Saturday, September 13, 2014

At Flashbak for Breakaway Day 2014: 5 Things Space:1999 Got Right About the Future

All right, the last post for the Breakaway Day Celebration 2014 comes from Flashbak!  My newest article considers the prognostications the disco-decade series got right about the near future:

Here's a snippet, and the url:

"The Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series Space:1999 (1975 – 1977) is almost forty years old.  And every year, fans of the series celebrate “Breakaway Day,” the day in series lore – September 13, 1999 -- in which the moon is blasted out of Earth orbit and sent careening into a mind-blowing space journey of awe and mystery.

It’s easy to look back at Space: 1999 (and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well), and consider that the title is a sort of built-in expiration date.  In other words, we are passed the year of the title, and so have the perfect opportunity to note that things didn’t turn out as the imaginative writers, directors and producers planned.

So it’s true. The moon didn’t blast out of Earth’s orbit in the year 1999, and no – alas – we don’t have an international moonbase today, like Alpha, either.

But in honor of Breakaway Day 2014, it seems fair to note that Space:1999 did predict, accurately, some aspects of the future..."

I hope everyone enjoyed this year's tribute to Space:1999!  Normal blogging resumes tomorrow...

Breakaway Day 2014: "The one with the monster..."

 “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.

Breakaway Day 2014: Eagle One Close-Up

In my post, Visualizing Space: 1999, I offered a close-up look at the impressive production design of the 1970s TV series Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) and discussed some of the ideas underlying it. 

At the time, I remember feeling that I wanted to write more on the topic, especially about the Brian Johnson-designed Eagle spaceships, which have become, in so many ways, a veritable "trademark" of Space: 1999, even well into the 21st century.

Many viewers who didn't enjoy the series in terms of storytelling admired the look of the Eagles, and still do.  That's a testament to the quality of Brian Johnson's work back in 1974.

Indeed, I've often felt that the Eagle is to 1970s outer space television what the U.S.S. Enterprise was to 1960s outer space television; a kind of defining visual that reveals much about what was occurring in the culture at the time.

The Eagle was designed when NASA's Apollo Program was in full go mode, for instance, and it seemed like an abundantly believable extension of existing technology.

Like those real-life space crafts, the Eagle appeared utilitarian, not smooth-lined or elegant in the traditional "flying saucer" mode made famous in films such as This Island Earth (1951) or Forbidden Planet (1956). 

At the same time, the Eagles seemed remarkably versatile, and that was the intent, according to Brian Johnson:

"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.

I sketched the basic idea and got Michael Lamont (then a draughtsman/ art department) to draw up the full scale 44" plans. I then added sections and thickened tubes until it looked "right." The final cladding was added, and then the different scale versions were finished to match the 44" model. 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."

The Eagles and their design have also proven influential in film and television history.  They've appeared, without credit, I believe, in the film God Told Me To (1976).  Below, I've selected just a few images of vehicles/spaceships that were inspired by the Eagle to one degree or another.

An Eagle as a converted submarine. From Irwin Allen's Return of Captain Nemo (1978).

The Eagle as Wagon Train to the Stars in Donnie and Marie's "Cattlestar Galactica" spoof (1978).

The Visitor shuttle, from the original V miniseries (1984)

From Lego's Hero Factory, "Rise of the Rookies." (2010).

Breakaway Day 2014: Space:1999: "Space Brain"

Yes, this is the (in) famous Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) that sees Moonbase Alpha’s interior overrun with…soap suds. 

Yet despite such a silly-sounding (and appearing…) menace “Space Brain” by Christopher Penfold has always been one of my favorite Space:1999 installments.  This is so because the episode intimates an alien (and ultimately impenetrable…) order to the universe, and more-so, an alien hand influencing Alpha’s journey…and perhaps not for the better.

In fact, I was so taken with the sub-text and “under”-story aspects of “Space Brain” that my first officially licensed Space: 1999 novel, The Forsaken (Powys Media; 2003), might be interpreted as a direct sequel to this episode’s events, one that seeks to address some of the mysteries presented in the televised story.

In “Space Brain” Moonbase Alpha’s routine is unexpectedly disrupted by the sudden transmission on every vid-screen of streaming alien hieroglyphs. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) sends out an Eagle to investigate the transmission’s point of origin, but quickly loses contact with the craft. 

