Thursday, September 10, 2015

Breakaway Day 2015: Space:1999: "Collision Course"

“Collision Course”

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. by Anthony Terpiloff and directed by Ray Austin represents a test for John Koenig (Martin Landau) and his command of Moonbase Alpha.  

Specifically, the episode lands the protagonist in a situation where the facts are against him, logic is against him, science itself is against him, and all he can muster is a vague character testimony (for an alien named Arra…) and a desperate admonition for his people to trust him. 

What this difficult scenario reveals, perhaps, is that faith isn’t an easy thing to come by, particularly in an era when technology is ascendant; when new tools, instruments, or even weapons (like nuclear charges) present an apparently straight path to resolving a crisis.  

Thus, once more, Space: 1999 focuses intently on the human condition as it stands now, and not in any fashion idealized or romanticized.  

As always, the series concerns modern man -- with all his frailties and foibles -- thrust into an environment for which he is psychologically unprepared.  The episode builds to an emotional climax, and the pay-off is unexpectedly one of the most lyrical and poetic of the canon, a reflection of a kind of magic realism leitmotif.

For those unacquainted with it, magical realism is a story-telling approach in which something seemingly impossible (hence magical) occurs in an otherwise very real setting.  

In “Collision Course” the laws of Physics as we understand them are held in abeyance so that a dramatic (though magical...) reckoning, apotheosis, or sense of transcendence can be depicted.

“Collision Course” begins in media res as Moonbase Alpha very narrowly avoids a collision with a nearby asteroid by detonating small nuclear charges on its surface. The mission is a success of sorts, though a thick radioactive cloud hovers over the base, with possibly deleterious effects on humans.

Meanwhile, pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate) is missing in action. A mysterious alien intelligence named “Arra” (Margaret Leighton) however, guides Alan safely to a rendezvous point in space with Koenig’s rescue Eagle.  

From that vantage point, at the rim of the radiation cloud, Koenig detects a new danger. A planet thirteen times the size of Alpha is now on a collision course with the wandering moon. Only hours remain before total annihilation.

Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) proposes Operation Shockwave, a mission to drop nuclear charges on a path between the two planetary bodies in hopes that the resulting nuclear detonation will pull them apart and spare both worlds from destruction.

But soon, Koenig encounters Arra himself and he faces a new set of variables. The alien queen informs him that it is her world, Atheria, which now approaches Alpha. Furthermore, the approaching collision is the very catalyst her people have sought and awaited since the dawn of time. The collision will trigger in them a total metamorphosis, a next step in their species’ evolution. 

Arra also guarantees that Moonbase Alpha will survive the collision unscathed, noting that it’s odyssey will “know no end” and that mankind will prosper in new solar systems for ages to come.  

Koenig takes Arra at her word, but how can he convince his top staff -- rational and logical scientists all -- that they should do nothing in the face of imminent disaster?

In large part, this episode of Space: 1999 concerns faith.  Not religious faith, necessarily, but perhaps the faith in an understanding beyond our own; that things aren’t always exactly as they first appear, and that we don’t always have all the answers. Rushing to judgment serves no one.

"Collision Course" thus concerns a human value: trust.  It’s the battle between human and machine values perhaps, and one that explicitly fits in with what Science Digest tagged as the series’ central thesis: the downfall of 20th century, technological man.  

The idea underlying this concept is that we don’t know everything ,and when we forsake human values for a reliance on technology, the outcomes may not be the ones we desire. This idea is encoded in  the opening episode, “Breakaway,” which features a nuclear accident, and sends the moon (and Alpha) careening into space.

In real life, I’m not generally a big fan of faith-based decision-making. We use facts and science as our guides to make the best decisions we can. It’s only logical. But what “Collision Course”  explores is the notion that trust is a critical factor too, in decision-making. 

If you understand that someone knows more about a situation than you do, and you indeed trust them, then the question becomes: is that enough to outweigh the available facts?  

