This is not a new release – it came out around five years ago, but as I didn’t have a Blu-ray player at the time, I wasn’t in any rush to buy it. But when I spotted it for the moderately reasonable price of £26.99 earlier in January, I decided the time was right. And what with one thing and another, I’ve just got around to watching the whole thing.
For the benefit of younger readers, or anyone who wasn’t paying attention at the time, I think I’d better explain what we have here.
In the early 1970s, Gerry Anderson (creator of Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, etc, etc..) had a live-action series called UFO, which involved a base on the Moon, alien invaders, futuristic cars and a title sequence that implied it was set in 1980, though I don’t think this was ever explicitly stated. Anyway, this show was doing quite well, getting good audience figures, especially in the financially significant US market. Doing so well that Gerry was asked to create a second series. This would be a development of the first – set some years later with a new moonbase and other goodies. Well, Gerry and his team set to work, and much money was spent on development, model building and so on. So quite naturally, the US ratings fell, and the new series was cancelled. Not being a man to throw good work away, Gerry suggested that he repurpose the work done so far and develop a new series. This was agreed to, with a condition that no episodes ever at all, not even one, would be set on Earth (apparently a US TV executive was annoyed about an episode of UFO that did that). And so the concept was born: the Moon would be blasted out of Earth’s orbit and sent off into deep space, which would guarantee a lack of Earth-based episodes.
And so it was. To keep the American backers happy, US stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were recruited as the leading characters, Commander John Koenig and Doctor Helena Russell. The premise was this:
By 1999, there’s a well-established, permanently occupied base on the Moon. One of the base’s important jobs is running the store of nuclear waste on the far side. Because obviously, a good way to get rid of nuclear waste is to stick it on big explody things and hide it where nobody’s going to look. And in 1974, when the series was being developed, it didn’t seem all that unreasonable to suggest that there would be a permanent base there. The waste storage thing, maybe not…
But the most believable thing was the standard spacecraft at Moonbase Alpha: the Eagle Transporter. It looked like a practical working vehicle, with its interchangeable modules (like Thunderbird 2, kind of, sort of) and tubular framework. I like it so much that some years ago, I paid a moderate sum for a quite nice model:
|Shutter speed|| 1/45s|
|Focal length|| 50mm|
|Taken|| 18:58, 3 March, 2015 |
Anyway, disaster strikes and the Moon is blasted out of orbit and into deep space, which is more or less the point at which disbelief has to be not so much suspended as hung, drawn, quartered and jumped on with big boots. Not only does Moonbase Alpha survive the massive acceleration mostly intact, but so do the soft and squishy inhabitants. OK, we’ll swallow that. But then the Moon keeps arriving in other solar systems, implying a very high velocity indeed. But as it approaches the planet of the week, it seems to be going slowly enough for the Alphans (as they’re often called) to pop over, have a look, meet some aliens who are generally not at all pleased to see them, face Terrible Peril (with explosions, generally – this is a Gerry Anderson show, you know) and then somehow make it back to the Moon in time for it to drift slowly away and on to the next star system, which quite remarkably is reached before everyone dies of old age. Now there is an early episode in which the Moon passes through a black hole to another part of the universe, where maybe star systems are much closer together, though this is never made quite clear.
But, and it’s a big huge but, if you can ignore the basic silliness of the premise (which isn’t significantly harder than letting warp drives and TARDISes act as plot drivers), under it all there’s actually a decent bit of television science fiction. Lots of good stories which go well beyond the “monster/alien of the week” format you might expect.
There are timewarps leading to people meeting themselves (not recommended), devious aliens who challenge the humans’ morality and turn earth’s own weapons against the moonbase. Or perhaps they don’t. Years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the people of Moonbase Alpha have to deal with the unplanned consequences of the return of a Voyager probe. And there’s one seriously good monster story with a nicely traditional spaceship graveyard. And much more.
There’s a suitably impressive array of guest stars, including the ubiquitous Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, not to mention Leo McKern with far more hair than Rumpole ever had.
There are some things which from this point in the twenty-first century are moderately amusing. Actually, they’d have been a bit funny in the actual 1999. The show is, of course, run by a computer known only as Computer. But for most of the time, Computer’s sole form out output (despite the place being covered in video screens) is little printed slips. And then there’s the one where Doctor Russell, in a framing device for the story, is seen to be writing her report on the matter in hand. On a typewriter. Not even a fancy digital one – a thing with an actual moving carriage….
This set contains all of the first season, plus a pile of extras – some contemporary material, some made for the DVD release, and a few newer bits for this version. While the extras aren’t essential, the articles in the booklet are well worth reading (and cover much of the same ground as the extras). Though the Gerry Anderson interview bits (old and not so old) are worth a look.
There’s also one episode of the very different second (and final) season. There were numerous changes, and many unexplained changes of personnel, new uniforms, the central Main Mission changed to a quite different Command Center, and a new theme (inferior to the original in my opinion) and title sequence (quite crap compared to the original in my opinion). On the other hand, the included episode does have Brian Blessed, sorry BRIAN BLESSED in it, so it’s not all bad.
If you’ve never seen Space:1999, it’s worth a look. If you’re not inclined to buy or rent the shiny discs, it’s probably on some channel somewhere at some time. Or on the internet. I hear a lot of things can be found there.
And that seems to be the longest post I’ve done in ages. Make the most of it, it doesn’t happen often…
 Though in the odd way of ITV at the time, it wasn’t necessarily shown early in the original run
 Interesting point: before Space:1999, filming video screens tended to lead to rolling bars on the screen due to the camera shutter being out of phase with the video. Gerry Anderson’s technical people worked out how to make the camera provide a sync signal, so all those video screens could be filmed without rolling black bars