Monday, September 12, 2022

Breakaway Week: "Earthbound"

In “Earthbound,” Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) complains in a Command Conference about the Alphans’ direction for the future.  

He wants to know why there has been no discussion -- and no concrete plans – for a return to Earth.  

Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) counters that a return to Earth is impossible and that the Alphans are, rightly, focusing on two primary goals: survival, and a new place to call home.

Simmonds is not placated.

Before long, Alpha detects a powered object -- an alien spaceship – approaching the moon.  

Rather than going into orbit, however, it crashes on the lunar surface.  Aboard an Eagle, Koenig, Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) investigate the vehicle.  They force entry, and find several humanoid aliens in suspended animation in transparent sleep cubicles.

The Alphans inadvertently kill one of the aliens when they tamper with a sleep cubicle, an act which awakes the others, including Captain Zantor (Christopher Lee).  

Zantor shows no malice regarding the accident, and introduces his people, the Kaldorians.  They are the last survivors of a world that has grown sterile, and they are traveling to Earth where they hope to be welcomed as friends. 

Their journey, they report, will take seventy five years.

With one of their number dead, Zantor offers the vacant slot on his ship to an Alphan of the Commander's choosing.  Accordingly, Dr. Russell begins to study the suspended animation process while Koenig instructs Computer to pick one Alphan to return home to Earth. 

Simmonds wants Koenig to choose him, but Koenig refuses, noting that the choice must be objective. Simmonds refuses to accept that answer. He attacks Alpha’s power station and holds the base captive. 

Koenig realizes he has no choice but to let Simmonds return to Earth with the Kaldorians. 

But Simmonds has not allowed Zantor time to prepare a proper physiological matrix for him, meaning that the suspended animation process does not work correctly.  Simmonds learns this the hard way very soon into the 75 year journey.

One aspect of Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) that I resolutely admire is the fact that many stories often re-purpose famous literary horror devices or narratives. There’s a valid thematic reason for this, too. The series’ heroes, the Alphans, are not prepared psychologically or technologically for a deep space journey.  They don’t understand the nature of the galaxy; they are not experienced. Outer space is not a place, necessarily for brotherhood among aliens.  It is a realm of mystery.

Accordingly, the Alphans often encounter beings and phenomena that we would term terrifying. 

Not always, of course. Some stories deal with wonder or awe, the other side of the equation.  

But a good number of stories, especially in Year One, contend with horror-based ideas, like the monster in “Dragon’s Domain,” a man with the Midas Touch (“Force of Life,”) ghosts (“The Troubled Spirit”), and even sadism and torture (“End of Eternity”).

“Earthbound,” a very strong early entry in the canon functions on a similar principle.

In particular, it pivots off a key element in Edgar Allen Poe’s (1809-1849) short story: The Premature Burial (1844).  In Poe’s time, a pervasive cultural fear, in fact, was being buried alive. Poe's tale involved a character obsessed -- wracked with fear, in fact -- regarding this fate.  He took many steps to prevent such an outcome, and yet (it appeared, anyway...) that it was all for naught.

Intriguingly, “Earthbound,” takes that fear of being buried alive – of being trapped, unable to escape, in a casket -- and updates it for the space age. 

Here, Commissioner Simmonds fails to take the necessary precautions before entering a suspended animation chamber, and awakens only a short-time in on a seventy-five year flight.  All the other people on the ship -- Zantor and the Kaldorians -- are sound asleep and therefore oblivious to his desperate cries for help.  

And because the cubicle is transparent, we are able to watch Simmonds’ panic grow and grow, as he repeatedly throws himself against the unbreakable walls of the sleep cubicle  Finally he is left screaming, defeated, with no way to escape his premature burial.

Surrounding this climactic set-piece, “Earthbound” features some of the sharpest, and in a way, cruelest plotting in the entire series.  

Koenig orders the Computer to pick one name among the Alphans; one person who the base can reasonably spare if it is to continue to function.  Since Simmonds is not really a member of the base personnel, he is the natural choice to go. 

