Space: 1999: Breakaway   Rewatch 
September 13, 2016 1:01 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

September 13th, 1999. John Koenig, just appointed as Commander of Moonbase Alpha, is having a bad day. If it wasn't bad enough dealing with a mysterious illness spreading through his flight crew and an annoying boss who's flown from Earth to micro-manage him, the nuclear waste dump is starting to misbehave...

Space: 1999 was an Anglo-Italian attempt to produce a high-concept sf drama, starring A-list actors (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Barry Morse) and featuring expensive and impressive set design and special effects. Produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, it was their was their third live-action show (after UFO and The Protectors) following their highly successful 1960s puppet-based shows such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.

Space: 1999 is often remembered today for its scientifically ludicrous premise; not only did it have the Moon blasted out of orbit, but it had it travelling week by week to a new solar system. There was little continuity and nothing in the way of an overall plot arc, and the writers for the most part blithely ignored the logistical and population implications of frequent death and disaster on an isolated base of only 300 people.

Despite this, the cast did their best with the premise, Landau in particular depicting Koenig as a competent and decisive leader almost overwhelmed by the dire situation he and his crew found themselves in. The quality of scripts varied wildly, but episodes often featured guest stars of a high calibre, including Joan Collins, Christopher Lee and Brian Blessed no less than twice in two different roles.

'Breakaway', the premiere, had a troubled production history, running two hours in its original cut. It sets up a number of plot threads (e.g. the mysterious interloper planet Meta) that are never pursued, whilst the fact that Koenig's boss Simmonds is stranded on the Moon alongside him is ignored, along with the character, for another dozen episodes. Even so, it acts as a dramatic introduction to the series, setting up what appears to be one major issue (Meta) then another (the illness affecting flight crew) before the real crisis emerges - the growing instability of the nuclear waste dumps.

We meet most of the major characters - scientific advisor Bergman (Morse), medical officer Russell (Bain), operations controller Morrow (Prentis Hancock) and chief pilot Carter (Nick Tate) - in the context of them doing their jobs rather than just as talking heads. 'Breakaway' also showcases the large, minimalist-yet-functional Main Mission set and the show's signature spacecraft, the Eagle Transporter - and firmly establishes the habit of destroying several in the course of an episode!

(I'm by no means sure I'll do a full re-watch, but the coincidence of dates prompted me to view this episode for the first time in years. It was actually rather better than I expected, so I may well write up some more: watch this, ahem, space.)
posted by Major Clanger (20 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Funny, I just just thinking about watching the show again myself this morning. Nice timing!

I haven't seen the show since it originally aired, but looking at some stills got me interested. The aesthetic of the show is really appealing. A nice mix of more muted colors giving it a serious vibe vaguelly 2001ish vibe, but with occasional splashes of bright colors to keep things interesting.

The opening credits are amazing! A slow horn heavy build up showing Landau and Bain posed against white and black backgrounds leading to that nutty seventies futuristic font show credit and a ship crash where the electric guitars kick in for action clips from "this episode", which is flashed on the screen twice, then things cool down a bit for the rest of the regular credit roll against a planetary back drop with an orchestral flourish. Then the guitars come back along with three separate date tags "September" "13th" "1999" more action, then the combination of all the musical elements in the wind down to the meat of the show. Love it.

The tone of the opening bump fits this too, low key serious talk without much context until Nordstrom goes berserk. It's an interesting dynamic which it seems they intend to keep up throughout the episode at least.

I guess I don't need to go through the entire episode scene by scene like this since anyone else would be seeing the same things, so I'll leave it here and add something after I finish the episode, I mean unless something else really strikes me first.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:17 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to make any claims on the legality or quality, but the entire run of Space: 1999 is on YouTube and I may just indulge my emerging fascination with this show to join in on this re-watch. I don't think I have ever seen the first episode before.
posted by nubs at 7:32 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I keep thinking about what could be done to Space '99 using modern storytelling techniques, and long-running plots.

I'd make the plot about deaths and radiation, but make the culprit for Breakaway an experiment in FTL travel (giving it asop to plausibility) over at Moonbase Epsilon- which is still active and blips theMoon to another system every so often.

