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...