The Space: 1999 Equation

“If we were to do the series again, and return to what made the idea work initially — the epic quest — it would be well-received, I believe.  It should be a series about belief, not issues or politics.  People are so tired of politics, and they want to believe, to have their imagination stimulated.  It’s the perfect time to do a story of discovery, with an epic feel about it, and do it on the basis not that the characters have all they need, but they don’t.  They would be on this kind of mission to establish themselves.”

Space: 1999 writer and story editor Johnny Byrne, in an interview with me, from 2001.
Since the announcement of a Space: 1999 reboot a few days ago, I’ve been imagining what a new series might look like in terms of overall theme, meaning and scope.   What I personally would prefer to see in a new series is a return to and updating of many of the core conceits of the original 1970s program.
Now, there is no guarantee a remake would go that route.  There are many paths from which to select.  Many fine paths, I should stress.  People of good conscience can debate the issue, to be certain.
Yet part of the reason so many long-time Battlestar Galactica fans had a serious problem warming to the Ron Moore remake of a few years back is that the new series deliberately (and in some cases rather brutally…) inverted or turned upside down the core belief structure of the highly-rated 1970s Larson TV series.  

Many fans could have happily lived with human-appearing Cylons, for instance, but the over-turning of the original series’ belief structure, it’s very philosophical identity felt, well, rude to those who had carried a torch for the series for twenty-five years.

A prominent example: The original Battlestar Galactica existed in a universe of moral absolutism.  A race of advanced “angels” and demons (like Count Iblis) confirmed the nature of the universe in terms of good and evil.  We saw this to be true in episodes such as “War of the Gods” and “Experiment in Terra.”
By contrast, the new series delved deeply, immediately, and irrevocably into the trenches of moral relativism, so much so that the snapping of a  human baby’s neck by a Cylon in the mini-series was judged as an act that was neither good nor evil, merely one that would be judged dependent on your core belief system. 
This moral relativism carried through into the depiction of the main characters as in-fighting, deeply flawed, soap-opera-styled characters who were nonetheless heroic in some basic sense.
Now, I’m not asserting that Moore’s take on the material was bad, unintelligent, or unprovocative, merely that as an updater, he took the core philosophical structure of the original Battlestar Galacticaa defeated people on a long space exodus — and inverted it to promote values completely opposite to what the franchise had once championed on a regular basis.  
This example brings us to an important question:  When you remake a familiar and beloved property do you update and alter central ideas to make it relevant, but maintain the core ideas of the franchise? 

Or do you toss out the existing philosophical underpinnings of the franchise and start from scratch with new philosophical leanings?

Star Trek fans might not appreciate it if Mr. Spock became a battle-loving warrior, or if Starfleet suddenly dropped the non-interference Prime Directive in a new TV series.  It’s the very same thing with great literature.  We happily accept and enjoy new iterations of Hamlet or Dracula, but some core ideas in those works must be retained from one generation to the next, or the text no longer boasts a distinctive identity. 
Accent can change, stress can change, and visualization can change.  And actors must, by necessity, change too.  But a name like Hamlet is not just a brand to exploit in terms of marketing.  Rather, the name encompasses a set of specific ideas and values that can be translated and made relevant all over again to a younger generation.

Now I have no idea what Space: 2099 will look like, and I can’t guess. I’m excited and hopeful about the new series.  I support the project fully and enthusiastically.

So, all that I can do now, in anticipation, is provide my best reading or interpretation of the original Space: 1999 as a series, in a search for what those common values might be in regards to this soon-to-be-revived franchise. 

I feel this endeavor might prove helpful because many people didn’t watch Space: 1999 when it was on, or weren’t even born when it first aired.

As I see it, Space: 1999 was erected upon the following creative pillars and philosophical underpinnings.  These ideas represent the very “identity” of the original 1970s program, I submit. 

Is this the Space: 1999 equation?

1. Technology is a double-edged sword. 

While technology permits for the Alphans to sustain themselves on the moon (and in deep space), and the wonderfully versatile Eagles permit for landings on planets that could represent a new home, technology is not a cure-all in the original Space: 1999 universe. 