Aside from basic survival episodes (dealing with (a flu outbreak could be deadly) we could have ongoing paranoia and mysteries that include the reason for colonizing the Moon, why Eagles are armed with lasers, and why Moonbase Alpha itself is surrounded by weapon systems.

Some episodes could include:

Gamma: Scavenging for equipment, they find that everyone on Moonbase Gamma was killed by the radiation pulse, leaving perfectly preserved bodies...and a hanger full of 40 Hawks, some of which seem to have been used recently. Oh yes, and one deranged survivor willing to destroy Alpha to protect Gamma's secrets.

Roche: the Moon blips into an orbit that will take it past a planets Roche limit, destroying the Moon, unless they either evacuate the base, or artificially trigger a blip- which would involve a sluice midpoint into the highly radioactive Epsilon base.

Epsilon: the base is brifly explored, and the cite of the FTL system is revealed- which is a partially dissassembled one of these.

Homecoming: The Moon briefly blips back to Earth orbit, too find out what abruptly removing the Moon did to Earth. They're may be no going home after all...

And because the showrunners have basic respect for the intelligence of the audience, no they wouldn't turn out to have been dead the whole time, nor would any cast members turn out to be angels. 60s music would not turn out to be the key to all human history. It would just be about survival in a very harsh universe.
posted by happyroach at 8:36 AM on September 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

It could also explore the subtle physics of why there were so many BRIAN BLESSED!s in the universe. They kept meeting new ones, I recall!

Space 1999 is also the reason why whenever smartphone and such voice commands get round to allowing you to customize the "hey siri!" or "google!" or whatnot to signal it to listen, I will promptly change it over to respond to "Computor!"
posted by Drastic at 9:41 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

They met two BRIAN BLESSED!!s, although in fairness that is about 1.3 more than a typical universe would be expected to hold.
posted by Major Clanger at 10:04 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Holy coincidence! I was just listening to the (original) theme song this morning. Has there ever been a bigger disconnect between the opening chords and the main theme of a tune? Nothing says moon-based drama like jangly surf guitar.

One of the things I loved about Space 1999 is just how serious everyone is. The plots are uniformly ludicrous, the clothes are ludicrous uniforms, the whole premise is udicrously lunaform and there isn't a ten minute stretch where a little detail doesn't completely destroy any kind of rationality, but the actors are all determined to make this nonsense work.

The whole thing is up on youtube. One episode I saw last year involved some alien entity temporarily giving the moon a breathable atmosphere. The first thing the characters do is push the big button on the wall that opens all the windows of their air-tight moon base. Those space engineers really think ahead.
posted by AndrewStephens at 10:08 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

The plots are uniformly ludicrous, the clothes are ludicrous uniforms, the whole premise is udicrously lunaform and there isn't a ten minute stretch where a little detail doesn't completely destroy any kind of rationality, but the actors are all determined to make this nonsense work.

I've only skipped in and out to this point - I found a DVD box set this summer and bought it as a gift for my brother-in-law; and we watched a few episodes as a lark (sadly, Disc 1 broke into three pieces when we took it out of the box, because I really do want to see how this journey started) but my sense is that past the plot holes/illogic, there's a philosophy behind Space: 1999 about there being mystery and unexplained things and that humanity can't/isn't able to grasp everything that happens; there's an approach on the episodes I watched that seem to really favor intuition and gut instinct approaches as opposed to the more "scientific" approach of Stark Trek (by which I mean using a process of scientific inquiry and deduction as part of problem solving, not that the science on Star Trek wasn't implausible). Also, there appeared to me to be a more cynical view of humanity despite the fact that there was more focus on intuition and feeling, which I found a curious juxtaposition.

Anyways, that's part of the reason I'm kinda intrigued to join into this rewatch, is to pick away a bit more at that sense of the series that I developed from watching some random episodes this summer.

They met two BRIAN BLESSED!!s, although in fairness that is about 1.3 more than a typical universe would be expected to hold.

In a universe with Psyche, everything is possible.

"Psyche made you do evil!"
posted by nubs at 10:28 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Goddamn it, now I want to watch happyroach's reboot RIGHT NOW!

I was 13 years old when Space:1999 premiered, and deep in the throes of my first phase of Star Trek fandom, so I was caught between hatewatching for the slightest thing that made Trek the better show and being a complete fanboy. I finally found room in my heart for both shows, although Star Trek has stayed with me much longer.