In short order, a second ship is sent out, but one astronaut, Kelly (Shane Rimmer) returns from a spacewalk as a changed man.  He is now the “programmed” vessel for a vast entity in space, one on a collision course with the Moon. 

Meanwhile, a small but incredibly-heavy meteorite crashes near Alpha.  Concerned about the impending collision with the larger obstacle, Koenig orders an Eagle filled with nuclear charges launched.  It is tagged to detonate at the center of the space-going entity.

As the threat progresses, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) seek to understand the threat better, and Bergman soon realizes that the meteorite is actually the crushed remains of the first eagle craft, destroyed by alien antibodies. 

At roughly the same time, Helena understands that Kelly is acting as an intermediary, relaying messages from Alpha’s Main Computer to the entity in space, attempting to avoid the collision.

After undergoing a dangerous mental symbiosis with Kelly, Koenig accepts that the entity -- the so-called “space brain” -- is a peaceful organism, and one that turns at the “center of a whole galaxy, maybe hundreds of galaxies.” 

But disaster looms when the eagle armed with the nuclear charges can’t be recalled, and the Space Brain begins to emit deadly antibodies so as to crush the Moon in the very way it crushed the first eagle spacecraft…

One of the arguments I universally make in support of Space: 1999 as a highly-visual science fiction initiative is that it functions (like Prometheus [2012], for example) on largely symbolic terrain, and its stories -- often criticized as being somehow confusing -- are crystal clear once the symbols are noted, studied and then thoughtfully interpreted.  “Space Brain” is no exception, and in terms of both visuals and musical choices, this episode proves rather impressive, despite the onslaught of killer soap suds.

For instance, “Space Brain” opens with various scenes of Moonbase Alpha personnel relaxing off-duty, solving puzzles (and trying to beat a puzzle record).  One of the first such shots depicts Alpha’s commander, Koenig, completing a puzzle in his office. 

The puzzle itself depicts a painting by Jacque Daret (1404 – 1470), created circa 1435.  Called “The Visitation,” this work of art reveals Mary (with Jesus still in utero) visiting another pregnant woman, Elizabeth.  Art critics have interpreted Deret’s work to symbolize Mary’s role as intermediary between God and Man. 

This work of art, then, reveals, in a sense, Kelly’s role in “Space Brain” as the go-between for Alpha and the entity in space.  In both circumstances, there is indeed a “visitation” and a human being is transformed by what she/he carries within.  The shot of the painting also reveals what Koenig only learns later: that the space brain, like Mary’s God, is a benevolent one.  On a much more basic level, all the “puzzle-solving” suggests the modus operandi of the teleplay: Koenig, Bergman, and Helena must each put together a piece of the space entity’s puzzle, from the indecipherable hieroglyphs, to Kelly’s odd physical condition, to the true (and horrific…) nature of the meteor.

Late in the episode, the action is scored to Gustav Holst’s Planets’ suite, namely the movement titled “The Bringer of War.”  In terms of practicality, this music was likely seeded in to lighten the load on composer Barry Gray.  There’s a real world, production reason for its use.

And yet in terms of appropriateness and interpretation, Holst’s composition also fits in well with “Space Brain’s” themes. Specifically, Holst’s work is a seven part suite, and each part describes the “character” of that planet, and that planet’s influence on the psyche of humans.  Consider then that “war” ascends in Koenig’s mind as he prepares a pre-emptive strike with the eagle carrying nuclear charges, and only later realizes the errors of his ways.  The “Mars” composition is also scored to literal war, as Alpha falls under siege, nearly crushed by the killer antibodies of the space brain. 

Put the two artistic visions and ideas held together -- peaceful interaction or Visitation between God and man, and then all-out war --- essentially present the two main perspectives depicted in “Space Brain.” The entity wants peaceful contact. The Alphans prepare for war.  The entity opens with communication and an intermediary. Human-kind faces a puzzle (and a crisis) with plans for destruction.  The book end works of art in “Space Brain” -- Daret’s and Holst’s -- convey much of the narrative’s deeper meaning.  Ignore the imagery and the soundtrack, and you’re not getting the entire picture.

Also, I often laud Space:1999 in terms of another quality for which it is widely disliked: it’s refusal to explain every aspect of its narrative and spoon-feed the audience easy answers. 

