Thursday, September 15, 2016

Breakaway Day 2016: "Dragon's Domain"

 “Dragon’s Domain” is the Space: 1999 episode that casual watchers seem to most often remember from this Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series. It’s easy to understand why. We get to learn more about the main characters’ history on Earth (before “Breakaway”) and more importantly, the episode concerns…a monster.  

And one hell of a memorable monster at that.

“Dragon’s Domain” is the story, in part, of the Ultra Probe, an Earth vessel captained by Tony Cellini (Gianni Giarko). 

The story is told in flashback by Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we learn how Cellini’s ship – in 1996 -- encounters a grave yard of spaceships in orbit around the planet Ultra, and then loses his crew to a devouring, one-eyed monstrosity: a tentacled spider/dragon-type alien. 

Now traveling through a different area of space all together, the isolated Moonbase Alpha encounters the same space grave yard, and the same monster…thus validating Cellini’s “crazy” story.

On first blush, this Space: 1999 episode probably doesn’t sound far different from many familiar space “monster” stories of the cinema or pulp magazines, yet the presentation and implications of “Dragon’s Domain” have captured my imagination for nearly forty years now. 

In particular, I’ll never forget sitting on the sofa in my basement family room with my parents and watching on TV as the space monster -- the dragon -- wrapped his dark tentacles around helpless astronauts, male and female, and then drove them into his glowing orange maw. 

If this act of “feeding” wasn’t horrifying enough, then the very next moment surely fit the bill. The steaming skeletons of the dead were spewed out onto the spaceship deck…human flesh (and internal organs...) totally consumed.

This was my first real experience with something so…horrific. I was a huge fan, even as a child, of King Kong and Godzilla, but this kind of death was something different. It felt more personal, somehow.  

The “Dragon’s Domain” monster had no noble of sympathetic qualities, and didn’t exist, seemingly, on a different scale…towering above us like a dinosaur. Instead, it was inescapable, hungry, and something that could occupy the same room as any unlucky human soul. It seemed more immediate a threat, more real, and less fanciful than the other monsters I loved, somehow.

Thus I suspect that “Dragon’s Domain” is the very story that ignited my fascination with horror films, and with the powerful idea of mixing hard sci-fi tech (like spaceships and control rooms) with something more Gothic, or perhaps even Lovecraft-ian. Before Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997) or Pandorum (2009) caught my eye, “Dragon’s Domain” sparked my curiosity about the darkest corners of the cosmos. 

What might await us out there, in the dark?

But “Dragon’s Domain” fascinated me for other reasons too, as a kid.  

At that point, I had also been raised on stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robinson Crusoe, and even Moby Dick.  “Dragon’s Domain,” with its squid-like monster, man alone on a life boat, and central mission of vengeance (on the part of Cellini) tied in directly with these beloved literary tales and translated critical story elements, again, to the final frontier.  

There’s something downright mythic about this tale, and even the teleplay acknowledges it, comparing Tony and his “monster” to St. George and the Dragon.

At five going on six, it probably goes without saying that I was really scared by “Dragon’s Domain.” 

Yet I was equally tantalized by the things that went unspoken in the episode.  

The “monster” didn’t register on any Alphan scanning devices, for instance, which meant that these 20th century, technological men couldn’t really determine if it was truly dead at adventure’s end, a nice Twilight Zone twist to close out the hour. This open-ended question tantalized me for weeks and months (and years and decades…). 

Could something exist out there in space that is so different from us that it doesn’t even register on our equipment?  That lives and dies by physical laws we can’t comprehend?

Even more intriguingly, the episode concerned that space grave yard. Once more, there were a hundred untold stories there; stories of space-farers who had come to that unpleasant and inexplicable end.  But where had they traveled from?  Who were they?  We might even ask the same questions of Ultra.  

Was the monster from that world, or did the grave yard appear in orbit by coincidence?  What was the surface of that planet like?  Who lived there?  Had they too, been devoured by the dragon?

And speaking of coincidence, how could the space grave yard travel from Ultra to Alpha’s position between galaxies? Was the monster somehow guiding its “web” to…follow Tony?  

All these unanswered questions swirled in my mind, and my response at the time was to “make pretend” further 1999 adventures (with my Mattel Eagle…) that addressed some of these points. 

It was this impulse to understand and continue the story that I credit with my decision, finally, to become a writer.

“Dragon’s Domain” was so tantalizing a mystery, so engaging a tale, so psychologically intricate, that this episode of Space: 1999 evoked the creative, artistic impulse in me, even at six. One of these days, I must remember to thank Christopher Penfold.  Or perhaps I just did.

But as a kid, I wanted more; more stories that were open-ended, that offered hints -- but not clear-cut answers -- about the universe  This is the very thing that continues to draw me to Space: 1999, and to works of art like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012).   

In works such as these, there’s the tantalizing opportunity to go deep, to explore possibilities and ideas not spelled out or spoon-fed.  I don't consider a lack of explanation cause for nitpicking as so many fans do.  

On the contrary, I look at it as gateway to engagement.  In fact, I now consider this quality a necessary pre-requisite for great art: room for interpretation, based on the hard evidence of a text’s words, and of its visual symbolism.   

How boring it is to be told everything of import, or to be led on a leash to just one answer, when a filmmaker can, instead, only hint or whisper life's little verities to us.

The idea of this kind of exploration hooked me at age five, and has kept a hold of me -- like a dragon’s tentacle -- ever since.


