Dateline: September 13, 1999
Mankind has been storing all of our nuclear waste on the far side of the moon. On the other side of the lunar surface was Alpha Base. Here mankind had a research station which also served as a launching point for deep-space missions. An unfortunate chain of events led to the unthinkable. The nuclear waste pile was ignited, and the whole dump exploded with a force so powerful that it tore the moon out of Earth’s orbit and sent it hurtling through space. The 311 inhabitants of Alpha were swept along for this uncontrolled flight into uncharted space. Of course, the year 1999 is no longer science fiction to us now. It’s going on ancient history. There has never been a base on the moon. In fact, we haven’t been back since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970’s. If you check tonight, you’ll find that our only natural satellite is still firmly planted in its familiar orbit around our planet. Space 1999 never happened.
But it did happen. For the millions of fans across the world, Space 1999 was one of those shows that would keep the fans glued to their television sets, oblivious to everything that was going on in the real 1970’s world. The brainchild of Gerry Anderson, the series was short-lived, but created a following that might not have rivaled that of Star Trek, but survives to this very day. Now Shout Factory has rewarded those fans who have waited for what seems like an eternity to have the show once again in their hands and on the shelves of our home theaters. As an added bonus, they’ve decided to deliver it to us in a format that was just as much science fiction in 1975 as was a moon base. We get it in the modern magic of high-definition Blu-ray.
The series was produced in England at the legendary Pinewood Studios. The budget was the largest per-episode budget to that point in television history. It came out to about $300,000 in American money. Anderson couldn’t sell the idea to the American networks, so it had to make its way in syndication, where it did penetrate all of the country’s major media markets. The series was a spin-off, of sorts, from the popular Anderson show UFO. While no characters crossed over into the new show, much of the technology and mythology remained. The show itself was born out of the cancellation of UFO and Anderson’s desire to continue the moon base idea. When it was suggested to him by the money men that the show should take place completely in space with no Earth scenes at all, the idea of the moon tearing away from Earth orbit was born.
The new commander of the base was John Koenig (Landau), perhaps an homage to the Chekov actor in Trek. Landau was once considered for the role of Spock on that show. He would later be replaced on Mission Impossible by Leonard Nimoy, who did take over the role. His wife was Barbara Bain, with whom he also worked on Mission Impossible. She played the base’s chief medical officer, Helena Russell. She was married, but her husband had disappeared on a mission and was presumed dead. An episode in the first season would further explain his fate and free her up to have somewhat of a relationship with Commander Koenig. The science officer on the team was Professor Victor Bergman, played by Barry Morse. He was the scientific brain, but also Koenig’s conscience and confidant. The relationship was very much like Kirk and McCoy. Morse left the show after the first season. Second in command was Paul Morrow, played by Prentis Hancock. He was fiercely loyal and always looking to take action. He would rather fight than wait to see what the situation was. The ace pilot on the staff was Alan Carter, played by Nick Tate. He was often off base on the primary flying ships of Alpha called Eagles. He would be the first contact with planets and ships the team encountered on the journey. Sandra Benes was played by Zienia Merton. She was the utility member of the main staff. She handled communications and scans for the crew. It was more often her voice that alerted the team to danger. Finally we had David Kano, played by Clifton Jones. Kano was the computer expert. It was his job to feed the complicated problems into the ship’s computer and get answers. They worked out of a central command area called Main Mission. There were also an abundance of blond young girls on hand.
The team had no control over where the moon was taking them. In an earlier episode the moon enters a black hole which transports it across the known universe. Now they were far enough from home to have no chance of getting there. It also solved the problem of having the moon reach other planets that were light-years away without having to travel at light speed. So they would encounter planets that would be tested and explored to see if it was an appropriate place to settle. They did not intend to remain forever on Alpha. They would meet aliens of various kinds. Some would be friendly, but most had hostile intent that forced the team to fight for their survival.
The sets of Alpha were all very sterile with a lot of white. The uniforms were jumpsuits very much like the ones seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They were white or very light tan. The color of the one sleeve determined their station and possibly their rank. They had huge zippers on the colored sleeve. The carried large devices that served as communicators and remote-control devices for the station’s doors. They also monitored their life signs. The technology was very much tied to the day. Computer screens were very bulky and often monochrome. The controls were huge buttons and levers. The computer had a voice but usually communicated through tear-away paper feed. They wrote with standard Flair pens of the day. They also carried laser guns that looked more like staple guns. All of the aliens appear to speak perfect English without the aid of a translation device.
The show’s weakness had to be in the rather philosophical nature of too many of the episodes. Action was rare on many of these shows. The aliens either were on some other plane of existence or communicated through dreams or hallucinations. This caused a lot of standing around talking and contemplating. The show did push some theory boundaries, but it was often a bit too static. I have to admit that wasn’t really my memory of the show. After watching so many episodes in a short time it occurred to me just how frequent those common themes were, at least in the first season. There were more than a few episodes that appeared torn from Star Trek. In two episodes Koenig must convince a computer to destroy itself. There were the aliens who were testing humanity. There’s even an episode where a Voyager craft returns with some destructive power, unless the creator who happens to be aboard Alpha under an assumed name can stop it. Now, this was before the Trek film, but after the Nomad show.
There were some impressive guest stars that included Hammer icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Joan Collins is another impressive guest. These kinds of appearances were rare. The shows mostly took place with the main team members and some extras on the base. They did not journey away from Alpha as much as they likely should have.