I can recall a lot being made of the Rudy Gernreich-designed pajama-style uniforms (which Star Trek: The Motion Picture would emulate a few years later), even though I had no idea who he was or why that was important. I also remember what a big deal they made of the "working" communicator prop that had a real tiny B&W TV screen in it. 1999 seemed like it was a million years away and so did that level of technology.

I knew there were some eps on YouTube, but now that I know both seasons are on Amazon, I might have to join in this rewatch if you're going to go episode by episode.
posted by briank at 10:57 AM on September 14, 2016

Ludicrous schmudicrous, those uniforms are nifty! I want all my shirts to zipper up from the left sleeve from now on.

I dig the sets too, even when they make little sense. Koenig's office desk twenty feet away from the column holding the viewscreens might be impractical, but it balances the room. I enjoyed watching Koenig talking with Commissioner Simmonds on viewscreen while he walks around the column, thus proving the need for having more than one viewscreen on the same column facing different directions.

Those door opening "remote" controls that they use from three feet away are real time savers over the old fashioned knobs they have to take an extra step to use.

Actually I did really enjoy the moment when Koenig is called to the operations room in his office and instead of him walking there he just flicks a switch and the wall behind his desk slides open to the other room. I actually snorted in glee at that.

The whole show had such an odd mix of really neat looking design and unfinished looking elements that it presents an interesting aesthetic. So much empty layered space with so few personalizing elements. Even the ones they do have, like the doctor's microscope seem more like a museum presentation than lived in decor.

But somehow it works with the tone of the acting and pared down dialogue which also largely lacks personalized touches. Koenig's incipient relationship with Dr. Russell, for example, is just so odd. When we first see them together it's hard to tell if he's just meeting her or if they know each other since his actions seem to suggest familiarity, but the dialogue suggests none. It all leaves a feeling there's more to know than we are being told even just in terms of raw information about the everything, not to mention backstories, if there are some.

A nice touch, or what I think was one, was when Koenig was sitting alone in his room/ofice staring at the wall monitor showing the soundgraph image thing, with the circular vibrating blue lines. When the scene started I thought that was what we were hearing, but it was just his thoughts, but at the end of the episode we see that same image again and its the signal for planet Meta, so that was what he was pondering perhaps? I also liked that there was always a woman shown on on of the operations room's side monitors, for what reason we don't know, but the constancy of it was somehow fascinating. She was even shown as shaken up after the explosion.

The director, Lee Katzin, made some nice choices, often creating nice depth in shots by having an actor or object right near the camera and the main action taking place farther back, suggesting activity in the room. The lighting design was also nice, good use of shadows to fill space and keep the visuals interesting without much decoration to fall back on.

However silly the premise might be, the idea is kinda nifty and I liked what they tried to do with showing the moon away from the earth after the explosions. It's uncanny enough to pack some wallop to it. I just wish they had handled the main explosions themselves a little better, not enough punch for the moving away effect to fully work I think.

I'm definitely going to check out the next episode though since there was more than enough good stuff here for me to put off finishing season seven of Voyager a little longer. Glad you decided to give this a go Major Clanger, thanks!
posted by gusottertrout at 11:09 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was a little sad to see all that Meta talk go nowhere though, but then I guess that goes with the territory of such things.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:11 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have the novelization by James Blish- if anything it is even more serious and grim, and he does his best to make the more ludicrous concepts work.

Metis gets a lot more emphasis in the novel, and in the next segment after that they go through the black hole. I suppose one could explain everything that happens after as being in another universe that's more closely packed together, or as the last time-dilated moments of thought from a dying man- NO STOP IT.
posted by happyroach at 1:58 PM on September 14, 2016

If memory serves, the Space:1999 novelizations were almost all written by E. C. Tubb. Blish wrote the Star Trek TOS novelizations.
posted by wittgenstein at 3:01 PM on September 14, 2016

A childhood favorite that's a bit sad for adult me.

Absolutely the best art design of any sci-fi show of almost any era. The scripts sucked festering goat ass and Barbara Bain looked like the kind of person you'd get if cataracts and Valium had a baby and was apparently incapable of turning her head without turning her entire body with solemn portent like she was forever standing on a little turntable, but Jesus fuck did it ever just look the part of a plausible future to a kid watching reruns in 1978. I had the lunchbox and an Eagle and hoo boy did that show thrill young me.