On the contrary, technological solutions to problems (like atomic waste on the moon), cause the “Breakaway” catastrophe in the first place. 

And in episodes such as “Space Brain” and “The Troubled Spirit,” technological solutions to crises are  often proven to be flawed.

A nuclear charge-carrying Eagle (mysteriously) can’t return to Alpha when it is on a collision course with a cosmic intelligence in the former episode, and in the latter episode, a scientific “exorcism” of a ghost is the very thing that creates a haunting on the lunar base in the first instance.

In large part, this conceit of technology as a double-edged sword is what distinguishes the Space: 1999 universe from the Star Trek universe.  In Star Trek, “Technology Unchained” has made the Federation a paradise.  Without the need to worry about survival issues like hunger and poverty, man has turned, particularly in the 24th century, towards “enriching” himself, not his pocketbook.  
Writing in Science Digest all the way back in 1975, editor Arielle Emmett wrote that Space: 1999 concerned the “downfall of technological man.”  That’s the template,  “Earthbound” is a perfect example of this idea well-executed.  It showcases the glorious potential and horrors of advanced suspended animation in a most chilling fashion.
As we are developing new technologies, new medicines, new weapons and new media at a prodigious rate right now, this facet of the original series remains timely. 
Do our tools make us more human, or less human?  Do our tools connect us or isolate us?  Do we control our machines, or do they control us?
2.  Outer Space is Terrifying and Mysterious.  It isn’t a Cosmic United Nations.
Many popular “outer space” franchises, from Star Trek to Farscape to Andromeda  have featured recurring alien villains.  We all know their names: the Klingons, the Peacekeepers, the Nietzscheans, the Ferengi, the Borg and so on.   Communication is possible with all these species, and the galaxy is like a cosmic U.N., with different countries separated by the vast cosmic ocean of outer space.  You can radio back to headquarters (Earth) via a sub-space radio, and there is no time dilation at all.
Not so in Space: 1999, the original series. 
There, outer space was a realm of mystery and terror and awe.  I’m reminded of Taylor’s lyrical description of deep space in Planet of the Apes: “Time bends. Space is…boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.” 
Those sentences perfectly describe the established Space: 1999 aesthetic. 
Another way of putting it, the original Star Trek had a rule for prospective writers that they should not get lost in “the bigness of it all” in terms of outer space. 
In Space: 1999, the bigness of it all is the very point of the drama. 
It’s important to remember that on Space: 1999 the errant moon was moving through alien star systems, on an unplanned course, never to return, so there were not recurring enemies to battle.  This makes it more challenging, I suppose, in terms of drama: you don’t have a regular villain to fall back on.  But the idea was also rewarding, each episode offered new horizons.  Space: 1999 wasn’t pinned to an increasingly complex alien-based continuity where you had to say, “but a Ferengi would never do that!”
There was a logical reason for this approach in terms of the structure of Space: 1999.  The Alphans had few resources and fewer weapons on their cosmic odyssey.  Thus they were never in a position to combat a continuing enemy like the Borg or the Klingons. 
Indeed, Moonbase Alpha might — with luck and ingenuity — survive one engagement with a militant alien empire, but it would never have survived if the Sidons, the Dorcons or other villains had kept hammering at it, week after week.  The base was too fragile for that, its life support systems too precarious, its defenses too “primitive.” 
Again, this goes right back to Martin Landau’s (correct) assertion back in the 1970s that Space: 1999 was less “macho” than Star TrekStar Trek was about peaceful contact with aliens in a universe of plenty, but also about gunboat diplomacy.  The Enterprise had phaser banks to make certain the crew was safe, and the Federation was protected.   By contrast, Space: 1999 was about a Darwinian universe where survival was the overriding issue, and this was distinctly a battle for limited resources.
We saw many aliens in Space: 1999 who attempted to steal the Alphan resources (“The Beta Cloud” and “Bringers of Wonder” to name two episodes), and the series obsessed on matters of survival.  One character, in an episode called “Dorzak” said that the battle for survival “makes monsters of us all.”  Yet another episode, “The  Exiles” saw characters debating survival explicitly. 

Is it more important that you simply survive, or how you choose to survive?”

