Monday, 11 March 2013

Space 1999: Missing Link

'Space 1999’ never fails to raise an indulgent chortle and wry shake of the head, does it? It’s so inherently ridiculous and utterly loveable and, every time I see an episode, I can’t help but smile at its insane inanity.

‘Missing Link’ is a case in point. After an Eagle Transporter crash, Commander Koenig hovers between life and death, only kept alive by a plastic tray with some flashing lights on it. Doctor Russell, despite being in a committed relationship with him, seems desperate to pull the plug for some reason, and is only kept from doing so by the fact that there’s a fight every time she goes to touch the button.

Far from being in a vegetative state, however, Koenig is actually a prisoner on the planet Zenna, the permanent guest of an alien anthropologist called Raan (Peter Cushing, painted gold and wearing a silly hat and daft wig). Raan wants to study him to gain insight into humans, who he believes are the missing link in his own people’s evolution. Raan’s daughter Vana also wants to study Koenig, but from a less scientific point of view, i.e. she fancies him (she’s only alien, after all).

Choc a bloc with fantasy sequences and fights, ‘Missing Link’ is lots of fun, although slightly confusing in the way Koenig seems to so ready to abandon Moonbase and Doctor Russell in favour of a life with Vana. Interestingly, it is this burgeoning relationship that sets Koenig free: Raan might like to study humans, but he certainly wouldn’t want his daughter to marry one.

‘Space 1999’ is a fascinating show for so many reasons, not least for its incredibly ambitious attempt to bring the whole of the universe to us on a budget of £150 an episode. They try terribly hard, but it never quite works out, especially as often their efforts are undermined by sheer shoddiness and lack of attention to detail: costumes that don’t fit; monsters that have zips: life support systems with spelling mistakes… I absolutely love it.


  1. I, too, very much liked Space: 1999 when I was twelve...even though my father (an aircraft consultant and former designer) had taught me enough to know that the orbitally-ejected moon concept was complete bunk.
    HOWEVER...Chief, I gotta really disagree with your characterization of the show and, especially, its visual effects as "shoddy". For its time, I fear that you could not be further from the truth.

    Space 1999's budget of over $275,000 per episode was vast compared to any science fiction show which preceeded it and it was purposely intended to be visually the most impressive program to have ever aired. (I know this as a result of my reading most everything - especially interviews and production articles - that I could find in 1975-1978.) Much of that money went into the most advanced special effects EVER done for a weekly television show up to that time. While the effects were often horrendously scientifically inaccurate (check out the 150mph laser blasts!), FX director Brian Johnson had worked under Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey and was probably the best visual effects man in television in the 1970s. If you review and compare Johnson's Space: 1999 work to ANY other television from the 1970s, what I have just stated will be self-evident.
    As for "costumes that don't fit", blame Rudi Gernreich's original design, not the seemstresses. If one looks at the original costume designs, it's obvious that an avant-garde fashion designer was at work, not a practical costume designer. William Ware Theiss would never have made such a don't-move-or-you'll-spoil-it bell-bottomed flow to uniforms.

    While any afficianado of good character-centric science fiction can easily find many things to criticize about Gerry Anderson's live-action apotheosis, the production quality of this show shouldn't be one of those things. If it appears dated, please have mercy because, in that era, ALL monsters had zips.

  2. Jay, I didn't say the visual effects were shoddy, I said that the show was undermined by shoddiness. In actual fact, I think the model work and special effects are generally excellent, although I hadn't realised just how expensive each episode was.

    My point is, if you're spending $275k an episode why doesn't somebody check the spelling of the lead character's name? Why doesn't somebody notice that - by default or design - the costumes look wrong and need taking in a bit? Why doesn't someone tell the producer that 'Luton' is not a good name for an alien planet because its also a town in Bedfordshire? &, yes, monsters may have zips even now but, if they do, at least make some attempt to conceal them - that doesn't cost anything apart from effort and a decent camera angle!

    I LOVE the show, but it makes itself ridiculous not by the big things it gets right but the little things it scrimps on.

  3. Point taken, Chief. Your undeniably accurate criticism of the visual "little things" is a real example of Anderson's production assistants not monitoring the details...and the costume designer's inadequate attention to DYNAMICS, i.e. how things were going to look in motion. This could be seen when the secondary characters costumes failed to keep up with them or, worse, once a Gernreich costume had begun to stretch and it sagged where Sandra Benes shouldn't have been sagging.
    Yeah; combined with spelling errors, such things meet the definition of "shoddiness".

    Still, by the standard of the times and within the scope of the available technology, the rest of Space: 1999 was better than that.

    Look, I'm in an unusual position for an American: Defending the technical/budget limitations of the British institution that was Gerry Anderson's body of work.
    Please note, that I'm not arguing with you; I'm only suggesting that you consider this production within the limitations of ITS time.

