Starring: Barbara Bain, Martin Landau
Released: December 8 2014
Today is a day of firsts. Not only is it December 1st, the first day of Advent, it’s also the first time since I started this blog up way back in 2005 (gosh, nearly 10 years ago!) that I’ve published a guest post. Isn’t that amazing?
This first guest post is by noted author and critic Mr James Cooray Smith, who has bitten the bullet and done something I could never do: watch Space: 1999 again. In this case, he’s watched the forthcoming limited edition Blu-ray release of the show’s only ever two-part episode, The Bringers of Wonder, as well as the cinema version of said two-parter, Destination Moonbase Alpha – get it while it’s hot, because only 1,999 copies of this are being produced.
After the jump, Jim will let you know what he thinks and reveals that the show is officially considered a form of torture in the US. Before then, here’s a trailer, and if you’re feeling brave, I’ve also provided the two episodes in question, so you can see what you’re going to get (NB: watching the episodes may be considered illegal under Geneva conventions of all kinds):
Space: 1999 was a British-made but distinctly transatlantic co-production from the stable of husband and wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. It showcased American stars (another husband and wife team, that of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, then known for Mission Impossible, genuinely one of the biggest things on TV) and, according to its own publicity at least, had the largest budget of any TV series made up to that point.
It was the story of how, following an accident involving nuclear waste, the Moon, complete with a Moonbase and its sizeable crew, got blasted out of orbit and floated off to have adventures that were action-packed, curiously antiseptic, philosophical, surreal or occasionally all four.
It ran for two US-size seasons in the mid-to-late 70s and didn’t really set the moon alight in either of its major markets. This was, at least partially, due to problems getting it transmitted in its entirety and in an even vaguely sensible order pretty much anywhere.
Its reputation has always been variable, and to this day it attracts both devotion and derision. It has the dubious distinction of watching it being quoted in a US Supreme Court case concerning torture (Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1 (1992)), wherein being made to watch reruns of it was used as an example of the kind of activity that may “cause agony as they occur, yet leave no enduring injury”.
As a judgement that’s obviously unfair to the series as well as belittling to the issues at which the Court was meant to be looking. But it is also quite funny.
Space: 1999’s budget, name leads, and its nature as a single-camera all film series in an era when most UK-based TV was shot multi-camera VT, allowed it to attract considerable talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Major guest stars like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Joan Collins, all of whom principally worked in cinema, are obvious to any audience. What’s less obvious is the series’ ability to call upon some genuinely British film directors, such as Charles Crichton (Lavender Hill Mob, A Fish Called Wanda) and Roy Ward Baker (A Night To Remember), to shoot it.
All of this does pay off onscreen: The first series in particular looks beautiful. The special effects are amongst the finest of their decade, and there’s something about the crisp, clean post 2001: A Space Odyssey but pre Star Wars era aesthetic (see also Logan’s Run, etc) that scrubs up very nicely indeed to full HD.
Against this lush backdrop? Well, big concepts squabble with bad plotting and great actors often fight with dreadful dialogue. Then the programme unexpectedly runs off and creates whole hours that rank as amongst the best SF telly of the 1970s. It’s a strange old show. The peaks of the first series are very good, but its troughs are pretty horrid.
After the first series, the Andersons split up, and producer/co-creator Sylvia Anderson left the show as a consequence. It was then re-tooled by Fred Friedberger, a man best known to history as the guy who got Star Trek cancelled. Friedburger wanted more monsters, more action and more colour. The series, previously arguably cold and even staid, became lurid.
One could claim that the second series shows the influence of Star Wars and its imitators, but in truth it seems to reach back further to the pulp science fiction that predates the last SF show Friedberger shuffled off TV (although the difference between series one and two is arguably not as great as the series’ devotees have been known to claim).
The Bringers of Wonder
So, that brings us to the actual content of this Blu-ray. A special edition release of the second series two-part episode The Bringers of Wonder paired with one of the Space: 1999 cinema releases Destination Moonbase Alpha. The first series has been available on Blu-ray for several years. The second has recently been announced, but it’s not actually going to hit shops for a whole year. This disc is a taster/teaser for the faithful of what the second series will look like in HD, but also an opportunity for people who don’t want to expend the considerable outlay involved in buying a whole series of television they’ve never really experienced.