Johnny Byrne’s “Mission of the Darians” looked at a disaster on an alien spaceship where the crew turned to cannibalism because there was no uncontaminated food remaining.  The series hero, John Koenig was asked if he would have turned to the same grisly solution if that crisis had occurred on Alpha.

Rather pointedly, he didn’t answer.

3. Mankind in Space: 1999 is technologically and psychologically unprepared for the mysteries of deep space, and when he countenances those mysteries, it is his human nature which will either hand him defeat, or bring him to victory.
In Star Trek, man has conquered his environment.  Technology is a friend and a tool, as I’ve written above.  But if you look at the characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have also, in large part, conquered their passions, their individual emotions.  They don’t take offense at one another, they don’t argue amongst themselves, and they are “evolved” far beyond us in many significant and commendable ways. 
The scientists and astronauts of Moonbase Alpha were not examples of evolved, idealized, romanticized mankind, but us — contemporary man — in space, replete with all our flaws, emotions, paranoia, fears and hopes. 
Frequently in Space: 1999, a mistake by the Alphans was the very thing that led into the adventure of the week.  They tampered in alien justice in “End of Eternity.”   They investigated and opened up orbiting cryo-chambers in “The Exiles.” 

Humans are curious, and that can be a strength, but it can also be a weakness.

The story “Collision Course” depicted beautifully how man is psychologically and technologically unprepared for life in space.  An alien from an advanced race, Arra (Margaret Leighton), informs Commander Koenig that he must permit the moon to collide with her colossal world.  In this case, she claims, it will trigger some kind of evolutionary metamorphosis, but that Alpha will survive the event.  That’s a lot to “believe in,” but Koenig discovers that he trusts Arra.   He’s made a human judgment about her.
Back on Alpha, however, his team can’t get on board with this idea of letting the collision occur and it goes around Koenig’s authority to attempt to avoid disaster with mines deployed in space. 

What is the superior value in this instance?  Trust in science?  Or trust in a person?  Do we depend on what we think we know, or what we feel?

I’m not drawing any universal conclusions regarding that idea, but Space: 1999 meditated on the notion that in deep space, the “laws” of the universe might not be exactly exist as we understand them now, from our perch on Earth.  Instead, man is going to be asked to take — now and again — a “leap of faith.” 

Some men and women will be equipped to do so, some will not.  This creates tension amongst the Alphans.

Now, Space: 1999 has been accused of being anti-science, and this is so because the series suggests that a.) technology is not always the answer, and b.) that the laws of science as we understand them in the here-and -now may not apply, exactly, in the far corners of space and time.  In Space: 1999, man must puzzle his way through answers, based not on techno-babble, but on a combination of technology, psychology, philosophy and even spiritualism. 
4. The Alphans are the new kids on the block, literally.  I once compared the original universe in Space: 1999 to a classroom.  It’s a crucible from which the Alphans — having escaped from a dying, politically-destructive Earth — learn about themselves and their role in space. 
You’ll notice that in no episode of Space: 1999 do the Alphans encounter a race that is less advanced than they were, at least in terms of technology (unless you count 13th century Earth in “Journey to Where,” or the Alphans themselves, as cavemen, in “Full Circle.”)
Instead, the Alphans universally countenanced super-advanced aliens wthat believe they have life “licked,” so-to-speak, and are apparently far more advanced. But these aliens, almost universally have lost  or sacrificed some important aspect of humanity. 
The Zennites of “Missing Link” have emphasized science over emotion, and have forgotten how to feel. 
The Sidons of “Voyager’s Return” champion their  legalisms over moral solutions to their problems, thus embracing vengeance under the auspices of “law.” 
The aliens of “War Games” have created a world with no fear…and yet they fear the presence of the Alphans on their world. 
In “Guardian of Piri,” the Alphans discover an extinct race, the Pirians, that gave up physical labor and “work” and destroyed themselves through lassitude and luxury.
Again and again, the Alphans gaze at alien worlds in the series, and find that while some of those societies possess glorious aspects, they also showcase an absence of something important; the very things the Alphans cherish most in themselves, as human beings. 
Johnny Byrne always told me that the Alphans would be successful, ultimately, in their space quest, and they would achieve success by accepting their limitations and potential as a species.  Their humanity — warts and all — is their greatest gift.
5. Horror Mythology.  If you look across the catalog of Space: 1999 episodes, you begin to detect that many episodes actually had more in common with the original The Outer Limits than Star Trek.  This is because the horror genre — particularly the Gothic — played a considerable role in Space: 1999.  Various episodes resurrected and updated famous horror tropes. 

