Friday, September 12, 2014

Breakaway Day 2014: Visualizing Space: 1999

"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."

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. 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.

This means 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 embodiment 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.

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 well-lit travel tube interior track.

The Solarium

Behind our heroes, a hanger bay filled with Eagles.

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

Moonbase Alpha


  1. I share your enthusiasm for the look of Space: 1999 but I generally don't compare it to Star Trek simply because they are depicting different things and eras. Having said that, and I've noted this before since I'm a long-time researcher of film & television design, and a designer myself, Trek was very believable, which was a major contributor to its power. The extensive U.S.S. Enterprise sets and props were magical; so much so that the ship blueprints and the Technical Manual were best sellers, with the latter hitting the top ten of the New York Times Best Seller List. As much as I like the look of Space and its rendering of a more immediate future, sales of the show's technical manual were poor. It did not capture the public imagination... it was lacking that spice and zip that Trek had in spades.

    The Enterprise bridge had a partial ceiling, as did Main Mission -- the lighting heads had to go somewhere! MM was missing electronics; all the fun buttons and little back-lit displays that Kirk's control centre had. (They cost money since they require a lot of man-hours to make. By the way, the bridge set came in at a staggering $60,000 dollars. 1964 currency.)

    When I see MM now I really notice the lack of interactivity (which really hurts believability). Characters are forever writing in file-folders and trading them among themselves because there are no cool controls for the actors to play with; there's nothing for them to do. These interactive bits are all but missing in Space... not doubt due to budget concerns. Fine.

    Also, the modular approach -- used to save money and stage space -- cost the series a bit, I think, in the sense that the viewer could not tell one room from another... which probably contributed to the lack of sales for the series' design manual. Every room, with a few obvious exceptions, looked like any other.

    A critic back in 1975 said something like, "in truth, it looks more like five years in the future". My feeling at the time was that electronics in my local Radio Shack store looked more impressive than just about anything on Moonbase Alpha.

    There was no variety in the Alpha costumes; no worker or technician outfits, for example. (The U.S.S. Enterprise was so believable because we viewers got to see different types of crew-members.) The model work was fine but the vessels were often static-looking.

    I should perhaps be blogging the above instead of posting here a long-winded comment. You must understand that I love the very unique look of Space: 1999 and it's because of this that I think that designer Keith Wilson's planetary stuff was much stronger than his Alpha sets.

    His finest work in this respect: The set for "Guardian of Piri". Stellar. Same goes for his designs for the Daria ("Mission of the Darians"). It's all from that school I call "European Art School".

    At any rate, John, I do appreciate and understand your take on the designs of Space: 1999. I know you will take it as spirited debate.

    Wow. So sorry about the lack of brevity!

  2. I would have to say Barry, while I agree with some of the pros of Star Trek's Enterprise, I don't think they are quite as cross comparable as suggested. Firstly, while popularity can to some degree suggest a success in design, sales can't really one design was better than the other, unless we are specific to what we're quantifying.

    As a show design, I do agree, the 60s Star Trek was a deft bit of work. It was light flashy, compact enough enough to pull the drama in without looking cluttered, and very well lit to really make the most of the fresh colour television that was hitting the airwaves. Space 1999 by comparison, so far as television goes as a medium, did perhaps make mistakes. I would say Main Mission was possibly too big, allowing some camera angles, especially high ones, to expose some of the weaker elements (it certainly looks flat and set like from above, with the table arrangement looking decidedly like a school room that a futuristic space station). I think as a TV show, Space 1999 realised early on it had negated colour too much and tried to throw some colour into the set, with main mission running green set lights.

    That all being said, so far as futuristic design goes, I think Space 1999 is far more believable than the 60s Trek, far more. 60s Trek looks like a ship you'd want to be in, with buttons and cool lights and great doors and transporter swirly effects, but Moonbase Alpha felt more believable. Both shared a lot of qualities (so far as I'd say Moonbase Alpha borrowed some, given the Enterprise did pioneer the living-in-space aspect of sci-fi exploring). A modular approach to Moonbase building seems realistic. Functional rather than aesthetic too. I think multi coloured lights could be justified in such environments to make the base less clinical to long term workers, but given its only 1999 and we've not seen that logic applied to any military organisations on this world, I think Moonbase Alpha made a good call on that. Add to that I think it gives the technology a feel of limitation. Everything is stark and not particularly aesthetic, bar what has been brought to the Moonbase - it feels like workers on any station, a station built for functional purpose than to be cosy or relaxing, stuck "at work", which essentially is what Alpha is. The Enterprise is a vessel working within its parameters, Alpha should feel as if its a home that shouldn't be home; a home because there is no other left.

