Saturday, September 15, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Fair Trade" (September 20, 1975)

Our episode of Land of the Lost this Saturday morning is called “Fair Trade,” and it is written by Bill Keenan and directed by Bob Lally.  Like the first season’s “The Search,” “Fair Trade” in large part concerns the idea that the Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly (Kathy Coleman) must think for themselves and solve problems for themselves too.  Their Dad won’t always be around…

This week, the Marshall kids truly must think on their feet when Rick (Spencer Milligan) falls into a trap set by the Sleestak.  The Sleestak weren’t hoping to catch Rick, however.  They were hoping to trap a (multi-colored) pig that they could feed to their young in the so-called “Egg Cave of the Sleestak.” 

Will and Holly visit Enik (Walker Edmiston) in the Lost City in hopes of acquiring his assistance, and he informs him that the Sleestak will make a trade: their father for a very fat, adult pig. 

With little time before sunset and the hatching of the Sleestak young, Holly and Will engage Ta’s (Scutter McCay) aid in capturing the big pig.  To do so, Will must trade the Ta the knife he has been carving for weeks. 

In the end, the Sleestak live up to their end of the bargain, and Rick is spared a fate worse than death.  Amusingly, the episode ends with Rick, Holly and Marshall heading back to High Bluff at night, with no mention of Ta, who last we saw him, was still hanging from a swing over a hole above the Lost City.  

What works best about “Fair Trade” is the camaraderie and resourcefulness Will and Holly demonstrate in the attempt to get their father back.  The episode’s best scene sees Will confronting Enik about his lack of compassion, and it’s a moment worthy of the best Rick/Enik logic/emotion debates.  In short, Will convinces Enik that he can’t possibly preach compassion to the Altrusians -- his own people -- unless he learns to practice it here first, in the Land of the Lost.

Another nice touch in “Fair Trade” involves the depiction of the Sleestak.  They remain fearsome, menacing foes with their trademark hissing and general hostility. However, they live up to their end of the bargain in “Fair Trade,” and that suggests that, on occasion, they can be reasoned with.  It's also interesting to note that not one word of regret or sadness is spoken for the poor pig...whose destiny is to be eaten alive by baby Sleestak.  I guess in the Land of the Lost, you've gotta do what you gotta do...

That character trait works towards Land of the Lost’s long-standing environmental message.  There are diverse “demographics” populating the Land of the Lost -- human, Pakuni, Sleestak, dinosaur (and occasionally Zarn) -- but if they deal honorably and fairly with one another, great crises can be resolved or averted.

“Fair Trade” isn’t an overly memorable episode of Land of the Lost’s second season, but it gets the job done, and more-than-adequately grows the characters of Will, Holly and Enik.

Next week, a real bizarre and memorable installment: “One of Our Pylons is Missing.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Top Five: James Bond Pre-Title Sequences

The James Bond films are widely renowned for their spectacular pre-title action sequences.   Often, these elaborate sequences feature an independent narrative only loosely connected to the film proper, or even ones unconnected all-together (Octopussy [1983], for example). 

The express purpose of the pre-title sequence, in fact, sometimes seems to be to out-do and one-up the previous film’s climax.   Accordingly, these starting moments are often dominated by stunts and incredible action, sometimes even record-breakers.

The upshot of this approach is that James Bond fans know -- all too well -- that when the lights go down, the action starts…immediately.

So, how to rate a 007 pre-titles sequence?  I submit that the best ones tell a complete story, show us something we haven’t seen before, begin the movie with a tremendous jolt of adrenaline, and capture -- in some concise (yet dazzling) way -- the James Bond aesthetic, some canny mixture of action, sex, and humor.

5. Goldfinger (1964)

Although some modern viewers might consider this pre-titles sequence simple, basic, or even ordinary today, I believe it remains the prototype for all the ones that come later.  Set in an unnamed Latin-American country -- where Bond (Sean Connery) is on a mission to destroy a drug laboratory -- this Goldfinger opener reminds us and re-establishes for us every quality that we love about 007, and about the Bond film series.

The scene boasts a sense of humor, since Bond wears a hat that looks like a sea-gull as he emerges from the water in a wet suit.  It features a nod to his impeccable sense of style, since the agent wears a white dinner jacket and bow-tie under his scuba gear, and it even features a dynamic Ken Adam-designed villain headquarters.

The icing on the cake is the beautiful dancer Bond romances, and the knock-down, drag-out fight with a cold-blooded killer in her dressing room.  In one of the film’s many visually dazzling moments, Bond becomes aware of the assassin by seeing his approach reflected in his lover’s eye.  After Bond electrocutes the villain, he even lays a quip on us.  “Shocking…

Action, romance and humor combine perfectly in a scene less than five-minutes in duration.  Goldfinger hits every important note of the Bond film mystique, and is the standard for all the films that follow.

4. Octopussy (1983)

This pre-title sequence finds James Bond (Roger Moore) on a mission in Cuba to destroy an experimental air-craft tracking/weapons system.  The mission fails rather egregiously, but thanks to the help of a lovely agent, Bianca (Tina Hudson), he escapes from captivity, boards a mini-jet, and -- with the unintentional help of the Cuban air-force-- completes his task.  As the sequence ends, the mini-jet runs out of gas, and Bond conveniently locates a gas station…

This sequence features one of the all-time best Bond vehicles, a tiny jet known as an Acrostar Micro-jet.  It is so tiny, in fact, that it can fit comfortably inside a standard horse trailer, and roll into a lane at your average gas station.  And boy can it fly...  The stunts involving the plane are stunning, and final punch-line, “Fill her up please” is perfect, especially as delivered by the smiling Moore.

