Big Finish Review: Space 1999 Volume 1

Big Finish Review: Space 1999 Volume 1

Like Timeslip, Star Cops and The Prisoner before it, Space 1999 is a refreshing change of pace from the usual Doctor Who-dominated output from Big Finish. It’s been almost 18 months since the feature-length retelling of the programme’s first story, Breakaway, and this first volume of audio adventures extends upon that story with a pair of original episodes by Andrew Smith, plus an adaptation of an existing episode by Roland Moore.

Space 1999 Volume 1 is directed by Nicholas Briggs and is available from the Big Finish website. Read the synopsis below:

The Moon has been sucked through a wormhole in space and has arrived countless miles away from its proper place. The crew of Moonbase Alpha can only guess at the resultant devastation left behind on Earth. They must decide how best they can survive. Some Alphans find it difficult to let go of the notion of returning to Earth, others are facing the reality that they must find another home to ensure the survival of the human race. They can't survive on Alpha indefinitely.

The Siren Call by Andrew Smith

The people of Moonbase Alpha are recovering from the shock of their base and their Moon having been blasted through a wormhole in space. But now they are far from home with little hope of a return to Earth.

Ahead of them is the planet Meta, whose signal somehow caused this catastrophe. Could this be their new home or does yet more danger lie ahead?

Death’s Other Dominion by Roland Moore

A voice calls to the Alphans from a mysterious, snowbound planet. Can it be possible that humans from Earth have really colonised this remote world?

When Commander Koenig and his team investigate, they discover the planet Nival holds many terrible secrets.

Goldilocks by Andrew Smith

Not too hot, not too cold. The perfect planet on which life can thrive. But not all forms of life that thrive in the Goldilocks zone are peaceful.

Investigating this lush paradise, the Alphans must battle an ancient terror for survival.

The Review

Breakaway functioned well as a feature-length release that set up the series and fleshed out character motivations. The moon, and Moonbase Alpha upon it, have been torn away from Earth’s orbit after a massive explosion creates a traversable wormhole through to another solar system. The conceit is pure pseudoscience – but it’s a fantastic setup for a science fiction story where a band of characters are forced to work together to survive. With no possibility of returning to Earth, the crew embarks upon an exploratory mission to investigate the reasons behind the catastrophe and potentially find a new home.

The Siren Call

Each of the three episodes in this volume has the Moonbase Alpha crew – known as Alphans – explore a new planet with the prospect of finding a replacement for Earth. The Siren Call is the first of these (mis)adventures and gets straight to business depicting the Alphans’ contact with the inhabitants of the planet Meta.

The people of Meta present the crew with a tempting offer to settle with them there for good, and as a greeting party heads down to scope out the planet there’s the mystery of undead crew members walking around back at the base. Terry Molloy takes on the main guest role as Cesar, a representative of Meta with an unusual biology and who’s clearly up to no good – it’s clear that behind the kindly-old-man act there are malign intentions.

It would have been easy for the set to become dominated by spaceships, explosions and the like – and Space 1999 has its fair share of such action – but the groundwork done in Breakaway means that we care more for the line-up of characters than we might have otherwise. Mark Bonnar is superb as Commander Koenig, bringing a keen vocal aptitude that served him so well in Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor Adventures and giving a performance that grounds the whole series in emotional realism. Koenig’s keen moral centre provides an easy figure for listeners to associate with and root for, and most of the Alphans are staunchly loyal to his trustworthy leadership.

Tim Bentinck’s Space Commissioner Simmons is the primary antagonist among the Alphans, embodying the grandstanding and imperious commanding officer more prone to preserving a company’s bottom line than caring about human life or civilian casualties. His apathy and arrogance prompt him to butt heads with Koenig, who has little patience for such qualities, but it’s pleasing to hear their dynamic start to change towards the end of this episode, with Simmons developing a burgeoning morality.

At this stage the key players are very much Koenig and Simmons, and although we know less about secondary crew members (including Susan Hingley’s Sandra Benes, Amaka Okafor’s Dashka Kano and Glen McCready’s dual roles of Paul Morrow and Alan Carter) it’s clear they all function effectively together, which is also reflected in the interplay between the cast.

