The Year 1999.
When I was a kid, 1999 was a year of a far-off future where we’d have flying cars, robots in every home, and of course, moonbases. It was a year that seemed poised on the cusp of greatness. One of the most popular songs when I was in high school was “Party Like It’s 1999,” from the late pop star Prince (still sad that I have to say ‘late’). It was a year that promised much in a shiny new millennium.
Well, the actual 1999 has come and gone…twenty years ago, in fact. Many things happened that year; I got married, a friend of ours had a baby, and my wife and I hate-watched “The Phantom Menace” theatrically more times than I care to admit. There was also the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, which initiated an unending chain of deadly mass shootings in the United States. Many things didn’t happen that year as well. For instance, the moon did not break away from Earth orbit on September 13th, nor did it see an International Lunar Finance Commission crew stranded on Moonbase Alpha to fend for themselves as they galavanted across the cosmos. These events were forever consigned to the alternate-future of Gerry Anderson’s mid-1970s space epic TV show, “Space: 1999.”
In the real 1999, we had the International Space Station in orbit, which, at the time, consisted of little more than a couple of modules linked together (and manned with a crew of three)… hardly a six-sectioned moonbase with a crew of 311. The momentum of the Apollo lunar landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s fizzled and died not long after the program ended. Apollo’s replacement, the reusable space shuttle orbiter, never quite succeeded at making space travel as inexpensive or routine as promised, nor did it capture the popular imagination. While the fictional Moonbase Alpha was fully operational in the series’ year 1999, it was clear that the actual year 1999 wouldn’t see anything near that level of ambition in NASA’s space program, not even with the help of Russia, China and the ESA combined. The prospects for a future moonbase these days seem far less inevitable than they did in my childhood.
A Future That Will Never Be.
As a consolation prize? My adolescent self had the fictitious adventures of Commander John Koenig (the late Martin Landau), Dr. Helena Russell (Landau’s then-real life wife Barbara Bain), and the crew of Moonbase Alpha’s adventures to revel in, courtesy of ITC Entertainment. The series only ran 2 years (1975-1977) and I used to first catch it in late night syndication and later on in the afternoons. It was, in the best science fiction tradition, an escape into an impossible future… a future also apparently freed from the laws of physics, since this moon could hop around the universe like the starship Enterprise, surfing space-warps and using gravity slingshots to encounter ‘strange new worlds’ every week (!).
Gotta say, as a kid, I really dug the Space: 1999 hardware. The Eagle transport ships were things of beauty with their arrowhead command modules, spindly tinker-toy frames and sturdy landing struts. I always wanted a toy of one, but they were too expensive at the time. As an adult, I realize their girder-based frames would burn up like fireworks upon breaching an appreciable atmosphere, but my 12-year old self didn’t care.
I also loved the props of the show as well. The ‘comm-locks’ were a sort of portable video phone and door remote control (like a cathode ray-iPhone) with actual working black & white monitors on the ‘hero’ versions of the props. Also loved the Alpha laser guns as well (one of the few sci-fi weapons that genuinely didn’t look like a weapon…it looked like a fierce little staple gun).
Cast of Characters.
“Space: 1999″ starred the aforementioned Landau, Bain and Barry Morse (TV’s “The Fugitive”) as the artificial heart-bearing science officer/confidante Victor Bergman. Zienia Merton (who passed away only last year) costarred as Burmese data analyst Sandra Benes, Clifton Jones as computer specialist David Kano, Prentis Hancock as command center fixture Paul Morrow, and Nick Tate as charismatic Aussie Eagle pilot Alan Carter.
While Jamaican-born Clifton Jones (“Kano”) was one of the few non-white series regulars seen in Alpha’s main command center, there were other characters (including Dr. Helena Russell’s deputy Dr. Bob Mathias, played by actor Anton Phillips) of different races and nationalities (the Burmese Merton as well) to bolster the feeling of a thriving, multinational lunar base. Space: 1999 certainly followed in Star Trek’s tradition of a multiracial crew, even if the dominant characters were usually white.
Of the first season’s ensemble of characters, several were let go in the second year… Clifton Jones’ Kano, Prentice Hancock’s Paul and (sadly) the warm, paternal Barry Morse’s Victor Bergman. Bergman was replaced by the exotic shapeshifting alien “Maya,” played by Catherine Schell (who had a guest role in the previous year’s “Guardians of Piri”).