I’ve written about this in length in a post here

In short, Space: 1999 in 1975 and 1976 gave us outer space, high-tech variations of  The Premature Burial (“Earthbound), the Siren (“Guardian of Piri”), the Midas Touch (“Force of Life,”) the Midwich Cuckoos (“Alpha Child”), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (“Full Circle), Faust (“End of Eternity”), Ghosts (“The Troubled Spirit”), St. George vs. The Dragon (“Dragon’s Domain”), The Picture of Dorian Gray (“The Exiles”) and even the zombie (“All That Glisters.”) 
You’ll notice that some of these tales arise from ancient mythology (the siren, the Midas Touch, namely), and others come from more recent mythology, 19th and early 20th century literature.  Johnny Byrne once informed me that his idea for “Another Time, Another Place” came from a mythology built around a church in Ireland.
He told me: “One hundred yards up the road from the house where I grew up was this little church with a fantastic reputation.  We heard that if you walked around the church sun-wise (clockwise) three times, you’d meet yourself coming out.  That kind of legend was the core of “Another Time, Another Place.”  Our mythology is filled with situations in which a person stumbles into a mist and then emerges 300 years later or some such thing. So I constructed a story around the experience of my upbringing.”
6. Mind-blowing Visual Distinction.  In terms of visualization, Space: 1999 was a series that took ambitious, even crazy risks on a regular basis, and was never afraid to fail. 

There were occasional visual failures (the soap suds of “Space Brain”), of course, but also radically new environments featured on the series. 

Who can forget the bizarre but mind-blowing surface of planet Piri in “Guardian of Piri?” 

We saw, in Space: 1999 worlds of soft fabrics glowing mists and hard-edged nightmares (“Missing Link,”), diamond-like, jeweled mirror (“Seed of Destruction”), vast computer/man interfaces (“War Games,” “The Infernal Machine”), an anti-matter world of crimson skies (“Matter of Life and Death”), an underground alcove of spheroid “bouncing” probes (“AB Chrysalis”), and much more. 
In some sense, Space: 1999 was really about allowing the imagination to run wild — with very little control or barrier terms of scientific rationalization or explanationFarscape was truly brilliant in this regard as well, showing us colorful worlds of tremendous ingenuity and visual invention.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on what Space: 1999 was “about” in its first, 1970s incarnation.  Those are the values I see played out, across the catalog of 48 episodes.  These are the reasons I enjoyed the series.  Other fans have other reasons, I should hasten to add.  I’m not trying to speak for anyone else, or for any agenda. This is just my interpretation of a work of art that inspired me.
The bottom line: Many possible storytelling paths are available, of course, for Space: 2099, so long as imagination is not in short supply.

9 responses to “The Space: 1999 Equation

  1. John, as always, another splendid and well-written article. I enjoyed every minute of it. Keep up the good work.

  2. John excellent analysis. If SPACE:2099 has the intelligence of SPACE:1999(Season 1 '75-'76 especially, albeit I enjoyed both seasons), then I think we will already have surpassed the new Ron Moore BSG. SGB

  3. Hello, my friends.Anonymous: Thank you for the kind words. Thinking about Space:1999 always inspires me, to tell you the truth. SGB: Thank you too, my friend. I agree with you. If we get something akin to the cerebral (and terrifying) nature of many Year One installments, Space:2099 will be headed in the right direction.All my best to you both,John