The effects were handled by Brian Thompson, who worked on 2001. You could easily figure that out. Many of the ships have that elongated look to them like the main ship in 2001. The effects were pretty good for the day, but you really won’t marvel at them today, particularly in high definition. You’ll see strings. When the ships explode, the flash will momentarily reveal the apparatus that held the model in place. The lasers don’t always line up with the guns. It was all very expensive and groundbreaking for television at the time, but by today’s standards this will appear more than a little crude.
The second season was, in Martin Landau’s words, “jazzed up”. The uniforms were given overcoats with color in them. The control center was completely redesigned to include both color and more machinery. There were also many departures. The most significant was Barry Morse as Professor Victor Bergman. He was the crew’s science officer and the Commander’s confidant. His departure was a real void for the show’s second and final season. The show also did away with the hint of a relationship between Landau and Bain’s character. They were completely together now and, of course, were in reality husband and wife. The theme music was also changed to a more pleasing orchestrated score over the harshness of the first season theme. The titles were also changed and significantly shortened, jettisoning the previews of the current episode.
The biggest change came with two cast additions. Tony Anholt was added as Tony Verdeshi. He was the head of the base security forces. He was also trying to create his own brew of beer. Of course, the biggest splash came with the arrival of Catherine Schell as Maya, the resident alien. She’s met in the pilot and becomes the last survivor of her kind when the planet explodes. She was a metamorph, which meant she could shape-shift into any biological thing. She would become a mouse, tiger, monkey, and several exotic alien creatures. There was an obvious attempt to recreate the Star Trek Spock feeling. She had dreadlock-like eyebrows and exotic shading on her face. She also became the science officer.
The second season was pushing more and more to resemble Star Trek, and a huge reason for that was the replacement of Sylvia Anderson with Fred Freiberger, who also produced the last season of Star Trek. Unfortunately, at times it was more like Lost In Space. The alien creatures were terribly obvious costumes with no head animation at all. The situations also became more camp.
The show also tried to save money in the second season by shooting two shows at a time. That meant a split in cast so that Landau or Bain might have almost no screen time in one while they were filming another. The same was true of all of the regular characters.
Each episode is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. This is a very admirable high-definition image presentation. The prints look quite clean and show ample evidence of restoration. The colors shine, when there is color to show off. Mostly the show is surrounded by tons of white images. That’s often hard to display on home video without distortion or wavering. None of that is evident here. The whites really look bright and clean at all times. Flesh tones are spot-on. Black levels and contrast conspire to deliver wonderful space scenes with bright stars in the background and white ships in the foreground. The separation is splendid. You can bet that these images will impress the pickiest fan out there. I promise that you have not seen Space 1999 looking anything like this before, not ever.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is not really going to be something that will rival the brilliance of the image. You can hear the dialog and the various sound effects just fine. There is no real brilliance or dynamic range here. In fact, the “sssss” sounds are quite harsh at times. It’s better than the original broadcasts or even recent DVD presentations but only minimally. The menus have two serious audio issues. The menu theme is three times as loud as the episodes, and you have to control your system volume between episodes. You also have to be sure to select the 5.1 presentation, because it defaults to the 2.0, and you can’t change it within the episode without going through the menus.
Mission To Moonbase Alpha – Interview With Barbara Bain: (10:36) She doesn’t really have accurate recall of the series. She mentions several times that the base had no weapons of any kind. Of course, they did. There were handgun lasers, Eagle lasers, and big giant laser cannons on the base.
Into An Uncertain Future – Interview With Nick Tate: (16:44)
Brain Behind The Destruction – Interview With Director Kevin Connor: (9:14)
Vintage Year Two Interviews: (30:25) These short interviews are from the set of the second season and were made for promotional purposes. The audio doesn’t allow you to hear the interviewer well, and a screen card prepares you for that. The interviews include Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Gerry Anderson, and Fred Freiberger.
Moonbase Alpha Merch – A Tour Of Space 1999 With Author John Muir: (11:16) The author shows off his vintage toys connected with the series. For some reason this feature disables your pause ability. Maybe you aren’t supposed to study the toys in detail by pausing for clearance reasons.
Behind The Scenes With Brian Johnson Commentary: (6:49) This feature offers raw footage from the various studio departments and takes us behind the scenes of some of the f/x filming. There’s no audio on the footage. You hear only Johnson telling us what we are looking at.
Memoirs Of Space: (7:16) This is more footage like the main feature, but not as episode-specific.
Sylvia Anderson Interview: (16:12) I have to say that this interview with Gerry’s ex-wife is not flattering to her at all. She comes across as a bitter old lady. She has nothing nice to say about anyone else. She has particular venom for Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, toward whom she has nothing but hatred. It’s really no wonder that Gerry dumped her around the time of the show. Obviously, these are not memories from a good time.
Concept And Creation Featurette: (12:37) This feature looks at the show’s origins and early development.
Special Effects And Design: (16:51) The f/x guys show some of the models and tricks.
Guardian Of Piri Remembered: (1:36) This should have been in the first feature.
Martin Landau and Barbara Bain US Premier Intro and Outro: (1:54) These were shown when the pilot first ran in the United States.
Trailers and Television Spots
I remember the show fondly from my own youth. While it never really took off or enjoyed the kind of afterlife that Star Trek enjoyed, it certainly has an honored position among television science fiction shows. It was ambitious and did tend to break many of the television conventions of the time. Back then we were not aware of the turmoil that was going on behind the scenes. It only lasted for two years, and we appear to have been lucky to get even that much. Shout Factory delivers a solid home run with this wonderful collection of restored episodes and vintage extra material. The rest is now up to you. “Human decision required.”