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Posts Tagged ‘Space: 1999’

Massed letter-writing campaigns and appeals to basic human decency have all clearly come to nothing, for the schedulers at the Horror Channel have plunged on with the second season of Space: 1999 regardless (you can take this ‘horror’ remit a bit too far). All you really need to know about the second season is that the show only got renewed by the skin of its teeth, and on condition that Gerry Anderson’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sylvia was replaced as producer by someone more in tune with the demands of the US TV sci-fi audience. Who they got was Fred Freiberger, one of the most notorious figures in the history of the genre. Diligent Horror viewers can get enjoy a double helping of Freiberger every night at the moment – their SF-themed block of programming kicks off with a repeat of an episode of the third season of the original Star Trek (cancelled, and I am tempted to say deservedly, during Freiberger’s producership) and then concludes with Space: 1999 (ditto, except this time it was definitely deserved). Freiberger, later in his life, compared his encounters with science fiction and its fans to falling out of a plane during the Second World War and being held prisoner by the Nazis. He was in no doubt which was the less gruelling experience (hint: it was not the one with the plane).

To get maximum Freiberger (although God knows why you would want to) you should check out one of the episodes he wrote as well as produced. The most notorious of these, probably, is… well, first I should probably say that this was a UK-based production and the UK is doubtless an exotic place to many American visitors. Even the place names sound bizarre and alien (probably). And, we should remember, Freiberger’s remit was to think primarily of the American viewer, unfamiliar with the towns and cities of southern England. So it was that Freiberger decided it was perfectly reasonable to turn in a script entitled The Rules of Luton. (Legend has it he saw the name on a road sign while driving in to the studio one day.)

Now you and I might think that the rules of Luton mainly concern long-term parking at the airport and possibly the punishment for jumping the queue at one of the local curry houses, but Freiberger had a different take on this. The episode opens with a bunch of the characters en route to a mysterious new planet which they are going to survey in the hope it will provide a new home to the long-suffering inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha. (We are already pretty sure it won’t, as this would mean the end of the series.) However, just as they are about to land, their Eagle transporter springs a leak, and (in a somewhat questionable piece of decision-making) Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) opts to be dropped off there for a few hours, along with alien science officer Maya (Catherine Schell), while the pilot (someone from Howard’s Way) goes back for a fresh ship.

The planet seems very nice, helped no end by the fact this is one of the series’ most extensive location shoots, but things go badly wrong when (in another dodgy piece of decision-making) Koenig tucks into one of the local berries while Maya starts picking the flowers. There are wails of outrage from all around them! A booming, apparently disembodied voice (David Jackson, probably best known for playing Gan in Blake’s 7) decries them as criminals and cannibals. (Dude, it’s a berry. This isn’t cannibalism – Landau’s performances may be a bit ripe sometimes, but he ain’t no fruit, nor indeed a vegetable.)

Well, it turns out the planet is called Luton (the British cast-members do their best to salvage the situation by pronouncing it Luh-Tahn) and here the fruit and veg is running the place, and takes a dim view of flower-picking and vegetarianism. (Insert your own joke about vegans here.)  Some trees of great local importance inform Koenig and Maya that they will now be required to fight for their lives against other berry-eating recidivists, if they want to leave in one piece. Three actors in some of the dodgiest alien suits ever to make it onto a film set duly appear and wave bits of rock at them. The slightly mind-boggling thing is that the producers went ahead and hired what I can only describe as proper actors to play the opposition – looking rather like a green version of Lemmy in a costume which is mostly black leather and long hair is Jackson, again, while Roy Marsden (later to become a respectable TV face) is obliged to dress up as a mangy parrot. The third alien is played by Godfrey James – more of a jobbing actor than the other two, but still someone with a very respectable list of credits.

They were (reasonably) young, they needed the money…

Koenig’s laser-stapler doesn’t work on the aliens (a typical example of a brazen Freiberger plot device) and so he and Maya are obliged to leg it from the hostile trio. The boss tree makes a rather ominous announcement: in order to make this a fair fight, they have given the aliens ‘special powers’ which are the equal of those of Koenig and Maya. Even Koenig recognises this as being distinctly iffy, given they are outnumbered and all. Maya, admittedly, has the power to change into easily-trained animals and rubber-suit aliens, but what exactly is Martin Landau’s special power supposed to be? It’s certainly not the ability to lift a duff script.