“Space Brain” never satisfactorily explains, for instance, why the nuclear-charged Eagle remote-control guidance system should short-out, rendering the collision with the space brain impossible to avoid.  Koenig himself dismisses – in explicit dialogue -- the idea that the space brain is behind the act.  By inference, this could mean, quite simply, that a third, unseen hand, is at work in this episode.  And that hand desires the space brain destroyed for some reason.  Thus it is using Alpha as its vessel for that very purpose. 

Again, we must go back to the painting, and the idea of Visitation.  Is Moonbase Alpha being used or visited by another force, only as a bullet to the brain, for some unknown purpose?

That’s the plot-line of my book, The Forsaken. 

But clearly, Alpha’s destruction of the space brain at the conclusion of this episode must boast terrifying and cosmic ramifications.  The dialogue explains how thousands of worlds depended on the space brain.  Accordingly, I speculate that the entity was a kind of regulating factor, ensuring the stability of stars and other environments.  Thus in its absence, everything becomes unstable, unpredictable…chaotic.  If you’ve read my book, you realize that’s my explanation for the wild, out-of-control, action-oriented events of Space:1999’s second season.  The galaxy has descended into chaos, and all bets are off.

Like I said, that’s my interpretation, but it need not be anyone else’s.  What I love about “Space Brain” is that it leaves open these little intriguing mysteries, and the viewers can fill them in, interpreting the clues in a way that they see fit, and that seems to fit the facts.  I’ve done so, as I note above, but other viewers are also welcome to interpret the symbols in a different fashion.  I much prefer these open-ended, stimulating mysteries to “techno-babble” resolutions we get in latter-day space operas.

The biggest stumbling block, of course, for “Space Brain” is the visual depiction of the alien antibodies.  The foam or soap-suds don’t look like organic antibodies, but rather just like a washing machine has gone dangerously out-of-control. 

I realize that this visualization will be a deal breaker for some viewers, and I accept that fact, but it’s truly a shame because there’s a lot going on in “Space Brain” beneath the bloody foam attack in the last act.  Open-minded s.f. viewers forgive the giant ice-cream cone-shaped planet killer in Star Trek’s “the Doomsday Machine” and the panto-Myrka in Doctor Who’s “Warriors of the Deep, so I would ask (again) that Space:1999 be given the same consideration.

Going back to the possibilities inherent in “Space Brain,” I once pitched to Powys Media a novel titled “Ordination” in which a race of high priests to the Space Brain arrived on Alpha and attempted to induct Maya into their number, for nefarious purposes…the destruction of a rogue space entity like the one seen in this episode...

Breakaway Day 2014: Space:1999: "End of Eternity"

“End of Eternity” by Johnny Byrne and directed by Ray Austin is one of the most suspenseful Space: 1999 episodes produced during the series’ forty-eight episode run in the mid-1970s.  

In particular, this installment represents a near-perfect blend of cinematic visual style with a thoughtful science fiction premise involving immortality. 

Featuring strong horror overtones, the episode reveals, almost without flaw, the Space: 1999 creative aesthetic at is best.  

Simply put, “End of Eternity” depicts how visual touches -- in terms of innovative editing techniques and detailed production design -- actually buttress and express characterization, or critical information.  In other words, the story itself -- with all its nuance and coloring -- is not contained merely in the dialogue, but in the meticulous, beautifully-wrought imagery.

“End of Eternity” commences with a team of Alphan astronauts, including Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) exploring an asteroid that has been adrift for a thousand years.  Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) discovers a chamber with a breathable atmosphere inside the rock, and the Alphans detonate explosives to reach it.  Deep inside, they find a “one room world,” and its single occupant: the humanoid Balor (Peter Bowles).  He is a citizen of the planet Progron and has been trapped in this prison for a thousand years.

When Balor recovers from the injuries he sustained during the Alphans' opening of his asteroid jail, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) realizes that his cells are regenerating at an amazing rate.  He is, practically-speaking, immortal.  

When questioned about this quality, Balor notes that his people “cast him out” after immortality was discovered on their world.  They did so, he states, because they did not appreciate his efforts to make immortality meaningful in the absence of death.

Soon, the Alphans get a taste of Balor’s governing philosophy.  He believes that sadism, torture, pain and terror are the true pathways to wisdom for both the immortal and mortal, and wants to introduce these components to life on Alpha.  And since he’s virtually invincible -- impervious even to lasers -- Koenig and the Alphans have no way to stop him.

