Space: 1999 (1975-77)
In late 1975 I was faced with a very difficult choice. Should I watch Doctor Who on BBC1 or the new Gerry Anderson series, Space: 1999 on LWT? I opted for the latter, being seduced by the big budget production with its special effects that were (for the time) streets ahead of the competition. Now if memory serves me rightly, this was broadcast late afternoon or early evening. It was definitely a pre-watershed show by modern standards although there was no concept as such at the time. Yet like Doctor Who, this had me hiding in terror behind the proverbial sofa. Two particular episodes left a marked impression on me. This was because they were both creepy and punctuated by some rather frightening imagery. They were Dragon’s Domain and The Troubled Spirit.
I recently had an opportunity to revisit Space 1999. Both seasons of the show have been remastered and are available on Blu-ray. The picture quality is exceptionally good highlighting the fact that this was a big budget production for its time. However nostalgia can sometime cloud ones overall perception. Watching Space 1999 through the prism of my contemporary critical sensibilities proved to be subtly different experience from when I was eight. I found the show to have a far more varied narrative quality than I remember. Some episodes were better than others and a handful were extremely well made and atmospheric. Interestingly, both Dragon’s Domain and The Troubled Spirit were among these.
Dragon’s Domain focuses on discredited astronaut Tony Cellini, the sole survivor of the Ultra Probe Mission. He starts having nightmares about the creature that allegedly killed his crew five years previously. However the enquiry that investigated the probe disaster never found any evidence of such a creature and attributed the deaths to Cellini’s incompetence. When Commander Koenig ignores Cellini’s renewed claims that the creature is near, he steals an Eagle to hunt down his nemesis. Cellini arrives at a space graveyard full of derelict ships and finds the Ultra Probe among them. He docks with his former vessel and seeks out his foe. Koenig arrives in time to see Cellini fight and die at the hands of the creature he confronted years before. It falls to him to avenge his exonerated friend and slay the beast.
This is a very dark and atmospheric episode, punctuated by unpleasant deaths of the supporting cast. The so-called “dragon” has a nasty habit of dragging victims into its mouth and then spitting out a smouldering corpse a few seconds later. As a child this caused me many a sleepless night. The screenplay is tight and offers a modern twist on a traditional storyline. There are shades of Moby Dick and Saint George in the narrative. The ambience of this particular episode is further enhanced by the use of Tomaso Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor". Although there is a definitive ending to this sad tale, it is very bleak. Tonally this made the show quite unusual for the times. US network television still felt obliged to offer upbeat endings and positive moral messages.
The Troubled Spirit begins with Hydroponics expert Dan Mateo holding a psychic experiment relating to plants. He theorises that human brainwaves may be able to have a positive effect upon plant growth. However something goes wrong and a burnt apparition subsequently appears and stalks Moonbase Alpha. After fatalities occur Commander Koenig decides to hold a second séance. It soon becomes apparent that the ghost is in fact that of Dan Mateo. Killed in an accident that has yet happened the vengeful spirit seeks to kill those he holds accountable for his own death. Doctor Bergman suggests neutralising the psychic powers that Mateo has gained by placing him in a containment field of reverse energy. During the experiment the ghost appears seeking retribution. Mateo wrestles with his dead self and breaks the containment field. Mateo is burnt and dies from his injuries. As he does, his defeated ghost vanishes.
This episode plays out very much in the style and idiom of seventies UK horror films. The editing, the suspense and the way the shocks are implemented are reminiscent of the work of such studios as Hammer, Amicus and Tyburn productions. The use of sitar music adds to the creepy ambience and the whole story is reminiscent of the film The Man who Haunted Himself. Forty one years on I’m still surprised that an episode of a mainstream television from that era could be so frightening. Although the murders of the crew are discrete the burnt apparition that perpetrates them is not. Again the story is very dour and has a plausible yet far from happy conclusion. The blending of the supernatural in a science fiction setting is also a bold juxtaposition of genres that works well.
Returning to a much cherished show can be a double edged sword. I’ve found that a lot of what I’ve watched and enjoyed in the past was dependent on the circumstances of the time. In the UK during the seventies there was less choice as far as channels. Therefore a lot of material was watched in default of anything else. The style of TV shows was different then. Stories were paced decidedly slower. It can also be argued that I was less discerning in my taste. Certainly less sophisticated. To a degree this has coloured my judgement of Space 1999.The two episodes I’ve referenced were above average and have held up remarkably well. There are other instalments from both seasons that are a lot more dated and weaker. Therefore I would only recommend a comprehensive re-watching of the show to fans. The more casual viewer may wish to cherry pick those episodes that have garnered specific acclaim.