Space: 1999 S1 “Matter of Life and Death”

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titleAvid Doctor Who fans Nick Walters and John Rivers have decided to blog about their daring foray into the enemy territory of rival 1970s science fiction series Space: 1999, and I’m already addicted to their weekly updates which you can find over at Spearhead from Space: 1999. As of time of writing they’ve covered the pilot episode “Breakaway” along with the next entry to air in the first season entitled “Matter of Life and Death”. Inspired by their efforts and in an attempt to show some visible support for their endeavour I thought I’d make my own stab at the latter…

Me and Space: 1999

First, some background. Much like Nick and John, my first television true love was without doubt Doctor Who, but by 1975 the relationship was going through a rocky patch: basically, I was sulking because Jon Pertwee had left the show and I really didn’t like his replacement, Tom Baker. To my all-knowing seven-year-old mind it was obvious that saving the universe should be intensely serious stuff and Baker was playing it far too much for laughs for my taste.

Space: 1999 ended up playing the role of “the other woman” in this scenario, the sexy and gorgeous seductress who lured me away from my first love with its stunning effects, jaw-dropping sets and beautiful production design. Most of all it took things seriously: indeed, never was there a series more determined to take itself absolutely straight and never to crack a joke or to poke fun at what was happening – even when it presented so much opportunity for the latter on a regular basis. At the time I’d never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey from which the show so evidently took many of its stylistic cues, but it was nonetheless clear to me that this was proper ‘grown up’ science fiction worlds apart from Doctor Who and that curly-haired, bug-eyed clown who’d usurped Jon Pertwee’s rightful place.

And so with that, Doctor Who and I broke up for the better part of five years. Even when Space: 1999 was cancelled after two seasons, ITV had Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century to sustain me; and the BBC itself eventually came up with Blake’s 7 which was immediately a more adult and intelligent science fiction show than the tales of the clownish Time Lord on Saturday evenings. When I did finally return to the Whovian fold I found the place much as I’d left it – same opening credits, same lead actor, same overall sense of a cut-price am-dram pantomime down the local village hall that felt strictly for the less demanding kids. (For orientation purposes, I’m talking about the season when “Creature from the Pit,” “Nightmare of Eden” and “The Horns of Nimon” aired, so perhaps you can see my point.) It was only the following year that things suddenly changed and Doctor Who managed to become modern once more in my eyes, so that I was able to fall in love all over again. I soon felt guilty about all those other youthful dalliances; well, not about Blake’s 7 – as a fellow BBC series and one that had been created by Terry Nation, that was surely just ‘keeping it in the family.’

With the passing of years, my pre-teen certainty that Space: 1999 was the best SF show ever – even better than Star Trek! I decided at one point – had faded away and became if anything something of an embarrassment. Of course it was never anywhere near that good. In fact, watching it again soon made it clear just how desperately flawed it really had been in terms of much of its writing and acting, and most of all in its po-faced sense of self-importance that had seemed so freshingly cool to me back in 1975.

The truth of course is as always somewhere in between. And it’s moments like this that DVD and Blu-ray boxsets are made for, to enable us to time travel all the way back and revisit childhood memories…

“Matter of Life and Death”

Contains spoilers for the episode

blu-rayAnd so to the episode in question itself. With the Moon having been cast adrift into deep space at the end of the pilot episode after being blown out of Earth’s orbit by a massive explosion, the crew of Moonbase Alpha are eyeing up a possible Earth-like planet dubbed Terra Nova to colonise as a new home. A two-man survey mission is returning to base when contact is suddenly lost. Even more startling is the inexplicable presence of a third man aboard the survey ship who happens to be the husband of Alpha’s chief medical officer Helena Russell, a man who was lost five years ago while on a mission to Jupiter which is now billions of miles away from their current location. What are the odds? So who is he really – and why is he here?

I decided to watch this episode rather than “Breakaway” because pilots are never accurate representations of the series that follows, and I wanted one that was more down to everyday business. As it turns out, “Matter of Life and Death” is itself a very odd choice for ITV to have aired as the second episode, as it presupposes that Helena has struck up a very close if not outright intimate relationship with Alpha’s commander John Koenig who had been newly appointed to the post just last week. That certainly makes the unexpected return of Helena’s presumed-dead husband somewhat awkward to say the least. However despite Helena and John’s closeness, in other respects it seems that no time at all has passed since the events of “Breakaway” with Koenig still routinely referring to people by their titles or job descriptions as if keen to show off how well he’s managed to learn the staff roster in a few days, like a supply teacher demonstrating that he’s memorised who’s who on the class register.

