Friday, November 19, 2010

Let Me Give You Some Space

Most fans of sci-fi television know the drill when it comes to Star Trek (nowadays dubbed Star Trek: The Original Series in the wake of the many reincarnations and sequels that have since come forth.) The series ran for three seasons on NBC, always to dismal ratings and under the constant threat of cancellation. Only some significant letter writing campaigns kept it on the air for as long as it was. Then, in syndication in the early 70s, the show finally found its audience and became a pop culture phenomenon!

British husband and wife producing team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had been making various entertaining TV shows for years including Thunderbirds (featuring big-headed marionette puppets on elaborate sets) and my own personal favorite, Captain Scarlet, whose puppets were far more proportionate and lifelike and, to be honest, sorta hot! They also did a live-action sci-fi series called UFO (famous now for the handsome, hairy men who wore funky, often sexy, costumes.) UFO was faltering in the ratings and was about to be retooled into a version that had people stationed on the moon. When, due to a variety of reasons and events, this didn’t pan out, the seed of the idea remained and the Andersons went on to produce Space: 1999.
Wishing to capitalize on the success that Star Trek enjoyed in its second run, while retaining the grandeur and immense style of the hit film 2001: A Space Odyssey, they formed a series called Space: 1999. Knowing that casting the principal roles with American actors would help ensure success in the United States, they went with husband and wife team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. (This was over Sylvia’s protests, who would have preferred Robert Culp and Katherine Ross, if she’d have gotten her way.)

Landau and Bain had enjoyed great success on the U.S. series Mission: Impossible several years before (Bain won three consecutive Emmys for her role of Cinnamon Carter!) until exiting the show in a rather nasty contract dispute after three seasons. Landau had gotten the opportunity to flex his acting muscles by playing a variety of “types” while undercover on the show and was considered a key part of the series' success. Bain was unbelievably chic, stylish, sensuous and beguiling as the "distraction."

While the show was all business, the pair seemed to display some degree of levity, fun and amiability off screen. While the contract dispute did hurt them somewhat, especially Bain, they retained that sense of star quality they’d enjoyed from M.I. and landing them as the leads on Space: 1999 was considered quite desirable.

There were various concerns with Space: 1999 from the beginning whether it be the financing, the imminent closure of the studio in which it was to be chiefly filmed (Britain’s Elstree Studio) or conflicts regarding the tone and direction of the material. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, who had worked together on so many projects, saw their marriage end before the second season (or, as they are referred to in the U.K., series) was filmed.

The show concerned a radioactive blast that knocks the moon out of earth’s orbit and sends it hurtling through space, encountering other planets as it goes. A facility with over three hundred employees, Moonbase Alpha, continues to run in its mostly self-sufficient way though the people know that they will eventually have to depart the moon for a habitable planet. The trouble is, there’s always something wrong with each planet they encounter whether it is the atmospheric conditions or hostile forces and so on.

Commander John Koenig, played by Martin Landau, was the head of Moonbase Alpha. Unlike Star Trek, in which most officers and crewmembers respected Captain Kirk and deferred to him in most cases, Landau faced, mostly at first, a disbelieving and, at times, hostile contingent of fellow survivors. Most did not hesitate to call his decisions into question or complain openly if they didn’t like his plans. Incidentally, Landau had actually been first choice to play Mr. Spock on Star Trek: TOS!

Doctor Helena Russell, played by Barbara Bain, was his chief ally and implied love interest. With all the problems the Alphans encountered and endured, she had her hands full trying to come up with cures, solutions and suggestions. These two figured prominently in most episodes, particularly the first season. Bain, who had been one of TV’s most sophisticated, chic beauties, was beginning to see the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking, not helped by a muted makeup scheme.
For one reason or another, perhaps because the Andersons were used to dealing with puppets (!), the Landau’s posed in any number of awkward, stilted poses for publicity purposes (because you always sit like this on a buggy on the surface of the moon with your helmet off!) and continued, especially in the case of Bain, to deliver stiff, sedate, overly reverent types of performances that, again mostly in the case of Bain, have an almost hypnotic effect that can put less alert viewers to sleep against their will! Bain would whisper a great many of her lines and seemed to have something against blinking or moving hurriedly.

Professor Victor Bergman rounded out the top trio. Played by Barry Morse, he was the scientific expert who frequently came up with ways to solve the many issues that befell the moon as it found itself nearing other bodies in space. He was something like Mr. Spock, but with more charm and ease. (The actor chose some creative body language, sometimes practically lying on the furniture!) Morse was famous in the U.S. for his role of Agent Gerard, the man chasing David Janssen’s The Fugitive, many people never realizing that he was British all along and only used an American accent for that show!