The harsh lesson for Commander Koenig is that his people are limited in some sense, by the (technological) world view which shaped them, and that even the quality of loyalty (to him) is not enough to make them forsake science, rationality, and logic in the face of fear and apocalypse.  

Again, I don’t interpret this episode as being a blanket approval of blind faith, but rather the importance of “seeing” faith, let's call it.  Koenig comes to trust Arra after their meeting, and places his faith in her after assessing her, person-to-person..  

His people on Alpha -- though they know him better than he knows Arra -- are not able to place this kind of faith in him. Koenig understands the situation well and harbors no anger, as the coda suggests.  Were the situations reversed, he asserts, he would likely not be able to do “nothing” in the face of certain disaster, either.  

Accordingly, the story becomes a comment on the qualities we see in all human-kind, not just Koenig or the Alphans.

One quality I appreciate about “Collision Course” is its sense of humility about human nature.  Here, a benevolent alien teaches the human race something wondrous about the universe, a reality that goes beyond man’s limited understanding and science. 

I like the fact that the Alphans are allowed to be wrong in this case, and yet that they are learning as opposed to lecturing or teaching others about their values.  Johnny Byrne, Space: 1999's story editor, once told me that great drama emerges not from an exploration of characters who already have all they need, but from an exploration of those who don't.  Here, the Alphans lack knowledge about deep space, and so are afraid and act fearfully. 

As we expect from Space: 1999, “Collision Course’s visuals are vivid and powerful.  The first acts of the program showcase a sense of confusion and dread, for instance. 

First, Moonbase Alpha is blanketed in an impenetrable haze, unable to see or understand anything happening around it.  

Later, Koenig pierces that haze and find signs only of death and doom.  Arra’s ship devours his Eagle in a sense (the fore opens like a shark’s jaws…) and Koenig finds her ship to be something like a tomb, replete with cob-webs and an ancient figure garbed in a funeral cloak or shroud.

Whether this is Arra’s real form, or Koenig’s perception of her form -- based on his own fear of impending doom -- is questionable. 

Finally, the episode ends with that touch of grace and transcendence, with that touch of magical realism.  Atheria and Alpha careen towards one another and all appears lost.  But the planets don’t collide.  Instead they merely touch, and Arra and her people apparently “evolve” to the next level of their existence.  

There’s no existing scientific theory, principle or axiom, to my knowledge, that could explain why these two space bodies touch instead of collide.  

But the episode  surprises with its fanciful, even chimeric sense of wonder or vision.  There are some things man does not yet understand, the episode expresses, and sometimes it’s necessary not to rage against the fantastic or otherworldly, but to put faith in a friend. Arra speaks of history, foreknowledge, and sacred purpose of mankind, and her vision proves correct, even if "fear" precedes apotheosis.

Moonbase Alpha in a haze of darkness and confusion.

Devoured by fear...

A tomb?

A figure of death, in a funeral shroud.

Out of darkness and fear into light. Two worlds don't collide.  They "touch."

I can’t claim I would always want or desire Space: 1999 to exist on this rarefied plateau of magical reality, because then hard-edged science-fiction becomes a very different animal: phantasmagoric storytelling with no rules, where anything is possible (and thus valid).  

But in the case of “Collision Course” I’d submit the episode works as a one-off, re-asserting in dynamic visual and narrative fashion the idea that mankind is sometimes the victim of a sort of a tunnel vision, seeing only part of the picture and ignoring the rest.  There are more wonders in Heaven and Earth, “Collision Course” suggests, than is dreamed of in our philosophy (or by our technology).  

And this principle is a key element of Space: 1999’s creative vision.

1 comment:

  1. I like your enlightening analysis, John, so much so that there's nothing I can add, except, perhaps...

    This episode works for me, despite the peanut-sized theme. There is a design element in "Collision Course" that bugged me as a kid, though: Arra's ship is hardly something you'd expect her to inhabit. It looks as though Boeing has been selling to the aliens. (I now get the distinct impression that modeler Martin Bower did not read the script.)