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.