I had the pleasure of interviewing teleplay author and 1999 script editor Johnny Byrne (1935 - 2008) about “End of Eternity” after we became friends in the early 2000s.  He told me that his goal in crafting this story had been to present a terrifying horror story, right down to the opening scenes on the asteroid.  “It’s always more sinister when you break into a place,” he told me.  “There’s the feeling of a secret discovered.  It sets up a kind of resonance.  You’re in for grief, and that is the essence of good horror writing.”

He also based the character of Balor on precedents throughout Earth history.  “Balor was named after Baal, an old Indo-European God,” Byrne explained.  “Those who worshipped Baal gave their first born to him in these horrible human sacrifices.  That is something echoed in the story, that Balor needs placating, and that his appeasement can only be achieved through the pain and suffering of others.  Basically, he saw the Alphans as 311 laboratory rats that he could do with as he pleased.

Another reference point for author Byrne was Lucifer, particularly in the description of Balor as being “cast out” from his people, and his incarceration in a kind of Hell-like prison.  “It’s a Lucifer metaphor taken to an extreme point of view,” Mr. Byrne acknowledged.  “Many people, you know, say Lucifer got a bum deal.  He got what’s called “victor’s justice.”  He lost the war, therefore he’s demonized.  He’s Milosevich or Saddam Hussein.  He is all those people who failed in their endeavors and ended up on the losing side.  That’s what Balor was: the loser in a terrible conflict, but he still had that humanity in him.  His fatal flaw was that he could no longer sympathize with the experiences of others because he considered himself immortal.

And immortality, of course, is the beating thematic heart of “End of Eternity,” the issue at the crux of the debate for the curious, technologically-inferior Alphans:  “If you think about it, human beings are immortal in many ways,” Johnny explained.  “In the continuing of family, we’re immortal.  We’re immortal in the sense of our work living beyond us.  We’re even immortal in terms of memory: when we die those who come after remember us.  But Balor in “End of Eternity” wanted physical longevity, which as I see it, is quite different from true immortality.  True immortality should be something beyond the body, not merely the medical extension of life.  That was Balor’s mistake. He saw immortality as the instantaneous regeneration of tissue, when in fact he was immortal in a quite different sense.  People would forever remember his wickedness.

Balor’s story is depicted in "End of Eternity" striking visual terms. These visualizations accent Balor’s physical strength and his sense of domination over those around him.  Specifically, when Balor escapes from Medical Section, he encounters two Alphan security guards, lifts them off their feet, and effortlessly defeats them with his bare (or gloved…) hands.  Throughout this sequence, there are no sound effects and no dialogue featured.  Instead, the scene is scored only with an eerie musical composition.  The utter lack of the human, individual sounds we associate with fist-fights or battle thus gives the audience a sense both of Balor’s other-worldliness and his other-worldly power and physical strength.  

The next scenes -- with Balor stalking the corridors of Moonbase Alpha -- are similarly designed and executed to reflect Balor’s incredible physical power.  We see him from a low-angle, and he looks enormous.  He towers over the Alphans, and dominates totally.

Low angle: The Power of Balor

The Power of Balor: His victims don't make a sound.

Balor's Power redux.

What’s so brilliant about this visual approach  and motif -- that no sound even gets close to Balor -- is that the editor cannily reverses the technique at one dramatic point in the tale, and horrifyingly so.  Koenig asks Victor about Balor’s paintings, and what he feels they represent or symbolize. Barry Morse’s Victor turns towards Koenig and the camera, and, stone-faced, says, simply “Terror. Destruction. Torture.”

At this moment, immediately preceding Bergman's stunning conclusion, the episode shock cuts to close-ups of Balor’s disturbing paintings, but the artwork is accompanied by the screaming and wailing of Balor’s victims.  In other words, this is a deliberate inversion of approach.  Now, all of the sudden, we hear amplified (and see amplified as well…) the terror generated by Balor’s philosophy and “wisdom.”  It's a descent into Hell itself.

Between these two opposite approaches, we have depicted both Balor’s incredible strength and ability to stand above others, and the terror of those he dominates.  It’s a brilliant visual contrast, and incredibly effective in terms of building suspense.