Again, we get the beautiful woman, the deadly crisis, and an explosion of an enemy headquarters (in this case an airplane hanger), but the addition of the distinctive Acrostar makes all the old standards feel new, and vibrant.

3.A View to A Kill (1985)

Roger Moore’s last Bond film features a lot of ups and downs.  One moment it feels grim and brooding, and the next it is reveling in campy humor.  Although this schizophrenia is also revealed in the pre-title sequence, the sequence is nonetheless one of the finest in the series in terms of the stunt work and musical scoring (by John Barry).

The scene opens in Siberia as Bond (Moore again) finds the corpse of 003, and recovers an important micro-chip.  In short order, however, he comes under attack from a team of Russian soldiers.  The soldiers come at 007 on skis, on jet-skis, and in a helicopter. 

Bond navigates his way through the icy terrain -- and over a body of water -- to reach a submarine disguised as an iceberg.  But he doesn’t leave the scene before serving as a one-man wrecking crew, killing his enemies, and taking down the helicopter with a flare gun.

Scored in lugubrious but memorable fashion, this pre-title sequence is veritable carnage candy, with Bond taking down scores of opponents, and resourceful “surfing” across the water to reach freedom. 

I know the purists hate these moments, but the sequence cuts briefly to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” on the soundtrack when Bond surfs on one ski.  Sure it’s campy, but the audience I saw it with roared with laughter, and the stunts themselves are incredible.  Today, this would probably all be accomplished with CGI, but it’s important to remember that a stunt man actually accomplished these amazing feats, skiing down a sheer cliff face, and across a real river.

Lapses into (audience-approved) corn humor aside, View to a Kill opens with tremendous gravity and spectacular action.

2. The Living Daylights (1987)

This was the film that introduced Timothy Dalton as James Bond, after seven films with the getting long-in-the-tooth Roger Moore.  Accordingly, this pre-title sequence serves as our introduction to the younger, more serious, and much more athletic incarnation of 007.

The setting for that introduction is an M16 training exercise over Gibraltar involving the 00s. We watch -- without yet seeing Bond -- as these agents sky-dive out of the back of the plane, and come down the treacherous side of the mountain.  The camera-work during the jump creates a genuine sense of exhilaration.

Before long, an assassin is after the unsuspecting agents, executing a KGB plan called Smert Spionam (“Death to Spies.”) As the first double-o dies, we get our first look at the wolfish new James Bond, a reaction shot revealing the gravity and intensity with which he weighs this danger.  Before long, we’re getting jump scares (watch out for that a monkey!), and a destructive car chase on a winding road, and a fist-fight as Bond battles it out with his opponent.  All the while, we get to marvel at  something we haven't seen in a while: a young James Bond (in his thirties), running, leaping, jumping and fighting. Not since the early days of Sean Connery have we had such a physically aggressive, physically capable hero, and The Living Daylights establishes these "dangerous" qualities brilliantly in the pre-title sequence.

In fact, The Living Daylights even plays lightly with the idea of a "serious" Bond.  The agent lands on a yacht, grabs a phone, calls headquarters, and is absolutely all-business.   Only in the last second does a smile creep across his face as he decides to spend a little time with a bored (but appreciative…) lady.   Yep, new face, new vigor…but same Bond.   

1. The Spy Who Loved Me (1976)

This Bond pre-title sequence features one of the most jaw-dropping stunts ever to grace the silver screen, followed up by one of the best visual punch-lines of the entire Bond film series.

Here, Bond (Moore) is pursued by Soviet agents, when he is forced to ski, essentially, off a mountain.  He makes that jump (still wearing skis…) with no digital trickery or rear projection tomfoolery.  The camera follows the jump as he goes down, down and down -- in real life some 3,000 feet -- for an impossibly long time.  Finally, a parachute goes up; a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack symbol. 

It’s a perfect movie moment, and a perfect opening to a James Bond film.  The jump was performed by stuntman Rick Sylvester at Mount Asgard in Canada, supervised by editor John Glen, and shot by cinematographer Alan Hume and a ledge camera man. 

This early moment in the film isn’t merely stunning, but literally jaw-dropping.  Movie history -- and James Bond  history -- was made.

What I'm Reading Now: Graphic Horror: Movie Monster Memories

Last year, I was invited to participate in a really cool horror book project, and it has recently come to fruition, to beautiful effect, so I wanted to put out the good word about it here on the blog before the weekend.

Schiffer has just published editor and author John Edgar Browning’s Graphic Horror: Movie Monster Memories, a gorgeous coffee table book featuring the poster art of scary movies from the 1920s right up through 2009. 

The art is supplemented by terrific commentary from horror luminaries including David J. Skal (who also writes the introduction), Donald Glut, Peter Hutchings, Tony Timpone, Gregory A. Waller and many, many more. There’s also an afterword by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and John himself sets the scene well with his introduction, “Movie Monsters and the Printed Page.”

I was honored too to see my own film commentary included in Graphic Horror.  In the book, I get to discuss some of my favorite genre films including King Kong (1976), Halloween (1978), Phantasm (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Child’s Play (1988), among others.  It’s a kick to see my words as captions and commentary next to some great, evocative, and famous horror movie posters.

The book is about 200 pages long, and also features a thorough index and a “ghoul” library with a selection of readings in horror and the fantastic.  I got my contributor copy in the mail on Monday, and haven’t been able to put the darn thing down.  I’ve been carrying it out with me to kindergarten car line when I pick up Joel, and keeping it close at hand.

So check out Graphic Horror: Movie Monster Memories if you get a chance.  The book is eminently display-worthy, and  fascinating in terms of genre history and scholarship.   Graphic Horror is available at here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

From the Archive: The Horror Mythology of Space: 1999

"We're a long way from home, and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space."