The Bringers of Wonder’s writer Terence Feely had scripted two of the best episodes of The Prisoner, which is no mean feat. Here he offers the initially interesting tale of the arrival on Moonbase Alpha of what appears to be a new experimental craft from Earth, full to the brim with the friends and relatives of Alphans. It offers our under siege leads both tearful reunions and a route back home to Earth.
There’s something oddly touching about the slightly stilted way the Alphans respond to their reunions with their loved ones, but this quickly gives way to a certain, seemingly unconscious surrealism. A weird catty conversation between Dr Russell (Bain) and a new arrival who presents herself as a rival for the affection of Commander Koenig (Landau) gives way to some bizarrely homoerotic ‘banter’ between regular Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt) and his brother Guido (Stuart Damon). During these scenes it is best to expend your time wondering how the beautiful and subtle Cher Cameron (Louisa, another passenger) never had much of an acting career to speak of.
Towards the end of this chunk of the plot, Catherine Schell’s Maya (a shapechanger character added to the series by Friedberger, who is hampered by a ludicrous backstory and powers and make up that’s even more so) turns into an alien creature for a joke and you can see the mouth of the person inside the monster costume through the creature’s own maw. Schell works very hard to make her character credible, but every time her ludicrous eyebrows show up in HD she looks like losing the battle, and in this moment she loses the war.
Landau’s Koenig spends almost all the first episode unconscious, after having crashed his Eagle (a beautifully designed shuttle/transporter) in the opening scene. It’s when he wakes up that this stops being a perhaps deliberately peculiar story about being careful what you wish for, and turns into a monster tale.
The story’s monsters are less successful than its spaceships (but to be fair, the spaceships are quite extraordinarily successful) and boast an unconvincing and immobile design that was more or less reprised for comic effect in the Red Dwarf episode Camille a dozen or so years later. I won’t tell you what they want, or how they’re foiled. It’s relatively satisfyingly done (being a ‘do something clever with made up science’ rather than a ‘blow something up’ ending) and there’s a really well shot and edited hallucinatory fight sequence along the way. Landau gets a final pay off line too; one that takes aim at what the story is meant to be about and, back in series one, might have succeeded in being so.
Destination Moonbase Alpha
Destination Moonbase Alpha is a cinema film culled from the The Bringers of Wonder two-parter that was also subsequently released on VHS. Presumably this was done to claw back some of the series’ extraordinary costs by cashing in on the post Star Wars boom for such things (series such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica also had cinema airings).
Destination Moonbase Alpha is functionally, although not actually, identical to the main feature, with a short scene at the very end trimmed off and some shots from other episodes of the series added near the beginning to help sell the series’ premise. There is also a rather odd voiceover to achieve this, which also nudges the story’s 101 years further into the future than the parent series’ title.
Another notable difference is the opening and closing music of the film edit are different to the TV original, with the end credits running over a song. With lyrics. This was Anderson’s preference for his puppet shows for much of the 1960s, and perhaps because of this Oliver Onions’ performance of the stompy ballad ‘Space’ does not feel out of place.
This film presentation of the story is in some ways preferable to the original two-parter. The new music and introduction set the story firmly in the realm of the pulp from the outset, if not lowering expectations then modifying them a little. In becoming Destination Moonbase Alpha, The Bringers of Wonder aquires a context that suits it a little better, where it can be enjoyed as mostly slick nonsense with the odd pause for thought.
The only extra is the trailer for Destination Moonbase Alpha. This promises the film contains “experiences beyond the imagination of any Earth-bound human” which can only make you wonder who wrote the thing.
It is worth noting that both the film cut and its trailer are presented in full HD but do not otherwise seem restored. They certainly do not offer the eyeball-searingly great picture quality of the main feature and some print damage is visible, but it is broadly only by comparison that this version’s image quality should be damned – if your principal interest in this disc or this review is in finding out what the second series of Space: 1999 looks like in HD then the word “stunning” will suffice.
For an Anderson completist, this is, of course, a must. Ditto for a Space: 1999 fan who cannot wait the whole year until the scheduled release date of the full second series on Blu-ray. I suppose should there be any fans of series one of Space: 1999 for whom this is the only series two episode they can stomach, it’s a very good option too. It’s also a neat, inexpensive taster of the programme for 70s telly nostalgics and 80s VHS rental nostalgics and fans of general pulp SF too. That said, given the first series has been out long enough that it’s not quite twice the price of this sampler for 10 times the episodes, anyone try-buying is almost certainly better off with that.