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Space: 1999 | Gerry Anderson's Bleakest Show Reflected Cold War Britain

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“We are Mankind. We came from planet Earth, and we built this base, called Alpha, to learn more about space. But human error blasted this Moon out of the Earth’s orbit. And so, we have travelled the Universe searching for a place to live.”

Prof. Victor Bergman

The science-fiction of the 1960s is, culturally, defined by its optimism—largely due to Star Trek: The Original Series. The combination of the successful space program, an opening out of political ideals, and innovations in televisual technology led to a spree of hopeful television wherein people get rescued, the day gets saved, and allegories are made. Across the pond, this can be seen in the creations of Gerry Anderson as much as anywhere else. Anderson’s creations, from Supercar to Thunderbirds to The Secret Service defined many childhoods, positing an uplifting and technologically advanced future. However, as the ’70s drew on, Anderson went into darker territory: the existential terror of Space: 1999.

Set on Moonbase Alpha, the series (1975-1977) followed the fight for the survival of the 311 inhabitants after a nuclear waste explosion throws the Moon out of Earth’s orbit and into deep space. The opening episode immediately undercuts Star Trek-style optimism: humanity is preparing for another great leap into the unknown by exploring the planet Meta, but is unable to go due to the sickness of its pilots. Our eventual protagonist Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) knows many of these pilots and watches their brain-dead bodies in the sickbay in horror. The base’s current commander, Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) wants to press ahead with the mission, prioritizing success over human lives. As shortly after the Moon is flung out of orbit, leaving the Earth as a casualty, it is likely they never got to perform that mission. The crew of Moonbase Alpha, out of control and hurtling towards an unknown with dwindling supplies and desperation, are Space: 1999’s style of astronaut. 

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Atrophy in the UK

Not only are the Alphans thrust away into a cold and uncaring universe, but there is an implication that even if they could return home, Earth would not be as they remember it. One of the last communications between the Moon and Earth has a news reporter describing horrendous disasters caused by the explosion, and by the Moon leaving Earth’s atmosphere, essentially preventing all of its regulating effects. The horror then extends outside of the Moonbase, taking into account the friends, families, and normality of its personnel.

The first figure given for Alpha’s population is 311: but this discounts the deaths on Alpha pre-Breakaway, as well as those suffered during the 13th of September. Indeed, before we even meet our central cast eight men have died, a total which will only increase episode on episode. The population on Alpha varies from 272 to 297 between series. Births are controlled on Alpha, as “we can barely support the people we have” (‘The Exiles’ – S2, Ep2). Similarly, unlike the endless parade of ‘Red Shirts’ in Star Trek, each loss of a random extra crewmember in fact had an impact due to the scarce resources and personnel of the base.

The specter of nuclear war hangs over the first episode as Moonbase Alpha is cast adrift, ‘Breakaway’ – S1, Ep1. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

As a result, the series immediately took a bleaker look at the realities of the space program, which is expensive, and dangerous (Moonbase Alpha, rather than being humanity’s last defense against alien invaders, is essentially a dump), and mismanaged by little men with big egos. Like on Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek: Voyager, our crew are isolated, desperate, and faced with no certainty in their future of ever finding a home (the Earth or elsewhere).

As Samira Ahmed writes in an article for TV Years magazine in 2019, the show presented the under-12s with “lush spaces visuals, bleak, existential plotlines [and] a visual horror.” Dr. Kevin Fong takes it a step further in the same article, calling the series an “electric heater in the bath.” The moon is further pushed out beyond Earth by passing through a black hole and later some ‘space warps’—truly plunging into territory where “no man has gone before,” but without the security of a Federation at their backs. The crew is on their own.

Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) in ‘Breakaway’ – S1, Ep1. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

These grim origins, and their impact on the remainder of the series, clearly reflect the context of the 1970s, a decade that, at least in Britain, became synonymous with bleakness. As academic and podcast host Rodney Marshall writes in the introduction for an upcoming book on the television of the decade, Survival TV: 

“In many respects, it is remembered for economic decline, unemployment, financial crises, strikes which led to a succession of State of Emergency situations. Some of those strikes left people literally in the dark, resulted in rubbish building up on the streets, panic buying in the shops, commercial television off-air for nearly three months, The Times newspaper disappearing for almost a year, even bodies left unburied. Until a deal was done with the IMF, the nation was on the point of a bankruptcy which the rest of the developed world frequently commented upon. In 1971, Home Office figures indicated that violent crime was, indeed, increasing by an alarming rate.

