Space 1999: The Bringers of Wonder
by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue
Space 1999 ran from 1975 to 1977 and was one of several live-action series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who are best known for their shows featuring marionettes. They also created two of the most interesting live-action science fiction shows of the late sixties and seventies, the first being UFO (1969-1973), the second being Space 1999.
The latter began as a somber, cerebral, atmospheric attempt to create philosophical sci-fi in series form. It sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. Despite some fake science worthy of old B-movies, the twenty-four episodes of the show’s first season are well worth the time of anyone interested in thoughtful, experimental, atmospheric sci-fi with creepy moments that plays it straight. The conceit of the show, set twenty-five years in the future from the time it was made, is that the moon is being used as a nuclear waste dump and is blasted out of its orbit by a massive chain-reaction explosion; the several hundred people staffing Moon Base Alpha, which has its own self-contained atmosphere and remains intact after this event (bad science, example one), are sent hurtling through space with it. They pass within range of many planets, encounter aliens, pass through a wormhole taking them countless light years farther, visit a planet that may be the afterlife, and eventually come to the dead world haunted by the spirits of the alien race that spawned us millennia ago. The show’s creators made a conscious decision not to explain everything, since the characters themselves were out of their depth, thrust into the far reaches of space against their will, having very little understanding of a lot of what they witnessed. Guest stars on the first season included Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, and Ian McShane. “The Dragon’s Domain” featured Spaghetti Western star Gianni Garko (Sartana himself; at some point during the first season, the primarily British show became an Italian co-production). The music by Barry Gray is epic and affecting and stays in your head. The main theme features an orchestra and electric guitars and sounds like the soundtrack for the second coming or for an especially messy apocalypse or plague. The special effects by Nick Allder and Brian Johnson, both of who went on to be effects supervisors on Alien (Johnson was also an uncredited effects assistant on 2001: A Space Odyssey) were light years ahead of anything else on TV at the time. The dark, monolithic, utilitarian look of movies like Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture can be at least partly traced back to Space: 1999.
When I was five, six, and seven years old, it was my favorite show. I had the lunch box, the toys, the coloring books, the comics. It came on TV every Saturday night and was the talk of a lot of my friends in school. It ran two seasons. The second season was handed over to a newly hired producer in an attempt to revamp the show and make it more commercial. As a result, the somber, philosophical tone was replaced with rubber monster suits, shape-shifting alien babes, flirting, jokes, and shiny new uniforms for the Moonbase crew. Characters were discarded and replaced with new ones (the most devastating loss was probably Barry Morse as Professor Victor Bergman, Moonbase Alpha’s eccentric science advisor). At the time this happened, I thought it was great. I loved the new uniforms, as did all my friends in school. I loved the flashy monsters and the action-packed new format. There was now a chase or fight scene every few minutes; the first season, in the tradition of most British sci-fi, had instead allowed its stories to build at their own pace.
As an adult viewer, going on forty years later, I enjoy the first season as great for what it is. I look at the second season and go, “Why did they ruin it?” The first twenty-four episodes will always hold up for me as decent seventies sci-fi with low-key characters, thoughtful, interesting storylines, and really cool music. The second twenty-four episodes are much more campy and much less credible. Despite this, there are moments. The second season’s music by Derek Wadsworth is as excellent as the first’s, retro-pop ethereal and equally as haunting.
There are two second-season episodes that, despite quality inferior to that of the first season, have proven more memorable than the entire rest of the series. Their memorability is not so much due to their storyline as it is to the fact that when I re-viewed them as an adult, I felt like I was reliving a childhood nightmare. I mean this literally; my deja vu as I viewed certain images was connected in my mind to a bad dream, not to a TV show. I had completely forgotten that the episodes existed. The images had been so traumatic, I had buried them.
The story in question is called “The Bringers Of Wonder.” It is the only one in the series that takes more than one episode to tell. The first episode opens with Moonbase Alpha’s Commander Koenig (Martin Landau, who along with then-wife Barbara Bain had a leading role for the duration of the series) recklessly joyriding an Eagle spacecraft (the Eagles were the transport craft used by the personnel of Alpha; they were skeletal and metal and looked like some kind of flying mining or construction equipment. A brilliant Brian Johnson creation). Something is obviously wrong with Koenig’s brain; he has never been reckless (though the second-season version of the character is more so than the first) and he would never say, “I haven’t had this much fun since I burned Grandma’s wig.” He does say it here. The crew of Alpha watches helplessly from the Command Center as their leader goes nuts and crashes his spacecraft, nicking a nuclear waste dome, but thankfully not penetrating it (to my recollection, the series never explained how all the nuclear waste on the moon blew up in the very first episode, then wound up tidily back under domes as the moon hurtled through space intact). Members of the crew rush out to rescue Koenig; his girlfriend, Doctor Helena Russell (Landau’s aforementioned wife, Barbara Bain) hooks the now unconscious Koenig up to an experimental machine that is supposed to give him some kind of “brain massage.”
