Moonbase Alpha is Go!

Image by Romain Sublet from Pixabay

With thanks to David McKinlay, who co-wrote portions of this blog article.

“We are Mankind. We came from planet Earth, and we built this base, called Alpha, to learn more about space. But human error blasted this Moon out of the Earth’s orbit. And so, we have travelled the Universe searching for a place to live. Now, we can no longer live here, and we go to face an uncertain future on the planet that has nearly destroyed us. You, whoever you are, who find this empty vessel of Alpha, come and seek us out, if we still exist. Come and teach us all you know. Because, we have learned many things, but most of all, we have learned we still have much to learn.”
– Professor Victor Bergman (‘War Games‘)

Following the recent anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, another space anniversary takes place on 28 July – but this one is more subdued and less noteworthy in world history. It is actually a cultural anniversary rather than a scientific one.

The Age Green Guide 28 July 1975

On 28 July 1975, the TV series Space:1999 had its world debut on Channel HSV 7 in Melbourne, Australia. More episodes followed in the subsequent six months – with others following a year later, during the end-of-year non-ratings period – making this the first TV run of the show anywhere in the world.

If I recall correctly, Channel 7 began showing the series with a great publicity fanfare, which quickly declined into a muted, almost embarrassed, irregular, semi-weekly telecast, and I presume that this change was because of lower audience ratings than expected. Football or other (more popular?) programs often began to pre-empt weekly telecasts of Space:1999, which caused teenaged me to write a letter of outraged protest to ‘TV WEEK’ magazine complaining that: “In 55 weeks they [Channel 7] have shown 18 episodes”. (Oops, my inner nerd is showing!)

This disappointing response in Australia served as a refutation of the promise of the series, which boasted an extraordinarily exorbitant budget: “…the highest budget for an hour series [ITV] has ever committed in 20 years of production… the highest budget for a space science fiction series in the history of television.” (Heald, 1976, 22); while Anderson historian Chris Bentley estimates the budget for the first season at £3 million, or £125,000 per episode – part funded by RAI from Italy (Bentley, 2003, 125).

Possibly because of its high-quality production values, the series has enjoyed a small but loyal fan following over the last five decades. I even recall in the 1990s there was ‘Gaybase Alpha’, a LGBT+ fan club for the series over the Internet (although I find this puzzling because no character in the show was ever LGBT+). Space: 1999 conventions and fan clubs continue to operate in Europe – perhaps reflective of the series’ Anglo-Italian roots.

The Human Adventure

Series co-creator Gerry Anderson was a humanist with a long string of successful TV shows to his resume, including Thunderbirds, UFO and Captain Scarlet, all of which featured humans using their technological and inner resources to save others from dangers. Fellow humanists Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry helped to create and shaped popular TV science fiction (and accompanying attitudes) in the era of the space race. In exploring the human condition, Serling liked to challenge audiences with questions in the Twilight Zone; and Roddenberry liked to include characters in Star Trek or other adventures who were search of their creator (Nomad, Questor, Data, V’Ger, and others). In the post-Apollo world, Anderson liked to encourage philosophical reflection by role modelling humans batting against problems and striving to help their fellow human. His then-wife and production partner, Sylvia, worked with him to add many creative touches to enhance the programs and add depth to the humanity of many of their fictitious characters, particularly strong women.

Between them all, science fiction points the way to a future that is not necessarily a happy future, but a hopeful one.

Space: 1999 echoes the optimism of the 1960s and the artistic products of that time, especially in the visual arts, but it was full of visual effects to fill out hollow scripts. In one sense, it is a humanist series, but at the same time the technology dominates the product. The general thrust is about humanity, but this is sublimated to the production values. There is more humanity and drama in many episodes of U.F.O. (the previous Anderson series) than anything within Space: 1999 – episodes from UFO like A Question of Priorities or Confetti Check A-OK for example – where Straker has to make the agonising decisions about saving his son’s life or his marriage. By contrast, the characters in Space:1999 were so poorly written that critics often invoked the Anderson’s previous TV work with puppets by suggesting that the Space: 1999 characters “were so wooden, you could almost see the strings”.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

A Testament from Arkadia

“I have an incredible faith in the human spirit.” – John Koenig (‘War Games‘).

Bertolt Brecht is credited with observing that: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The TV series Space:1999 echoed its era as a way of proposing a future borne of resilience and fortitude. The series was created in the afterglow of the Apollo Moon landings (hence the ubiquitous space craft in the series being named Eagles after the Apollo 11 Eagle lunar module, which landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon in 1969); and the show’s character Alan Carter and his team of astronauts used their fictitious Eagles to fight dangers, provide rescue, and transport others as deemed necessary or vital for survival. The 1970s were also an era of looking expectantly to the future in which it was envisaged that by the year 1999, there would be Hilton hotels in space, space colonies, and bases on the Moon and Mars.