Well, there’s a lot of chasing about, during which Koenig gets dinged, one of the aliens falls in a river and drowns, and so on, and so on. Meanwhile the chap from Howard’s Way is making good on his promise to return for them, even though the entire planet has vanished from his sensors (these trees are remarkably resourceful). What follows is a load more chasing about, with what looks very much like a cameo appearance by the killer vine from the Fluff Freeman segment of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors at one point.

The only non-chasing about element comes when our two heroes pause for what feels like a good ten minutes to share back-story with each other. Maya talks about her long-lost brother and the history of her planet; Koenig talks about his dead wife (killed in the Third World War of 1987 – don’t know about you, but I missed that at the time). It is an entirely unexpected piece of character-building, which leads me to conclude that a) Freiberger didn’t write this scene and b) it was something they had to come up with on location when the episode turned out to be running short. So far as I can recall, neither Mrs Koenig or Maya’s brother are mentioned at any other point in the series.

In the end it’s back to the chasing about. One of the noticeable things about Freiberger’s run on Space: 1999 is the extent to which the plots are thinly-disguised rip-offs of ones from original Star Trek, or at least contain virtually identical elements. So the replica Enterprise from The Mark of Gideon gives us the replica Moonbase Alpha of One Moment of Humanity, while the Space: 1999 episode New Adam, New Eve resembles a cross between Who Mourns for Adonais? and a wife-swapping party. The chief donor where The Rules of Luton is concerned is the iconic episode Arena, with all the usual Freiberger nonsense (super-powered aliens, absurd science, silly plot-devices) added to it. Arena concludes with Captain Kirk building a bamboo cannon to defeat his opponent. Rules of Luton concludes with Commander Koenig turning his jacket’s belt into a bolas with which he entangles Lemmy the alien’s legs: the alien promptly falls over and bumps his head, thus giving Koenig a win. He also gets to make a speech denouncing the cruelty and arrogance of the tree praesidium, stirring up trouble on Luton. Wisely, he and Maya make their departure before the gooseberries start rioting.

If you have travelled at all in the wonderful land we call SF, you do expect the script from Rules of Luton to be awful – what genuinely comes as a blow is how bad the direction is, considering this episode was overseen by Val Guest. Earlier in his career, Guest oversaw two hugely important and very accomplished British SF films – The Quatermass Xperiment and The Day the Earth Caught Fire – but here his work is just clumsy, with endless use of the same bits of footage. One wonders how severe the constraints on this production really were: the whole thing owes its existence to the fact that season 2 was given a very tight schedule, with twenty-four episodes to be made over no more than ten months. (From start to finish, season 1 was in front of the cameras from late 1973 to early 1975.) As a result Freiberger decided to double-bank some of the episodes, which is why Landau and Schell are so prominent here and yet peripheral characters in The Mark of Archanon (which isn’t quite as bad as this), and why this one is largely shot on location (the standing sets were being used by the other unit). Even so, filming a whole episode on location must have meant working at a hell of clip, which is presumably why the tipped-off viewer can apparently spot picnic tables and canoeists in some shots of the planet Luton. (I’ve never been able to bring myself to pay that much attention to it.)

So it’s rubbish, but like much of second season Space: 1999, it’s so extravagantly, uninhibitedly rubbish it’s almost enjoyable. One critic of the series has said ‘it is as bad as TV can get’, and I can see what he means. But would the world really be a better place without The Rules of Luton? I can’t quite bring myself to say so.

(Ho ho – when the Horror Channel first broadcast Rules of Luton, not long after showing the Freiberger-produced subtlety-free racism allegory Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the transmitters battled on heroically for most of the episode before packing up in shame midway through the closing credits. The Horror Channel was off the air for over an hour. Lord knows what will happen when they show Space Warp.)

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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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