  1. John insightful review of this brilliant season one episode “Dragon’s Domain”. It is easy to see how this episode could have influenced both Ridley Scott's ALIEN and James Cameron's ALIENS. They just replaced Cellini with Ripley.


  2. Dammit, John, with all of this Space: 1999 coverage, you are really making me want to pick up the blu rays!
    This is the best review of "Dragon's Domain" I've read, the previous best also having been written by you.
    I've always been fascinated by the unsaid rather than the said. The ruins of a lost civilization on another planet...a mysterious artifact found in a forgotten cave...the origin of a life form or spaceship, such as the Rubberoid in that Lost In Space episode, "Wish Upon A Star." The untold backstory, and the creators who enable us to imagine that backstory for ourselves, months after we've processed the story in which they were first encountered. Sometimes I feel that the stories I devised in my mind's eye to fill in the gaps left by the original Star Wars were better than what we eventually got! That's exactly the point...these are the tales that stay with us, haunt us, fill us with wonder. Those who need every aspect explained, I actually pity. Rather than exercising their own imaginations, they want it done for them. I've always found that mystery is one of the wellsprings of creation. You've voiced this sentiment perfectly.
    Perhaps I've mentioned this in your comments before, but two aspects of "Dragon's Domain" which stand out to me are the flashbacks...not the flashbacks themselves, but the scenery in the windows; the green trees, the blue skies, providing an exclamation point to the loneliness, vastness and darkness of the environment of Moonbase Alpha. They are so far from home...will they ever have that sense of "home" again?
    Secondly, we've seen many monsters in every B-to-Z Grade Sci-Fi movie from the 50's onwards...tentacles and fake green blood and an almost laughable fake-appearing "creature" that is clearly the work of apprentices using wires, rubber and plastic held together by tape. Here, the monster has that same quality, only it's TERRIFYING. It's almost like remembering a car accident (I survived a doozy). There's an unreal, almost cartoonish or nightmarish quality to your memories of having lived in that moment. I can't really explain it, but this episode has it in spades...We are seeing something so awful, we cannot see it for what it is; it is unreal, it can't possibly be true, but it is killing those around us and spitting them back at our feet. It's a dream given form, almost a perfect capsule of our worst fears realized. Really, really outstanding.
    There's one point you didn't touch upon, but I will. The creature lures ships into its lair, like a spider in its web. What if there are others out there, exactly like it? An entire Universe of spider-like creatures, which are birthed in the hundreds, sailing through space and landing where they are most likely to find nourishment? What if Cellini's monster is not only alive...but it isn't the only one?
    THAT'S what I mean about letting your imagination take flight. Scary...and fun!!

  3. "Dragon's Domain" is quite possibly the representative episode of Space: 1999, with notoriety alone propelling this episode to the very top of the 48 stories. While it may not be my absolute favourite pick, that title goes to, I can't believe I'm admitting this, Series Two's "Journey to Where", this monster-in-the-closet arguably deserves its status because it's the one Space: 1999 episode that people remember and recount even if they are dissatisfied with the series as a complete unit.

    Now, I have to ask: Does "Dragon's Domain" qualify as a true television classic? Maybe. The only thing holding it back is the fact that the series itself is somewhat obscure. Picking a story from Seinfeld or, yes, Star Trek is easy enough, and qualifiable enough, simply because they are known quantities to the general public, even if Joe or Jane cannot tell you much about them in an episode-to-episode way. Okay: A minor television classic.

    There are things I do not like about "Dragon's Domain" (no nose camera on the Ultra Probe to quash anyone's disbelief in Tony Cellini's story about the ship graveyard), but the overall effect is so potent and memorable that any minor quibbles I may have on certain details are quickly and properly annihilated.

    "Dragon's Domain" did not scare me when I first saw it -- I was already in my teens -- but it left an impression through its captivating imagery. And its projections of helplessness. The ultimate effect is Freudian as there are indeed some monsters we cannot fight, never mind conquer. (Mention must be made of the Dragon's use of a bright light to lure the "sailors" to their death. One thing some of us are taught, or at least understand through certain beliefs or myths, is that when we are ready to go, to pass on, we should acquiesce and enter the warm and comforting bright white light. We have nothing to fear.)

    Odds and Ends: Barbara Bain is very good in this one; the use of Albinoni's "Adagio in G minor" suits "Dragon's Domain" so well the viewer can be forgiven for thinking the piece was written for the episode; Brian Johnson's visual effects direction is top notch.

    Tony Cellini is probably my single favourite one-off character in the series. His character is so well written and played that the viewer is able to get inside, feel, and understand...

    ... which makes his demise at the story's conclusion all the more affecting.

    (I have a theory as to why Koenig dispatches the dragon relatively handily even though Cellini and his crew mates seem to have an awfully hard time, but I won't go into it here.)

    The Space: 1999 production crew was in peak form on "Dragon's Domain".

    1. Barry,
      I'd love to hear that theory! Share, please!

    2. As I recall, he dispatched it with a steel hatchet or some other tool to the eye, while everyone else was shooting it with those little laser guns to no effect. It seems the Dragon was either immune to or feeding from the energy weapons, while a bit of cold iron right in the eye was fatal. Iron is well-known for its lethal nature to otherwise invulnerable supernatural creatures. Maybe it was allergic?

    3. Moses,
      That makes sense. I even found a link!
      It also helps that Koenig didn't get hypnotized as the others did.