NOTE: I started to write this entry before the passing of Martin Landau using purely my memory of the subjectmatter, which I’d like to think is quite vivid. The intention was to set aside a late night to rewatch it and then adjust the essay as necessary. I have since done just that. I therefore offer this not just as a tribute to the show, but to Mr. Landau himself.
Space: 1999 is a show that tends to have a lukewarm reputation with the general public. At the time the show aired, though, it felt like “event” television, mostly by virtue of its expensive 2001-style special-effects, masterminded by Gerry Anderson. Anderson was best known for making marionette shows, but he also assembled the best modelmaking team in the world. Unlike Star Wars, though, the Anderson flavor of effects never used motion-control or blue-screen. It was the heir apparent of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Simply models on wires. But it’s amazing to witness how far such a simple technique could be pushed.
And when I say “he” I really mean his FX team, similar to George Lucas building ILM, James Cameron building Digital Domain, or Peter Jackson building WETA, Anderson established his modelmaking empire. This produced talent such as Derek Meddings who went on to bond films and Superman…and later Brian Johnson.
Gerry also had his wife Sylvia who did a ton of the heavy-lifting herself, but got little of the credit. The power couple’s marriage disintegrated over the course of the show, as did leads Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.
How much of that tension oozed into the show is hard to tell, although even the revamped second season was not able to really liven up what had become established as a very no-nonsense attitude on Moonbase Alpha.
Nevertheless, the second season did bring us my favorite Space: 1999 character, Maya the shape-shifter.
I would like to do a much more extensive piece about Gerry Anderson but I am not as well-versed in the lore as I should be. That’s mostly because Anderson’s core fanbase was built up in the 60s and I’m Generation-X. So to me, my only real exposure was via Space: 1999. I do not recall UFO ever being in syndication and Thunderbirds was only on briefly in the 80s. One thing I do want to understand more is the connection of east and west, since the Japanese really embraced the models-on-wires approach of Anderson, as well as making various vehicles and technology a key draw in their shows.
For Generation-X, Space:1999 bridged the sci-fi gap between the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman and the explosion of Star Wars in 1977 which was then followed up by its imitators on TV with the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. In that brief window it was able to capture mindshare, but because the tone of Star Wars was so much more exciting and uplifting, the morose, slow-moving, and cerebral Space: 1999 quickly faded from pop consciousness. Reruns persisted into the late 70s and early 80s, though, and for a kid that would eat up any sci-fi that was on TV before the age of VCRs, I never completely let go of my interest. It also helped that I had one of these:
I also had one of these that shot little plastic discs. It’s the
kind of toy you aren’t likely to see anymore because of safety concerns.
OK. Simple enough. Sounds like just good wholesome childhood memories, right?
This was NOT Power Rangers. This was a dark show. Maybe not Game of Thrones or Walking Dead dark, but really dark for standards and practices of the 1970s. It was dark enough that you might even classify it as horror since so many plots had elements of dread and gore. This might be surprising considering that Anderson became so closely associated with kiddie fare, but as early as Captain Scarlet he had taken an interest in darker subjectmatter (although its theme was um, goofy).
In the show UFO despite the Austin Powers meets Barbarella aesthetic, the big reveal is that the aliens are harvesting human organs for their own use. Space: 1999 was originally conceived as an extension of the UFO universe, but then went its own way–an increasingly dark way. Gone were the vibrant colors of the late 60s and in were the bland beiges and grays of the 70s with dialogue delivered in hushed X-Files style whispers.
From the first moments of a Space: 1999 episode, at least in the first season, there’s always a sense that something awful is about to happen. You just don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but it’s nothing but one tragedy after another.
When it comes to tales of terror, one episode in particular stands head and shoulders above the rest. If you’re a casual detractor, watching the show should cause you to reconsider writing it off to the dustbin of pop-culture history. I probably first viewed this when it first aired, around age 5, and it provided fodder for countless nightmares for years. Luckily, like so much other stuff of this vintage, it’s freely floating around as a stream. Before I start to deconstruct it, please dim the lights and give it a viewing first. So without further ado, Over The Hill reviewer presents…
Space: 1999 – Dragon’s Domain
So, what did you think? Turns out there are several blog posts dedicated to this episode, such as this one. Clearly I wasn’t the only one still harboring childhood trauma from watching it.
Rather than just regurgitating what other bloggers have to say about it, I will offer my opinion of why it is this episode worked so effectively as a tale of terror.
The first thing it does is open with the framing device of voiceover narration. This is sometimes used in horror movies. For instance, The Incredible Shrinking Man is interspersed with voiceover narration. The idea behind this is to create a conversational feel similar to telling ghost stories around the fire.