-Professor Victor Bergman, Space: 1999; "Matter of Life and Death."

One important quality that differentiates Space: 1999 (1975-1977) from virtually any other outer space adventure ever created, even after thirty-five years, is its heavy accent on horror. Unlike Star Trek, wherein planets are joined peacefully across the ocean of space as part of a cosmic, political United Nations, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 presents the universe as a realm of incomprehensible and total, abject terror.

Because the heroes of Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) -- the 311 astronauts and scientists stationed on Moonbase Alpha -- are psychologically and technologically unprepared for their unexpected journey into deepest space (it's the result of an accident on the moon's surface...) even the most wonderful or harmless mechanisms of the cosmos appear frightening, foreboding and unknown to these inexperienced, contemporary travelers. It's a metaphor, perhaps, for the way our cave-men ancestors may have regarded thunder, fire, the sun or the moon -- as inexplicable, fearsome elements of existence.

Given this revolutionary and fascinating aspect of Space: 1999, I thought it might prove interesting today to make note of many of the horror myths, legends and concepts that Space: 1999 re-purposed during its two year, 48-episode run. Virtually all of these conceits, you will note, were given a technological sheen or update for the series, a polish well in keeping with an overarching theme that Science Digest's editor, Arielle Emmett termed "the downfall of 20th century technological man."

1. The Premature Burial: "Earthbound"
In the nineteenth century, one of the great human dreads involved being buried alive.

This fear was so widespread, in fact, that some people saw to it that they had emergency signalling devices installed in their coffins upon internment. Gothic author Edgar Allen Poe exploited this societal fear of being buried alive in The Fall of The House of Usher and his 1844 short story, The Premature Burial.

The horror trope of being buried alive has come to be associated with such concepts as claustrophobia (fear of being trapped in a coffin, in a confined space) and body paralysis, the inability to move or function within that confined space.  The primary setting of premature burial fears, of course, is the casket: the narrow, tight final resting place of the human form.   Modern films have also obsessed on the premature burial, namely Wes Craven's The Serpent and The Rainbow (1989) and The Vanishing (1993).

In Space:1999, an episode entitled "Earthbound" by Anthony Terpiloff culminated with a high-tech, futuristic variation on the premature burial conceit.  Earth's Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) becomes entombed in a suspended animation device aboard an alien spaceship for a 75-year journey to Earth.  A bully and an opportunist, Simmonds has resorted to extortion and black mail to get this coveted "slot" on Captain Zantor's (Christopher Lee) ship. He pays for his moral infraction, however, when -- just hours into the trip -- he awakens inside the transparent suspended animation chamber, the futuristic equivalent of a coffin..

Simmonds even has an emergency signalling device on his person, an Alphan communicator called a "commlock." He alerts Moonbase Alpha to his mortal plight, but the wandering moon is too far distant to come to his assistance. Simmonds is thus left behind -- alive and conscious -- in the claustrophobic container, without the possibility of help or rescue, a perfect metaphor for the terror inherent in the convention of the premature burial.

2. The Siren: "The Guardian of Piri"
Ancient Greek mythology gave the world the concept of Sirens: seductresses of the not-quite human variety who lured sailors to their isolated island with a tempting song, and then kept them trapped there for all eternity. The Sirens, uniquely, were temptresses of the mind or spirit, not the flesh, and boasted knowledge beyond the confines of linear time. Always depicted as females, the Sirens bore knowledge of both the past and future.

In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, sea captain and warrior Odysseus -- on his long journey home -- had himself physically strapped to the mast of his vessel so he could experience the Siren song for himself. Let's just say it drove him to distraction.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," written by Christopher Penfold, the wandering moon (also searching for "home,"much like Odysseus) falls under the tantalizing spell of "The Guardian" on an alien world.

The Guardian, like the mythical sirens of the Greeks, extends its purview beyond the linear progression of time. In fostering "perfection" in its captive wards it can actually freeze time, holding living life-forms in a permanent stasis. Space:1999's Odysseus surrogate, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), doesn't tie himself to the mast of Moonbase Alpha to resist the lure, but he is the only man on the installation able to resist the beguiling, female face of the Guardian, played by lovely Catherine Schell. Even Moonbase Alpha's oracle, Victor Bergman falls under the spell, describing, briefly, an "old man's fantasies." Finally, Computer itself is tempted by the Siren song and is "removed" to Piri.

3. The Midas Touch: "Force of Life"
In Greek mythology, there was also a man named King Midas of Phyrgia, a man who was gifted with the power to turn everything he touched to gold.

This frightful power soon became a curse, however, when his food and water turned to gold, and even his beloved daughter was transformed into a gold statue. In the end, King Midas returned his power to the Earth, by spreading into a running river. After doing so, Midas left behind his love of the material world and material wealth. He came to despise the gold he had once coveted.

Johnny Byrne's outstanding Space: 1999 episode "Force of Life" involves an Alphan technician, Anton Zoref (Ian McShane), who, because of an alien "gift," develops the terrifying ability to freeze objects and people on contact. The name Zoref is an anagram for FROZE, and Phyrgia even sounds a bit like Frigid. Likewise, when the tale climaxes, Zoref casts off his earthly life, becoming a power of pure energy. In his new form, Zoref, like Midas in a sense, leaves human concerns behind.

The Midas connection in "Force of Life" is perhaps more obscure than some of the other mythology in Space:1999 and story editor Johnny Byrne once described the episode as one in which a life-form "rises above human form." He told me. "The majesty of the creature (though unfortunate for Zoref) was that it was one step closer to attaining the next stage of existence."

4. The Midwich Cuckoos: "Alpha Child"
Our literary, cinematic and TV tradition is filled with examples of sinister, even demonic "changeling" children. John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos (made as the 1960 film Village of the Damned) featured otherworldy but human-appearing children who pursued an evil alien agenda against mankind.

