Space: 1999 Vol 1-3 Review
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. How many times have you had your fond memories shattered by that cast-iron “classic” from the past? So it was with great trepidation that I approached Space:1999 vol 1-3. You see, as a child I had constructed an Eagle from an empty box of cereal, owned the Space:1999 annual and watched the program religiously. I have great memories of this show so I was fearing a letdown of Blakes 7 proportions.
A little history first, this was Gerry Anderson’s second attempt at a live action (i.e. non-puppet) Sci-Fi TV show. Anderson went to Lew Grade to ask for a new season of U.F.O. this was refused due to bad ratings. However he did ask if Anderson could produce him a new sci-fi show that had top special effects and a trans-atlantic appeal. Anderson jumped at the chance and developed Space:1999. Unfortunately it wasn’t too successful on release and was significantly revamped (for the worse) for season two. Then after those two seasons it was cancelled. A total of 48 episodes were shown and on these three discs we have 12 episodes, the first half of season 1.
Anderson recruited the husband and wife acting team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain for the two leads. Other cast members included Barry Morse, Nick Tate and Zienia Merton. All of these people had quite varied backgrounds, mostly in television with one or two exceptions.
The budget for each episode was somewhere in the region of $250,000 an episode, making it the most expensive Sci-Fi show at the time. The production values were high and the special effects lavish. The low gravity moon surface scenes were for the most part very well done. The models used were uniformly excellent with special mention going to the Eagle craft. The effects obviously look dated now but they are easily as good as Star Trek and in some ways more “realistic”. The Eagle spacecraft look functional and dirty as if they are workhorses for the colony, which of course they are. No brand new sparkly ships here.
As for the concept, it is remarkably simple. The Moon has become a nuclear waste dumping ground. A new commander (Landau) is assigned to Moonbase Alpha and shortly after this there is an accident that causes the nuclear waste to detonate. The result is that the Moon is thrown from orbit and is careering through the universe with the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha stranded on it. From here the show settled into a series of self-contained stories, which are both thoughtful and serious in tone. You won’t find any Tribbles here!
This was the most refreshing thing about Space:1999. It was deliberately more serious than Star Trek and slower paced which gave the storylines room to breathe. The acting was variable but of a generally high standard (for television). Landau as Commander Koenig was especially good as the leader of Moonbase Alpha. He was a very hard edged and impulsive man and Landau portrayed this very well. Koenig’s antithesis was Viktor played by Barry Morse. He was an unflappable favourite Uncle type character who explained all of the ludicrous science stuff with great authority. He never really panicked and was relaxed and calm even when facing death.
As already mentioned there are 12 episodes on these discs and I have summarised them in order…
Episode 1 – Breakaway – This is where the saga begins. A new commander is assigned to Moonbase Alpha. His job? To get the Meta Probe deep space exploration mission up and running. Unfortunately he joins the crew at the time of a virus outbreak. On top of this a problem is discovered with the nuclear waste dump, which explodes forcing the Moon out of the Earth’s Orbit. This is a great episode, which sets up the series nicely, probably one of the best of the series despite the dodgy science.
Episode 2 – A Matter of Life and Death – Helena’s husband, presumed dead after going missing during a mission turns up in an Eagle after a reconnaissance mission. Some great underplayed scenes here but there just isn’t enough story to sustain the whole episode.
Episode 3 – Black Sun – The Moon gets caught in the gravitational pull of a black sun (black hole), again dodgy science but an excellent episode. Deliciously downbeat and dialogue heavy throughout. There is some very good writing here and this is definitely a standout episode.
Episode 4 – Ring around the Moon – The moon is captured in an energy ring and crew members are possessed in order to perform tasks for unseen aliens. A pretty average episode held together by some believable performances and first-rate dialogue.
Episode 5 – Earthbound – The first celebrity guest star appears in this story. Christopher Lee is on top form as the leader of a group of aliens who are en-route to Earth. This episode is also notable because of the mysterious reappearance of the commissioner who hadn’t appeared since episode one. Odd since his character was meant to be a top man who got stranded on the Moon on a routine visit from Earth. Anyway this episode is another triumph. Maybe a touch of the Twilight Zone here but even so it’s a great episode.
Episode 6 – Another Time : Another Place – Parallel existences, paradox and causality in space-time are all handled admirably well in this episode. The Moon passes through an anomaly in space that ends up with two versions of Moonbase Alpha. One version finds Earth and settles; the other catches up with them with disastrous results. This is another strong episode and probably the best on the second disc.
Episode 7 – Missing Link – Easily the worst episode on any of the discs. Peter Cushing is the guest star here as an alien who is studying human behaviour. The episode highlights the shows failings. It is slow and the dialogue is dull.
Episode 8 – Guardian of Piri – Another weak episode and I have to say at this point I thought it might have been all downhill from here on in. A “perfect” planet is found and everyone rushes down to see it and instantly falls for it. It is of course not all that it seems and cliché follows cliché. It’s not that bad but there are far better episodes in the series.
Episode 9 – Force Of Life – This is an early appearance for Ian McShane as a technician who is possessed by an alien force. I know it sounds similar to a previous episode but the concepts used here are very different, including some references to the lives of couples on the Moonbase. Some unusual camera angles and a dark edge make this episode one to savour.
