Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Breakaway Week: "The Metamorph"

'In “The Metamorph,” Moonbase Alpha emerges from its second encounter with a space warp, six light years from its previous position. The lunar facility’s life support system needs repair, and requires the ore known as Titanium.

Titanium is pinpointed on the volcanic surface of a nearby planet, but an Eagle reconnaissance flight ends in terror when the ship is abducted by a strange green light.  Soon, Alpha is contacted by an alien from the planet, Mentor (Brian Blessed), who claims that the pilots are safe in his custody.

Mentor and Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) arrange an orbital rendezvous, but the plan is further treachery from Mentor.  He captures Koenig’s eagle and drags it down to the planet, called Psychon.  

There, in a subterranean city, Mentor lives with his daughter, Maya (Catherine Schell) whom he has taught the “priceless art of molecular transformation,” and operates a biological computer called Psyche which he hopes to use to restore the planet surface to its former tranquil self.

To do so, however, he must feed Psyche living minds. 

The Alphans provide him a ready supply, though Koenig refuses to cooperate. Koenig hopes to convince Maya -- who doesn’t know of Psyche’s brain draining power -- that he needs her help.  But to do so, she must turn on her own father.

The first episode of Space: 1999 Year Two is colorful and bold, crisp and exciting. It also introduces a great regular character to the series: Maya of Psychon, played by Catherine Schell.  

I won’t mince words about Maya or her presence on the series.  I love her.  

I believe Maya is a great character, in part because she is allowed to be emotional as well as competent and brilliant. After Mr. Spock, all resident aliens had to be stoic, it seems, but not Maya. She was more like an imp, a good-humored, playful, highly emotional alien.

Like all her people, Maya is incredibly intelligent, with a mind that can run circles around the most high-powered computer. As a Psychon, she is, we are told in "Seed of Destruction," "hyper sensitive to all forms of living matter." Maya is also a pacifist, deploring the violence of the planet Earth when told of it in "Rules of Luton.” 

"You mean, people killed people, just because they were different. That's disgusting!"

But Maya is also one tough cookie. She regularly transforms into frightening outer space creatures to stop the monster of the week in episodes such as "The Beta Cloud" and "The Bringers of Wonder." She stands up to the Commander when she believes he is wrong ("Seed of Destruction" again), and is just as comfortable flying an Eagle or running the science station in Command Center as she is in a party dress (“One Moment of Humanity.”)   

In just one season on Space: 1999, Maya did things that the other females in cult-TV history have regularly been denied the opportunity to do.  She piloted spaceships, engaged in fisticuffs, provided the analytical answer to the scientific challenge of the day, and also served as the mouth-piece for the “social gadfly” commentary about the human race. 

To many, she became a role model.

Consider, by 1991 and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fourth season (and episodes such as “Q-Pid”) – and long after 1999 was canceled -- women characters were still locked in caretaker roles (Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi), and still knocking enemies out by smashing crockery over their heads. Unlike Maya, they rarely piloted space craft, or engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Data got the science talk, and Data and Worf were the outsider commenters, leaving Troi to “sense” danger, and Crusher to mend broken bones.

"I never thought of Maya as a role model," Ms. Schell told me during our 1994 interview, "perhaps because in my life I have never been held back from doing something just because I am a woman. I'm thrilled that she is seen by many as I role model, but I didn't intend it that way. Perhaps because Maya was an alien, she was allowed to do more than 'human' women were at the time." 

Whatever the reasons for Maya’s full integration into the action, I remain grateful for it.I miss Barry Morse’s Victor and Prentis Hancock’s Paul Morrow in Space:1999 Year Two, but Maya’s presence adds so much to the season.

And as all fans of the series realize, there are some big differences visually, character-wise, and conceptually between Year One and Year Two. Year One is awe-inspiring, scary and often wondrous. By comparison, Year Two tends to be colorful, and action-packed, with more humor. Year One is lugubrious and ponderous, in a remarkable way. Year Two is fast-paced and giddy.

I know fans divide on the issue of “which year is better.”  I prefer Year One, but I also enjoy Year Two, and feel that Maya, in particular, is a great addition to the series, in large part because of Catherine Schell’s portrayal. 

And of all the Year Two style episodes - big on action, movement, and color – “The Metamorph” may just be the best. It is big, brash, exciting, and pacey…all good qualities for a season premiere, no doubt.

Writer Johnny Byrne once told me, in an interview, how the change in formats occurred:

“During the interregnum between seasons, I wrote for Gerry Anderson. I kept busy, but people involved with the production of Space: 1999 were very twitchy.  Everybody knew that the new producer, Freddie [Frieberger], was coming. He sent over a tape of comments about the series, and after hearing his remarks, I understood a second season would be a whole new ball game. I had been told I would be the story editor for the second year, but it was just a verbal agreement, and I understood it was no longer going to happen. I would continue to write episodes, but it was a very different situation.”

The shift in formats boils down to, at least in creative terms, the fact the Alphans become much more aggressive and in control over their destiny in Year Two. This shift is apparent in “The Metamorph” from the fact that the base now has laser cannons positioned around its lunar perimeter, the equivalent of phaser banks. 