  4. Great post and agree on all factors. I think one point you hit upon is something which, barring Farscape, is lost – the loss of colour and vibrancy in space. I've always felt if Blake's 7 returned it should carry that same brilliance that sci-fi so often relied on in the sixties through seventies. Shows these days fear colour and vibrancy looking for a safer saturated or filtered palette. If Space 2099 wants to stand out IMO, its look is key – and if it goes for the same usual military, steadycam, boldly go where BSG and others have recently gone before, affair when it comes to its universe, I think it will lack charm. What made S1 of Space1999 so smart was the willingness to make colour and vivid contrasts staple of "alien" and Moonbase fairly monotone incomparison. I also firmly agree on the "Lost in Space" factor – I felt since STNG, and even Voyager, lacked this feeling of isolation. TOS had it to some degree – rarely did they have Starfleet contact, though as you say, worlds were charted. But these days, you don't feel "alone" in TV scifi. Doctor Who has its roots with earth families, even BSG would venture back to Caprica fairly easily. Space 2099 needs isolation I do so agree. And the final point I really liked was vulnerability. Like Red Dwarf so rightly sent up (and Farscape did very well), drama is made so much more tangible when the audience knows the heroes at best have a meagre stun gun against an enemy and not military phaser banks etc. Crews with no real weapons, assault craft or super-final act-megaweapon are ultimately create a far more real tension, because we the audience are the same. Seeing Koenig having to send out what are essentially cargo transporters with a laser taped to the nose end makes for great viewing. I hope 2099 creators take the time to read your smart points!

  5. James:A brilliant and thoughtful comment.I agree with you about color and vibrancy, and most importantly, what it importantly brings in terms of theme: contrast. The idea, as you ably described it, is to contrast the "hard"/minimalist white and grey tech of Moonbase Alpha with the radiant, mind-blowing colors and alien tech of other worlds. That's a crucial aspect of the series, content carried through as form. I'd love to see it restored in Space: 2099.I also admit, I would deeply dislike the idea of a hand-held, herky-jerky Space:2099, fostering immediacy but being all too common in the aftermath of the re-done BSG. Space:1999 as a concept is rather formal (and formalistic). I also feel that isolation is a big deal. Moonbase Alpha was militarily, socially, and spatially isolated, a fact which fostered fear, paranoia, but also the growing of an individual sense of community. This was important, because the Alphans, in Johnny Byrne's conception, would have eventually started anew on a new world, and looked back at the space journey as a cultural origin myth (Koenig = Moses). If you have Earth to fall back on, if you have great weapons with which to defend yourself, you start to cling to technology or the idea that you're really not that far from home, after all. Excellent comment, my,John

  6. My friend you are on a tear! I cannot keep up. I had formulated something cose to a coherent comment on this fine article after reading this amazing and preemptive article last night, but just plain ran out of gas [a la Firelfly].I thought it was excellent that you took time to nail down the core philosophical underpinings of Space:1999 so that we can look back on it to see if the creators of the new series remained true to them. As someone who clearly knows SPace:1999 inside and out and keeps it near and dear to their hearts, you got them all. The mystery and unpreparedness are big ones for me.Certainly given the level of technology we live with today that Space:1999 anticipated quite correctly there's no reason technology shouldn't play a huge role. HEck my kids walk around the house talking to people on little video screens as we speak.Aynyway I think your list is just terrific and space is terrifying. Space:1999 rally got that right and certainly was in keeping with the mood of a film like Alien. It's certainly one of the wonderful things about it. I hope they retain that spirit and the minimalist use of sound when required. No sound gave some of those episodes a truly spooky or horrific quality. This played into the horror/ terror element beautifuly.One final point, and I loved your comparison to Battlestar. I have no argument with your points.But I do think creators and those who go back to reboot a franchise are often damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they remain too true to the original they are lambasted for copying a la the Psycho remake when it came out. I know the balance is subtle. How a creator pays homage to original is a very tricky busines and you're right, they need to capture a certain essence from the original. The Star Trek film did a fine job of this.I would argue, while imperfect, and while I am not completely sold on the final season or so, I did enjoy Moore's reworking of the material most of the time. It was dark and tonally, I agree, it was way off, but there were so many things in play that made it a particularly moving piece of science fiction even if I did find it a little too dark at times regarding the human condition. I certainly don't see people being that morally bankrupt or relative as it were in some case with that series. It was particularly brutal.But I do think it was a success as it was presented. Though, I still think a retelling of Battlestar in the spirit of the original is still possible even today. It would be refreshing even. I wonder if that film will ever come to pass. That would be another interesting take.Today, there is very little moral absolutism as you put it and some element of that would be refreshing.The Battlestar equation really leaves me torn. I have been on the fence about that new series for many a yehern. But, I am pleased it was made. I guess what I'm saying is, I welcome an interpretation of Space:1999 and the closer in spirit to the original the better for me, but if I placed certain absolutes on my expectations or if I was in the driver's seat making those demands I might not get something as unexpected as the new Battlestar and I did enjoy it. Of course, the two were entirely separate for me. In fact, I went into it with no expectations and held no ill will toward it even after people bitched and moaned that Starbuck was a woman.So, I wouldn't pretend to be repulsed by something unexpected, but rather open to it if it was done well in the way Battlestar was done well. Nevertheless, I loved your article and I'm pleased to see the tenets of what made that original so special laid out. If they are out there reading they should print it and stick it on their storyboards! : )

