause for nitpicking as so many fans do.  On the contrary, I look at it as gateway to engagement.  In fact, I now consider this quality a necessary pre-requisite for great art: room for interpretation, based on the hard evidence of a text’s words, and of its visual symbolism.   How boring it is to be told everything of import, or to be led on a leash to just one answer, when a filmmaker can, instead, only hint or whisper life's little verities to us.

The idea of this kind of exploration hooked me at age five, and has kept a hold of me – like a dragon’s tentacle – ever since.

10 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:43 PM

    John I was a boy too when I first saw this episode in the winter of 1975 and the cold short daylight days with longer dark nights added to the atmosphere of my viewing. I like your analysis of this episode that defines what made Space:1999 stand apart from other science-fiction series of the '70s.
    "Dragon's Domain" must have unintentionally inspired the movies Alien(1979) and Aliens(1986)together, but just substituted Lt. Ripley for Tony Cellini. 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. In Alien(1979), after destructing the Nostromo, Ripley survives in Narcissus Shuttle until she is recovered....then returns to confront the same race of monster and prove it existed in Aliens(1986).

    SGB

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    1. Hi SGB:

      We share a deep and abiding love of Space:1999, SGB, to be sure.

      I do feel that Alien was sort of the next evolution of Space: 1999 (and "Dragon's Domain" and "End of Eternity," specifically).

      It seemed we were moving in the culture -- perhaps because of the political issues of the 1970s like the Energy Crisis -- into a realm of less optimistic views about space, and more realistic ones involving limited resources and unknown terrors.

      Personally, I prefer the Alien and 1999 approach, though I am also a Star Trek fan. I love both, I just find myself more tantalized by the Alien and 1999 universes, where all crises are not resolvable. The paradigm for Star Trek is cooperation and cosmic friendship, and gosh it's beautiful. But as a result, the stories are more cut and dry and less risky, in some sense.

      I love 1999 and Trek. Apples and oranges I guess. But I sure do groove on that time in the 1970s (UFO to Space:1999 to Alien) when space adventure took a dark, gloomy turn...

      Great comment!

      best.
      John

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  2. John Harley3:24 PM

    This is one of the best episodes of the series! If not the best! It really was frightening for me back in 1975 even as a twelve year old! I remember I was gutted when LWT missed it out of their 1982 repeat run and I continually rang them until they relented and screened it in the October months after the show had finished!

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    1. Hi John,

      It's always a pleasure to meet another soul who was taken -- and obsessed -- with "Dragon's Domain." I agree wholly with your assessment of the program, and I don't blame you a bit for protesting when your local station dropped the ball and forgot to air it.

      My Dad is not a big science fiction fan (though he is extremely indulgent of me...) and to this day, he remembers "Dragon's Domain" and raves about it, about how shocking it was to see on TV at the time, and how the imagery has stayed with him. That's another testament to the fact this episode of 1999 really, REALLY works.

      Great comment!

      best,
      John

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  3. Hi John,

    "Dragon's Domain" is arguably the best of the Space: 1999 best. I remember the first time I saw it: 6pm, Sunday, on CHCH Channel 11, in first run. (CKVR in Barrie ran them at 10:30am on Saturdays. As you can imagine, there was no running order for those episodes; each of those stations ran a different order.)

    "Dragon's Domain" did not scare me for the simple reason I was getting old (14). But, I was impressed, very much. Brian Johnson and Nicky Alder, & Co, at their "in-camera" best. Charles Chrichton's direction displayed his decades of experience. The flash-back scenes were super.

    I know you would disagree with this, but some of my friends and I feel that if this quality had been a more regular thing, Space: 1999 would be held in higher regard, and remembered more by others and not just its fans. (Admittedly, that's partly or mainly because 48 episodes is not enough to effectively "strip" a show... very crucial in entering the public's consciousness.)

    For every "Dragon's Domain" there were how many at the level of "Ring Around the Moon"? Just kidding, that episode was the worst of the worst. (Trek's "And the Children Shall Lead" has nothing on that one. I can't believe I'm saying that.) I find it funny that I almost never refer to Space's second season, when I actually prefer it to the first year in some critical ways... like "characterization" and a sense of humour.

