HUMAN DECISION REQUIRED
Some personal notes on Space: 1999
by Erkki Rautio
Criticism and counter-criticism
As far as the plot goes, Space: 1999 was often criticised for its characters being lifeless and stories humourless - one viewer of the series wrote:"The feel of the show is incredibly harsh. Everything is well lit under white fluorescent light. Their environment and even their clothes are impersonal. Just outside their walls lies the deadly vacuum of space, and this is made clear on many occasions. The black and white video monitors everywhere further depersonalize everyone. There is a cold detachment between the characters, yet there are attractions and friendships between them. They seem comfortable with each other, but they are rarely warm to one another."
Critics also claimed that the episodes were often jarred with illogical and uncomprehensible twists; and even breaking the basic rules of science. For example, the series' very origin with the Moon hurling from the Earth's orbit into outer space would be implausible as far as the laws of physics go. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ed. Peter Nicholls, 1979) commented on the show: "... where the Star Trek characters travelled on a spaceship, the Space: 1999 characters do their interplanetary wandering on Earth's runaway Moon - an unwieldy gimmick that must have caused many frustrations to the writers," continuing that "the other major flaw with the series was a disregard for basic science which many critics saw as scandalous; stars are confused with asteroids, the Moon's progress through space follows no physical laws and parsecs are assumed to be a unit of velocity".
Fantastic Television (Gary Gerani & Paul H. Schulman, 1977) claimed in its turn:
Abandoning science has not been Space: 1999's only flaw; to a great degree, it has abandoned reason, as well: the stories often cannot be understood. "The Black Sun" is a good example of the kind of unintelligible plots offered up. In this episode, the hapless moon is being drawn toward what the writers call a "black sun." In fact, it must be what scientists today call a black hole - an area of such great mass and with such a powerful gravitational field that it can destroy everything in its vicinity. The crew builds a force field hoping to save Alpha from destruction - to no avail. Koenig and Bergman finally send the rest of the crew off into space as they remain on Alpha to "go down with the ship." As they draw close to the "black sun" they become transparent, then all sound stops. In seconds, they age eons and hear a disembodied, childlike voice (God's? Kubrick's?) proclaiming itself as the prime mover of the universe. The voice stops, and Koenig and Bergman return to normal. They conclude that the force field they had built to stave off destruction had worked after all, and that they had simply fallen through the black sun. This story is so filled with holes it's no wonder that they fell through. For one, sound stops in vacuum, something as dense as a black hole would increase its transmission, not smother it. And, if sound stopped, how did they hear the strange voice? If their force field had worked, how is that they got sucked into the black sun anyway? Most importantly, what did the whole experience mean? Great dramatic emphasis is placed on it but no follow-up or explanation is ever offered. It is pure phantasmagoria. Unfortunately, "The Black Sun" is not unique in its flaws; many of the other stories are equally fatuous.
From one point of view this kind of criticism is of course justified, though I personally I think that this also narrows the ways with which we can watch the series and also enjoy it, since there are many kinds of other interesting elements involved. My primary defense of Space: 1999 would be that the series should be seen more as science fantasy than science fiction, with the mentioned logical gaps often bringing in dreamlike or even surreal quality; enhanced by the series' otherworldy settings and unusual camera angles, jump cuts or other flashy technical tricks that were many times favoured by the producers.
The acclaimed science fiction author J.G. Ballard wrote already in 1964 about the problematic relationship of sci-fi and its claims of "realism":
"It is now nearly 40 years since the first Buck Rogers comic strip, and only two less than a century since the birth of science fiction's greatest modern practitioner, H.G. Wells, yet the genre is still dominated by largely the same set of conventions, the same repertory of ideas, and, worst of all, by the assumption that it is still possible to write accounts of interplanetary voyages in which the appeal is realism than to fantasy (what one could call Campbell's Folly). Once it gets 'off the ground' into space all science fiction is fantasy, and the more serious it tries to be, the more naturalistic, the greater its failure, as it completely lacks the moral authority and conviction of a literature won from experience."
The apparent lack of logic in many Space: 1999 episodes could well be compared to that of dreaming which does not follow the linear logic of the waking hours, and one can remember, on the other hand, that the psychedelic heyday of the 60's was still not far behind when the series was filmed.
Science fiction is never really about the future, but always reflects the values, hopes and fears of its own time, and if we discuss Space: 1999 in terms of pop music, it was in the period from psychedelia to glam rock to disco that this series took place. Hi-tech futurism combined with mysticism and the easy-going hedonism of the late-60's/early-70's: essential hipster fodder. Add to this a certain experimental approach, which reflected quite well the era; with the underground films of the time, and such bold British film-makers as Nicolas Roeg, constantly venturing into new areas and breaking the traditional narratives of cinema.
Also, the beautiful visuals and eerie atmosphere of the series often remind me of the Italian giallo masters like Mario Bava [a prime example would be Bava's stylish 1965 space chiller Terrore Nello Spazio, a.k.a. 'Planet of the Vampires'] or Dario Argento, whose films - though plot-wise they may defy all the rules of conventional logic - take us to uncharted territories, that of dreams and Surrealist art. Especially the First Season was various times very "European" in its emphasis, with many Italian guest actors (the show was then co-produced by the Italian national TV company RAI); and those Continental influences did seem to leak in every now and then, making it more than your usual shoot-'em-ugly-Martians-up space opera fare.
How about the characters, then? Well, it's true one rarely sees any emotional interaction between the characters in a conventional TV drama style, but I think this only adds to the impact of the series and the overall outlandish feel. Their main day-to-day goal is to survive among the dangers unknown, which expresses itself as a grim determination, and which is gladly not watered down with any weepy soap opera mannerisms or sugar-coated romanticism so loved by the American TV. This causes that those rare (but existing) glimpses of affection between the characters or the jovial humour of Professor Bergman, played by Barry Morse, will only become even more significant. Maybe some influences can be found again from 2001, with its po-faced interaction between actors and their cold, clinical outer space environment. We are now really in the middle of unknown.
The Second Season, produced by American Fred Freiberger, was a totally different ballgame altogether, trying to appeal to more mainstream audiences, and consequently making the series duller, even ham-fisted in its attempts to add more humour and "human interest" to its stories. The marriage of of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson was rapidly breaking up at that time (as was, in fact, also Landau's and Bain's) which was eventually having some effect on how the things would turn up when Freiberger took the place of Sylvia Anderson as the series' executive producer; there was also increasing pressure to make the series more accessible to the Trans-Atlantic audiences. Under Freiberger's direction the tone of the series turned into silly "Rubber Monster of the Week" show; with some Love Boat-esque "romantic comedy" added. Some of the Second Season episodes are downright unwatchable.
It should be fair to say, though, that the second series did have some redeeming qualities, such as Derek Wadsworth's jazzy soundtrack music, and above all, the Psychon science officer Maya, played by lovely Catherine Schell (on the right); she had ready appeared in the "Guardian of Piri" episode of the First Season, as the Guardian's Servant. S99 wasn't her first trip to the Moon, though: she had already starred in 1969's "space western" Moon Zero Two by Roy Ward Baker, another film made in the aftermath of 2001. Schell replaced Barry Morse (who Fred Freiberger thought was too old - just tell that to the fans of Jean-Luc Picard)... Also the Quatermass director Val Guest would take care of some of the Second Season episodes. Nevertheless, Space: 1999 folded after its Second Season, to live only in the re-runs and the minds of fans.