Death's Other Dominion

Death’s Other Dominion is pacey outing that swiftly sets up a new plot and central dilemma, which this time is drawn directly from the original episode of the same name. There’s a new world for the Alphans to explore, one inhabited by members of a previous spacefaring mishap, the Neptune mission, from seventeen years previous – but who haven’t aged a day since. The core Alpha trio – Koenig, Helena and Victor – spearhead this particular foray on the ground while Simmons keep tabs on developments back on the moonbase.

This is a psychological story and there are some heady themes at play, namely the immortality that has been granted to members of the ill-fated Neptune mission, led by Jack Tanner (Nicholas Asbury). He and others have been experimented upon by scientist Dr Rowland (Chris Jarman) and his wife Freda (Beth Chalmers) in an attempt to roll back the clock and cure them of their immortal curse. Koenig’s not having any of it, of course, and the core conflict pits the unpredictable mad scientist Rowland against the Alphans’ and their increasingly vain search for a suitable new home.

Alongside Koenig, Helena and Victor are probably the two most sympathetic and reliable crew members. Clive Haywood plays the earnest chief scientist Professor Victor Bergman with endearing veracity, and this episode gives Maria Teresa Creasey’s Dr Helena Russell a chance to prove herself as a key part of the crew. Plus, setting the story of a snow planet that endures perpetual blizzards makes for some highly atmospheric sound design, and alongside era-authentic sound effects (doors, comms units, stun weapons and so on) this sets the soundscape brilliantly.

Breakaway benefited greatly from its extended runtime. By comparison, these three stories are required to set up and resolve individual plotlines within an hour. The human experimentation aspect of Death’s Other Dominion could have been drawn out a little further; the story prefers to dwell on the mystery of Rowland and Freda’s immortality and the resulting moral implications.

Goldilocks

Goldilocks brings the Alphans to a planet seemingly perfect for their needs – suitable atmosphere, hospitable climate – and populated by a group of mountain-dwelling telepathic humanoids. Although initially set up in similar fashion to the first two episodes – where the locals, despite their apparently noble intentions, turn out to be secretly seeking the worst for the Alpha crew – Goldilocks does something different in its second half and ends the set with the vibe of a large-scale monster movie. The story isn’t too revolutionary, but therein lies its appeal, and it does mean the volume ends with a suitably big threat for the Alphans to face.

Simmons’ burgeoning morality hinted at in The Siren Call turn out to be only a temporary reprieve from his selfishness, as he proves himself to be a bit spineless in this episode. Yet he’s definitely one of the more interesting characters: initially snobbish and disregarding of those below his rank, he comes to show genuine sympathy for an injured local in this story, laying the groundwork for further development in any upcoming instalments.

There are some great ideas in Space 1999. The writing draws on genre tropes to create an old-fashioned space exploration series. It might yet be a little difficult to differentiate it from other science fiction shows, but the human element and rich characterisation – the benefit of modern storytelling – are its real strength.

The Extras

Interviews with the cast and production team are tagged on at the end of each disc, and as usual everyone involved expresses a clear joy in working on these stories. There’s only about half an hour in total, but there’s certainly some gold to be found.

Mark Bonnar is a true fan of both Koenig and Space 1999, and his deep love for the show comes through in spades. He equates the listening experience to reading a book as we are taken on the same “imaginative journey” the characters themselves are undergoing. The rest of the cast, from Tim Bentinck to Beth Chalmers to Pippa Bennett-Warner, each share their enjoyment of working on the series and enthusiasm for the property.

Writer Andrew Smith runs us through the chance he had, in picking up immediately after the end of Breakaway, to provide an explanation for the Meta planet storyline – something the original programme never did. Nicholas Briggs gives a fascinating description of the approach he and Roland Moore took to reimagining the original Death’s Other Dominion and cutting or augmenting certain aspects of the story. Briggs also makes clear his joy at working with a cast who so clearly are invested in the production.

“There’s far too much reality around at the moment,” says Terry Molloy of current affairs and the opportunity these stories have for providing escapist enjoyment to actors and listeners alike. And Maria Teresa Creasey hits the nail on the head when admiring just how much storytelling potential the series has; the Alphans could literally go anywhere and the possibilities for further Space 1999 releases from Big Finish are boundless.

Some Final Thoughts

Space 1999 melds together an era-authentic effects and storytelling through a contemporary lens with great effect. The space exploration premise risks comparison with other science fiction programmes – most notably Star Trek – yet Space 1999 has all the elements of an entertaining space-faring saga, one where the personalities are as interesting as the concepts at play. You can see why Big Finish picked up this property for their latest storytelling enterprise.

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