    Years had passed, and in 1988 I saw "Dragon's Domain" again when CKVR played it late-night. I watched it with a friend and we thought it was still good.

    Great stuff, John. I'm hooked, if not in "love".

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    1. Hi Barry,

      I'll take hooked! :)

      I can't disagree with your assessment of "Ring Around the Moon."

      That is a terrible episode and a betrayal, in some sense, of the premise Space:1999 assiduously sets up. (Since when does 20th century technological man possess maps of "the universe?") We concur on this one. It's a painful, dreadful show and a real low point. But "And The Children Shall Lead" also stinks, as you say too.

      I agree that "Dragon's Domain" is great, and yet you were also able to compile a list of other outstanding episodes from the first season, including "Earthbound," "End of Eternity," "Mission of the Darians" and "Death's Other Dominion."

      I would submit that going by that list alone, this is not a bad average of excellent episodes for a sci-fi show's first season. If the series had achieved that many great episodes across three or four seasons, it might be viewed very differently, as your comment rightly indicates.

      For me, a full twelve or so episodes from the first season I think were great, and several more I felt were good. Certainly, looking back, Space:1999 had a higher "good to bad" ratio than the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and yet that show is widely and often held up as exemplary.

      This is because -- again as your comment sort of notes -- it lasted a long time...100 plus episodes. It had time to grow and improve. If Space:1999 had been given that opportunity, without the format change...who knows?

      I enjoy reading your comments on this subject so much because I feel that you are looking at Space:1999 fairly. That's a bfd, to quote Vice President Biden, as many folks won't even do that. Everyone has their own tastes, of course, but I really appreciate that you have given the series a fair shake.

      Even if our final assessments differ, I can't find reason to quibble with you. I appreciate your willingness to look at something and evaluate honestly, what you see as flaws and merits.

      Great comment!

      best,
      John

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  4. Good points, John. And thanks about the fairness part. Yes, there is room for everything. I know what I like, and I will explain my reasoning somewhat passionately, even if I at times project a "don't beep with me" energy, but I get a kick out of someone who explains why they love something even when I "don't get it". That's the case with a Firefly fan friend of mine.

    Your point about me being able to come up with a few "best of" episodes was a good one; I noticed that myself. It took a minute, but the fact is I was able to compile the list. Now I'll try that with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ahh... forget it. I don't have all bleedin' night. Besides, I'm not that familiar with the series after the first three seasons.

    Recently I was speaking with a good friend about Space: 1999 and we both agreed that it would have made so much sense to keep Commissioner Simmonds "on staff". Great character. That moment at the beginning of "Earthbound" when he vents, with no little sarcasm, at Koenig and co., after the general meeting, is priceless. I laughed out loud last time I watched it, late last year.

    I'll take those great character moments any day over the toys.

    I wish I had met Johnny Byrne. If I ever meet Gerry Anderson, I would definitely ask why Simmonds was expired. The contract with Roy Dotrice?

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    1. Hi Barry,

      It's always a pleasure to meet someone who knows what they like but also listens to other points of view. I try to emulate that example myself, and I find it very important when discussing film and television.

      Bottom line is that we don't have to agree on everything, but if we can each listen to each other's arguments and keep an open mind, the conversation is all the more interesting, civil, and illuminating too.

      I thought it was interesting that you were able to rattle off several Space:1999 titles very quickly, which suggests to me you at least remember the show well, even if it isn't tagged consciously as a favorite.

      That memory in itself speaks well for 1999. Even the failures, in some sense, are failures of ambitious nature (well, okay, not "Ring Around the Moon...").

      I would have loved to see Simmonds as a regular character too. He was a terrific foil for Koenig, and someone outside the command structure who could play gadfly. Characters like that are always helpful on sci-fi programs, I find, assuming they don't take over (like Dr. Smith on LIS.) My understanding is that Simmonds was just a two episode guest star and never under contract for a series role, which is a shame.

      More excellent thoughts here, my friend.

      best,
      John

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  5. I had the same experience and feelings maybe some years after you,here in italy comes a couple of year after..never seen eating a man alive.. so I was signed for my whole life. Regards cool article..

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  6. I had the same experience and feelings maybe some years after you,here in italy comes a couple of year after..never seen eating a man alive.. so I was signed for my whole life. Regards cool article..

    ReplyDelete