The series was set in Moonbase Alpha, in the lunar crater Plato – and fittingly, the show explored philosophical as well as scientific ideas. The series boasted world-class quality in almost everything: actors, sets, costumes, music, stories, and special effects (including pre-CGI models).

The show was effective and inspiring in portraying the grandeur of the universe. Its philosophical themes abounded: one episode presented a cosmological entity within a black hole; another gave a space age reboot to the legend of Saint George and the Dragon (an episode that appears to have not been shown during the initial Australian TV run of the series, presumably due to the content of that episode being judged as unsuitable for children). The final episode of season 1 even explored our cosmological or metaphysical origins as a species, harking back to the mythology of ancient Greece in The Testament of Arkadia. The problem with such themes was trying to plausibly marry the scientific with the superstitious. But it was a noble attempt. Space: 1999 fans document the sentiment from the episode Dragon’s Domain:

Dr. Helena Russell: John, if we ever do find a new place to live, and if we succeed, we’re going to need a whole new mythology.

Cmdr. John Koenig: Tony Cellini and the Monster?

Dr. Helena Russell: George and the Dragon sounds pretty flat until you know the story.

Cmdr. John Koenig: This story is part of our history now, Helen. I think Tony will be very happy to know he put new life into an old myth.

Meanwhile, in our real world, as humans plan their return to the Moon aboard Artemis, what new mythology or inspiration will we create? We might learn from the example of Moonbase Commander John Koening who faced seemingly insurmountable difficulties in the opening episode of Space: 1999, and remarked that: “the giant leap for mankind is beginning to look like a stumble in the dark” – but then he and his astronauts spent the rest of the series working hard to disprove that utterance of human cynicism. We can’t get better role models than that.

Another Time, Another Place

Wrapper on Sunicrust bread advertising Space:1999 swap cards, Australia, 1975. Personal collection.

Space:1999 was undeniably a product of its time. Its sets and atmosphere were clearly influenced by the 1968 movie, 2001:A Space Odyssey, a cultural mentorship that might also have helped to inspire the name of the series. The 1970s pastel costumes and electric guitar theme tune; the female roles in need of discovering women’s liberation; Commander John Koenig’s tendency to alternate between seeking wise advice from a sage (Professor Bergman) and descending into fits of toxic masculine outrage as a form of leadership; all these reflect the times within which the series was made. The two lead actors (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain) were fresh from the US TV series Mission Impossible, and the opening credits of each episode of Space:1999 mirrored that other series in providing tantalising glimpses of what was coming up in “this episode”.

A major influence from the era was the original Star Trek TV series, telecast the decade before Space:1999 but achieving increasing fame during this time as a fan favourite in reruns. Apparently William Shatner (Captain Kirk in Star Trek) was at some point considered for the role of Commander Koenig in 1999, and the role untimately went to Martin Landau, who had once been considered for the role of Spock in Star Trek. The lead characters of Koenig, Bergman and Russell might be seen to be a parallel to the Star Trek triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Later, a resident alien (Maya) was introduced into Space:1999 season 2 to replace Bergman and to more fully flesh out the concept of a science officer (Spock template) being played by an alien character. But the most challenging connection between the two shows was the appointment of Fred Freiberger as Space: 1999 producer for Season 2, which was loudly trumpeted as a win for the series given that he had produced season 3 of the original Star Trek. Fans judged differently: Freiberger had produced the final season of the Trek, which they also judged to be the worst. I recall one Trek fan suggesting – perhaps somewhat unfairly – that Freiberger had killed Star Trek, and maybe he would do the same for Space: 1999. In any event, Freiberger’s season 2 of 1999 was so execrable that it did kill the series. I consider the two seasons of Space:1999 to comprise the British version (season 1) and the US version (season 2), and my comments about the show are confined to season 1 only. Others may disagree with my assessment of season 2, but either way, this dichotomy echoes the life and times of its creators.

In some aspects, Space 1999 has more in common with Doctor Who than with Star Trek. The latter was an expression of the American’s self-justification of colonisation, the ‘manifest destiny’ philosophy where they were justified in spreading their society behind current borders, like the Romans bringing civilisation to other lands. This is also the underlying tenet of the Western genre, which is understood to be Roddenberry’s motivation for having a western adventure set in space – or a ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’. Space: 1999 might be seen to have its origin in the H.G. Wells school of thought, most typically the traveler in The Time Machine finding excitement in exploration. Wells was a humanist liberal too and this was copied for the character of the Doctor. It might arguably also be seen in the character of Professor Victor Bergman within Space:1999, who was described in the Space: 1999 Writers’ Guide as ‘a 19th Century scientist-philosopher-humanist’ (Wood, 2014, ‘Personnel’). Actor Barry Morse (who played Bergman), a self-described ‘born-again agnostic’, credited series contributors such as Johnny Byrne, Chris Penfold, and George Bellak, with contributing to the humanist philosophy within the series (Wood, 2014, ‘Afterword’).

