Moonbase Alpha status report

Day 1643

The 1970s wasn’t a good decade for American science fiction. Its shows seem very dated and bland. Cursed by flared trousers and a dozen shades of brown, the clothes look dull dull dull and the attempts to make the computers look more realistic just make them look more dated. Nothing ages so quickly as the future. The 1970s was the first time science fiction had real money behind it. America gave the world shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. They almost produced a new series of Star Trek which we should be thankful never happened as one can only imagine how horrible it would’ve been.

Over here in Blighty we had our own big budget science fiction drama – Space 1999 – which was British in name but made to match the Americans at their own game by an ITV which had higher ambitions than Auntie Beeb. On September 13th 1999 the moon was blasted out of Earth’s orbit by a huge nuclear explosion. The crew of Moonbase Alpha spent two seasons trying to get home and encountering aliens with plastic faces and one dimensional motives. The big bucks were displayed as only a show backed by Lew Grade could. Top American couple Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were cast as the lead characters. Just as Lew had done with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore in “The Persuaders” he hoped this would enable them to recoup their costs with American sales. His shows always had a token American with one eye on the big market.

The scientific premise is absurd. The crew are unharmed by being propelled billions of miles through space on an uncontrollable planetoid. I’m no physicist but I’d imagine it would be somewhere between impossible and really impossible for anyone to have survived a massive nuclear explosion, being hurled through space and travelling the kind of distances involved in travelling into other solar systems to a new planet to explore each week. It would seem churlish to point out the scientific flaws in a TV show which was part of a genre specifically called “science FICTION” except that the devotees stress how it was made to be a realistic series. The set and space craft designs certain bear this out. No nippy fighters and teleports here – this is far more Star Cops than Star Trek.

So let’s look at a typical episode. We start with a funky 1970s guitar theme and lots of action shots. We have a neat reprise of the moon-being-blown-out-of-orbit premise. We are introduced to the lead actors – Landau in manly pose, Bain in extremely soft focus. Then the Brits are mentioned in passing because they’re cheaper and less important. The viewing several are left in no doubt that this is a Gerry Anderson production in all its glory. The Alphans (as they are known) will then enjoy one of three plots. One – they find a new planet which might be suitable for colonisation but it isn’t. Two – they find some aliens who seem friendly but aren’t. Three – they are presented with a chance to get home but don’t. I suppose it’s one more storyline than the UNIT era of Doctor Who – either we go to them or they come to us.

Looking at those three basic plots it becomes clear that it’s quite a gloomy show. Ultimately these are no the brave explorers of Star Trek nor the determined freedom fighters of Blake’s 7. They are desperate to either get back to their old lives or start new ones. The moon cannot sustain them forever and if they don’t do something they will die. Despite this they usually managed to end each episode with a Scooby Doo style joke and laughter.

The show is really two shows bolted together. Between the first and second seasons the Andersons (Gerry and Sylvia not Ole and Arn) divorced and a new producer was brought in. Fred Freiberger had earned his sci fi stripes by making the final season of the original Star Trek so bad that the network cancelled it and no one protested as it was seen as a mercy killing. He put his finger prints all over Space 1999 by making it a lot less good almost from the outset. He sacked most of the cast (leaving few apart from Landau and Bain) and replacing them with new and probably better looking characters. It is never explained how these new characters suddenly appeared on a base that was hundreds of years of space travel from Earth or where the old ones had gone. The only new character with any explanation was the alien Maya who was from a planet with a silly name. She was played by Catherine Schell and someone had the utterly bizarre idea to make this pretty woman look both exotic and alien by giving her sideburns. That’ll get the dads watching. Freiberger would go on to complete the hat trick by producing the final season of the Six Million Dollar Man. Still, I’m sure he’s a really nice person.

Space 1999 is absurd rubbish but in a camp and fun way. It can be pompous and there is an awful lot of beige but it is watchable beige pompous nonsense. By trying to beat the Americans at their own game they missed a point about the difference between America and Britain. Americans like things to be one dimensional and straight forward like Star Trek. The British like things to be quirky and imperfect. Star Trek has the best ship in the galaxy, Doctor Who has a time machine that doesn’t work properly. Space 1999 was transatlantic and gave us a mixture of the two which found an audience but not enough of one. It didn’t help that ITV was a mess and the show was broadcast in a random order, on different days and at different times by all the regional companies so it could never have a coordinated publicity drive.

Still, those ray guns were easy to make out of Lego so I was happy.


13th March 2004