The 1950s also gave the world sociopath Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed of novelist William March: a child without the empathy and innocence we associate with children. By the disco-decade of the 1970s, we were introduced to the demonically possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973) and little Damien, The Anti-Christ, in The Omen (1976).

Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" presents the tale of the first Alphan born in space, little Jackie Crawford, and the alien changeling (Jarak) who steals his place, possesses his body and accelerates his growth. This terrifying episode is dominated by unforgettable horrific imagery, including that of a child psychically torturing his mother, and a grown child trapped within the too-small confines of a baby incubator. That last visual is a sign of "horror" overcoming technology, an important idea in Space:1999.

5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "The Full Circle"

The dual, split-personality nature of the human being was observed and charted in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There, the crux of the story involved the separation of the "sinful" from "the moral" into two distinct beings, the savage Mr. Hyde and the civilized Dr. Jekyll.

Space:1999 also dramatizes a variation of this story, in Jesse Lasky Jr., and Pat Silver's "The Full Circle." Here, the Alphans explore a planet called Retha and soon encounter a tribe of primitive stone-age cavemen. Later, it is learned that the Alphans themselves were the cave-men, having passed through a strange, misty time-warp and regressed to a less-advanced state. This time-warp is beautifully realized as a kind of waterfall of mist in a primeval jungle.

Uniquely, this premise is explored in didactic terms: the Alphans have been separated not into sinful and moral versions of themselves like Jekyll/Hyde, but "primitive" and "technological" versions. And, ironically, it is the technological, modern model (personified by Alan Carter and Sandra Benes) who resort to physical violence.

At the end of the story, a bewildered Koenig notes that there no aliens on the planet to contend with...just flawed human nature. "Because we couldn't speak to each other, couldn't communicate, we misunderstood," Koenig notes. "Yet it was only us there..."

6. Faust: "End of Eternity"
As early as the 1500s, Germany presented the legend of a learned mortal, Johann Fausten, or Dr. Faust, who was willing to trade his immortal soul for knowledge beyond human ken. His partner-in -trade was no one less than Satan, the Devil.

A dissatisfied intellectual, Faust had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding, and went into the devil's bargain with his eyes wide open. Again, it's important: he was a man of science, a doctor.

In Space: 1999's chilling "End of Eternity" by Johnny Byrne, the Alphans free a man called Balor (think Baal), from his own personal Hell: an inescapable asteroid prison cell. Balor,like Faust, is a scientist who has discovered the secret to eternal life; the spontaneous regeneration of human tissue. But, this alien devil with the secret of immortality demands a high price of the Alphans if they are to share in his information wealth: eternal submission to his sadistic, violent, Devilish ways. At least one Alphan, a grounded pilot named Baxter, makes a Faustian deal with this alien Lucifer. Koenig, however, refuses to cooperate and in a David & Goliath-like conclusion (that pre-dates Ridley Scott's Alien [1979]) sends Balor hurtling out an airlock.

7. The Ghost: "The Troubled Spirit"

Space: 1999's Johnny Byrne here sought to "mix two things," and was stimulated by the idea of "combining horror and science fiction."

"The Troubled Spirit" is an out-and-out, up-front horror story, one involving a ghost that haunts the spirit of a living man, technician Dan Mateo. In fact, the ghost is Dan Mateo himself...a spirit from the future haunting his present, mortal self.

The Alphans, led by their oracle, Victor, must "exorcise" the murderous ghost, but in doing so, end up killing Dan Mateo and scarring him in the exact same fashion as his ghostly specter.

"The Troubled Spirit" also showcases one of the most lyrical, brilliantly-staged opening sequences in all of television history, as a supernatural "wind" blows through the high-tech, white-on-white halls of Moonbase Alpha. Another example of the supernatural or horrific over-powering the auspices of technology and science.

8. St. George vs. The Dragon: "Dragon's Domain"

Saint George was a Christian martyr who saved a king's daughter from being killed by a plague-bearing, giant dragon. George committed this act, however, only after a guarantee that the king's land would soon be converted to Christianity.

Christopher Penfold's outstanding Space: 1999 "Dragon's Domain" actually references the tale of St. George vs. The Dragon in its text.

Here, the paradigm has been updated: it's astronaut Tony Cellini (Gianno Giarko) versus a tentacled cyclops which haunts a spaceship graveyard. Tony is not able to slay this dragon (that act is left to Koenig, armed with a hatchet), and Tony never forces a conversion to Christianity.

However, Tony does aggressively push the Alphans, especially Helena Russell, to embrace, let's say, the philosophy of "extreme possibilities" and not cling to earthbound belief systems. "I want you all to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real....You must believe!" He insists, when faced with disbelievers.

At the end of the story, Koenig, Victor and Helena flee the spaceship graveyard (and the dead monster), essentially converted to Cellini's way of thinking. They have witnessed the impossible with their own eyes: a mesmeric alien creature which does not register on their instruments, and which devours human life forms. Helena brings up the example of Saint George and the Dragon, and suggests that Tony and the Monster will be a part of the new Alphan society's long-term mythology.

9. The Picture of Dorian Gray: "The Exiles"
Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray involved a handsome young man, Dorian Gray, who was beautiful, immoral and also a criminal. While he undertook his reign of terror, Gray's portrait -- in secret -- became aged and horrible, reflecting his morality, his vanity, and his sins.

As for Gray, he himself showed no physical or biological signs of his perversions and presented the appearance of remaining forever young.

