“The totally unforeseen accident on the lunar surface has caused very serious repercussions here on Earth. The gravity disruption, the earthquakes in the United States along the San Andres fault, and in Yugoslavia, as well as Southern France, has caused enormous damage to life and property. The International Lunar Commission, with its new chairman, is in executive conference at this moment, deciding what steps might be taken to rescue the three hundred and eleven men and women on Moonbase Alpha. Little hope is held, however, that there are any survivors. For a short time it was thought a rescue might have been attempted from the Space Dock, until that too was hurled out of orbit. It has now been established that the Moon’s acceleration away from Earth has put it beyond the reach of any Earth launch….”
September 13th, 1999: It was a bad day, all around.
Premiering on September 4th, 1975 (in the UK; July 23rd in Australia; all over the place in US first-run syndication), Space: 1999 introduced us to the men and women of Moonbase Alpha, Earth’s first permanent lunar colony, which in the show’s continuity had been established in the early 1980s as a natural progression from the Apollo landings. Things were all hunky-dory for a time, with the base continuing its various research efforts and preparing to launch a manned mission to Meta, a mysterious planet that’s been detected by long range probes and which is believed to support “life as we know it.”
Oh, and they’re also overseeing the disposal of nuclear waste transported from Earth to the Moon’s far side, and dealing with a strange medical condition that’s been affecting numerous base personnel, including the astronauts slated to depart for the Meta mission.
Of course, and as things tend to do, the aforementioned nuclear waste finally decided enough was enough and opted to get back at the Moon by punching a gigantic hole in its taint. The result? Moonbase Alpha and its three hundred-plus colonists (“Alphans,” in moonbase hipster speak) are sent hurtling through space on a lonely quest, boldly going where at least a couple of science fiction shows from the 1960s had kinda sorta gone before.
And all of that happened just in the first episode, “Breakaway.” Dayuuuuum, amirite?
Created by the legendary Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, Space: 1999 actually began life as a proposed second series/season to another of their shows, UFO. By the time it was decided that UFO would not continue, a great deal of pre-production work had already been completed or was still underway, so the Andersons repurposed that effort into the new series. In addition to containing several hints as to its UFO lineage, Space: 1999 also owes more than a bit of its visual aesthetic to 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, any similarities between the new series and Stanley Kubrick’s landmark science fiction film end pretty quickly.
Often described back in the day as a “successor to” or “son of ” the original Star Trek in particular, Space: 1999 quickly settled into a formula whereby the Moon drifts near or into orbit around an alien world, and Commander John Koenig and an assortment of Alphans proceed to get into some kind of trouble. The clock is usually ticking, as the Moon never hangs around any one planet for any real length of time, and if Koenig and his posse dawdle too long, they’ll be stranded as their home away from home continues on its merry way. Every so often a world offers the possibility of providing a new haven for the wayward travelers, but something always goes wrong and our heroes are left staring out the windows from Alpha as the Moon pulls away.
Then there’s the variation on the formula, whereby representatives from an alien species come calling for one reason or another, and hilarity ensues. Sometimes, just to shake things up, elements from both forks in the Space: 1999 story road are mixed together, and we go all the way to madness run amok, by golly.
At some point, theories begin to emerge that the Moon’s journey through the cosmos may not be random; that it’s being guided by some unseen hand, directed through wormholes or other spatial phenomena that might serve to explain how the Alphans are able to explore a strange new world (Sorry. Not sorry.) each week. This point, which is actually kind of cool on the face of it, is never really explained or exploited, particularly after the series moved to its second season.
Boasting the largest production budget for any British television series to that point, Space: 1999 starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain as Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell. Married at the time, Landau and Bain had previously worked together on Mission: Impossible. Needing a science officer to fill out the Trek-like captain-science dude-doctor triad, veteran actor Barry Morse (The Fugitive) was cast as Professor Victor Bergman, my favorite character of the whole shooting match. So, it figures that his was one of the folks not brought back for the second year.
Visually, the show remains impressive in many ways. The model work used to realize Moonbase Alpha in particular is still eye-catching, as are the Eagle transports, which in my mind still rank as one of the coolest space vehicles in all of science fiction. Behold, yo:
That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
Despite storylines that often stretched “scientific principles” from eyebrow-raising to outright laughable, and performances that sometimes felt as though the actors were store mannequins, I must confess to having a really big soft spot for Space: 1999…particularly its first season. The effort to make the show top-notch is obvious, in everything from the model work to the sets and props and–yes, even the storytelling, which was entertaining more often than not.
I’m less enamored with the second season, which was characterized by simpler, more action-oriented plots, the replacement of key characters, and other little choices that bugged me to varying degrees. Such changes were viewed as necessary following the show’s cancellation after the first year and last-minute renewal. On the one hand, I get that having your command center not being in a giant room with a bunch of windows overlooking the lunar surface is probably a good idea when your base is always getting shot at by alien spaceships and death rays and whatnot. That said, the original “Main Mission” from the first season was some pretty kick-ass set design.
Space: 1999‘s television run was accompanied by the usual assortment of toys and other merchandise, including books, comics, models, action figures, and so on. I still have a nearly-complete set of the original novels/novelizations from the 1970s. The only ones I’m missing are Earthbound, which was done as a limited edition deal in early 2000s, and a few novels written exclusively for foreign markets way back when, and so far as I know have never been translated.
There have been recent efforts to revive the property in novel and comic form, and of course the series is available on DVD and Blu-ray (though the prices are pretty damned insane). There’s on again-off again talk of a reboot, but I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. Regardless, we still have the original Space: 1999, which stands alongside Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman as cheesy yet charming 1970s TV sci-fi.
Eagle One, ready for lift-off!