Éire Ghaelach – Éire Shaor
The winter of 1975 was a pretty grim time. The war in the North of Ireland had entered one of its deadliest phases: gun battles and explosions were an almost daily occurrence on Irish and British television screens. In the United States President Ford had just escaped assassination by a member of the Manson Gang. Turkey was rocked by an earthquake that left thousands dead. Kidnap-victim-turned-gun-toting-revolutionary Patsy Hearst had been arrested in California. Generalissimo Franco was executing ETA freedom fighters in Spain. And the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ (Peter Sutcliffe) was stalking northern England.
There was little to lighten the mood, and a permanent air of despondency seemed to have settled over the Western World as the last remnants of the ‘Love-and-Peace’ zeitgeist of the 1960s faded into memory. The mid-1970s were hard, harsh, and uncompromising, and cinema and television reflected that. Revolution was in the air, the bitter outfall of Europe’s insurrectionary ‘Summer of ‘69’, and most people expected the turbulence to continue – or worsen.
Into this pessimistic clime was launched a new, and suitably dystopian, Science-Fiction television series in Britain: ‘Space 1999’. It came from the creative output of the husband and wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the makers of such classic children’s (and marionette-based) TV shows as ‘Fireball XL5’ (1962–1963), ‘Stingray’ (1964–1965), ‘Thunderbirds’ (1965–1966), ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ (1967–1968) and ‘Joe 90’ (1968–1969). Inspired by the relative success of their attempts at live action productions, including ‘UFO’ (1970–1971), the couple had emerged with much more ambitious plans for a large-scale Sci-Fi series using their years of special effects and model expertise, combined with a cast of well-known actors. Approaching legendary British TV producer and media mogul Lew Grade they secured his backing on the understanding that it be a cross-Atlantic co-production, so Grade could break the lucrative American television market.
The premise of the series was simple enough and an attractive sell to potential backers. Humankind was storing its nuclear waste in huge dumps on the far side of the Moon when (on the 13th of September 1999) an accidental explosion hurls the Moon out of Earth orbit and into deep space stranding the 311 personnel stationed on the moonbase ‘Alpha’. The Moon becomes in effect their ‘spacecraft’ on which they travel through interstellar space, searching for a new home, while experiencing numerous adventures. Okay, the basic set-up was pretty ridiculous, with precious little science and lots of fiction, however it did at least create a fairly simple voyage of exploration theme (à la ‘Star Trek’, etc.) during which the personnel of the moonbase could encounter all kinds of alien civilisations and strange phenomena – while keeping production budgets fairly tight.
To spark up interest in the U.S. well-known American television acting couple Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (who had previously appeared together in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series) were cast as the two chief leads, with the addition of Barry Morse and Catherine Schell who were also ‘small-screen’ famous in the United States and Britain. To add greater weight a long line of quality guest stars were budgeted for, including such screen and stage luminaries as Christopher Lee, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ian McShane, Patrick Troughton and Brian Blessed.
Unsurprisingly for an Andersons’ production heavy emphasis was laid on the special effects, with some of the best Sci-Fi sets and models to appear on television (or in the cinema) during the 1970s. Drawing inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s Science-Fiction masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), the show’s ‘look’ combined a complex mixture of miniatures, models and full-sized sets, while an overall uniform appearance was adopted for everything, from chairs to clothing, one that was both utilitarian and industrial looking, with an emphasis on dull colours (reflected in the first season’s use of low lighting and shadow). Though working on a relatively tight budget the look of ‘Space 1999’ remained a defining one for many decades afterwards in the milieu of TV Sci-Fi and some of the special effects team went on to work on Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979) and George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980).
The music for the series came from Barry Gray, with contributions from several others and audio lifted from the considerable back-catalogue built up by the Andersons’ other shows, and was long famed for its use of orchestral and jazz elements. The opening theme song rates in the same iconic status among SF aficionados as does the original ‘Doctor Who’ theme.
The stories of the first season were a strange mix of the bizarre and the inspired, with heavy emphasis on mood pieces and speculative stories often centred on the lead characters. Much of the credit for the early scripts goes to the late Johnny Byrne, legendary Irish television screenwriter, author and poet who also contributed to ‘Doctor Who’, as well as such mainstream series as ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ (1976–1990) and ‘Heartbeat’ (1992-2010).
Despite what was for many a promising and energetic start, the first season received a mixed reception in Britain, from critics and audiences alike, and even on the British ITV network the show was produced for it never received a proper scheduling across all the UK regions. Panned for poor plotting, overblown dialogue and wooden acting initial optimism for a ‘British Star Trek’ fell, and audience ratings with it. In the U.S. the series failed to gain a place on the big networks, quickly entering into syndication where it largely remained, being shown on a variety of local TV stations and affiliates, gaining little if any national exposure. Beyond the American market international sales were slow with only the traditional British television markets of Canada and Australia showing any great interest.
The failure of the first season led to dramatic changes for the second with new production staff and cast members (mainly American), as well as other changes to set design and costume, with a greater emphasis on colour and ‘hi-tech’ gizmos. The storylines changed to, from what were described as the ‘preachy’ European-style scripts of the first season to the more action-driven, American-style storylines of the second. However the changes had little effect on critics and viewers, and for many, including for most of the leading actors and actresses, there was a notable dumbing-down in both the stories and the dialogue (some scripts were so bad as to be virtually unshootable). The jarring cut between the first and second seasons, with the replacement of various key characters and storylines without explanation added to viewer fatigue and poor reviews and sales effectively spelled the death knell of the show.
When the time came to create a proposed third season, everything had pretty much fallen apart both behind and in front of the cameras. The Andersons has separated and would eventually divorce, Lew Grade no longer had any faith in the product and had moved on, British and American backers were uninterested, the leading members of the cast were deeply unhappy (particularly Martin Landau), and for most the game was up. Season three never emerged and the year 1977 marked the permanent end of ‘Space 1999’.
Today the series is held in some nostalgia by many of the original reviewers and by some newer fans. Though lacking the quality of writing that was found across near-contemporary Sci-Fi shows, like the several seasons of ‘Star Trek’ (1966-1969) or the BBC’s later endeavour ‘Blake’s 7’ (1978-1981), its continued popularity is recognised in the numerous DVD and Blu-ray editions that continue to be published. Some of the special effects and models associated with the show, especially the ‘Eagle Transporter’, have reached the status of instantly recognisable SF icons. The various adventures featuring in the episodes of ‘Space 1999’ are very much of their era, and even allowing for the generosity of the passing of time, they are, in all honesty, fairly poor fare. Today toy models based upon the still impressive looking ‘Eagle’ spacecraft, and released for sale to children in the 1970s, are in high demand – perhaps a fitting legacy for a production team who will forever be associated with model based special effects. In that sense, perhaps, ‘Space 1999’ fully justifies its ‘cult’ status among Sci-Fi television shows – and fans.