Monday, September 12, 2016

Breakaway 2016: An Introduction

Last week on the blog, I had the pleasure of returning to the world of Star Trek (1966-1969) for the fiftieth anniversary of that landmark science fiction franchise.

This week, I get to devote space to my other perpetual outer space TV fascination: Space:1999 (1975-1977).

Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, this classic sci-fi series concerns a nuclear accident on the lunar surface that sends Earth's moon -- and its station, Moonbase Alpha -- careening into a mind-blowing, galaxy spanning cosmic odyssey.

Space:1999 stars Martin Landau as Commander John Koenig, Barbara Bain as Dr. Helena Russell, Barry Morse as Professor Victor Bergman, and Catherine Schell as Maya, the Psychon shape-shifter.

The series' remarkable special effects are the creation of Brian Johnson, the magician behind such features as Alien (1979), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), to name just two landmark credits. 

The writing on the series comes from the likes of Christopher Penfold, and my late mentor and friend, Johnny Byrne.

Space:1999 ran for just two years and forty eight episodes back in the mid-1970s -- and indeed, this is the fortieth anniversary of Year Two -- but the program nonetheless let an indelible impression on me for a number of reasons.

I first saw the series, on WPIX Channel 11 when I was just five years old.  The series' vision of the near future riveted my attention, in part because it seemed so plausible, so real. The production values still hold up beautifully today.

Secondly, Space:1999 serves as a great yin to Star Trek's yang, at least from a philosophical standpoint.

Star Trek is (delightfully) about brotherhood and optimism in the face of a diverse universe. The idea there is not to focus on the bigness of it all, but rather the ideas and values we can share -- in peaceful contact -- with alien life forms. There's something intimate and emotional about Star Trek's adventures. 

By contrast, Space:1999 is very much about the bigness of it all, and intentionally so.  

Outer space, in this series, is depicted as a terrifying and often incomprehensible mystery. Near Future Man (of the year 1999) is neither psychologically nor technologically equipped to deal with the sights, sounds, and mind-blowing encounters featured on the program.

Thus Space:1999 is about, really, the idea of man being launched into a world he is not ready for, and taking his first step there (or "stumble in the dark," to quote "Breakaway.")  The series was, is, and still remains, "mind-blowing" in its storytelling and imagination.  

Some episodes feature the strangest, most inventive alien worlds seen on the medium, even after all this time ("Guardian of Piri" and "Mission of the Darians," for example.)

There is room for both of these series in the sci-fi TV pantheon, and I have remained impressed, over the years, with Space:1999's cinematography, visual effects and ambitious attempts to transcend the limitations of weekly, episodic television.

One way to view the series, which I have found edifying, is to view Space:1999 as a futuristic horror program.  

There are tales in the canon about premature burial ("Earthbound,") doppelgangers ("Another Time, another Place,") demonic/sinister children ("Alpha Child"), devils ("End of Eternity"), Frankenstein Monsters ("The Infernal Machine"), ghosts ("The Troubled Spirit," The Testament of Arkadia"), zombies ("All that Glitter") and even Dorian Gray ("The Exiles"). 

There are stories, too, of H.P. Lovecraft like monsters ("Dragon's Domain") and a man who kills by touch ("Force of Life.")

So if fifty years of Star Trek tell us that all the universe is there for the taking, if we go in friendship and hope, Space:1999 provides a harder, scarier edge, or viewpoint. 

Here, the universe is -- at our current level of perception -- a vast haunted house waiting to be explored.  

We can survive the endless night, all alone in the dark of space, but we will have to cling to each other and our humanity to do so.

In a way, perhaps that's just another flavor of optimism, after all. 

When here there be dragons, it's more important than ever to stick together, right?

Why "Breakaway Day?"  

Well, in series lore, the day the Moon is ripped from Earth orbit is 9/13/1999.  That's September 13th, or, Breakaway Day.  So my celebration of Space:1999 is timed to coincide with the fictional cataclysm.

I'll be celebrating Space:1999 and Breakaway Day all week here on the blog...


  1. Well said, John. What I like most about Space: 1999 is that it's its own thing, aesthetically and in temperament.

    Like a spectacular rocket launch Star Trek had removed itself from the television pack in storytelling and, especially, technical and design areas, and its middle name was "Ambition", but it was the offspring of the U.S. model of prime time dramatic television. Space was the child of an offshore gene: it looked and behaved a little differently, which, unfortunately, left it a bit the neglected orphan child, loved by no one... well, by too few to support its continuation.

    (Some "industry" cynics could argue legitimately that if one is going to make a drama series with the intention of selling it to the lucrative U.S. market, you should make it more compatible for that market.)

    When I sit down to watch an episode of Space, which I may do this week, I enjoy the show's uniqueness. An attribute for which it should never have to apologize.

  2. One classic season, and one not so. But I would watch season 2 over the dreck we have on TV today.

  3. John wonderful thoughts on our favorite series SPACE:1999.


  4. John,
    I always enjoy your coverage of Space:1999. Your fondness for the show is apparent, and admirable.
    In Starlog #2, an article covering Space began with an anecdote regarding an overheard conversation on a bus, if I recall, in which one of the participants told the other, "Half of the time, I don't know what Space:1999 is trying to say." This may have ingrained itself as the Number One complaint regarding the show (especially the first season), and it certainly was my feeling for many years. I think I may have been too young to appreciate what was being said.
    But as I got older and my affection for the show increased rather than diminished, I realized...that's the point of the series, isn't it? It's not trying to spell out everything for us, but giving us just enough information to draw our own conclusions. That is a quality well worth praising, and appreciating.
    Also, I'll go on record right here and say that "Dragon's Domain" is one of the most incredible hours of television in the history of the medium.
    Looking forward to Breakaway Day! Let's make it an international holiday!

    1. Absolutely agree that "Dragon's Domain" is brilliant. One can see how both Ridley Scott's Alien and James Cameron's Aliens just might have been inspired by this one episode just replaced Ripley with Cellini.


  5. Cheers to a fellow explorer of that haunted house -- Happy Breakaway Day!


  6. Happy Breakaway 2016! WOW....It's already 17 years since that day? In some ways it doesnt seem that way. Well, I, for one will never tire of the stories of those 311 men and women aboard Alpha for as long as I live.

    Along the same vein, John, I sent you an email, and I don't know if you got it. I took the Power Record's version of the Space:1999 Stories and enhanced them with music and sound effects to make them like "Mini Episodes" I also did the same thing for some of the Star Trek stories. I was wondering if you had a chance to check them out?

    I hope you all enjoy them, and enjoy Breakaway day, and of course, the 84th birthday of the one, the only Barbara Bain!

    Take care