Space: 1999 S2

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titleEvery now and then I like to take my ‘reputation’ (such as it is) in both hands and dive off the ten metre board and hope I don’t break my neck in the process. This is one such post, because I’m going to try and convince you that the second series of Space: 1999 isn’t quite as bad as you might have been led to believe, either by others or perhaps by your own memories of it.

I’ve already covered the first season of the show in an earlier post and catalogued many of the annoying faults and flaws that it possessed, from wooden acting and colourless characters to stories that think they’re being high-concept science fiction but which are actually metaphysical nonsense for the most part. Still, the show undoubtedly had something: at the time it was made it was the only genre show being made in the UK to rival Doctor Who and thanks to it being a Gerry Anderson production it had by far the better FX, while the lavish budget from Lord Lew Grade’s ITC meant the production values were probably higher than any other show being made in Britain at the time.

It was not, however, a huge ratings success. Its cold, sterile feel (aping 2001: A Space Odyssey which at the time was the presumed model for ‘grown-up’ science fiction as opposed to the ‘childish’ Doctor Who) made it a curiously joyless watch for the most part compared with the thrills of Anderson’s earlier shows such as Stingray, Thunderbirds and UFO, and with US ratings proving disappointing the show was cancelled at the end of its first run of 24 episodes. Anderson fought a valiant rear-guard action and brought in American producer Fred Freiberger to help him make the show more US-friendly, and between them they pitched a rebooted concept to Grade who finally agreed to green light a second season after all.

space1999-1Series stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were retained as Commander John Koenig and Doctor Helena Russell respectively, but third lead Barry Morse dropped out from the role of Professor Victor Bergman – either in a dispute over salary or simply that he’d had enough, reports vary. That opened the way for a key part of the reboot concept, an alien science officer (shades of Star Trek!) in the form of Maya played by Catherine Schell. Among the supporting cast, chief astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) and data analyst Sandra Benes (Zienia Merton) were retained but Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock), David Kano (Clifton Jones) and Doctor Bob Mathias (Anton Phillips) were all eventually written out, while The Protectors star Tony Anholt was introduced as chief of security Tony Verdeschi.

Changes were also made to the sets, with more colours introduced to the lighting to stop the overwhelming whiteness of the first series, and more interesting detailing added to Rudi Gernreich’s minimalist Moonbase Alpha uniforms which were now worn with fetching cardigans and jackets to break up the beige and monochrome monotony. But the biggest change was the junking of the majestic, soaring, cathedral-like Main Mission set, which had always been a problem for the show because of the sheer amount of space it took up on the soundstage. Although not explained in the show, the idea was that over the years since the moon had been blasted out of Earth’s orbit, resources had become increasingly scarce and Alpha simply could not afford such luxuries as the original Main Mission and so the old command centre was shut down and operations moved to a much smaller broom closet underground, characterised by mismatching computer panels around the walls to emphasis the scratch nature of keeping things running as time wore on.

The music changes as well, Barry Gray’s military-style jazz-inflected themes replaced by Derek Wadsworth’s more contemporary and funky stylings with a quicker pace. The changes are never more obvious than in the opening credits: where season one had started with a stately fanfare and posed shots of Landau and Bain against a pure white background as they solemnly turned to one another, season two has Koenig whirling around in his chair and firing a stun gun at an off-screen threat; while Russell is striding determinedly down a corridor – the best action shot they could think of for a doctor, I guess. The message however is clear: this is now a fast moving, action-orientated show and not the stodgy, portentous one it had been the previous year.

Space1999-2You can see what they were going for, and in many ways it makes sense, but the first and by far the biggest problem with the reboot was in bringing in Fred Freiberger as what we would now call the new showrunner, while Anderson himself was less involved as his marriage with long-term creative collaborator Sylvia was in the process of collapsing. Freiberger was the producer who had found himself in a not-too-dissimilar position seven years previously: he had been put in charge of another nearly-cancelled science fiction show when he replaced Gene Roddenberry as producer of the third season of Star Trek. Anyone who knows their Star Trek will know that the third season was when things took a steep downward turn in quality, characterised by that year’s series opener in which poor Leonard Nimoy had to play a lobotomised Spock who was being directed around the set by remote control until McCoy could get the missing brain back and reinsert it into the cranial cavity … Oh, it hurts even writing that short synopsis.

Unfortunately Freiberger brought exactly that same sub-sub-pulp SF sensibility to the majority of scripts in Space: 1999′s second season – with the same disastrous results for the most part. Some of the episodes are truly execrable it has to be said, and probably the worst of them being the three that Freiberger himself wrote pseudonymously (“The Rules of Luton”, “The Beta Cloud” and “Space Warp”.) Truly this man had no sense of what it took to make a science fiction series for adults or even ‘for the whole family’ rather then just seven-year-old boys who have yet to acquire any discernible taste or quality filter.