“By 1970, 1.5 million Brits were stuck in post-war tower blocks, many of them shoddily-built in isolated locations far from amenities. While initially some people understandably greeted these ‘streets in the sky’ as a radical improvement, the buildings were often poorly maintained and rapidly deteriorated. The result was frequently what Dominic Sandbrook calls a ‘brutal concrete reality’ which often brought with it intimidation, violence, vandalism, litter, graffiti, and social isolation. The high-rise ‘utopian’ vision of architects could rapidly become a grim dystopia.”

Rodney Marshall
A mass picket at Saltley Gate coke plant near Birmingham during the 1972 miners’ strike. | TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University.

Energy crises, a financial crash, miners’ strikes, incredibly high inflation, high emigration, and population dissatisfaction form the context for the production of Space: 1999. In short, the uplifting positivism of the 1960s, so clearly captured in Star Trek and other American shows of its ilk, was being undermined by the grim reality of day-to-day life in Britain. These events even had a material impact on the show, as the first 24 episodes were completed over a lengthy fifteen-month period, primarily due to a series of industrial disputes and power shortages that characterised the mid-1970s.

I Got 1999 Problems

The show also reflects the fears surrounding the Cold War, as with much sci-fi of the era: the “existential battle of life and death with an alien invader, the threat to humanity, the fears of totalitarian regimes, the technological race for supremacy […] and a very militaristic view on society, with heroes who tended to be undisputed commanders.” The initial disaster also prefigures many ecological fears, dealing as it does with the incompetent politicians mishandling a nuclear waste dump, causing catastrophic damage across the globe.

Moonbase Alpha itself seems to reflect the difficult politics of the mid-70s: coming out of the optimistic 1960s into a harsher world, so is Moonbase Alpha both intended as a research station based around the mission to Meta for humanity’s survival, but must also act as a monitor for a nuclear waste depository, which began to accumulate significantly following a thermonuclear war and peace treaty in 1987. Thus, the limitations of Alpha, and its eventual collapse, are directly linked to fears surrounding the Cold War and reflect the increasingly pragmatic politics of the era.

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However, the truth is that in terms of bleakness, Space: 1999 wasn’t actually as far from previous Gerry Anderson properties as might be thought. Even the most positive, such as search-and-rescue drama Thunderbirds, was influenced by tragic events from the creator’s own life (the death of his pilot brother, Lionel, during the Second World War), and as the Sixties drew on, Anderson properties continually leaned into darker territory. The basis of Captain Scarlet is that a man dies, is resurrected by aliens to destroy his friends, and then breaks free of his programming in order to fight back, whilst being able to die and come back to life eternally: an existential dread-inducing concept if there ever was one.

These fears of depersonalization would further play into Space: 1999’s forerunner, UFO, which dealt with aliens attempting to rob humans of their body parts, and frequently involved terrors from mind control to claustrophobia, as well as ruthlessly killing off the son of its lead character due to the conflict of duty vs. personal life. Grim stuff. Add into this the fact that the creative partnership and tumultuous marriage of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson was breaking up, and the bleakness and existential tone of the series become more understandable.

Anton Zoref (Ian McShane) at the climax of his grim transformation in ‘Force Of Life’ – S1, Ep2. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

In fact, from here on in, Space: 1999 also explores themes of depersonalization and body horror. Across the two series, a remarkable amount of crewmembers are mind-controlled or mentally influenced by aliens, causing them to kill themselves or others. In only the second broadcast episode, ‘Force Of Life’ (S1, Ep2), Anton Zoref (Ian McShane) becomes an energy-draining entity that attacks Alpha, and although the creature he has become departs, Zoref the human being is gone: his personality stripped away from him by forces beyond his control. As a heat-sucking vampire, Zoref also freezes multiple crewmembers to death, before being killed and resurrected as a zombie lurching towards Alpha’s nuclear reactor.

In ‘Ring Around the Moon’ (S1, Ep19), Ted Clifford (Max Faulkner) is taken over by the Tritonians, leading his brain to meltdown. Mike Baxter (James Smillie) is driven insane by visiting alien Balor (Peter Bowles) in ‘End of Eternity’ (S1, Ep12), and Dr. James Warren (Anthony Nicholls) is killed by the future spirit of Dan Mateo (Giancarlo Prete) in ‘The Troubled Spirit’ (S1, Ep22). (As Chris Dale wonderfully describes, Mateo is summoned “during a seance held among Mateo’s colleagues as part of an attempt to telepathically communicate with plants.“). In Series 2, Clive Kander (Nick Hobbs) is forced to vent an emergency oxygen cylinder into a compartment, causing him to be killed in the subsequent explosion (‘The Bringers of Wonder: Part 1’ – S2, Ep18), Carolyn Powell (Deborah Fallender) develops psychic powers, and kills Sally Martin (Lydia Lisle) and Mark Sanders (Jess Conrad) (‘The Lambda Factor’ – S2, Ep17), and Joe Lustig (Roy Boyd) is driven insane on the seemingly habitable planet discovered by Alpha and is killed by his own laser (‘The Immunity Syndrome’ – S2, Ep23). 