Meanwhile, a “Superswift” from Earth (we are told over the course of the episode that the Superswift is a spacecraft that was in the prototype stage when the moon left earth’s orbit, but that since has been developed as the first craft to exceed the speed of light) appears out of nowhere carrying dozens of the Alpha inhabitants’ family and friends. What the fuck. After thirty-some episodes of wandering the universe having abandoned all hope of returning to their home, the Alphans’ ship has finally come in. They are going home. They reunite and celebrate with their loved ones in the Command Center of the Moonbase while, undetected, several of the newly arrived earthlings sneak down the hall with blank expressions on their faces. This, of course, is sinister. We eventually see that they are trying to kill the unconscious Koenig, but they do it using mind control, so no one suspects it was them.
Despite this, Koenig wakes and Helena tells him about how they’re finally going home to earth. Koenig is ecstatic until he goes to the Command Center and sees all the recently arrived friends and family there as ugly Lovecraftian aliens. This is the scene that I remembered as a nightmare. The aliens look like cancer cells with tentacles and pus-oozing eyeballs that pulsate with some kind of odd, sickly light. It cuts back and forth between Koenig’s terrified face and brief, flashing images of the aliens he sees. Either Koenig is hallucinating, or everyone else is. Koenig starts to flip and say, “Get away from me,” and shove his actual human friends who are trying to calm him across the room into walls and consoles, causing things to smoke and blow off sparks. He tries to get Alpha to arm its laser cannons and commands his crew to, “Destroy that alien ship.” The first-season Koenig, even under the same conditions, would never say those words without first asking questions. Eventually, Helena stuns Koenig with an Alphan ray-gun (which, by the way, looks exactly like a staple gun) and he is returned to the sick bay. He begs his friends to believe him when he tells them that what they believe are their friends and family come to bring them back to earth are actually hideous, hostile aliens.
Eventually, we find out that Koenig was right and that the supposed long-lost loved ones are aliens who have all of the Alphans under telepathic control. Koenig is immune because of the experimental brain treatment. The aliens are a starving, dying race that lives off radiation; they can only get the energy they need to survive by detonating all of Alpha’s nuclear waste. Such a detonation would destroy Alpha, which is why the aliens must be stopped. The logic gap here, of course, is that the nuclear waste already blew up without destroying Alpha and that the premise of the entire series relies upon it, but that doesn’t stop “The Bringers Of Wonder” from being a fun, effective couple hours of British TV sci-fi from the nineteen seventies. It has a cheese factor. It doesn’t need to make too much sense. Is has memorable images and an overall tone that is somehow horrific despite some inherent silliness.
I would definitely recommend “The Bringers Of Wonder” to forgiving sci-fi fans. Then if you decide you want to check out the show, you should go back to the first episode of the first season, “Breakaway.” The first season is really where it’s at, flawed sci-fi with great effects and a whole lot of atmosphere that utilizes the medium to explore matters of consequence like fate, death, destiny, and the origin of mankind. It contains plenty of images that evoke a similar childhood terror to that associated with the aliens in “The Bringers Of Wonder,” including that of an immortal who rots hundreds of years’ worth the moment he leaves his planet in “Death’s Other Dominion,” the half-disfigured phantom come from the future to haunt his own still-living self in “The Troubled Spirit,” the blackened, laser-charred Ian McShane with light-up saucer eyes in “Force Of Life,” and the barbecued victims of the cyclopean, hideously tentaculated, possibly telepathic creature in “The Dragon’s Domain.” Like those in many of the early Hammer films, the horrific images in Space 1999 loomed larger in the mind of a child raised before the information age, a child who’d only seen the episodes once or twice, a child who embellished and intensified the graphics in his own imagination without realizing he was doing so. When I go back and view those images now, they no longer shock, but the episodes impress for their effort to create something worthy of the epoch when live-action sci-fi was arguably at its best, just before the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster, a time when the genre was still ruled by the idea.
And don’t forget that music.
– The Acolyte