Unfortunately, dear reader, I was exactly that seven-year-old boy with no discernible taste or quality filter. Where the pretentiousness and lack of action of season one had actually annoyed me at times, suddenly there was this new, colourful, flashy and exciting series in its place and I loved it! I’m pretty sure I said at the time that it was the best science fiction show of all time, clearly miles better than that hoary old Star Trek with its miserably dated antique FX.

Part of my love for the show at the time came down to my crush on the new co-lead actress Catherine Schell. I’d never taken to Bain’s bland, saintly Helena Russell, but Maya was exotic and quick-witted and sharp. And most of all, she was a metamorph – or shapechanger as its better known, meaning that she could change into any creature she could think of. Or at least, whatever animal the production team could get their hands on that week. How exciting was that! (It’s just as well the seven-year-old me didn’t dwell on the implications of actually having sex with someone who could change into literally anything – even oneself – or I might have needed years of psychotherapy to work my way through some of the issues and trauma arising!)

Space1999-3Anholt’s addition to the show was also warmly received, by me at last: Landau had always felt a very odd choice for the lead role and his casting along with his real-life wife Bain was more to do with securing American funding for the show than because they were actually right for their parts. But Anholt’s Verdeschi was instantly a more appropriate young action hero, being warm and charismatic and charming in exactly the way that Landau’s Koenig never was. To put it another way, Landau was always far more likeable as James Mason’s psychotic assassin sidekick Leonard in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest than he ever managed to be as stolid middle-management bureaucrat Koenig in Space: 1999.

All in all, I think it’s clear that I was quite a fan of series two of Space: 1999 at the time – not that my support saved it from rapid cancellation after another run of 24 episodes which concluded in November 1977, coincidentally just a couple of months before Blake’s 7 started on BBC1 which meant I could seamlessly transfer my affections to a brand new science fiction series. I even started rewatching Doctor Who again at this point – I’d given up in a sulk a few years earlier when Tom Baker took over from Jon Pertwee. And while I always remembered Space: 1999 fondly as one of my favourite childhood programs, I was soon able to judge it more realistically for what it was, flaws and all.

Actually being able to watch the show again years later was another matter. I rarely saw them repeated in the 1980s or 1990s, and while both seasons of Space: 1999 were released on DVD in 2001 that was before I had a DVD player – and they were expensive, too, despite not being very good quality transfers. Eventually Network Distributing released digitally restored versions of the season 1 episodes in 2007 and subsequently issued a high definition Blu-ray version as well, so it’s been possible to view all those stories in all their glory; in fact, in much better condition than they ever were even on broadcast.

Season two however has been conspicuous by its absence. No one seemed terribly interested in funding a similar restoration of the second year and so the series has remained stubbornly, irritatingly impossible to get a hold of short of paying over the odds for ageing copies of the original 2001 releases on eBay. Given all sorts of dross that gets released on DVD these days it’s remarkable that a show that was this big in its day gets relegated to the storage cupboard, out of sight and out of mind. And of course in the meantime its poor reputation has just sunk lower and lower – the reason why it wasn’t on DVD is because it was unwatchable, the general consensus went.

I didn’t buy that. I still have enough of those warm-and-fuzzy feelings toward Space: 1999 from when I was a seven-year-old to know that it was better than that at least, and I still very much yearned to have a boxset of the episodes in my hot little hands. Finally, Network announced last year (2014) that it was at last beginning work on the restoration – even releasing a ‘sampler’ Blu-ray of the show’s only two-parter, “The Bringers of Wonder”, to whet our appetites. And now the boxset itself has arrived (on September 28 2015) and I have to confess that I simply could not contain myself.

space1999-4Unfortunately the boxset means that I no longer have anywhere to hide: in rewatching the episodes I’d surely have to concede once and for all that the season really is as dreadful as everyone says it is and a travesty and abomination on the memory of that fine season one. It was with some trepidation that I opened the case and chose an episode completely at random…

The episode proved to be “Catacombs of the Moon”, in which geologist Patrick Osgood (the ever-reliable James Laurenson) has a breakdown because of the pressure of surveying the moon’s cave system for the essential mineral tiranium while his wife Michelle (a pre-Not The Nine O’Clock News Pamela Stephenson) is dying from a heart condition. The tiranium is vital to building Michelle an artificial heart but Osgood can’t find any and instead he becomes obsessed with visions of Moonbase Alpha being consumed by fire – just days before the moon is bombarded with heat rays from some unexplained natural phenomena which threaten to do exactly that.