Eagle (the small craft that were capable of flying away from the moon) pilot Alan Carter (portrayed by Australian Nick Tate) was another prominent crewmember whose rough and ready persona was a refreshing contrast from the other, mostly subdued, people around him. A virile man with an in-shape physique and a hairy chest, he was often shown in action sequences.

Like Trek, the series sought to populate itself with multinational and multiracial personnel. There were Asian and African cast members featured along with European ones from various countries, though the bulk of the people involved were British. One of the key people from season one was Paul Morrow, played by Prentiss Hancock. Handpicked without an audition by the Andersons, he affected an endlessly dour, “who farted?” expression that wore quite thin before long. A bit lighter in attitude was Zienia Merton as Sandra Benes, a shorthaired Burmese actress, who managed to inject a tad more humanity into her role. My favorite lady on the series was Suzanne Roquette as Tanya Alexander, though she hardly ever had anything to say or do. I called her “Greta Garbo,” for reasons that ought to be obvious from looking at this snap of her with some other crew people. The grey-haired gentleman above her was a prominently featured extra who I liked to look at, too. In a bit of sloppiness, they once cast him as someone else on a planet, hilariously doubting that anyone would know the difference even with that distinctive hair!

That first season had an opening credits sequence that recalled Mission: Impossible in some ways. While M:I began with a match being struck and lighting a fuse as scenes from the upcoming episode flashed before the viewer, Space’s credits commenced with an imposing drum roll followed by snippets of the episode to follow. Season one had a theme song that was majestic and funky all at once, perhaps disjointed, but entertaining all the same. Every episode ended with a simple, haunting series of notes played over the final bit of dialogue, giving the show an elegance and a feeling of eerie isolation.

There was a lot of money poured into the production. The main mission center was a spacious, two-tiered set with multitudinous equipment, screens, lights, etc… and was connected by sliding doors to Landau’s private office. The sets were a monochromatic scheme of white and taupe with limited lighting. (It was not rare to see Bain or Landau sitting at a desk writing or otherwise working as a Joan Crawford-esque beam of light hit part of their face while the rest was very dim!) Upon first glance now, it seems tacky in places (especially those awful blue viewing screens and some of the plastic furniture), but in its day, this was a sleek looking set up.

The aliens, as was the case for decades in film and on TV, were often campy and ludicrous looking, but Space: 1999 did tend to be pretty gruesome at times, surely more so than Trek ever was. One episode, more than any other, was downright unsettling. In Dragon's Domain, a tentacled, hideous monster keeps dragging people into it, swallowing them as they scream in fear, only to spit out their eviscerated remains a few moments later! Many fans recall this episode above any other as having scared the bejesus out of them as children.
Bain’s personal friend Rudi Gernreich (creator of the infamous topless women’s bathing suit!) was enlisted to create the Moonbase Alpha uniforms. The nearly colorless beige costumes, consisting of a pair of flared trousers and a scoop-necked tunic (Landau's had a collar) with one colored sleeve (usually yellow, red or blue) were clearly meant for tall, svelte astronauts, but too often wound up on paunchy, out of shape people. Bain, who always looked like a million bucks on Mission: Impossible was certainly done no favors by the uniform. It didn’t help that her beige hair looked like someone sculpted it out of modeling clay and formed it onto her scalp. The Alphans were also give cool little ray guns that fit, u-shaped, over the fingers.

The upside was that the pants were so clingy in the crotch area that any man who put them on ran the risk of showing his goods to the viewing audience at home. Tate was one of the primary actors who continually wound up letting everyone know precisely where his penis was resting during long shots (so to speak) on the show.

Another regular costume, that of the hospital patient, was a set of filmy, blue silk pajamas. These gave many a guest star the chance to show off his chest and, in some cases, his crotch. The backers of the series included an Italian firm and there was, in return, supposed to be a regular Italian character. However, the casting of Tate (in which that character’s name and nationality were altered) meant that, instead, there would be a series of Italian guest stars. These gentlemen had their voices dubbed by, typically, the same English-speaking man, lending an odd quality to their performances. (The voice-dubber did have an Italian accent, however.) The man shown here -bottom right- was one of the Italian featured guests. He had three nipples (!) and that was not part of the storyline, just a strange biological fact disclosed when he took off his shirt on camera.

The special effects eschewed the blue screen ones that were most popular at the time. Instead, miniatures were filmed against a black velvet backdrop and filmed in a way that was extremely polished and elegant, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey had been done. This was no coincidence as 1999 utilized some of the same effects crew as Kubrick’s film had employed. This meant that images would be sharper and more distinct, but that individual elements could not overlap (i.e. – a ship could be seen approaching a planet, but not on top of it, visually.)

