Space: 1999: Matter of Life and Death   Rewatch 
September 16, 2016 1:33 PM - Season 1, Episode 2 - Subscribe

(Note: I'm going by the production order of episodes, which is also the order on currently available DVD or Blu-ray, rather than the rather random order in which they were first shown.) The Moon approaches an apparently habitable planet. Have the crew of Moonbase Alpha found a home? But when the first reconnaissance Eagle lands the crew are unconscious - and although only two of them went out, there is now a third person aboard. A person very familiar to one of Alpha's senior staff...

Although the second episode in the production list, this was the first to be completed, owing to the overrunning schedule for the series premiere 'Breakaway'. Even so there are suggestions in the episode that it is set well after the events of that episode; early on, there is reference to the number of strange events Alpha has seen, and a comment regarding Terra Nova that 'I think we may have made it this time'. Furthermore, from seeming to have met for the first time in 'Breakaway', Helena Russell and John Koenig have become close friends with hints of a relationship developing; of course, this adds to the tension when the mystery extra crew-member on the Eagle turns out to be Lee Russell, Dr Russell's long-dead husband.

A few more thoughts:
  • In true Captain Kirk fashion, Koenig's choice for his mission team includes his chief medical officer, his second-in-command and his science analyst, not to mention his senior pilot. Prof Bergman all but holds up a sign saying "are you sure this is a good idea?"
  • As some of the online episode guides (see below) note, the plot is very reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, with an illusion of a space traveller's late family member actually being a form of communication from an alien lifeform (or here, a human who has become very alien).
  • The opening scenes are very tightly directed, with what could easily have been a rather pedestrian scene of 'response team travel to landing pad' made much more dramatic by the way it was choreographed, cut and shot.
  • By contrast, the narrative becomes very confused in the final scenes. Was the death of the rest of the away team and the destruction of the Moon a hallucination placed in Dr Russell's mind by the entity Lee Russell has become, or did those events happen but then be rewound by 'Lee Russell'? Either way, given how stubborn Cdr Koenig was about proceeding with the survey mission, how did Dr Russell manage to convince him so quickly to change his mind?
  • We are introduced in this episode to David Kano, computer operator. He was played by Clifton Jones, and was slotted in without explanation to replace Ben Ouma (played by Lon Satton), a very similar character in 'Breakaway'. Kano comes across a little oddly; he is brusque with Koenig (his CO!) to the point of almost challenging him early on in the episode, but at the end of the episode comes across as more of a childlike mathematical savant.
  • A downside of the excellent HD transfer on the Blu-ray release is how obviously the 'sky' on the planet scenes is a painted backdrop.

The Catacombs
posted by Major Clanger (3 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is the first of several Space:1999 episodes where you go "Wait! What?" at the end. Still, the show was clearly going for more emotion than intellect here, so maybe it doesn't matter.
posted by wittgenstein at 1:36 PM on September 16, 2016

Yes; if the 'Lee Russell rewound time' interpretation is what was intended, then this is the first time that a Space: 1999 episode hits the Reset Button, but it won't be the last.
posted by Major Clanger at 1:39 PM on September 16, 2016

I'm halfway through this episode and have to pause for a little before finishing later tonight, but I figured I'd give a few thoughts so far.

This episode does make for a much better second choice than Force of Life, which was released second in the US. Still, it is perplexing that they chose to jump ahead in time so much after the premier since the premise had barely been established. Even for a show that planned to be based on stand alone episodes this is hard to understand.

Usually the first handful of shows in a series will spend a little time furthering the initiating concept of the show to familiarize any viewer who may have missed the first episode. Giving some indication of their dilemma and what effects that might have going forward seems almost a necessity most of the time. Here though they not only skip that, they allude to important events not dramatized, which is really nutty. If they were important, then they should have been dramatized since that's the point of the show one would think. Still, the very unusualness of not doing that does offer its own interests and makes the show stand out a little bit more from the norm.

Opening in media res seems like its going to be a thing, which also fits with what I mentioned above and the strange paucity of info in the opening episode. The show, for whatever reason, seems intent on keeping the viewer unmoored. That makes for an interesting tie to the story of the Moonbase Alpha inhabitants situation, but I'm not sure it plays as well as it could for even that.

Speaking of unmoored, the characters on the show are also pretty wacky, with Koenig's mood swings, Dr. Russell's lack of personality, and Bergman's strange philosophic naturalism interacting uneasily. The crew doesn't seem all that cohesive, which would be fine if it were a featured element of the show, but it seems to go largely unnoticed. Only Carter and Sandra, as they are noted on the show, are pleasing and normalish characters in themselves so far.

The Solaris influence seemed obvious as soon as it was mentioned that it was Dr. Russell's husband they found.

There is some nice direction again this episode, though some of it rather inexplicable in any plot terms, like the Koenig's office being lit in all red during the interrogation of Russell's husband. Looks great, but doesn't really make any sense. I'm cool with that though since with all the other oddness, you might as well make things look good instead of fretting about sense at that point.

The premise of being at the mercy of the moon's movement through space does pay off some in setting a time frame for action and adding to a feeling of vulnerability, so that's a plus.

I gotta say that I wouldn't be all that confident in the leadership of Koenig and co. if I was one of the people trapped up there, but I guess you gotta go with the horses, oops, the moon that brung ya since there aren't a lot of competing options at this point.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:47 PM on September 16, 2016

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