  7. "Yes, everything that you say is absolutely correct."Space:1999 is in my top 3 favorite shows ever, topped only by classic Star Trek and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. But it's like loving your kids, they're all special. I can only hope that, should this project go forward, the folks in charge aren't just going to make a new show "based on a crappy old show." Sometimes it felt like NuBSG was a case of showing people that a good show can come from cheesy origins. I'd like to feel a bit more respect than that for 1999. You handled the "soul" of 1999 perfectly in your post, John. The real issue I have with remakes of this type are that they often take steps to update to the point of non-recognition. 1999 had huge visual appeal back then and while I don't expect anyone to revive the bell bottoms, the uniforms themselves are very distinctive. The visual identity of 1999 was very important and it made it immediately different from Star Trek (again, much as I love classic Trek, God, did I hate the constant comparisons). I'd like to see something logically stylish rather than specifically realistic. I'd hate to see yet another series of people in coveralls or military garb. At the same time, I would welcome some realism. One aspect of 1999 that doesn't hold up well is that by the final episode, Alpha looks just as fresh and clean as it did three days before breakaway. Two seasons on and they were still wearing their nifty sweaters (but man did I want one), the props were all shiny and everyone looked great. This actually obscures the fact that the original series was supposed to take place over the span of several years. A new version should, I feel, address this and make explicit that years have gone by. This would be something of an innovation for SF series TV, to have episode 8 take place three years after episode 7, with the sets and costumes and so on showing some wear. This was something Star Trek Voyager was guilty of and it just enhances the artificiality of it. I don't know how that would be financially realistic, but since it would be a progression and not something to go back and forth, how much could it coast to dirty up some sets?And good music is a must. Music was very important to establishing the atmosphere of 1999. To this day, I feel the creepy vibe when Balor grins at Koenig in his quarters while the slow piano starts in the background (see the first line of this comment).Oh and jeez, if there's a cast change between seasons, I hope they tell us what happened to Victor. :-)Great article as always!Scott

  8. Also, herky jerky is busy. Galactica was busy and there was no sense of isolation there. That style would be distracting to the sense of isolation in a Space:1999 reimaging. I should think they would have the good sense to avoid aping Battlestary. Look what happened to Stargate Universe, which as you pointed out in the past, offered a sense of adventure reminiscent of Space:1999. I think a reboot could be better and better than Stargate Universe.

  9. Not much to add here, except that I completely agree with the notion that "space = terror". I suppose it's our (especially American) technological positivism, but I've always wondered why more science fiction doesn't exploit the obvious anxiety-inducing dimension of space travel.All I have to do is look at NASA photographs of Jupiter and the outer planets in our own solar system and I feel such a sense of awed terror at the utter immensity of the universe. It's the kind of existential fear that writers like H.P. Lovecraft understood so well. It has nothing really to do with unfriendly aliens or rogue asteroids or any of the usual sci-fi trappings. It's just the sure knowledge of how shockingly tiny, fragile and meaningless the human race is in the face of infinity.Unfortunately, this is the kind of realization most people expend great effort to repress. I have my doubts that a modern television network would have the guts to challenge its audience with a glimpse into that abyss.But, who knows? I'll be keeping my fingers crossed, anyway.

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