Balor (Peter Bowles) in ‘End of Eternity’ – S1, Ep12. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

Scar Trek

There are also frequent moments of body horror. In ‘Death’s Other Dominion’ (S1, Ep5), Dr. Rowland (Brian Blessed) is reduced to a steaming and badly decomposed corpse – one that is still holding Dr. Helena Russell’s (Barbara Bain) hand. Balor in ‘End of Eternity’ is an immortal with accelerated healing who demands that Moonbase help him in return for the secrets of eternal life. Not only do his dark paintings of people in pain scare the viewer, but so does his fate: thrown out of the airlock, he ends up exactly where he started: imprisoned for all eternity.

‘Mission of the Darians’ (S1, Ep9) too plays into body horror, as a radiation leak has led a once-noble civilization to prey on the underclass for literal ‘Human Resources’, leading to an Alpha security guard being broken down into base proteins within a Disintegration chamber. Adding to the horror is the fact that the episode was apparently based on the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 disaster, wherein the crash survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism. ‘Alpha Child’ (S1, Ep7) has the baby Jackie Crawford (Wayne Brooks) possessed by an alien named Jarak (Julian Glover), leading to a series of disturbing images such as a grown child trapped within an incubator and the same child torturing his own mother. Lovely!

Neman (Dennis Burgess) meets a grisly fate in ‘Mission of the Darians’ – S1, Ep9. Yes, that is Joan Collins. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

The crew is also sucked out of bombed buildings as in ‘War Games’ (S1, Ep4), possessed by aliens posing as refugees ‘The Exiles’ (S2, Ep2), or potential human sacrifices ‘Mission of the Darians’ (S1, Ep9). As Dale writes of the series: “Rather than being a bold new frontier space is portrayed as a hostile environment totally incompatible with human life, full of lurking horrors waiting to strip the flesh from your bones or twist you into something utterly unrecognizable as yourself.”

Giving just one episode as an example, ‘Another Time, Another Place’ (S1, Ep19) in particular deals with multiple existential issues. Having been thrown through a wormhole of sorts, the Alphans find themselves back in orbit around Earth: except there are no transmissions coming from the planet due to huge geological changes, and moreover, it seems incredibly unlikely that being moved billions of miles across space would lead them back to Earth. Crewmember Regina (Judy Geeson), suffering from the space warp, views herself as the Grim Reaper, and sees multiple crewmembers as alive or dead, calling Alan Carter (Nick Tate) her ‘husband’ without any prior context. The Earth’s axis is shown to have shifted between five and six degrees, leading to ice age climates in Europe, deserts, and radioactive ash covering most of the Americas. Then a second Moon is revealed, the population of which is revealed to be living in the single remaining habitable area on Earth, Santa Maria.

Earth’s survivors in ‘Another Time, Another Place’ – S1, Ep19. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

Speaking to their doubles, John Koenig is told that this is not the Earth they knew, but rather one where mankind has never existed or has yet to be born. Multiple crewmembers including Koenig are revealed to have died on this new Earth, which in itself disappears as time corrects itself, leading the main cast to wonder if their doubles survived time rewriting itself, as both the original Regina and that on the new Earth died at the same time. Thus, just one episode in this series deals with concepts of double identity, the fracturing of time, parallel universes, premonitions of death, and the catastrophic impact of the Moon leaving Earth’s orbit. And in 50 minutes! ‘Missing Link’, like ‘Another Time Another Place’, also contains a disturbing nightmare sequence, as Koenig is strapped to a chair surrounded by repulsive creatures and futilely calling for help.

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Possibly the cruelest and most horrific death from an existential point is that of Commander Simmonds (Roy Dotrice). A thorn in Alpha’s side in the first few episodes due to his pomposity and difficulty in accepting the situation, in ‘Earthbound’ (S1, Ep14) Simmonds takes peaceful alien Zantor (Christopher Lee) hostage in exchange for a place on his ship, which is heading to Earth and placing the crew in suspended animation. Only in his role as hostage-taker, Simmonds is unaware that a personalized matrix of his body must be completed to successfully achieve suspended animation: meaning that, cruelly, he wakes only three hours into a 75-year voyage.

Trapped within a glass box that looks horrendously like a coffin, Simmonds thrashes around and begs for help, but Alpha is too far in the distance, and his companions are in suspended animation. Thus, Simmonds has buried himself alive, doomed to starve to death on a ship that, in a final grim twist, Commander Koenig reveals he would’ve been allowed onto anyway via the Computer’s decision. Simmonds so seals his own fate in a piece of shiver-inducing sci-fi.

Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) awakens 75 years too early in ‘Earthbound’ – S1, Ep14. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

The entire Moonbase is also killed on multiple occasions: with the exception of Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (S1, Ep13), and then the duplicate Alpha during ‘Another Time Another Place’, although this is dependent on whether they existed in the first place and whether their Moonbase may have survived the correction of time. ‘War Games’ (S1, Ep17) also deals with the correction of time, as 128 Alphans, Alan Carter, and John Koenig are all killed during the eventually corrected conflict. In such scenarios, life becomes meaningless, not only as it can be snuffed out at any second but also because people can be brought back to life or duplicated as a haphazard universe sees fit. This uncertainty is added to by the implications that there is something driving the Alphans in a specific direction.

As with similar series such as Star Trek, the cast frequently meet space forces that present themselves as gods: ‘God’ in ‘Black Sun’ (S1, Ep10) and Arra in ‘Collision Course’ (S1, Ep13) suggest a greater fate for the Alphans, but one that is inaccessible to them as they struggle towards a goal that seems perpetually out of reach – a feeling which parallels the feelings of many nihilists towards existence. A show about ideas rather than hard science, the Alphans’ adventures indicate the human condition, often becoming almost dreamlike in their focus on the mind, not forgetting the dreamlike haze of soft focus. The issues of survival and other life the Alphans must encounter forces them, and us, to examine our belief systems, as well as what we think we know about the universe.

The black sun looms in the episode of the same name – S1, Ep10. | Gerry Anderson, 1975.

Indeed, as contemporary fan Tim Ebl wrote in a deeply personal essay about the show, the main lesson of Space: 1999 is that ‘We don’t know much, and stuff is out to get us.’ The universe is fundamentally unknowable, often cruel, and the crew attempt to survive it with limited resources and only hope and perseverance to buoy them up. This hope is seen in both the keen pragmatism of John Koenig and Helena Russell, but also in the more philosophical musings of Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), whose role is often to declaim the mystery behind creation and Alpha’s purpose.

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Season of Misses

The bleakness of the series is added to by the commitment of its actors, particularly Martin Landau, who as Samira Ahmed recalled was able to describe Moonbase as a real place. This full engagement with the reality of the situation, in a fanciful and as per a live-action Gerry Anderson production rather stiffly directed, emphasized the humanity of its characters and so created greater impact when they were needlessly slaughtered week on week.

However, due to personnel changes behind and in front of the screen, the second series of the show failed to capture this engagement with existential issues, instead becoming much closer to a Star Trek-style, Saturday morning filler show. Nevertheless, these changes within the show’s universe suggest something darker. Chris Dale proposes in his article for the Gerry Anderson website that due to the extensive amount of personnel and aesthetic changes to Moonbase in the second series,  it is possible that it follows a different Alpha to that we’ve become familiar with in Series 1, one created just before the events of season opener ‘The Metamorph’ (S2, Ep1), as a result of phenomena such as that in ‘Another Time Another Place’ which duplicated the Alphans and their base.

Helena and Koenig console Maya (Catherine Schell) following the destruction of her world in ‘The Metamorph’ – S2, Ep1. | Gerry Anderson, 1976.

Thus, the audience is left to permanently wonder what happened to the crew of the first season and where their similar but not quite the same replacements came from, pulling in the same kind of personality-based paranoia as Captain Scarlet. Originally, the central character Professor Victor Bergman was supposed to have suffocated in a spacesuit before the second season explaining his absence: a perhaps more grim demise than simply not existing on the duplicate moon. Indeed the season two changes suggest a fear of their own: of being replaced, and of, in producer Fred Freiberger’s words, “nobody noticing.”

Popular characters such as Victor Bergman and Alan Tate are stricken from the record and never mentioned again, unintentionally playing into fears of being wiped from history seen in other science fiction series such as Doctor Who’s ‘Turn Left’ (S4, Ep11). Another consequence of the second series is that the crew never receives a resolution: there is no final episode where they return to Earth or find a new home. Although the nature of an episodic series would seem to prevent this even in a lengthier run, the open ending means that viewers will only ever be able to see the crew on the run, desperate for a home that never materializes.

Space: 1999 took the concepts of depersonalization, existential dread, body horror, and lack of resolution that had been present in Gerry Anderson’s previous work even further. Within the context of the 1970s, it presents a grim twist on the Star Trek concept, whilst paving the way for similar ‘lost-in-space’ style shows to come. Never afraid to terrify its young audience, the show should be celebrated for engaging with horror and philosophy in equal spades, in true tea-time terror for tots.

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Issy Flower is a freelance writer and actor. When not trying to complete fifteen different projects, she can be found on Twitter @IssyFlower

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