Monday, September 12, 2016

Breakaway Day 2016: "Matter of Life and Death"

An eagle returns from an apparently habitable planet that Computer has code-named Terra Nova: “New Earth.”  Before docking can occur, however, the pilots are rendered unconscious by an unknown force.

Upon boarding the landed Eagle Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), Professor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) are shocked to see a third person aboard the craft: Lee Russell (Richard Johnson).

Russell was believed to have died years earlier, when his Astro 7 mission became locked in tight orbit around Jupiter.

Koenig halts Exodus, the operation to abandon Moonbase Alpha for Terra Nova, fearing that Russell’s appearance signifies a mystery regarding the planet.  Lee Russell has no memory of being on the planet, or aboard the Eagle, but seems to draw his energy from Helena’s presence. 

Lee eventually warns Koenig not to go to Terra Nova, and then appears to die.  

Koenig authorizes a mission, though Bergman warns that Lee’s corpse is beginning to “reverse polarity,” starting the transformation process towards anti-matter.

On Terra Nova, Koenig’s landing party meets with disaster as the planet’s true nature -- anti-matter -- begins to impact the Eagle’s systems and machinery…

Historically, I have not been the biggest admirer of Space: 1999’s (1975-1977) second produced episode, “Matter of Life and Death.”  

I had the honor and privilege of talking to co-writer Johnny Byrne (1935-2008) about the episode many years back (in the year 2000), and this is how the conversation went:
First I was asked to go to Pinewood Studios and see the series sets and the production.  When I first got there, they were in final preparations for the first episode, “Breakaway,” and there was a bit of a panic because there was no second script prepared.  I was shown two scripts and they were both completely un-filmable as far as I could see when I tried to marry them to the briefing notes I had received at the time.
So your job was to make one of them acceptable?
I was asked to rewrite one of them, and the Art Wallace script (“Matter of Life and Death”) was the one I suppose they had selected as easier to develop.
How did you feel about rewriting the teleplay of another artist?
I would have preferred to write something from scratch, and I only had about two or three weeks to rewrite the script.  But I wrote it at Pinewood, and was taken on almost as a kind of staff writer.  Somehow or other, I revised the concept, and by the end of it, realized I should really claim sole credit.Still, it was more ethical to include Art Wallace’s name.  It wasn’t his fault the script was unusable because he was writing for a series that literally hadn’t been created yet.
The episode you revamped, “A Matter of Life and Death,” is a sort of problematic episode, and is not often considered one of the best of the series. The climax of the story, in which the Alphans die but are miraculously brought back to life, didn’t sit well with many critics.
I wasn’t entirely happy about making it all come right at the end, either.  But you have to remember that at this time there was enormous pressure to get something done they could shoot.  I never felt during the writing of that episode that I was sailing in blue water.
Is Terra Nova in “Matter of Life and Death” really the planet Meta?
No. They put all the Meta stuff into the first episode, “Breakaway,” which was being shot while I was writing “Matter of Life and Death.”
Was the intention ever that Terra Nova be Meta?
No.  There was a strong pull to make each episode a stand-alone story because the series would have been selling in syndication, and we didn’t have a clue in what order the shows would be screened.  If I had been told to follow on with Meta, then I would have used Meta.  Instead, I created Terra Nova, and there seemed to be reason to do that, to actually get away from Meta. Had I been wrong to do that, Christopher Penfold or someone would have surely told me I was wrong.
What [else] do you remember about working on that particular story?
I spent a long time with Charles Crichton putting this into a shooting-script in the most maddening form of detail.  It was kind of a primer in filmmaking, and if there had been flaws that kind of stood out, Charles would be the one to spot them.  I was really at the mercy of superior experience there.
Since this was a re-write of an Art Wallace script, can you recall what your contributions were?
Looking back, I see the things that interested me.  I was very fascinated that Richard Johnson had been cast, and I liked the idea of someone being Helena’s husband.  I would have looked for a level of human story there, and seeded it into the script.  The problem was that nobody was sure who was having who, or who was supposed to be having whom.  At that time, Koenig was calling Helena “Dr. Russell,” and all sorts of things.  It was a bit formal.  Nobody had sat down and planned out in detail how it was going to develop.  That Lee Russell relationship made the show special for me.  I remember that.
[Personally speaking] I have a problem with the story in that everybody dies in the climax, and then is miraculously resurrected when Helena wishes it.  The same sort of “reboot” was used in “War Games” later in the season.
If you kill off your main characters too often, you do have this terrible reality gap.  So you have to choose your moments very carefully.
I’m not a huge fan of “Matter of Life or Death,” but I think it only fair to mention that at least one critic (Dick Adler for the Los Angeles Times) noted you should be nominated for an Emmy Award for the script.
There is a small band of people who like it.  I think Gerry is very keen indeed on waving a magic wand, and everything comes out all right in the end.  I’m not sure I would have worked it out in quite that way.