Victor suddenly understands Balor's philosophy of (endless) life.




Another significant scene in "End of Eternity" also amplifies the episode’s horror underpinnings.  A grounded Eagle pilot, Mike Baxter (Jim Smilie), falls under Balor’s diabolical influence and attacks Koenig. But it is no ordinary attack.  Mike bludgeons Koenig (literally to death...) with a model biplane. Once more, shock  cutting, which fractures continuity (and thus expectations and spatial geography) is deployed.  Making the moment even more alarming, the camera assumes Koenig's subjective POV as he is attacked.  

Often, Space: 1999’s visualizations possess a kind of grand scale and but minimalist formality, a carefully meted sense of order in terms of blocking and staging.  However, this brutal scene breaks down that well-established sense of TV decorum, and the attack is lensed entirely from Koenig’s perspective.  With jump cut ferocity, we watch as the biplane strikes the camera, --and therefore us -- again and again.  It’s absolutely vicious, and the wicked, inventive punch-line is that, at some point, the camera even mimics an angle we might see from a real plane, as the weapon/plane banks and turns to attack Koenig again and again.

Speaking of Mike Baxter, he’s a critical character in “End of Eternity,” and I appreciate how Space: 1999 handles this supporting guest character.  He’s an Eagle  pilot who “takes flight very seriously” as Balor notes.  But instead of giving us a long, predictable, exposition-laden speech about Baxter’s love of flight -- one establishing how disturbing his medical grounding is -- Space: 1999 conveys his story through production design

In Baxter's quarters, we can easily make-out artwork of the lunar lander, for instance, and also a brass or silver model plane.  The decoration of his quarters – uncommented upon – tell us what we need to know about the character’s passion…and therefore his weakness.  Balor exploits that weakness, and Koenig is bludgeoned with that weakness.  It's a perfect metaphor for the ways that the Devil "tempts" his victims with the very things they love and covet.

POV Attack.

Shock cutting POV Attack.

Plane banking, Shock Cutting, POV Attack...

“End of Eternity” reaches its crescendo of horror and suspense in the last act, as Balor and Koenig go head-to-head for total control of Moonbase Alpha.  This mano-a-mano contest is, again, expressed through dynamic visualization.  As Balor attacks Main Mission and rips up a computer panel, the camera zooms in to a tight close-up, and that very shot -– the zoom to close-up -- is mimicked and reflected in the very next shot of Koenig.   It’s all between these two men now, the photography and editing reveal, and indeed, that’s how the episode resolves.  

"End of Eternity's" final moments fulfill the promise of the mirror-image zooms to close-up when Koenig sends Balor out of Moonbase Alpha’s airlock (foreshadowing Alien’s [1979] finale).  But the lead-up is a nail-biting contest between sadism and power (Balor) and self-sacrifice and experience (Koenig).

In the end, it’s a simple, human thing that renders Koenig victorious. He knows the lay-out of Moonbase Alpha better than Balor does, and is thus able to lead him into a trap.  He also understands that Balor -- a bully at heart -- is incapable of resisting the temptation to physically lord it over him, to hit him.   Thus Koenig knowingly goads Balor into striking him, so that our stalwart commander will fall into a safe ante-chamber, leaving Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) in Main Mission to open the airlock and send Balor out into space.  Adios.

All the stylistic editing and revealing production design in “End of Eternity” make the episode a stirring and even breathtaking installment of the series.  And yet, uniquely, considering all the overt horror we register in the episode, the most terrifying moment involves Bowles’ performance as Balor.  Throughout the episode he is calm and composed, and then -- terrifyingly -- he faces Koenig at about the thirty-six minute point and this veil of civilization absolutely drops.  Suddenly, we see his wicked smile, and his insane eyes.  Balor's sinister nature is visibly and irrevocably made apparent.

Balor's veil.

Balor's veil lifted.

Discussing Balor and “End of Eternity” with me, Johnny Byrne once told me this.  “Oh, I always intended to write another story about Balor. It was in my mind at the time.  He was a great character, so beautifully portrayed by Peter Bowles, and the episode was shot so wonderfully.  Even when I see it now, I’m still impressed.  When you see that scene played with the toy airplane, you just know Koenig isn’t going to get out of this one unscathed.”