Twenty-four episodes were shot before the series was put on the market for sale. This presented a problem because U.S. networks were reluctant to air a show of which they had zero creative control. The season was a done deal from the start and, thus, no changes (“retooling”) could be enforced the way things sometimes are done midstream with other network shows. It eventually became a programming debacle because the show was sold in syndication to individual stations, some network, most independent, so it aired all over the place time-wise and often in an unreliable fashion.

Due to various technical and logistical reasons, a couple of years passed before the show was seen on television! The austere, intellectual, often low-key, show was completely at odds with what was being shown on U.S. TV at that time. The show, like 2001, used gorgeous classical music such as Beethoven’s Adaggio or Mars, The Bringer of War, to underscore the more dramatic or awe-inspiring sequences. Compared to a lot of televison sci-fi from that general era, it was a class act and also quite serious.

When the first season underperformed in many of the international markets, it was decided to bring in a new producer and punch up the show. Fred Freiberger, an American TV writer and producer took the reins (as Sylvia Anderson departed the show and her husband) and the program was given an overhaul.

Morse’s Dr. Bergman was out, with no explanation given. Also, the bulk of the main mission crew was sent packing, replaced by actors and actresses who (in my opinion anyway) offered absolutely no noticeable improvement or dynamics to the proceedings. A new male second in command appeared in the form of Tony Anholt as Tony Verdeschi, a dark-haired, fiery-tempered guy who figured in many of the plotlines. Tate (as Alan Carter) was intended to be let go along with the majority of his costars, but it turned out that (with 5000 fan letters a week!) he was one of the few people involved with the show who had any sort of fan base or following. He was retained after all and appeared in all but about six episodes of the full run of the series.
Another new character was created in order to add a sense of excitement and mystique to the show. Maya, a shape-shifting alien, was introduced in the first episode of the second season and swiftly made a part of the Moonbase Alpha team. Played by Catherine Schell (who had guest-starred the prior year as someone else), she was given distinctive makeup touches in order to drive home her alien roots. Her eyebrows had little nubs in a row that stood out, her ears were brown and she had sideburns that came in close to the front of her face. Some of these elements were softened before long to where she had normal ears and reduced sideburns, but she kept the funky eyebrows.
Schell was very successful in the role and gleaned a lot of new fans. Unlike the stoic Mr. Spock of Star Trek, she was a science officer with lots of genuine emotion and feeling. While it’s true that her powers were never really utilized to the extent that they might have been (more often than not, she would be something like a chimp or a bird, something easy for the producers to wrangle!), she nonetheless became a highlight of that second year, with Schell’s sensitive and astute acting playing no small part in that success. An attractive lady with a good figure, she was also used to add some glamour and sex appeal to the show on occasion. She and Anholt were depicted as a burgeoning romantic couple.
The entire look of the show was tweaked, with the costumes being augmented to include turtlenecks, more color, jackets, optional skirts for the ladies (I must admit I kind of liked that) and softer hair for Barbara Bain. She now sported a feathered, more relaxed ‘do. The cavernous main mission set was reduced to a fraction of its former size (one online reviewer snarkily referred to the new set as a broom closet, though it wasn’t quite THAT bad!) In lieu of the mannequin-like poses in the opening credits, the Landaus were now shown in motion and a far more throbbing, fast-paced theme was introduced. (I have to say I do love the second theme song, perhaps even more than the original one.)

Due to the shift in focus, as well as for budgetary reasons, the Landaus, while still maintaining their star status, were not always the chief protagonists in the second year, (there were several times in which two episodes were filmed simultaneously, with Landau and Bain filming one show while also doing bits of another, in which they would be less featured.) By now, they were becoming more and more disenchanted with the whole enterprise anyway. Landau bemoaned this new direction of the show and found himself embarrassed by some of the scripts. Bain, according to some sources, had always been rather difficult to deal with whether it had been her tardiness to the set or her acting style conflicting with the material or just general displeasure. It must be said, however, that both leads were very much committed to the series and its success, often arguing to preserve its integrity. Freiberger (who, whether justified or not, had earned the nickname “The series killer” because he oversaw the final seasons of Star Trek: TOS and The Six Million Dollar Man and then this program) saw to it that Space: 1999 became a far more conventional series. It was more action-oriented, more colorful, easier to understand and even had uncharacteristic comic bumps at the end of each episode, with forced humor taking the place of the eerie musical ending that once was in place.