In the second season Space: 1999 episode, "The Exiles," Moonbase Alpha encounters two apparently benign alien teenagers, Cantar (Peter Duncan) and Zova (Stacy Dorning). In fact, these innocent-seeming (and physically beautiful) youngsters are alien insurrectionists. They are centuries-old, but protected by a physical membrane that prevent physical degeneration and aging. At story's end, Helena scratches Cantar's protective membrane, and, like Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel, the weight of the decades lands upon the vain villain in seconds: he super-ages and dies in horrible, gruesome fashion.

10. The Zombie: "All That Glisters "

Before George Romero's stellar re-interpretation of the Zombie mythology in Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies were often simply mindless human beings; laborers working at the behest of an evil master. They were, in essence, unthinking henchmen in the White Zombie (1932) sense.

 episode "All That Glisters" resurrects this older interpretation of the zombie on a distant planet inhabited by sentient, silicon life-forms. These alien rocks murder Security Chief (Tony Verdeschi) and then re-animate him as a zombie, essentially, to serve as their arms and legs. The horror-overtones of this episode are also quite dramatic. Director Ray Austin deploys some tight-framing, dark-lighting and claustrophobic settings to express the horror of the situation.

Other episodes of Space: 1999 also dealt explicitly in horror tropes. "Mission of the Darians" concerned the taboo of cannibalism (a concept we see in literature such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). "Brian the Brain" was a Frankenstein story, with a renegade, technological monster (a murderous robot) murdering his creator/father, Captain Michael (Bernard Cribbins).

"Seed of Destruction" was a variation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" only with Koenig confronting an alien doppelganger, rather than a wizardly ancestor of identical physical characteristics. "Death's Other Dominion also involved scientific hubris and super-aging in its unforgettable climax, and "The Testament of Arkadia" highlighted a valley of death - a necropolis of sorts -- on an alien world, as well as ghostly force influencing the Alphans.

Of course, a relevant question is this: why create a technology-based, outer space series utilizing so many instances of horror in mythology, literature and even the movies. The answer lies in Penfold's and Byrne's unique concept of the series.

Specifically, Johnny Byrne once informed me that Space: 1999 "is a modern day (near future) origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space: 1999 took place in real time, not pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction, and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the series, and nobody seems to understand and accept that. In Space: 1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."

Now imagine that culture established, some two hundred years after the events of Space: 1999. The stories those "future" citizens might tell would involve terrifying tales of their founding: of the premature burial, of the encounter with sirens, of St. George and the Dragon, and so forth.

It is this mythic (and horrific) perspective, truly, which makes Space:1999 so unique a science fiction drama. The series repeatedly pinpoints high-tech corollaries for the ideas that have scared us throughout human history and then takes its characters on a mythic journey through that macabre realm of the unknown. Thrillingly, the series also includes amazing guest performances by horror icons including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Richard Johnson

If you're interested in learning more about Space:1999's futuristic "origin myth," don't forget to check out my critically-acclaimed book, Exploring Space:1999now available on Kindle.

From the Archive: Space: 1999 "Force of Life"

In 1975, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s epic space adventure Space:1999 aired in syndication in the United States and was a mega-hit in the ratings, causing networks to dump shows like William Shatner’s Barbary Coast, David McCallum’s The Invisible Man and others.

The series was also a critical smash, at least before many Star Trek fans and writers got their say in the burgeoning genre press (which in those days consisted mostly of Starlog).

No less a source than Science Digest, in November of 1975, termed the Andersons' production "a visually-stunning space age morality play that chronicles the downfall of 20th-century technological man," while Newsweek noted on October 20, 1975 that "not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry."  The Richmond Times commented that Space 1999 had "one foot in science and a range of special effects that would make even the emotionless Mr. Spock envious."

As these reviews make plain, Space:1999 was unlike any other sci-fi show ever produced, the model being much closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Trek or Lost in Space. It was a quantum leap forward for the genre, a pioneer. And as those who watch it will recall, the series had a whopper of a premise.

The story involves the 311 denizens of Moonbase Alpha who, on September 13, 1999 are stranded there after the moon is blasted out of Earth orbit by a nuclear explosion. These stalwart scientists and astronauts are left to fend for themselves - drifting among the stars - as the moon encounters temporal anomalies, space warps, visiting aliens and the like.

The ninth episode of Space:1999, "Force of Life," written by the late Irish poet Johnny Byrne and directed by UFO and The Prisoner veteran David Tomblin, is probably the episode that really blew the whole Space:1999 controversy wide open for most viewers. Some people (like myself...) immediately fell in love with it, while others simply could not stand it.

"Force of Life" was the dividing line between those who appreciate ambiguity in their drama, and those who prefer neat little wrap-ups and attempts at explanation.

To re-cap briefly, this episode of Space:1999 sees a mysterious ball of energy - an alien life-force - infiltrate Alpha. In particular, the alien focuses on Nuclear Generating Area Three and Technician Anton Zoref, played by Ian McShane (of HBO’s current hit, Deadwood.) Before long, to the dismay of Anton’s loving wife, Eva (Gay Hamilton), the technician begins to change.

In particular, he can’t seem to stay warm. By seeming osmosis, he begins to drain all the heat from a lamp in his quarters, then a lighting panel in a corridor, and so forth...his appetite for energy and heat ever-increasing. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and his team, including Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) register the energy drops, but don’t yet realize Zoref is the cause. Before long, Zoref is seeking to stay alive (and warm...) by draining the heat from living human beings, his fellow Alphans. Koenig and the others catch on, but not before Zoref marches right into the Nuclear Generating Area and absorbs its heat...causing a tremendous explosion on Alpha.

Out of the smoldering rubble of the devastated nuclear plant, the energy sphere re-emerges whole - stronger than before - and heads off into space, no doubt carrying elements of Zoref with it. There are no definite answers about the strange and dangerous alien encounter, but Professor Bergman speculates that the Alphans may have witnessed some kind of creative evolution, the birth stages of a star, perhaps...

