Friday, September 11, 2015

Breakway Day 2015: 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. One of the most clever ideas in the design of Moonbase Alpha was the inclusion of the large lit panels in the walls. Their use was both practical and psychological; they filled Moonbase Alpha with a diffuse light that mimicked natural light and the color scheme could change to fit the occasion.

    Creating the sets of Moonbase Alpha from these panels was practical because the panels could be reconfigured easily to create new rooms or corridors (which designer Keith Wilson pointed out in the book Making of Space:1999).

    While Space:1999 was an attempt at bringing the technology fetish and cosmic feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the small screen, the interior look of Moonbase Alpha is a unique creation even if the exterior of the base is closely related to the moonbase shown in 2001. The interior spaces of Moonbase Alpha were open, bright, and pleasing allowing the citizens of Moonbase Alpha to not go mad in the most extreme of situations.

  2. Brilliant production designs.


  3. I've said this before, I like the look of Space: 1999, but I wish that they had spent some time and money putting in electronics; like buttons and displays. To me, now an adult, Alpha looks very bare. Of course, the man-hours required to render and hook-up electrical business costs money... because of the high number of man hours required. (Year Two was a step up in this regard; the producers must have gotten complaints about the lack of electric bits in Year One.) Also: The back-lit walls would drive Alphans crazy after some time; and the Eagles lack external lighting.

    One thing I noticed having revisited the series these last few years, is the fact that Space didn't do much in the way of props -- after the initial ones, of course. And the series 'didn't do' aliens, outside of facepaint and wigs.

    But!... I agree the show enjoyed a unique and memorable identity all its own, and I love that -- it's part of the reason I want to occasionally watch an episode. As much as I love the general design work, initial and episode-to-episode, of Star Trek, and I do think it is the gold standard, I admit that it influenced too many of its descendants... directly, franchise-wise, and indirectly. Simply put, and a designer friend of mine feels much the same way, I am sick to death of the 'look of Star Trek'.

    Bravo to Messrs Wilson and Johnson for rendering visuals of a unique, and often alien, type. The scenic work for eps like "Guardian of Piri", "Mission of the Darians" (forgetting the horrible "exterior" matte painting), and "A Matter of Life and Death", for example, helps elevate and carry Space: 1999. (Keep in mind that a lot of ep-to-ep design work consisted of drapes and tinsel, not to mention the Lost in Space-style black-limbo backgrounds, but we tend to remember the 'best of'.)

    Again, John. Great stuff, and keep it up.

    By the way, even though I know lots about the series I admit that I don't know if Space won any 'industry' awards. I think that "Guardian of Piri" must have won a special television design citation.


    1. Interesting thoughts regarding Space:1999 sets and props. Agree on the Star Trek franchise look.