But Simmonds refuses to let “chance” (or, presumably, a machine) dictate his fate, and takes steps to assure that he goes home.  

Alas, the irregular manner of his methods -- blackmail, hostages, gunpoint diplomacy, etc. -- assure that he will not be adequately prepared for the voyage.  He does not trust Zantor, and doesn’t give him time to prepare a  biological matrix.  So he will go home…but he will never, in fact, see home.

At the end of the episode, the other shoe drops. 

Helena asks Koenig who Computer ultimately chose to return to Earth.  In one of the series’ greatest, most chill-inducing codas, Alpha's commander answers.  With one word.


Landau’s delivery is great here. It is deadpan and straight-forward, imbued not with too much or too little emotion.  It’s a simple declaration, and Landau's delivery allows the viewer take in the information for him or herself; to realize the full ramifications without spoon-feeding or hand-wringing.

In short, “Earthbound” represents Space: 1999 at the top of its game. 

Outside of the horror trope re-purposed for the near future, and the chilling, Twilight Zone-worthy twist or denouement, we also get examples of the Alphans at their best here.  The Kaldorians are treated as friends and allies, not as monsters or enemies.  

A common criticism of the series is that the Alphans are always “menaced” by advanced aliens. Clearly, that’s not the case in “Earthbound.” If anything, the Alphans here are menaced by human nature; by Simmond’s selfishness and cut-throat determination. As Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) trenchantly notes at one point, the Alphans are better off without Simmonds.

And yet, as bad as Simmonds is, the Alphans clearly don’t wish for him to endure the horrible fate of being prematurely buried. Accordingly, the episode presents a three-dimensional depiction of the Alphans.  They know how flawed Simmonds is, and yet, as fellow human beings, they can still empathize with his predicament, and grim fate.

I picked “Earthbound” to review this year -- the fortieth anniversary of Space: 1999 -- not only because I believe it is a strong episode of the series, but because it features a guest performance from the late Sir Christopher Lee.  

This great actor leaves behind a vast catalog of amazing work. “Earthbound” is an intriguing part of that work because Lee plays against type. In the early-to-mid-1970s he was widely typecast as a villain (The Wicker Man [1972], The Satanic Rites of Dracula [1973], The Man with the Golden Gun [1974]).  

On Space: 1999, by contrast, he plays a regal and reasonable alien, a being who doesn’t permit the passions of the moment to alter his beliefs or actions. Lee is imposing as Zantor, especially in his first scenes, wherein we don’t yet know what he will do, or who he is.  

But Lee remains a fascinating presence right through his last appearance in the episode in part because he keeps the character’s motivations opaque. 

In the last scene, for example, Zantor could help Simmonds by telling him he needs to prepare a matrix. Instead, he behaves according to Simmonds demands...and keeps his mouth shut. He makes a choice not to help a man he considers “diseased.”  

Is this murder, or merely an adherence to the logic of the moment?  

It is very likely that even if Zantor warned Simmonds about the necessity of a  matrix, Simmonds wouldn’t believe him.  Hence, the same fate would result.  

But I love how ambiguous the moment is, in terms of Zantor's decision-making and feelings.

The episode features some other welcome visual touches too, The Kaldorians arrive on Alpha bearing a gift: ceremonial gold eggs belonging to a life-form called a “libra bird.” Eggs, of course, represent fertility and re-birth.  And the Kaldorians are seeking their re-birth on Earth.  In a way, they have already been reborn on Alpha, awaking from the deep slumber that has characterized their journey.

I should also note that I enjoy “Earthbound” because it remembers the basic premise of the series; that the Alphans are, essentially, us in space. They are men of the 21st century, with our flaws and foibles, not romanticized figures of perfection and “evolved” natures.

Here the Alphans accidentally kill a Kaldorian while attempting to open a sleep bay. It is a mistake, of course, but a bad one.  

Yet when you put human nature together with the unknown, such things may happen, even if the humans -- Koenig, Bergman and Helena -- have the best of intentions. 

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