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In the not-too-distant future...
on 11 November 2015
In the year 1999, a massive explosion on the far side of the moon... SOMEHOW propelled it into the far reaches of the galaxy, with a hapless moonbase along for the ride. Remember that?
If you don't, then it probably means you didn't spend that year watching "Space: 1999" and lamenting that we don't have interstellar flight and oatmeal-colored jumpsuits. The first season of this cult sci-fi show is a frustrating experience -- it clearly wants badly to be cerebral and thought-provoking, but mostly proves to be slow-moving and woodenly-acted. Furthermore, it often creates serious scenarios for the heroes to face, only to cop out with unexplained godlike aliens or metaphysical phenomena beyond our understanding.
In the year 1999, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) is given command of Moonbase Alpha, as Earth prepares to send a spacecraft to a mysterious new planet that might have intelligent life. Unfortunately, people on the Moonbase are suddenly going crazy and dying, and with the help of Dr. Russell (Barbara Bain) and Professor Bergman (Barry Morse), he finds out why -- the deposits of Earth's radioactive waste have turned sectors of the moon into a giant bomb. When the waste ignites, it sends the Moon careening out of its orbit... instead of breaking it apart and propelling the pieces towards Earth, which is the more likely scenario.
And instead of aimlessly floating in space, or perhaps orbiting Mars, the moon ends up zipping through the galaxy at continuous velocity, like a cosmic cue ball. I suspect that the writers didn't really comprehend how large space is. Koenig quickly gives up on the idea of returning to Earth, and decides that they're just going to find another planet to colonize.
As they look for one, they encounter all sorts of strange things: a band of immortals stranded on an ice planet, a heat vampire, aliens (who usually look very human) attacking them for a variety of reasons, a creepy child who grows to adulthood in a day, an alien "dragon" that has haunted one of Alpha's crew, a black hole, a savage tribal society on a derelict spacecraft, the seductive peace of Piri, a duplicate moon around a ruined Earth, a planet where everyone degenerates into cavemen, a space brain, a cruel living spaceship, a psychic "ghost," and a probe that creates a breathable atmosphere.
I've often heard "Space 1999" described as being a more cerebral brand of sci-fi, compared to shows like "Star Trek" or "Battlestar Galactica," which tend to balance out the sci-fi with a fair amount of action. But it really isn't. Too many episodes rely on destiny, godlike aliens or never-explained phenomena for it to be considered cerebral sci-fi. And while it poses many philosophical questions, it only poses those questions -- there's little give-and-take about issues or concepts. That isn't to say that "Space 1999 - The Complete First Series" is bad... but it's not as remarkable or intelligent as it clearly thinks it is.
Some episodes are quite good. "Dragon's Domain" deftly handles the story of a man broken by his determination to tell the truth, and "Voyager's Return" touches on the moral issues of a scientist's guilt and culpability for his brilliant but dangerous invention. But sadly, most episodes are either vague and plotless ("Black Sun," "The Last Sunset," "Collision Course") and try to handwave away all questions by the end with "Well, something happened but we don't really know what. Back to wandering the galaxy."
It's also slow. Very slow. This wouldn't be so bad if Moonbase Alpha weren't decorated in Mental Asylum Chic -- oatmeal-colored uniforms, white walls, a sporadic soundtrack, and characters who speak as if they've been dosed with heroin. It's very difficult to focus on a slow-moving story where there's nothing onscreen for the senses to grab onto.
That, sadly, applies to the cast as well, all of whom seem to give strangely artificial performances, like androids imitating human reactions. Morse seems to be one of the few cast members with any life or energy to him: his genial, grandfatherly professor is a very endearing character. But Landau is very awkward in this role, and he's never quite plausible as the charismatic commander of a base -- he's easily eclipsed by many of the guest actors, such as a dignified Christopher Lee, Leo McKern, Peter Cushing and the ever-bombastic Brian Blessed, who seem a lot more comfortable with their smaller roles.
And Barbara Bain is almost mesmerizingly bad here -- wooden and lifeless with blank eyes, as if they somehow got a coma patient to stand upright and speak. She's so bad that it's actually distracting when she tries to emote. And her romance with Koenig is embarrassing -- there's little organic growth to their relationship, and despite having been married at the time, Bain and Landau have the sexual chemistry of two cinder blocks who don't particularly like each other.
And for supposedly-intelligent sci-fi, it makes a surprisingly large number of basic scientific errors: the moon's absence would doom Earth, it would need to be exceeding light speed to move instantly from our solar system, the explosion described would shatter it and send the fragments TOWARDS Earth rather than propelling an intact moon AWAY... the list goes on. I normally can suspend my disbelief in a sci-fi series, but when it's touted as unusually intelligent -- and the problems are in the very PREMISE -- it's pretty hard to overlook.
"Space 1999 - The Complete First Series" sometimes feels like it was trying to be a TV version of "2001: A Space Odyssey," but slow pacing and unanswered questions do not work on a weekly TV show. While there are some very good, suspenseful episodes, the weird acting and deathly dull presentation bog it down badly.