To be honest series continuity was never Space: 1999‘s strong point, with stories mostly self-contained and events rarely spilling over from one week to another – the ‘reset button’ and selective amnesia at the end of an episode were fairly typical of programmes of the time, with oddly Doctor Who the exception to the rule in having any sense of in-series history or evolution. That means we’ll never hear of Helena’s husband again after this; another prime example of short term memory loss stems from the climax of “Breakaway” that focused on a strange message being received from the previously unknown rogue planet Meta, which was also never referred to again. In fact, it might explain why “Matter of Life and Death” was boosted into being the second episode to be aired – it’s possible to infer that Meta had been optimistically rechristened Terra Nova in the interim.

Anyway, let’s just accept that Space: 1999 is a show of its time and not berate it for the lack of ‘season arcs’. We’ll park that thought in the same dark cupboard as the whole scientific nonsensicality of the show’s basic premise, the Moon wandering the universe after being blasted out of Earth’s orbit. How fast is the Moon meant to be travelling? Even at light speed it would take four years to get to the nearest star system to Earth, and if it were going anything like that fast there would be no chance to hop off and survey any new worlds they run across. The set-up makes no sense at all, but at least they were trying to do something different and not be just a rip-off of Star Trek. In fact the overall theme of the series – the marooned Alphans trying to find a new home or a way back to Earth – is closer to the Star Trek spin-off series Voyager that came along two decades later. But with any show, ultimately you have to start somewhere and the basic ‘Moon-blasted-out-of-Earth-orbit’ is simply the thing you have to swallow at the outset or forget it, just like accepting warp drive and transporters exist, or that dimensionally transcendental police boxes can travel in time, or that forensic scientists routinely run around playing at being cops.

So instead let’s get back to the episode in hand, “Matter of Life and Death” (and yes, I really do want to append an “A” to that every time I type it) and review it on its own merits. The first thing that jumps out at the viewer is that it feels like two completely separate stories that have been rather artlessly welded together to fill 50 minutes. In fact the joins in plotting, characterisation and dialogue are so glaring that it feels like the episode’s two writers (Art Wallace and Johnny Byrne) must never have actually met and discussed the project at any time but simply wrote to a summary and posted in their pages for someone else to try and smooth out. Hence we have the first half hour which is quite an effective slow-burner seemingly drawing on another seminal SF classic Solaris, but which soon fails to find any real drama or tension and instead ends up featuring a lot of people lying prone in bed sporting natty blue silk pyjamas.

Eventually Lee Russell suddenly gets better, issues a cryptic warning telling the Alphans not to return to Terra Nova, and then takes a quick chair nap which proves to be somewhat terminal. After that, Lee and his dire warnings are promptly ignored by Koenig and crew who head on down to the studio-bound planet setting anyway for a picnic; despite crucial looming deadlines, they still have time to send a telecast back to base showing themselves sampling the local produce with beaming smiles. Of course things pretty soon go to hell after that, and in an all-action third act everyone dies and the Moon explodes – bit of a bummer if they were hoping for a full-season commission, you’d have thought. Except that it turns out none of that happened and it was just a dream. Or a prophecy. Or perhaps all that local produce was stuffed full of hallucinogenics. Or maybe it did happen, but Lee’s timely return from the dead allowed Helena to rewind it all and push the big red reset button in time for the end credits – it’s really hard to tell because the way it’s all written and staged makes embarrassingly little sense no matter which explanation you try to apply. However, the good news is that everyone’s alive again and the Moon’s intact once more and we’ll get to episode three next week after all. Phew.

What’s painfully obvious is that this is one of those stories in which if all the main characters had simply sat down for two minutes and come straight out with what they needed to say, then the whole thing could have been sorted out on the spot. It’s people unable or unwilling to give clear answers to the people around them or to listen to what others are saying that causes all the trouble. This level of organisational dysfunctionality does not speak well of Moonbase Alpha’s basic professionalism, you have to say.