    Space: 1999 was to be Anderson's grand achievement. I remember reading his interviews and numerous articles as well as watching the Landau/Bain promotion tour of 1975 talk shows. In particular, I remember the emphasis on how LONG each episode took to film: TWO WEEKS. That was an unheard-of production time...especially since the ALL the previous high-water marks for effects-intensive science fiction (Star Trek, Outer Limits, etc) had been made with only ONE week shooting schedules. Obviously, the Andersons weren't trying to do things on-the-cheap!
    Yet, huge budgets inevitably make dreams grow bigger. I recently read that Anderson was still forced to remain somewhat budget-concious because of all the things they were trying to show. So there obviously wasn't time to film everything, watch it in the dailies and then re-film an entire action sequence if a zipper could be seen. While the production team COULD have used video tape cameras to provide real-time monitoring of a camera's recorded images, this was an era in which color video cameras were still large and video tape was not cheap. So, the occasional flash of a seam or a zipper could be ignored because the directors would have known that no-one was going to be watching their monsters in slow motion at any time during the initial transmission or several re-runs.
    The Russians have an applicable proverb: "'Best' is the enemy of 'good enough'". That's especially true if you've got a finite budget.

    Looking back 37 years, you're quite correct about the deficiencies of Space: 1999. Indeed, I can make an argument that, by today's standards, its stylized special effects have held up LESS well than Star Trek's special effects which were made almost a decade earlier. Of course, all of this is said from a VCR/DVD/YouTube perspective from whence we have studied all that amazed us as kids. And with the rise of the Videotoaster and cheap CGI in the 1990s, we HAVE become spoiled. Yet I know that YOU have a demonstrable sense of history because your references have frequently proven it and so I ask you to cut Anderson some slack...ONLY on the basis of the production limitations of that era. So while his production assistants may have made minor errors which we can pick apart, Space: 1999 was still Anderson's magnum opus and I really think that the criticism of "shoddiness" deserves only to be applied narrowly and sparingly to this show.
    While I can certainly criticize Space: 1999s stories for their moments of shoddiness, Anderson's achievement deserves significant recognition for more than its value as kitsch.

    P.S. But I still might stay away from LutON lest the residents decide to test my physical prowess against aliens.

  4. Jay, you clearly know much more about the series than I do, and feel very strongly about it (that's not sarcasm by the way, or an admonishment - I mean it). For me, I'm much less interested in it than, say, UFO, but I still remember it fondly from first time around and I enjoy it very much today.

    I agree with what you say about it being the culmination of Anderson's life in tv, but, ultimately, I call everything on this blog as I see it and, when I watch the show, I am entertained and amused by it rather than overawed and that inevitably comes out in my reviews. I do try and put everything in context, and I try not to take cheap shots - the examples I have given above show that, if nothing else, I am paying close attention!

    I hope that my genuine enthusiasm for the things I feature here always comes across - as I have said before, I LOVE this stuff but, like all love affairs, it's full of all the imperfections and foibles and frustrations and misunderstandings and ups and downs and missed opportunities that you might expect, i.e the things that make it all the more real.

    I'm reviewing 'Space Brain' next - so brace yourself!

  5. Chief, I never doubted your integrity and I continue to read your blog because of your excellent observational skills...and your exceptionally eloquent way of expressing both.
    I am especially impressed by your vast knowledge of film and television. Though I don't have any professional involvement with the visual arts, I (like my father) have been blessed by God with a somewhat eiditic memory...and YOU, sir, have the most consistently challenging pop culture blog I have ever read. You really compell me to remember and renew old knowledge and experience.
    The additional fact that you are especially appreciative of UFO proves your sterling character.
    Keep it up. There's a good chap.

    On a Space: 1999 note, I very much look forward to your review of "Space Brain" because I anticipate it will include a critical evaluation of Space: 1999's truest and most undeniable fault: story premises.
    Good Lord, sir, many (Sorry, Gerry...MOST) of them were aweful! If you remember the great 1987 tlevision/scifi parody Amazon Women On The Moon, you'll remember the reality show burlesque "Bullshit Or What" and its epynomous catchphrase. After watching AWOTM, my friends and I found ourselves applying that phrase to our memories of Space: 1999 scripts from a dozen years earlier. While we all liked Space: 1999, even as adolescents years before, we had recognized that the show required a suspension of disbelief that was UNIQUE to Anderson's works. Yet, such an approach was required and rewarded by all of his shows BUT, within that scope, those shows were magnificent achievements of quality for THAT era.
    It's on this basis that I defend the man's work...even though some of his story department should have suffered death by phaser for the fraud* of calling themselves writers. This was worse than shoddiness for it was an endemic fault which was unworthy of the vast effort and talent which was poured into each show.
    In other words: I eagerly await your prosaic VIVISECTION of "Space Brain". I'll be the guy sitting in the surgery observation gallery with the popcorn.

    *The penalty for fraud on Deneb V (Star Trek: "I, Mudd") should be applied more often.

  6. Trivia: Some of the heathen boys at my school used to refer to the show as 'Space £19.99'.