Age Green Guide 24 July 1975 (page 1)


Earthbound

Perhaps the biggest indicator of its era was its actual treatment of science fiction as a genre. The so-called ‘golden era’ of science fiction is often recalled as being the ‘pulp’ era, when some of its greatest writers rose to prominence on the back of variously penny-dreadful (or outstandingly good) pulp magazines. This led to the ingrained media attitude that sci fi was a B-grade, cheap pulp kiddie genre, perhaps as demonstrated by Lost In Space, a TV sensation in the 1960s that featured world-class actors, costumes and sets – but often woeful scripts. A decade later, Space:1999 followed suit, with its lavish production values in everything except the scripts themselves, not doing full justice to the characters or the scope of its stories. This is evidenced by the very first words to appear as an opening subtitle in the very first scene of the very first episode, which referred to the far side of the Moon as the ‘dark side’; this episode also set the scene for the entire series by featuring an implausible nuclear explosion that threw the Moon out of Earth orbit and forever beyond the Solar System, also virtually ignoring the realities of gravity and rocket engineering, orbital mechanics and planetary geology; along with the extremes of distance and cold that would impact the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha on their interstellar travels. Feedback from fans and critics alike panned the show for this problem from the start: “Many of the letters mention the same problem: the show lacks scientific accuracy” (Heald, 1976, 193).

One might even see an influence from 1974’s ‘Echo of Battle‘, an episode of the TV series Warship that was concurrent with the development of Space:1999; featuring a former German submariner coming to terms with his WW2 past – also reflected in the character of Ernst Queller, a German scientist in Space:1999 with an equally troublesome past (one might even ponder the perspective through which both German characters are assigned guilt, whereas nobody from Britain or anywhere else might have similar skeletons in their closet).

It is in fact when we move beyond such stereotypical notions that we find the truest potential of Space: 1999 and all sci fi. German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun – later the head rocket engineer who built NASA’s Saturn V rockets which landed men on the Moon in the 1960s – wrote as the President of the National Space Institute in praise of Space: 1999 during the series’ production:

“Presented on the mass medium of television, Space:1999 will stimulate the public interest in the potentials of space technology in such fields as energy, environment, natural resources, and food production.” (Heald, 1976, 199).


This explains the ongoing attraction of the series to legions of fans, both during its initial run and now, some decades later. I recall one school friend in the 1970s making jokes about computer scientist David Kano of Moonbase Alpha falling in love with his computer – but then that friend grew up to become an IT engineer himself. Inspiration can find many forms, even if the original source of inspiration is itself flawed.

The Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 Kirsten Trecento (Used by permission).


Matter of Life and Death

It’s easy today, with the benefit of hindsight and fifty years of societal development, to be critical of a TV series that exhibited a white, heterosexual, British, male gaze – and to celebrate that we have hopefully evolved since those days. But the resilience of the embattled characters in Space:1999, along with their awe, puzzlement and determination to overcome every strange, unknown, cosmic vista and challenge that came their way, serves as an example to us all. Science and technology can help us fight our struggles, but humanity and inner wisdom are an integral part of what makes us human and gives us hope for the future. Space may be the frontier, but it is the human endeavour that brings meaning to our journey.

“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” – Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders

Space: 1999 is dismissed somewhat in the English speaking world, possibly because it bears more than a little resemblance to European cinema which includes long moments of silence and thought rather than a moving narrative and action (the latter is an absolute requirement of American television, and explains the recalibration brought to the series by Freiberger for season 2). Though Space: 1999 has moments of action and visual excitement – usually on show in the title sequences – it’s a quieter series than you’d find in an American production, or even most UK-made TV series of the time.

Ultimately, this flawed product – like Gerry Anderson and Gene Roddenberry themselves – shines with the potential of humanist optimism and just a touch of naiveté. It reflects a reverence for arts and culture as a way to entertain, inspire and motivate us all towards an enlightened future. The words of Humanist Juneline Velonta seem pointedly pertinent: “Science and Technology may be the gateways to the moon and to the stars, but it is art that makes the journey worth it.”

Edited on 5 August 2023 to add references from Robert E Wood regarding humanism in the series, particlarly in relation to Victor Bergman and Barry Morse.

BIBLOGRAPHY:

Chris Bentley, 2003. The Complete Gerry Anderson: the Authorised Episode Guide, London: Reynolds & Hearne (2nd edition).

Tim Heald, 1976. The Making of Space 1999, New York: Ballantine.

Juneline Velonta, 2021. The Role of Art in a Humanistic Society, Humanist Voices, 17 August.

Robert E. Wood, 2014. Destination: Moonbase Alpha, Prestatyn: Telos Publishing (ebook).

©2023 Geoff Allshorn & David McKinlay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *