An unintended spin-off from UFO, Space 1999 was a minor success in the 1970s. I say minor because it doesn’t seem to have had a massive impact in the US, a critical market for big budget TV shows. In the UK, we only had three channels (the fourth didn’t show up till late 1982) so the American market offered a much wider audience and the potential for sales.
UFO was shelved because the American networks ultimately didn’t want it. There was initially evidence the episodes focused on the moonbase were popular so, anticipating a second series, Gerry Anderson began developing ideas for putting more action in space, and that included more elaborate set designs.
When the interest in UFO waned, he decided not to waste the new designs and, from that starting point, the concept of Space 1999 was born. Cue the titles…
As you’ll have seen – you did watch it, didn’t you? – the title sequence focuses on images from the current episode, so the concept of the series isn’t entirely clear, but it is key.
The premise was this: by 1999, we’ve set up a base on the moon. An accident results in a nuclear explosion, the force of which knocks the moon out of the Earth’s orbit and sends it hurtling through space, and out of our solar system. Now the science behind this is questionable, but I’m a big believer in not letting facts get in the way of a good story – and you’ve got to admire the creative mind that came up with the idea.
This creates a kind of Star Trek scenario, but with the moon instead of the Enterprise, and adventures unfolding as they discover new planets and encounter alien life.
To cater to the American market, and with great fanfare, the husband and wife acting team of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were introduced as the leads. Personally, I was puzzled. All this fuss was being made, but I’d never heard of them. They were the stars of Mission: Impossible, the promotions shouted, but I didn’t remember them. Then again, I’d only watched a few of the more recent episodes, and I later found out they hadn’t been in it for a while.
Landau played John Koenig, commander of the base, while Bain played Doctor Russell, who ran the medical centre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters became romantically involved.
In time, I recognised Landau’s talents as an actor – he went on to win an Oscar – but I didn’t really see him as the hero. Some of the lesser characters appealed to me more, particularly the chief pilot, Alan Carter, and Tony Verdeschi, head of security, who both more readily fit the action hero stereotypes I was used to.
The only other name to appear in the titles was Barry Morse, who I did recognise from two short-lived series: The Zoo Gang and The Adventurer. He played Professor Bergman, a scientist who provided support to Koenig.
Well, I say his name appeared in the titles, but only in the first series. In the second series he was replaced by an alien called Maya (don’t ask me, I only watched it). Playing her was Catherine Schell, an actress with a fairly high profile at the time, largely playing supporting roles in TV and film. Having the ability to transform herself into any living creature (Maya, not Schell), this trait presented many opportunities for humour and otherwise improbable escapes.
This second series also came with a title sequence that explained the concept better…
In some respects, it was a tamer version of UFO – the costumes were less outlandish, and the action involved people more than machines (no Skydiver or Interceptor here) – but it did generate a lot of suspense and tension. And they still managed to pull in plenty of explosions. I have to say, I never really liked the stun guns they had. Looking more like elaborate staple guns, they didn’t look especially threatening, which might be okay in real life, but – let’s be fair here – this wasn’t exactly founded in reality.
Looking back at it now, it seems dated, and some of the alien costumes could have been made by primary school children – but you only have to look at Doctor Who to appreciate that Space 1999 didn’t have the monopoly on rubbish effects and wardrobe. At the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I know I wasn’t alone in that.
I’ve commented before about remakes of old TV series. Most fail in trying to recreate the characters, where others succeed by focusing on the concepts. That idea of the moon being blown out of orbit was inspired, and clearly captured the imagination of a lot of viewers back then. If the concept was reintroduced now, I think it still would.
Next time, though, I’ll talk about my favourite series of all time – and that could never be successfully remade.