I featured that interview segment as a prologue to some of my comments about the episode. 

Basically, I am very much of two minds about the show.  Yet when I watched it in 2016 in preparation for this week, I liked “Matter of Life and Death” more than I ever had before.

What is my problem with it?

Well, in a nutshell, I feel that Commander Koenig is portrayed as a very weak character in this drama. All along, he seems to feel pressure from his subordinates (including Alan Carter, Paul Morrow and Sandra Benes) to commence Operation Exodus, and send an Eagle to Terra Nova.

It is fine that this pressure exists, and that he feels it. This is realistic, and one of the reasons I love Space: 1999 is that it, despite its far-out premise, it attempts to showcase human beings in realistic rather than romanticized conditions. 

Koenig is a modern administrator, essentially, forced to become an ad hoc (and un-elected) governor. Unlike Captains in Starfleet, he has no hierarchy and no guiding regulations to consult on every decision. He is on his own.  He would feel such pressure to please those with whom he serves.

At first, Koenig resists the landing completely, noting that -- quite accurately -- the Alphans have not acquired enough information to mount a landing. There are too many questions marks, including Lee Russell’s presence on the Eagle, and the injuries of the Eagle pilots.

For about roughly 50% of the narrative, Koenig is remarkably persuasive about the fact that a landing on Terra Nova represents a significant threat, and should be avoided, if further information is not gathered.

But then, after Lee Russell’s death, Koenig flip-flops completely. He says things like “what’s going to stop us?” regarding the landing. 

Well, what should stop him is the same set of unresolved variables that made a landing unwise in the first place.  

Worse, Koenig receives additional and vital information from Victor that makes a successful exodus to the planet a less-likely, not more likely, possibility. Victor attempts to warn him on at least two occasions (once in his office; once when he is already in the Eagle cockpit) not to go to Terra Nova.

But now Koenig double-downs on his complete about-face, and won’t accept any information contrary to the decision to go. 

In real life, we would say he makes a catastrophic decision.  And indeed, it is. 

Koenig and the landing party die because of his choice. The eagle blows up. The moon (with all on Alpha…) explodes too.  Terra Nova is proven to be not merely dangerous, but catastrophically so.

Then, Lee shows up to talk to the surviving Helena, and tells her she can “wish” everything back to the way it was.  

In essence, the universe grants Koenig a mulligan, an extra shot at getting this (bad) decision right.

I am concerned about this turn of events for two reasons.  

First, Koenig is our central protagonist, and as viewers we should either have some confidence that in a situation like this, he will make a good decision.  Or contrarily that if he makes a bad decision, we should understand his motives for doing so.  I understand that, from a writing perspective, the Alphans had to overlook warnings and go to Terra Nova.  I accept that.  But If Koenig’s arguments were presented in a coherent, consistent fashion, we would understand his decision to go, and perhaps even support it.

Instead, Koenig spends half the episode being cautious, and half being incredibly impulsive.  I would have actually preferred it if he were impulsive all the way through.  The character could have taken the tack -- since this is early on in series continuity -- that the Alphans must seize this opportunity, questions and concerns, or not.  At least then, we would understand Koenig as a character, a leader, and a human being.