In many ways he can’t be blamed because in TV Land, you have to give the people want they want (or think they want) and sometimes, the fluff is more readily accepted than that which is more challenging or intellectually stimulating. (I will say that now, despite the preponderance of trash TV and all sorts of mindless programming, there is an audience for shows that are of a higher quality. They just tend to be on specialty cable networks. Even with that said, we see cable channel after cable channel drop the good stuff in order to fill their line-up with utter junk… And shows that once were stellar, like, say, Inside the Actors Studio, which once interviewed many tremendous talents like Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep and others, eventually began featuring the casts of The Simpsons, Will and Grace and Everybody Loves Raymond and acting geniuses like Brooke Shields and Chris Rock.)

I was sort of mystified by Space: 1999 as a child. I found it very creepy and strange, especially since I was used to the more colorful and accessible Star Trek. My favorite toys on Earth were my Mego Star Trek figures and the accompanying bridge playset. Mattel tried to get in on the act by introducing action figures of Commander Koenig, Dr. Russell and Dr. Bergman. They even had their own (flimsy!) Moonbase Alpha playset. I had Koenig and Russell, but was disappointed that they didn’t mesh with my Trek figures as they were of a slightly different scale.

There was lots of merchandising, actually, from lunch boxes to comic books to coloring books to bubble gum cards as shown below.
One Christmas, I got a different type of Space: 1999 toy, this one a highly detailed model of one of the Eagle crafts. It came with three small figures representing Koenig, Russell and Bergman. Thing was, when I unwrapped it, the box looked like it had been kicked across the parking lot or damaged in a truck accident or something. When I opened the box, everything was fine except the Helena Russell figure had one arm detached! I hated the fact that the figures were so cheap that their faces weren’t even colored in, but just plain peach tone all over, hair and all! Within days, Helena’s other arm came off!! I don’t want to offend anybody, but I really was not into playing with handicapped action figures. The toy began to collect dust. In researching this post, I saw the toy for sale on eBay and would you believe that the one for sale ALSO has a virtually paraplegic Helena Russell?! WTF?! I am reminded of the movie Boxing Helena, in which a man keeps taking off the limbs of his girlfriend in order to keep her within his control. Jesus…

Over the course of the series, particularly during season one when the budget went further, there were a number of notable guest stars, the greatest number of them being British. Jeremy Kemp, Ian McShane, Brian Blessed, Judy Geeson, Leo McKern, Sarah Douglas and Stuart Damon all appeared on the show. More notable, though were the appearances of Margaret Leighton, Joan Collins and Christopher Lee. Each of them was given long, albino-like hair, making quite a contrast from what they typically looked like at the time. Margaret played one seriously old lady. It was just about the last thing she did before leaving this world in 1976. Joan, in a short, pink, tunic, was done up in all sorts of shimmery eye shadow and with a headpiece that looks like it may have broken off of one of Liz Taylor’s from Doctor Faustus or The Blue Bird. Christopher’s face was painted with geometric makeup, accentuating his already angular features.

The producers had planned a third, albeit shortened, season and also a spin-off series for Schell’s Maya, but neither project continued. The plug was pulled and the moon was left careening through space in search of a home. (Incidentally, a lot was made of Isaac Asimov’s proclamation that the science behind the moon’s departure from Earth’s orbit was not feasible and that all of this was impossible. Really? I think that’s why it’s called science FICTION. Consider the stark reality of such programs as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or Jason of Star Command! What about Star Wars?! Give me a break…)

In the wake of the show, Landau struggled to keep himself with a viable career. He worked in supporting roles in TV films and features, but they were low-rung for the most part. Bain had it even worse, working far less frequently and rarely starring. Perhaps the nadir of their careers occurred in 1981 when they were the villains in a TV movie called The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, a dire mess that they surely must hope is never made easily accessible to the world. Both of them bounced back in time, though, especially Landau who went on to win an Oscar for Ed Wood! Bain worked in James Coburn’s final film, American Gun, as his wife. They continue to act even now. The couple, married since 1957 and seemingly so connected, divorced in 1993.

Fans of the show, those present at a convention anyway, got some degree of closure to the story when actress Zienia Merton appeared in a short film in 1999, in character and costume as Sandra Benes. The film, called Message from Moonbase Alpha, was scripted by one of the series’ writers and had her relaying the info that the moon inhabitants had finally been able to evacuate and relocate on a new home planet. Recent DVD releases have included this short film as a special feature.

In spite of a really spotty history and a lot of issues along the way, Space: 1999 continues to have a loyal fan following. While many fans dream of a remake, I have to ask them if they have ever seen some of the vomitous remakes of classic TV shows that have come about. In order for it to not be a calamity, it would have to be produced by people who really care about the material. Also, the world we live in doesn’t allow for much in the way of austere, intellectual and understated science-fiction, so a remake would likely be taking its cue from the dumbed-down, ramped-up second incarnation.


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