And that’s it.

The episode makes no bones about the fact that the Alphans don’t understand a lick about the alien that has come knocking on their doorstep. These are not the knowledgeable, highly-evolved humans featured on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Instead, the viewer is presented with a simple mystery. I love the episode’s haunting coda, wherein Dr. Helena Russell tries to comfort Anton’s wife, in mourning over the loss of her husband: "We’re living in deep space, there are so many things we don’t understand," she says. "We don’t know what that alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we’ve got to try to help each other understand..."

In other words, the episode perfectly reflects the essence of our human condition. There are things in this universe we don’t understand - fate, life, death, you name it - but what we can do is reach out to other humans; provide comfort and succor. For me that’s a very human and touching message in what is otherwise a spine-tingling episode with a hard-edge. For an example of the latter quality, I need only recommend you to the scene in which Astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) fires his laser at Zoref and chars his skin off. Completely.  (See photo above for a look at the charred Anton about to enter the nuclear generator...)

Some folks, including the late great Buster Crabbe, just didn’t like "Force of Life," and that’s certainly their right. Back when Space:1999 was on the air, he complained about the episode on a talk show in which the other guest was series star Martin Landau. Mr. Crabbe wanted to know what the alien was, what it represented, and what the whole episode meant.

But of course, that would have spoiled the fun. Better, isn’t it, to leave some things unclear; to allow the viewer to fill in the gaps? (Think of Hitchcock's The Birds. Would any explanation really satisfy you as to the reason for the avian attack on humanity? The same holds true for "Force of Life.")

Over the years, I had the honor to speak with Johnny Byrne, Space:1999's script editor, about many series episodes, including "Force of Life." This is what he told me about the episode in 2001:

"It was a process of a life force traveling through space, chrysalis into butterfly. That’s entirely all it was. Why can’t people see that? Just last night, I was watching this program about the universe, about the incredible ways life can survive. These scientists study these tiny microbes found on Mars, or learn how life can survive literally anywhere. It’s incredible. I didn’t know about these things when I wrote "Force of Life," but it is the same thing. The life force had its own agenda, and there were no philosophical discussions to be had. It couldn’t express itself verbally, because it was very different from the Alphans. I mean, was it going to pop in and say ‘charge me up and send me on my way’? That would have been ridiculous."

"The Alphans didn’t understand the process," Byrne continues, "but remember, we weren’t dealing with super smart space jockeys, we were dealing with near-future people caught in a very un-Earth-like situation. But the process was purely that of the caterpillar transforming into something else."

Beyond the interesting story, "Force of Life," is worthy of spotlighting because of its startling visualizations. I’ve always loved Space:1999 because it is a TV series that adroitly manipulates film grammar (i.e. mise-en-scene, camera angles), and in the process cogently transmit its themes. It is a visual masterpiece filled with mind-blowing imagery. David Tomblin directs "Force of Life" with a quiver full of stylish film techniques including a tracking camera, slow-motion photography, distortion lenses, and most famously of all, a slow turn of the camera into an inverted position.

The aforementioned upside-down camera turn, the final shot of the episode’s shocking teaser is efficacious because it symbolically (and visually) suggests that Moonbase Alpha will be turned on its head by the alien energy force.

Even more effectively, the use of extensive slow-motion photography in the chase sequences prolongs the terror of Zoref’s victims, and heightens audience suspense. The menacing low-angle shots of the technician stalking his prey also contribute to the episode’s overall feeling of dread and paranoia. These moments -- which fill the screen with the imposing image of the homicidal, starving Zoref -- depict strength and the invincible nature of this alien intruder.

The color changes and focus shifts on Zoref’s face further reflect that this human is in the grip of an alien force by alternating dramatically from blue to red (symbolically cold to hot...) as Zoref drains his victims. All of these remarkable and stylish touches make "Force of Life" appear more like a full-fledged feature than a mereTV show. As in the best of productions, form reflects content. This isn’t just a pretty melange of master-shots/close-ups, but a clearly-thought out tapestry that carries distinct visual meaning and thus thematic weight.

"The way it looked took some thought," acknowledges Byrne, "and was beautifully expressed by David [Tomblin]. I don’t understand why people don’t get it..."

I must say, I also like the little joke about Zoref’s name, which Byrne insists was unintentional. Jumble the letters around a bit and you spell the word...froze. Nice touch.

The essence and driving concept of Space:1999 is always that outer space is a realm both frightening and wondrous, so unlike the series' detractors, I believe it totally unnecessary to explain where the alien in "Force of Life" originated, how it thinks, why it selected Zoref, where it’s headed, and so forth.

If all those questions had been addressed, the mystery would vanish, murdered in the rush to find an authentic-sounding scientific explanation or some pat psychological motivation for something that - to the Alphans - should remain inexplicable. There would be no room for horror, no space for awe, and thus no sense that the Alphans are strangers in a strange land - the very thesis of the program.

So today, I wholeheartedly champion Space:1999's ninth episode, "Force of Life." It credits the viewer with intelligence, and doesn’t rush to spoon-feed us every last detail. In its deliberate ambiguity and impressive technical skill, it represents a remarkable installment of an often misunderstood or underestimated TV series. After you watch it, you might look up at the stars and shiver. There are things up there we can’t even imagine, and every now and then science fiction TV programming has a duty to look beyond laser duels, tales of good vs. evil, or metaphors for our political world, and focus instead on the universe of mystery inherent in the cosmos.

That’s precisely what "Force of Life" accomplishes, and the genre is stronger for it.