The blog posts tend to draw connections between this story and Alien/Aliens. I also see a connection in the PTSD aspect of Commodore Decker in Star Trek’s The Doomsday Machine as far as encountering someone wracked with grief, guilt, and obsession over having lost his crewmates.
While yes, there are clear parallels, one key difference is the power of the monster. Rather than merely being tormented by PTSD, the monster has the ability to lure its prey into its maw through force of will, similar to the possession of a demon ala The Exorcist.
It’s this aspect of the monster being supernatural that elevates it beyond the simple physicality of the xenomorphs of the alien movies.
Like the Flying Dutchman it also has the ability to chase after a victim that it wants to haunt, hence the spirit of the monster and later the entire field of derelict ships magically reappears lightyears beyond their original location.
Beyond the monster’s abilities, its physical appearance as an octopus-like creature with a huge glowing eye and a vacuum-cleaner-like maw hugging the floor is inherently menacing. The comparisons with HP Lovecraft are astute, although when I first watched this I had no idea who HP Lovecraft was.
The fact that the monster doesn’t move from his spot, but people wind up getting lured/sucked into it is the stuff of nightmares. It doesn’t need to chase you. It needs to bring you in like a cross between a black-widow spider and Kaa the snake from Jungle Book.
Beyond all of these things is the way the monster goes about devouring its prey that is truly disgusting. It strips away the meat and then spits out the smoldering bones. And it doesn’t just spit out bones. It spits out a freshly stripped skeleton like a slaughtering machine. And it’s not just that it spits it out, it’s that it spits it out with the same sort of cocky attitude as Sam Malone serving up a beer.
There’s just something truly sick and twisted about the cruel killing-machine efficiency of how it sucks bodies in and then back out they glide, converted into nothing but a horrible waste product of death. It evokes a visceral response of utter disgust. It’s an insult to heaven and earth worthy of Hannibal Lecter.
Like Alien, though, there’s not much of a sense of intelligent purpose. Monsters kill because that’s what they do. That’s just who they are. The enigma of the monster’s origin just adds to the creepout-factor.
In addition to this are the moldy remains of previous kills that are shown 5 years later, reminiscent of Raiders:
What makes these remains so much worse, though, is they aren’t totally anonymous. These include the bodies of the crew that we saw in the flashback. The fact they were humanized earlier makes these bodies strewn around like so much trash feel like venturing into the lair of a serial killer who is holding onto them like trophies.
The actual amount of time spent with the monster is short. Like Jaws and so many other films of its ilk, most of the episode is spent building tension. The monster scenes don’t have to be long to be effective. In fact if you overexposed the monster it might lessen the effect. The monster needs to build in the audience’s imagination before it’s actually shown.
In that climactic battle Tony tries to send the monster batch to hell with his axe, only to succumb to the monster right before Koenig and the cavalry swoop in. But Tony gets in enough hacks for the blood to start pouring down in a gruesome way. Koenig realizes that the ray guns are of no use and goes in to dispatch the monster with one really gross swing to the top of his eye. All along the monster has a blood-curdling screaming sound and the ringing sound effect throughout.
Despite all of the craft that went into creating the effect it has on me, at the end of the day I have to admit that a big factor in all this is the sheer fact I saw something so damn age-inappropriate while I was so young. I don’t know if I should admire Anderson and company for getting away with it or curse them for having generated such a frightful demon that has persisted in the back of my mind all these years.
This is ultimately the power of media. It is both the stuff of dreams…and nightmares.
ABOUT HOW IT STANDS UP TO MODERN VIEWING:
This was the first time I have watched the show in HD on a home theater setup and it was quite a revelation. It looked and sounded great. You could even see the paint strokes on the sets and props and you could hear all of Barbara Bain’s annoying drymouth noises which were such a hallmark of the show. But despite the era in which it was produced, it really does hold up great in HD. The pastel and soft-focus aspects of the 70s cinematography were on full display. The space scenes were exquisitely beautiful. Some of the space maneuver shots of the Ultra-probe had a decidedly 2001 vibe to it. Also, the music was awesome. The flashback used mostly a classical-sounding score and the actual monster segment music was suitably creepy. (If there’s one area where the episode failed it was the Italian actor who played Tony, who seemed to struggle so much to recite english dialogue that his acting was a little rough.)
Unfortunately it’s not possible to get both seasons on blu-ray in the US, just UK-region discs, so I wound up having to find a torrent. It’s really a shame that the show is so poorly represented in the US market.
Anyway, next I will offer PART 2 of my set of reviews to celebrate Martin Landau.