Monday, 7 April 2014

Alpha Tales

Tonight we’re going to partake of 1999

Tensions flare on Moonbase Alpha.

Space 1999 was a programme I hadn’t feel a particular need to revisit, especially the po-faced first series.  However, when a friend loaned me the series 1 boxset, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go back to the future of 1975 and see how it measured up against my memories.

I had much fonder recollections of the ‘pulpier’ second series, with Catherine Schell’s wonderful shape-changing Maya (though even at the age of ten I had to wonder why anyone would possibly want to shift from Schell’s own shape).  But I wasn’t getting that here.  This was the very genesis of a series which was originally going to be a continuation of the Anderson’s first live-action project: UFO.
We see the Moon blasted out of Earth’s orbit by the colossal explosion of nuclear waste dumps on the lunar dark side, to begin its tour of a universe steeped in Seventies Sci-Fi silliness at a staggering velocity.
Like everyone else we felt smug spotting this paradox which undermines the entire series – the dark side of the moon always faces away from Earth, so the moon should actually have only given us the mother-of-all-head-butts. But what does that really matter in a programme starring our natural satellite zipping around undiscovered solar systems, as if the stalwart inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are on the equivalent of a coach trip through Europe.

Barry Morse's (right) trademark 'twinkle' is evident in this lovely Brian Bolland artwork.
 I did recall that I loved the character whom Maya essentially replaced: Professor Victor Bergman, (not to be confused with Danish comedian Victor Borge), played with barely suppressed mirth by the late Barry Morse. And he was just as good as I remembered. Even at the time I could tell that the twinkle in his eye meant that he was roaring with laughter internally at some of the lines he was forced to deliver, while still giving by far the most charismatic and endearing performance.  Or perhaps it was the costumes – beige, flared jump suits with enormous zips running down the left arm (leading my long-suffering co-viewer to wonder if the cast climbed into their uniforms through the arm).

"Who's a cardboard cut-out?"
 Martin Landau shows scant indication of ever winning an Oscar one day, and his Commander Koenig is also disturbingly tactile with his crew members in ' well- meaning hand-on-shoulder' ways that might have got him into trouble even in the real 1999.
Barbara Bain, meanwhile, is the prettiest piece of wood to ever appear in a science fiction series, as hapless Medical Officer Helena Russell. Perhaps this is unfair: like elephant’s vocal communication taking place at a pitch below our auditory range, Bain’s emoting possibly exists on a wavelength invisible to humans.

Dr Helena Russell in another emotionally-charged scene.
So that’s our ‘trinity’, Commanding Officer, Scientist and Medic at the head of a multi-national crew – sound familiar?
And also like the previous decade’s ‘wagon train to the stars’ series, Space 1999 mixes space-bound action (with top-notch model effects by some of the best technicians in the industry) with big metaphysical questions and dilemmas about the nature of humanity and higher states of existence. This often involves a lot of psychedelic camera work featuring coloured perspex and shiny PVC.
However, with production values higher than anything else on television at the time, this was prime-time viewing on its first screening here, around 7.30 on a Saturday night. It got big-name guest stars as well, even Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – in separate episodes but apparently sporting the same wig.

Barry Morse struggles bravely against the emotion dampening effects of a beige overload.
 Big changes were ahead for the second series, which I recall feeling were for the better but suspect age might change that opinion. It will be interesting to test this one day. But the best thing about Space 1999 will always be the Eagles.  One of the coolest and most practical spaceship designs ever – even if those careless Alphans did go through them at an alarming rate.  If only NASA had gone with these instead of those silly Space Shuttles, we might be out among the stars now… in flares.
Three things which look like Space 1999 Eagles:
  1. A dachshund puppy
  2. An axolotl
  3. The Tantive IV (otherwise known as princess Leia’s Rebel Blockade Runner from the opening scenes of Star Wars).  Famously originally designed to be the Millennium Falcon, this model was relegated to ‘extra’ status when the decision was made that it resembled the Moonbase Alpha Eagles too strongly.  It did , however, become the only ship from the original films to feature significantly in the prequels)


  1. Ah, yes, Space 1999... I liked it because the date was right near my birth day (year notwithstanding of course). Great opening music.
    A tale I remember hearing is that when Catherine Schell came on board, Barbara Bain insisted on her having weird eyebrows and such so that Catherine wouldn't be more attractive than Barbara... (psst: that didn't matter...)

  2. Ha - great story! Yes, even giving Maya 'sideburns' didn't make any difference...
    And I love the theme too - after having binged on so many episodes recently, that twanging electric guitar has become a real 'ear worm'.