Maya, with her upswept pointed eyebrows, was clearly an attempt to capture some of Mr. Spock’s alien mojo for the show. Also added to the mix was hotheaded Security Chief (and hops brewer) Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt), who was Maya’s occasional love interest, and Alpha’s second-in-command whenever Koenig was away. While I actually like Maya and Tony very much as characters, I still lament the loss of Victor. Victor was the “Bones” of the cast; acting as both sage confidante and human heartbeat within the cold confines of the sterile Alpha base (despite his own artificial ticker).
Sadly, all of the actors had to wear fashion designer Rudi Gernreich’s tan colored lunar leisurewear, with flared bell bottoms and color-coded sleeves/collars indicating one’s department. They looked like slightly more comfortable cousins to the uniforms worn by the Enterprise crew in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979). At least the orange lunar spacesuits were pretty neat… and practical, as they’d stand out on the mostly gray lunar terrain if one were awaiting rescue (as was often the case).
The first season was produced by famed puppeteering TV series producer Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia (“Thunderbirds” “Fireball XL-5” “UFO”). The series was originally conceived by Anderson as a direct sequel to his previous live-action sci-fi series “UFO” (1970-1973), but that connection was ultimately dropped. Space: 1999 was a mix of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” (1966-9), along with the willful scientific ignorance of Glen Larson’s later “Battlestar Galactica” (1978).
While science may not have been Space: 1999’s strong suit, the series was (for its time) a visual feast; boasting gorgeous miniature effects from Brian Johnson (“The Empire Strikes Back”) that brought “2001”-level cinematic spectacle to the 1970s boob tube. While some of the opticals are a bit dodgy today, the incredibly detailed miniature spacecraft and moonscapes are still a sight to behold.
Prodigious production values aside, the stories ran the gamut from from surreally haunting to (literally) laugh-out-loud ridiculous, with all manner of alien creature suits and guest stars thrown into the mix.
The first season’s stories were more about awe, mystery, fate, and the grandeur of the universe. Episodes in that first year were generally slower-paced and almost dreamlike. Those stories often consisted of the moon hurtling into the space of pompous, self-important aliens who usually wanted the wayward moon-dwellers to take a hike (“War Games” “The Last Sunset” “The Last Enemy” etc). There were also a few quasi-mystical stories hinting at Alpha’s secret ‘destiny’ among the stars (“Black Sun” “Full Circle” “Testament of Arkadia” and “Collision Course”).
While the science is consistently inane, (the sheer mass of the moon can’t just shoot through spacetime like a kayak in the rapids), many of the stories are still quite enjoyable in spite of their inherent silliness. Some of the notable guest stars of season one included Hammer horror veterans Peter Cushing (“Missing Link”), Christopher Lee (“Earthbound”) and a pre-“Dynasty” Joan Collins (“Mission of the Darians”).
Personal Favorites Of Year One.
“Breakaway” is the pilot of the series, and it does a nice job of world-building. The incredibly detailed miniature effects and feature film production design of Moonbase Alpha make the original Star Trek’s balsa wood & cardboard sets look like a fifth grade play. While the story of ‘unknown magnetic radiation’ causing crewmen at the base to go mad is never really resolved (some genuinely sloppy writing), it doesn’t really matter; the stage is set for some dazzling eye candy, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The tension building up to, and including, the actual breakaway of the moon from Earth orbit is on a par with some of the best 1970s Irwin Allen disaster movies.
“Earthbound” was one of the rare times Alpha encountered benevolent aliens, including a tall, contrarily sinister-looking one played by Christopher Lee, whose ship has room for one Alphan to return to Earth with he and his crew. Stranded Earth commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice, whom we saw in “Breakaway”) elects himself. The comeuppance ending is right out of “The Twilight Zone.”
“Voyager’s Return” guest starred Jeremy Kemp (Picard’s brother Robert in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Family”) as an Oppenheimer-like scientist whose “Quellor”-drive spacecraft Voyager (no, not the NASA version) has wrought havoc across its path, contaminating the cosmos with deadly radioactive residue. A nice character study of guilt and redemption as well as ecological ignorance.