It’s a solid story but ultimately a rather pointless one. The Alphans can do nothing about the heat phenomena, and so it scorches the base and provides some on-screen excitement with random FX explosions before moving on leaving everyone slightly tanned and sweaty but otherwise okay. Meanwhile Osgood has kidnapped his wife from the medical centre and is hiding in the caverns forcing Verdeschi to go in pursuit, and he’s successful with the help of Maya – who bizarrely transforms into a ferocious tiger to help track Osgood down the sight of which does Michelle’s heart condition no good whatsoever. And finally, Michelle’s life is saved when Verdeschi and Russell between them authorise the use of Alpha’s dwindling last reserves of tiranium to make her a new heart even though the whole sticking point of the episode was Koenig’s expressly forbidding this in the first place. Fortunately Koenig’s been stuck off-base in an Eagle spaceship the entire time (he and Schell are mainly absent from this episode as the series was filming two episodes at the same time to save money) so he doesn’t find out about it until he gets back, whereupon instead of being furious with his most trusted officers for blatantly disobeying his orders he just smiles and chuckles indulgently. What a leader.

The hallucinations that Osgood suffers are also rather odd and unnecessary, apparently purely there to fill up the running time and add some interesting visuals in the process. And actually it’s in this respect that the episode most clearly resembles season one which also went in for that sort of thing, even down to adding some quite gratuitous epilogue musings between Russell and Verdeschi about whether the heat phenomena had actually been alive and communicating telepathically with Osgood all along for some unknown reason. It’s the kind of metaphysical guff that the show used to rely on Bergman for in the first season; but perhaps the old style feel of the episode is to be expected given that it’s the final contribution to the series of writer Anthony Terpiloff who wrote four strong episodes for the first run (“Earthbound”, “Death’s Other Dominion”, “Collision Course”, “The Infernal Machine”) and who presumably already had this one ready to go as well before all the reboot went into effect. That would explain why Maya has literally a walk-on role in two scenes and why Verdeschi is in fact playing the traditional Koenig role in Landau’s absence.

I didn’t chose “Catacombs of the Moon” for any particular reason – except that I wanted to stay away from some of the best-known, stronger episodes like “The Metamorph”, “The Seance Spectre”, “Seed of Destruction” and “The Bringers of Wonder” and likewise away from anything notoriously dreadful (anything penned by Freiberger, in other words). What I found was flawed, certainly, but no more so than the bulk of season one episodes; and moreover, I still liked all the changes they’d made in terms of cast and production design. Even the music, although Barry Gray’s is clearly superior.

And that’s the thing. When I started this piece I said that my objective was to try and convince you that the second series of Space: 1999 isn’t quite as bad as you might have been led to believe. I never said I was going to try and convince you that it was better than or even an equal to the first season, because I couldn’t even assert that with a straight face let alone come up with a persuasive argument to support it. But the first season wasn’t a paragon of perfection and had plenty of faults all of its own; and neither was the second season an abject failure without any redeeming features. In fact there’s an awful lot to enjoy.

The pluses of season two: the more dynamic, colourful and energetic feel to the show. Less pretentious and high-minded. Maya the metamorph. Tony Verdeschi. Retaining Sandra Benes and Alan Carter while dropping Paul Morrow (preferably from a great height.) Improved iteration of the costumes while keeping the design of Alpha as a whole.

The minuses: the loss of Barry Morse as Victor Bergman is a huge blow. A good third of the stories are truly dreadful (and that’s being charitable). In losing its po-faced solemnity the show also inadvertently throws out its serious and intelligent approach to science and replaces it with something no better than an Edgar Rice Burroughs potboiler. And the absence of the awesome if gratuitous Main Mission set in favour of that broom closet is keenly felt.

The Blu-ray: as with the high definition release of season one, Network Distributing have done a hugely impressive job on digitally remastering the episodes especially given that the originals weren’t in as good as condition as the first season’s had been. There’s still some issues inherent with the original production: the sound is particularly variable because of the clumsy use of ADR at the time; and while the picture has been commendably stabilised for the most part there’s an odd moment at the start when it’s wobbling all over the place. That’s not the restoration’s fault but rather because the remastering has understandably prioritised keeping the writing/directing captions perfectly steady, and the original film compositors added these over a wildly wobbling picture – so it’s one or the other! The visuals have been beautifully cleaned up and there’s no dust or speckles; colour is bright and full and for the most part beautifully balanced between highlight and shadows, although in “Catacombs of the Moon” scenes shot in Alpha’s corridors seem overexposed from the in-set lighting, again presumably an issue with the original filming. While sharp and detailed for the most part, you’ll find your vision blurring dramatically when it comes to close-ups of the female lead. Of particular note among the sizeable collection of extras is a fascinating special reconstruction of “Seeds of Destruction” in the style of season one to show how the two approaches vary.

Rating: ★ ★ ★
(I realise I’m being pretty charitable here, as well as also taking the high quality of the Blu-Ray HD restoration into account!)

Season 2 of Space: 1999 has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Network Distributing.

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