Monday, April 06, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson vs. Irwin Allen?

My friend and a regular reader, David, asks a fascinating question:

“Okay, John here's one for you.

Who made better, more lasting science fiction television of the 60s and 70s television era: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, or Irwin Allen?

Why or why not?  Does it even make sense to compare them?

David, that’s a fantastic question, because, in a sense, the artists you named tend to be compared in relation to the work of another creator: Gene Roddenberry. 

Irwin Allen and the Andersons each have a supreme space adventure to their names (Lost in Space and Space: 1999, respectively), that is frequently compared (and found lacking in regards to…) Star Trek.

Also, there are indeed two commonalities in the works of the Andersons and Allen that are worth noting. 

So to answer one of your questions, comparisons do make sense in this case.

The first commonality comes down to a philosophy of man and his technology. 

Specifically, technology is a double-edged sword, the thing that carry man into the future, and the thing that can bring about his destruction in the works of the Andersons and Irwin Allen.  Both Lost in Space and Space: 1999 commence with a space-age accident, one that could have been avoided…but wasn’t. 

In the universe of Star Trek, by comparison (and with few exceptions such as the M5 Computer), man has generally mastered technology so that it serves him well. Roddenberry called this idea “Technology Unchained.”

What this means on a practical level is that Lost in Space and Space: 1999 (and UFO) are actually less idealistic or romanticized presentation than Star Trek is. 

The works of Anderson and Allen often focus on the procurement and conservation of resources, or the practical aspects of space travel.  Because man does not live in a perfect world in these series, he still possesses real foibles, as Dr. Smith and Commissioner Simmonds clearly indicate.

The second common point the TV work of the Andersons and the Allens involves visual presentation. 

Both artists feature superior, stunning production values and special effects. On these grounds, Roddenberry’s Star Trek isn’t even in the same league. 

If you gaze at the effects in Lost in Space (first year in particular), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, UFO or Space: 1999, you can see that they are top-notch.

I am a child of the 1970s, so I must confess that I do prefer the work of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. 

UFO and Space: 1999 speak to me in a way that, by contrast, the works of the 1960s don’t quite.  I am enjoying re-visiting Lost in Space for the blog this year, and there is real value there, despite conventional wisdom.  But I’d rather be watching Space: 1999 or UFO.

The difference may be, simply, that the 1970s ventures of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had a slightly more adult pitch in terms of storytelling, and particularly in terms of characters.  Episodes of UFO, for example, see main characters grappling with a problem marriage (“Confetti Check A-OK,”) family tragedy (death of a child in “A Question of Priorities”), casual sex (“The Responsibility Seat”) and even drug culture (“The Long Sleep.”) 

Space: 1999 stories (at least in Year One) are adult in a different way, exploring the universe in terms of philosophical and metaphysical ideas. The series, in some sense picking up the baton from 2001: A Space Odyssey, moved into complex issues such as relativity and alternate universes.

As much as I enjoy Lost in Space or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, those stories tend not to be as adult in theme and concept. They are more mainstream in a sense, featuring straightforward action and adventure. 

For that reason, I do give the Andersons the nod in terms of artistic superiority.

Now, if you were to compare Lost in Space or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to works like Stingray or Supercar, they’d be on the same plateau, in my opinion. They are all imaginative programs, aimed at kids, which feature great action and special effects.

Perhaps if Allen had seen more success on TV in the seventies (rather than becoming cinema’s “Master of Disaster,”) he would have altered his approach as well. 

But the works of the Andersons are much more mature and fully developed in the disco decade, than the impressively visualized Irwin Allen sci-fi ventures of the 1960s. 

 For me (and this is even putting Star Trek in the mix...) Space:1999 Year One is at the pinnacle of 1960s-1970s space adventure/sci-fi.


