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Posts Tagged ‘Earthbound’

How’s this for reductionist humour – Space: 1999? A ha ha ha ha ha! If you wanted to be a little more decompressed, you might bring up the issue of the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (‘see also: Scientific Errors’), the episode with the killer plants of Luton, the perpetually baffled chief scientist Victor Bergman (default response to any query: ‘Well, John, I just haven’t a clue’), and so on. The fact that the series has been brought to a whole new generation by the good folk at the Horror Channel is surely enough to give anyone cause to smile, even in times as difficult as our own.

Some context for the uninitiated: Space 1999 was a big-budget SF series made in the 1970s under the auspices of Gerry Anderson (he of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet fame), although by this point he had moved on from the stilted, wooden performances given by puppets, having discovered you could get a similar result from living actors with the right kind of scripting and direction. By this point Anderson had already turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to do the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does seem like that movie was at the back of his mind when he came to make Space: 1999 – apart from the similarity in titles, this was an attempt at the same kind of blend of seriously-imagined ‘realistic’ space fiction and enigmatic cosmic mysticism.

The problem with the show is that the format doesn’t easily fit into either of these categories. The premise is that, in September 1999, nuclear waste dumps on the Moon explode, blasting it out of orbit and sending it zooming across the cosmos, encountering alien life and stellar mysteries on pretty much a weekly basis. It’s one of those formats which is frankly so absurd the show can’t even acknowledge its own implausibility, to say nothing of the fact the series is predicated on the fact that the crew of Moonbase Alpha can never arrive anywhere nice or meet anyone especially helpful, as this would destroy the format.

Even a show as daft as Space: 1999 occasionally throws up a decent episode, however, which brings us to Earthbound, written by Anthony Terpiloff, directed by Charles Crichton, and originally broadcast in December 1975. I must have originally caught it on a Saturday lunchtime repeat in 1981 or 82; this may be a dud series, on the whole, but a couple of episodes have lodged in my memory, and this is one of them.

The character driving this episode is Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice), a desk-orbiting political operator with an extraordinary choice of hairstyle and beard. Simmonds has been stuck on the Moon since the opening episode, which (as this is the fourteenth episode in the run as originally transmitted) kind of leads one to wonder where he’s been in the intervening time, given he’s such an obtrusively obnoxious individual (the episode would maybe make more sense located earlier in the chronology of the show). Simmonds is fixated on trying to get back to Earth, despite the fact this is obviously impossible, which doesn’t half tick off actual commander John Koenig (imported American star Martin Landau).

Still, it soon turns out that Simmonds isn’t the only one thinking along those lines, as an alien ship makes a forced landing on the Moon (it is an interesting shade of blue and looks like a sort of novelty vase or ornament). The Alphans go aboard and discover what seems to be a glam rock band lying in state, inside sealed glass cabinets. Not having their own copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and thus being unaware that it is always, always a bad idea to interfere with apparently dead aliens, chief medical officer Dr Russell (Landau’s real-life wife Barbara Bain) tries to open one of the boxes but only succeeds in incinerating the occupant. Oops.

Looking on the bright side, this at least perks all the other aliens up a bit, particularly their leader, Captain Zantor, who gets all the dialogue. This is no bad thing as under the wig and the make-up is Christopher Lee, fresh off the set of The Man with the Golden Gun and well on his way to well-deserved living legend status already. It seems the ship is from the dying planet of Kaldor, and the six (now five) crew members are heading for Earth, intending to settle there (if the people of the planet permit them). Their ship was programmed to go into orbit around the Moon, which has still happened even though the Moon is not where it was supposed to be. The Kaldorians accept the various cock-ups which have beset them with good grace, and announce they’re going to continue on to Earth, seventy-five years’ voyage away, and, as they now have a free stasis box, they offer to take one of the Alphans with them.

The future’s bright – the future’s… various shades of beige, apparently.

Koenig decides to get the base computer to select the best person to receive this free ticket back to Earth, but Simmonds isn’t standing for any of that sort of nonsense (he has already suggested Koenig kill all the Kaldorians and seize their ship). Proving unexpectedly trigger-happy for a politician, he zaps his way into the power unit and basically takes the reactor hostage, insisting on being the one to take the spare berth on the alien ship. Zantor agrees, amidst much grumbling from the rest of the crew who quite rightly think that it’s not right that Simmonds should get away with this.

But will he? No-one has bothered to tell him the aliens need to create a special hibernation matrix keyed to whoever is using the stasis cabinet for it to function, with the result that Simmonds wakes up in his cabinet only three hours into the seventy-five year flight. Already the ship has departed and is beyond the range of Alpha’s support craft to reach; he is sealed in, unable to affect the ship. He screams and thrashes around helplessly in his box as the alien craft glides on through space…

It’s a memorably nasty conclusion, and of course the double whammy that sets it off so well is yet to come: when asked who the computer selected to send on the flight, Koenig reveals the inevitable answer – Simmonds. The Commissioner would have got his own way regardless.

Watching Earthbound again now, it is not quite as impressive as my memory suggested, but then neither is Space: 1999 in general quite as useless as it is popularly held to be. It remains, on a fundamental level, an awkward mash-up of the space opera stylings of Star Trek and the more philosophical approach copied, clumsily, from 2001, but the special effects are quite as good as you’d expect from an Anderson series and the production values are generally pretty good too. Barry Gray’s scores are also always a highlight of an Anderson show.

This is still a superior episode, the thing that lets it down being the way that Simmonds is presented. Leaving aside the fact that such a prominent figure seems to have materialised out of thin air in the gap between episodes, he’s just not plausible as a character. There’s potential for him to have been borderline-sympathetic – he ended up stranded on the Moon by accident, he’s not a trained specialist or astronaut like the rest of the crew, after all – but he’s written as a ruthless, self-interested villain, almost bordering on the psychotic. It’s not quite a panto turn from Roy Dotrice (usually a dependable actor) but the script kind of requires him to turn it up a bit too far to be credible.

The same is not the case when it comes to the episode’s genuine special guest star, Christopher Lee. Lee is really up against it, given the costume and make-up he is required to perform in (originally, heavier prosthetics were planned for the Kaldorians, but Lee refused to wear them), but as you would expect he rises to the occasion magnificently. You quite rarely get actors of Lee’s distinction playing guest aliens in space opera TV shows, and too often the resulting performances are just, well, not very impressive – for whatever reason, they don’t seem to be particularly trying to portray a genuinely alien being and just treat the make-up or whatever as a special kind of hat beneath which they just give a standard performance. Exceptions to this are few and far between; honourable mention must go to Martin Sheen’s appearance in Babylon 5, but also to Lee here – there is something genuinely unearthly and detached about his demeanour and line-readings here. The big question left open at the end of the episode is one of whether Zantor has deliberately arranged things so Simmonds meets his awful fate at the end; Lee’s performance is carefully pitched to give no indication, which just adds to the creepiness of the conclusion.

I expect that the discerning modern viewer would look at Earthbound nowadays and just say ‘This is rubbish’, and not without a smidgeon of justification – in addition to all its other faults, Space: 1999 simply hasn’t aged at all well. But in the context of the series this is still a superior instalment, and that ending does stay with you. And while the rest of the series may be even more rubbish, at least it is interesting, often unintentionally funny rubbish, and you have to take your pleasures where you can these days.

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