Of course, when it showed up on Hulu Plus a few years ago, I binged it and realized that my gee-whizzical ten-year-old self would be horrified to find that 48-year-old me has come to pretty much hate science fiction, particularly the kind that still does the sort of horrible things with a script that they did with Space:1999 (i.e. pretty much all of it), though I'm still all giddy about the look and feel, which I believe hold up.

Fun fact: I taught myself to sew largely so I could get my mom to buy me matching velour pullovers in different colors and then I'd swap the left arms because that's how they roll in the future. Also, in the real 1999, I was briefly dating a gay Amish computer programmer who dumped me after accusing me of having buggy fever. Not quite the future I expected back in '78.

Now I think I'll watch more dreadful Space:1999 with my camp sensibility deployed.

Seriously, though—watch Helena when she turns. It's never with any neck action.
posted by sonascope at 2:40 PM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

NICE! Thanks for doing this.

I made a post about Space:1999 to the Blue three years ago. While compiling it I learned that the show was broadcast out of order, something that continued in syndication. Space:1999 was intended to be a progressive serial, with multi-episode arcs. The out of sync broadcasting was one of the reasons I was confused by it when I first watched as a kid.

Of course, this isn't unique to science fiction shows. Firefly had the same problem, as did other shows. But you can correct for that. Might I humbly suggest you review the show in production order rather than broadcast date? (Wikipedia can help here.) Most of season two's episodes include a date in the script, but season one was broadcast quite haphazardly.
posted by zarq at 3:11 PM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh man please don't let me get sucked into this...

I was only young when Space:1999 originally aired in the UK, but I loved it. The Eagle Transporter was one of the coolest toys around (and was a well made toy, all metal!) and the show just looked so cool and futuristic to my young mind.

And then I tried watching it a few years ago, and god, it was awful. The whole premise was so ludicrous I struggled from the start: an explosion makes the moon move at hyperlight speeds? Really? Didn't anyone think about this when they were writing and producing it?

So now I am not sure what to do, it is a show that has a special place in my heart from when I was a kid, maybe it should stay that way, but on the other hand just reading this thread makes me want to join in the rewatch... So maybe...
posted by marienbad at 9:42 PM on September 15, 2016

That's one of, for me, the strange things about so much sci-fi fandom, the line where ludicrous is crossed for a viewer. I mean I can't think of a sci-fi show that doesn't hinge on some inherently implausible or downright nutty concepts, but some seem far more easily accepted than others for viewers.

I'm okay with the concept of the moon being blown out of orbit and traveling across impossible distances simply because I like the concept of it being our moon traveling without control across the galaxy. There's something more resonant in that for me than it being a wink, wink faster than light space ship, or a space/time traveling police call box, for example. That isn't to criticize those that don't feel that way or anything, just noting the peculiar nature of the point where story device breaks our suspension of disbelief.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:18 PM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

zarq, I was intending to watch in production order, and indeed I've got hold of the Blu-ray set that has the episodes in that order rather than the very random one they were shown in.

As an aside, watching on Blu-ray is a revelation. I'd only ever seen Space: 1999 before via standard definition analogue broadcast, or on VHS tapes. It was of course recorded on film rather than video, and the HD transfer is amazing. Indeed, it also shows how good the model work is, because even in HD it doesn't look bad (a problem I have with a lot of Blu-ray HD transfers of older series or films is that cheap effects or prop work suddenly becomes painfully obvious.)
posted by Major Clanger at 4:12 AM on September 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

(And sure enough, episode two features a soundstage backdrop that, in HD, you can practically see the brush-strokes on. Oh well...)
posted by Major Clanger at 1:46 PM on September 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

The sets and effects are amazing; much better than I would have expected out of show of this time period. At least in this episode.
posted by Mitheral at 10:24 PM on September 17, 2016

If memory serves, the Space:1999 novelizations were almost all written by E. C. Tubb.

That is completely right- total brain fart. I would like to see home EC.Tubb would have Hensley the later weirdness of the show.
posted by happyroach at 10:37 AM on September 18, 2016

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