It’s a shame that the producers didn’t just use the two parts of this story in separate episodes. In fact if memory serves I think they did just that later in the season to better effect, although the opportunity presented here to fill out Helena’s backstory and character is rather thrown away by a lack of imagination on the part of the writers, and a worryingly wooden performance by the show’s female lead Barbara Bain who was the American actress made famous by Mission: Impossible. She was married in real life to Martin Landau who plays Koenig (and who had also been in Mission: impossible) and the two had leveraged their US star power to the full when it came to negotiating their contracts for Space: 1999, which required both performers to have equal screen time regardless of the requirements of the stories. Unfortunately Bain is pretty stiff throughout, but at least Landau is throwing himself into the proceedings with gusto.

Given how few lines he gets as Alpha’s operations controller Paul Morrow, it’s amazing quite how painfully out of place Prentis Hancock still manages to appear even when he’s just a blurry out-of-focus extra. Fortunately Zienia Merton is perfectly lovely as data analyst Sandra Benes, while Nick Tate registers as a warm, normal presence as chief astronaut and fair dinkum Aussie bloke Alan Carter but it’s clear that at this early stage the show was only just realising that he would become one of the main players. (Along with Landau, Bain and Merton, Tate ended up being one of only four actors to survive into the second season.) By far the most appealing character in “Matter of Life and Death” is The Fugitive star Barry Morse as the grandfatherly chief scientist Victor Bergman, while Anton Philips gives a confident presence to what are otherwise unremarkable duties as Helena’s deputy, Doctor Bob Matthias. The surprise to me was Clifton Jones as computer officer David Kano: this being the 70s, Kano was meant to be a typical TV scientist in the sense that he would be blank, emotionless and logic-driven so it’s a real joy when, late in the episode, he’s the one to give an optimistic pep talk of almost child-like wonder to a downbeat crew after they miss out on making a home on Terra Nova. It’s a shame that this was to prove the high point for the character. Overall, the thing that really stands out about the recurring cast is how diverse it is in every respect, at a time when such liberal mindedness was not exactly commonplace on British TV.

But really, the true stars of the show are the absolutely phenomenal special effects and the overall design of Moonbase Alpha. The series was created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (in fact, it was an unofficial total reboot of their previous show UFO) and it draws upon all their skills in creating such shows as Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet which featured ground-breaking model FX work, so much so that soon after Space: 1999 many of their cadre of visual effects pioneers were poached away to work on the big screen for James Bond films and a whole new tidal wave of SF and superhero films following the blockbuster success of Star Wars.

eagle1The primary short-range spaceship in the show was called the Eagle, and it’s still one of my favourite all-time spaceship designs. It looks so real – partly because of the quality of the model and how well it’s photographed, but mainly because the design itself is so wonderfully utilitarian. You really could imagine NASA coming up with something like this a couple of generations down the line from the space shuttle. Not only did I have the Dinky toy version of this as a kid, the Eagle was also the one and only Airfix model that I successfully managed to complete in my entire life. The same cohesive sense of design and function is present right through the props and sets for the show, from the commposts and commlocks (video communicators which also act as door keys and medical monitors) to the outside look of the Moonbase itself, with the Eagle launch pads positioned far away from the hub in case of accidents. The sets are spectacular with a unified look and feel, and with ceilings that were unusual for TV productions in the day but which allowed directors to get some effective and unusual angles by shooting the actors from low down. Most eye-catching is the vast scale of Main Mission (the show’s command centre or bridge in its first season) which even extends to a second level with a balcony offering a view of the lunar landscape beyond.

The prevailing colour of the Moonbase interiors is a pristine white, with accents of light beige, cream and grey. The only flashes of primary colour come on the left arm of each person’s uniform which designates them to be command, medical, operations, etc. in a similar way to Star Trek‘s colour-coded uniforms – although here, the security officers (usually known in Trek as red shirts) are decked out with a rather fetching purple armlet. Not sure if that makes them less liable to being the first to die in any given situation, however.

It’s a good job all the sets, props and costumes are so wonderful to look at, because at points in “Matter of Life and Death” it really is all that you have to distract yourself from the stuttering pace of the plot. Still, enough happens and it builds to a nice climax; the Terra Nova planet set also proves to be rather good, if nonetheless still clearly done in a studio, and even stands up pretty well when it’s blasted by powerful fans to simulate a sudden-onset hurricane. And really, you just have to admire a show that decides the way to make a set look really authentically outdoorsy is to hire some exotic parrots for the day from the local pet shop to deck out the fake tree branches.

