45 Years Ago: ‘Space: 1999’ Begins Its Two-Year Run
Pioneering British sci-fi couple Gerry and Sylvia Anderson made the move from animated puppets to real-life actors when they launched UFO in 1970. The adventures of a space force fighting mysterious aliens – and the outfits and ships the Andersons had developed – caught the imagination of viewers, many of whom were watching TV in color for the first time.
UFO did well enough for a second season to be planned, but toward the end of the first its numbers started to drop off, and the cost of making the show was so high that concerned execs slammed their wallets shut. The Andersons were left with rough scripts, props and sets that seemingly would never be used.
But British TV impresario Sir Lew Grade was on the case. Disappointed not to have sold UFO’s second season, he suggested taking some of the parts to develop an all-new show. The sets were mainly of a moon base, since episodes set on the moon had done particularly well. Indeed, the second season was to be thrown into the near future, titled UFO: 1999 and set almost entirely on the moon.
In order to make the package an easy sell to U.S. networks, Grade insisted that both lead actors were American – an issue that Sylvia Anderson, for one, disagreed with. Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible stars Martin Landau and his wife Barbara Bain were cast in the roles of Moonbase Alpha Commander John Koenig and Doctor Helena Russell.
The UFO scenario was dropped in favor of a situation where, on Sept. 13, 1999, nuclear waste stored on the moon explodes and forces the satellite out of Earth’s orbit. Stranded aboard and unable to return home, the 311 crew members of Moonbase Alpha are forced to travel among the stars in search for somewhere they can settle.
"I think that science fiction is very important," Anderson said later. "It's a vital art form inasmuch as whatever progress we make in this work initially has to be triggered by the dreamer. Some time ago, people must have stood on a river bank and thought, ‘I wonder what's on the other side?’ Then someone came up with the idea of cutting down a tree and crossing over. But someone had to inspire him to do that. So, I think that in terms of future technology, if one can fire the minds of young people using science fiction, then, in a way, one is linked with progress that takes place some years later.”
“The thing I loved about the concept was that we were not there because we wanted to be,” Bain reflected later. “The accident that thrust us out into space was unexpected and whatever we encountered we had no way to cope with. We were ultimately homeless, looking for a place that would accommodate us, and there was something quite romantic about that. The best scripts were the ones that kept to that.”
The premise was assisted by some very impressive – and expensive – props and special effects. The Eagle workhorse spaceship is arguably one of the most convincing and best-loved sci-fi vessels of all time (and the toy versions are now collectors’ items). The Commlock handheld screen device felt real too, as did the travel tubes that traversed the moon base and Moonbase Alpha itself. The inverse U-shaped laser guns were slightly more fictional but still notably stylish. All the sets and props were devised with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in mind. Brian Johnson, Space: 1999’s head of special effects, had worked on the movie and most of his team would go on to work on Alien and The Empire Strikes Back.
“I just imagined there would be satellite bases all over the moon's surface,” Johnson said of his Eagle creation. “So, I figured you’d need a vehicle to lift off, carry people inside and set them down at the other end. … It was originally called the Modular Transportation Unit, the idea being that you could bolt Eagles together if you wanted to go further into space. You could piggyback the frames and the engine sections.”
With a lineup of guest stars including Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ian McShane, Leo McKern, Patrick Troughton and Brian Blessed, Space: 1999 first aired on Sept. 4, 1975 – two years after work started on the show. Viewers watched the accident that sent the moon off into space; in follow-up episodes, they saw the Alphans deal with body-snatching aliens, a head-on collision with a planet, a full-on battle fleet attack, human explorers who've discovered eternal life and an ancient Earth probe returning to its masters with more than they’d asked for.
Watch ‘Space: 1999’ 'Year One' Opening Titles
The first season delivered enough viewers to warrant a second, but a wide range of changes took place – including leading characters like Barry Morse’s Professor Victor Bergman disappearing without explanation and the arrival of shape-shifting alien Maya, played by Catherine Schell. Former Star Trek producer Fred Freiberger was behind many of the changes, which many of the established team felt went in the wrong direction. The aim, it seemed, was to open the show up to a more general audience, but it seemed like producers managed only to water down the distinctive elements early viewers liked.
Anderson always refused to cast blame in any particular direction, saying he constantly received advice from the U.S. and felt that, because he wasn’t there, he should accept what he was being told. But he admitted, “I don't think either the first year or the second year is necessarily the type of show I would like to make if I were left to my own devices."
Space: 1999 ended after "Year Two," with the Alphans continuing to drift across the cosmos in search of a new home. “We got sacrificed,” Landau said later. “Lew Grade … was getting into the motion picture business, and it turned out his advertising budget for his films, like Raise the Titanic, was our total budget for another season. It would have served them, from a syndication point-of-view, to have another season, but it came down to economic priorities. I think there was a very good chance of our going another season if he hadn't gotten into movies and needed that money. ... It was a much better show than people realize. We hit some, we missed some, we tried things.”
Watch ‘Space: 1999’ 'Year Two' Opening Titles
On the real Sept. 13, 1999 – 22 years after the final episode aired – an epilogue scene put matters partly to a close. Written by original script editor Johnny Byrne and produced by fans for a Los Angeles convention, it featured Zienia Merton, who played Alpha data analyst Sandra Benes. She was alone on the moon base, the last to leave, as Koenig decided to take a chance on a nearby Earth-like planet and ordered Operation Exodus into action.
Uncertain whether the gamble would pay off, and aware that the moon, and, therefore, the base, would be out of reach for 25 years, Benes was sending a final message to Earth using an experimental technique, with no knowledge of whether it would ever be received. The transmission she sent took the form of an unidentified message received by the Alphans during the pilot episode "Breakaway," suggesting that the moon-base crew from the future had contacted themselves at the beginning of their adventures. (In fact, the radio transmission was probably a plot device connected to the idea that some alien being was controlling events all along, but the storyline was dropped after the first few episodes.)
Space: 1999 was the last project that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson worked on together, and it was the most expensive British TV show of its time, costing up to $60,000 in current value. While many aspects of the show haven't aged all that well, the human error, experimental danger and technical realities still ring true. And that sense of truth and reality was what made the show so memorable.