From the Archive: Space:1999 Chest Pack Radio (Illco., 1976)

My love for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) began when I was five years old and while the series was still broadcasting on WPIX, Channel 11 out of New York.  Even today, I vividly remember the abundant toys, books and model kits from the TV series dotting the aisles of local toy stores, particularly Newberry's in Verona, N.J.

My parents -- indulgent sorts that they are -- always made certain I was equipped with eagle spaceships, Mattel action figures, Power Records, H.G. Puzzles and the like.  Most of these Space:1999 items still hold cherished positions in my home office today.  Some of them, as you can guess, are pretty well played out after thirty-five years.

Another Space:1999 toy I vividly recall was the Illfelder Toy Company's Chest Pack Radio (style no. 37-2070).  As the box reads, this was a "solid-state transistor radio with microphone, space signal morse code button and ear-plug."   In design, this ATV-licensed toy is made to resemble the Alphan space suit chest pack.  It straps on over the shoulders, and is worn across the torso.  It takes four C size batteries to operate properly.

The Space: 1999 Chest Pack Radio includes the following features:

1. Solid State 5 Transistor A.M Radio
2. Sensitive Volume Control.
3. Microphone.
4. Space Signal Morse Code Button
5. Earphone
6. Precision Tuning Dial
7. Microphone Mix Control.
8. "Red Alert" Light
9. Authentic Space:1999 Chest Pack Style
10. Heavy duty body straps
11. Completely portable.

With the microphone you can "Broadcast your voice or sing along with your favorite tunes

With the "Space Signal Button" you can "send real morse code messages."

And with the ear plug you can engage in "private listening."

So in other words, this is really just a sort of kid's radio, only styled and packaged to seem futuristic.  It's similar to Mego's Star Trek Command Communication Console in concept, I suppose.  The toy likely wouldn't seem too thrilling to today's kids, I'd wager.  Precision tuning dials? Volume controls? Ear plugs?  I mean, whoo-hoo, right?  Today we sleep next to tiny alarm clocks with many of these features...though personally I'd like them better if they also included "red alert lights."

But back in the 1970s (the decade of the CB radio, lest we forget...), this kind of toy was absolute nirvana...and state of the art. 

The future of the year 1999 perhaps wasn't as fantastic as Space:1999 predicted, but thanks to toys such as this Chest Pack Radio, the seventies were certainly pretty awesome for sci-fi kids.

From the Archive: Mammoth Model Eagle 1 Transporter (1976; Crafts by Whiting)

When I was a kid in the 1970s I was fascinated by all things having to do with Space:1999's trademark Eagle spacecraft.  I had a model kit of the ship from Airfix, a huge toy of the Eagle (from Mattel) and more. 

And in 1976, ATV licensed "Crafts by Whiting" (a Milton Bradley Company) to create another variation on the famous Brian Johnson design: a so-called "mammoth model" for ages 10 to 16.

In this hugely complicated kit, "everything" was "included to make" a "giant size decorative model."  The contents (unassembled) included "approximately 50 seventeen inch long straws, glue, die-cut printed parts and easy to follow illustrated instructions." 

The assembled Eagle model was "over 3 feet long."

On the side of the mammoth model box, intrepid young modelers were reminded "It's as easy as one, two, three."  First "position cut and glue straw parts over pattern sheet."  Then "press out and assemble die-cut printed cardboard pieces."  And finally "combine straw structures and die cut assemblies to complete spacecraft."

Today, I own one of these Mammoth Model Space: 1999 Eagle Transporter in its box, but have never, ever attempted to build it.  The directions say easy as one-two-three, but I just don't believe them.  Looking at the unassembled kit, it looks like the most complex thing imaginable. I'm afraid I would just ruin it.

So for now, and the forseeable future, I'm just going to enjoy the box art of this unique Eagle Transporter "Mammoth Model," and remember that I have an unbuilt Eagle at the ready should the fancy ever strike...

From the Archive: Pop Art (Space:1999 Charlton Edition)

Cult-TV Flashback: Space: 1999: "Collision Course"

“Collision Course” by Anthony Terpiloff and directed by Ray Austin represents a test for John Koenig (Martin Landau) and his command of Moonbase Alpha.  

Specifically, the episode lands the protagonist in a situation where the facts are against him, logic is against him, science itself is against him, and all he can muster is a vague character testimony (for an alien named Arra…) and a desperate admonition for his people to trust him. 

What this difficult scenario reveals, perhaps, is that faith isn’t an easy thing to come by, particularly in an era when technology is ascendant; when new tools, instruments, or even weapons (like nuclear charges) present an apparently straight path to resolving a crisis.  

Thus, once more, Space: 1999 focuses intently on the human condition as it stands now, and not in any fashion idealized or romanticized.  As always, the series concerns modern man -- with all his frailties and foibles -- thrust into an environment for which he is psychologically unprepared.  The episode builds to an emotional climax, and the pay-off is unexpectedly one of the most lyrical and poetic of the canon, a reflection of a kind of magic realism leitmotif.

For those unacquainted with it, magical realism is a story-telling approach in which something seemingly impossible (hence magical) occurs in an otherwise very real setting.  In “Collision Course” the laws of Physics as we understand them are held in abeyance so that a dramatic (though magical...) reckoning, apotheosis, or sense of transcendence can be depicted.

“Collision Course” begins in media res as Moonbase Alpha very narrowly avoids a collision with a nearby asteroid by detonating small nuclear charges on its surface.  The mission is a success of sorts, though a thick radioactive cloud hovers over the base, with possibly deleterious effects on humans.

Meanwhile, pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate) is missing in action.  A mysterious alien intelligence named “Arra” (Margaret Leighton) however, guides Alan safely to a rendezvous point in space with Koenig’s rescue Eagle.  