Similarly, the Alphans have developed “Directive 4,” a coded order which means that a dangerous planet (in this case, Psychon) is to be destroyed. In Year One, Alpha did possess nuclear charges and space mines (which it utilized in stories such as “Space Brain” and “Collision Course”) but the Alphans did not have the potential for Death Star-level destruction.

What does this shift mean, in terms of storytelling? 

Well, in Year Two the Alphans operate not from a place of not-knowing about outer space, but from a position of being able to defend themselves, and hold their own against all comers. One can argue for the dramatic validity of such a change, and indeed, in some senses it is logical.  The Alphans would be more prepared and defensive over time, given the nature of their odyssey. But by the same token, these changes are not explained in “The Metamorph,” or phased in “in universe. Year Two begins, and everything just seems different.  

That jarring change may actually be the reason so many fans have difficulty with Year Two as opposed to Year One. It’s not that the changes are wrong-headed, so much, as they are aren’t accounted for gradually, or in terms of the characters’ actual experiences or history.  

“It comes down to this,” Byrne told me. “The things that people to do prevent disaster are invariably what lead them to disaster. That’s the essence of Greek tragedy. We’ve all heard that man proposes and God disposes. That’s the theme of many Year One stories. That was lost to some extent in Year Two, although I know we both think it was also a valuable season.”

Byrne also pinpointed for me another concern, one much more having to do with a production crunch than any shift in concept. “The problem was that in Year Two our scripts were no longer consecutive, feeding into each other naturally, one after the next. Instead, there was broad commissioning of about twenty at once, and I think that led to a feeling of reduced momentum. But without Freddie, there would not have been an additional season of Space: 1999. I think I need to be clear about that. It was valuable to have those twenty-four additional shows, even if I would have preferred a different direction.”

I agree with Byrne completely on this subject.  I am grateful to have Space:1999 Year Two and feel that many episodes, especially those at the start (“The Metamorph,” “The Exiles,” “Journey to Where”) and at the finish  (“The Séance Spectre,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” and “The Dorcons”) were good shows.  

“The Metamorph” remains tops in the revised format, though, and I remember watching it with Johnny at the Main Mission Convention in New York in 2000. We saw there, much in terms of  both virtue and potential. 

“I wrote the premiere episode, “The Metamorph,” and it introduced the character of Maya, the shape-shifter played by Catherine Schell,” he told me in our interview. “She wasn’t in my original script, which was called “The Biological Soul” and then “The Biological Computer.” But I saw the episode just recently in New York, and it looked absolutely wonderful.  It was fast-paced, smart, interesting and I liked what was left of my main character, Mentor…that idea of flawed genius.

Byrne tallied up so many good points there. Indeed “The Metamorph” moves with such confidence and purpose, that watching it, one feels like the series revamp could have been a remarkable thing.  The same atmosphere carries over to “The Exiles,” in my opinion.  After that, however, the feeling of quality starts to slip, and the production rush takes over, producing some slipshod episodes. It’s not that the writing in particular gets worse in Year Two, it’s that there’s the feeling that corners are being cut, and the series creator are constantly battling not to fall behind, instead of battling to produce great new stories in this format, of which “The Metamorph” is absolutely one.

What makes it so good?  

For one thing, the Alphans reach out in "The Metamorph." 

Despite the fact that they have been betrayed and disappointed by aliens in the past, Koenig reaches out to Maya, and makes a friend in the process.  

And Maya, to her credit, realizes in "The Metamorph" that there are some virtues greater, even, than family.  When she discovers the truth of Mentor's sadism and evil, she doesn't rally loyally (and mindlessly) to her father. Instead, she attempts to redress a wrong he has committed. It's not an easy choice for her, yet Maya does what is right, not what is easy.  This makes her a hero.

The episode's closing scene in the Eagle, with Koenig telling Maya that "we are all aliens, until we get to know each other," is an indicator that the Alphans are still human, still willing to extend a hand of friendship. Koenig and Helena want to help Maya, despite the fact that Mentor has been their enemy.  They don't let her former allegiance color their perception of her, and on the contrary, realize how much she has given up for them.

The episode also works in terms of Koenig's character, showcasing the isolation of his position.  He is forced to make a terrible choice in "The Metamorph:" give up his people on Psychon, or watch Alpha be obliterated.  

He attempts to turn the tables on Mentor, but for a time, his people, including Carter (Nick Tate) believe he is a coward. He silently carries that shame, rather than expose his plan to stop Mentor.

"The Metamorph" is also very exciting, from the sequence with Koenig's eagle experiencing terrible G-forces in flight, to the final confrontation in which Maya goes crazy, transforming from animal to another animal in a desperate bid to save her father from a fire.  

Most importantly, "The Metamorph" sets the stage for Maya's place on Alpha. She begins the episode asking her father, Mentor, if she would make a good Alphan. She ends the story with Koenig and Helena re-assuring her that there's a place for her there.

Although fans will always have their preferences regarding Year One and Year Two, I would nonetheless declare that Maya and Catherine Schell helped to make Space:1999 Year Two exciting and memorable,  "The Metamorph" is an example of a success story in Year Two, and a demonstration of the revised format's potential.

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