“The Last Sunset” has aliens so intent on keeping Alphans away from their world that they briefly terraform the moon itself just so the Alphans won’t settle on their planet. Nice to see Moonbase Alpha with a blue sky and open windows (why would one even have openable windows on a lunar base?). Not to mention rain and outdoor volleyball matches. Problems arise when the terraforming effects don’t hold, and Paul loses his marbles after eating lunar mushrooms. Bad trip, dude…
“Black Sun” sees the moon on a collision with a ‘black sun’ (today’s black hole/quantum singularity). Victor comes up with a useless but morale-building idea to erect a protective forcefield to give the crew a way to pass time waiting for the inevitable. Nice character moments abound as the Alphans reveal their braver selves during their final hours. The base is largely evacuated as Alpha plunges into…something. In a moment right out of “2001”, Victor and John both seem to age decades, then talk to a whispery god-like voice (?) and then…emerge alive and well. They realize their cosmic odyssey may be guided by some unseen force. Utter nonsense, yes, but very well-made nonsense.
“Another Time, Another Place” has the crew arriving in an alternate future, where they encounter older versions of themselves settled on a cloudy gray world after the loss of Moonbase Alpha. Everything is back to status quo by the end of the episode, but it’s a fascinating ‘what-if’ story. It also seems to have inspired a slew of ‘alternate future’ Star Trek episodes as well (including Voyager’s “Endgame” and Enterprise’s “Twilight”).
“War Games” can almost qualify as a typical Space: 1999 story (aliens refuse to give Alphans sanctuary) save for its harrowing execution, in which aliens use ceaseless artillery bombardments in order to render a broken Alpha base uninhabitable. A desperate Koenig and Helena take an Eagle to the nearby alien’s home planet and demand living space on their world as compensation. As negotiations fall apart, John is killed, and Helena is forced to plead their case. Ultimately she is successful, and Alpha is magically returned to its pre-crisis condition (much like Star Trek Voyager’s “Year of Hell” two-parter), but Commander Koenig (at Helena’s urging) decides to turn left this time instead of right, unwittingly maintaining an uneasy armistice.
Second season was produced by Fred Freiberger (the producer of the original Star Trek’s often-maligned third season). Freiberger cut a lot of the cosmic claptrap and pushed the series into more traditional space action adventure. His biggest change wasn’t just introducing Psychon shapeshifter Maya, but also a general punching up on all of the characterizations; including adding a bit more heat to the on-again/off-again relationship of John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell (their relationship reminds me very much of Captain Picard and Beverly Crusher’s in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).
While I appreciated some added zest to the characters, as well as some added (literal) color to the near-monochromatic first year’s costumes and sets, year two lacks some of the scope and grandeur of year one; even the grand command center set was shrunk down a bit. That said, I think year two gets a far worse rap than it deserves. I see the differences between the two years as more of an apples and oranges situation. Both have merits, and both have issues. Year one is cooler, eerier and more surreal, while year two is warmer, with more traditional action-adventure. They’re two different takes on the same core concept.
Space: 1999’s music reflected the tonal shifts between the first and second years as well. The opening S1 title music (by Barry Gray) rang in with an almost Strauss-like bombast, followed by guitar-twanging disco beats over a montage of the following episode’s highlights. The second season’s music (by Derek Wadsworth) was more traditional space action-adventure fare; memorable in its own way, but lacking the ‘bigger’ feeling of season one’s score. The second year also used more disco-motifs for incidental music as well.
Personal Favorites of Year Two.
“Metamorph” kicks off year two with both the introduction of Maya (Schell) and her doomed homeworld of Psychon (think Krypton, but inhabited with shapeshifters). Maya is a privileged daughter of Mentor (first year guest star Brian Blessed), who is forced to open her eyes and realize the truth about both her father’s cruelty and her planet’s fate. Brian Johnson’s exceptional miniature effects (the ‘ship graveyard’ on Psychon) highlight a solid script by “Doctor Who” writer Johnny Byrne, who also wrote two previous favorites of mine from Space: 1999’s first year (“Voyager’s Return” “Another Time, Another Place”). Catherine Schell had previously played a seductive android who offered the Alphans paradise in year one’s “The Guardians Of Piri.”
