Space: 1999: Earthbound   Rewatch 
September 23, 2016 12:38 AM - Season 1, Episode 5 - Subscribe

Tiresome bureaucrat Commissioner Simmonds was stranded on Moonbase Alpha along with the rest of its personnel at the end of 'Breakaway'. The arrival of an Earthbound alien spacecraft – captained by Christopher Lee, the first of many big-name guest stars on Space: 1999 – offers an opportunity for someone to return home, and Simmonds isn't inclined to leave it to the Main Computer to decide who.

This is another episode that feels as if it perhaps should come even earlier in the series, if only because Simmonds is so obtrusive and annoying that it's hard to see how he wouldn't have been present in previous episodes. (I like the explanation apparently used in a novelisation that he'd been confined to Medlab with concussion after the bang on the head he gets in 'Breakaway'.)

In 'Breakaway' it wasn't entirely clear what the nature of Simmonds' job was, other than that he had the power to remove and assign Moonbase commanders and had enough clout to merit a specially-marked VIP pod for the Eagle that brought him to the Moon. Here, it's made clear that he's a career politician with no interest in space exploration other than as a vehicle for his own advancement. The rest of the Alphans want somewhere permanent to live; Simmonds wants enough power to satisfy him, and even if a habitable planet is found there is no way that lording it over 300 colonists is going to suffice, even in the unlikely event that he's given any more responsibility than supervising the latrines. As it is, he was probably composing his memoirs about how he repeatedly saved Moonbase Alpha despite the ineptness of Koenig and the other staff even as he lay down to enter what would prove to be his all-too-brief hibernation.

Dotrice evidently did a good job of depicting 'annoying politician sent to irritate space base commander' as he pretty much reprised the role in Babylon 5 episode 'The Fall of Night' some 20 years later. As recently as 2012 he played Pyromancer Hallane in Game of Thrones, and was the original choice to play Grand Maester Pycelle, but withdrew for health reasons in favour of Julian Glover, who will also be turning up as a guest star on Space: 1999 in due course.

Talking of guest stars, 'Earthbound' features the first really big name to appear in the series, Christopher Lee. Despite the rather silly makeup and costume, he imbues Captain Zantor with a quiet dignity that makes the polite respect the Alphans show to him entirely plausible. Indeed, the episode is nicely directed in this respect, with the palpable difference in body language of the cast towards Simmonds and Zantor.

More nice SFX shots, such as the Eagle maintenance hanger (which from what we see throughout the series must be one of the busiest places on Moonbase Alpha) and the scenes of Carter's Eagle leaving its pod next to Zantor's spaceship. Incidentally, there's some impressive technology on those Eagle pods; not only can it pressurize another spacecraft, which I suppose is plausible, but it can also extend its own artificial gravity field to it.

Zantor's computer may well be much more advanced that Alpha's Main Computer, but it was still programmed rather literally. I can just imagine Zantor's subsequent bug report: "Instead of 'Go into orbit around Earth's Moon', substitute 'Go to Earth and enter orbit around its Moon, if it is still there." In fairness, the exception case he hit was pretty unusual and it really was his bad luck that it came up.
posted by Major Clanger (11 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Forgot to add links to episode guides:


The Catacombs
posted by Major Clanger at 12:42 AM on September 23, 2016

Just let me say that I love the way these threads are going. In other hands, this could be just a series of lol's at what can, admittedly, be a painful watch -- but here we are, finding the good stuff in the direction, the cinematography, even trying to figure out why the actors made the choices they did. It's beautiful, and is helping me get more out of other shows, as well.
posted by Mogur at 8:59 AM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this episode feels like it might have been better suited for coming right after Black Sun in terms of plot development, but I can see a thematic reason for it fitting with the previous episode given the tie in with aliens heading towards/observing Earth. I'm not sure bunching themes though works as well as alternating them, so I'd still lean towards having this episode after Black Sun since there we see both Koenig making the choice for this being their new home with human survival in the cosmos being their main objective and in simple plot terms it gives reason for them being 75 years from home already once they go through the black sun and it makes Simmonds reappearance less puzzling.

This episode wasn't all that exciting in a lot of ways, with Simmonds character being a little too excessive early on for the drama to build as effectively as it might have were he a little more, well, political in his attempts to get back to Earth. The ending was strong though with it being too brutal for easy lols at karmic justice, but with the irony of Simmonds actually being rightly selected as the one to go back, as the other characters also believe, to make his end not unearned either.

Interesting to see Carter now twice getting worked up about being one to get off Alpha. In Black Sun he had a argument with Koenig about piloting the Eagle as part of the group of six to potentially escape and here he makes it clear he wants to be chosen to go back to Earth. Paul, who seemed more to aggressively counter Koenig's decisions at first has been much more balanced of late. I've grown to like him a lot more after we saw him go to his room and play guitar while waiting to go through the black sun or be destroyed.

One reoccuring theme that seems to given some emphasis is the reliance on and limits of Computer. There has been some pointed dialogue in each show so far where the decision making of Computer versus Koenig or others is highlighted. Nothing so dramatic as a categorical moral imperative here. It isn't Kirk vs Spock, emotions over logic exactly either. The suggestion seems to be so far that relying on Computer has its limitations, but so does relying on instinct and either could prove a mistake at any given time. The crew's emotional flare ups are far more excessive than one might expect from the genre, even with Koenig seeming almost unhinged at times. In terms of plot one might suggest this is due to their lack of control over their situation and perhaps due to it not seeming to be a military operation as well. A quasi-civilian crew wouldn't have the same set of hierarchical command principles to follow as a military one would so more insubordination might be expected, especially given how little could be done to punish such outbursts in their situation.