Episode 10 – Alpha Child – After the false dawn of Proof of Life we are back to weak episodes. A child is born on Alpha and he grows at an incredible rate. No one seems to bat an eyelid; they accept the boy and give him access to all sorts of restricted areas. Of course Commander Koenig sees something is wrong and is proved right in the end. This episode is unbelievable as every member of the crew accepts the odd child without question.
Episode 11 – The Last Sunset – Ah, now we are back on track. This is yet another superb episode. A planet with an atmosphere like Earth’s is found and it seems the crew’s journey is over. However, alien probes give the Moon an atmosphere, which means there is no reason to leave as the inhabitants can populate the surface of the Moon. An incredibly clever episode that is again underplayed very well.
Episode 12 – Voyager’s Return – Saving the best for last here I think. A Voyager probe is returning to Earth and is passing the Moon. However it poses great danger due to its lethal engine, which spews dangerous radiation. The inventor is fortunately on Moonbase Alpha but he is incognito as he was reviled after developing an engine that killed so many. This is a very tense episode with some great acting. I would also say that it is 90% certain that the makers of Star Trek: The Motion Picture saw this and made notes. A Voyager probe returns and poses a great threat? Ring any bells? This episode is far better than that film ever was.
I have to admit that Space:1999 pleasantly surprised me. It is even better than I remember it. If you can overlook the dated costumes and effects (although I still think the Eagles are excellent) then you are in for a treat. The concept is solid (if a little unbelievable science-wise) and most of the episodes are well written and well thought out. Also it had one of the best theme tunes I’ve ever heard, even after watching twelve episodes I am not bored of hearing it. Flaws? Well the show had a tendency to drag in places and certain episodes lacked the substance to last the full 50 minutes or so. But for the most part the pacing worked very well. Also the first few episodes had a nasty habit of fixing everything in the last 2 minutes without any indication of how we got there. Personally I prefer this to old Star Trek and I would recommend it to any fan of Sci-Fi television.
The twelve episodes come on three discs. You can buy them singly or as a boxset (with enough room for the rest of the series). Presentation is solid with some excellent animated menus with sound effects from the show. I normally dislike animated menus, as they tend to be distracting and time consuming. In this case they are very well designed and the CG Eagles look great. Each episode is split into 8 chapters, which is perfectly adequate for the job.
The picture is of course non-anamorphic 4:3 as it was originally shown. A pat on the back for Carlton as the picture is rather impressive. There is little print damage, which is a pleasant surprise given the age of the TV show. There is noticeable grain in places but for the most part this is understandable. The sets are usually brightly lit and when they are the picture is sharp and the colours vibrant. In darker scenes it isn’t as successful. The black level is poor and there is much more grain. Also there is artifacting present, especially noticeable in the darker scenes, maybe a higher bit rate would’ve helped? Overall I am being quite picky as this is a great picture and transfer given the original source was a 26 year old television program. As an aside this transfer is noticeably better than the Buffy Season 1/Season 2 boxsets.
The sound is of course a DD mono track. It’s adequate but nothing spectacular. You can hear everything on the soundtrack and the intro music is nice and sharp.
The extras available seem extensive on the surface. First of all each disc has different extras, which is great. Unfortunately all the extras are either text only or plain stills. A nice documentary on the history of the program wouldn’t have gone amiss, but still, you can’t have everything.
Starting from the top. Disc one begins with a very short section entitled Original Publicity. This consists of 3 simple stills taken from the publicity brochure, nice to see but a little short. Production Drawings is much better. This contains several pages of early drawings with some initial notes to explain what you are seeing. The final extra on the disc is character biographies. Some great information on the characters and their background, a lot of text to read but rewarding if you are a fan. Watch out as these biographies contain a lot of spoilers.
Disc Two has a memorabilia section, which has 12 stills that show some details of the annuals and comics. Next up is a 3-page text and picture section covering the This is Your Life program done on Roy Dotrice (he was surprised on the Space:1999 set). A shame that clips from the program itself aren’t available, apparently this episode has been “lost”. Finally on this disc is a section on Moonbase Alpha itself. Text and stills give a brief rundown of the abilities and specifications of the base. This is probably the best extra on this disc.
The final disc also has three extras. Space:1999 novels section gives an overview of all the spin-offs based on the series. Following this we have 23 production stills. There are some very nice pictures here including behind the scenes shots and pictures of the model makers at work. Finally we have a 6-page rundown on the Eagle craft themselves, explaining their purpose and also how different Eagle variants perform different tasks.
Well this is one old TV show that turned out to be better than I remember it. I would recommend it without hesitation to Space:1999 fans. And if you are a fan of old Sci-Fi or if like me you have vague memories of this show then go ahead and take the plunge. I thought I’d watch these once and that would be it, but I will definitely be watching them again and I shall probably be buying the next three discs as well. Technically speaking these discs should be how all old TV is treated on DVD. The picture and transfer is impressive for the most part. The sound is adequate and the presentation is outstanding. A couple more extras would have made the discs perfect. So there you go, maybe nostalgia isn’t such a bad thing after all.