From that vantage point, at the rim of the radiation cloud, Koenig detects a new danger.  A planet thirteen times the size of Alpha is now on a collision course with the wandering moon. Only hours remain before total annihilation.

Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) proposes Operation Shockwave, a mission to drop nuclear charges on a path between the two planetary bodies in hopes that the resulting nuclear detonation will pull them apart and spare both worlds from destruction.

But soon, Koenig encounters Arra himself and he faces a new set of variables. The alien queen informs him that it is her world, Atheria, which now approaches Alpha.  Furthermore, the approaching collision is the very catalyst her people have sought and awaited since the dawn of time.  The collision will trigger in them a total metamorphosis, a next step in their species’ evolution. 

Arra also guarantees that Moonbase Alpha will survive the collision unscathed, noting that it’s odyssey will “know no end” and that mankind will prosper in new solar systems for ages to come.  Koenig takes Arra at her word, but how can he convince his top staff -- rational and logical scientists all -- that they should do nothing in the face of imminent disaster?

In large part, this episode of Space: 1999 concerns faith.  Not religious faith, necessarily, but perhaps the faith in an understanding beyond our own; that things aren’t always exactly as they first appear, and that we don’t always have all the answers.  Rushing to judgment serves no one.

"Collision Course" thus concerns a human value: trust.  It’s the battle between human and machine values perhaps, and one that explicitly fits in with what Science Digest tagged as the series’ central thesis: the downfall of 20th century, technological man.  

The idea underlying this concept is that we don’t know everything ,and when we forsake human values for a reliance on technology, the outcomes may not be the ones we desire.  This idea is encoded in  the opening episode, “Breakaway,” which features a nuclear accident, and sends the moon (and Alpha) careening into space.

In real life, I’m not generally a big fan of faith-based decision-making.  We use facts and science as our guides to make the best decisions we can.  It’s only logical.  But what “Collision Course”  explores is the notion that trust is a critical factor too, in decision-making.  If you understand that someone knows more about a situation than you do, and you indeed trust them, then the question becomes: is that enough to outweigh the available facts?  The harsh lesson for Commander Koenig is that his people are limited in some sense, by the (technological) world view which shaped them, and that even the quality of loyalty (to him) is not enough to make them forsake science, rationality, and logic in the face of fear and apocalypse.  

Again, I don’t interpret this episode as being a blanket approval of blind faith, but rather the importance of “seeing” faith, let's call it.  Koenig comes to trust Arra after their meeting, and places his faith in her after assessing her, person-to-person..  His people on Alpha -- though they know him better than he knows Arra -- are not able to place this kind of faith in him.  Koenig understands the situation well and harbors no anger, as the coda suggests.  Were the situations reversed, he asserts, he would likely not be able to do “nothing” in the face of certain disaster, either.  Accordingly, the story becomes a comment on the qualities we see in all human-kind, not just Koenig or the Alphans.

One quality I appreciate about “Collision Course” is its sense of humility about human nature.  Here, a benevolent alien teaches the human race something wondrous about the universe, a reality that goes beyond man’s limited understanding and science.  I like the fact that the Alphans are allowed to be wrong in this case, and yet that they are learning as opposed to lecturing or teaching others about their values.  Johnny Byrne, Space: 1999's story editor, once told me that great drama emerges not from an exploration of characters who already have all they need, but from an exploration of those who don't.  Here, the Alphans lack knowledge about deep space, and so are afraid and act fearfully. 

As we expect from Space: 1999, “Collision Course’s visuals are vivid and powerful.  The first acts of the program showcase a sense of confusion and dread, for instance.  First, Moonbase Alpha is blanketed in an impenetrable haze, unable to see or understand anything happening around it.  Later, Koenig pierces that haze and find signs only of death and doom.  Arra’s ship devours his Eagle in a sense (the fore opens like a shark’s jaws…) and Koenig finds her ship to be something like a tomb, replete with cob-webs and an ancient figure garbed in a funeral cloak or shroud..  Whether this is Arra’s real form, or Koenig’s perception of her form -- based on his own fear of impending doom -- is questionable. 

Finally, the episode ends with that touch of grace and transcendence, with that touch of magical realism.  Atheria and Alpha careen towards one another and all appears lost.  But the planets don’t collide.  Instead they merely touch, and Arra and her people apparently “evolve” to the next level of their existence.  

There’s no existing scientific theory, principle or axiom, to my knowledge, that could explain why these  two space bodies touch instead of collide.  But the episode  surprises with its fanciful, even chimeric sense of wonder or vision.  There are some things man does not yet understand, the episode expresses, and sometimes it’s necessary not to rage against the fantastic or otherworldly, but to put faith in a friend.  Arra speaks of history, foreknowledge, and sacred purpose of mankind, and her vision proves correct, even if "fear" precedes apotheosis.

Moonbase Alpha in a haze of darkness and confusion.

Devoured by fear...

A tomb?

A figure of death, in a funeral shroud.

Out of darkness and fear into light. Two worlds don't collide.  They "touch."

I can’t claim I would always want or desire Space: 1999 to exist on this rarefied plateau of magical reality, because then hard-edged science-fiction becomes a very different animal: phantasmagoric storytelling with no rules, where anything is possible (and thus valid).  

But in the case of “Collision Course” I’d submit the episode works splendidly as a one-off, re-asserting in dynamic visual and narrative fashion the idea that mankind is sometimes the victim of a sort of a tunnel vision, seeing only part of the picture and ignoring the rest.   There are more wonders in Heaven and Earth, “Collision Course” suggests, than is dreamed of in our philosophy (or by our technology).  

And this principle  -- love it or hate it -- is a key element of Space: 1999’s creative vision.