Alas, Johnny never had the chance to write more about Balor and the world of “End of Eternity,” but author William Latham took up the challenge in the first officially-licensed Powys Space:1999 novel: “Resurrection.”   So if you ever wanted to know what happens the second time Balor and Commander Koenig, this book provides the (riveting) answers.

Breakaway Day 2014: Space:1999 "Collision Course"

“Collision Course” by Anthony Terpiloff and directed by Ray Austin represents a test for John Koenig (Martin Landau) and his command of Moonbase Alpha.  

Specifically, the episode lands the protagonist in a situation where the facts are against him, logic is against him, science itself is against him, and all he can muster is a vague character testimony (for an alien named Arra…) and a desperate admonition for his people to trust him. 

What this difficult scenario reveals, perhaps, is that faith isn’t an easy thing to come by, particularly in an era when technology is ascendant; when new tools, instruments, or even weapons (like nuclear charges) present an apparently straight path to resolving a crisis.  

Thus, once more, Space: 1999 focuses intently on the human condition as it stands now, and not in any fashion idealized or romanticized.  As always, the series concerns modern man -- with all his frailties and foibles -- thrust into an environment for which he is psychologically unprepared.  The episode builds to an emotional climax, and the pay-off is unexpectedly one of the most lyrical and poetic of the canon, a reflection of a kind of magic realism leitmotif.

For those unacquainted with it, magical realism is a story-telling approach in which something seemingly impossible (hence magical) occurs in an otherwise very real setting.  In “Collision Course” the laws of Physics as we understand them are held in abeyance so that a dramatic (though magical...) reckoning, apotheosis, or sense of transcendence can be depicted.

“Collision Course” begins in media res as Moonbase Alpha very narrowly avoids a collision with a nearby asteroid by detonating small nuclear charges on its surface.  The mission is a success of sorts, though a thick radioactive cloud hovers over the base, with possibly deleterious effects on humans.

Meanwhile, pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate) is missing in action.  A mysterious alien intelligence named “Arra” (Margaret Leighton) however, guides Alan safely to a rendezvous point in space with Koenig’s rescue Eagle.  

From that vantage point, at the rim of the radiation cloud, Koenig detects a new danger.  A planet thirteen times the size of Alpha is now on a collision course with the wandering moon. Only hours remain before total annihilation.

Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) proposes Operation Shockwave, a mission to drop nuclear charges on a path between the two planetary bodies in hopes that the resulting nuclear detonation will pull them apart and spare both worlds from destruction.

But soon, Koenig encounters Arra himself and he faces a new set of variables. The alien queen informs him that it is her world, Atheria, which now approaches Alpha.  Furthermore, the approaching collision is the very catalyst her people have sought and awaited since the dawn of time.  The collision will trigger in them a total metamorphosis, a next step in their species’ evolution. 

Arra also guarantees that Moonbase Alpha will survive the collision unscathed, noting that it’s odyssey will “know no end” and that mankind will prosper in new solar systems for ages to come.  Koenig takes Arra at her word, but how can he convince his top staff -- rational and logical scientists all -- that they should do nothing in the face of imminent disaster?

In large part, this episode of Space: 1999 concerns faith.  Not religious faith, necessarily, but perhaps the faith in an understanding beyond our own; that things aren’t always exactly as they first appear, and that we don’t always have all the answers.  Rushing to judgment serves no one.

"Collision Course" thus concerns a human value: trust.  It’s the battle between human and machine values perhaps, and one that explicitly fits in with what Science Digest tagged as the series’ central thesis: the downfall of 20th century, technological man.  

The idea underlying this concept is that we don’t know everything ,and when we forsake human values for a reliance on technology, the outcomes may not be the ones we desire.  This idea is encoded in  the opening episode, “Breakaway,” which features a nuclear accident, and sends the moon (and Alpha) careening into space.

In real life, I’m not generally a big fan of faith-based decision-making.  We use facts and science as our guides to make the best decisions we can.  It’s only logical.  But what “Collision Course”  explores is the notion that trust is a critical factor too, in decision-making.  If you understand that someone knows more about a situation than you do, and you indeed trust them, then the question becomes: is that enough to outweigh the available facts?  The harsh lesson for Commander Koenig is that his people are limited in some sense, by the (technological) world view which shaped them, and that even the quality of loyalty (to him) is not enough to make them forsake science, rationality, and logic in the face of fear and apocalypse.  