Ultimately the episode stands as a good summary of both the strengths and the weaknesses that I remember the show having. As a young kid I could forgive it its flaws and revel in the brilliance of the things it gets right; later on I would get more critical, especially after what happened to the show as Fred Freiberger took over as showrunner for series two when the Andersons’s marriage and professional partnership collapsed. But now looking back from the great distance of 40 years (ouch, that hurts…) I think I’m back to seeing it once more with something of the child’s sense of wonder that loves it to bits, flaws and all. And there are plenty of flaws here to love.

DVD/Blu-ray

I watched the episode on Blu-ray, from the boxset released by Network Distributing back in 2010. It’s not a flawless transfer – there is some evidence of colour fluctuation and picture wobble at times, and some fading on the edge of the frame due to damage on the original film elements, especially in film that’s been optically processed to produce the FX. But overall this is really a lovely job, absolutely pristine and free from any suggestion of dust or dirt, and with a lovely balance of colour and contrast. Admittedly some scenes do look a little flat and/or soft (close-ups of Helena seem particularly to suffer in this latter respect…), but any such dip is immediately followed by another high in which the colours are searingly vibrant or others where the tones are so wonderfully subtle and natural that it makes your heart sing.

The high definition probably doesn’t do all that much in eking out more detail or sharpness than a standard definition DVD version: I’ve said before, it’s rarely worth getting Blu-ray for a television production not originally created in HD in the first place – only the likes of Game of Thrones, Vikings and new Doctor Who really warrant it. That said, I did find myself noticing little details such as black scuff marks on a desk or a chip in a door frame on the white Moonbase interiors that I’d never observed before. What the high resolution does do best of all is an admirable job in coping with all the subtle white and light pastel shades of the Alpha aesthetic, making each component stand out quite beautifully rather than just mushing together.

The audio quality is not so great, but it’s the original recordings that have to take the blame. You can hear the sound quality vary depending on location or which mic is being used; the fact that the sets have ceilings adds to the problem because of reverberation. Some lines are loud and clear, some a little too trebly, then it’ll go muffled. ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) wasn’t really used in British TV productions of the day but ironically it is here – and doesn’t help, the patches painfully obvious and poorly matched with the original sound levels. It has to be said that the Blu-ray’s well-meaning attempt to convert the audio to a Dolby 5.1 stereo mix doesn’t help matters either, only making the defects more obvious and distracting, while the sections that have been worked on for maximum effect – in particular, the rousing theme tune by Barry Gray – are now so markedly better than anything around it that they stick out like a sore thumb. You may be better going back to the original mono soundtracks which are thoughtfully also included as an option. In any case, both versions are better than the original 2005 DVD boxset release that had an additional issue with the way the audio had been remastered meaning that deep sounds like spaceship launches and explosions were lacking in bass and sounded horribly tinny and hollow. No such worries here.

The extras are impressive, with two whole supplemental DVDs given over to additional standard definition material which I haven’t yet sampled. The Blu-rays contain some high-def image galleries for each episode as well as a music-only audio track, and there are two audio commentaries recorded by Gerry Anderson before he sadly passed away two years ago aged 83. It’s a fine selection, made even better by the inclusion of one episode from season 2 in high definition, the season opener “The Metamorph” which introduces the lovely Catherine Schell as shapeshifter Maya. It’s one of the very few entries from the sophomore year that’s worth the time of day, but if you want more then Network are finally working on a full boxset of season 2 for release later in the year. It’s only taken ten years since their original release of season 1!

That’s it from me on Space: 1999, but Nick and John will be continuing to chronicle the voyages of Moonbase Alpha over on Spearhead from Space: 1999. If this has at all piqued your interest in the show itself, then do subscribe to their site so you don’t miss out on the rest of the season – beginning with “Black Sun”, in which there’s an unfortunately close encounter with a deadly cosmological phenomenon.

The Space: 1999 season 1 boxset is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray. Season 2 will be released later in 2015. Until then, Network Distributing have produced a limited edition release of the show’s only two-parter, “Bringers of Wonder”, which has to be purchased from Network’s own website direct.

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