  1. John brilliant analysis of this question. The common denominator of Allen's and Anderson's is truly superior production values. As you stated Allen reflects the '60s television storytelling, unlike the exception Roddenberry's Star Trek which fits more with the '70s adult storytelling. I have always been a fan of Anderson's SPACE:1999, UFO and Allen's LOST IN SPACE.


  2. John your concluding thought: " For me (and this is even putting Star Trek in the mix...) Space:1999 Year One is at the pinnacle of 1960s-1970s space adventure/sci-fi." is exactly how I have felt since I was a boy in the '70s and watched that season first-run. I have waited and wondered if any other science-fiction would ever replace my love for Space:1999, especially Year One. It never has because those first twenty-four episodes are the high-water mark that nothing for me has touched since experiencing it all in '75-'76.


  3. Hi John,

    While I enjoy your blog it's clear to me you have an axe to grind with original Star Trek. (I read your Exploring Space:1999 book and was put off by the constant grinding in question.)

    Your posting here is about the comparisons between Irwin Allen and Gerry Anderson and you again cannot resist trying to settle the score. The fact is that one of these shows is remembered for its 'physicality'... which seems to bother you to no end.

    I'm sorry to see this simply because I more or less enjoy each program without feeling the need to compare. While the issues may be obvious when I watch these shows today, it doesn't even occur to me to let them become emotional issues -- not that I'm suggesting that they foul your breakfast the next morning.

    Your generally superior analyses on this blog doesn't deserve to be corrupted by a sticking point.

    I will continue to read...



    1. Hi Barry,

      I am truly sorry to read that you were put off by my answer here, or feel that I'm beating a dead horse.

      I do seem to recall you writing on Twitter that my Exploring Space:1999 book was fanboy nonsense, or some such thing.

      I never really brought it up during our back-and-forths here because, certainly, you are entitled to your opinion of my work, and furthermore, entitled to voice it, syndicate it, and so forth.

      So I must admit it is not a gigantic surprise to me to read your remarks about this topic, or that you feel I am unfairly biased in favor of Space:1999/against Star Trek.

      Maybe we're both being a little one-sided here? :)

      I do hope you will remember, at this juncture, that I have also written positive, hopefully illuminating reviews of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and even Star Trek V: The Final Frontier on the blog (as well as positive reviews of more widely appreciated Trek films such as Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country).

      I also devoted a week to Star Trek in 2013, and wrote several positive episode reviews of original series episodes.

      The fact is that I love and adore Star Trek.

      I just watched "Journey to Babel" with my son last night, and "Space Seed" with him last week.

      In fact, at some point on the blog, fairly early on, I noted that I have always been a Star Trek "kid," rather than a Star Wars one. (Because although I love Star Wars, I prefer the world-view and characters of Trek.)

      I'm also planning, at this point, to do a year long 50th anniversary retrospective on the original series in 2016, just like I'm looking at Lost in Space this year.

      I promise, no axe-grinding.

      I enjoy your comments and blog tremendously as well, and feel that you always raise good strong points about the work you cover, or the work I write about it.

      We won't always see eye to eye on everything, and that's okay too.

      I appreciate you writing me and telling me how you feel.

      Warmest regards,

    2. Barry -- also, did you see my article a few weeks back about Lost in Space vs.Star Trek, wherein I noted that Trek was superior, and that I preferred it?

    3. Hi John,

      I'm well aware that you love original Trek, not that would matter if you didn't. Some would say that the show is one of the crappiest to have ever been run through an upright Movieola. Subjectivity is key, of course. Please be aware that Star Trek is so dear to me that I don't even have it on Home Video... yet, I do have Space:1999 and the first season of Lost in Space.

      I also read your books on Doctor Who and Blake's 7, and I noticed how Exploring Space:1999 felt different in its 'temperament'. (For those of you who are reading this, and care about television SF history, I recommend these books.)

      Believe me when I say, John, that your blog is a standout -- which is why I revisit when I can. You are a fine writer, and possess analytical skills I can only dream of.