That’s my problem with “A Matter of Life and Death” in a nutshell. I feel that Koenig’s character is manipulated in terms of the writing, to achieve a particular end.  And that weakens the character, and our support for/belief in him. I love it when characters make mistakes in drama. But when the mistake is such that everybody dies a horrible death, and only divine intervention can save the them, there's a problem.

However, I do feel that what I have always failed to see, understand and appreciate about “Matter of Life and Death” is the nature (and indeed value) of the Helena/Lee story.  

Some may see it as a cold relationship, since the two hardly have the opportunity to speak with one another.  Indeed, I have often felt it was remote and distant, or Helena states about her feelings: “numb.”  

The relationship is not very warm for a husband and wife separated by tragedy.

But while watching "Matter of Life and Death" this time, I saw more plainly how the visuals carry the story, and symbolize the essence of the Lee Russell mystery so beautifully.  

As Victor’s thermal plates point out (in one of the episode’s best scenes…), Lee Russell only exists in the form he does -- as a human being -- because he is drawing energy from Helena, from the person he loved most in life.  

There is a beautifully-rendered scene, consisting of no dialogue, during which Lee wakes up in the Care Unit, and Helena sits up, in her quarters, some distance away.  They communicate, without words -- perhaps even without conscious thought -- establishing a link between the source of energy (Helena), which might even be termed imagination, and the product of that energy, which is Lee’s physical form.

This imageric meaning or approach is important, if subtle. 

If matter can be shaped by thought (such as Helena’s thoughts or memories), then, the ending of the episode with the “waving of a magic wand” is supported in some sense, and not the umotivated "divine intervention" I noted above.  

Helena creates the form of Lee Russell -- a voice of warning -- and later re-arranges the matter on Terra Nova, also to conform with her thoughts/desires, restoring life to all those who died.

The episode’s ending, which I have, I admit, always considered a special effects showcase for special effects sake, is actually built in, and paid for, so-to-speak, by that scene of symbiosis. That moment wordlessly connects Helena’s thoughts to the manifestation of those thoughts: Lee in the flesh.  What I once called a “bankrupt” creative ending, I can now see is properly prepared for, and accounted for in the story’s structure and specifics.

Lee is only really “alive” and, indeed, Lee Russell, as Victor suggests, when in the presence of Helena, his personal battery/power source.  He cannot exist in that form when not in her presence.  It is his connection to her which permits him to warn the Alphans, and take that form.  His love for her, his connection to her, is what gives him dimension and life.  The "matter" of life and death of the episode's title may not be anti-matter, but the matter that results from thought; from love itself.

This is a fascinating and romantic notation, that love and the memory of love, can create new life, new forms.  Some have seen the episode as a reflection of 1972’s Solaris, and certainly, I can see that connection, but don’t find it bothersome. In both stories, an alien world gives shape and breath to those who inhabit our memories.

I have always admired Lee's final speech to Helena, in which he notes that "matter never dies."  He might as well be saying, perhaps, "love never dies" as long there is thought and energy, and memory behind it. 

The episode provides no real scientific underpinning for any of this, and most of the talk of anti-matter seems murky, but I nonetheless appreciate that this episode, in the thoughtful words of Johnny Byrne, establishes the thesis, in essence, behind Year One of Space: 1999.  As Victor notes:

We’re a long way from home, and we’re going to have to start thinking differently if we’re going to come to terms with space.”

When I wrote my first book, on Space: 1999, over twenty years ago, I understood this theory in principle. 

But it has taken me probably over a dozen re-watching of “Matter of Life and Death” to come to grips with the way this story conveys the “the terms” Space: 1999 negotiates as a work of art.


  1. John intriguing thoughts on “Matter of Life and Death”. As in your EXPLORING SPACE:1999 book, you words here and discussion with Johnny Byrne are priceless. This episode, as all of season one is so very fascinating. Even as a boy in '75, I found the Helena/Lee story very haunting.


  2. I have a love/hate relationship with this episode. It's certainly not a "go to" episode for me, but when I do watch it, I'm engrossed by it (for the most part). The ending with Helena (back on Alpha) is a real gut-punch and is probably one of the top 5 endings for Season 1.