“Journey To Where” gives the audience a sense of how Earth itself is faring during the Alphans space-warping odyssey. Thanks to special relativity, Earth is in its 22nd century now, with advanced technology (including long-range transporters) but with a population forced to live in Buck Rogers-style domed cities for protection against deadly earthquakes that periodically ravage the wobbly-orbiting planet (due to a lack of a stabilizing moon). As a galactic eclipse nears (don’t ask), Earth has the ability to only transport a few Alphans to Earth. Helena, John and Alan agree to go…and due to an ill-timed earthquake during transport, they wind up in Scotland during the time of Robert the Bruce. Long story short, they manage to transport back to Alpha before the galactic eclipse, but have to forgo any future notion of returning to Earth. A significant turning point in the series.
“The AB Chrysalis” has some of that weird sense of wonder we saw to a greater degree in year one, especially a scene with a chamber full of slowly bouncing intelligent globes that reminded me of miniature versions of “The Prisoner”’s ‘rovers.’ The Alphans learn they have disrupted the metamorphosing life cycle of another race and are forced to make things right. While the story is okay, it’s the odd surreal feeling that makes this one stand out (for me, anyway).
“The Beta Cloud” is, for me, a total guilty pleasure. Dave Prowse (bodybuilder, former Green Cross guy, Hammer Frankenstein monster and future Darth Vader) plays a rampaging robot disguised as a lifeform that trashes Alpha in order to steal its life-support core. Commander Koenig is away on a mission, forcing Tony Verdeschi to step up as Alpha’s commander. Despite the absolutely ridiculously subpar keiju-eiga looking monster costume, Prowse’s Terminator-style rampage is silly, nail-biting fun. Seeing Verdeschi really thinking on his feet makes this Tony Anholt’s best episode.
“The Bringers of Wonder” Part One is the first part of a two-parter that was released in some international markets as a feature film. In it, a ‘Super Swift’ spacecraft arrives from Earth with a crew consisting entirely of people who are special to the Alphans, including fiances, colleagues, mentors, old-flames and even Tony Verdeschi’s brother Guido. They claim theirs is a faster-than-light ship capable of taking some of them back to Earth. Only a temporarily destabilized Koenig sees these visitors as they really are…hideous, walking alien piles of vomit and noodles who need radiation from Alpha to survive.
“The Bringers of Wonder” Part Two sees the vomit-noodle aliens further using their will to pacify and manipulate the Alphans, but due to an experimental brain treatment from Helena, Koenig is unable to be fooled by their illusions. With Maya’s help, he realizes their plan to destroy the base’s nuclear reactor but now has to stop several crewmen (who think they’ve arrived on Earth) from destroying the base’s nuclear fuel. One of the best of the series in my opinion… creepy, surreal and loaded with lots of nice character moments. Yes, the aliens look like glowing puke, but they’re certainly memorable.
Moonbase Alpha, In Memorium.
So many of the Space: 1999 team are no longer with us. Producer Gerry Anderson (1929-2012), Fred Freiberger (1915-2003), series’ star Martin Landau (1928-2017) who eventually won an Oscar for 1994’s “Ed Wood”, Barry Morse (1918-2008), Tony Anholt (1941-2002) and most recently Zienia Merton (1945-2018). Thanks to all of them for a crazy cosmic ride.
Final Message From Moonbase Alpha (1999).
At a “Space: 1999” convention in Los Angeles held on the actual calendar day of the moon’s fictional ‘breakaway’ (September 13th, 1999), Zienia Merton (in character as Sandra Benes) appeared in a short film chronicling the final log entry from the wayward moonbase. The short, called “Message From Moonbase Alpha” (1999), premiered at the convention, and is considered by many Space: 1999 fans to be the ‘official’ finale of the series.
It was a fitting end to a series for which I hold much affection, despite its issues and shortcomings.
Yes, scientific accuracy on the series was next-to nonexistent, the oh-so-’70s costumes are quite dated, and the acting was occasionally hammy, but there was something surreal and fascinating about this handsomely designed series’ world… a future past that will always live on in the imaginations of a certain generation, and maybe even for a few forgiving new fans who are willing to overlook a slew of faults in favor of surreal and utterly escapist entertainment.