Again, I don’t interpret this episode as being a blanket approval of blind faith, but rather the importance of “seeing” faith, let's call it.  Koenig comes to trust Arra after their meeting, and places his faith in her after assessing her, person-to-person..  His people on Alpha -- though they know him better than he knows Arra -- are not able to place this kind of faith in him.  Koenig understands the situation well and harbors no anger, as the coda suggests.  Were the situations reversed, he asserts, he would likely not be able to do “nothing” in the face of certain disaster, either.  Accordingly, the story becomes a comment on the qualities we see in all human-kind, not just Koenig or the Alphans.

One quality I appreciate about “Collision Course” is its sense of humility about human nature.  Here, a benevolent alien teaches the human race something wondrous about the universe, a reality that goes beyond man’s limited understanding and science.  I like the fact that the Alphans are allowed to be wrong in this case, and yet that they are learning as opposed to lecturing or teaching others about their values.  Johnny Byrne, Space: 1999's story editor, once told me that great drama emerges not from an exploration of characters who already have all they need, but from an exploration of those who don't.  Here, the Alphans lack knowledge about deep space, and so are afraid and act fearfully. 

As we expect from Space: 1999, “Collision Course’s visuals are vivid and powerful.  The first acts of the program showcase a sense of confusion and dread, for instance.  First, Moonbase Alpha is blanketed in an impenetrable haze, unable to see or understand anything happening around it.  Later, Koenig pierces that haze and find signs only of death and doom.  Arra’s ship devours his Eagle in a sense (the fore opens like a shark’s jaws…) and Koenig finds her ship to be something like a tomb, replete with cob-webs and an ancient figure garbed in a funeral cloak or shroud..  Whether this is Arra’s real form, or Koenig’s perception of her form -- based on his own fear of impending doom -- is questionable. 

Finally, the episode ends with that touch of grace and transcendence, with that touch of magical realism.  Atheria and Alpha careen towards one another and all appears lost.  But the planets don’t collide.  Instead they merely touch, and Arra and her people apparently “evolve” to the next level of their existence.  

There’s no existing scientific theory, principle or axiom, to my knowledge, that could explain why these  two space bodies touch instead of collide.  But the episode  surprises with its fanciful, even chimeric sense of wonder or vision.  There are some things man does not yet understand, the episode expresses, and sometimes it’s necessary not to rage against the fantastic or otherworldly, but to put faith in a friend.  Arra speaks of history, foreknowledge, and sacred purpose of mankind, and her vision proves correct, even if "fear" precedes apotheosis.

Moonbase Alpha in a haze of darkness and confusion.

Devoured by fear...

A tomb?

A figure of death, in a funeral shroud.

Out of darkness and fear into light. Two worlds don't collide.  They "touch."

I can’t claim I would always want or desire Space: 1999 to exist on this rarefied plateau of magical reality, because then hard-edged science-fiction becomes a very different animal: phantasmagoric storytelling with no rules, where anything is possible (and thus valid).  

But in the case of “Collision Course” I’d submit the episode works splendidly as a one-off, re-asserting in dynamic visual and narrative fashion the idea that mankind is sometimes the victim of a sort of a tunnel vision, seeing only part of the picture and ignoring the rest.   There are more wonders in Heaven and Earth, “Collision Course” suggests, than is dreamed of in our philosophy (or by our technology).  

And this principle  -- love it or hate it -- is a key element of Space: 1999’s creative vision.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Join Me Tonight on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction

In keeping with Breakaway Day 2014 celebrations, I'll be a guest on Dr. Howard Margolin's genre talk show, Destinies - The Voice of Science Fiction on WUSB, 90.1 FM  at 11:30 pm tonight to talk about my second Space: 1999 novel: The Whispering Sea (2014).

Tonight's show marks my thirteenth appearance on Destinies, and I was last there in late October, 2012, discussing Horror Films of the 1990s.   Last year, Howard celebrated Destinies' thirtieth anniversary.

Howard is a thorough and knowledgeable interviewer, so I'm really looking forward to the show, and discussing Space:1999 with him.  I'll also be reading an excerpt from my book.

If you aren't able to listen to the program live, the episode will be archived, and I'll get that information to you over the weekend.  Here's the link to listen to the program:

Breakaway Day 2014: 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