Space: 1999: The Complete First Season
It feels too easy to complain that a series created by two people who were mostly used to working with puppets is too wooden, but that’s the single greatest problem with the mid-’70s space opera Space 1999. The series, produced in Britain but featuring American stars in the two lead roles, aimed to be a Star Trek for a new decade, particularly as Star Trek was blowing up in syndication at the time. Instead, it ended up a series where people ran into threats and talked about them. And talked. And talked. And talked.
The series’ premise, spelled out in one of the most unnecessarily thorough pilots in the history of the medium, involves a moon that’s been thrown off its orbit by a nuclear explosion, leaving everybody who lived and worked on the moon heading into the great unknown with it, bound for new worlds, new star systems, and new conflicts. It’s a simple enough premise, basically the same as every other space-faring series on TV, with the added twist that each planet the survivors encounter could be a new home. Leaving aside the fact that the moon seems to now have some sort of interstellar warp drive that allows it to cross great distances of space over the course of a week or two, it’s a premise that could work famously for a show like this.
Instead, the problems begin almost immediately. Creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the TV wizards behind the puppet process known as “supermarionation,” weren’t really clear on how to work with human beings, and it shows. Scenes are shot flatly, even for the time, relying on a succession of static mid-shots and occasional establishing shots, and featuring characters who spend as much time talking about the threats they encounter as they do confronting those threats.
Many of the episodes have intriguing science-fiction ideas at their center, but the endless flood of unimaginatively filmed chatter subsumes those ideas. For example, the first episode centers on the idea that the Earth has received a baffling transmission from what seems to be an alien world, a transmission that now seems to be drawing the moon toward it. But there’s very little sense of wonder at this idea. Or take episode two, where a man returns from the dead, and it almost seems like everybody expected him to walk back through the door from the first. Nearly every episode features at least one solid science-fiction idea, and nearly every episode sabotages that idea through lackluster execution.
The Andersons recruited some great actors for Space, but even they couldn’t help save the day. Martin Landau, in the lead role, mostly furrows his brow and tries to look determined, the better to get through his ordeal. Barbara Bain seems to be there as a token woman, and the series never figures out how to write for her. Only kooky old Barry Morse seems to be having any fun at all as an exposition fount of a professor.
The production values are good for the time, and they still hold a certain sleek appeal, though they’re clearly of the period. While the direction is mostly dull, it occasionally takes chances, as when the explosion that kicks off the series’ plot is viewed from a catwalk looking down on the characters falling to the floor. The writing is terrible, largely lacking in humor, humanity, or anything that would make the show at all bearable. If nothing else, Space 1999 is a good reminder of why for so many years, science fiction was seen as the opposite of quality television.
Key features: It should be said the video transfer on the Blu-ray edition of the season is gorgeous. Fans of the show have likely never seen it look better than this. The set also features a bounty of extras, including commentaries, music-only tracks on most episodes, many featurettes, alternate opening titles, and more.