The episode as a whole felt like something of a step back from their previous more conceptual shows, but grounding some of their concerns may pay off too since its hard to stay trippy all the time. The episode does remind me again though why I wasn't a big fan of the show as a kid. This definitely isn't Star Trek or Battlestar Galattica, its concerns are still far more interior rather than set as some outside forces to be opposed. Gives the show an entirely different dynamic.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:59 PM on September 23, 2016

Mogur, thank you, I'm glad you're enjoying it! And gusottertrout, thank you too for your very insightful and interesting comments.

I'm coming back to Space: 1999 after some 40 years, not having seen it (other than the odd episode in one of the occasional daytime TV repeats that come up now and again) since its first run, when I was about 7. I absolutely loved the show at the time, although looking at episode guides I must have missed about half of it; those were the days when in the UK if you didn't see a show on its original broadcast on one of the two major channels (BBC1 or ITV; BBC2 was by definition not prime time TV) you didn't see it at all, as few shows were repeated and there wasn't any concept of syndication as such. But I had the TV annual and my Dinky Toys Eagle Transporter - which, much battered, is sitting on my desk as I type this!

For a long time Space: 1999 fell into disregard, becoming something of a standing joke. People who'd hardly seen it used to pour scorn on the ridiculous premise (fair enough), the bad scripts (fewer than people think, although season 2 was much worse) and poor acting (a complaint for the most part unjustified). Perhaps the nadir of such criticism came from Judge Frank Easterbrook of the US Seventh Circuit in Williams v Boles:

Many things—beating with a rubber truncheon, water torture, electric shock, incessant noise, reruns of Space: 1999—may cause agony as they occur, yet leave no enduring injury. The state is not free to inflict such pains without cause just so long as it is careful to leave no marks.

But more recently Space: 1999 has been at least somewhat rehabilitated. This may be due to the availability over the last few years of decent HD transfers that let you see how good the original production values were, but for my part I think that having enjoyed Space: 1999 as children and derided on it as thirtysomethings we're now able to put both cynicism and nostalgia at least partly aside and appreciate it on its occasionally eccentric merits.
posted by Major Clanger at 2:24 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Heh. I hadn't seen that quote before. Good to know there are judges with a background in TV sci-fi anyway.

As I've sort of mentioned, I think Space 1999, well, the first season at least, is hard to deal with for a lot of viewers since it represents something of a cul-de-sac in both filmed sci-fi and in poular TV and movies at large. It just doesn't fit in with most of the other well known or popular scii-fi in its interests and its tone separates it from most popular media since its time. It's definitely a product of the late sixties/early seventies, the one era when "head trip" film making had any popularity at all given studios anxieties over what young people wanted to see and the death of the older studio systems. We have only recently started to explore that area again, though mostly still with the more populist "Fun" approach tacked on.

Shows like Lost, for just one example, got people hooked on looking for bigger themes or deeper connections. Space 1999 doesn't have the strong continuity of modern shows, but it does share some interest in theme driving plot more than the other way around. You watch less for the characters themselves, like one often would for older shows, and more for what the characters will do or even represent within their given dilemmas. There's a level of detachment that seems more modern that way, even if the production seems dated.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:43 PM on September 23, 2016

That's some bad-Dr. Who-level make-up on Christopher Lee.
posted by valkane at 3:33 AM on September 24, 2016

valkane, I've been doing a sporadic rewatch of 1970s Doctor Who and I have to agree. Silver greasepaint was obviously the in thing for alien makeup, in the way that bumpy foreheads were a decade later. Christopher Lee apparently disliked the makeup but being the professional that he was he did an excellent job of portraying Captain Zantor nonetheless.

Come to think of it, I would love to have seen a crossover where Lee's Zantor met Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. They would get on wonderfully, although it would probably be for the most part a long chat over dinner about how regrettably silly some of those otherwise very nice humans are.
posted by Major Clanger at 5:35 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Chris Lee woulda made a great Doctor.
posted by valkane at 7:39 AM on September 24, 2016

I've always cast him as the Master against Peter Cushing's Doctor - in a fantasy universe where the film adaptations of the TV shows just continued into the 1970s.
posted by Grangousier at 2:33 AM on September 25, 2016

About the level of detachment - I read an interview with Johnny Byrne once where he said the episodes were meant to be Biblical-style origin stories retold by much later generations of Alphans. So, indeed, they were not meant to be characterized in ways we typically expect today.

So when you said that thing in the other thread? about how they seem to represent ideals or concepts rather than actual people, you were spot on.

This was the episode that impressed upon me what a great actor Christopher Lee really was. He had that minimalism down.
posted by tel3path at 11:29 AM on September 28, 2016

A propos of nothing, I once came across a pair of Chie Mihara boots that looked very much like the ones the Moonbase women wear.

I tried them on and it was like walking on a cloud of marshmallows. I didn't buy them because they were far outside my price range. I regret it to this day.
posted by tel3path at 11:33 AM on September 28, 2016

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