    That all being said and done, if we go back to the comparisons based on success quantified by merchandise demand etc - or even sheer iconic legacy, Star Trek wins out. Not because its necessarily a better designed set, nor a more realistic vision, nor simply the way Space 1999 should have been done, but because as a television show, combined with it's context as being an exciting Wagon Train through the stars, is more accessible and more involving. Star Trek's Enterprise is a key to its success. I don't think Moonbase Alpha is key to Space 1999's lesser success, I think the latter is a different sort of sci-fi and a different intent to the design, but in terms of what people like and what people find attractive, there is no doubt the vehicle of Star Trek and its design wins out. But then, as much as the backers would have wanted otherwise, Space 1999 is a different sort of beast to Star Trek and I think the design reflects that as much as the scripts, particularly for season 1. :)

  3. James. I appreciate your very well thought-out and intelligent response. I wish there was more of this on the Internet.

    I agree with you that perhaps Main Mission was too big; although it wasn't as big as some people think. If it were still standing, and you were to visit the studio, you'd probably be surprised at how small it is; relative to how it appears on your television. (Hint: Wide angle lenses.) That said, when I saw Space: 1999 in the late 1980s, for the first time in a few years, I too thought the problem with the MM set was that it was too large. "There's no focus", is how I explained it to a friend. (A few people on the production were not impressed with that set.)

    I should clarify something: I don't think that Star Trek was "better designed" -- whatever that means -- but that series had more money to work with; and it had a much larger soundstage (16,000 sq ft as opposed to Space's 10,000) to house the standing sets. These factors allowed for a large complex of interconnected, and unique, sets to be built and left standing -- with the odd part being "folded" as needed. And there was that nice, long corridor to link everything up. This helps the sense of "believability" for the audience.

    Space: 1999 rocks; make no mistake. The modular approach, as you state, makes a lot of sense. And, as you say, the look matched the colour of the stories.

    An admission of no surprise: I'm a Trekker, and a Design Head, which means I'm going to write the expected.

  4. Interesting comments! I can appreciate your point on Main Mission, and in its defense, it's only when directors got ambitious and took high angle shots looking down do I think it really lost its power. For most shots, there's a fair few plains there to create depth that it feels deep yet layered. But that happens in so many shows - you get a set built to be seen in a certain way and someone shoots it from an angle that doesn't really suit it, exposing its limitations.

    That being said, the Trek Bridge set was very smart in that regard, I don't recall a single angle where that set lost its power.

    As for better designed, I would say the Enterprise bridge was a better designed standing set than Main Mission. Not simply for the complementary factors (the circular relationships in the Bridge I think create a conformity that Main Mission lacks, particularly in the functional desk areas), but in the use of colour to warm the viewer aesthetic and the compact scale for the production purposes. In such regards I think it's a better design for its use in Television. I certainly don't want to suggest as a design in itself it's technically better. I think there are some very deft pieces to Main Mission - the windows and moon horizon, the use of levels, the commanders office was novel, realistic and practical - I liked the unused top deck even if it did get some rather uncomplimentary shots from above taken from that height! I think the stark design was bold too and well complimented with the darker computer banks and main scanner. I think it's a more 'accurate' visualization of a military base than Enterprise is of a military flagship. I also think the consistency in the modular base design means Alpha feels more real and less "set" that much of the rest of the Enterprise (as much as I do like some of the design there too).

    I think there are pros and cons to both, I do still stand that all factors considered Enterprise is a better design for television, though interestingly, in responding to your points I realise that with Enterprise the real strength is in the Bridge, while the rest is fairly run-of-the-mill. With Alpha, the strength is in the whole base rather than Main Mission which does have some weaker elements as we have talked about above.

    All very interesting, I'm very much fascinated by the details in your understanding of the actual studio use. Fascinating. I have a soft spot for Space 1999 and the original Trek (less so for the following franchise) so I can swing either way on that pair! :)